Empress: A Novel by Shan Sa

By Shan Sa

It is a ravishing old novel of 1 of China's so much debatable historic figures: its first and purely woman emperor, Empress Wu, who emerged within the Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age.

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Celestial Breath closed its doors, and my young companions dispersed, each to her official duties. The everyday life of a lady at Court was filled with banquets, dancing, and concerts; with the sequence of seasons that required changes of wardrobe; with constant trips between summer palaces and winter residences; with futile events and serious ones; and with light-hearted ceremonies and imposing ones. The six ministries and twenty-four departments of the imperial gynaeceum had been created during the ancient Zhou dynasty, and each had a share in organizing festivities.

As the Son of Heaven, he had the celestial mandate to govern all men. He was protected by the gods, taught by great philosophers, and watched over by benevolent spirits; he was a demigod. His mind was agile as an eagle, his body majestic as a dragon. In the Imperial City, he had the support of ministers and generals, the heroes of our world; in the Inner City, the most beautiful women took turns to fulfill his least desire. To serve the Emperor was to venerate Heaven and Earth, which blessed us with peace and prosperity.

I was confined to my apartments and was subjected to treatments to lighten my skin, which had been tanned by the sun. Two years after our conversation over a cup of tea, I could only half D I S C O N C E RT E D B Y T H I S 32 remember the Great General’s face, which I had scarcely seen. But his voice still rang in my ears: It had a magnificent resonance, like some magical scale that allowed my imagination to climb toward a world of inaccessible heights. The Emperor was no common mortal! As the Son of Heaven, he had the celestial mandate to govern all men.

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