West Meets an Eastern Novel (#117)

Guess what? I’ve gotten so famous that I’ve been asked to review books!

Translation: book needs free publicity and I’m a sucker for historical fiction. Especially for time periods and cultures I don’t know much about. The best historical authors spin information, entertainment, and angst into a yarn that is pure magic.

In publishing, there is currently plenty of chatter about the lack of diversity. For good reason. Take children’s books, where writers of color and main characters of color make up less than 15% of the books published. Why? Possibly because 82% of all editors are white.

But these white editors aren’t just failing readers of color. They’re failing ME, the white reader who enjoys being educated while being entertained. Where are MY non-western, non-white cultural yarns, White Editor Persons?!MooninthePalace

I found one. Actually, Weina Randel’s The Moon in the Palace found me. Randel wanted to know if I would read her novel on Empress Wu and blog about it. Before answering, and because I didn’t want to say, “There was an Empress? I can only remember a Tang Dynasty courtesan,” I dug out my old copy of C.S. Fitzgerald’s Short Cultural History of China.

(Side note: I know, I know, the idea of a “short cultural history” for a society over 4,000 years old is ludicrous, much like this college exam question I once got: “Detail the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.” It took Gibbon 6 volumes to answer half that question, and our class got an hour. This is how you know a professor is just fucking with you. History professors are The Worst.)

Despite Andy’s periodic purges of my bookshelves, I kept Fitzgerald’s book. (See, Andy? I TOLD you I’d use it again!) According to Fitzgerald, Empress Wu was one of China’s greatest rulers, and pretty much all “orthodox” (i.e., neo-Confucian sexist) Chinese historians “have not done justice to her administration.”

Neither did my Chinese History professor. Dr. Very Dry instead went on for some time about Yang Guifei, the concubine who ostensibly brought down the Tang Dynasty. (Probably we have the same neo-Confucian sexists to thank for the tradition of blaming the WOMAN, instead of the aging Emperor or his traitorous general.) Dr. Very Dry even broke from his typical, very dry lecture to give an unprecedented description of Yang Guifei’s beauty: “She was known for her dancing. She was five feet tall, about 300 lbs, blacked out her teeth, and wore bells.”

While I was offended by the fact that a female historical figure was described – yet again – strictly by her physical merits, I took Yang Guifei’s weight better than my gagging male classmates. Apparently they never studied Art History. If they had looked at a few portraits, those idiots might have realized that standards of beauty change from generation to generation. Wait till climate change gives us famine instead of processed food. Rolls of fat will again be signs of affluence and beauty. (In the meantime, prepare for the inevitable famine. Eat cake.)

Once I’d read this article from the Library Journal and found out that Randel spent 6-7 years researching her novel, I was impressed. I said, “Hell, yeah, I’ll read your book about Empress Wu.”

My relationship with The Moon in the Palace did not begin smoothly. About page 2, the main character, known as “Mei,” meets a monk when she’s five. The monk prophecies that Mei will be an immortal emperor.

I looked up from the book and complained to Andy, “I hate it when the book starts by giving away the ending!”

Andy smirked. “It’s a prophecy, isn’t it?”

“How could you POSSIBLY know that?”

The smirk grew. “There’s always a prophecy in Chinese stories.”

I couldn’t believe it. Andy isn’t much of a reader, as I am sure you guessed when I told you how he’s always trying to give away my precious books. “Listen, Mr. Movies-Where-Things-Explode-Are-So-Much-Better-Than-Books, how would you know what’s traditional in Chinese stories?”

Andy’s smirk reached epic proportions. “Kung Fu movies.”

I thought of the only Kung Fu movie I ever finished — Kung Fu Panda. Damn it. It had a prophecy. Andy was right. (He had now been right SEVEN times, which made me very cross.) I scowled. “But why? I mean, if you’re fated to do something, it takes away the tension and removes the stakes. The reader KNOWS you’re going to win.”

Andy laughed. “Honey, you’re reading a book about Empress Wu. You already know she’s gonna be Empress. How is a prophecy giving anything away?”

“That’s a good point,” I admitted.

“That makes eight!” Andy yelled. “I’ve been right eight times!”

“Really? I don’t keep track.”

Andy ignored me, yelling, “Lucky eight!” while performing a victory dance that consisted of wild arm waving and pelvic thrusts.

I briefly wondered why we’d spent thousands of dollars on ballroom dance lessons, then went back to the subject at hand. “You’re brilliant. Now, Mr. Brilliant, tell me WHY the prophecy is standard in Chinese stories and movies?”

Andy stopped dancing. He didn’t have an answer.

Neither did the internet. But I knew someone who probably did – someone who had done a lot of research. YEARS of research. And after I finished reading The Moon in the Palace, I peppered author Weina Randel with questions about everything from prophecies to Tang Dynasty beauty standards.

I had A LOT of questions, and Weina Randel answered them all. In enough detail to satisfy me and bore the crap out of everyone else (except possibly Big Brother, who was also a history major).

Because I’m such a nice person, I’ve shared only the most interesting bits below. Enjoy!

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So what’s up with opening a Chinese story with a prophecy? Andy’s right — damn him — it’s in everything from Kung Fu movies to YA literature such as Cindy Pon’s Serpentine. Is it standard in Chinese storytelling? Where does it come from and what psychological and or/ literary purpose does it serve?

Author photo original (1)
Author Weina Randel

Chinese are infatuated with prophecies – but no, not really, I’m just kidding, and to say that would be exaggerating. Chinese people, who are superstitious in general, do like prophecies a lot. But in my book, I chose to begin with the prophecy for two reasons.

One: I read many comparable books, historical fictions about queens and powerful ancient women, and most books started with a prologue with the old character looking back. They were great stories, but I didn’t like prologues.

SACRILEGE! I love prologues! I know they are totally out of favor in publishing right now, though. Boo. Why don’t you like them?

I want my readers to jump right into the story. I just couldn’t find a way to introduce the power of Empress at the beginning while she was young.

The other reason: during my research, I found there was really a prophecy involving Empress Wu when she was young – of course it was a myth but it was there. The myth said that one of the greatest Taoist Yuan Tiangang visited Wu Shihuo, Empress Wu’s father, when she was three years old. The Taoist, by chance, read the Empress Wu’s face, who was dressed as a boy and sleeping in her nanny’s arms, and predicted that she would be a ruler someday. So you can see some trace of that myth in the book.

I thought the prophecy would work in The Moon in the Palace, as it was served as a hook, as most American readers are not familiar with her story, and I could also avoid writing a prologue.    

Chinese-American writer Malinda Lo recently touched on the difficulties of explaining the vast Asian cultural context for non-Asian readers: “If you don’t explain the context for non-Asian readers they won’t get it. But if you over-explain you lose the storytelling tension.” Did you find cultural context to be an issue when you were writing The Moon in the Palace? If so, can you give us an example of how you resolved the issue?

It was a huge obstacle at the beginning of my writing. Yes, it was very difficult to balance. Sometimes I felt the need to explain the cultural elements, for example, how important the dead to the family, but then I got lost in all the rituals, formality, the need to observe, mourn, and all, and the whole cultural thing clogged the plot. I must have tried ten drafts with one scene for one part of the story, and in the end, I deleted that scene because it was not relevant to the plot. Sigh.

I’m better at controlling the cultural context now. If it’s important, I’ll weave it in, and delineate it in detail only that’ll add depth to the character. Sounds good, right? Well, it’s easier said than done!

My buddy, Chinese historian C.P. Fitzgerald, pretty much worships Emperor Taizong, calling him an “inspirational leader, a great administrator, and a scholar.” But in your book, he’s a terrifying, psychotic drunk. Was that poetic license, or do you know something Fitzgerald didn’t?

Oh, I came across his book The Son of Heaven. Mr. Fitzgerald was one of a few prominent British scholars who left invaluable research material regarding China and ancient China. About Emperor Tang Taizong, however, I think it all depends on what you choose to look at.

Emperor Tang Taizong killed his two brothers, his brothers’ children, wives, associates, his uncles – in all, hundreds of them – and forced his father to abdicate and imprisoned him in the back of the garden in the palace for seven years until he died in old age and loneliness. This was history and recorded.

During Emperor Taizong’s early reign, he was also praised for being frugal and willing to listen to counsels, and the kingdom demonstrated many signs of prosperity.

So I guess if you look at his ruling, you can reach a conclusion similar to Mr. Fitzgerald, but if you look at how he came to power, you’ll find something described in The Moon in the Palace. But let me tell you, many historians chose to ignore the part of him coming to power and looked at his reign instead, and thus praised him to be one of the greatest ruler in the Chinese history.

On the other hand, many historians fabricated the story that Empress Wu murdered her own family in order to seize the power. The historians also refused to recognize her as an extraordinary ruler with capable ruling skills even though during her reign, China thrived in trade, arts, literature and culture, became a role model for neighboring countries, and blossomed into a golden age unmatched for many centuries to come.

So do you see what my point is?

Actually, I see two points. 1) Scholars are fallible and subject to hero-worship, and  2) Most Chinese historians were petty assholes who let misogyny overrule historical accuracy.  

Now, on the subject of historical accuracy — I must know about the complex and enigmatic Jewel! Jewel is Mei’s friend and then her bitter rival among the Emperor’s hundreds of concubines. She’s also my favorite character in The Moon in the Palace. Was she a real person?

I’m sorry to tell you, Autumn. She’s not real. I made her up. As you can tell, I have a wicked taste for unconventional women!

HA! I knew that’s why you wanted ME to review your book. But, speaking of convention, let’s talk beauty. Mei, Jewel, and the other beautiful concubines use plenty of cosmetics, but you also describe them as slim, with symmetrical features – very similar to today’s standards of beauty. Were the Tang dynasty beauty standards the same as ours? Do we know what Empress Wu really looked like?

Ah. I knew you would ask this question. When we talk about the standard of beauty, we have to divide the Tang Dynasty into two parts, one is the first part of seventh century, roughly around 618-660, and then the rest of Tang Dynasty.

This is the cover of one of the books written by a fellow British writer. See how slim the empress looks.
This is the cover of one of the books written by a British writer. See how slim the empress looks.

From 618-660, the ideas of beauty, dresses, patterns on dresses, and even women’s hairdos continued the trend that existed in the previous dynasty, Sui Dynasty. So many people liked the image of willowy waist, small face with painted eyebrows. This was the period described in The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon.

Around 660, the time when Empress Wu came to power, however, things began to change as the kingdom grew wealthier, more people were fed, fewer famines were in sight, sweets were made and enjoyed, and more children were born. In conclusion, China became prosperous. So people gained weight, and that was complimented, because, you know, that meant that person was not starving and that family must have plenty of food. For the nobles, to be able to show a big belly and a plump face was a demonstration of wealth, prestige, and riches.

Naturally, this attitude applied to women. If she looked plump, that meant her family had plenty of wealth and she would marry into a family with equal wealth. “Men Dang Hu Dui” – a matched marriage was very important for women. This attitude turned into standard, and soon was extolled, and encouraged and by early eighth century, it became part of the customs that the heavier a woman was, the more beautiful she was.

One of the most beautiful women in ancient China, Yang Guifei, the concubine of Emperor Tang Xuanzong, was said to weigh about 400 pounds.  

HA! My Chinese History Professor said she was only 300 pounds. I should have referred to him as Professor Poseur. But seriously, the man wasn’t just messing with us when he said Yang Guifei was obese with blacked out teeth?

No. The man was not messing with us.

Well, I am now very disappointed in author Guy Gavriel Kay. He spent a million years supposedly researching the fall of Tang Dynasty for his fantasy Under Heaven. Yet the most fantastical element is Jian Wen, his thin, lithe version of the beauty Yang Guifei. Did you hear me, Mr. Kay? I am very disappointed that you did not feel your writerly skills were capable of  making fat sexy. You took the easy way out, rewriting history with today’s beauty standards. VERY disappointed, Mr. Kay. You didn’t even use BELLS or black out Jian Wen’s teeth. For shame.

Sorry. Skinny Jian Wen has been bugging me FOR YEARS. Back to my final question: Confucian Chinese historians: sexist? Or the MOST sexist?

The school of neo-Confucian Chinese historians, especially those during the Song Dynasty, were most definitely most sexist!

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Finally, my official review:

With its slow, prophetic start in Mei’s childhood, The Moon in the Palace takes time to become engaging. (Maybe a PROLOGUE would have helped?) Keep reading, though; once Mei arrives at the palace to be the Emperor’s concubine, she falls for a handsome young man. While Mei’s romance with Pheasant is rather light, trite, and predictable, it’s also punishable by death — and the threat of death spices up any affair! (Though I don’t recommend trying it in real life.)

Far more compelling than the romance is Mei’s relationship with Jewel. The two women are friends, then mortal enemies. Intrigue abounds. No weapon is off-limits. A single moment’s lack of vigilance — even among supposed allies — means disfigurement, imprisonment, torture, or, of course, death.

Yet, when Mei triumphs, her victory becomes hollow as she finally recognizes the loss and waste inherent in any battle for Imperial favor. That moment, perfectly captured by Randel, is bittersweet and brilliant.

I’ll let you know if there are more moments like that in the sequel, The Empress of Bright Moon, before it comes out on April 5th.

If Randel will still let me read her novel after she reads this post, that is.

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If you want more conventional interviews with author Weina Randel, try these:

Huff Post
Review & Interview – The Ruby Ronin
Behind the Story – Nicki Chen

If you want to ask Randel questions of your own, she’s on Twitter: @WeinaRandel

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

36 thoughts on “West Meets an Eastern Novel (#117)”

  1. I was going to ask you about Kay, given Under Heaven and River of Stars, but it seems I don’t have to.

    Thank you for the interesting and enlightening read.

    1. There was a lot to like in Under Heaven especially. But the fact that Kay opted to make the male villain rather fat and repulsive (although he is fascinating and multidimensional also) and went with stereotypic thin-sexy-dancing-veils instead of fat-jingling-bells for his version of Yang Guifei left a bitter taste in my mouth. To this day. CLEARLY. And Kay’s got enough of a following that I doubt it was an editorial decision.

      So just like those neo-Confucian historians, it’s just one more man failing to transcend his generations female stereotypes. It’s too bad. I would have liked to see a writer of his ability stretch himself and embrace the culture completely, rather than hanging onto current cultural prejudices.

      1. Which villain are you talking about? I didn’t think An Li was the villain at all. IF anything, I felt like the villain was Jian Wen’s brother.

        1. No, An Li doesn’t feel like the villain, which is why I say Kay did a good job. He’s more of a tragic figure. And yet he is the villain, because his coup brings down the dynasty, whether he felt like he had a choice or not.

  2. Another entertaining and interesting interview.

    Would a guy like Andy enjoy this book? I’m asking because I share his taste in movies.

    Will you ever share any of your short stories, excerpts of manuscripts Etc? I’m sure they’d be an interesting read.

    1. Andy would love the various palace slaughters in The Moon in the Palace, but there would not be enough action for him. He’s currently reading all the Red Rising books, thanks to my friend JM, with me sticking A Darker Shade of Magic and The Emperor’s Blades on his nightstand.

      Andy loved the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold…until the last one (Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen). He kept asking me, “Is ANYTHING ever going to happen?!” and “Is this just a ROMANCE?!”

      Thanks for the request for my fiction! I actually had a very sweet email today asking me if I was going to self publish via Kickstarter and could they contribute. You guys have made my day.

      Right now I am still pounding my head against the doors of the traditional publishing world. But I’m kicking around the idea of trying out the website Wattpad, like Taran Matharu did with Novice. I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, thank you so much for the encouragement.

        1. I liked it, but I have to go with Andy on this one. GJARQ is a nice way of tying up the series, but it’s slow. I kept waiting for Cetegandan plague, or SOME kind of intrigue or obstacle. ANYTHING.

          I think Bujold fell prey to the curse of all successful series writers: her characters have completed their arcs and they are healthy humans now. She loves them. It doesn’t make for good conflict or drama.

      1. Btw, I started reading Falling Free from the Vorkosigan Saga series and I really like it. I didn’t realize that it was “old school” SciFi until I discovered it was published in 1987! Thanks for the recommendation.

        Have you heard of Matthew Mather? He’s a SciFi Canadian author who self-publishes his novels. According to his website and Amazon press, he’s sold a half-million copies of his novels in only three years. One of his novels, CyberStorm, was optioned by 20th Century Fox.

        His novels are a fun read even though he is just an “ok” writer, with a writing style similar to Michael Crichton. Quite a few of his novels are written almost like extra long screenplays. You can almost see the movie as you read lol.

        Anyway, self-publishing might be the way for you to get your work out to the public. Just a thought.

        1. I had not heard of Mathew Mather! Thanks for the heads up. 🙂 I will check him out.

          Well, there are very literary writers and there are storytellers, right? I like a well-crafted AND well-written story, especially if it’s got some philosophical meat on it. (And there better not be any anachronisms if it’s historical.) But books like that are hard to come by. Especially humorous ones.

          Bujold was ahead of her time in many ways. Glad you like her book.

  3. Great review and interview,Autumn!

    Like Andy, I’ve seen enough kung fu movies to know they often start out with a prophecy. I wasn’t thinking of that though when I started TigerTail Soup with a prophetic dream. (An earlier draft) An early reader (an American) reminded me that starting with a dream was a cliche, so I saved the dream for later. (First pages are scarey to write.)

    Aren’t you glad you saved that book? I’ve never regretted giving away clothes, but I’ve been sorry a time or two about books.

    1. Thanks, Nicki! Yes, the prophecy is everywhere. We all fall victim to it!

      I have a theory about psychological aspect of prophecy, and why it is necessary in Chinese stories. There’s a lot of emphasis on filial obedience in Chinese families, as well as an emphasis on humility.

      In Western literature, we have a literary tradition about the little guy overcoming all odds and succeeding after people sneer at him and tell him he will never be anybody special.

      But in China, you have your place to play in society and your family and you’re supposed to stay in it. (Just ask my in-laws.) But a hero — or heroine — usually does break a few rules. So I think the prophecy gives a hero permission to break cultural norms, because the hero’s fate is foretold. I mean, he’s just fulfilling the prophecy. It’s not even his idea to make himself special. Ta-da! Ties in neatly with Chinese fatalism.

      Too bad I can’t go back in time and give my in-laws a prophecy about how only a strong woman will make their son happy…

  4. Dang Autumn, your interview was way more in depth and live-action than mine! I loved it; I found out even more about the book and the author thanks to you 🙂 And hot damn girl you’re very well versed in Chinese history, you have me beat. Actually, I was really embarrassed when I moved to China and started studying Chinese because I had no idea about the actual history of the country I was in. While I was a Japanese major and read every classic to ever grace that bizarre island nation, I was clueless when it came to China. I really hope I can pick up a Chinese history book and learn more about the country (besides just jumping through the dyansties on wikipedia). Any recommendations?

    There’s a REALLY awesome history book that I love called “Mental Floss: History of the World.” It details the ENTIRE WORLD’s history very briefly in 400 pages or so but hot damn, the authors are so funny and witty and it makes reading about history really fun. I think you’d enjoy it.

    Anyway, like you I hope the author gives me a chance to review book 2 😉

    1. Aw, thanks, Mary! I had to go the wonky history route, because you and Nicki did such a good job covering every other interview topic. But I was glad I FINALLY got to vent about Yang Guifei a little. Totally self-serving.

      I already have a plan for covering THE EMPRESS OF BRIGHT MOON, but I might need your help to make it super interesting. Let me know if you are interested in a blogger game show called “Fact or Fiction.”

  5. This post had me alternately LOLing and nodding and feeling amazed (by your writing). I love that you put together both an interview and a review. It works great and it’s just as fun to read as everything on your site.

    Also love your last question especially: “Confucian Chinese historians: sexist? Or the MOST sexist?” Ha ha ha ha!

  6. Well, Autumn, thank you very much. Please tell me, how do I publish my lousy review now?? People are going to stone me to death after reading your post, and Mary’s, and Nicki’s… I think I am chickening out of this review!

    PS. I didn’t know that about Yang Guifei hahaha (never thought about it, and unfortunately I haven’t read many books on Chinese history!). If you google images Yang Guifei, there is not a single picture of a fat woman hahaha. And let’s not mention the black teeth…

    1. I sympathize! I felt the same way after seeing Nicki and Mary’s posts. I had to go back and rewrite this I dunno how many times.

      But I am sure you can come up with something that will entertain or inform YOUR particular readers. 🙂 I mean you are actually IN China. There must be something that you can do that those of us stateside can’t. Maybe?

  7. I love how you put your own creative spin on things. Oh, and I have learned to keep a thing or two because just when you throw them away, that is when you need/want them.

    The book sounds very interesting and the author looks like a TV news anchor in Taiwan.

  8. I’m going to be an empress!
    Autumn, you’re a genius! This was the best presentation of a book! The short interview was right on point too! So many info to learn! Thanks for sharing~!

    Also, I read in a comment above that you’re also writing some fiction? Where can I find it? (And if you ever decide to go on Wattpad, let me know. I’ll surely follow (subscribe) you there too!)

    PS: Now I really wanna read this book! And I am a sucker for historical dramas. Watched some Korean ones. Really well done. Yesterday I was thinking why Americans don’t do some historical dramas on African-American leaders. Read some really interesting stuff on Harriet Tubman. Didn’t finish it yet, but so far it’s really cool.

  9. Thanks, Mei! One of these days I am going to do more investigating on Wattpad. Right after I finish the next post. Glad you liked the book review. It is fascinating. And I hate writers who merely Google in their research, so I am particularly impressed with Weina’s work.

  10. So I just read this book a few days ago after randomly finding it on Amazon. It’s so hard to find Asian historical fiction by Asian authors there – or is it just me being bad at finding stuff? Dunno. Anyway, after I finished I was like, “Why does this sound familiar?” and remembered your review.

    I liked it. But my issue with historical fiction about strong women — Randel’s decision to do this makes sense, but since I didn’t know it before reading I was left with meh feelings — is that they’re always so innocent and naively swept up in events. Basically, sometimes I just want that pragmatic character, who marries for position, has an affair on the side, and manipulates the hell out of people (Jewel for the win). Which is why I’m obsessively watching Salem right now. Yay Mary Sibley.

    Also, kind of bouncing in joy now that I found someone else who has actually read Guy Gavriel Kay. I criticize him a lot, but he’s still been one of my favorite authors for the past twenty years. He’s just so damn poetical. Haha, I didn’t know that his beauty standards in Under Heaven were so off; just wrote it off as another incarnation of his archetype characters. Really, I was more annoyed by the fact that an unholy number of horses got the plot moving. Probably liked River of Stars more because of that.

    1. LOL, yeah, I hear you on GGK — sometimes I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it, it’s pretty and all. Can we just get the story MOVING?” But I like that his stories aren’t all happily ever after. Except for Ysabel, and honestly, I could not figure out the point of that story until I met him and discovered that the main character is based on his son. It’s more of a love story to his boy than a novel with a plot.

      That’s a good point about Moon/ Bright Moon — I think my frustration with any character, be it male or female, is passivity and/ or stupidity. I love competent characters. And when you get to The Empress of Bright Moon, it’s frustrating because the villains appear more competent than our heroes…but then the female villain turns out to be just a scorned woman who went crazy, which is something of a letdown. Also feeding into that lovely woman gone hysterical over man stereotype.

      But Randel is constrained by history, whereas Kay was clearly not going to let historical accuracy bother him. 🙂 And I have to say, I read a lot of books about mothers written by authors who clearly don’t have children and it shows. Randel writing on the loss of a child is excellent (also excruciating).

If you liked this, let the white girl know!