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?!
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!
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?
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.
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!
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.
If you want more conventional interviews with author Weina Randel, try these:
If you want to ask Randel questions of your own, she’s on Twitter: @WeinaRandel