EPS Review #8 - Lady Wu

By Lin Yutang. Published 1957

She is also known as Wu Tsertien, and lived from 684-704. It's your usual mass-murdering, sex-crazed empress story. It is supposed to be a historical novel, and is written from the viewpoint of her grandson, ShouLi, but it is really just history, since there is no variation of viewpoint, or other novelistic device. If there were, I suppose it would be a whole lot longer. There is a convenient five-page murder list in the middle of the book, numbering 36 people, but this omits the fact that it was common to extirpate the families of anyone involved. Yutang ranks her fourth after Stalin, Mao and Jengis Khan for deaths.

What's odd is that she happened during the Tang dynasty, started by her husband (originally she was just concubine) Taitsung. I always associate the Tang with a high point of Chinese culture, because my hero, Judge Dee, lived then, and because I love the Penguin edition of Poems of the Late T'ang, especially "Peonies" on p.165.

Judge Dee was of course immortalised in the west by the Dutch ambassador to China, RH Van Gulik, in his series of detective novels. I have a rare first edition of his "Dee Goong An", a translation of Chinese stories about the judge, vanity published by Toppan printing in Tokyo in 1949. I collect these books, because I find them strangely comforting, and because of the line drawings of naked women, and because he wrote so many other odd treatises, on gibbons (with LP of their vocalising!) and lutes and sex and inkstones and things. What's also weird is that the Judge Dee stories never mention the depraved Wu, but always represent the Chinese state as basically well-governed by the celestial emperor. Van Gulik mentioned the YuTang book in one of his introductions, which is why I bought it.

Here's where Judge Dee appears:

[p 179] But amidst all this pomp and celebration, a great man, one greater than them all, Di Renjiay, sat and watched silently. The famed master detective and judge, whose name has passed into popular legend, and who was to undo all the work and ambitions of Lady Wu and restore the Tang Dynasty, was present at the ceremonies as a Vice-Minister of the Interior. Surveying the situation with his keen, analytical mind, he knew the time was not yet, for he had a coolness which equalled that of Lady Wu. What he had in mind he told nobody about, except some of his closest friends.

Bravo Judge Dee! Except that his plans are so well laid, that he actually dies before Wu is dethroned, in her eighties. Doesn't really seem like much of a coup. She was so dangerous to her own kin, that her plans to usurp the dynasty came to nothing. Also, she showed an unusal respect for moral ministers like Dee as she aged. PS Don't read the smug, lazy biography of van Gulik by the inferior detective writer DeWetering. (Wait for mine!).

I add: There is a much better biography of Van Gulik in French.

Giovanni wrote: Apropos Wu Tsertien, L and I actually climbed her (and her husband's) tumuli in Qianling (in the vicinity of Xi'an). I had read somewhere that no westerners go there and the place is chock full of Tang dynasty outdoor sculpture, so I demanded that the driver take us there right from the airport in Xi'an. It took some convincing, because he thought we were bonkers, as westerners, for wanting to go there. All of these things I considered good signs, and, in fact, I loved the place: no tacky tourist stands; no touts; just massive, melancholy, burial earthworks in a serene landscape and lots of adorable Chinese schoolchildren. A Chinese Stonehenge, as it were. And, of course, there was the beautiful sculpture: a majestic avenue of gryphons, phoenixes, and heavily-permed lions which gradually morphed into more humanoid forms, culminating in legions of headless foreign ambassadors and other frightened and/or frightening courtly personages. It was the best archaeological site I visited in China, even better, I thought, than the terra cotta warriors.

Wu Tsertien's tomb hasn't been excavated yet, but her granddaughter's (Princess Yongtai's) has. Yongtai's epitaph says that she died in chilbirth, but we were told that the "historical record" (whatever that is, as opposed to an epitaph), indicates that she was beaten to death. The frescoes on the inside of the tomb were gorgeous scenes of life at court. We never did determine, to my satisfaction, whether they were original or not. They looked like they were, but the guide said that the originals were in the museum in Xi'an. But when we were in that museum, I asked where they were, and was told that the ones in the tomb were the originals. I also recall being told that there's a lot of controversy surrounding just how evil Lady Wu was: apparently some people claim that many of those crimes were just pinned on her because she was a "girl." As you know, you never know what to believe in China, though.

Sorry for going on like this, but it's not often that I get to "out-Asia" you!

David wrote: I recently got a very reasonable facsimile/pirate of [Van Gulik's] Sex in China book. Have you been through this? I shipped it and many other sinological goodies home and haven't unpacked it yet.

I write: Yes, I have both Sexual Life in Ancient China (but the first ed., Brill) and the Taiwanese reprint of Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period. The latter, though explicit, is shocking mostly in showing bound feet, like little hooves.