In 2007, I did a long interview with the Dutch magazine BOEK, about my book on the Tang dynasty Empress Wu, which was published in the Netherlands soon afterwards.
BOEK magazine: In the book you tell that the idea to write a book about a woman, instead of pirates or kings, came from Sutton Publishing. How did you come up with the idea to write it about Wu?
Jonathan Clements: Actually my editor said that the subject of Wu kept coming up with educational establishments who wanted to concentrate on female figures in history, but that, as with so many other periods in Chinese history, remarkably little had actually been written about Wu in English. She asked me what I thought there was to say, and I replied that there was plenty, but a lot of it would be outrageous, scandalous or obscene.
“Ooh!” she said. “That sounds jolly exciting!”
The figure of Wu is a real controversy. She is seen both as a strong woman fighting her own emancipation and as a lying, back-stabbing power-monger, and everything in between. How would you describe Wu?
I think it’s possible for Wu to be both. She was the product of a fiercely competitive palace environment. She was a chambermaid and a nurse for a dying old man (the Taizong Emperor) who was presented with a terrible choice. She could either wait for him to die and spend the rest of her life imprisoned in a nunnery, or take the biggest risk of her life and seduce his son – a capital offence at the time.
Wu has a lot of enemies. The idea of a female ruler was offensive to Chinese traditional scholars, and they tried pretty much everything they could to make it sound like putting a woman in charge was a really bad idea. However, after her second husband Gaozong’s crippling stroke, Wu effectively ran China for 20 years, and she did no worse than any man, and in fact, you could argue that her reign behind the throne was actually a pinnacle of Chinese civilization.
Actually, I think there is a quality bigger than both of those: her charisma. Forget Wu in the position of power. Forget Wu the goddess, and Wu the ruler of the world. Just remember that she got there from nothing. She started off as little more than a palace servant, and a large part of her rise to the top came on the basis of her ability to make people do her bidding. When she had an army to back her up, that was relatively easy. But for the first fifty years of her life she was operating without a safety net. She was doing it on willpower alone. She must have had incredible, and I mean, earth-shattering star quality. Think of Madonna, and Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Mata Hari. Think of a woman with all that power combined. Then give her a vial of poison and tell her that unless the ruler of the world falls in love with her tonight, she is going to spend the rest of her life in prison.
Wu had that moment. She had that terrible decision to make, and she made her choice.
And what do you think of the claims that she even in her eighties seduced man?
Sex plays an important part in Wu’s life story. It’s what got her into the palace, and it’s what saved her from the nunnery. And once she was married a second time, there is supposedly something that only she would do in the bedroom, which kept her in the emperor’s affections. And there are all kinds of theories about what this perversion was, which I deal with in my book. (I also suggest what I think it may have been).
But as old age approached, she began to seriously fret about losing her looks and her vitality. And she set up an organization called the Office of the Crane. Which supposedly was a group of boffins and alchemists whose job was to find an elixir of immortality. Actually, it was a band of about 120 fiercely pretty boys, who would service her sexually, because it was believed that multiple sexual partners would itself lead to immortality, if the correct directions, positions and actions were followed.
So I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that she “seduced” them. They may have been seduced by the prospect of being so close to such a powerful individual, and it’s certainly true that Wu had an incredible charisma as a younger woman. Whether it was that charisma or her real-world power that attracted the young boys in her old age, we don’t know.
I’ve found that it really helps to visit the places where history took place. Centuries might have passed, but there is no substitute for standing where one’s subject stood, and seeing what they saw. I went on a kind of pilgrimage to Wu’s tomb, which is just huge. It’s actually inside a hollow mountain, and to get there, you have to walk for several miles along a stone road flanked by guardian statues.
She shares the tomb with her second husband, so it’s the only imperial tomb in China to contain two sovereigns. And the site was supposedly chosen by him, because he liked the two breast-shaped hills on the approaching road. They were supposed to remind him of Wu herself.
The amazing thing about Wu’s tomb, is that she publicly stated that she didn’t want any memorials to her glory. Which every Chinese ruler says, and then their kids ignore them, because that’s the dutiful thing to do.
In Wu’s case, her children took her at her word. Quite contemptuously. If you go to Wu’s tomb now there is a giant slab of stone where you would normally find a testament to her deeds and wondrousness. But it’s blank. It’s the only case in Chinese history where they have just left the monument completely blank. Nobody had a word to say about her. [Wu Zi Bei, or Uninscribed Stele, is the title of the theme song of the Empress of China TV series — JC, 2014].
Firstly, just imagine the scandal. With the death of her “first husband”, she is supposed to shave her head and go into a Buddhist convent with all the other wives to pray for his soul. Instead, less than two years later, she’s back at the palace, sleeping with the new emperor, and also pregnant with his child.
She claims that her hair (which was once six feet long), has magically grown back, and she and her new husband try to spin their affair as something undertaken at the request of his father.
But, it’s clear from various court documents and accusations later on, that many at court were fully aware, that Wu and the new emperor had been intimate, long before the death of the old emperor.
That’s not all. Because Wu wasn’t just brought in as a mistress for the new emperor. She was part of someone else’s plot. She was brought in by one of the senior wives to distract him from a younger, prettier concubine who was regarded as more of a threat. But in fact, when Wu got back to the palace, she turned on the women who were trying to manipulate her, had them accused of witchcraft, and eventually executed.
My point with all this is that with Wu, you can’t call the historical record “the truth”. The Tang dynasty annals are full of lies and spin doctoring – there are actually two contradictory chronicles of Wu’s dynasty, both written by courtiers with their own agendas. So I’ve tried to sift through the lies and offer interpretations of the information. In legal terms, I’ve treated Wu as an unreliable witness. Ironically, some of the best information in support of Wu comes from her enemies – we can look through the accusations made against her by rebels, and use them to work out what people thought she was like at the time she was alive. Since she died, there has been 1300 years of legends and lies about her that make the truth even harder to discern.
In my book, I make it very clear when I am discussing fictional sources. The big issue one faces with Wu is that “factual” sources are often just as untrustworthy.
Is the book going to be published in China? How do you think it will be received?
I haven’t heard of any Chinese publishers taking an interest yet, but my First Emperor book is coming out in Chinese this year, so one never knows. I had thought that the Chinese couldn’t possibly be interested in what I had to say about one of their historical figures, but since I was wrong about that as regards the First Emperor, maybe I’m wrong about what they might make of my Wu, too. [Chinese rights were sold in 2014 — JC]
How does your book stand out amidst other books about the empress?
It’s up to date! The last big biography of Wu was 50 years ago, and it’s very good, but some of its conclusions have been overtaken. For example, there was a prophecy about Wu which was believed in the 1950s to have been a forgery. We’ve since discovered that it was a genuine Buddhist sutra. There was a story about a temple Wu visited, where she supposedly donated great treasures. Nobody really took it seriously, but the secret treasure vault was discovered after an earthquake in the 1980s. Just because my subject has been dead for 1300 years, it doesn’t mean that the history itself isn’t changing, growing, gaining new information.
Right now there’s a debate going on about Wu’s tomb. Should we open it now that we have the technology to preserve it? It could be the richest tomb in Chinese history. Or, just maybe, it’ll be like the blank stone outside, and be completely bare…
The closest parallel is actually Egyptian, Queen Hatshepsut, who ruled as a “king” after seizing the throne from the child in whose name she was supposed to be regent. I’ve heard Wu compared to Catherine the Great. A biography of Hillary Clinton written in the 1990s in Chinese was called “Empress Wu in the White House”! So the Chinese think that there are parallels there, presumably with the implication that Hillary was the real brains of the Clinton couple, as Wu was the real brains behind her second husband Gaozong.
Could one apply the ways Empress Wu uses to gain power – plotting, intrigues and playing people against each other – to modern day life? ‘Wu in corporate business’ for instance, in the same way that Machiavelli and Sun Tzu have been hijacked by authors of corporate business guides?
If you think that sleeping your way to the top, torturing your enemies to death and poisoning your rivals before proclaiming yourself to be a god is the way to get ahead in business, you’d attract a lot of public attention. I’m not sure I’d want to work for your company, though…
But as a comedy book, Empress Wu’s Guide to Life… that would be really cool!
You have written more books about things related to China, what is it that interests you in the country?
China is bigger than Europe. It had its equivalent of the Roman Empire, its Machiavelli, its Hundred Years War, its Stalin. It had all these things, and yet so few Europeans can name them. It’s the oldest continuous culture in the world; it has so many fascinating stories, and since nobody would tell me what they were, I had to find out for myself.
Some people/groups/countries are afraid of China becoming the ‘Wu’ of global politics in our time, do you have any thoughts about this?
China thinks of itself as the center of the world – in fact, the word in Chinese for China still means “Middle Kingdom”. It shouldn’t surprise you that they think that, but maybe it will surprise you that for much of human history it has been true. Up until the 17th century, for most of the history of civilization, if an alien visitor had landed on Earth and said “take me to your leader”, he would have been taken to the emperor of China.
The population of China is more than 80 times the size of the Netherlands. That kind of number exerts in incredible influence on world politics. Whether China wants to lead the world or not, it can often make or break investments by foreign businesses. A billion people opening a can of Coke every day will create incredible profits for Coca Cola. It will also create a billion empty cans…
I don’t know what you mean when you say the “Wu” of global politics. Wu found herself in an impossible position and did the best she could to survive. If global politics in the next hundred years is about the quest for resources, then expect China to be increasingly conspicuous, in Africa, in Central Asia, in South America, as it tries to stay alive. If China ever faces a life or death decision like Wu’s, make sure you are not in her way.