Trangressive Typologies

Shangguan Wan’er, it was said, wore her hair in a lopsided bob, in order to cover up the scar on her face from where Empress Wu went for her with a fruit knife. It was an argument over a boy, of course – the drunken Wu had been fondling a sleeping gigolo and bragging about how he made her heart melt, and Wan’er had foolishly reached out a hand to touch him. So, at least, reads the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, a racy work of historical fiction purporting to have been written in the 900s, but more likely to date from a millennium later. It’s just one of the lascivious works cited in Rebecca Doran’s Transgressive Typologies: Constructions of Gender and Power in Early Tang China, the kind of book that makes you wonder why everyone isn’t studying Chinese history.

Doran is interested in what she calls “the historical period of female power”, from the time that the charismatic Wu Zhao was called back from a Buddhist nunnery as a new distraction for the Gaozong Emperor. She rose swiftly to power behind the throne, first as his empress, then as his interpreter following an unspecified illness likely to have been a debilitating stroke. She ruled behind the throne for the remainder of Gaozong’s life and the truncated reigns of two of their sons, before seizing power herself in the 690s. But Doran, like many other Tang historians, extends the period of female rule beyond the life of Wu, noting that an entire generation of women grew up during her reign, and came to regard equality, or more, as their birthright.

Shangguan Wan’er, Wu’s minister and speech writer, once regarded as the greatest poet of her generation, remained a power-broker after Wu’s death, and latched on to Wu’s grand-daughter Anle as a possible second empress regnant. Anle was brought down in a palace coup by Wu’s daughter and grandson, but the daughter, Princess Taiping, clung on to her own power base for several more years before her ally betrayed her. Depending on how you define it, the “historical period of female power” either spanned Wu’s adulthood and aftermath, c.650-713, or just the last two decades of that period – her years as empress regnant, and the “second generation” of the women who tried to emulate her. After 713, Wu would be vilified for twelve hundred years. It was only in the 20th century, and even then initially for shady political reasons, that Wu began to be reclaimed as a feminist icon, and her period in power regarded as anything but a woeful mistake.

Doran takes as her starting point the Biographies of Exemplary Women from the Han dynasty, because for centuries this book served as the template for good female behaviour. It was a touchstone for all the (male) historians who wrote about Wu and her imitators, and formed the basis of their disapproval. She also examines the life of Empress Dugu of the Northern Zhou, who controversially insisted on monogamy from her imperial husband – regarded by medieval protocol wonks as a “fatal mistake” sure to undermine palace harmony and dynastic vigour. In doing so, she points to the glorious chaos of the century before the Tang dynasty, when a series of tin-pot and occasionally barbaric dynasties contended to become the new Sons of Heaven, with a set of intrigues sufficient to make Game of Thrones look like Emmerdale.

Doran moves on to the reigns of Wu’s sons Zhongzong and Ruizong, and the kind of poetry and imagery that was popular in a world where their mother really ran the show. As Wu began manipulating the news of her era – Fortean phenomena, observations and media, all pointing to a coming paradigm shift – she pushed an agenda rooted in incredibly modern terms. As she argued at the epochal feng-shan sacrifice in her husband’s day, if the world was truly a constant cycle of yin and yang, dark and light, female and male, then women deserved an equal shot at public life, at power, and ceremonial roles. This, in the eyes of her chroniclers, was her dreadful sin, daring to push an equality agenda in a patriarchal world. Doran uncovers delightfully obsequious comments from fawning poets and courtiers, keen to praise Wu and her imitators for simply showing up, for their grace and their wondrous cultural achievements. She also delves deep into the surviving works of Shanggaun Wan’er, and their place in the history of Chinese poetry.

Then things get weird, as Doran examines the Comprehensive Record of Affairs Within the Court and Without, a Tang dynasty fantasy in which a minister is sent to hell over a bureaucratic mistake, witnesses the future of the Ruizong Emperor, and is then restored to the human world in time to live through it all, like some medieval Chinese variant on Back to the Future. She also reports on a common Fortean phenomenon in Wu’s era – transsexual chickens, regarded by Wu’s cronies as examples of her greatness, and by her detractors as symbols of the awfulness of the age. In once farcical scene, a courtier recalls the presentation of a three-legged fowl to Wu, who insists it is an auspicious event worthy of note in the dynastic chronicles, even as her son Ruizong points out that one of the legs is clearly fake. Wu tells him to shut up, but even as she does, the leg falls off.

There’s something quite wonderful about Wu and her courtiers bickering about auspicious bullshit, and Doran’s ongoing citations of gossip and innuendo from the time, such as the nursery rhymes and pop songs that slyly alluded to palace putsches and scandals, and the stories written when later writers tried to grapple with the sheer oddness of her reign. Needless to say, much of the disapproval directed at Wu and her imitators would be framed in familiar, materialist terms, lampooning them for flighty, grasping, gold-digging consumption. Doran begins with a famous poem about Anle putting on her make-up as the soldiers bash down the door to her chambers, observing that there are similarities in the story with the “painted” Jezebel of the Bible. There’s plenty of fun to be had with what today would be called tabloid sniping at Anle and Taiping’s pimped-up chariots, ridiculously opulent palace cribs, and bling-bling fineries.

Doran finishes with a prolonged discussion of the “gender anarchy” of Wu’s era, as described by both apologists and attackers, a sort of topsy-turvy Saturnalia of sexually predatory women and ineffectual men, the elevation of bad-boys and charlatans, and (worst/best of all), the Office of the Crane, Wu’s 120-strong personal harem of pretty boys. One of whom, of course, was the cause of that fateful catfight between Wu and Wan’er. When he was inevitably butchered in the coup that ousted Wu in 705, Wan’er tenderly carried off his penis and presented it to the grieving Empress. That’s what it says in the Secret Record of the Director of the Guiding the Immortal Cranes Bureau, anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God.

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Sheriff

The Finnish police are left baffled by a double murder in a Turku house – a former cop ritually sacrificed and his girlfriend shot in the head. Private investigator Jussi Vares (Antti Reini) is hired by the dead girl’s godmother to look for clues, and soon deduces that everybody has been looking in the wrong place. The police assume that the female victim was merely collateral damage; Vares realises that she was the real target, and her mutilated boyfriend merely a smokescreen. But why would anyone want to kill a highly-respected accountant?

The latest, and so far, last of the Vares films displays a visible stylistic shift from Hannu Salonen, a Germany-trained thriller director who would go on to make Arctic Circle (2018). It restores the comic-book freeze frames and mottos from the earliest films, and has a super-processed, enhanced look that fiddles with odd lens choices to stretch human figures or flatten out backgrounds. Audi is one of the film’s sponsors, but I don’t see any Audi product placement – perhaps it is worth more to the company to pay the Finns to repeatedly abuse, blow up and roll a bunch of Volvos.

Vares does some actual detective work, being ideally placed to notice that, like him, the murders sit on the borderline between the everyday and the criminal underworld. Through his druggie associate Antidote (Jasper Pääkkönen, presumably just before he got his role in Vikings), he is introduced to a council of criminal kingpins who bankroll ventures that fall outside the scope of the mainstream economy – deposits for contraband smuggling, down payments for getaway cars, and, if my own bitter experiences are anything to go by, mortgages for expats. His quest drags him into Finland’s black economy, with its own set of rules and protocols, and surreal daytime speakeasies where men sit on leather sofas and listen to Puccini. In other words, this the Vares series’ answer to Shadow Line, caught between the police and the criminals, each using their own methods in the pursuit of the murderer.

The new look and new director, not to mention the introduction of Shostakovich (Jukka-Pekka Palo), Vares’ self-styled patron from the underworld, could amount to a soft reboot for the whole series, since the novel Sheriff was the first of a sub-trilogy within the long-running novel sequence. Writer-director Salonen has made some brutal decisions with the regular cast, relegating Vares’ usual drinking buddies to a couple of cameos in the closing scenes, and recasting the journalist Ruuhio. Previously played by the clean-cut, ever-youthful Mikko Lempilampi, who presumably has better things to do shooting the same year’s Girl-King, he has suddenly been switched for my favourite Finnish actor, Mikko Kouki, who looks utterly ridiculous here as a gum-chewing slob with a man-bun. I don’t understand why they bothered to say this character was Ruuhio at all; it would have been surely been less disruptive to just give him a different name.

They certainly didn’t keep the original name of squeeze-of-the-week Milla (Karoliina Blackburn), a motorcycle-riding hacker who is swift to reveal to Vares that she only pretends to be a lesbian to hold off unwanted suitors. In the original book, she was known by the actionable pseudonym Harriet “Harry” Potter, the now-obscured origin of a joke in the script that points out the only thing she has in common with the schoolboy wizard is that they both like girls.

The publication of the English translation of the Sheriff book in 2015 permitted me the chance to read a Vares novel and to notice some asides that are not repeated in the film. For example, in the book Vares is momentarily troubled by a vision of himself, strapped to a bed in an asylum, while a nurse reads out newspaper headlines about catastrophic flooding on the Finnish coast. Is this a nightmare? Or is it a premonition about the events of the science fiction coda, Hard Luck Café? He is also brooding about a case that he failed to solve, the death of Mirjam in the snow a decade earlier, as chronicled in Frozen Angel. Meanwhile, an aside reveals that his friend, the author Luusalmi has only ever published a single book, making a mockery of numerous past claims about his erudition. It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost in this late addition to the Vares canon, as both author and hero look back over their past adventures and try to make sense of them all, dredging up some of their earlier claims for a bit of tardy due diligence.

Sheriff, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, is the Finnish title of the film better known in English as High Noon – one of many Western references buried within the Vares books. But Sheriff also seems like an attempt by author Reijo Mäki to engage with something that has been lurking at the edges of his world for years. Every now and then in Vares stories we get a glimpse of the wider criminal underworld, an entire wainscot society with its own rules, regulations and regulators. In Sheriff, Vares finds himself digging into the mechanics of one of the institutions of this shadow world, a criminal bank prepared to loan money at high rates to high-risk, illegal propositions. It’s not quite The Wire, but more John Wick, as Vares comes to realise the subtle codes he has ignored, inscribed on the very walls of some of the criminals he is chasing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Civilisation

“Aboard the Dingyuan, the wounded, half-blind William Tyler stumbled through the carnage. His ears were still ringing from the blast, and would continue to do so for the rest of his life. Up ahead, he saw a friend of his, Lieutenant Wu. Even as they exchanged greetings, a man standing nearby was torn apart by an enemy shell, smearing gore and entrails across the deck.

“‘So this is civilisation,’ said Wu. ‘This is what you foreigners are so keen to teach us.’”

From Admiral Togo: Nelson of the East, by Jonathan Clements.