I’ll be at Liverpool’s World Museum on 26th July as part of the entertainments for their Terracotta Warriors exhibition, talking about the place of the First Emperor’s tomb in the history of the Qin state, the curiosities of its construction, and the tragic events that followed the emperor’s death. Apparently there will be canapes.
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.
Season three of National Geographic’s Route Awakening, in which I wander some of the ethnic minority communities of modern China, has just snagged the Gold Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival for “TV: Information, Cultural or Historical.” You can see the trailer here. Seasons one and two won the same award in 2016 and 2017.
When I met Yang Zhifa in 2013, he was living well off the proceeds of being ‘the man who found the Terracotta Army.’ Tall for a Chinese, he was sprightly for a grandfather nearing 80. What was left of his white hair was shorn off in a neat burr, he affected a blue Mao suit and an ostentatiously long cheroot holder. A week did not go by without a journalist or film crew wanting to talk to him about his place in history, and Yang was ever ready to oblige for a fee – my time with him cost about £100.
There was very little clue from Yang’s demeanour that he could pull down a week’s wages just by getting out of bed in the morning, at least, not until one was close enough to look in his eyes. The dark irises were limned with the faintest edge of blue, a telltale sign that the old farmer sported contact lenses.
With up to two film crews a day hanging on his every word, and tourists eager to get his signature or calligraphy, Yang was a jealous guardian of his status. He had been in something of a feud with several other Yangs, who wanted to claim equivalent status as co-discoverers – I still suspect that he and his cousins once took turns to sit in the museum shop and sign autographs as ‘Mr Yang, who found the Terracotta Army.’ He cherished a photograph of himself with a grinning Bill Clinton, and still scowled at the memory of articles that had claimed the American President had met with an ‘illiterate peasant’. He clutched his adze proudly, showing me the seal of government authenticity that pronounced it to be the very tool that had struck at that fateful terracotta fragment in 1974.
Yang’s version of events featured a degree of self-figuration – first-person I’s and me’s about what the record usually describes as a group effort, but nonetheless came from the horse’s mouth, in a Shaanxi dialect so thick that I often had to ask him to repeat himself.
‘It was hot and it was dry. It was March and there had been no rain all winter, and we needed to sink a new well. There was some low-lying ground with persimmon trees on the plain, and I figured that the water there would be sweeter, so we started digging. When we got down a couple of metres, we hit something. It looked like the top of a pot, the lip around the edge, so we stopped digging.
‘I said: “Look, if this is a pot, we might have found an old kiln from the Han dynasty or something. Those pots are still good to use. Let’s keep digging.” So, we edged around it and saw that it wasn’t a pot. It wasn’t a pot because it was decorated really weird, like a suit of armour, and then we found an arm.
‘So this is a problem, because the elders hated it when we uncovered old temples or graves. That’s really bad for the feng shui. They made us go back that evening with joss-sticks. We lit incense and chanted prayers in case we had disturbed earth gods or something. But I said to the elders: “You shouldn’t worry that this is something to do with the First Emperor. I mean, it’s two kilometres away from his grave, this can’t possibly be anything to do with that. There’s no way it could be that big.”
‘So we went to the cultural office at the museum, and they said oh yes, that looks very Qin dynasty. Bring us the terracotta bits and we’ll give you some cash. They offered me 10 kuai [£1] for every wheelbarrow-load of pottery I could bring them. So we edged around the well and hauled up three cart-loads of the stuff. I took it to the museum and got 30 kuai, but then I had to share it with the other members of the crew and the village. At the end of it all, I got 1.3 mao (13p).’
The Yangs’ well-sinking exercise had transformed into an archaeological dig and gained him another rival. At another museum on the edge of town, the local Party official also happily signs himself as the ‘man who discovered the Terracotta Army’, on the understanding that Yang didn’t know what he was looking at, and that in an intricate semantic sense, the Terracotta Army was only ‘discovered’ by the person who identified the pottery as a Qin artefact. At the time, however, nobody seriously considered that the pottery uncovered by the Yangs was directly related to the First Emperor’s distant mausoleum. For centuries it had been assumed that the First Emperor’s mausoleum centred on Mount Li itself, and yet the finds of the well diggers were far from it. The well now forgotten, the soil from the initial dig was sifted, unearthing more terracotta pieces, and the fragments of what might once have been crossbow trigger mechanisms.
By that June, the news was out. Something had been found near the site of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, and if a find of the magnitude of the Yangs’ was present so far from it, the size of the necropolis itself may have been grossly underestimated.
‘Then they said we’d found something significant, something of national importance, so it all kind of got taken away from us,’ Yang tells me. His role in the site was forgotten for twenty years, while archaeologists sifted the earth. He confessed that he had done nothing but swing a pickaxe for his life up to that point, and his ability to monetise being the ‘discoverer’ of the Terracotta Army turned problematic. He was once flown to Japan for an academic conference, but was able to little more than trot out his well-rehearsed account of that fateful day. Since then, he has observed the slow growth of the museum as a tourist site, and done his best to capitalise on the influx of visitors.
‘It’s brought a lot of wealth to all of us in the village,’ he says carefully, ‘and that cheers me up. Yes, I like being famous. It’s better than not being famous. People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph. It’s better than holding a pickaxe.’
Up on the All the Anime blog I chronicle the weird background of Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt, which briefly became the biggest-ever film at the Chinese box office. “Critics are at a loss to explain why this particular film should have been the one to recapture the flag of Chinese distribution. A cynic might point out that by the time it was released, it was literally too big to fail, having notched up an additional US$70 million in extra costs after its original leading man, Kai Ko, was arrested in Beijing for smoking marijuana. Determined not to risk a China-wide release with a court case hanging over their hero, producers authorised the parachuting of Jing Boran into the lead role, requiring all his scenes to be reshot, along with a quarter of all the effects sequences. Effectively, the film went to market having cost double its original budget – you bet the owners were keen to keep it running longer than its rivals.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Wu Weihua’s new book on Chinese animation.
“Wu dedicates an entire chapter to the cultural impact of imported animation, beginning with the relatively obscure anime feature Taro the Dragon Boy in 1979, and followed swiftly by Astro Boy on television in 1982 (I presume that this was the 1980 colour remake, not Tezuka’s 1963 original), and a flood of both Japanese and American cartoons. Astro Boy, in particular, rode the spirit of the times, encapsulating the pro-science message of the Deng Xiaoping era, when Chinese science fiction experienced a brief boom in futurist speculation. Again, to split hairs from an industrial perspective, I would point out that from 1979 onwards, many of the “foreign” cartoons coming into China were also partly made there, although as before, this does not necessarily detract from the critical arguments that Wu is repeating.
“Foreign rivals were in it to win it. Wu recounts the arrival of Hasbro in the early 1980s, which baffled the Chinese by handing the complete run of its Transformers cartoon series to broadcasters in Beijing and Shanghai. At first, it seemed insane, simply dumping a cartoon for free… until the toy stores started to fill up with robots. The pay-off from that era is highly visible today, not only in the blockbuster Chinese success of the Transformers movie franchise, but in Decepticon decals on half the boy-racer cars I see in Chinese cities.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I write up the Chinese animated film Big Fish and Begonia.
“There are a lot of fishy comments in Zhuangzi – water and the creatures that live in it serve multiple purposes, as allegories for the workings of government, and for the place of living creatures in a grander universe. Some quotes are purported to be the work of Confucius, including the one that might serve as a nihilistic tagline for the film: ‘Fish live in water, but men die in it.'”