Back from the Liverpool World Museum, where I spoke this week about Chinese Bronze Age burial customs, the oddities of the Qin state in ancient China (including its most famous song), and the enduring mysteries of the Terracotta Warriors. The exhibition itself has lots of interesting and quirky pieces, including a cauldron like the one that Duke Wu dropped on his foot, a barbarian brooch from Qin’s contacts with the western nomads, and a statue of a goose from the First Emperor’s bronze menagerie.
I asked the crowd if they could remember what they were doing back in July 2005, when “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt was number one, because that’s the timespan, just thirteen years, that separates the coronation of the First Emperor from the fall of his dynasty. The museum at the Terracotta Army site near Xi’an has already stood for twice as long as the dynasty it celebrates.
Drawing on the materials in my book on the First Emperor (which was doing a roaring trade in the museum shop, I am pleased to say), it’s only when you set the archaeology in context with the textual evidence from Qin documents (themselves often as recent a discovery as the Terracotta Warriors themselves), that the reason for every soldier having an individual face becomes clear.
From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and the US. Recommended reading if you want to get the most out of Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee movie, in which Empress Wu launches a vendetta against her former ally.
Judge Dee was rounded up with a number of other officials, and escorted to the investigators’ head office by the Gate of Beautiful Scenery. Lai Chunchen informed his captives that they had one shot at mercy – under plea-bargaining terms that Empress Wu had recently approved, anyone who immediately pleaded guilty could have their sentences commuted from execution to banishment. With that in mind, Lai Chunchen asked Judge Dee if there was a conspiracy. Dee’s reply was blunt and sarcastic:
[Wu’s] Great Zhou revolution has occurred, and ten thousand things are changing. Old officials of the Tang dynasty like myself are soon to be executed. You bet there’s a conspiracy!
Lai Chunchen would have preferred a straight yes or no, but took Judge Dee’s response to be in the affirmative. Dee was locked up for processing, although his stance managed to impress some of his captors. One investigator, doubting very much that Dee would be detained long in exile, asked him if the judge would put a good word in for him on his return, to which the judge responded by literally banging his head against a wooden pillar while calling the investigator a series of rude names.
The Judge, however, was not going to go without a fight. Waiting for a moment when he was left alone, he wrote a letter to his son on the inner lining of his jacket, and then prevailed upon his captors to take the jacket back to his home, so that his family could take out the winter padding.
On finding the secret message, Dee’s son immediately applied for an audience with Wu herself, and showed the empress the accusing letter. Lai Chunchen was called to explain himself, but argued that the letter was a forgery, since he had no record of the judge’s clothes being sent back to his house. There, Dee’s case might have foundered before it could have truly begun, but for a slave who approached Wu himself. The ten-year-old boy was one of many palace servants who owed their position to the alleged misdeeds of their elder family members. Uncaring that his words could lead to his own torture or death, the boy announced that his family was innocent, and that he lived his life as a slave solely because of the persecutions and lies of the ‘cruel clerks.’
This dramatic turn of events forced Wu to summon Dee to the palace to explain himself. She asked the judge why he had pleaded guilty in the first place, to which Dee replied that it was the only way he could avoid torture and death”
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.
“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.
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.