The Treacherous Fox

empress 3In 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.

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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.

empress wuWhat do you think is Wu’s best quality: exploiting the fact that she is a woman by seduction in sharing her bed for power, or her cunning ability to move in court-politics?

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. Continue reading

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Empress Wu: Too Hot for TV?

empress wuThis week’s Telegraph reports that the new TV show Empress of China, all about the scandalous Empress Wu, has been taken off air amid scurrilous gossip over its revealing costumes and grotesque violence. Robert Foyle Hunwick in Beijing notes that: “The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), China’s chief censors, has issued regulations banning depictions of one-night stands, adultery, sexual abuse, rape, polyamory, necrophilia, prostitution, nudity and masturbation, as well as murder, suicide, drug use, gambling and even racy subtitles and puns.” Well, that pretty much covers a to-do list of any historically accurate account of Empress Wu. Oh, except gambling; I don’t remember any gambling.

For more about the historical Empress Wu, see my interview here, my article on film adaptations here, or listen to my Woman’s Hour interview here.

Two Downloads

02After many years of waiting and wrangles, my book on the controversial medieval Chinese Empress Wu is finally re-released on Kindle and paperback from Albert Bridge Books (US/UK). As the blurb recounts:

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) was the only woman to be the sovereign ruler of imperial China. A teenage concubine of the Tang Emperor Taizong, she seduced his son while the emperor lay dying. Recalled from a nunnery as part of an intricate court power-game, she caused the deaths of two lady rivals, before securing her enthronement as the Emperor Gaozong’s consort. She ruled in the name of her husband and two eldest sons, presiding over the pinnacle of the Silk Road, before proclaiming herself the founder of a new dynasty. Worshipped as the Sage Mother of Mankind and reviled as the Treacherous Fox, she was deposed aged 79, after angry courtiers murdered her two young lovers.

The subject of countless books, plays and films, Empress Wu remains a feminist icon and a bugbear of Chinese conservatism. Jonathan Clements weighs the evidence of her life and legacy: so charismatic that she could rise from nothing to the height of medieval power, so hated that her own children left her tombstone blank.

Meanwhile, it’s a condition of my doctorate that my thesis be freely available to other researchers, but to spare you the bother of going to the Library of Wales and photocopying it, here’s a PDF. The title is A History of the Japanese Animation Industry: Developing Technologies, Changing Formats and Evolving Audiences. I’m afraid what blurb there is is couched in significantly more sesquipedalian prose:

This thesis offers a discursive genealogy of the Japanese animation, or ‘anime’ industry, outlining changes to its prevailing form caused by successive disruptions – fluctuations in economic conditions, applications of new technology, and changes in available formats. Instead of focussing on the content of the anime texts themselves, it addresses the form of the content – treating the anime texts as manufactured ‘objects’ or as performative ‘events’ that are created, refined, marketed and sold.

The approach is historiographical, favouring published testimonials and memoirs from the participants in the Japanese animation industry, and assessing them in terms of possible errors of historical practice. The participants’ activities are categorised as points on a chain from Ownership of the intellectual property to Access to the text, prompting not only consideration of changes in the processes of production, but also in the oft-neglected areas of distribution and exhibition.

Spanning the 67 years from 1945 to 2012, in overlapping periods defined by developments in formats and technology, a picture is presented not only of the anime industry, but of its participants’ changing sense of what that industry is, its traditions and potential. This will present a foundation for future research into anime’s history, not only through this narrative of events, but also through consideration of the theoretical issues deriving from the nature of the sources.

And of course, if you like what you see there, a significantly expanded version, losing a lot of the theory and introduction, but adding four extra chapters, has been published by the British Film Institute (US/UK).