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.
What 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