Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Life as Emperor by Su Tong


After Chinese author Su Tong won the Man Asian literary Prize for 2009 for "The Boat to Redemption" my curiosity was piqued and I vowed to get to a book of his that I had sitting on my shelf for years, "My Life as an Emperor". I bought this book in Singapore and after a hurried read of its synopsis had the idea that it was historical fiction, but it's NOT!

Su Tong has set this book (about a fictitious Chinese Emperor and his doomed Kingdom) in a deliberately hard-to-guess era. In the epilogue he says he did this deliberately because he wanted the freedom of using imagination over fact. However, he writes so convincingly and in the same vein as some of my other favorite authors of historical fiction, that several times I came close to googling the "Xie" dynasty and Imperial family, believing they were real people.

"I hope my readers do not approach 'My Life as Emperor' with the idea that it is historical fiction; that is why I have set the novel in no particular time. Identifying allusions and determining the accuracy of events places too great a burden on you and on me. The world of women and the palace intrigues that you will encounter in this novel are but a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds, and nothing more."

Fourteen-year old Duanbai came to the throne after the sudden death of his Imperial father. To say he was unprepared for this honor or responsibility would be putting it mildly. He had no social graces, limited hobbies and no real intelligence. His favorite thing to do was to listen to caged crickets sing and he was afraid of going to bed alone because he had nightmares populated by "white demons . . . raising a sad wail."

But it wasn't long before he was intoxicated on the power that being king brings. He realized that it didn't really matter how smart or intelligent he was, what people really respected was someone they could fear. Being cruel seemed to come naturally to him and one of his first imperial acts was to cut off the tongues of concubines confined in the cold Palace, because their sorrowful wailing at night disturbed his sleep.

Most courts are places of intrigue, gossip, mind games and so on, but the one that Duanbai presided over seemed to have cruelty at the top of its list. Not only was Duanbai cruel, but so was his grandmother Madame Huangfu, the Empress Dowager who wielded the actual political power, Lady Ming (his mother) and Lady Ping (his wife). Infact, it's hard to find a single sympathetic character in the book, although, Duanbai's eunuch attendant and closest friend (their relationship is shrouded in ambiguity), Swallow, might come close.

Now, the dandy Prince Duanbai has two half brothers who believed with all their might that Duanwe, the elder of the two, and son of the imperial concubine Madame Yang, was the rightful heir. Throughout the young cruel king's time on the throne he is constantly afraid of Duanwe and of the day he might wrest the crown away from Duanbai. The day comes to pass but Duanwe, who is obviously more merciful than Duanbai, doesn't take the king's life but expels him from court and tells him to live life as a commoner. The dethroned king leaves to follow a childhood dream, that of becoming a tightrope walker in a travelling circus . Incidentally, I found that it is at this point that the story actually came alive for me, infact, it almost takes on the garb of a parable with Duanbai learning that loyalty, love and doing what you are most passionate about makes you a happier person than limitless power.

While this may be a little book, Su Tong skillfully manages to weave plenty imagery and symbolism into a tantalizing web of meanings. I have to confess I didn't discover all these meanings for myself but discovered them after reading this review. It is an indepth and academic review of "My Life as Emperor", so go ahead and read it for more insights. And in case you missed you missed those parts of the novel that alludes both to China's past, particularly the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and to the nation's uncertain future, please read this review....the author certainly manages to uncover far more depth and matter to this novel than I ever could. Fascinating stuff!

If Imperial China fascinates you as much as it does me, have a look at Royalty.nu's page on "Royalty in China" for some book recommendations.

9 comments:

Shaista (Lupus in Flight) said...

Thanks for the review... the best historical novels are the ones that erase the boundary between now and then. Present day is an illusion anyway, it is becoming the past as we live :)
When were you in Singapore? How did you like it?

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Shaista! How are you? Loved Singapore, but only for a holiday. I'm not sure I could actually live there. How about you? Where are you located? Do you have a favorite historical fiction writer? I love Anchee Lee. I just got her new one...a biography on Pearl Buck.

Leela Soma said...

Good to read that the author made you believe it was real history.He must be a very good writer to do that. The sentence on concubines tongues being cut off and his grandmother's cruelty is awful but the redeeming bit at the end is thought provoking. As always your reviews are so good Angie I feel that I have read the book.Well done!

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks Leela! I struggled a little with this review....I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I read this book on holiday and couldn't quite bring back how it made me "feel".I find that books I read on vacation have an ephemeral quality about them...they are hard to capture and pin down! :)

fide said...

This is so surreal! Again, I've never come across any English reader of Su Tong's!
Though I can't contribute much here, I read this book more than ten years ago and can barely remember it. I was probably too young to understand it too...

You sure are quite interested in Chinese history/literature eh! (That Chiang Kai-shek biography review is great and an eye-opener even for me!) Have you read any other Chinese authors?

Sanjay said...

Thank you for this review Lotus. I like fide must confess to not being able to contribute much. But I always love reading your reviews, and learn so much.
I do have a q about Duanbai's transformation and his learning about loyalty and love after he his dethroned. Did you find this change convincing? Where did the loyalty part come in here? Did he make new friends that were loyal to him or the other way around? Loyalty is often tested during trying times. Is that what happened with him? Sorry about my Qs. :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hello again Fide! Luckily for us, many of Su Tong's books have been translated into English. I am chomping at the bit to get to "Raise the Red Lantern" which was also made into an excellent movie which I am sure you already know about. Have you read his more recent one? The one for which he won the Asian Man Booker? "The Boat to Redemption" is the title I believe.

My other favourite Chinese authors? I love Anchee Min, Xianhui Yang, Xiaolu Guo, Xinran (I am sure there are many more that I am forgetting). I don't know if any of these writers are still living in China though?

Who are your favourites? And if they are translated into English I will definitely give their books a whirl. Thanks!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj~ it was Swallow's continued loyalty to him, even when he was no longer Emperor and just a common, ordinary man, that made him value loyalty...

Loyalty is an interesting trait...probably more valued in Asian societies where the success of a person depends on the success of a community rather than in the west where each one usually looks out for himself or herself, no?

fide said...

Hi Lotus,

Actually I have not been keeping up with Chinese authors in the last few years. And Chinese authors writing in English is a field I've never treaded before. Why? I don't know. The usual: "I've been meaning to but just never got around to it", "too many books, too little time" etc.

And lately I've finally made the resolution to lay my groundwork in English/Western literature. So I've been reading old classics written by authors long buried: Anton Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, Issac Singer etc. My reading list looks like a college student's reading list! It makes me blush a little reciting them here, but I guess there is no short cut to reading! (I sound like I'm forcing myself to swallow the classics, and indeed they can be hard to plod through at times, but overall I find the whole reading experience extremely rewarding)

Since I'm not very up-to-date on contemporary Chinese authors. I can only recommend some goodie oldies:
Qian Zhongshu and his "Fortress Besienged"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortress_Besieged
His wife Yang Jiang wrote the most moving memoir about their life post-Cultural Revolution. But I don't think her works have been translated into English..
Lilian Lee is another good author:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilian_Lee
She often blends contemporary language and style with traditional myths and themes such as re-incarnation, ghost story. Contemporary developments in Chinese history are also always in view, as in the lives Chinese opera singers living through Japanese occupation & Cultral Revolution in "Farewell My Concubine". And yes--her works have been adapted into movies as well as you might already recognised the above title.

Forgive my interminable ranting again!