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.