Welcome back to the increasingly erratic Thursday Book Club! In my last real Book Club post, I discussed Empress Wu, the only woman in the history of China to be called “emperor” during her lifetime. Since then, I’ve done a couple of fake Book Club post about Christopher Walken’s ass and books I bought while drunk.
This is the perfect time to do a follow-up post on Empress Wu, because the rap group Wu-Tang Clan is playing New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom this very night. Tickets are still available. Sadly, there is an eight-ticket limit per person. If you are a Chinese emperor who has a very large harem, you might not be able to buy tickets for all of your concubines under one credit card. Also, Chinese emperor, I regret to tell you that even though the Clan is named after a location in China famed for its martial arts, there are no actual Chinese people in the group.
The Wu-Tang guys always have good names. Chinese emperors made up their names too, but no one ever came up with Emperor Ol’ Dirty Bastard. ODB was one of the founding Wu-Tang members; he died of an overdose in 2004, two days before he turned 36. That’s not old at all. He was more of a Young Dirty Bastard. Maybe that’s why his other aliases included Big Baby Jesus. Anyway, other original members of the group included RZA (“rizza”), GZA (“jizza”), Method Man and Masta Killa. If you want to find out what your Wu-Tang name is, go to the WuName Generator, enter your name and click “Wu am I?” I am “Sullen Choirboy.”
The novel has plenty of good sex scenes, which would no doubt delight Wu biographer Nigel Cawthorne, but it outdoes him in the girl-on-girl department. Or, rather, the concubine-on-concubine department. Hey, the ladies didn’t get to see the emperor that often. They had to do something to while away the hours.
As delightful as the love scenes are, I much prefer the Wu we get after she outplays, outwits and outlasts two emperors and takes over personally. In a speech to the Forbidden City she says, “I am not afraid of treacherous, rebellious men.” She goes on to name three rebels and list all their intimidating qualities. “Those three men were believed to be indomitable! When they tried to betray me, I cut off their heads.” Suckas!
Empress is the kind of historical novel I really like. Wu’s head-chopping habit is placed in the context of the societal and political challenges of her time, giving her justification without making her a misunderstood innocent. She’s neither a sociopathic dragon lady nor a slandered sweetie-pie. At the end, when her spirit meditates on the centuries that have passed since her reign and on her own reputation, I had tears in my eyes. Wu really did request that her stele, or gravestone, be left blank. The fictional empress says, “Some see this lack of inscription as a symbol of my humility: I wanted to give men the opportunity to inscribe it with their blame or their praise. Others interpret it as an expression of overweening pride from a woman who became emperor: No one can comment on my destiny.” I’m voting for option #2. No one should dare comment on her! Except for me. I would love to go visit her gravestone one day. After, all the world will marvel at the red-lipstick message that has appeared as if by magic on the blank tablet: KNEEL BEFORE WU.