Just Too Past Time

New Straits Times,
Friday, 11th February 2005

Lillian Too is like a Korean chaebol in its heyday - omnipresent but not omnipotent. Having established herself as a feng shui master, she now dabbles in writing, the latest being a historical fiction about Empress Wu, the only woman to have ever ascended the dragon throne and to have formed her own dynasty.

Empress Wu the book starts off with the newly-crowned Emperor Tai Zong being advised by trusted astrologer Kuan, who "reads" messages from the heavens. Kuan, skilled in elaborate calculations and charts, delivers foreboding news of a threat from within the Emperor's court - a woman named Wu who is destined to take over the dragon throne unless the Emperor finds her and disposes of her.

The following pages read like a Mills & Boons novel, feeding the reader's appetite for intrigue and sensual pleasures services by Tai Zong's retinue of eunuchs, concubines and feuding sons.

Lady Wu, a merchant's daughter plucked from the bosom of youth by chief eunuch Wang, is sent to the Emperor for his pleasure. The child, schooled in the classics and arts, learns fast about palace intrigue, power struggles and foremost, pleasuring the Emperor.

Ambition moulds young Wu, who has her desire fanned by the knowledge, that the Emperor holds absolute power over the land. "She feels that in making love to him, she is sharing the essence of him, receiving the chi of his body. In an instant, her young heart realizes that her body is turned on by power."

She soon becomes skilled at aiding the Emperor in matters of state and becomes so influential that ripples of discontent arise and Kuan's initial warning to Tai Zong is heeded. The Emperor no longer sends for her for an entire year.

Distraught over her fall from grace, Wu seeks out her soon-to be mentor and confidant-Lady Mei Fei, the Emperor's beloved who holds the rank of senior concubine. An air of melancholy surrounds the latter for, as Lady Wu is to learn, Mei Fei was barred from having intimate relations with the Emperor due to the influence of the all-powerful Kuan.

Mei Fei offers cold but practical advice. To avoid death or banishment to the Western quarter, where concubines who have lost their beauty and sanity reside, Wu is to remove herself from the ranks of palace woman and opt to be a palace maid. The Emperor's admiration for her writing and poetry will stand her in good stead in spite of her demotion in rank. "Once inside, use your intelligence to make yourself invaluable." This certainly sounds like an adage from Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

In her strategy to sow a thousand seeds of friendship, Wu also makes the acquaintance of Prince Li Zhi whom she first meets in the palace library. Together, they develop an easy comradeship which turns into love, discussing matters of state and with her passing on valuable tips and sharing her observations on the members of the Court and the Privy Council.

Winds of change arise too quickly, the Emperor falls gravely ill and dies, leaving the succession to the throne in the hands of the Privy Council, to which his tomboyish and very influential daughter Princess Cao Yang is a member.

The Machiavellian machinations of various factions come into play. Minister Lui, the scholar uncle of Lady Wang who is betrothed to Li Zhi, now pronounced the Crown Prince, pushes for their early marriage in order to secure his position in the palace.

Within an instant, Wu, at the age of 24, discovers the old Li Zhi has "died" with the Emperor's passing, he is now Emperor Gao Zong. "The eyes that once gazed so lovingly into hers now look vacantly through her as if not seeing her". How will she buck court tradition which decrees that the Emperor's maid and concubines must leave the palace and spend the rest of their lives in pious servitude and meditation?

With steely resilience and help from the heavens, Wu makes a return to the palace from Ganye Temple, near the foothills of Li Shan Mountains. Gao Zong ensures that the Empress sponsors her return and changes her name to that of Lady Zhao Yi, dispensing with her surname Wu.

How Zhao Yi plays her pawns in the eventual years are left to the imagination. I shall not presume to judge this book but will leave it at the doors of history.
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