Boldest Women, Finest Monarchs
– A comparison between Empress Wu, Cleopatra VII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great
Weina Dai Randel
The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon to agents, I was told I needed a log line, a distinct one-sentence that would catch the agents' interest and also describe my novels succinctly.
I thought about it for months, and in the end, I used this log line – my novels describe the journey of Empress Wu, who is known as Chinese Cleopatra.
It worked. The agents were interested and asked for more. But I knew in my heart that my Chinese friends would look at me askance and question me, and I felt compelled to explain.
Empress Wu is a household name in China, but not many people in the U.S. have heard of her. To describe her in a term that American readers would understand, I had to think and choose some well-known female rulers. There are only a handful of notable women to consider: Cleopatra VII, Queen Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great.
We are all familiar with the story of Pharaoh Cleopatra VII. Forever immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra VII was beautiful, the last of the Ptolemy family to rule ancient Egypt. We all know the tale of how she had a feud with her brother, how she sought help from Julius Caesar, how she gained her control over Egypt and how she ended up with Marc Antony.
Like Cleopatra who had a relationship with two powerful men, Empress Wu had a tangled relationship with two emperors, a father and a son, in fact.
(An image of Empress Wu created in the 18th century. )
Empress Wu, also known as Wu Zetian, was summoned to the palace to serve Emperor Taizong in the seventh century China. After the Emperor's death, against all conventions and expectations, she married his son, Emperor Gaozong, and became the Empress of China. Her affair with Emperor Gaozong was vital to her ascend to power, but the fact the she might have shared the bed with the father and the son would become the fodder of the scandal.
As a result, like Cleopatra, whom many believed she had to seduce Julius Caesar when she tumbled out of the carpet, some Chinese historians painted Empress Wu as the seductress. They also claimed that Empress Wu seduced Emperor Gaozong in her transparent gauze gowns before he became the emperor. My novel, The Moon in the Palace, would present another perspective of their relationship; nonetheless, this view was assumed for many years.
The similar view of Empress Wu and Cleopatra can also be seen from the movies poster about the two women. Look at their poses, their bare legs!
(Left: Antony and Cleopatra. Right: Hong Kong movie Empress Wu Zetian in 1963.
The popular image of Empress as a seductress tends to ignore the fact that she was a ruler, a woman who brought the country to prosperity and left a glorious legacy to the county. During her reign, China thrived in trade, architecture, religion, art, literature, and military expansion, became a role model for the neighboring countries and blossomed into the Golden Age.
So if you think of her achievement, you may think Empress Wu had a lot in common with Queen Elizabeth I.
Queen Elizabeth I, ruling England from 1558 to 1603, was perhaps one of the defining monarchs in the world history. Daughter of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I was intelligent, deft at politics, and supported by many able counselors. During her reign, popular culture in England flourished, and England's territory was expanded overseas by a number of famous explorers. Her reign, like Empress Wu, was regarded as the Golden Age in England.
Ironically, Elizabeth I and Empress Wu also suffered the same accusation of their rule because of their gender. The preacher John Knox, who resented women rulers, would call Queen Elizabeth I a “monstrous regiment”, and similarly, the Confucian scholars would attack Empress Wu, calling “a hen must not crow like a rooster.”
Another powerful woman ruler I have to mention is Catherine the Great of Russia.
Relatively unknown to readers in America, Catherine the Great, was born in 1729 as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, and married into Russia's Romanov family. The marriage was deemed unhappy, and it was said Catherine the Great had three lovers and illegitimate children while she was married to Peter. At the height of the conflict between Catherine the great and Peter, she ended up unseating her husband and established her reign in 1762. She ruled Russia for almost 34 years, which is considered the Golden Age of Russia, and she was credited with pulling Russia out of “medieval stupor and into a modern world.”
I didn't mention Catherine the Great in the log line because she's not well-known in the U.S., and Elizabeth I was known as the virgin queen, only the suggestion of Cleopatra would indicate a fascinating romance, which is an important plot in The Moon in the Palace.
But these women were all powerful in their times, and as historical records showed, they were all well educated, intelligent, skillful with their methods of negotiation, and their reigns left an invaluable legacy for their countries. History would also indicate these women were promoters of art, education, and culture. And like all other women, they were vain, concerned about their beauty and loved to wrap themselves with luxury and fine jewelry.
References and further reading for enjoyment:
Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. A must read if you enjoy reading scholarly research and fine writing.
Dray, Stephenie. Lily of the Nile, Song of the Nile. An inspiring, well-imagined life of Cleopatra's daughter after Cleopatra's death.
Stachniak, Eva. Winter Palace. The novel vividly describes the rise of the sickly, overshadowed Sophie to Catherine the Great, told from her only friend Barbara, a spy, in the palace.
Kay, Susan. Legacy. Compelling novel of Elizabeth I and her relationship with the three men.
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China―where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death―and the woman who came to rule it all.
At the moment of the Emperor’s death, everything changes in the palace. Mei, his former concubine, is free, and Pheasant, the heir and Mei’s lover, is proclaimed as the new Emperor, heralding a new era in China. But just when Mei believes she’s closer to her dream, Pheasant’s chief wife, Lady Wang, powerful and unpredictable, turns against Mei and takes unthinkable measures to stop her. The power struggle that ensues will determine Mei’s fate–and that of China.
Surrounded by enemies within the palace that she calls home, Mei continues her journey to the throne in The Empress of Bright Moon, the second book in Weina Dai Randel’s acclaimed duology. Only by fighting back against those who wish her harm will Mei be able to realize her destiny as the most powerful woman in China.