What was sexuality and sex education really like during China’s Tang Dynasty Era? Weina Dai Randel researched this topic while writing her duology about China’s Empress Wu (The Moon in the Palace and the forthcoming The Empress of Bright Moon). I’ve asked her to share her insights (as well as a few blush-worthy moments!) in this lovely guest post.
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Chinese people have a reputation of being reserved, and talking about coupling was not recommended or encouraged even in the family, even today. But on the other hand, Confucian scholars believed it was vital to have as many progenies as possible, and it was common to see a man with ten or fifteen children. So that tells us, they were doing it, definitely doing it, behind the screen or the closed doors.
When I researched this topic, what I found astounded me. Ancient Chinese people were not shy or reserved at all, they were very passionate and open about sex.
To have sex was a beautiful thing, and they believed that the intimate encounter could promote mental and physical health and that it was important for the peace of the household. When you think about it, it has to be so since ancient Chinese men usually had five or six wives, so not every wife could spend the night with the husband every week. So it was possible the wives would need to fight to share a night with the husband, and of course, that also meant there would be many nights without the husband.
Ancient Chinese were very creative about educating the women, by the way. You would find explicit sex scenes playing out in sequence on fans, bamboo slats, silk handkerchiefs, ceramic statues or ceramic statues shaped as men and women coupling, and even on the walls, vases, and shoes. The scenes often described vivid lovemaking that demonstrated excellent painting skills and detailed descriptions of positions.
Viewing the erotic paintings on silk was a more decent way of sex education, believe it or not. It was a secret tradition among palace women and the nobles as well. Often, such paintings were shared within a closed circle and with discretion.
During research I found the book titled 春梦遗叶, literally, it means Spring Dreams, Forgotten Leaves, but the English title is named Dreams of Spring. It’s actually a collection of Erotic Art in China. I requested it through Interlibrary Loan since I was still at school, and when I received it, the librarian took a look at the cover and her face turned red. Later, I bought the book and studied it. Let me tell you the scenes on those paintings were not simply showing two beautiful women having a bath. It was more than that, and I was so shocked to see the content and the details.
This is the cover of the book, which inspired me to put it in The Moon in the Palace. What the book contained is similar to a scene I depicted in The Moon in the Palace, but instead of lovemaking, I intended that scene to be a moment of self discovery and Mei’s sexual awakening. Here’s the cover of the book, which is only a modest, yes, very modest erotic picture that the book has:
What else is in the book? Many pictures. I’m afraid I can’t describe them without giggling, but I can tell you the relationship between the Crown Prince and the flutist was inspired by the paintings.
Since having male heir was very important, it also devoted abundant attention on how to conceive, not just children, but sons. I was shocked again – there are so many conventional wisdoms and secret recipes for conceiving a son! If you want to hear more about this, it has to do with the way of coupling, the time of coupling, the food you eat before coupling, the moon’s phase on the night of coupling, etc. It was so fascinating. Unfortunately I couldn’t use any of them since this was not the focus, but the information did prove to be useful for the second book The Empress of Bright Moon.
You can find these examples of ancient erotic art in many places in China nowadays, and they would pop up at some shopping places that you would never expect.
Two months ago when I was strolling with my family in the shopping district near Yu Garden in Shanghai, we passed a stall selling many paintings, fans, statues. My daughter, a nine-year-old, picked up a fan and asked me, “What’s this, mom?” I leaned over. Oh lord, the fan contained nine scenes which revealed the famous sex styles – the Nine Ways.
My husband and I were so embarrassed. We dropped the fan and quickly fled.
I have a confession — I adore “Cinderella stories”.
Nonfiction or fiction, it doesn’t matter. As long as the story features a strong, intelligent woman who rises from unlikely circumstances and has to fight her way up, I’m all in. Especially if she ends up saving herself and the guy too.
It’s about the rise of the young Empress Wu – before she became the Empress – and truly reads like a Tang Dynasty era Cinderella story, with everything you’d expect. A smart, powerful young woman who has struggled with extreme poverty and loss in her childhood. Conniving foes and lots of intrigue. A dashing prince that she helps save. A gorgeous palace setting.
Of course, we all know going into this story that the young Mei Wu will indeed ascend to the throne. Yet that reality doesn’t detract in any way from the pleasure of reading this novel. In fact, The Moon in the Palace is a real page-turner. This is book you’ll be flipping through late into the evening, complete with lots of plot twists and surprises. Yes, it’s that compelling.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction about China or curious about the life of Empress Wu, you must read The Moon in the Palace.
Tell us about the inspiration for writing this novel.
I was inspired to write this novel after I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in graduate school. I did a presentation about the pregnant woman who drowned herself because she was not married and her pregnancy was considered a disgrace to her family and village. I didn’t like that piece that much, and I wanted to show my classmates that China had strong women who were able to control their destinies, and the first woman who came into my mind was Empress Wu.
While I researched, I found out there were not many novels about Empress Wu during recent years. Well, there were a few novels written in 1950s and 1960s, but those novels depicted her in a rather harsh light and criticized her because she didn’t follow Confucian rule that women should serve men. Today, the world has changed so much, and I believe we need a book about her that should look at her in a positive light, as a woman, a daring, intellectual woman as she must have been. And I seriously believed that a woman should write her story. (There was another novel by San Sa, called Empress, but it was initially written in French, and I had not read it so I can’t comment on it.)
So I decided to write a book about Empress Wu from her point of view, showing her rich and complicated life as how she lived through it.
But I didn’t want to write her as an empress. I wanted to write her entire life, from when she was young to when she was old, so readers would know what she was like when she was a nobody, how she survived, how she outwitted the others, how she changed in the palace, and why she changed. And most importantly, I wanted to show readers what she was like when she was young, and how her romantic relationship with Emperor Gaozong changed her life. That was where The Moon in the Palacewas started.
Your story paints a captivating portrait of life within the Emperor’s palace with astounding detail. What research did you do to help you recreate what it would have been like for Empress Wu to live in the palace?
Oh, the research I had done! Looking back, I can tell you it was an education that lasted for almost ten years.
For the palace, I first studied the layout of Daming Palace and the original palace in Chang’an, which don’t exist anymore, and the map of the current Forbidden Palace in Beijing, which was said to be inspired by the palace in Chang’an. I also visited the Forbidden Palace in person and walked through the entire palace from the front entrance to the garden in the back. Oh boy, it was cold then when I visited Beijing, and I was freezing even with six layers on. I also visited the Summer Palace twice and the city of Xi’an, which was Chang’an in Tang Dynasty to obtain a feel of the city and the life inside the walled city. I was even tempted to visit Kyoto in Japan, which I heard was designed after Chang’an and still preserved many features of Chang’an very well.
It was not enough to simply know the palace’s layout, of course, so I also studied the architecture; the gardens – the vital features of a Chinese garden, Japanese garden and their features, the vegetations, flowers, types of trees thrived in the northern China; birds; silk – types of silk, designs of silk gowns etc.; silkworms – their life cycles, silkworm farming; food – the preparations of food, types of food and the use of food as medicine, and yes, medicine too.
I also spent a lot of time studying the paintings in Tang Dynasty and ancient China. It was very helpful to see the nature’s landscape, the garden of private scholars, and the clothes they wore. I also learned a lot about the ancient world through the lenses of poets, whose descriptions of nature were another vibrant paintings of lyrics.
What I really dug into was women’s life in the palace. I researched the fragrance they used, the types of sachets they carried, the incense stick they held, and fashion, especially, which was another topic I was fascinated about. We all know how important appearance determined a woman’s status in the palace, and I think this still works in the society today. So from silk, I also looked into the hairstyle that distinguished women, the jewelry that emphasized their rank, and even their shoes that made them stand out. Yes. I’m also fascinated with shoes!
But you know none of the research would work if the character’s “mindset” is missing – to borrow the word from Elizabeth Chadwick. So in a way, the setting and all the research I had completed was like the gown the character wears, and once she dons it, she is transformed into that world, where she would try to reach her goal, where she would find temptations, and most importantly, where she would face animosity and even danger, which would wind around her waist and tighten around her neck like a sash if she’s not careful.
Could you talk about how you developed the young Empress Wu as a character for your story? What research, clues or inspiration guided you?
The real young Empress Wu was, and still is, a myth to many of us. Many records described what she was like and what she had done the year before she became the Empress and during the time when she was a ruler, but few stories gave insight to what she was like as a young girl. So creating her was a freedom for me.
My first imagination of the young Empress Wu was she had to be smart, very smart, and I worked really hard to transmit that idea to readers. But it really was a challenge to show a girl’s wit when she was confined within walls and unable to meet the Emperor. So for a long time after I completed writing the whole manuscript, I couldn’t figure out how Mei would use her wit to see the Emperor and what she would give the Emperor as a gift. I read many books that told stories of ancient women who were very smart but still couldn’t relate to Mei’s situation. Then one day I was doing dishes and the book I had read when I was a kid appeared in my head and it dawned on me – The Arabian Nights: Tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
And I realized the gift must not be something physical. It had to be something else. That’s how Mei found a birthday gift for the Emperor.
I was tempted to make Mei not beautiful – beauty is kind of trite to me, and I didn’t like it that all female protagonists had to be beautiful! I also had another reason when I was writing. If she was too beautiful then Emperor Taizong would have deflowered her, especially since she was around him all the time. But the plot just didn’t work very well if she was ugly, or plain, and the setup was hard to do – how would she be summoned if she wasn’t beautiful?
So in the end, I decided Mei had to be beautiful too, otherwise she wouldn’t be summoned to the palace to serve Emperor Taizong. With that detail down, all the other questions were solved. Of course the Emperor wanted to deflower her, if he could!
Those two characteristics of Mei were the clues that helped me from the very beginning, and from there, I set the foot down and began her transformation, the process of surviving in the court, learning the women’s art of backstabbing, and then making mistakes, and then being punished as she tried to win the Emperor’s affection.
Mei’s other traits, her bond to her father and her devotion to her mother and family, were purely invented by me, although we, and many Chinese people, can easily imagine this is plausible. Filial piety is still one of the important traits that will determine if you’re a good person in China.
Your story includes people plotting against each other to gain more prominence and power within the court. One of the most fascinating individuals in your story is the conniving Jewel. Could you talk about how you conceived of this character and whether she was based on anyone from history?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked this question! Jewel is my favorite character from the very beginning, but she was so hard to write, which I will get to later. But no, she was not based on anyone from history or the research I had done, nor was she inspired by anyone I know. But we all know of conniving people littered across history and they usually did not end up very well.
When I started the story, Jewel was supposed to be a friend to Mei, I mean, a real friend like the Noble Lady, and she didn’t die in the middle of the book, and her death would happen later, near the end, which would make her a real victim. But as I plotted the story, I just didn’t feel the tension, the dynamics that was needed to move the rivalry forward. So I wrote the betrayal scene, and then, instantly, everything gained flavor and the subtext of deceit and rivalry just jumped out.
I liked the re-branding of Jewel, but then Jewel demanded me to give her more depth since she was more complex and enigmatic. I had to rewrite the bath scene during which she talked about her past – she would tell Mei a bit of herself and be very frank about it, but she would also word everything differently since she had a hidden motive. I rewrote that scene five times. Three times during developmental editing, and then twice during copyediting. It drove me absolutely nuts!
I also found the complexity of Jewel’s character made it difficult to plot the interactions between her and Mei. Mei knew now what Jewel truly was and she would not tell her what she wanted, but Mei was smart too and she learned that quickly so she tried to detect Jewel’s motives. So each time when they saw each other, a silent duel of eyes began. There were several scenes during which neither of them spoke the truth and both tried to pry some secret from each other.
It was very stressful and exhausting to write like that at the beginning, but then I grew used to it and had fun playing with each other. The hardest part, however, was to write them in a way that would transfer the idea of animosity but still keep the prose beautiful and appealing.
Throughout the novel, the young Empress Wu recalls passages from The Art of War for direction in the face of the great challenges of life in the palace. What links between Empress Wu and The Art of War did you uncover in your research?
I didn’t find any links between Empress Wu and The Art of War, to be honest. The connection between the ancient book and Empress Wu was purely invented by me.
But I imagine the real Empress Wu would be familiar with the strategies and deftly use them when she reigned the country – it was often mentioned that she had impeccable skills for managing the ministers with big egos and she also won some important battles against Korea and some northern tribes during her reign. And also, since The Art of War predates Tang Dynasty by almost one thousand years, it is also easy to imagine Empress Wu, who was well read and familiar with all classics, would employ master Sun Tzu’s advice as needed.
But of course, no one would know whether she really relied on The Art of War when she was young.
It has to do with the immense influence The Art of War had on people in America and Europe. The Art of War is an icon of Chinese wisdom, a book often quoted by many businessmen, leaders, and politicians. It showcases the enduring wisdom of ancient Chinese and carries this connotation that whoever studies it is smart, if not calculative.
I am aware that this book mainly had male readership, not woman, but Empress Wu was not a common woman, and the female gender should not limit her and dictate her behavior. The Art of War, after all, was about the making of a leader, about protecting yourself, and about winning with ease and with grace, and I think Empress Wu had accomplished them all.
What do you hope people will gain from reading your novel?
Even today, Empress Wu remains to be a controversial figure in China. People admire her because she was the only female who ruled China, but on the other hand, people inherit many colorful views of her due to some biased comments made by Confucian scholars who attacked her because of her gender.
I wanted to change that perception with these two novels. I would like to provide another view of Empress Wu; I would like to show readers that she was not the vile, calculative, murderous woman some opinionated male Confucian scholars have painted.
I would also like people to understand Empress Wu was not just a sex symbol as described by many books, movies, and TV shows. She was intellectual, she was strong, she made her own destiny when few women were even allowed to do so. And if you read the second book, The Empress of Bright Moon, you’ll understand her appeal came from her wisdom, her persistence, her ability to lead, and also her extraordinary resilience.
I hope when people visit her tomb in Xi’an, they would have my novels in their mind when they read the brochure handed to them. They would read the biased paragraphs and they would understand this might not be true. And they would look at the Empress with sympathy, and maybe, with awe as well.
It’s also my greatest ambition to introduce classical Chinese literature to people in America and Europe. I don’t know if you noticed, the novel has many references to poems, stories popular in the Chinese culture, and I did that on purpose. I adore classical Chinese literature, the condensed prose so polished but vivid, with images so pure that they were paintings themselves, and in mentioning them, writing them, I hope people outside China will be intrigued to study them as well.
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