My Life As Emperor - a book review

by Ernie Yap, Dec 2, 2007 | Destinations: China
Title: My Life as Emperor
Author: Su Tong


            When Su Tong sets his hand upon his pen, he is akin to a talented concubine playing a haunting melody on her er-hu.


This is a long-awaited translated version of another piece by the touted greatest Chinese novelist of the 20th century. My Life as Emperor is a fictional biography of the 5th Emperor of the Xia Dynasty.


            Duanbai ascended the dragon throne at the tender age of 14.And it is from there that the boy’s life descended to a level beyond human comprehension.  His first imperial act was to cut off the tongues of concubines confined in the cold Palace, because their sorrowful wailing disturbs his sleep.


            The emperor’s malevolent nature was completely developed when his childhood mentor, the wise and kindly monk Juekong (And probably the only benign character in the whole story) was removed from his counsel by his grandmother, Madame Huangfu, the Empress Dowager who wields the actual political power.


The power play between Madame Huangfu and Duanbai’s biological mother, Madame Meng is the epitome bizarre cruelty. And when the emperor comes of age, the whole palace is stirred and opens a Pandora box of back-stabbing, murder– by concubines. Duanbai has one favourite, Lady Hui who naturally becomes the target of other concubines whose sole purpose in life is to obtain the Emperor’s attention and seed, by whatever means.


It is ironic that the head of the most civilized land mass of its time could be immersed in the most barbaric of activities. The Emperor is slave to his limitless authority, an impotent puppet to the bickerings of his countless concubines and a victim to his own extravagance; essentially a trapped bird in a gilded cage.


            Su Tong, the author of the brilliant Raise the Red Lantern, a widely acclaimed novel made immortal by the likes of Zang Yimou and Gong Li, writes in a convincing, artistic style that is irreproducible.


Nero, who captured and tortured little animals when he was young would be an angel compared to Duanbai. When this young emperor’s army captured the leader of a peasant rebellion, he sends his favourite eunuch to monitor the various tortures, which are simmered with exotic names. Like Chinese dishes, they are hanging Embroidered Balls, Immortals rides the Mist, Hollow Out the Eggplant and many more. When Swallow reported the details to him, the young emperor was ‘fascinated’.


Then there is the power struggle between the 2 brothers. Duanwen the elder son and the sidelined rightful heir, stages a successful coup and eventually ousts our young emperor. Countless lose their lives to this hollow cause, for it shall be then revealed that Duanwen would be no better emperor than his predecessors.


So much for the Xie Dynasty. Su Tong does not let his readers go with just a dose of the debauchery of the ruling class of ancient China. When Duanbai was expelled from the imperial city and began his life as a commoner, it is where the author’s story really begins. How does an ex-emperor, the Son of Heaven who does not even know how to wear his own clothes cut out a living in the harsh countryside?


            Like his previous work Rice; My life as Emperor bears Su Tong’s trademark creative, somewhat Dantesque depictions of the debasement of human character. Now this might be a turn off, especially for those used to the banal Western idea of horror stories.


Accompanied by his faithful eunuch Swallow, the emperor-turned-commoner strangely begins to feel liberation. So he set off to pursuit his life-long ambition; to be a tightrope walker. Here Duanbai’s narration takes a turn. At the beginning of the story, his voice is naïve with a tinge of childish curiosity. Then it evolves into a cold and disturbingly calm tone. Now it begins to show signs of trembling and crackles of emotions being to seep through as he comes to terms with real life.


Here, the author brings us another caution. Just in case we dare to think those atrocious acts are confined within the imperial city and the country folks are mere peace-loving Confusionists, think again. Duanbai witnesses and participates in the selling of a little girl by her own parents. He sees how Swallow’s father who castrated him when he was young reacted when his son came back penniless. In his wanderings, he also stumbles upon his one true love, Lady Hui who by now is a prostitute.


Throughout his short reign, the words ‘…the Xie Dynasty is coming to an end’ have always echoed in Duanbai ‘s head. Just so that was more or less responsible for making the prophecy come true, he had to chance to witness it first hand. Very much like the day of his ascension, Duanbai stands emotionless and hollow as the rival Peng armies breached the city walls, plundered the city, killing the inhabitants and conquered the dynasty he was entrusted to protect.


What is power and governance without common sense and restrain?


For a novel, I feel that this book could stand under the severest scrutiny. Like his other works, Su Tong manage to cast enchantment along with vivid descriptions. This is beautiful embroidery of human psyche development on a silk of historical landscape. The title ‘greatest Chinese novelist of the 20th century’ is not undeserved.