Book review: The Moon in the Palace
I love historical fiction. Within this genre, my favourite books are those in which the author does an exceptional researching job and after reading them you go to the Wikipedia page of the main character and check that many of the events described in the story really happened. Last month I read one of those books. Well, in fact, two of them, because they are a duology: The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, by author Weina Dai Randel. They tell the story of Wu Zetian (624-705 AD), the only female Empress in the history of China (Cixi was Empress Dowager and regent), but before she became Empress.
How could a woman become Empress in the 7th century, when China was basically guided by Confucian thought, which preaches that a woman always has to serve a man? The Moon in the Palace tells it from the beginning. Mei (her given name) comes from a well-off family and she is summoned as a concubine in the imperial palace. But there are hundreds of women living in the palace and many of them never get to even see the emperor, much less spend a night with him. And spending a night with him brings power, position and possibly favours. What can a girl do to be noticed? And how can the relationship with the other women be, when they are also working on gaining the emperor’s attention? Ah, the palace intrigues, the eunuchs, the lies, the backstabbing! The only way to survive is choosing your allies carefully and keeping a nice face in front of your enemies.
I really liked this book. The story is fascinating, especially the court intrigues, and everything is described in exquisite detail: the rooms, the hairstyles, the clothes… I think it is amazing that Weina Dai Randel wrote it in English, which is her second language (she didn’t move to the US until her twenties). As I was reading I was imagining the scenes taking place in the Forbidden City in Beijing, although the Forbidden City did not even exist when Mei’s story took place. However, it is the closest example I can think of, as the original palace from the Tang dynasty in Chang’an (present day Xi’an) no longer exists.
If you follow some of the same blogs I follow, you might have noticed that a lot of people is talking about this book. Jocelyn, Nicki, Autumn and Mary have all posted reviews or interviews with the author, so The Moon in the Palace definitely has the AMWF Seal of Approval. (We should actually create that seal!). I thought I would do something a little bit different to avoid sounding repetitive. I thought I would show you some Tang dynasty artworks so you can picture the characters better when you read the book (because you have to read the book!).
The first question is: how did Empress Wu look like? Autumn has already pointed out that she could not be slender and beautiful (based on what we currently consider beautiful) because beauty standards were very different back then. For starters, people who were considered good looking were plump. I searched a little bit and found out that it is kind of complicated to know how she actually looked like. Most of her portraits were painted many years after she died. I could not find any portraits that were painted during her life (please tell me if you know of any), but this drawing must be pretty close of what court women looked like. It was painted by Zhang Xuan, who lived a few decades after Wu Zetian.
Wu Zetian was a great supporter of Buddhism and the Longmen grottoes continued to be carved during her reign. It is said that the face of the biggest Buddha was modelled after her.
In The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, one of the favourite sports for the high class men is polo. Check out this figurine!
Another figurine of Tang dynasty dancers:
I hope I piqued your curiosity! You can get The Moon in the Palace in Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, BAM!, Target, Half Price Book store, and indie book stores. The second part, The Empress of Bright Moon, will be released on April 5th.