‘Don’t be afraid, Swallow, I whispered in his ear. I only kill people I don’t like. And anyone I want killed is as good as dead. That is the best part about being Emperor. If there is anyone you want killed, just tell me. Is there anyone you want killed, Swallow?’
I discovered this book quite by chance while looking up books that were written by Chinese authors, or set in China. I had vaguely heard of the author before, but otherwise went into this book with no expectations whatsoever, and so was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. My Life as Emperor is, as the author states in the preface, not historical fiction – ‘The world of women and the palace intrigues that you will encounter in this novel are but a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all the worlds, and nothing more.’ The imagery of this sentence gives an indication of the style of the novel itself – the writing is luscious, mixing the beautiful with the grotesque, and it makes the whole novel feel like a painting or a piece of embroidery. I realise that sounds very strange – perhaps the reason it reads this way is because of the translation from Chinese – but the style in which Su Tong writes brilliantly evokes the opulence and brutality of an Emperor’s court in ancient China. Concubines are ordered to hang themselves with white silk to be buried with the Emperor, the palace is filled with beautiful gardens, the sound of singing birds and chirping crickets, and brutal torture methods have such names as Immortal Rides the Mist and Wearing a Palm Cape. My Life as Emperor reads like a sort of myth or fairytale, with its magic coming as much from the plot as it does from the writing style.
The novel follows Duanbai, the fifth son of the recently deceased Emperor, as he is crowned before his older brothers at the age of fourteen. He wields his new power excitedly and brutally, ordering for tongues to be cut out, laughter to be banned, and even for a man’s kneecaps to be broken so that he can better bow to him. He tells his story in the first person, of how he became Emperor, the threats to his throne from rebellion and within his own family, his friendship with the eunuch Swallow, his courtship of Lady Hui, and how he comes to fall from grace – the prophecies of a madman that calamity will befall the Xie Empire coming true. Although Duanbai is initially an unsympathetic character, laughing at the misfortunes of others and ordering grievous bodily harm within the book’s first few pages, over the course of the narrative the reader becomes more sympathetic to him, as he is just a child forced into a position of power that he never wanted and that he isn’t fit for. Even when he eventually finds peace at the novel’s denouement it comes at a price, and the violence of the Xie Empire is present even in the novel’s final pages.
‘There was no denying I had always considered him to be a tool at my disposal […] I scrutinized him with mixed sympathies and thought of the depth of my feelings for him, which had developed over the years and went beyond words. It was like a multicoloured silk cord painted with the hues of mutual trust, mutual exploitation, mutual bonding, possibly even mutual adoration. It was a cord that had once bound an emperor and a eunuch together, and I realised at that moment that it was on the verge of snapping in two, which struck me like a knife to the heart.’
I was drawn to this book due to its premise of courtly intrigue and suffering, and it did not disappoint. This was a hidden gem of a book, and one I would royally recommend if you can get your hands on a copy.