My Life as Emperor

By Su Tong
Howard Goldblatt

Reviewed by Rong Cai
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2006)

Su Tong. My Life as Emperor. Tr. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Hyperion East, 2005. 312 pp. ISBN 1401374042 (pbk); ISBN            140136666X (cloth)

Su Tong. My Life as Emperor. Tr. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Hyperion East, 2005. 312 pp. ISBN 1401374042 (pbk); ISBN
140136666X (cloth)

One of the most noteworthy among contemporary Chinese writers, Su Tong is a familiar name to readers of Chinese literature. He i s perhaps best known in the West through the film Raise the Red Lantern (dir. Zhang Yimou, 1991), which was adapted from his story, “Wives and Concubines” (Qiqie chengqun). A prolific writer, in his many works Su Tong has sculptured a tableau of human beings in the throes of ambition, desire, struggle, and death, presenting us with a kaleidoscope of intriguing and oftentimes haunting vignettes of life in twentieth century China. My Life as Emperor(Wode diwang shengya; 1994) stands out in the author’s oeuvre because it is one of a few that are set in the country’s imperial past.

Narrated in the first person by its protagonist, the emperor of the Xie Empire, My Life chronicles the eventful life of a young ruler of an imaginary Chinese empire in no particular historical time. The novel is divided neatly into three parts: Prince Duanbai’s succession to the throne and the ensuing rivalries with his half brothers (chapter 1); palace intrigues among imperial women and loss of the throne (chapter 2); Duanbai’s life as a commoner in exile and the final destruction of the Xie Empire (chapter 3).

Upon the death of his father, Duanbai, the fifth son, ascends the throne at the age of fourteen as decreed in the late emperor’s final edict. A figurehead under the control of his grandmother, Madame Huangfu, the young emperor is thrown into a whirlpool of conspiracies and enmity among the royal women and deadly power struggles with his half brothers, Prince Duanwen and Prince Duanwu, who feel they have been denied the crown unfairly. On her deathbed, Madame Huangfu reveals to Duanbai that she had falsified the edict and that the late emperor had named his eldest son, Duanwen, to be his successor. Losing power to Duanwen after being on the throne for eight years, Duanbai flees the palace with his loyal attendant, Swallow, and begins a life as a commoner. With no skills to make a living and too ashamed to be a burden to Swallow’s family, Duanbai leaves Swallow behind in search of a circus troupe whose tightrope walking performance has fascinated him. Swallow eventually joins Duanbai on the road. Unable to find the circus in a famine ravaged land, Duanbai decides to practice tightrope walking on his own. Excelling, he forms the Tightrope Emperor Traveling Circus and becomes known as the Emperor of Tightrope. In the novel’s finale, a massacre in the capital city by troops from the Peng state, a longtime enemy of the Xie Empire, wipes out Duanbai’s troupe as well as the entire royal family, bringing an end to the empire. Surviving the killings, Duanbai retires to Bitter Bamboo Monastery on Bitter Bamboo Mountain, practicing tightrope walking during the day and studying The Analects at night.

My Life recalls many thematic concerns in Su Tong’s fictional world, such as lethal domestic rivalries, insatiable desires with dire consequences, and the mystery and illusiveness of memory and history. The Xie Palace in the current novel is infested with uninhibited ambitions and indescribable cruelty. The imperial order and splendor of the Xie court is but a thin veneer barely concealing deep moral degradation and horror–violence is frequent and frivolous, committed for no significant reasons and dismissed casually. Evil, brutality, and naked ambition for power go hand in hand until violence loses its purpose, becoming an end in itself, a pure spectacle to satisfy the sadistic pleasures of the palace denizens. The matter-of-fact, dispassionate tone in which acts of raw brutal force against the human body are narrated defamiliarizes violence, adding a chilling poignancy to the story.

A skilled storyteller, Su Tong weaves imagery and symbolism into a tantalizing web of meanings. The individual parts of My Life are threaded together by a pair of intertwined symbols, the bird and tightrope walking. The bird is a paradoxical symbol of freedom and captivity in the author’s examination of the “turbulence, the ups and downs of life” (p. v). Duanbai’s and Lady Hui’s love for birds is not surprising–they mirror the royal couple’s sense of vulnerability in palace politics and their desire for freedom of choice and independence. Tightrope walking becomes a means of survival in the narrator’s life in exile, but the motif works more significantly at the metaphorical level. Palace politics require superb skills akin to those of tightrope walking. Life in the middle of sibling rivalry, generational conflict, and vicious female squabbles is a balancing act of the most serious nature. A deep irony, built around the image of treading the tightrope, runs through the story, giving it an intriguing twist, strengthening its appeal and force. Duanbai, hardly an innocent victim himself, fails miserably in political tightrope walking only to succeed splendidly in the actual feat. The deposed ruler wins fame as Emperor of Tightrope, a charming entertainer for his former subjects. As if this is not enough, Lady Hui, the emperor’s favorite concubine, ends up being a common prostitute in squalid pleasure quarters in a small town. Nothing is more spectacular than these fickle twists of fate. The adept use of imagery in My Life reminds one of powerful scenes in another novel by the author, Rice (also translated by Howard Goldblatt), where the loss of the protagonist’s humanity is signified by a most fitting image–the gradual decomposition of his body.

With this novel, Su Tong seems to have joined a host of writers, including Tang Haoming, Er Yue He (pen name of Ling Jiefang), and Ling Li, in scrutinizing China through depiction of the imperial past well before modernity and the rise of Maoist China. But Su Tong is of a different species. Unlike authors who dig into archives and documents for facts and period details to create a semblance of history in fiction, Su Tong cautions his readers against treating My Life as historical fiction. “Identifying allusions and determining the accuracy of events,” he tells them, “places too great a burden” on reader and author alike (p. 6). If national memories created in official records and documents are not sites for understanding China and its history, how do we get to the past? Reading My Life against another story with a historical setting by Su Tong could offer us a glimpse into his perspectives. My Life and Wu Zetian form a volume entitled Inner Palace (Hougong) in a collection of Su Tong’s works.[1] In the preface to the volume, Su Tong informs the readers that they will find “two royal courts and two kinds of history” in the current volume, one constructed from his imagination, the other “standard historical fiction” based on history books. But, “Which one is real and which one is fabrication,” he asks.[2] Refusing to accord more authority to one over the other, Su Tong obviously is profoundly skeptical of the perception that fiction based on recorded history has more claim to truth than a product of imagination. A Borgesian book-within-the-book in My Life helps build a metafictional layer in the imagined story of the Xie Empire, throwing recorded history’s privileged status as a source of truth into serious doubt. In several places the narrator refutes erroneous accounts of his life documented in a history book, The Secret History of the Xie Court . The point Su Tong makes by this self-reflexive device is not to give more credence to the narrator’s own version of the past over official records but rather to disclose the fictionality of both.

If My Life makes no claim to authenticity, it nonetheless conveys Su Tong’s vision of China’s dynastic past, which, tied to no particular time, transcends history. Though the author professes to have created two histories in My Life and Wu Zetian , an underlying vision unites both. Su Tong admits that try as he does, he is unsuccessful in producing a story about Wu Zetian different from how she is known in historical records–an ambitious, conniving, and ruthless female usurper who was responsible for the mayhem during the Tang dynasty. Similarly, he places the blame of the destruction of the Xie Empire on its matriarch, Madam Huangfu. Duanbai’s succession to the throne is a pivot of the drama of assassination attempts, gruesome tortures, and ruthless killings. But what is Madam Huangfu’s reason for favoring an indulgent and incompetent Duanbai over the more capable rightful heir, Duanwen, endangering the wellbeing of the empire as a result? “This has all been a joke I played on you, the men. I created a false Xie emperor, one that I could control,” she informs Duanbai. Madam Huangfu is no different from a stereotyped image of callous, evil, and destructive women whose desire for power and interference in state affairs brought down many a dynasty. To this reader, Su Tong’s vision of history is but a variation of an age-old story created from a hackneyed formula repeated numerous times in imperial archives and popular literature.

My Life is beautifully translated by Howard Goldblatt, a veteran scholar and prolific translator of contemporary Chinese literature. One can never overstate Professor Goldblatt’s contribution to the field. Thanks to his tireless and elegant efforts, many works by contemporary Chinese writers in the mainland and Taiwan are now available in English for students and general readers of Chinese literature. The challenge and artistry of translation can only be appreciated when one is put to the task. The English translation matches the aesthetic appeal of Su Tong’s work masterfully. It is every bit as graceful, vivid, and dynamic as the original. At points the translation even surpasses the original, without sacrificing accuracy. Two examples should suffice. The Chinese description “用一种讥讽的语气对兰妃说” is rendered as “I heard Empress Peng say to Lady Han, her voice dripping with sarcasm.” Later in the story, the expression “用一种讥讽的语气对兰妃说” is translated as “seeing him weave drunkenly into Abundant Hearts Hall.” The italicized words in the quoted not only convey the meaning of the original, they enhance its descriptive power. Examples like these testify to the craft of the translator and the dexterity and care with which he handles the job. Reading the novel in English is a delicious treat.

Rong Cai
Emory University


[1] Su Tong, Hougong (Nanjing: Jiangsu wenyi, 1994).

[2] Ibid., 1.