There is Sun Mei Niang in Mo Yan’s novel SANDALWOOD DEATH and there is Wu Mei Niang of the Empress of China fame.
Their similarities are that they both play Go.
No that’s not true. There are no evidence that Sun Mei Niang plays Go although we do see Wu Mei Niang playing Go in the TV drama. Oh man, they play so much Go in that drama I thought it is a Go promoting drama with its beautiful Go sets.
But that is not really what this post is about although whatever that precedes this is a sad attempt to promote Go. But really, Go is a wonderful game.
On the surface, it seems that these two women uses their beauty to get what they want in life. But the reality is that women have a much stronger sense of survival, inner strength and endurance in the face of adversity. This perhaps has its roots in maternal instinct to protect their children but whatever its roots, once this strength is unleashed, its power is enormous.
SANDALWOOD DEATH essentially is a sick novel. It is intended to make you sick. The detailed description of punishments is a treatise on the sickness of the human mind to torture and mutilate their own kind. Imagine preserving the life of the prisoner with top grade ginseng so that you can keep him living longer and you can torture him for the maximum amount of time before he finally dies.
This is nicely wrapped within the background of tail end of the Qing Dynasty and set during the Boxer Uprising. It is at once a few things: a critique of the decay of the Qing Dynasty, a critique of the exploitations of the imperialist plundering nations, a critique of the decay of family life. But it is also a portrait of the capability of human to be compassionate in the face of all these adversities.
Each of the four characters in the book represents one aspect of the society at the time. The Executioner is the representation of old China, those thousands of years of history with all its bureaucracies and corruption as well as the embodiment of culture and class of those olden dynastic times. The pride of China’s past refusing to believe that its time has long past. The Magistrate represents the present times where the people wants change but is powerless and also too weak to do anything at all. In fact it is just hot air and resorts to sex and sensual enjoyment. But there is a flame of goodness in him and will shine when the opportunity comes but himself is too weak to be the leader of the pack.
Mei Niang’s father is a fine opera singer turned revolutionary due to circumstances. The bullied citizen forced into being a Boxer rebel and finally met his terrible fate. But the Boxers themselves are superstitious bunch doomed to failure because unlike the Taiping guys, they lack proper organization and military talents, but more importantly, they are finally betrayed by their own government, which is the key difference between the Taipings and the Boxers. The Taiping’s aim is to overthrow the government. The Boxer’s aim is to drive out the imperialists with the backing of the government but is ultimately betrayed by their own kind.
Mei Niang’s husband is an incapable gentle lamb who knows nothing but has a good heart. He doesn’t even know nor believe his wife is cheating on him and is simple minded. These are the population who doesn’t know that they have been raped and thinks that their government is still protecting them, loyal to them even when the government has royally screwed them. You pity them and yet you feel they deserves it because of their laziness to think.
THE EMPRESS OF CHINA drama starring Fan Bing Bing turns out to be really good. I thought it is going to be a piece of lousy historical drama. What impresses me is how the makers of this drama series paints Wu Mei Niang as a person not as evil as what the world was made to believe. Yes the romance part is over done and all but the presentation of Wu Mei Niang as not that evil bitch is quite refreshing, just like how Cao Cao was portrayed in the series THREE KINGDOMS. Works like these are refreshing and very enjoyable.
The Cambridge History of China, a series many thought is authoritative on Chinese History at least in the English language, mentioned that in actual fact Li Shimin is not really that much into Wu Mei Niang. For instance, historical records shows that the repeated Venus sighting really happened and indeed there was a prediction of the fall of the Tang and Li Shmin actually ordered everyone that the astronomer suspected to be executed but the astronomer declined, saying that this is fated and cannot be avoided.
There are many other things where the producers took liberty to change to suit the drama but the general events are more or less correct, at least according to the official histories. This is where the problem lies.
China has a great tradition of historical records but the problem with them is at least twofold: they are written by the side that won the war and thus painting a negative image of the dynasty that was overthrown and they are written by Men, usually of strong Confucian learning. These two added together is detrimental to the image of Wu Mei Niang. For Confucian scholars, the idea of being ruled by a woman is absolutely absurd and runs against the flow of the universe. Exactly why no one knows. Did Confucius really say that or is it just merely the interpretation of followers, just like in many religions nowadays?
But one thing that needs to be pointed out is that during the reign of Wu Mei Niang, Tang China experienced a period of peace, economic prosperity and also the military was mighty and won wars that even Li Shimin himself failed. Not to mention also the blossoming of Buddhism in China. Yes, in the court things may get messy but this is politics! In politics, one cannot be a lame leader but must exert themselves but ultimately, the test of leadership is whether their subject has had a better life after taking over the leadership and not cheat their citizens of their future.
If Wu Mei Niang is a man, she will be painted favorably just like Li Shimin and gang. If Li Shimin is said to be a great emperor after killing his siblings and his siblings entire family and imprisoning his father, then I don’t see why Wu Mei Niang is seen so much more adversely as an evil devil.
Thus, two Mei Niangs. Both different paths. But both dealing with circumstances largely beyond their control but with inner strength and perseverance, carved their own path using whatever that is within their disposal for survival.