Read by Saffron Chan
There is one generalization with no exceptions, which is that all members of the Tang Dynasty court have something to lose. Even the gamblers who dropped their salaries into the keno lotteries. Even the apostate monks who misplaced their devotion to Confucius. Even the debauchees who left their reputations with the prostitutes. Even the eunuchs who forfeited their testicles at birth.
All Tangs have something to get rid of. Men have their lives and that’s why they become soldiers. Women have their virginities and that’s why we become concubines.
I was born with even more than that. As a baby, I was under the care of three nursemaids who bathed me three times daily and rinsed my hair in calamus perfume so that someday it would be fit to lie on a prince’s pillow. My cheeks were lathered with ambergris and powdered with ivory chalk from the horns of a rhinoceros. The only Tang with more to lose Emperor Xuanzong, my father, on whose beard I was once allowed to tug until I turned three years old and pulled too hard. To this day, he still wears his goatee in the same style—I know this because I peeked into his coffin and saw that while he had decomposed, his beard hadn’t.
Of the many old-fashioned notions cherished by my father was the Confucian ideal that a chaste woman seeks intercourse not as a pleasurable act, but as an embrace of the infinite ‘Qi’; a rekindling of life. It is said that ‘woman’s greatest duty is to produce a son.’ Why is it assumed that women are the producers of life? Did Confucius forget that she who createth, destroyeth likewise?
What if there’s a darker side of female sexuality Confucius never thought of? What if that which he called ‘lust’ was really ‘bloodlust’? I’ve heard it said that swords owe their popularity to their striking resemblance to penises. This logic is backwards. I’m inclined to believe that penises owe their popularity to their striking resemblance to swords, which is why men don’t let us handle the real thing. What if sex is merely a substitute for war, and women - forbidden from destroying life - seek procreation just as an alternative to combat?
My teenage years were a time of prosperity. The forbidden palace bristled with exotic colors, scents, and sounds. As if the Tang weren’t rich enough before, the silk road - which literally began at my doorstep and ended in Byzantium - had furnished us with riches like horses, precious metals, and - most precious of all -fantastic stories. Foreign cultures were invading (so were foreign armies); there were lavish feasts aplenty (and plenty of battles too).
By my eighteenth birthday, we had more to lose than ever before, and my father seemed hell-bent on losing it. Why else would he give An Lushan control of half his army? The emperor, who had never studied Roman History, was the only one who seemed surprised when An Lushan marched on Chang’an. I have no idea how my father ever held the throne for forty-three years.
Now, there were battles coming, and I’d be damned if I was missing out on them. My mother tried to talk me out of it: ‘killing people is never as fun as it sounds,’ she confessed; ‘I once slit a man’s throat when he slept. The next morning, when they found blood on my sheets, everyone assumed that I had lost my chastity.’ Which she had, more or less, and now I was off to get rid of mine.
Before you compare me to Mulan, consider our differences: she ran off to save her father; I ran off to spite mine. She had nothing to lose; I had so much to lose I didn’t even bother hiding it. I rode off to volunteer for General Xhang Zun’s army, making no secret of my gender; the horse rollicked so obstreperously that my breasts jostled and my hair shimmered like a train of jet-black shooting stars.
What makes this story so much stranger than the ones you’re used to hearing is that it actually happened. Two thousand of us holed up inside a garrison at Yongqiu and An Lushan surrounded us with forty-thousand troops because it is the Chinese way to overdo things. We warned them; we hung signs that said ‘no vacancy’; but those obstinate rebels tried to climb the fortress anyway, and we had no choice but to douse them in oil. I’d never been allowed to light the candles as a child so it seemed strange that now I had permission to set people on fire. They burned more quickly and made more noise and smelled like sewage.
I proceeded to the General’s tent and lit lavender-scented candles. That night I was bleeding before I’d even fought a battle. Do you know what it’s like to lose your chastity to a general? I can’t say that I do either, because losing one’s virginity isn’t quite the same.
When it was over, Xhang Zun looked away: ‘this isn’t honorable,’ he sighed. ‘But we’re all going to die anyway so we may as well have fun tonight.’
Sure, the general’s body was attractive, but his weapons were what interested me. And I had an idea how to use them.
‘If you want to have fun,’ I whispered in his ear, ‘why don’t we attack? You know that’s the last thing they’re expecting.’
Does craziness run in the family? The answer is yes. My mother once tried to overthrow a king and my great-grandmother Wu Zetian once tried to seize control of the whole continent. What’s weird is that these harebrained schemes have ways of working out. Wu Zetian invented her own dynasty and ruled for fifteen years. That maniac consolidated all of China underneath her rule, invaded Tibet, annexed Korea, and still found time to knit hanfu for her grandchildren. That’s why my father always wore pleated silk even when it sweltered and the sun shone hot enough to boil the eggs before the chickens laid them.
It was several minutes before Xhang Zun turned to me and said, ‘of all the ways to die, that would be the bravest.’ We lay atop the covers and cooked up a plan to ride out when the sun sank beneath the hills.
The insurgents were supposed to be the ones attacking us. To say we caught them off-guard would be an understatement, because they hadn’t bothered posting guards. We galloped off, swords and spears raised heavenward in the most phallic display of weaponry you’ll ever see. We slaughtered twenty-thousand rebels, while losing only five hundred of our own men, and zero women. The way I see it, I left my chastity on the battlefield, not the bedroom. I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate the general, so I did both because multitasking runs in the family.
With the rebellion snuffed out, I had more to lose than when it started. I was just one incestuous marriage away from inheriting a kingdom. I had to get out before I lost the only thing I really cared about - my mind -and so I headed West because all the other directions led to water.