China, The Radiant Emperor Duology, and Shelley Parker-Chan
Updated: Nov 14
I know, I said my first book in this attempt to read my way around the world was going to be from Afghanistan. But then the concluding book in the Radiant Emperor series came out and all my plans had to be cancelled (including, it seems, sleep).
Aside from being an absolute page-turner, this duology is great for this project because follows my rules for the read-around:
The books are set in China.
China is a country officially recognised by my current home country (the U.K.)
The author Shelley Parker-Chan is of Chinese heritage (more on this later).
These books are written in English.
The Radiant Emperor duology consists of (yes, you guessed it) two books:
She Who Became the Sun, and
He Who Drowned the World.
It is a queer reimagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and (spoiler) became the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. (Author's press kit, spoiler alert mine.)
Our hero begins as a peasant girl starving in poverty. Her family consults a fortune-teller: it seems her brother, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness, while our hero is destined for nothingness. But when Zhu Chongba dies after bandits attack their home, our hero seizes his name, his gender, and his destiny in order to survive.
Zhu experiences intense spiritual - and surprising physical - connections with the eunuch General Ouyang. They are both between genders, and both fighting hard to lay hold of the fate they desire. But Ouyang's departure from the world of the cishet was far less a matter of choice than Zhu's and far more a matter of violent castration. So while they are both strategic and passionate in their claims to masculinity, genderfluidity sits a little easier on Zhu than on the traumatised Ouyang. That ease with genderqueerness is a part of why I love Zhu so much.
Baoxiang was adopted into the same royal family into which Ouyang was enslaved. Despite being a cishet man, everyone around Baoxiang reads him as queer. He turns this to his advantage, and fucks - or fucks with - every powerful man he can find.
Someone else who sleeps their way to power is the courtesan-turned-queen Madam Zhang. Most of the other major characters are queer in some way; not Madam Zhang, the most straight woman a straight woman ever womaned. Maybe because of that, her experiences have led her to dissociate so hard she speaks of her self residing a few inches below the surface of her body.
These characters are all tragic to a degree. Ouyang self-harms; Baoxiang loathes himself and the man he seduces; Madam Zhang in a moment of life-or-death panic forgets that her bound lotus-feet can't run away. But there's also beautiful humanity, joyful queer sex, and intense love in there too.
Who or What Is China
The words 'China' or 'Chinese' do not appear in the main body of the text, because the books' fourteenth-century events predate a unified China. The author's twenty-first century experiences also resist a homogeneous interpretation of Chineseness. Australian-born Shelley Parker-Chan speaks very movingly about their complicated relationship with Asian identity in this interview here. And I am delighted to begin my exploration of nationalities with someone whose connection to the target culture is diasporic. For my purposes, I think immigrants, emigrants and diasporas should generally count as being connected enough to the target country to share a bit of it in story. (I would like to say it louder for the people in the back: migrants count.)
Learnings: Like a Satin Split-Skirt
I enjoyed absorbing myself in the diversity of cultures within this historical Chinese setting (although to be fair, Parker-Chan says the Mongols are fully based on Anglo-Aussies and not Mongolian at all). But aside from picking up vibes about China, my main reflections are about cultural identity in general.
Zhu and her contemporaries exist in a web of heritage, found family, and factions, and negotiate their differences according to their personalities. But just like these characters put on and off their genders and sexualities like their many-layered clothing, it strikes me that cultural heritage operates similarly.
Parker-Chan has written a love letter to certain aspects of Chinese culture, while acknowledging they don't really feel Asian when in Asia. They have made their fictional China a queerer, more magical place than the real one (presumably, although who can say how wild the fourteenth century really was). It reminds me that cultural identity isn't something that just 'is': it's something thrust on you, something you wear, something you fight against, something you use. Like Zhu does with her name, her gender and her destiny, heritage can be something you endlessly reimagine until the world bends your way. A pretty great lesson with which to begin my literary explorations.
Next, because it's next door to China, and to counterbalance the Australianness of Parker-Chan's Mongolians, I plan to read into Mongolia, with The Green-Eyed Llama by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba & Jeffrey Falt. I'll get back to Afghanistan at some point.