Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching the television series Empress of China and lapping up the shenanigans of its gorgeously costumed characters in their beautifully appointed palaces. The expensive mainland production tells the story of a woman, historically known as Wu Zetian (624-705), who began her career as a low-ranking consort of one emperor, became empress of the next one (technically her stepson), then dowager empress during the reigns of her two sons, before finally reigning as a “woman emperor”, the only official female head of state in Chinese history.
Most viewers should know that what they see on TV is a fictionalised soap opera, the raison d’être of which is to keep audiences glued to the screen and sell ads.
Another fictionalised account of history is Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel set in the eponymous period (AD220-280) and compiled during the late 14th century. The story has proved so popular that many still believe the fictional versions of the historical figures featured in it, such as master strategist Zhuge Liang and Guan Yu (or Lord Guan, the popular red-faced deity), to be true. Zhuge, for example, is portrayed as so fantastically wise and perspicacious that he comes across as not quite human. Still, it’s hoped that more people will read up on Empress Wu after watching the show.