Intrigue in ancient China
by Mark Johnson
In 1975, James Clavell's "SHOGUN" popularized
Asia as a setting for a popular novel. Novelists have since tilled those fields with great enthusiasm and mixed success.
THE COURT OF THE LION: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri is in the tradition of
"SHOGUN" in several ways. Although it is about 8th-century China, not 17th-century Japan, it shares that novel's huge canvas and heavenly--if you liked it--length. It is also about struggles for power in a court that was famous long ago and far
Let me lay my cards on the table, though: THE COURT OF THE LION is the better novel. It is more successful in balancing its great events and personal stories, more tautly plotted, richer in character, and simply more
It also cuts across the grain of the current popular novel. Where SHOGUN gave us the action through the eyes of a lusty English hero, there are no Occidentals in THE COURT OF THE LION, and the hero, if he may be called such,
is a eunuch. Many readers will find compelling characters here, but few will be taking the easy paths of ethnic and sexual affinity.
In the year 738, the emperor of China is the learned and kindhearted T'ang Minghuang, under whom the
nation has prospered. Minghuang is unhinged, however, by tragedies:
His eldest son, Crown Prince Ying, dies, an apparent suicide; and he is compelled to banish his beloved empress for using Taoist witchcracft in an attempt to conceive a child.
Empress Wang, dishonored, kills herself. Minghuang descends into despair and lethargy, leaving his governance to the bureaucrats.
These events are not accidents. Kao Li-shih, chief court eunuch and confidant to the emperor,
learns that the deaths were cunningly engineered by the empire's chief minister, Li Lin-fu, who now is virtual ruler of China. Li is an adversary of unmatchable depth and subtlety, and he's even crueler than tthat. Kao Li-shih has to bring the emperor
back to his senses or all will be lost.
To this end, Kao chooses a woman, the exquisite Yang Kuei-fei. With Kao's connivance, she seduces the emperor, and Minghuang again has reason to live.
But the gambit works all
too well. Minghuang is drunk with love. Yang, his new Precious Consort, brings her pleasure-loving sisters and cousin to the court, which swirls with unchecked gaiety and licentiousness--as the grip of Li Lin-fu imperceptibly tightens.
In their quest for novelty, the Yang sisters bring to the court General An Lu-shan, barbarian-born leader of a Chinese border army. An Lu-shan, a formidable warrior, amuses the court by playing the buffoon, dressing his 400-odd pounds in women's clothing
or baby's diapers and drinking and carousing with the emperor through the night.