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My Life as Emperor by Su Tong

Some of the most interesting contemporary novelists are either writing from, or have originated in, China. Writers like Han Shaogong, Mo Yan, Ma Jian and Dai Sijie seem to be carving out a uniquely Chinese take on literature of the absurd, with strong doses of surrealism and magic realism thrown in. We are about a decade behind the trend because of the delays in having books appear in English.

My Life as Emperor by Su Tong
My Life as Emperor, Su Tong (Hyperion Books, February 2006; Faber and Faber, February 2006)

It would be a mistake, therefore, to take Su Tong’s at times grimly morbid and sadistic My Life as Emperor too literally. The author warns us off:


My Life as Emperor could be considered a pleasure cruise through my inner world. It has long been my wish to penetrate the millennia of China’s history, to transform myself into an old customer at some teahouse on an ancient street in the midst of a kaleidoscopic world with its teeming masses, and soak up the passage of time with my eyes. I am fascinated by classical times... I hope my readers do not approach My Life as Emperor with the idea that it is historical fiction...


Prince Duanbai suddenly finds himself, at age 14, thrust unexpectedly named Emperor. A shallow and pampered youth, he isn’t up to the task, and soon wields his power with brutal idiosyncrasy. A cynical grandmother who thwarts his attempt to find love and kindness is a girl of his choice doesn’t help.

Inevitably, his reign is a disaster, and he is dethroned by the Empire next door, but not before destroying his family. The second half of the story is of the erstwhile boy Emperor’s peregrinations as a commoner and circus performer, unable to escape his past and terrible destiny to bring ruin to all around him.

As a story, My Life as Emperor has a number of weaknesses: it is morbid to the point of depravity and is a Greek tragedy in its inevitability: Duanbai may be awful, but he does try to overcome his faults, yet there is never any real hope that he will succeed.

But My Life as Emperor isn’t really just a story, nor is it meant to be:


The world of women and the palace intrigues that you will encounter in this novel are but a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds, and nothing more.


My Life as Emperor is a fascinating concoction of cautionary or morality tale, an exploration of the darker side of the human psyche and a tapestry of Chinese cultural artifacts, beliefs and traditions, held together with irony and sarcasm worthy of Gogol.


Editor’s note: Su Tong will be appearing at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival in March 2006.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.