Weina Dai Randel admits to a passion for history and her Chinese culture that has driven her to create an historical novel duology about ancient China and the rise of its one and only female ruler. Randel’s debut novel, “The Moon in the Palace”, is steeped in lore and tradition, driven by passion and ambition, and bound by loyalty and etiquette. Ultimately, it is an exploration and condemnation of the subjugation of women in a culture in which women are mere objects to be owned, used, and cast aside.
Our narrator and heroine is Mei, a girl of noble birth known only by this sobriquet, meaning ‘little sister’, because “none of the women in China were given official names, even the noble ones, as was the tradition. Men, however, had at least three official names: a given name, a noble calling, and a title.”
When Mei’s father dies unexpectedly, Mei, her mother, and her sisters, are driven from their ancestral home, forced to live at the mercy of a half-brother who seems to be short on mercy of any sort. Shortly thereafter, Mei is chosen (at the age of thirteen) to be a ‘Select’, one of the girls compelled each year to live and work in the court of the emperor in hopes of becoming one of his concubines. To Mei and her family, her selection is considered to be salvation, the best possible outcome and not the sexual slavery that the modern reader can’t help but consider it. But Mei learns very quickly that being brought into the palace is only the beginning of her trials and her lifelong struggle to do her family honor and to find her place in this patriarchal world.
Over the years, Mei’s eyes are unavoidably opened to see the brutality and inhumane treatment of women, and she finds herself simultaneously scheming to play this turgid, loathsome game while unable to resist wondering at its very existence. At one point Mei asks why the emperor continues to collect women when he shows no interest in or appetite for their presence. She is told, “‘A general is no general if he has no soldiers, and what kind of emperor would he be if he cannot have any woman he wishes in the kingdom?'”. To Mei, however, “I would rather not think of myself as something to be collected, like the piece of bone relic Mother cherished.”
“The Moon in the Palace” is a fascinating duality. Written by a Chinese woman, this novel paradoxically venerates ancient culture and yet eviscerates its history of oppressing women. It is a deep look at how women are treated not only by the men in their culture, but how they are pitted against each other, forced to claw and scratch to survive and to take down anyone in their path. In a particularly beautiful passage, Randel has Mei give voice to this notion and the loneliness of constant conflict. Upon the death of one of Mei’s most virulent rivals, Mei realizes that:
“In truth, we were similar. Like two sides of a fan, we were at odds with each other, we competed with each other, but our fates similarly rested in the hands of the Emperor – the holder, the commander, the manipulator of our destinies. And there was nothing we could do about it, because we were simply a whim in his mind, a fancy in his bed, an accessory beside his pillow, nothing more. We provided threads for his rapture but never the fabric of his happiness.”
Weina Dai Randel has boldly written a two novel duology in her second language, sharing the culture of her birth with the western culture of her adulthood. She has chosen a subject that reveals anti-feminism in its extreme, airing ‘family business’ while writing of an ancient and, to the modern American reader, deeply foreign culture with a strength of character development, pacing, and tone that makes the novel flow with ease where it could easily be a chore. “The Moon in the Palace” was eloquent where it might have been awkward, impassioned where it could have been sanctimonious. I was pleasantly surprised by how much the novel held my interest and how well it resonated with both my literary and feminist sensibilities. I look forward to reading the sequel, “The Empress of Bright Moon”, which was also released this spring.
Thank you to SourceBooks for providing a complimentary review copy.