Friday, January 29, 2010

Challenge 9: Empress Zhangsun

In the year 613, somewhere in the north of China, the young Lady Zhangsun peers through the shutters of her study at commotion in the courtyard below. Her uncle is home, and he has brought guests. She does not recognize them, nor does she expect to, but rumour among the servants for several days has been ripe. Uncle is impressed with one of the young men training under him. He has given her to him as wife.

She watches the men dismount, the servants leading away those fierce looking stallions. Four men, besides her Uncle, are left. The older is at least her uncle’s age, large around the middle with an easy laugh. He is surely the young man’s father. The next is a man, tall and proud. He has seen more than twenty summers compared with her mere twelve. Her hands clasp together, hidden beneath the sleeves of her silk shawl. The sight of him sends a tremor of fear through her and she pulls back from the window, scolding herself under her breath.

“You must be a good wife to whomever Uncle picks.”

She returns to her desk and retrieves a piece of paper from the drawer. She smoothes it down, holding it in place with the special rods, and then, slowly, dips her brush into the well of ink. Holding back her sleeve, she practices her words of the day.

Xian. Courageous and valiant.


Xiao dao. Filial piety.

She looks up from the page when one of her ladies, Xiaoyu, arrives, curtsies, and announces that the Lady has been summoned. Lady Zhangsun gives the girl her warmest nod, carefully setting down her brush and leaving the words to dry.

The pavilion she has been summoned to is vast, floors of polished wood, walls open to the surrounding garden and lakes. Beautiful lakes with herons and golden trout are the pride of the Gao household. Before she arrived, Gao was concluding his negotiations with the general Li Yuan, his honoured guest, and entertaining Li’s three sons. Now, they are gone and the young Lady Zhangsun and her mother kneel, prostrate, before Gao Shilian, awaiting news of his decision.

“I am impressed by Li Yuan’s boy, Li Shimin,” Gao speaks, almost to himself. “He has shown great courage and piety. He has the heart of a leader. You will marry him, my niece. Bring honor to your family and please him, and he will care for you well. He is an honourable man.”

Zhangsun bows, her head pressing against the floor, heart pounding, but no one can hear it. What does he look like? Is he kind? It will be a month, perhaps more, before the wedding is held. A long time to practice patience.

Mother and daughter rise, bowing their way out of the pavilion. Alone again, Zhangsun prepares tea for her mother, holding back the questions burning within. When she is ready, the Lady Gao says, “My brother has been kind to us and you have blossomed under his roof. Continue to act as I have taught and you will bring great honor to your family. Always obey your husband and respect him, and he will treat you well. Respect and treat your servants well and they will love you. Live within your means, and no one shall have power over you or your house.”

Zhangsun pours the tea, focusing on the flow of liquid into the cups, allowing the scent and the steam to fill her lungs.

“It will be as you say, mother.”

The wedding comes far sooner than she expects, a blur or anticipation, colour, music heard through veils and curtains until that one final moment when she sees him for the first time. He is not the man she was expecting. This boy is fourteen, fifteen perhaps, with shimmering, deep brown eyes, terrified, just like her. All at once, her back straightens and she allows the hint of a smile.

It will be all right. She says with her eyes. He almost smiles back, slipping his hand over hers, claiming her as his own. It will be another thirteen years before they rule China. He will have many other concubines, gifts from families and countries paying tribute to the Golden Empire, but he will never love them as fiercely as he loves her. No other death will devastate him as much as losing her.

Lady Zhangsun was, and still is, one of the kindest and most loved Empresses of China.

Wordcount: 752


  1. What I particularly like here is the perspective you're using. I think this answers the challenge well - a lot of emotion/feeling but the tone is almost textbook-like near the end.

  2. Thank you :) And thank you too for the advice on what to pick. I didn't think of doing China until then, but I loved this couple so much when I was doing Chinese History last year. (They got me an A+) hehe