She Who Became the Sun

It has taken me a while to get to this book, which has been widely praised elsewhere. I’m very pleased I read it, though not for the reasons I expected.

To start with, She Who Became the Sun is a very readable book. You can get through it nice and quickly, which is important when you have as much to read as I do. Somewhat relatedly, it feels a little lightweight at times. There’s not the intensity of emotion that might leave you wanting to take a break to let your heart stop racing. But I certainly wouldn’t characterise it as YA. There are far too many serious themes for that.

Another reason that I enjoyed the book is that it engages strongly with actual history. Shelley Parker-Chan says in her introduction that it is based loosely on the events surrounding the end of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty and the founding of the Ming Dynasty. This is very clearly the case, and many of the characters in the book have the names of real people from history. However, this is not a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Parker-Chan appears to be happy to re-purpose these real people as she needs them.

The central character of the book is based on Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty, who was indeed born a peasant, was the only survivor in his family of a terrible famine, and who became a monk before becoming the leader of the Red Turban revolutionaries. Other characters from the book, including Chen Youliang, Xu Da, Chaghan Temur and Chang Yuchun all appear in history. However, some of the events of the book appear to be based on the life of Li Zicheng, a rebel leader whose activities helped lead to the downfall of the Ming Dynasty almost 300 years later.

Where Parker-Chan deviates most from history is that it is not a determined young man who survives the terrible famine that kills his family, it is a girl. We never learn her birth name, but she takes the name and identity of her brother, Zhu Chongba. This was the original name of the first Ming Emperor, and it is apparently a name that denotes great fortune. Having assumed her dead brother’s life, our heroine goes on to achieve the greatness that had been foretold for him. And that brings us to the other interesting aspect of the book: the discussion of gender.

Books that have women characters masquerading as men often gloss over the practical and psychological complexities involved in such a life. Parker-Chan does just about enough to make it work. Zhu’s true identity is discovered by a few people, but they end up being loyal friends and supporters happy to keep the secret. Excuses are found to get Zhu out of awkward situations such as the communal bathing in the monastery, and other issues, such as menstruation, are mentioned often enough for the reader to feel that the problems have been addressed. Some of these excuses are wildly unbelievable, but Zhu is supposed to be incredibly lucky.

What we don’t have here, it a trans narrative as Westerners would understand it. Zhu does not believe that she is a man. She has no great desire to be one, other than for the power that would be available to her as a man, but not as a woman. However, she desperately wants to be seen as a man, partly because that is her route to power, and partly because she believes that only by assuming her dead brother’s identity will she also inherit his good fortune and glorious future.

In doing so, Parker-Chan has located Zhu’s identity firmly within the cultural expectations of the time. Zhu lives in a world where emperors are believed to rule by the Mandate of Heaven. She believes that her dead brother was owed a glorious fate, and that if Heaven notices that she’s not really that lucky boy then she may no longer get to inherit that fate. This causes significant anxiety, and it is not until later in the book that she comes to understand that people make their own luck.

“Women can’t govern. The Son of Heaven rules the empire, as men govern cities, and fathers head the family. That’s the pattern of the world. Who dares break it by putting a substance in a place contrary to its nature? It’s in men’s nature to take risks and lead. Now women’s.”

It is also worth noting that, while Zhu’s eventual triumph would not have been remotely possible had she not taken the role of a man, many of her successes are portrayed as being a result of the fact that she is a woman. As such, she’s less stupid than the men around her, and she understands things that the men, who despise all feminine knowledge, will never see.

Throughout the book, Zhu is contrasted with other characters who challenge the strict gender hierarchy of mediaeval Chinese society in various ways. Ma Xiuying is the daughter of a highly competent rebel general who is betrayed and allowed to die by the paranoid rebel leader because he’s obviously too smart. Ma inherits her father’s brains, but none of the rebel leaders will listen to her because she’s a girl. Also she’s much too soft-hearted to be successful at politics.

Madame Zhang is ruthless enough to achieve success. She’s the brains behind the highly successful Zhang mercantile empire, but she rules from the shadows, allowing her useless oaf of a husband to take all the credit, and making considerable use of feminine wiles to keep the men around her under control. Zhu doesn’t interact with her much, but you get the impression that she’d despise Madame Zhang for ruling in a feminine way rather than asserting her own power.

The most significant foil for Zhu, however, is General Ouyang, a native Chinese eunuch who is the leader of the Yuan army. Ouyang’s family were massacred by the Mongols, and he escaped only by begging for his life and submitting to being made a eunuch. From there on he plots revenge.

While Ouyang is an excellent swordsman and a highly respected military leader – in extreme contrast to Zhu who is small, scrawny and reliant on tricks and luck for her victories – he is painfully aware that he will never be recognised for his abilities because he is not a man. Zhu, while she is seen as a man by the people around her, gets more praise and recognition that Ouyang does.

The basic message of the book is that most men are useless braggarts who get that way because, to quote John Scalzi, they play life on the lowest difficulty setting. If you never have to try, you never get good at anything. The most obvious example is the Yuan emperor’s heir who progresses to the finals of a tournament because all his opponents let him win, until Ouyang, who doesn’t care about offending the emperor, knocks him over in a matter of seconds.

A man could want anything the world offered and still have a chance, no matter how small, of achieving it. For all he had acknowledged her of being capable of desire, he hadn’t seen her reality: that she was a woman, trapped within the narrow confines of a woman’s life, and everything that could be wanted was all equally impossible.

So no, this is not a trans book. Parker-Chan signals as much by having the authorial voice always refer to Zhu with female pronouns, even though all the characters, even most of those in the know, use male pronouns for her. This is a book about women taking power. Because of the society they live in, they often have to do so in a variety of somewhat underhand ways, but take it they can, if they want it badly enough. Which can be as true now as it was then.

book cover
Title: She Who Became the Sun
By: Shelley Parker-Chan
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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