Skip to main content

The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction by Olivia Milburn: A Book Review

The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction
Author: Olivia Milburn
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: University of Washington Press
Release Date: May 24, 2021
Pages: 233
Source: Personal Collection
Zhao Feiyan (45–1 BCE), the second empress appointed by Emperor Cheng of the Han dynasty (207 BCE–220 CE), was born in slavery and trained in the performing arts, a background that made her appointment as empress highly controversial. Subsequent persecution by her political enemies eventually led to her being forced to commit suicide. After her death, her reputation was marred by accusations of vicious scheming, murder of other consorts and their offspring, and relentless promiscuity, punctuated by bouts of extravagant shopping.

     This first book-length study of Zhao Feiyan and her literary legacy includes a complete translation of The Scandalous Tale of Zhao Feiyan (Zhao Feiyan waizhuan), a Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) erotic novella that describes in great detail the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by imperial favorites in the harem of Emperor Cheng. This landmark text was crucial for establishing writings about palace women as the accepted forum for discussing sexual matters, including fetishism, obsession, jealousy, incompatibility in marriage, and so on. Using historical documentation, Olivia Milburn reconstructs the evolution of Zhao Feiyan's story and illuminates the broader context of palace life for women and the novella's social influence.

My Review: Zhao Feiyan has been known as one of China’s most lurid empresses. She has appeared in many lewd Chinese literature books. It was said that her thirst for sensual pleasures could never be quenched. In this first full length study of the notorious empress published in the English language, Ms. Milburn attempts to separate fact and fiction about Zhao Feiyan. This book shows us that the empress’s first biography was written by the family of her bitter rival that she had defeated when fighting for the emperor's attention. Yet, chroniclers continued to defile her reputation. Ms. Milburn stated that the reason for her having the worst reputation of all other Chinese empresses is because she did not give the emperor a son. Because she remained childless, chroniclers felt that she deserved her reputation.

When reading about Chinese empresses, it is hard to separate truth from legend. They were either good or bad. There was no in-between. The empresses either had virtue or none. Thus, all bad empresses usually had the same wicked actions. They would spend their time eliminating  their rivals and monopolizing the emperor’s love. Zhao Feiyan started out from a poor family. She was a professional dancer. One day, she happened to dance for Emperor Cheng of Han. Emperor Cheng was quite taken with her and made her his concubine. She was eventually promoted to empress much to the disapproval of the emperor’s mother, Empress Dowager Wang Zhengjun because of her low birth. 

As empress, Zhao Feiyan indulged in a lavish lifestyle. Her indulgence for luxury has often been criticized by historians. Yet, Ms. Milburn states that it was the role of an empress to live opulently. The empress was also said to have taken numerous male lovers. However, Ms. Milburn claims that it is unlikely because she was closely watched in the palace. Thus, Zhao Feiyan was doing her duty as an empress and was faithful to the emperor. She most likely does not seem like the character she is portrayed to be in both popular fiction and media.

Overall, this was an in-depth study of how Zhao Feiyan gained her notorious reputation. Empress Zhao Feiyan’s greatest crime was that she did not produce a son by Emperor Cheng. If she had, her reputation may not be what it is today. Despite its convincing rehabilitation of Empress Zhao Feiyan, this book was not without its flaws. I thought there were some dry parts in the book and it tended to repeat itself. Still, I found this study to be very eye-opening of an empress whose story I thought I had known. It made me question which parts about the empress’s life were true and which was false. One can only imagine what her true portrayal may have been like if her first biography was not written by her enemies. The Empress in the Pepper Chamber is a must read for those who are interested in learning about ancient Chinese culture. I recommend this book for fans of Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Female Emperor, and Empress Dowager Cixi.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


Popular posts from this blog

The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post by Allison Pataki: A Book Review

The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post Author: Allison Pataki Genre: Historical Fiction Publisher: Ballantine Release Date: February 15, 2022 Pages: 381 Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review. Synopsis: Mrs. Post, the President and First Lady are here to see you. . . . So begins another average evening for Marjorie Merriweather Post. Presidents have come and gone, but she has hosted them all. Growing up in the modest farmlands of Battle Creek, Michigan, Marjorie was inspired by a few simple rules: always think for yourself, never take success for granted, and work hard—even when deemed American royalty, even while covered in imperial diamonds. Marjorie had an insatiable drive to live and love and to give more than she got. From crawling through Moscow warehouses to rescue the Tsar’s treasures to outrunning the Nazis in London, from serving the homeless of the Great Depression to entertaining Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Hollywood’s biggest stars, Marjorie Merriweath

Tituba: The Intentional Witch of Salem by Dave Tamanini: A Book Review

Tituba: The Intentional Witch of Salem Author: Dave Tamanini Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy Publisher: David F Tamanini Release Date: 2020 Pages: 317 Source: Publisher/Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Synopsis: If you love historical fiction... come revisit Salem's terror in this provocative new telling of enslaved Tituba, no longer a caricature, but a fully human woman with magical powers.      Come! Let Tituba cast its spell with a unique and tantalizing tale that explores the wild emotions driving accusations of witchcraft in 1692.      A Promise and a Hope      Enslaved Tituba has been faithful to a promise to her dying mama in Africa. She has appeased the masters from Barbados to Boston to Salem and waited for her magic.      A Mother’s Agony      When Tituba’s only son dies trying to escape slavery, her life changes forever. After enduring the crush only a mother can feel, she rages and turns to vengeance.      Witches Tear into Salem      The villagers see wi

Blog Tour: Marie Antoinette’s World: Intrigue, Infidelity, And Adultery In Versailles by Will Bashor

Marie Antoinette’s World: Intrigue, Infidelity, And Adultery In Versailles [history/biographical nonfiction] Release date: June 15, 2020 Postponed due to Covid-19: July 30, 2020 at Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Hardcover and ebook, 320 pages Author’s page | Goodreads SYNOPSIS Synopsis: This riveting book explores the little-known intimate life of Marie Antoinette and her milieu in a world filled with intrigue, infidelity, adultery, and sexually transmitted diseases. Will Bashor reveals the intrigue and debauchery of the Bourbon kings from Louis XIII to Louis XV, which were closely intertwined with the expansion of Versailles from a simple hunting lodge to a luxurious and intricately ordered palace. It soon became a retreat for scandalous conspiracies and rendezvous—all hidden from the public eye.       When Marie Antoinette arrived, she was quickly drawn into a true viper’s nest, encouraged by her imprudent entourage. Bashor shows that her often thoughtless, fantas