The Empress in the Pepper Chamber
Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction
- PUBLISHED: May 2021
- SUBJECT LISTING: Asian Studies / China, History, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC INFORMATION: 234 Pages, 6 x 9 in, 1 table
- ISBN: 9780295748740
- Publisher: University of Washington Press
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.
Authors & Contributors
Olivia Milburn is professor of Chinese literature at the Seoul National University. Her books include Urbanization in Early and Medieval China: Gazetteers for the City of Suzhou.
Milburn has written an erudite and extremely well-researched study that will fascinate anyone interested in the history of Chinese erotic fiction from Song to Qing and beyond.- Keith McMahon, University of Kansas
Beautifully written. Zhao Feiyan is important not only for what she can tell us about palace life for women, but also because of the role that stories about women’s uncontained sexuality, jealousy, and greed perform throughout history.- Louise Edwards, author of Citizens of Beauty: Drawing Democratic Dreams in Republic China
A marvellous book on Zhao Feiyan, the 'Flying Swallow', one of the most captivating and often cited female figures in Chinese history and literature.- Tan Tian Yuan, author of Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion