Green Dragon, White Tiger by Annette Motley (Macmillan: $19.95).
First of all, you have to love stories like this. You have to be crazy about the old Pearl Buck novels. You have to become insanely happy whenever an author places a flock of almond-eyed damsels attractively about a secluded courtyard, or better still, an incense-laden pavilion. You've got to take a lively interest in concubines and eunuchs and people who recline on kangs instead of beds--and when they recline there, they don't "make love," but indulge in something called "the clouds and rain." If you're a sucker for well-worn, but still seductive fantasies of the Golden Orient your $20 bill will be well spent on this one. "Green Dragon, White Tiger," is wonderful fun.
The jacket copy here tells us that "Green Dragon, White Tiger" is "based on the fascinating life of the Empress Wu, the only woman ever to rule China from the exalted Dragon Throne." And in case we know nothing about the Empress Wu or the Dragon Throne, the author has considerately given us a chronology of just when all that happened (from the year 625 to 690), and how old the empress, or Black Jade as she is known before she ascends the throne, is at each stage of her exciting career.
Black Jade's family knows her fate from the very beginning; it is prophesied by their old family astrologer. They are pleased, but can hardly credit old Ming's mutterings, for Black Jade is not merely a commoner but a worthless woman, and not only both of those but a younger sister, a nobody, a nothing. On the other hand, Black Jade is the Joan Crawford of little sisters. She's wildly beautiful; she's certainly the lippiest little lady to ever come out of the Middle Kingdom, and she has stamina to burn. She loves to ride horseback over barren wastes; she scorns sedan chairs, and she makes sure to learn all about military life from her father, a famous general and former buddy of the reigning emperor.
It's only a matter of time before Black Jade is summoned to the bed of the emperor--as a Concubine Fifth Class. From then on, fate and a good personality conspire to bring the courageous and fanciful woman to her destiny. Soon Black Jade is "inherited" by the emperor's son. Gradually she takes over more and more of the responsibilities of empire, while having children left and right (Bold Tiger, Young Tiger, Loud Tiger and Tiger Lily). She does away with her enemies with a merciless hand, keeps her figure and the rest of her beauty, and makes "the clouds and rain" with quite a few people she isn't married to.
Of course, it's easy to carp at a novel like this. One wishes, for instance, that Black Jade's older sister were named something else than Rose Bird. Or one wonders why these exotic Orientals command each other to "keep a civil tongue in your head," or why most of the Royal Family pepper their sentences with "quites" and "rathers" as if their clan had Princess Di instead of Black Jade as their principal female jewel. But only spoilsports would bring up those matters. In the case of "Green Dragon, White Tiger," the best advice is Bottoms Up! Light up some joss, and enjoy.