Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Empress is fascinated by your modern executions.

You silly, silly people. I am aware that your intentions are motivated by.....what? Mercy? Squeamishness? Shame? Some combination of the three, like a lamb, a dog and a monkey locked together in a cage? The dog, when it gets hungry enough, will kill and eat the lamb, while it bawls piteously, but the monkey, hearing the cries and smelling the blood, will scramble out of reach of the dog's jaws and fling itself against the bars of the cage, screeching. It will scamper upside down across the ceiling of the cage, out of reach, while the dog lunges and snaps.

The cage, my good people, is your very understandable desire for retribution. Most of you speak as if you are quite clear and unambiguous on the topic of retribution. The phrase "an eye for an eye," with its source in one of your holy texts, is often cited. And yet, as often as you cite it, you seem to be seized by some sort of pusillanimousness when it comes to carrying out this exact sort of matching of crime to punishment. Not all of you, I am well aware! There are those among you who would enthusiastically inflict the exact death on a condemned murderer that he inflicted on his victim! And among those are the special few who would willingly do it with their own hands! You have my approval, the latter group in particular!! I would give you special positions, privileges and immunities in my own court. No, it is to the rest of you, wishing retribution but quivering with ambiguity, that I address my clarifying, purifying thoughts. Those of you who have no desire for retribution--strange, exotic, misconceived creatures that you are, like someone born without an arm, a leg, eyes, or a tongue--not even I can help you.

Lest you think that I was entirely without mercy in the matter of the condemned, consider this: there was a time in the history of my civilization--perhaps a thousand or so years before my own reign--when to be even a distant relative of a condemned murderer (or traitor!) was to be put to death oneself. Not only would the condemned's father, mother and wife die by execution, but the father's, mother's and wife's families would meet that fate as well! Even the families of concubines, if the condemned was such a well-heeled or high-born sort as to have concubines, could be put to death! This practice, though intriguing and time-honored, seemed....shall we say, unnecessary, even wasteful, and I forbade it.

Except, of course, in special cases.

There was, however, even within that tradition, an aspect of mercy: The method of execution differed for the peripheral condemned--the fathers, mothers, and so forth--from that for the actual murderer or traitor. For him, death was by beheading. A ghastly spectacle, sure to attract a thirsty howling mob to witness it, an insult to the body, the ultimate disgrace, multiplied ten thousand times by being made public, a defilement that would follow him into the afterlife, where he would spurt blood forever and speak only gibberish through a gurgling, ragged hole! A second death, if you will! His old mother and father, by contrast, would be dispatched by strangulation, leaving their bodies, and therefore their ghosts, intact. They only died once. Is that or is that not the very definition of mercy?

Though I banned the general practice of condemning a murderer's or traitor's relatives (unless I myself deemed it appropriate), I retained that merciful aspect I described: a different variety of death for different varieties of condemned prisoners. I believe that you in your recent centuries have devised a system recognizing different degrees of murder (you seem to have left off executing traitors, at least since the middle of the 20th century; perhaps you will return to the practice in due time), the most serious of which is the one that involves planning and intent. Lesser degrees of murder are those that occur spontaneously when passions erupt, or through lethal negligence. I am gratified to say that there was a similar system of differentiation in my time! Fair, sensible, merciful people agree, no matter the time or the place! In my day, the intentful murderer--the one who planned, schemed, plotted--died by beheading. He who killed another in a brawl, a fit of jealousy, a spontaneous rage, died mercifully, by strangulation! As did those you now call "accessories" to murder or treason--those who hid facts, covered up, kept secrets. Or he who failed to turn a murderer or traitor in to the authorities. The latter was a capital crime, with one crucial exception. Here is where your civilization and mine diverge. For us, filial piety transcended all else. He who turned his own father in for murder or treason transformed himself into a capital offender, thereby making himself eligible for beheading.

Pleasant as it is to reminisce, let us return to your modern executions. You, you fools, are ridiculous, with your hidden, soundproof execution room, your exclusive "guest list," your padded couch with fresh clean linens upon which the condemned lies, your sharp needles, your flowing, soothing chemicals, the first of which, so I understand, brings deep, dreamless sleep before the coup de grace is administered! Why, anyone would think that you are rewarding the condemned, giving him the sweet death that so many pray for: to exit this world in one's sleep. This is the death you should be bestowing on the best among you--heroes, saints, great leaders, the elderly.

Can you really not see it? You have been infected by your opposition, those who would deprive the world of capital punishment altogether. They have, increment by increment, robbed you of your purpose and resolve. They have succeeded in making you feel some sort of shame for the act of execution! Why else would you move further and further away, as you have, from the direct, vigorous methods you once employed--hanging, gassing, bullets (oh, how I envy you your bullets and your guns!), your marvelous "electric chair" (I would have had one carved from teak and inlaid with pearl!), and so forth. And why would you move the act of execution from the public square into secret rooms? Because your conviction has eroded away. You have become absurd, grotesque. You still want retribution, but you have become timid, polite, cowardly about it! You disgust me!

I say, either give in to your detractors, and cease the execution of criminals altogether, or assert yourselves with ferocity and clarity! Why tremble in a web of conflict when you cannot get the "right" chemicals to inject into the veins of the condemned? Why not simply say: Very well, let us use instead a tincture of snake or spider venom, a deadly fungus, a harsh corrosive, or one of the countless other brilliantly, colorfully lethal poisons supplied in abundance by nature? Perhaps you will then find the backbone to augment your methods with rope and bullets once more. Or even beheading!
And then, perhaps, you will cease depriving the public of the grand theater that is execution! Do you actually believe that your modern populace has lost the taste for public execution? Do you believe that citizens, even in your age of instant distant communications, would not travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, and pay vast quantities for front-row seats, for the privilege of being physically present among thousands of others to witness a well-run, well-staged execution?


Would you care to make a wager with the Iron Empress?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Iron Empress is intrigued with this O.J. Simpson person....

What you 20th-century people (and you were 20th-century people then) called a "low-speed chase" would have been, of course, an utterly appalling hurtling velocity for someone from any previous century. But once I was able to adjust my perception, I saw exactly what he was doing.

Some of us are simply above the law. I was, and so was my mother, Madame Yang. If you think that those of us who are above the law, but who kill, as I did, and as Mr. Simpson did, do not grieve for the ones we must kill, you are wrong. I sacrificed my own firstborn, a ten-day-old daughter. I did not hire someone to do it, nor did I order a servant to do it. I did it myself, as kindly as I could. I felt the life leaving her small body, felt the tremors traveling up my arms as I leaned, with my full weight, on the quilt I pressed down on her face.

Later, behind a stout locked door, after the "discovery" of the baby's death, I tore my hair and clothing, raked my flesh with my fingernails, howled until my throat was raw, broke furniture. Madame Yang was a great help, taking over for me from time to time so that I could rest and soothe my throat with hot tea. Madame Yang's voice was indistinguishable from mine, and so, to anyone on the other side of the door (including the Emperor Kaotsung, the infant's father, soon to be my Imperial husband), my grief was without surcease for many days. I know that this did not fail to make an impression.

Mere playacting, you say? Are you so sure that my performance was not driven by actual grief, and by fury that such an act was necessary? Could I have carried on as I did, for so long, with such intensity, on pretext alone? Perhaps you in your future world fail to grasp certain truths: the Great--and by that I mean the noble, the fine, the rare, the few--simply feel more intensely, more powerfully, more....deeply than ordinary people. It is our burden to bear, along with our greater obligations. A peasant woman would perhaps grieve over the death of her baby, yes, but only for a few hours at the very most. And when, I ask you, would a peasant woman be called upon to make such a sacrifice, and do it with her own hands, thereby increasing the grief a hundredfold? Only the Great can make great sacrifices. As they must.

Kaotsung, you see, was a comely man, intelligent, a lusty lover, but as a Son of Heaven, a thin shadow compared to his late father, Emperor Taitsung. And I, at the time of my daughter's death, was a concubine. An important one, a favorite, one who had unleashed the young Emperor's ardor in ways he'd never known, caused his juices to back up inside him and leave him rock-hard, writhing and helpless unless I released him--but a concubine, and not yet a queen. He had a queen already, of course, a silly, useless woman he was shackled to, chosen for him, ordained. Only I, as his queen, would be able to unleash his greatness. It was my mother, Madame Yang, who made me cognizant of the sacrifice I would have to make in order to overcome that limitation. Think as a queen. Behave as a queen. Be a queen, she said, daring me. I took her dare. I remember whispering to my infant daughter, as she slept, her belly full of my own warm milk, in the moment before I brought the quilt down onto her face: You are going to help to make your father great. 

It was a simple matter after that to frame the then-queen for the baby's murder and get rid of her.

Now do you have a better understanding of the particular burdens the Great must bear? Mr. Simpson understood it perfectly. The intensity of his murderous fury was in direct proportion to the greatness he knew to be his. He was not just an ordinary man slashing his woman's throat in a jealous rage--he was a champion, a warrior, a man whose life was larger than other men's lives. Practically a god, with an army of worshipers. He was obligated to do what he did, and to do it the way he did: with a knife. So acute, so blood-and-sinew personal, the blade penetrating and withdrawing, penetrating and withdrawing, the blade hitting bone, her cries filling the world, a final act of sexual conquest...and then, the processional.

That, of course, is what the "low-speed chase," as you put it, was: a royal processional. He traveled through his kingdom, the word spreading among the people with the speed of thought so that they gathered along the way and on the bridges, cheering and shouting and holding up painted signs proclaiming their love, mile after mile, while he absorbed their love and astonished them with the hugeness of his audacity and with his outsized grief for what he had been forced to do, his royal escorts of lights and sirens moving in majestic accompaniment like a thousand drummers and flutists declaring and affirming: Behold! This is no ordinary man!

And I hear that he asked for his mother.

The Iron Empress approves.

Do stop by for a visit. I am in high spirits.

Let us hope that my cheer endures.

For everyone's sake.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

They speak as if I, the Iron Empress, was cruel.....

...when I exiled elderly men and poets to the island of Hainan. Men who had never held a weapon more formidable than a quill in their soft, uncallused hands.

This hurts me deeply. Would these poets and useless old men have preferred the view from atop the spiked gate of the White Horse Temple, along with twenty-five of their traitorous compatriots? I had to send my mother, Madame Yang, on daily tours of inspection past the temple gate to ensure that the heads were not interfered with.

There are silly people who attribute sacred significance to corpses, or in this case, parts of corpses; Madame Yang took upon herself the tiresome task of seeing to it that the old mothers of several of the men whose heads decorated the spikes did not disturb the display. There was one particularly persistent old lady who appeared at dawn every morning with a long stick in her hands, with which she would try to reach up and knock down her son's head. I could have had the woman arrested, but I did not! Instead, my mother and I agreed that we would simply have the monks shoo her away, until, after the ravens and the elements had done their work, her son's jawbone should detach itself and fall naturally to the paving stones, at which point she would be allowed to take it home with her. And they say I am without mercy!

The men I sent to Hainan went with their heads attached to their bodies. Poets and scholars, mostly, followers, not leaders. They should have been grateful not only for their lives, but for the opportunity to inhabit such a rich environment. Scholars, we are told, are hungry for knowledge, and poets for inspiration! The seething life in the tropics should more than satiate the hungers of both scholar and poet. My grandson, Minghuang, who became the Emperor fifty years after my death (a weakling, scarcely worthy of my blood, but that is another story) had a brilliant Chief Minister. His name was Li Lin-fu--or, as he was fond of calling himself--The Lizard, and he was, as you in the distant future might put it, a man after my own heart, the true Emperor. He said this of my lovely Shore of Pearls, describing it to some poor trembling fool standing before him:

 "It is very hot there, General. And there is abundant life such as is always found in the tropical climes; a fascinating variety of insects, serpents, and plants which inhabitants of temperate zones cannot even imagine. Think of the contrast, General, between such life-forms and those of the far north, where nature must practice economy. Plants and animals existing under rigid conditions have no time for any sort of experimental frivolity. Colors are subdued, practical. But in the tropics, it is different. There, with the excess of heat, light, and moisture, we find out what nature really yearns to do. We see her true mind. I’ve heard that the trees are laden with the most delectable-looking fruit. Some varieties are good and will nourish you, while others ... one bite and you will die in agony. Poison, General. Nature dearly loves to put poison in things that jump, crawl, and grow. And she loves to decorate them in the most brilliant colors and let them multiply in feverish profusion. It is no wonder that the Empress Wu had an affinity for the tropics. I don’t believe that she ever visited there herself, but I know that the island of Hainan received many ‘guests,’ courtesy of Her Highness. Those who were troublesome to her soon forgot any court business as they occupied themselves with their immediate surroundings. There are people there, too, if you can call them that: an indigenous race of savages scarcely distinguishable from the monkeys who scream and chatter in the treetops.” 

It is true that I never visited the island myself. But I didn't need to. The interior of my own mind seethed with equal richness, fecundity, and inventiveness.

Yes, I was the authoress of many an unprecedented device for the extraction of information or the exposure and execution of a traitor--and in one instance, all three! I defy any of you to surpass, for sheer ingenuity and practicality, with a touch of whimsy, my "Voice of the Thunder Owl." I feel the warmth of life again just remembering it. Picture a man-sized box, of sturdy iron, on wheels. Into the court a man--an informer, an accuser--could ride, anonymous and secure, to give his testimony against anyone at all whom he suspected of plotting against my rule. And picture, on the outside of the wheeled box, a protuberance resembling the beaked head of a huge owl, and within that protuberance, an ingenious system of sliding flutelike tubes and narrow bamboo baffles through which the accuser spoke. Those on the outside would be quite able to distinguish the words, but the voice emanating from the box--buzzing, humming, muffled and distorted--would be thoroughly unrecognizable! The pitch of the accuser's voice could even be raised or lowered by manipulation of the sliding tubes within!

What happened in a certain instance will surely make you smile. An ambitious informer had chosen the anonymity of the Thunder Owl. He was wheeled into court, and speaking through the apparatus in his reedy, buzzing, high-pitched voice, proceeded to accuse his father of being a traitor, and his mother of hiding the father's traitorous activities.

This was more than the court could stomach! The crimes of the parents were one thing, but the grotesque lapse in filial piety, especially against a mother, was another altogether. The mother-incriminating informer was told that the court would have to recess for a short time until it reached a decision, and that he was to remain safely inside the box until then. The box was then wheeled into the courtyard and left there. After several weeks of deliberation, a verdict of guilt against the parents was delivered. The crying and screaming from within the box, distorted by the Voice of the Thunder Owl, had lasted nearly ten days, so it was said. The informer himself was found posthumously guilty of transgression of the bounds of filial respect. It is imperative that certain standards are vigilantly maintained!

But I must admit to a nearly overwhelming envy that I have no doubt Chief Minister Li Lin-fu--himself no "slouch" (as you in the future might say) at ingenious methods, mechanisms and systems--would share. I speak, of course of the Moon Door in your shared electronic dream you call the Game of Thrones.

The Moon Door is a thing of transcendent beauty. No spikes, no blades, no crushing weights or wicked screw devices. Just air, with puffy white drifting clouds and distant rocks below, the Moon Door itself nothing more elaborate than a big hole in the elegant stone floor of a great throne room of a great castle, high, high, high on a craggy mountain. The throne room with its dreadful beautiful Moon Door occupies an outcropping of solid rock protruding out over empty space, a decorative but only partial stone railing embracing the hole. And always a cold wind rising from it, lifting one's hair, one's clothing. To look at the Moon Door is to feel one's foot stepping off into nothing, and the thrill of the body, still living, breathing, and intact, built for solid ground beneath it, beginning its plunge. Only the gentlest push is needed. Just the slightest loss of balance, a tip, a slip, a stumble.

Of course I am envious.

And oh, I fret over the fate of the imp, Tyrion Lannister. Would that I could transport him to my own court. I would make him a monk of the White Cloud Sect, and I would dress him in robes, and I would have him walk alongside the tallest of the monks, the man who towers over all the others, my very own Tibetan monk-magician holy man Hsueh-Huai-i

Do stop by. I am in an excellent mood!

And likely to remain so. For now.