When I was a little girl growing up, there seemed a dearth of historical and literary role models. Chinese legends and mythology can be quite sanctimonious, with women stuck either as virgins and whores. So, given such polarities and binaries, you get virtuous wives and seductive temptresses. Even China’s first empress, Wu Ze Tian, was cast as an iron-fist bitch (forgive me my French) who was also a temptress. It would seem that no woman could rule, without either sleeping her way through or killing her way up.
This trend continued with Empress Cixi who was first a concubine and then made an Empress. She then proceeded, as the history books would tell you snidely, to rule her weak son with an iron fist and eventually taking over his coveted position. She was there when the Qing Dynasty finally fell, still clinging onto her power.
There are women who, though, were virtuous wives, bucked the trend. There are the Yang Family women who fought and led armies as generals, because their husbands were all at war. Re-tellings of this story often portray the women as strong-willed, capable fighters who are also good and obedient wives.
So, when I started writing about my Cranky Lady of History, I wanted to buck the trend too. I wanted to buck the stereotypes and the assumptions. True that ancient Chinese society might be patriarchal as heck and that women didn’t have much a position – but what would the wife of the Yellow Emperordo? Leizu, the First Empress, is credited with the discovery of silk and invention of the silk loom. But as we all know, her husband took the credit for it … and I would be mighty cranky if I were Leizu.
As a writer, I had the luxury and privilege of re-mything Leizu or Xi Ling Shi. I certainly couldn’t bear the idea of having my thoughts and creativity stolen by my husband. It rankled me. I imagined Leizu way miffed beyond ‘cranky’. Betrayal was one reaction. Shock, of course. And revulsion. I would feel that too.
I also fleshed her out. The real Leizu might not have been the daughter of a metal-smith and might not have the opportunity to learn the craft from her father. Her husband might not have met her while she worked at the fire, curling metal into a beautiful brooch. Yet I have always seen her as creative, resourceful and – given her training – hands on. Her time in the palace would have felt like a prison sentence, her exuberance curbed, her creativity stifled. She managed to get her way with certain things. Marriage life is always about negotiations and some things having to go in order for other things to come in. In the end, she was the one who made the decision to cross the threshold and leave, nevermind the consequences! She had more guts than I did.
I wrote her family as a supportive unit too. That was where Leizu drew her strength from. It was home she looked forward to. It was home where she remembered the hot rice and pickled cabbage hearts. Leizu was a woman with multiple sides. But I hope her courage and audacity comes through in the story I have written about and for her. My story is my tribute, a gift to her. She is now worshiped as Can Nainai (the Mother of Silkworms) in China.
This post is written as part of the Women’s History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing blog campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Crazy Ladies of History from all over the world.