Zhao Feiyan, also known as Empress Xiaocheng, was an Empress during the Han Dynasty. She has been known in history for being so wanton that she has been the main character in many lewd Chinese pieces of literature. Her notorious reputation has remained alive for two millennia, but is it deserved?
The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction by Olivia Milburn examines Zhao Feiyan and her literary legacy. The Scandalous Tale of Zhao Feiyan is an erotic novella that described the lifestyle of the Imperial favourites in the harem of Emperor Cheng. This text became the basis for writing about women in the palace and their sexual dealings. The author details how Zhao Feiyan’s story has evolved over the years and how she gained her reputation. Tragically, it seems that Zhao Feiyan has been degraded for all this time because she was being unable to give the Emperor a son.
This book attempts to rehabilitate the Empress by taking apart the fiction that has been built up around her and is quite successful too. One cannot help but feel sorry for the way she has been treated for all these years. The book is very well-written and researched, though it can be a little dry at times. I really appreciated the conclusions at the end of the chapters as well.
Overall, it’s a wonderful look at a much-maligned Empress, and I would highly recommend it.