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Shelley Parker-Chan on the Real-Life Inspiration Behind She Who Became the Sun

Posted on 20th July 2021 by Mark Skinner

In She Who Became the Sun, Shelley Parker Chan sets about retelling an established historical story in an utterly original and audacious manner. In this exclusive piece, Shelley explains why she decided to radically recontextualise the emergence of Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang.     

Every now and then history throws up a true changemaker, a person of such determination and selfish ambition that his desire leaves an indelible mark on the world. Despite the personal cost, despite the suffering of others, these men achieved their greatness. They became the conquerers, the kings, the emperors. Their names are known; their stories told and retold until they acquire the patina of myth. One of these men, who is as well known to a billion people as his contemporary Henry IV is to those who learned Shakespeare in school, was the founding emperor of China’s Ming dynasty.

The man who would become the Hongwu Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, was born an ordinary peasant in impoverished central China of the 14th century. China at the time was under the rule of an unstable and short-lived dynasty of Mongol emperors descended from yet another world-changer: Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. In the 1340s, the Mongols’ already-fragile rule of China was disastrously shaken by a series of natural disasters. As government control broke down, petty warlords battled for power. Peasant rebellions sprang up and were brutally quashed, and bandits terrorised the countryside. But the apocalyptic conditions of an empire’s disintegration also provided opportunities for ordinary men to rise further than any of them could have dreamed. 

Powered by nothing more than determination and an opportunistic spirit, Zhu Yuanzhang rose from peasant to novice monk, from monk to rebel commander, from commander to leader of the forces that overthrew the Mongol rulers—and finally, in 1368, ascended the throne as the first emperor of a new era of Chinese rule. It was surely one of the most astronomical ascents in human history. Upon becoming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang became the Son of Heaven and the embodiment of the Confucian patriarchal world order: he was the ultimate self-made man.

As impressive as Zhu Yuanzhang was, history is full of stories like his. Men’s stories. One way of countering the preponderance of men in recorded history is to retell the women’s stories that were erased, or twisted and made small, so men could emerge heroic on the page. But I wanted to do it a different way. I wanted to wrest back control of the main narrative. To turn it back against those who wrote the imperial histories with the intent of upholding the patriarchal order that benefited them at the expense of everyone else. I wanted to take the story of this great man, whose rise to power is held up as the ultimate example of masculine becoming, and twist it around so that instead of reinforcing a system of masculine supremacy—it destroys it.

And so, in my novel She Who Became the Sun, I wrote a Zhu Yuanzhang who has all the ambition, and selfishness, and determined opportunism of the original—but who isn’t a man. This Zhu Yuanzhang, born a girl, refuses to be contained by the rules of the world she lives in. She exists outside the gender binary: she lives in the in-between. Her ability to slip between gender roles and identities becomes a secret strength, invisible and inaccessible to the others around her who can only move within the rigid boundaries their own genders. This Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise to power destroys an empire—a destruction effected not so much by what she does, as by who she is. How can a patriarchal world order survive, when the person who holds the ultimate position of male authority isn’t a man? Her self, unbounded, is the revolution.

When she was born, the world told this Zhu Yuanzhang that she was worthless. Her fate was to be nothing: unknown, unremembered. But she refused the fate that was written for her. She chose to write her own. And we, too, can refuse what was written for us. When we take back history by “telling it slant”, we’re using the master’s own tools to dismantle his house. We’re remaking the world, with a place for ourselves in it.

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