Olivia Milburn

Mar 1, 2022

The Empress in the Pepper Chamber

Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction

University of Washington Press 2021

Zhao Feiyan (45-1 BCE), the second empress appointed by Emperor Cheng of the Han dynasty (207 BCE-220 CE), was born in slavery and trained in the performing arts, a background that made her appointment as empress highly controversial. Subsequent persecution by her political enemies eventually led to her being forced to commit suicide. After her death, her reputation was marred by accusations of vicious scheming, murder of other consorts and their offspring, and relentless promiscuity, punctuated by bouts of extravagant shopping. 

The Empress in the Pepper Chamber: Zhao Feiyan in History and Fiction (University of Washington Press, 2021), the first book-length study of Zhao Feiyan and her literary legacy, includes a complete translation of The Scandalous Tale of Zhao Feiyan (Zhao Feiyan waizhuan), a Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) erotic novella that describes in great detail the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by imperial favorites in the harem of Emperor Cheng. This landmark text was crucial for establishing writings about palace women as the accepted forum for discussing sexual matters, including fetishism, obsession, jealousy, incompatibility in marriage, and so on. Using historical documentation, Olivia Milburn reconstructs the evolution of Zhao Feiyan's story and illuminates the broader context of palace life for women and the novella's social influence.

There are surprisingly few books about empresses, and even fewer about the history of emotions in premodern China. This book delivers both while at the same providing really satisfying textual criticism on the source material and its legacy stretching across multiple dynasties, and giving us a great primary source in translation. A great piece of research for those engaging with gender history, literature, and explorations of where history and fiction meet and diverge. 

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. He works on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty, and therefore is drawn to complicated questions of identity in premodern China like a moth is drawn to flame.

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Lance Pursey

Lance Pursey is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Aberdeen where they work on the history and archaeology of the Liao dynasty. They are interested in questions of identity, and the complexities of working with different kinds of sources textually and materially.
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