When Dan Altieri and I set out to write our first big historical novel of T’ang Dynasty China, THE COURT OF THE LION, we had the pleasure of looking forward to doing plenty of sex scenes. Some would be tender and lyrical, others would be raunchy and violent, with just about every possible shade in between. We were licking our chops at the prospect. This would be big fun, and exactly the sort of thing writers, especially dirty-minded ones like us, love to sink their fangs into. Baby-boomers who came of age in the 60s and 70s, we’re both unencumbered by prudery or prissy decorousness, and were lucky to be stepping into an era of literary, cinematic and musical candor that allowed us to let ‘er rip. This meant, of course, that we’d never be lucky enough to be banned, like Edmund Wilson and D.H. Lawrence, thereby guaranteeing huge sales, but it did mean that no editor would tsk-tsk and make us draw the curtain.
We were perfectly willing to write gratuitous sex scenes, but we didn’t have to. The intricate plot of our story, based on actual people and events from the T’ang Dynasty, is fueled by sex from the start. A barren 40-year-old Empress, desperate to conceive, violates a major proscription against the use of witchcraft. She lets the the wrinkled old foul-mouthed witch-hag Ming Wu tie a magic amulet around her waist. The Empress has already tolerated having her pubic hair singed during a preliminary ritual inflicted by the old woman; now she must do something downright dangerous and highly verboten. “Wear it into the bed chamber,” says the crone with a leer, “and that fat little prince with the black hair will be tugging at your breast in a year’s time.” The trick will be to keep the Emperor from finding the amulet. She has to keep his hands off of her. How does she do it? By playing a sex game: first making him stiff while he lies on his back, then getting on top of him and pretending to be strong enough to pin his arms. The poor Empress must fake arousal, because all she can think about is the forbidden amulet and getting the Emperor’s seed. She works and strains, rides the Emperor’s hard-on. It’s hot, she’s exhausted. The Emperor, sensing her playacting, eventually lets himself come. When she leaves him, it’s with complicated emotions of triumph and betrayal. Without wrecking the story for you, let’s just say that things don’t exactly work out for the Empress…
But the hag Ming Wu has made her debut. She is the strong, dark, pulsating id of the novel. She comes and goes as she pleases throughout the long arc of the tale, without asking anyone’s permission. It’s rumored that she’s an immortal, that a thousand years is nothing to her, that she can be young or old, whatever suits her, and that she takes her erotic pleasure when she pleases, too. She may leave a man confounded by her ability to see in the dark, to scale sheer walls of stone in the middle of the city or to disappear over a high balcony into the woods at the fabled imperial Hot Springs, confusing his senses with smells of earth, moss, rotting wood, smoke. And she may make a man wait ten years between visits.
Next: A consort’s erotic training: How To Please an Emperor 101