I want to tell you a story about the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, the greatest domme of the 7th Century. Wu was the only woman in history to become absolute ruler of the empire of China. I have depicted her and other real characters and settings as accurately as I could, from what little is known about this historical period. The poems are authentic, and so is the part about licking the lotus stamen. I hope you enjoy my story.
I sense a soft gray — is it the dawn? I remember now. I am not in danger. The men with me are strong and battle-seasoned. We will ride again today, and by tonight we will reach the land of the Empress, where we will be welcome.
The morning air is sweet in my nostrils as I slowly lift my head. I can just make out the sentries. They are upright and alert. It is best to travel well-protected, for the chieftains of Dângrêk who control these lands along the coast are unpredictable. When we reach the land of the Empress, to the north, we will be given safe conduct. We will enjoy Chinese hospitality.
I believe that our journey will be a success. As the first light creeps in among the dense leaves of the bush around our camp, in my mind I praise Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, for he has honored me. He has given me the responsibility to negotiate with the Empress, to bring prosperity through trade to our land and to hers. The relationship of our two empires has been beneficial to both; now is the time to bind us more closely together. And Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa has chosen me to meet the Empress — I will learn if the tales are true.
Surely, stranger, you too have heard these stories. There has never been a woman like Wu Zetian. Before Wu, the Confucians taught that rule by a woman would be akin to a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak, a violation of the natural order of the universe. But this time, the Confucians were wrong (and now the religion of Buddha is supported by the state in China, just as in Srivijaya. We have so much in common.) The Empress has made China happy and strong, and her fellow women have stepped forward into public life. The members of her court are wise; to gain a position there the applicant must take a scholarly examination, or so it is said. People say that she has improved the conditions of life for the commoners. But of course, these are not the stories of which I speak.
I do not know you, stranger. You are a person reading the words which I write when I am alone. Perhaps you will read them long after I am dead. Perhaps you live far from here; perhaps you are Tufan, living in cold mountains, or perhaps you live in the dry sands of the Umayyad Caliphate. But I do not doubt that you know the name of Wu Zetian. There has never been a woman as powerful as she. She rules with wisdom and invincible strength, and I hope to win her as friend of Srivijaya. That is the responsibility that was offered to me by Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, and I embrace it. But in my heart, there is something else that moves, because of the other stories about the Empress.
The sun is awake now. I can see the faces of the men who travel with me to ensure my safety on the road to Chang’an, the greatest city in the world, and from there to Luoyang to meet the Empress. They are all stirring, taking food and water, walking to the edge of camp to relieve their bladders. I rise to my feet and draw a deep breath. The stories. Yes, I am certain that every diplomat has heard them. Perhaps you have heard them as well.
No woman has ever possessed the kind of power that the Empress wields. Her power is glorious, and it is proper that she demand that her power be acknowledged. She can have anything that she wants. She is very beautiful, they say, and she has introduced something new to the court, something without precedent. It is called “licking the lotus stamen.” This must be done by ranking members of her government, or those who come before her as representatives of other kingdoms, as a gesture of obeisance. They must give her pleasure. I long to do this.
I believe that this is the best way to show respect to the only sovereign who is a woman, and who is also the greatest of all sovereigns. It is a tribute of love and obedience, and I believe that it will give me exquisite pleasure. Stranger, have you heard the tales of which I speak? They must be true, for every diplomat speaks of them. She will part her royal robes, and I will kneel before her. They say that the place between her thighs — I do not know what name they give it in your land, stranger — has the texture of crushed pearls, and tastes of the willow-colored water from the dragon-pond outside the palace. I hope that soon I will experience this for myself.
The men are mounting their horses. I must join them. We will speak of this again.
There is a whirring sound, a constant, pulsing racket as we ride through the jungle of Chenla. This is the sound of the insects that are always busy here, Maltepe Escort hiding among countless leaves in the verdant wilderness.
The leader of my armed escort is called Sang. He rides in front; the jungle here is thick, and does not permit us to ride side by side. Sang has lived through many battles in many lands, and I have confidence in his abilities. We ride until the sun is almost at its apex, then the sound of the insects stops. Sang brings his horse to a halt and raises his hand.
No one speaks. Sang’s body is tense; he has seen or heard something, and he is straining his senses to learn more. We remain motionless for several breaths, and then there is activity ahead of us. Armed men emerge from behind trees. They look poised to attack.
Sang knows I am unarmed. He leans back toward me and hands me his long blade, what we call golok, then draws his kris, his wavy-bladed fighting dagger. Then he dismounts, as do the rest of us. The jungle is too dense to fight on horseback. Our feet have scarcely touched the ground when the marauders rush toward us.
They were poised to ambush us from both sides, farther along the narrow trail, but Sang’s alertness prevented that. Now they must approach one or two at a time. Sang leaps forward to meet the first of them. His opponent wields a dha, the long sword of the Khmer peoples, and raises it high above his shoulder to strike. As he brings it slashing down, Sang writhes out of its path and kicks the man in his calf behind the knee, causing him to tumble forward. In a flash, Sang has cut his throat with his kris, and pivots to meet the next attacker, who quickly steps back, not wishing to repeat the mistakes of his fallen comrade.
The second attacker is a large man, a head taller than Sang, and his face betrays a feral cleverness. He holds two dhas, one in each hand, and he begins to move them in a sort of weaving motion as he warily approaches Sang. Sang tenses to leap at the man, feinting as if he will stab high with his kris, but then with the speed of a mongoose he drops to the ground, spinning his body and kicking the man’s legs out from under him. The man fumbles one of his swords, and Sang twists his body further, trapping his opponent’s shoulders with his thighs while driving the kris into his chest.
The other marauders hesitate, and my men and I give a shout of aggression. We charge them, and they scatter into the jungle. We pause to catch our breath and to soothe our anxious horses, while Sang stands apart from us, silent and with his head bowed. At length he returns to his horse, then we mount once again and continue up the trail.
I am riding near Sang, and at first he seems troubled. Out of respect for him I do not speak. But as he seems to return to his normal self, I feel that I may I ask him:
“Sang, was that a special kind of fighting that you did back there?”
“Yes, chief,” he replies. “It is called Silek Harimau. Do you know of it?”
“I have heard that name around Palembang, but I never understood what it meant.”
“Have you ever heard of a woman named Bersilat?”
“No, I never have.”
“Chief, this is the story the old folks tell. Bersilat was just a peasant woman, living in some village. One day she went to fetch water, and she saw a big eagle fighting with a tiger. She was fascinated, and she watched them fight for hours until they were both dead. She remembered how they moved, and later, when she was attacked by some men who were thinking impure thoughts, she defeated them using those same moves. In many villages now they teach those moves to young women, and I myself have learned them, too.”
“That is most interesting, that a woman should be the inventor of this fighting style.” As I spoke these words, I thought of the Empress, another powerful woman.
“Yes, chief, I agree.”
“Sang, I have one other question. Why did you stand in silence after winning the battle?”
“Chief, I’m a Buddhist. If I must kill someone, it is a very bad thing. The first of the Five Precepts is to refrain from harming other living creatures.”
“But you probably saved my life and the lives of others.”
“I know, chief. It’s still no good.”
The jungle is gone, and in its place we see vast terraced farms along the hillsides. I have never seen the like of this before. Nature has been sculpted by Man into a giant garden; the hills are ringed by many levels of man-made lakes, in every color of the rainbow. It is like a dream. We have reached the land of the Empress.
I have seen many wonders. The roads are wide and smooth. The horsemen of the Empress have devices attached to their saddles into which the rider places his feet. I am astonished by the control that these riders have, and the freedom with which they use their arms. It is easy for me to imagine that they are formidable in battle.
These soldiers wear suits made of metal, to protect them Kartal Escort from the cuts of swords. I imagine that they must be unwieldy. The fighters of Srivijaya carry shields and protective garments made only of plant fibers, which are very light and permit our men to fight with great speed and agility. These Chinese are constrained in motion by their armor. Yet they seem very confident. They treat me and my men with courtesy.
The empire is vast. We have been riding for many days. We will finally arrive in Chang’an tonight and sleep with a roof over our heads. Then tomorrow we embark on the most glorious road of all, the one called the Silk Road. It leads to Luoyang, where the Empress will receive me.
Sang has told me that he once accompanied the monk Yijing back to China to learn more of the Buddha, and in doing so he became proficient in their language. He is able to convert what I say into Chinese, and convey the answers back to me in my own language. It was for this reason that the court at Palembang gave him this assignment.
I have traveled throughout many of the lands that share the ocean with my native Srivijaya, but I have never been this far north. The air is cool here, but pleasant. The sun does not warm with the same force that it does in our land. The trees and plants have a different character. I am fascinated by what I see around me, but my mind often creeps back to what awaits me the future, when I will come face to face with the Empress. I have been trained to discuss the affairs of state with her. But I am thinking more and more about what else I may do, when I submit to her.
Sang is pleased to be back in China. He seems full of vigor, as does his dark-colored horse, a steed the color of the soy sauce that the Chinese take with their meals. Sang explains to me many of the strange and wondrous things that we see as we travel. We have stopped at a market, and there are people exchanging pieces of something called “paper” for chickens and fruit. Why do the sellers want this paper?
Sang explains the reason. It seems very abstract to me, but the more I think about it, the more I am impressed by the cleverness of it. It is a tribute to the magnificence of the Chinese empire that its subjects will accept this paper in place of the goods they sell, trusting that others will accept it in kind.
Sang’s horse snorts and prances. He seems excited. There are many other horses and riders on the road.
When I was a young boy, I imagined that by the end of my life, I would travel the length and breadth of Sumatra, which my family believed to be the entire extent of the earth. My father had done so. But I never did. When I was told that there were other islands, in fact many others, I became consumed with a desire to travel and learn for myself whether they existed. This led me eventually to become a diplomat.
I’m thinking of when I made love to a girl for the first time. It was in Langkasuka. I could not speak her language. I traveled there with merchants and we smiled at one another at the market. Later she came to me in the night and showed me what she wanted. I love to remember how she looked, naked in the moonlight, and the sounds she made when I was inside her.
It is late afternoon. The sun has diminished in strength, and the light is soft and golden and beautiful. Armed riders are coming to meet us on the road; we can see them from afar, carrying the standards of the empire. They have an unmistakable military bearing, and I can see that they are wearing armor and that their saddles are all equipped with those small baskets for the feet of the riders. We stop and bow. Sang addresses them in their own language. A person who seems to be the senior figure inclines his head courteously to Sang, then addresses us generally in our own Srivijayan tongue. “I wish to speak to the diplomat,” he says.
I bow again and reply, “I am he.”
“I am Commander Li,” he says. “On behalf of our glorious Empress, I offer you safe passage, and express the Empress’ warm greetings to you and to the Emperor Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa whom you represent. We will accompany you into Chang’an and thence to Luoyang.”
I had prepared a small speech of greeting, but in the excitement of the moment it departs from my mind, and so I must improvise. “Esteemed Commander Li! From his citadel in distant Palembang, our Emperor feels the warmth of your courtesy and wishes a closer communion between his throne and that of your celestial Empress.”
Commander Li nods. Perhaps my greeting was a little awkward, but he seems to find it acceptable. He and his horsemen wheel their steeds and proceed down the road in the direction we were headed. My men and I follow.
After a while, the sun is moving swiftly toward the horizon and I see Commander Li slow his horse, allowing Sang and I to catch up to him. He speaks to me in a soft but authoritative voice.
“I Pendik Escort have been instructed to tell you what to expect, to explain to you how the Empress expects her guests to behave, and to discuss with you the nature of the business you wish to propose to Her Majesty. This is how we will prepare the way for a successful audience.”
“I am grateful for your counsel,” I reply.
“We will discuss these things during the long ride to Luoyang. But now we must turn our thoughts to other matters. Very soon we shall enter Chang’an. It is called ‘million people city’, not without reason.”
Li points down the road ahead. I can see how what began as a smudge on the horizon is gradually acquiring the form of a gigantic city. He continues, “Your lodgings will be near Pingkangli, where your men can find any sort of recreation that they desire.”
The road conducts us now through clusters of rude dwellings, marketplaces, pens of livestock, and various kinds of encampments. We are approaching the walls of the city proper. They are three times the height of a man, and they stretch off to the left and right so far that the eye struggles to encompass them. As we approach the main gate, people make way for us out of deference to the imperial standard, and we pass through the massive gateway into the commotion of the city proper.
We continue to ride through the city in formation with Commander Li and his guard. There are people teeming everywhere, visiting inns and markets. They wear flowing robes made of rich fabrics in every color, quite different than the more form-fitting garments that are worn in Srivijaya. The air is cooler here — people have more of a reason to cover themselves. Li informs me that we are approaching Pingkangli, where my men and I can also find brothels. There is no city as large and as busy as this in Srivijaya. Perhaps someday there will be, if our trade agreements with China are a success. Much is riding on my shoulders.
Sang has been fraternizing with the Chinese soldiers and talking to them in their language. He informs me that when we arrive at our lodgings, our men will accompany their Chinese counterparts for an evening of drinking and enjoying the hospitality of the women of Pingkangli. I shall stay by myself. No common woman can compare in my mind to my vision of the Empress.
We are on our way to Luoyang.
The weather is congenial and our horses are fresh. My men are in high spirits this morning. I hear them talking among themselves about their revels last night, praising the beauty and the skill of the Pingkangli women.
Now Sang rides up alongside me, and as we proceed along the fabled Silk Road, he describes to me what took place in the brothel. He says that he accompanied the men, for whom he feels responsible (although being a devout Buddhist, he did not avail himself of the services there. “Chief,” Sang explains to me patiently, “the third of the Five Precepts is to refrain from committing sexual misconduct.”) The Chinese soldiers came as well to join in the revelry. The brothel is run by the government, and soldiers are encouraged to go there.
Sang tells me that the women were attractive and dressed in rich, colorful robes. They wore elaborate ornaments in their hair. They were also well educated and clever. Some of them even knew how to speak rudimentary Srivijayan, which made them quite popular among my men. They had mastered many unusual sexual techniques. I don’t feel comfortable asking Sang how he knows this, since he has told me that he did not hire them.
We are moving along a broad and pleasant valley, riding in easy formation with the soldiers of the Empress upon the Silk Road. That time of day is approaching when the sun is at its highest, and the weather is warm, though not as warm as in Srivijaya. There is also very little moisture in the air. It seldom rains. There are forests on the hills, but not on the plain.
During the many weeks that I have been travelling, I have seen the day gradually get longer. It is quite unlike anything that has ever happened in Srivijaya. Sang offers a number of explanations for what he calls the seasons. I have no way of judging whether they are true. “Chief,” he says, “in China the length of the day waxes and ebbs like the ocean tides, except very, very slowly. When the days get longer, the rays of sun get hotter. Then it goes the other way and the days shorten again.” I wonder if this causes the plants to grow so differently here than in Srivijaya. There are trees here which do not carry large flat leaves like those at home, but instead have little bristles like the hair on a pig. They have a pleasant fragrance.
There seems to be little to fear in this land. The government is strong and respected by the people. It provides many services, such as the brothels in Pingkangli.
I hear hoof-beats approaching behind me. I turn to look, and it is Commander Li. He indicates to me with gestures that he wishes to speak to me privately, so we move our horses to the edge of the formation.
“Esteemed diplomat,” he says to me, “I wish to acquaint you with our customs, so that you may reap the greatest possible success from your visit.”