She Who Became The Sun follows a peasant girl who refuses her fate of an early death in Mongol-occupied imperial China. Stealing her dead brother’s identity to survive, she rises from monk to soldier, then to rebel commander. Zhu’s pursuing the destiny her brother somehow failed to attain: greatness. But all the while, she feels Heaven is watching. Can anyone fool Heaven indefinitely, escaping what’s written in the stars? Or can Zhu claim her own future, burn all the rules and rise as high as she can dream?
A re-imagining of the rise to power of Zhu Yuanzhang, who was the peasant rebel who expelled the Mongols, unified China under native rule, and became the founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, She Who Became The Sun is an epic historical fantasy by Shelley Parker-Chan. We spoke to Shelley about the novel, creating Zhu and setting a novel during the last gasps of the Yuan dynasty…
When did you first get the idea for She Who Became the Sun?
An embarrassingly long time ago I was at dinner with friends, and we were complaining about how we could never find the exact stories we wanted to read. In my case, I was yearning for a sweeping, high stakes, historical epic with the hyper-emotionality of a romance — but which also queered gender roles. Asian historical TV dramas had a lot of the elements I craved but without the queerness. Chinese BL web novels got close, but they were… well, in Chinese.
So at the end of the dinner, we all pledged to write the books of our hearts, commercial prospects be damned. And I’m pleased to say that three out of the four of us who were there that night have books out in 2021 and 2022. Dream big, kids!
What is it about the story of Zhu Yuanzhang that inspired you to write She Who Became the Sun?
I wasn’t raised religious, but I’m obsessed with the idea of monks (not actual monks, that would be weird). I love the ascetism, the impossible striving for perfect faith and serenity. As a child, I was extremely into the bit of the Lancelot stories where he puts down his sword, takes the tonsure, and dies of a broken heart (I was very popular in school). So, I was tossing around the idea of a Chinese Buddhist monk who forsakes his vows of nonviolence to defend his country, then gradually goes Dark Side, when I learned the origin story of the Hongwu Emperor. Zhu Yuanzhang started life as a starving peasant orphan and rose to become the tyrannical founding emperor of the Ming dynasty.
The really interesting thing for me, though, was: he was a novice monk in his youth. How the hell does a monk build an army that takes down an empire? For that matter, how does a peasant formulate the desire to become the Emperor? I was fascinated by what kind of person that would be. And to make it even more interesting, because Zhu Yuanzhang as emperor is the centre around which the Confucian patriarchal world order revolves, I wondered: what if that person wasn’t a man?
Did you do much research when writing She Who Became The Sun? If so, what areas of research did you concentrate on?
I love research – it feels very virtuous – but less as a means of acquiring facts than for it filling my brain with sparkly inspiration. I read histories; I read the classics; I read about the lives of ordinary people and about art; I read The Secret History of the Mongols. I lived in Asia so I went to a lot of museums. I watched dramas and told myself it was research.
I’d come across some fascinating minor historical figure, like the half-Mongol half-Chinese Prince of Henan who strove to be a perfect Mongol warrior and defender of the empire, and whose Chinese enemies would scream out his Chinese baby name on the battlefield to piss him off, and I’d be like: him, I must have him in this book! But once I started writing, I stopped researching. I maintain that my book is no less historically accurate than a mid-budget cdrama, and I’m at peace with that. I’m here to have fun.
Can you tell us more about the character of Zhu?
Zhu’s defining characteristic is the strength of her desire to survive. According to the values of the time, her life is worthless: she’s an ugly, illiterate peasant girl from the subjugated south of Mongol China. But Zhu rejects that judgement. Her life has value to her, and she’ll do anything to keep it.
Part of how she survives is by refusing to be constrained by any one identity. She’s constantly slipping between names, genders, social roles. She learns to delight in that slippage, to find power in the interstices. So, naturally, her foil is a character who’s imprisoned by his identity. It hurts him, but he can’t find his way out — in fact, he clings to it. He’s forever being defined by others. But Zhu defines herself.
How do you go about crafting your characters?
I’m always aiming for the end result of a character-driven story, but it starts out the opposite. My stories germinate from a loose nucleus of theme and emotion — in the case of She Who Became The Sun, it was gender and shame. I start by outlining a plot peopled with genre archetypes: the (anti)hero, the noble warrior prince, the bitter scholar. By the time I reach the end of the outline the archetypes have begun to take on greater specificity to better reflect story and theme. Then I redraft, and the story and theme change in response to the new characterisations. Which causes the characterisations to change again. It’s a painfully iterative process.
Zhu was a hard one to nail down — she was changing right up until the last draft, which was something like number eight.
Can you tell us more about the time period that She Who Became The Sun is set and the world that Zhu inhabits?
She Who Became The Sun is set in the 1350s during the last gasps of the Yuan dynasty. Founded by Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Yuan was a short-lived conquest dynasty of Mongol rule over China. The Mongols, coming from a steppe warrior culture, weren’t impressed by the accomplishments of sedentary Chinese civilisation and undid its meritocratic systems of governance. They also introduced a four-caste social structure designed to favour Mongols and keep the Chinese down.
On the other hand, China under the Mongols was more globally integrated than it had been since the 8th century. This was the period when Mongols ruled almost the entire Eurasian landmass, and the Yuan’s heterogenous society included Italians, Jews, Nestorian Christians, Persians, Turks, Central Asians, Koreans and all sorts of other groups.
About 80 years into the dynasty, China experienced a spate of natural disasters. The effects of these droughts, floods, pestilences and plagues were all exacerbated by gross misrule (I don’t need to point out the current-day parallels). Society broke down and violent actors sowed terror all over. To ordinary people it must have felt apocalyptic. That end-of-the-world feeling is where we begin Zhu’s story.
What are you reading right now?
I’m halfway through Tasha Suri’s epic South Asian fantasy The Jasmine Throne, which gripped me by the throat from the prologue and hasn’t let up since. It has body horror and lesbians and the kind of cathartic female rage you stand up and cheer for. There’s just one man in it who isn’t worthy of hate. It’s glorious. I also recently finished C.L. Clark’s magisterial The Unbroken, which holds no punches in its complex portrayal of a distinctly French type of colonial rule.
What’s next for you?
I think like everyone on the planet, I’m just looking forward to being done with 2020. The first half of next year I’ll be finishing the sequel to She Who Became The Sun, and then — we’ll see! I’m in awe of authors who level up between books — Madeline Miller is an inspiration on this front — and I’d love to challenge myself to do the same. I have a huge, terrifying-on-a-craft-level feminist historical fiction concept that I pitched to my agent and friends as “either genius, or insane”. I’m worried I might go down a research hole so hard I end up with a PhD in theology at the end of it…