Rebellion is brewing among the populace. White Lotus, a band of women warriors, conspires to oust the Manchu (or Qing) emperors; the Imperial dynasty is rumoured to have lost the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ due to misrule.
In this forbidding world, the Censorate, a powerful institution in feudal China, is the only official body entitled to criticize the Emperor or declare the Mandate of Heaven forfeited. But as the Qianlong reign comes to its ignominious end, Heshen, the power behind the throne, banishes the Chief Censor to his homestead Nanking – where he is to await capital punishment.
Rebellion in Imperial China often assumed the guise of ‘Ming-loyalism’ – loyalty to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), which legend and nostalgia turned into another Golden Age, nobler, more liberty-minded, and more refined than China’s current overlords allow. As late as 1913, adherents of the then revolutionary Sun Yatsen paint Restore the Ming! on Shanghai’s factory walls.
In The Pavilion of Forgotten Concubines, Ming-loyalism is what officials fear most. For modern readers, it may well provide a key to crack a literary mystery that has haunted scholars to this day…