“I said to President Obama, ‘I’m the best ever actress in the East — even better than Elizabeth Taylor,’” Liu Xiaoqing says matter of factly. “He just replied, ‘yes, yes, indeed.’”
In the pantheon of great Chinese actresses, few names come as revered as Liu. The star of more than 60 films and TV shows, Madame Liu, as she likes to be called, has a résumé that includes four marriages, once being China’s richest woman and a jail term for tax evasion. Now 61 years young, she is keen to discuss her latest role over dinner at Beijing’s Four Seasons Hotel. It's a role she has already played four times over.
“The tale of Empress Wu is like jade,” she tells TIME, dressed in a black tee bearing the slogan ”Little Cutie” over a green military-style shirt. “We’re on a treasure hunt for this most precious of treasures, unraveling the mysteries of that period and person.”
That person is Wu Zetian, the only woman to have ever ruled China, and that period is the Tang Dynasty (AD618 to 906). Liu is due to reprise the role in a 14-part series entitled Empress, due to hit American screens late next year.
Empress Wu is legendary in China for using her wit, intelligence and cunning to eclipse all rivals and rise from her position as Emperor Taizong’s favorite concubine to the very apex of court life. She also had scores of lovers, ruled through 72 prime ministers, and is believed to have killed her own daughter. “Only after I acted as Empress Wu did people start thinking positive things about her,” says Liu.
That’s evidently why Peter Luo, the CEO of Chinese movie company Starlight Films, asked Liu to rekindle the role in his new production. Game of Thrones executive producer, Christopher Newman, has signed onto the project, Luo says, and he is eyeing a “leading, most cutting edge” director for the first season, tossing out names like Roland Emmerich of Independence Day fame. Whoever is chosen, “they have to be the very best of the best,” says Luo. “The show could even expand over five, ten, or more than ten seasons.”
Those are big ambitions for a project without a broadcasting deal. Still, Luo doesn’t seem fazed. “Once when we finalize the script and the cast will we finally negotiate with HBO,” he says. “We have them in mind because we have a production team pretty much from Game of Thrones.”
It becomes clear over the conversation that Starlight plans to adapt the Empress Wu story to produce a Chinese equivalent of Game of Thrones, winner of a record 38 Emmys and maker of hundreds of million of dollars for its network. The timing maybe right: there will be a Seven Kingdom-sized hole in American viewing schedules after the eighth and final season of the fantasy drama airs, possibly as early as next year. Could the Middle Kingdom fill it? Liu is adamant, stressing that Empress will not be a cheap knock-off.
“I’ve watched every episode of Game of Thrones and I’ve every confidence that we’ll beat them in every possible way,” she says. “Otherwise there will be no point in expending so much energy.” Having watched the series so exhaustively she must have a favorite character? “All of them,” Liu answers magnanimously.
Born in the southwestern province of Sichuan shortly after Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Liu always dreamed of stardom. But she came of age during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), when plays and films, besides those made for propaganda, were banned as bourgeois vanities. After toiling as a farmhand and a railways worker, Liu spent ten years in the army, where she finally managed to break through as a propaganda performer, earning around ten dollars a month. “I couldn’t support my family,” she says.
But China began opening up in the late 1970s, and Liu quickly established herself as a leading name in a resurgent film and television industry. With her name and her earnings, she was able to start businesses in real estate, beverages, alcohol, apparel, cosmetics and household appliances. In 1999, she appeared at number 45 on Forbes’ list of the 50 richest people in China, and was the highest placed woman. But three years later came the tax evasion conviction and a year and two months in Beijing’s notorious Qincheng Jail. “When I went in I was the boss and didn’t even know how to open a door for myself,” she says.
It was a tough time of bad food and cold showers, enlivened only by the odd game of badminton with prison wardens. Liu had to sleep with up to seven other inmates on the floor of a small cell. “I used to jog diagonally across the cell and the other inmates had to stand against the wall to give me enough space,” she says.
After her release, Liu had “nothing, only debts,” she says. “I used to walk around Beijing and say, ‘I used to own this house, and this house, and this house.’” Despite her celebrity, she could only secure roles as a non-speaking extra, earning five or ten dollars a day. Eventually, though, better work started arriving: “I was such a wonderful actress that I earned the respect of everyone who met me.” Today, Liu may not have riches of old, but he’s happy being “comfortable.”
Empress Wu, of course, suffered her own tribulations. She was dispatched to a nunnery upon the death of her husband, Emperor Taizong and, like Liu, hauled herself back to glory through guile and determination. She won the heart of the new Emperor Gaozong, dispatched rivals using fleet-footed assassins, but importantly built a following among the common people though wise governance and meritocracy.
Strong female characters like the Empress remain in short supply in Chinese politics, however. Mao might have enthused that “women hold up half the sky,” but there are no female faces in the upper echelons of today’s ruling Communist Party. In fact, China has only one female provincial governor and one female provincial party secretary. Women make up less than a quarter of China’s National People’s Congress — the nation's rubber-stamp legislature — and are poorly represented in boardrooms too.
Oddly, Liu doesn't seem to mind. “It’s the choice of women,” she says. “Maybe women are not so pushy and attracted to politics.”
Besides, her affinity for the character lies on a far more mystical plane. When the Empress production team visited Empress Wu’s tomb in China’s ancient walled city of Xian, “there was a very beautiful rolling cloud, with a silver tint, and the local people said it was a miracle because their Empress had returned,” Liu says.
“And a Buddha’s halo followed me wherever I went.”