Tales of Ming Courtesans – Alice Poon

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alice Poon steeped herself in Chinese poetry and history, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels and English Literature. Always fascinated with iconic but unsung women in Chinese history and legends, she cherishes a dream of bringing them to the page. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. I’m delighted to have Alice here to give us a look behind the novel and the women who inspired Tales of Ming Courtesans.

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Thank you, Mary, for having me on your esteemed blog.

Today, I would like to talk about the status of women in the context of Chinese history and literature, and how that has spurred me into giving voice to three notably talented courtesans of the late-Ming era in my new novel Tales of Ming Courtesans.

One day many years ago I was glancing through the lists of Official Biographies in Chinese history books that cover the time stretch from 960 (start of Northern Song dynasty) right up to 1912, i.e. a total of nine-and-a-half centuries or 952 years, and something hit me out of the blue.

It struck me that from this wide span of history only six females (four empresses and two woman rebels, yes, rebels) were deemed worthy of a little space in official historical records. Lucky as the four selected empresses were, on paper their achievements were almost reduced to playing well the role of dutiful wives/mothers/guardians to emperors. It was also quite apparent that the two woman rebels were included merely to stigmatize them. Perhaps nothing more need be said about how deeply rooted gender discrimination is in the traditional Chinese culture.

It thus follows that stories of many notable Chinese women who had great contributions to the arts and cultural history (sometimes even military history) of China never found their way into official histories and can only be gleaned from literature and folklore.

But then again, for hundreds of years, the stories of my main characters, Liu Rushi (an acclaimed poet), Chen Yuanyuan (a talented musician and kunqu singer) and Li Xiangjun (a famous kunqu opera singer), have been told by men in literary writings from the male perspective. As a result, these three artistically gifted ladies have always been known on paper as Great Beauties of Qinhuai, as if beauty was their only attribute. [Qinhuai is a main setting in the novel and is the name of the glitzy pleasure hub in Nanjing. It is also the name of a main river that ran through the city centre.]

Typically, male writers cannot avoid the trap of measuring these women solely in terms of their beauty/femininity and the men in their lives. They tend to conveniently gloss over the women’s incredible moral courage in their fight against subjugation, and the fact that they were extremely intelligent human beings with a mind of their own. In the eyes of self-styled moralists, these women were nothing but witless tramps whose only aim was to ruin men. What has been left unsaid is that society’s cruel bigotry and misogyny was in fact the main culprit that wrecked these women’s lives.

Eminent historian/writer Chen Yinke (1890 – 1969) was an outstanding exception. He was the adoring biographer of Liu Rushi, a poetry prodigy. In teasing out the complicated life story of Liu, he concluded by remarking that she was the embodiment of the nation’s spirit of independence and liberal thinking. That remark alone was enough to goad me into writing this novel. I was really glad to have stumbled on the 800,000-word, 3-volume, epic biography.

After reading my research materials, I was convinced that these women, who were victims of bigotry and sexism, had far more moral courage and integrity than people gave them credit for, not to mention the lasting legacy they left behind in literature and music. There was only one way to do them justice, and that is, to give them voice – something which has always been denied them. I imagined what they might have said, thought, felt and done in their daily struggle for survival, dignity and hope in a deeply misogynistic society. My musings then became Tales of Ming Courtesans. The story is told entirely from their viewpoints.

Tales of Ming Courtesans not only describes the main characters’ tragedies but also celebrates how they transcend the challenges to show kindness toward their friends and inspire them to stand up for their dignity.

To conclude, I would like my novel to send a positive message: that the human spirit is most resilient in the darkest of hours and that hope and solidarity will not only empower the oppressed but will become the very seed of positive change.

Many thanks for sharing the background and motivation for Tales of Ming Courtesans, Alice. And for your timely concluding message – one that we definitely need to hear today. Best wishes for success.

Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon ~~ From the author of The Green Phoenix comes a riveting tale of female friendship, honor, and sacrifice for love, set in 17th Century China and featuring the intertwined stories of three of the era’s most renowned courtesans, escorts skilled in music, poetry and painting who could decide themselves whether or not to offer patrons bed favors.

Inspired by literary works and folklore, Tales of Ming Courtesans traces the destinies of the three girls from the seamy world of human trafficking and slavery to the cultured scene of the famously decadent pleasure district of the city of Nanjing, evoking episodes in Memoirs of a Geisha.

The girls all existed – Rushi was a famous poet, Yuanyuan became the concubine of a general who changed the course of Chinese history by supporting the Manchu invasion in 1644 and Xiangjun challenged the corruption of court officials to try to save her lover. Rushi’s daughter, Jingjing, gradually pieces together the stories of the three from a memoir left to her by her mother.

Betrayal, tenacity and hope all come together in a novel that brings to life an important era in China’s history, and particularly highlights the challenges faced by independent-minded women.

Alice visited the blog in 2019 with History as a Mirror of Our Present.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

6 More Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

Tuesday’s post highlighted 8 tips based on guest posts during the past twelve months. Today, I offer six more.

Blythe Gifford author of The Witch Finder starts every one of her novels with a map. In Creating a Sense of Place Blythe says:

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

 

In History as a Mirror of our Present, Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, writes that:

the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus, the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.

 

In The People of our Past, George Dovel, author of The Geometry of Vengeance writes:

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

 

In Truth in Historical Story Telling, Tara Cowan reminds us that:

We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them? … We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters.

 

Harald Johnson explains how he researched Neanderthal times for his latest novel:

there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.

 

Melissa Addey, author of The Consort, provides an interesting perspective in Approaching Research as a Child:

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life.

 

And there you have it. A year of terrific guest posts and great insights on historical fiction.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

History as a Mirror of Our Present by Alice Poon

Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, has a unique background that informs her writing. She firmly believes that historical fiction offers insights for the present.

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Having been born and raised in colonial Hong Kong, I was lucky to have received a bilingual education. Chinese History and English Literature were my two favorite school subjects. My dream to become a writer was spawned in my mid-teens, stoked by an English Literature teacher’s praise for a piece of my creative composition. Prior to high school, I had already become a young fan of Jin Yong’s martial arts historical novels. Hence, it could be said that the tendency to write fiction based on Chinese History had been cast long before I put my writing dream into action, which didn’t occur till late adulthood.

Since the publication of my first historical Chinese novel The Green Phoenix in 2017, I have been interviewed a few times. These two questions seem to be the most common: (1) Why did I choose that particular historical period to write about? (2) Which authors are my favorites and how have they influenced my work?

Re: the first question, The Green Phoenix is set in the Ming-Qing transition period (17thcentury China). I have always found this period fascinating because embedded in this stretch of history are many poignant human stories about love, loss, wars, politics, divided loyalties, treachery and ethnic conflict. These stories are always immersive because they are so relatable. They are relatable because the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.

Growing up, I came across those historical stories via Chinese writings (including Jin Yong’s novels) and through watching numerous opera, film and TV adaptations. Examples of such stories include the romance between the famous courtesan Chen Yuanyuan and Ming traitor Wu Sangui, the story of patriotic sacrifice of Princess Changping (who was made famous in the renowned Cantonese opera The Emperor’s Daughter 帝女花), the story of forbidden love of Empress Xiaozhuang and Dorgon, the story of unflinching loyalty of the courtesan Li Xiangjun (as told in the famous historical play The Peach Blossom Fan), to cite the most popular few.

Another factor that draws me to this period is that the art scene of the times was one of great diversity and creative flair, probably at the summit of Ming poetry and opera music development. This artistic phase ran parallel with what became known as the “cultured courtesan” phenomenon which prevailed in Jiangnan (South of the Yangtze). It was a period of vibrant interaction, both romantically and in terms of poetic and musical expertise, between the literati and talented courtesans. I might just mention that my upcoming novel is set in the glitzy pleasure district of Nanjing, where such art scene becomes the animated setting. The story follows the destinies and sisterhood of three of the most celebrated courtesans of those times.

Re: the second question. My favorite authors include Jin Yong, Pearl S. Buck, Sarah Dunant, Sharon Kay Penman, Antonia Fraser, Hilary Mantel and Robert K. Massie.

It was Jin Yong’s novels that sparked my life-long love of Chinese history, and in recent years I have greatly enjoyed historical novels written by my favorite authors. Their books are great sources of inspiration for me, in terms of how to blend historical facts with fiction.

Two books in particular inspired me to write The Green Phoenix: Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman and Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Buck’s vivid and honest (as opposed to eulogistic) portrait of Empress Cixi impressed me. There are already numerous English language accounts, both fictional and non-fictional, about Empress Cixi’s life and deeds. In sum, she is well-known as the leader who brought the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, to an end. But, by contrast, very little has ever been written in English about Empress Xiaozhuang. As the female leader who helped found the Qing dynasty and who significantly contributed to peace and the well-being of the multi-ethnic society at large, she has been sorely neglected in the literary world. I thought it was high time for a novel to be written about her life and the tumultuous times she lived in (marked by the Manchu Qing’s violent supplanting of the Ming).

Massie’s moving tale of Catherine the Great and his meticulous period descriptions left an indelible imprint on my mind. As much as Catherine the Great and Empress Xiaozhuang have hugely different personalities, it dawned on me that there are certain striking similarities between them: they were both forced by their families into a political marriage; both were unhappy foreign brides in their respective adopted homelands; both overcame unimaginable obstacles to become influential female leaders, leaving a prominent mark on history. After reading Massie’ book, I was convinced that Empress Xiaozhuang would make a compelling protagonist in a historical novel. This was going to be my pet writing project!

Prior to reading these two books, I had watched, in 2003, a Chinese historical drama TV series that was about Empress Xiaozhuang, which got me hooked. I had then started to do some research on her. The more I read about her, the more I fell in awe of this amazing woman. The idea of writing about her thus started to take shape.

When Bumbutai (Xiaozhuang’s given name) is twelve years old, by design and fate, she is given by her grandfather, the Khorchin Mongol tribal leader, in a political marriage to a powerful Manchu prince, Hong Taiji, who later becomes the first Qing Emperor. Twenty-one years her senior, Hong Taiji obviously cannot compete for her love with Dorgon, his handsome and young half-brother and nemesis. Nonetheless, she has to submit, broken-hearted as she is, to the fate of a Manchu consort, whose primary duty is to bear a son for her Emperor. Dorgon won’t leave her alone and they seek ways to meet in secret. Then she bears Hong Taiji a son. Five years later, Hong Taiji, whose mind has been set on conquering Ming China, dies a sudden death, leaving the Aisin Gioro clansmen in a bitter feud over who should take up the throne and the Ming cause….

The Green Phoenix centers round the story of forbidden love and emotional struggles between Xiaozhuang and Dorgon, set against the violent backdrop of the Ming-Qing dynastic change. Underlying themes include struggles between love and duty, familial love, betrayal and loss, and disparity between violent and benevolent rule.

Many thanks, Alice. Our world seems to be experiencing some ‘dynastic change’ at the moment. Perhaps we can learn from the past. Alice’s new novel Tales of Ming Courtesans, inspired by literary works and folklore, will be published by Earnshaw Books in March 2020.

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon ~~ With the fate of East Asia hanging in the balance, one Mongolian woman manipulated her lovers, sons and grandsons through war and upheaval to create an empire that lasted for 250 years. The Green Phoenix tells the story of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess who became a consort in the Manchu court and then the Qing Dynasty’s first matriarch. She lived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky Empire out of a dead end. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson – all emperors and supreme leaders of the Qing Empire – to success against the odds.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.