author Alice Poon, Empress Xiaozuang, history sheds light on the present, novels about Empress Xiaozhuang, novels set during the Ming dynasty, novels set in China, purpose of historical fiction, stories of forbidden love, The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon
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.
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.