The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon: A Love Story During Dynastic Change

CYNTHIA ANDERSON

Alice Poon’s debut novel is set in 17th-century China during the tumultuous transition from the Ming to Qing dynasties. The Green Phoenix is a novelized account of the life of Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess, who became a consort in the Manchu court and then rose to power as the first Empress Dowager of the Qing Dynasty.

Poon was drawn to write about her in 2003 when she watched a Chinese TV historical drama series about her life, The Secret History of Xiaozhuang, which focused on the heartbreaking forbidden love between her and Prince Dorgon. ‘Years later when I finally decided to write a novel on her and began researching her past and the positive influence she had as the wife, mother and grandmother of the first three emperors of the Qing, I realized that her contributions as a female leader in China’s patriarchal history had been grossly underrated. Since Western readers have long been obsessed with only two imperial women in Chinese history, Empress Wu Zetian and Empress Cixi, I wanted to introduce her to a Western literary audience.’

Bumbutai, Xiaozhuang’s given name, was both an outsider, having been uprooted from her Mongolian way of life to marry the leader of the Manchu, and an insider through her lineage to the brother of Genghis Khan. In the novel, her tolerance helped to bridge the deep cultural divide between Manchu and Chinese. Manchu culture centered on horsemanship, archery and hunting; women didn’t bind their feet and men shaved their heads except for a patch of hair in the back that was grown long and braided into a queue.

By contrast, Chinese culture valued scholarship, women bound their feet and Confucian filial piety stipulated that men shouldn’t cut their hair since it was a gift from their parents. ‘Instead of enslaving the Chinese,’ Poon explains, ‘Bumbutai persuaded her husband to benefit from their expertise by appointing Confucian scholars to key court and military positions. At the same time, she remained loyal to her Mongolian heritage by fighting for her son to succeed to the throne followed by her grandson to ensure that the imperial lineage of the Qing Empire would carry the Mongolian bloodline. In this way the welfare of her Khorchin Mongol tribe would be guaranteed, as her grandfather hoped.’

Relying on both Chinese and Western history books to research the period, Poon tried not to deviate too much from the historical record. ‘Such an approach makes it harder, but not impossible for historical novelists to write a good story. It’s a challenge we must rise up to meet.’ Against the turmoil of the transition, Bumbutai struggled with her hidden love for Dorgon, the younger half-brother of her husband. Here the historical record is less clear as to the exact relationship between them and Poon relies on conjecture and imagination to fill in the gaps.

Many strong women appear in The Green Phoenix from Sumalagu, Bumbutai’s maid, to consorts and wives. One of the intriguing figures Poon writes about is Chen Yuanyuan, a concubine of the Chinese general who surrendered to, and later rebelled against, Manchu rule. ‘Compared to Bumbutai, Chen has a much more tragic life, for the sole reason that she was born to abject poverty in a society that discriminated by class and sex. Bad luck heaps on her unceasingly, and there is very little a low-born courtesan like her can do to change her pitiable fate. Yet despite all her afflictions, she shows herself to be a forgiving person with noble principles and deep compassion.’

Poon believes there are some lessons to be learned from this period in Chinese history. ‘My own two cents are that subjugation and repression are hardly conducive to stable governance in a regime, much less winning the hearts and minds of the populace; that cultural, ethnic and religious diversity should be embraced and respected as a positive force rather than treated as something to be feared.’

Poon is currently working on her next historical novel, which is set in the same period as The Green Phoenix. It is about the tragic lives of three famous courtesans, one of whom is Chen Yuanyuan.

 

About the contributor: Cynthia Anderson is writing a novel, Beyond the Steppes, set in 17th-century China, about the journey of a Mongolian girl from nomadic herder to the Empress who helped shape modern China. You can find out more about her here.

 

Posted by Claire Morris

Responses

  1. Wayne Ng
    September 9, 2017

    I”m really looking forward to this read, sounds intriguing.

  2. Pemdyala Malleswara Rao
    September 9, 2017

    Added Bumbutai to Wu Zetian and cixi not only to the western but also to others who are having their interest on historical fiction and we are eagerly waiting for her new historic fiction on three famous chinese courtesans.we are having our own historic novel on Amrapali of Vaishali state of India during the period of Great Budha.Thanks for Anderson for the exiting contribution.