The Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang is one of China’s lesser-known female leaders. A Mongolian princess at the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Qing dynasty in the 1630s, Xiaozhuang was married off young – at the age of 12 – as a concubine to the ruling emperor, Hong Taiji. Her story is a ready-made soap opera, including betrayal and torn loyalties, hidden passions and deceit.
Award-winning author Alice Poon has skilfully recreated the story in her novel The Green Phoenix, starting from the Empress’ nuptials in 1625, when she was known only by her Mongolian name, Bumbutai. Poon’s book is a fascinating dive into the cut-throat rituals of the Manchu court, and brings the story of the Mongolian princess to a Western audience.
What first drew you to Empress Xiaozhuang?
I was first drawn to Empress Xiaozhuang in 2003, when I became mesmerised by a Chinese TV historical series about her life, called The Secret History of Xiaozhuang. It focused on the forbidden love between her and the Prince Dorgon. I became obsessed with her and the idea of writing about her, and the more I researched, the more I was convinced that her contribution as a female leader in China’s history has been quite underrated. I was also aware that her story has never been told to Western readers.
Chinese history was always my favourite subject at school. In my childhood I’d spend summer holidays devouring Jin Yong’s martial arts and chivalry novels – they’re all set in China’s distant past, which sparked my lifelong passion for this period in Chinese history.
Why was this time in China’s history of particular importance?
What intrigued me was that it was this transitional period between two dynasties, very tumultuous and with lots of instability and rebellions. The main dynasty at that point in history was teetering on the brink of collapse. The emperors were very deeply distrustful of their ministers and generals, there was deep-rooted corruption at all levels of the administration, and added to that were long periods of drought and heavy taxes, so the peasants were having a really hard time.
How historically accurate is the book?
One key source I started with was the official Twenty-Four Histories [Er Shi Si Shi], which are the Chinese official historical books up to the 17th century. I also relied on another book that recorded the biographies of the Qing consorts, written by a Manchu scholar – that was great, it’s full of lots of colourful stories. And of course, I also used the Hong Kong Central Library for research, and other sources about Manchu poetry and stories.
I tried to stick to historical facts as much as possible, but where there were gaps in the history I flexed my imagination and filled in the gaps.
What lessons does her story have for today?
I think modern readers can learn from her character, her open-mindedness and respect for cultures that are foreign to her, her capacity for compassion and empathy, and her strength and tenacity in the face of harrowing situations. These are great qualities that modern leaders can learn from. She is a very strong character.
I think this period also has some special lessons for our times. I believe it shows that harsh subjugation and oppression by rulers is hardly conducive to stable governance, let alone the winning of minds and hearts. This part of history shows that cultural, ethnic and religious diversity should be embraced and respected as a positive force, rather than something to be feared and shunned. These are great lessons for us today.