Alice Poon on The Green Phoenix and Empress Xiaozhuang

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon
The Green Phoenix. True story of the woman who re-shaped Asia. Click on the image for reviews and further details.

Alice Poon’s The Green Phoenix tells the story of Xiaozhuang who rises from being a concubine in the Mongol court to the heady heights of being the matriarch and Empress of the Qing dynasty. Following the real-life tale of her rise and the intricacies of the Ming and Qing courts, The Green Phoenix sees Xiaozhuang evade threats, political crises, personal heartbreaks and huge losses to establish and lead the Qing dynasty which would rule for the next 250 years. 

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon
The Green Phoenix. The true story of the woman who re-shaped Asia. Click on the image for reviews and further details.

What inspired you to set your novels in the Ming-Qing transition period?

I have always found this period fascinating because embedded in this stretch of history are many poignant human stories about love and romance, wars and politics, divided loyalties and ethnic conflict. These subjects are always intriguing because they are relatable and remind us of our present-day human condition.

Growing up, I’ve read about those stories from Chinese writings (including Jin Yong’s novels) and watched numerous opera, film and TV adaptations. Examples of such stories include the romance between Chen Yuanyuan and Ming traitor Wu Sangui, the story of patriotic sacrifice of Princess Changping (who was made famous in the Cantonese opera 帝女花 ), the story of love and duty of Empress Xiaozhuang, the story of loyalty of the courtesan Li Xiangjun (as told in the famous historical drama The Peach Blossom Fan), just to name the most popular ones.

Also, the art scene of this period was one of great diversity and flair, probably at the height of Ming literary and music development, thanks to the emergence of the “cultured courtesan” phenomenon in Jiangnan (South of the Yangtze).

How did you set about researching the history behind your stories?

My research sources include works written in Chinese and those written in English. The Hong Kong Central Library has been my “go-to” place for most Chinese sources.

For the researching of The Green Phoenix, I relied primarily on the newer editions of Chinese history publications, which are compiled from the official Twenty-Four Histories and Draft History of Qing, plus a number of English non-fiction titles, including Pamela Kyle Crossley’s The Manchus, Frederic Wakeman’s The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China, Evelyn S. Rawski’s The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, The Secret History of the Mongols (Edited by Urgunge Onon), and others. The full English bibliography is listed in the Author’s Afterword.

I also used for reference a contemporary Manchu scholar’s (徐廣源) biographical work about Qing Empresses and Consorts, written in Chinese. He used to work in a government project of archiving documents found in Qing imperial mausoleums. I found the book very informative about some of the Qing court etiquette and customs.

Are there any particularly useful resources that you have come across as research tools when writing your books?

A. In general, internet resources are always helpful and convenient. For an in-depth understanding of Mongolian culture and its legacy, I’ve found Jack Weatherford’s two books very useful: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens. These two books helped me form an outline of Empress Xiaozhuang’s character.

Your work in progress is the story of Chen Yuanyuan, who featured in your debut novel. Without giving the plot away, could you tell us a bit about the history involved in this forthcoming book?

A. My work-in-progress (I’m happy to say that a couple of days ago I submitted the completed manuscript to my publisher) is a story about three late-Ming courtesans, one of whom is Chen Yuanyuan, the other two being Liu Rushi, a poetry and art prodigy, and Li Xiangjun, the dauntless heroine portrayed in The Peach Blossom Fan. All three are legendary in beauty and talent. The timeline of this new novel, like The Green Phoenix, is the Ming-Qing transition period, but the focus is on the few years just before and after the Manchu invasion of Beijing, and the setting is in Jiangnan. This novel is about the art scene and unique courtesan culture of the glitzy pleasure district of Nanjing, with a tilt towards courtesans’ plight as social outcasts.

How do you balance the fiction and the fact?

I don’t believe there are hard and fast rules. For different novels, a slight tilt one way or the other may well be justified. Sometimes, historical facts, if suitably dramatized, can be just as immersive as fiction. It is good practice, though, to indicate in the Author’s Note major deviations from historical facts where known.

While working on The Green Phoenix, I tried to incorporate political conflicts at both the Manchu and Ming courts and the major battles fought at the Great Wall and later inside China, weaving them with the fictionalized life story of Empress Xiaozhuang. My own take is that those conflicts and battles are pivotal in bringing about the Manchus’ conquest of Ming China and Xiaozhuang’s rise to power, and thus form a crucial part of her story. But I do appreciate that for readers who are not familiar with Chinese history, all the complex historical events might be a lot to take in, especially with the large cast. That is why I’ve included a Chronology and Cast of Characters at the back of the novel. For some readers, the court machinations and the various battles are elements that add spice to the main story.

With the new novel though, I’ve found it a lot easier to relegate historical facts to the background and let the story flow seamlessly. As the leading characters never figured in official Chinese history and there are many blanks in official records (although there’s no lack of relevant literary work), I feel I can be more liberal with taking artistic license. So the tilt, in this case, is more in favour of the story itself.

What is your planning process?

Once I’ve set my mind on certain historical character(s), I would dive into researching the protagonist(s) of the novel and the historical background. During this time, the structure and theme of the story would begin to take shape in my mind (but they would change during writing). Then the research of other major characters would follow. (As a historical novelist, I have a proclivity for writing about real Chinese historical characters.) When all the basic research is done, the writing begins. I don’t as a habit begin with an outline. Inspiration would come as the story carries me along.

Lots of schools do make use of historical fiction in lessons, did you take that into account when writing your [time travel] novel? Do you think that historical fiction can help them to understand the period that your novel is set in?

To be honest, I never took that into account when I wrote my two historical novels. Be that as it may, it has always been my cherished dream to introduce Chinese history through fiction to a Western audience. As I understand it, the historical fiction genre is, for lack of a better word, “Eurocentric”, and the Historical Chinese Novel market is still underdeveloped. That’s why I was a little surprised when you said that schools would be interested. I do think that my historical novels can help students (or adults for that matter) understand the period (and place) they are set in, including the social, cultural and political aspects.

Who are your favourite authors (or historians)? How have they influenced your own work?

My favourite authors include Jin Yong (I’m a childhood fan of his martial arts novels), 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.

Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman and Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman inspired me to write The Green Phoenix. Buck’s vivid and balanced portrait of Empress Cixi and Massie’s moving tale and period descriptions left indelible marks on my mind. I find that there are striking similarities between Catherine the Great and Empress Xiaozhuang: they were both forced into a political marriage; both were foreign brides in their adopted homelands; both wielded immense influence on their subjects.

What plans have you for your writing? Will it continue to be set in this period or do you see yourself writing in different genres or historical periods?

I think I will continue to focus on writing about Chinese female historical characters. As with my two novels (one published, one upcoming), the choice is as much about the characters as the time period. But my next project would probably be set in a period other than the Ming-Qing transition.

What tips do you have for an aspiring writer, of any age?

My advice would be: read, read and read some more. If he/she wants to write Historical Chinese Fiction, I would recommend that he/she learn the Chinese language first, because it would come in handy when doing research.

Links and reviews

Discovering Diamonds review of The Green Phoenix.

Alice Poon’s blog includes historical information and further information about the history behind the story.

Author Interviews

KM Pohlkamp – discusses her research into several periods and her novel set in Tudor England.

Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources

Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris

David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I

Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life

Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened

Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir

Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced

Mark Norman on Folklore

Nathen Amin – the Rise of the Beaufort’s and Tudor England

Enemies: A War Story. An interview with Kenneth Rosenberg

MC Holliss: Historical Fiction for Primary School children

David Field discusses his novels set in Tudor England

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