Jason Pym's Reviews > The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon
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it was amazing
bookshelves: china

** spoiler alert ** This is the epic telling of the founding of the Qing dynasty, China’s last ruling imperial family, through the story of one remarkable woman: Borjigit Bumbutai, later known as the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, the Green Phoenix.

The story begins on the Gobi steppe, where Bumbutai, then a young Mongolian girl, is out hunting with her brother, when she meets the love of her life – the Jurchen prince Dorgon. At just twelve years old she becomes a concubine in the court of Hong Taiji, twenty years her senior. She is ranked last of six consorts, despite bearing him children. We then follow her life through decades of war, death, and betrayal until she emerges as counsel and mentor to her grandson, the Kangxi Emperor, the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history and one of the most celebrated.

There are three major strands to the novel, the strongest narratively being the love affair between her and Dorgon, Manchu lord and son of the Jurchen Khan. Part of the reason this story is so powerful is that Dorgon is such a flawed character and Bumbutai duty bound, yet both are deeply in love until the very end. For both of them it is love at first sight, yet Bumbutai’s childish excitement is crushed when she realises that the man she is to marry is not Dorgon as she thought, but the ‘swarthy’ Hong Taiji. And so starts a lifetime of duty before desire.

Dorgon is not a ‘good’ man. He kills Hong Taiji (with poison). His insistence on marrying Bumbutai after the emperor’s death puts her very life in danger, because the jealous crown prince is plotting against her son. Bored with a political marriage to a Korean princess, he orders a Bannermen to sleep with her on the wedding night and his guards to sleep with the courtesans, after which he never sets eyes on them again. He pillages the Han and uses Han slavery as a reward for his Bannermen. Much like Hong Taiji, he elbows out any who compete with him for power: Hong Taiji’s eldest son likely died by his orders, Dorgon then takes his wife as a consort. As prince regent, he denies Bumbutai’s son, the emperor Shunzhi, education, keeping him ignorant as a way to leverage greater control. While prince regent he presided over massacres where over a million died in the bloody suppression of Jiangnan. In something of an understatement Bumbutai says of their wedding, ‘The man sitting next to her was a very different person from the warm and guileless lad she had met on the Mongolian steppe.’

For all this, there is a true love between them. Dorgon dies in a hunting accident clutching Bumbutai’s love letter and a lock of her hair. One of Bumbutai’s last acts is to visit this spot where he died; ‘Her life had always been lived for other people and never for herself. For her grandfather, for the Khorchin Mongols, for Hong Taiji, for Shunzhi, for Kangxi and for the Qing Empire. Yet for her most beloved Dorgon she had given so very little of herself. She wanted so much to tell his spirit everything that had weighed on her mind for so long. She was convinced that his spirit lingered still in that place of death because there had never been a proper entombment of his remains, and she chose to believe what she wanted to believe.’ And so she tells Dorgon’s spirit that he is actually the father of Princess Shuhui, her beloved second daughter, now 51 years old. ‘Through all these long lonely years, it is our lovely daughter who has kept me going.’

The second story, or stories, running through the novel are the endless court intrigues, the plots and politicking. There is Hong Taiji’s rivalry with Dorgon, both for Bumbutai’s affections and for power – Hong Taiji’s devious schemes sabotage Dorgon’s path, not least of which is his instigation of the brutal murder of Dorgon’s mother. This not only elevates Hong Taiji to the position of emperor, but also means that Dorgon has to serve him as a military commander, to take orders from the man and pay respect to him at court. There is a feeling that builds throughout the book that there’s a certain inevitability to the political machinations, which makes the court feel like deeply claustrophobic and dangerous place.

Bumbutai and her son Fulin (the Shunzhi Emperor) are under threat from those who want the imperial throne for themselves: Hong Taiji’s eldest son, Dorgon’s brother Ajige and General Oboi. Having seen what happened to Dorgon’s mother, this is a real and imminent threat to their very lives. Yet Bumbutai manages to protect herself and her son, by playing off political rivals against each other, and once the smoke clears it is always her and her son (and later her grandson) who are left standing.

Then there are is the plotting of the concubines; the desire of the emperor translates directly to personal power, but it is the bearing of a son which is the ultimate trump card. And so we see Bumbutai’s own flesh and blood sister try to poison her to induce a miscarriage. But interestingly here it is Bumbutai’s reaction which is a key to her character and her wisdom. She does not get angry or retaliate, rather she assumes that such an desperate action must have been in turn born out of her sister’s own desperate straits, which it was.

Meanwhile Ming China was defeated largely in part to the plotting of the court eunuchs, who were opposed to war because it would drain the imperial treasury they were so keen on siphoning off themselves.

Though this all seems cut-throat to the point of lacking any basic humanity, it boils down to a simple ‘do or die’ equation. Hong Taiji ‘had read enough Chinese history to be convinced that power was the only effective armour in an imperial court. The incident of Xuanwu Gate in the Tang Dynasty (玄武門之變), in which a prince had murdered his throne-vying siblings, had firmly lodged in his mind.’

The last strand of the novel is the defeat of enemies. Often this is through sheer military might, as with the defeat in just days of the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan. But it is surprising how often underhanded tricks and nefarious plots take place here too, especially because my idea of the northern nomads was brutal warriors, not devious politicians. But we see many times that deceit wins the day – a fake truce with the Ming General Yuan followed by a lie that he is collaborating with the enemy is enough to let the eunuchs destroy the man. And the most capable of Chinese generals is removed not on the battlefield but by politics and the betrayal of his own side, in turn destroying the morale of the other Ming commanders: ‘Patriotism rewarded with cruel death’ of a thousand cuts. Later this treatment plays no small part in convincing other Chinese commanders to defect to the Manchu side, contrasting the respect and better treatment with the corrupt and broken Ming rule.

Of the enemies of the Qing, perhaps the most famous are the Three Warlords, in particular Wu Sangui. It is his initial betrayal of the Ming that is often said to have caused that dynasty’s downfall, and he is an especially interesting character himself, later declaring his own deluded imperial rule. What keeps him in check is Bumbutai’s decision to keep his son a hostage at the palace. The reason for his betrayal, and his muse, was the long-suffering concubine Chen Yuanyuan, who lived most of her life as a Taoist nun and was buried not far from where I live now in the Anfu Garden just outside Kunming. I’d love to read a story just about these two.

The other interesting enemy is Koxinga (鄭成功). He manages to control large parts of eastern China and heads an army of a hundred thousand. To stop his warships the Qing army actually barricades off the whole of the Yangtze, a couple miles across at Nanjing, with iron chains. He breaks through this, and the only things that stop him taking the city is a chance storm. In the end he was defeated by agents sneaking explosives onto his ships.

And what is the Green Phoenix’ role in all this? Well, she is the power behind the throne, it starts early when she is still a teenage concubine, whispering a suggestion to the emperor that a certain scholar would make an excellent advisor on the military council. She is forced to step into the foreground when Koxinga threatens Nanjing, and in fear and desperation her son the Emperor appears to be losing his mind. Decades later, as Empress Dowager, her pronouncements are more open but still she largely plays the part of director arranging actors on the stage. Her advice comes at crucial moments, her manipulations are what makes the machine work smoothly. Without her, there would be no foundations, the edifice would crumble, and we would not have had the golden age of the Qing (康乾盛世).

Indeed, there is only one man in her life who does not listen to her advice, even when it puts both of them in danger, and that, ironically, is Dorgon.

For me, this was not only a gripping read but also expanded my knowledge of an important part of Chinese history that I was not familiar with.

Perhaps the strangest part of the novel to get used to is the relations between the sexes. Anyone vaguely interested in China knows there were concubines and consorts, but how this works in practice is very strange for a modern reader. The first time I encountered it was in Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life. Shen Fu’s wife, whom he dearly loves, decides he needs a young concubine to cheer him up a bit, and actually takes a very active role in procuring a girl she thinks is suitable.

Here Bumbutai too, at the age of 21 having just given birth to her third child, decides that her elder sister Harjol would be a good distraction for the emperor, and might even bear him a son, and so from behind the scenes arranges the deal. And it is Hong Taiji’s wife the Empress who leads a Buddhist ceremony praying for the safe birth of Harjol’s first child. Later Bumbutai becomes friends with Dorgon’s consort Little Jade, who tells her Dorgon is now sterile after a battle wound – this is why she agrees to marry him, as she would not dishonour her son the Emperor by bearing the prince regent another son.

And then when these women do give birth they are often not even allowed to be mothers. Bumbutai’s own son is instantly whisked away to be raised by the Empress, because royal heirs had to be brought up on strict etiquette and protocol, not ‘pampered by their birth mothers’.

The Qing dynasty harem system was ‘one of the simpler ones’ in Chinese history with only nine ranks (!), of which only the highest five appear in the novel: Empress (皇后), Imperial Noble Consort (皇貴妃), Noble Consort (貴妃), Consort (妃), and Concubine (嬪).

Apart from the harem system, I also did not know that:

Hong Taiji (洪台極) was actually the first proper emperor of the Qing. It was he who changed the dynastic name from Later Jin (後金) to Qing. However, as his father Nurhaci (努爾哈赤) defeated the Ming, he was posthumously given the title of first emperor, so Hong Taiji is now known as the second Qing emperor.

Nurhaci and his family are Jurchen (女真), the Jurchen were an ethnic group made up of three main tribes. They lived in Manchuria (滿洲,今天的東北), and after being united by Nurhaci in his conquest of China they became known as the Manchu (滿族), named for the place they came from by Hong Taiji.

It was the the Han Chinese rebel leader Li Zicheng (李自成) who kidnapped Wu Sangui’s (吳三桂) family, and more importantly (in this story) his beloved Chen Yuanyuan. Wu’s defection to the Qing was in order to fight Li Zicheng and get his family back – though Li latter killed thirty eight of Wu Sangui’s relatives, tortured and decapitated his father, and took Chen Yuanyuan as a courtesan; it’s not surprising Wu was pissed. After the defeat of Li Zicheng, the Qing army was then free to march into Beijing and claim the imperial throne for the Shunzhi emperor (順治帝, Bumbutai’s son by Hong Taiji, Fulin).

It was Dorgon (多爾袞) who first issued an order for all Han Chinese to shave their foreheads and wear long queues in the Manchu style, but it met with such hostile resistance he begrudgingly rescinded it.

'During the Kublai Khan era of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolian Imperial clan created a miniature steppe within a tightly guarded walled compound in the middle of the city. It was thus that the ruling clan and families could preserve their culture of communal living in gers, away from the prying eyes of the Han Chinese. That is where the name ‘Forbidden City’ comes from.'

The term ‘三寶’, three treasures, now commonly used to refer to the Three Jewels of Buddhism, was originally a Taoist expression, meaning the Taoist Three Treasures: Compassion (慈), frugality (儉) and modesty(不敢為天下先).

It is also interesting to see how the Qing assimilate Chinese culture, while maintaining their ties to their Shamanistic religion and the legacy of Genghis Khan. The nobility here are versed in both the Chinese classics and the Secret History of the Mongols. Bumbutai’s spiritual touchstone is the Mongolian Eternal Blue Sky, called on in desperate times – a sick child, or as an explanation for the vagaries of fate. She regards Zen Buddhism as an escapist waste of time, yet defends the Jesuit missionary Schall von Bell to the end.

All in all Green Phoenix is a stunning, epic tale, yet showing how individual personalities and relationships of just a handful of people can shape nations and the destinies of millions. A thoroughly enjoyable read.


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Reading Progress

August 26, 2017 – Shelved
August 26, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
November 11, 2018 – Shelved as: china
Started Reading
November 12, 2018 – Finished Reading

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