The Woman Who Built an Empire6 min read

Jeremiah Jenne reviews Alice Poon’s novel  The Green Phoenix


The Qing imperial palaces were never easy places to be a woman. You were ranked, and your ranking determined your level of comfort and security. The surest way to move up the rankings was to attract the continued favor of the emperor or, at the very least, bear him a son. Should that son someday take the throne, then you, as the Empress Dowager, could finally enjoy some power and prestige, not least because the Qing emperors were, by and large, mamas’ boys.

“The Qing imperial palaces were never easy places to be a woman”

Unlike their Chinese predecessors who ruled the Ming Dynasty and who favored the first son as the most likely heir to the throne, like certain orange-haired American nepotists, the Manchu rulers of the Qing Empire preferred to audition their kids, waiting for a sign that one or another had distinguished themselves sufficient to rule all under heaven, or at least as far as the Qing imperial troops could ride on horseback. According to legend, the Qianlong Emperor who ruled the Qing Empire for over six decades in the 18th century distinguished himself as a young boy when, on a hunting trip, he faced down a charging bear in front of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. Sometimes the choice of a successor would not be made until the emperor was close to death and, too often, the decision would be put off until after it was too late.

The stakes of this game were high, particularly for the empresses, consorts, and concubines who served the emperors and whose fate depended on the succession of their son. This is why so many “unofficial histories” (and the telenovelas inspired by them) often revolve around the intrigue of the Inner Palaces.  

One of the most famous imperial mothers was the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born Bumbutai of the Borjigit Clan in 1613, who is the heroine of Alice Poon’s new novel, The Green Phoenix.

The Borjigits were Khorchin Mongols, one of the first of the Mongol tribes to submit to Nurhaci, considered the founder of the empire later known as the Qing. Bumbutai joined the household of Nurhaci’s son and eventual successor Hung Taiji (1592-1643) in 1625.

In total, Bumbutai bore Hung Taiji three daughters (one of whom might not have been his, if palace scuttlebutt is to be believed) and a son, Fulin, who would go on to become the Shunzhi Emperor, the first Qing monarch to rule from Beijing. According to legend, however, despite being given to Hung Taiji, Bumbutai’s heart belonged instead to Hung Taiji’s younger half-brother Dorgon. (One of the joys of studying this period in history is that every name sounds like it was taken from Game of Thrones.)

It is this romantic triangle, between Bumbutai and these two sons of Nurhaci, that is at the heart of Poon’s story. In her retelling, Bumbutai is a free spirit, more at home under the Great Blue Sky of the Mongolian Steppe, forced into a marriage of alliance with the great warrior Hung Taiji. Dorgon is more refined but no less a warrior than his older brother.  The relationship between the three is complicated further by the turbulence of war against China, and it will be left to Bumbutai’s son, Fulin, and her lover Dorgon, who becomes imperial regent during Fulin’s reign, to complete Hung Taiji’s dream of conquering the lands below the wall.

Where the novel really shines is in the level of historical detail. Poon gives sumptuous descriptions of dress and hairstyles. Lavish dinners and quick snacks are laid before the reader in such a way as to inspire hunger pangs. The early years of Bumbutai’s life, both at home in the Mongolian Steppe and in Hung Taiji’s palace in what is today Shenyang, particularly come to life with a vivid array of colors, textures, and sensations.

“Every name sounds like it was taken from Game of Thrones

While not meant to be a history of the Ming-Qing transition, Poon also draws on the works of several major scholars of the era, notably Frederic Wakeman’s opus The Great Enterprise, to provide the context for her characters’ struggles. In fact, once China is conquered, and the Qing court moves to Beijing, the book centers less on Bumbutai as the main character. She instead becomes more of a plot device to tie together different epic moments in the Manchu consolidation of their empire. This is not to deny Bumbutai’s historical importance, which only rose after first her son, Fulin, and then her grandson, the Xuanye, became emperor. Even so, the novel loses a bit of dramatic steam with the natural resolution of the Dorgon-Bumbutai-Hung Taiji triangle.

While there is little historical evidence romantically linking Bumbutai and Dorgon, Poon provides a plausible explanation for this gap in the record. The Manchus and the Mongolians practiced levirate marriage, where widows married the brothers of their deceased spouses. Such a relationship was considered incestuous, however, by the Chinese, and so following the death of Hung Taiji and the ascendency to the throne of her son, the marriage of Dorgon and Bumbutai was kept secret so as not to offend the sensibilities of their new subjects.

Historians may quibble about conventions. Reign names (Kangxi, Shunzhi) are used as personal names. The use of “Han” feels a bit forced. The Manchus did not think in terms of ethnicity as we understand it today. Their opponents – and later their subjects – were Chinese, distinct and different from the Manchus who ruled them. But Poon also very deftly reconstructs the complex web of identity at the core of Qing rule. Mongols, Manchus, and Chinese struggle to work together, to learn each other’s language and culture, and to find common ground. Manchu chauvinists Hung Taiji and Dorgon contrast with the intercultural fluency of the later rulers, especially Bumbutai’s grandson, the Kangxi Emperor.

The style of the work owes a debt to the famous wuxia novels of Louis Cha (aka Jin Yong). Some passages are lush to the point of being florid, but Alice Poon’s novel is, at heart a, romance of two kingdoms. She breathes fresh life into characters who do not often find their way into English-language fiction, and does an excellent job of bringing to the page the story of a woman who was the foundation upon which an empire that lasted over 268 years was built. ∎

The Green Phoenix, by Alice Poon (Earnshaw Books, September 2017)