Interview with Alice Poon

This month Alice Poon has published her novel on the Qing Dynasty’s first matriarch, Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, who began life as a Mongolian princess named Bumbutai.

I have reviewed The Green Phoenix  (see on Goodreads) and I asked Alice Poon to visit my blog to talk about her book.

Meet Alice, and the ‘big-hearted, open-minded’ leader of 17th century China, Bumbutai.

 

 

Bryn: How difficult was it to make Bumbutai live and breathe again, out of the historical record? What helped and hindered you in this? Does she have enough historical attention these days, or did you have to rescue her from neglect?

Alice: I had to draw on the last smidgen of my power of imagination to figure out how she would look, dress, talk, laugh, ruminate, gesticulate and generally wear her three cultures in the story. I did find the Chinese TV historical drama series titled The Secret History of Xiaozhuang, which I had watched in 2003, to be of immense help. The images of my Mongolian-born heroine’s screen appearance had stuck in my mind and gave me great inspiration. One problem I had was the attempt to conjure her horseback dance in Chapter Three – I had never watched a Mongolian waltz on horseback before but only learned about it from my research. It became easier when I had listened to a piece of Mongolian folk music named “Eternal Horizon” (which I used as the background music in the book trailer video). [watch on Goodreads]

I would think that before the showing of that 2003 TV drama series, many Chinese people had never heard of her (yours truly included). Since then, a Chinese novel had been adapted from the TV series, but was not widely read. As for Western readers, Bumbutai or Xiaozhuang is probably a total stranger in their literary world. Yes, this gave me stronger motivation in deciding to write her story. But I think her story is one that’s worth telling based on its own merits – she, as a foreigner to both the Manchu and Chinese but one who was conversant with their respective cultures, by chance and design wielded immense influence on the reign of three Manchu emperors in early Qing, which helped to heal wounds in a war-torn and afflicted China and to bridge cultural gaps between three peoples. Hopefully, with this novel I’ve pulled her out of general oblivion.

Bryn: This was a fraught time period. What drew you to the early days of Qing?

Alice: It was a transitional period of great turmoil between the Ming and Qing Dynasties. I think there are always lessons to be learned from the causes of demise of a certain ruling regime (Ming in this case). It is just as interesting to see how a fledgling ethnic minority ruling regime (the Manchu invaders) manages to eventually win the hearts of its majority Han Chinese subjects.

Bryn: How do you feel about historians’ verdicts on your characters? — whether that’s old historians or contemporary. Are any of your characters’ actions hotly contested, or does history seem to agree on them?

Alice: Historians generally have high praise for Kangxi Emperor for his pro-Han policies, his evenhandedness in the treatment of Han and Manchu ministers, and his appreciation of and respect for Han Chinese culture. They also commend Hong Taiji and Shunzhi Emperor, maybe to a lesser degree, for much the same reasons. But they tend to judge Regent Dorgon to be excessively oppressive and jingoistic. I have to say that I do agree with their verdict on these three. As for Empress Xiaozhuang, they are in accord over her parental role in the upbringing of Shunzhi Emperor and Kangxi Emperor, but they seem to have ignored her contribution to humanity as a leader. I would argue that they hardly do her justice – without her political maneuvering and firm guidance behind the scene aimed primarily at bringing peace, I dare say Shunzhi’s reign would have been on the rocks, and even if it had survived, Kangxi’s early reign could have been a debacle.

The hottest controversy among historians seems to be the debate on whether Prince Dorgon actually married Xiaozhuang after he became Regent to Shunzhi Emperor. I’ve explained this debate in the Author’s Afterword.

Bryn: How did you manage language: either names, or terms that belong to the culture, or the way people spoke? I ask this as an open question. It’s a massive issue for those of us who write HF set in remote times, which we don’t expect every reader to be familiar with.

Alice: For historical characters (which make up most of the cast), I searched English non-fiction reference books and the internet to find the correct names in English. For special terms that belong to the culture, I put them in italics. As for dialogues, I just use a slightly more formal way of speaking.

Bryn: Since we’re on a blog about Mongols, tell us about Bumbutai’s Mongol heritage.

Alice: Bumbutai was born to the Borjigit clan in the Khorchin Mongol tribe, which was ruled by descendants of Khasar, Genghis Khan’s full brother. Her father was Prince Jaisang, son of tribal leader Manggusi.

Bryn: What do you hope people come away with from your book?

Alice: For those who are not familiar with this unique phase of Chinese history, I hope they will have appreciated the multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism of that particular Chinese epoch and reflected on our present-day need for greater tolerance and respect for cultural diversity. I also hope Bumbutai will have impressed all readers as a big-hearted and open-minded female leader deserving as prominent a place in Chinese history as any respected male leader.

Bryn: What are your writing habits, acquired while you wrote about Bumbutai? I understand this is your first novel (finished, or published. It’s never in fact our first).

Alice: I think I would want to stick to the routine (in any of my writing spells) of writing 1,000 words per day for four days a week. This novel about Bumbutai isn’t my first novel, but is my first historical novel set in pre-modern China. In 2014 I self-published a semi-autobiographical novel set in colonial Hong Kong, titled Fated and Fateless.

Bryn: Who are your most admired writers? Did you have inspirations for this specific work?

Alice: As a reader, I love classics and world historical fiction. So, some of my most admired writers are no longer around, such as Leo Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell. I admire these literary icons mostly for their love of humanity and sense of social justice and egalitarianism – their fictional works always carry a deeper moral message and have inspired me on a philosophical level. As for contemporary historical novelists, I like Jin Yong (Louis Cha), C. W. Gortner and Sarah Dunant. Of these, I like to think Jin Yong’s fantasy world has probably sown creative seeds in my subconscious.

Bryn: Was your road to publication smooth or bumpy? Or riddled with potholes, as normal?

Alice: It was bumpy, and certainly not without potholes. But it was also a welcomed learning curve. Long story short: the major difficulty was the fact that the historical fiction genre is slanted towards European history and most literary agents and publishers of the genre seem to shun works related to Chinese history. You can imagine the bulk of rejections I had to face in my attempt to find a willing publisher. Then one Taiwan-based U.K. publisher showed interest but couldn’t get consensus from his partners. The commending partner kindly referred me to Earnshaw Books. I was simply beside myself with excitement when Earnshaw Books agreed to sign me up. But I realize my next hurdle would be in the area of marketing.

Bryn: Tell us about your future writing.

Alice: My plan is to focus on writing historical novels set in Old China, simply because this is where my passion lies. But I also have a gut feeling that there is an increasing appetite among Western readers for such works. I am glad that Mr. Graham Earnshaw, publisher at Earnshaw Books, offered to team up with me to develop a series of Old China historical fiction, aiming to promote cross-cultural understanding between East and West.

Bryn: Are there titles you can recommend for a reader who wants to explore quality HF set in China? — say in premodern times, since that’s my interest. How much of it is there in English? (not enough, I hear you say).

Alice: I have since childhood been a fan of Jin Yong’s (Louis Cha’s) martial arts and chivalry (“wuxia” or “kung-fu”) novels, all set in China’s dynastic eras. Of his large collection of works, only three have been translated into English, and these are: The Book and the Sword, The Deer and the Cauldron, and Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain. They are all basically historical fiction with touches of mystery, thriller, fantasy and adventure. I can recommend all these as quality HF set in Old China. Of the classics, Three Kingdoms set in the Three Kingdoms era (AD 220 – 280) is an iconic tome.

I’m afraid you’re right – I do think there is a shortage of quality HF set in pre-modern China written in English, with authentic settings and historical facts based on detailed research. I can only think of a few: Imperial Woman (about Empress Cixi) by Pearl Buck, Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi (about Kangxi Emperor) by Jonathan D. Spence, and Journey of the North Star (about Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty) by Douglas J. Penick.

Bryn: Why green in the book title? What’s the significance?

Alice: Ah, cute question! The word “phoenix” symbolizes an empress, and I chose the color green for my heroine because of her innate love of peace and nature, plus the fact that she grew up in the Mongolian steppe, where her life was intimately linked to the lush green grasslands. I imagine her favorite color would be green.

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I thank Alice for her answers to my curious questions. Let’s give Empress Xiaozhuang / Bumbutai a warm welcome into English-language fiction.

Alice Poon’s blog: http://alicewaihanpoon.blogspot.com.au/

Author page on Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1273937.Alice_Poon

The Green Phoenix at Amazon US.

Humani Nihil

The moral of my story, and/or the method of my writing – it is both – from the start has been, that the 13th-century Mongols were ordinary human beings. People like you and me, in spite of my dedication to writing cultural difference. It’s rude even to say so in blunt terms: of course they were human beings, of course they were people. However, when it comes to the famous massacres, this axiom is not often the way we operate. The massacres, with the off-steppe conquests, I didn’t have to face as a writer until book Three, now underway. They were always ahead of me, and my preparation was to bring these people as close as possible to us (to me the writer and to you, the reader) – with a blind faith in the dictum of Terence:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, and think nothing human alien to me.

I was not going to ‘other’ them before the conquests that we know of. I was going to do the contrary, and test out that Terence adage, in which I have believed devoutly.

That Terence adage is beloved of humanists and those who study the humanities: I see blog posts on it in these difficult times, by the above. I remember the English/History teacher who instilled it in me. Around the same time, Dostoyevsky was teaching me the same precept (Dostoyevsky? I’ll explain with this piece on his ‘radical empathy’, a phrase rather similar: Dostoyevky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck, in the Paris Review). My teenage writing consisted of extravagant statements of this position – I tried to write great criminals from the inside (Dostoyevsky did).

And I end up, ripened as a writer and thirty years away from teenaged, with Genghis Khan. Who, before I researched greatly, was a big bogeyman, wasn’t he? And after research, he still committed those massacres. I have made you like and admire him, if you are with me thus far. We feel close to him. We’re in it together.

Over my life I have established rules for fiction. Or, I had them as teenager and they haven’t changed a jot; I can hope they have matured. Here’s a rule – probably The rule, I don’t have a big collection.

Rule One: Never write down. You can write up (still involve yourself, or risk unrealism). Never write a figure you feel is beneath you. Involve yourself, and if you can’t… your figure on the page isn’t a human being. Don’t decide to exhibit what you dislike in the world, in rationalist fashion, with tweezers and a scalpel. To be fair, in fiction, you have to be your victim; you can vivisect yourself, but nobody else, nobody whom you push to a distance. You can’t be fair that way, you can’t be true, you can’t write human beings.

That is my writing creed: there is no excuse for half-sympathy. If you have a villain, you must be that villain. It’s my (personal: I don’t say every other writer has to apply it) philosophy – no, I’d better stick with ‘creed’. Which is better than ‘rule’ too, since it’s mine and I allow that others think differently.

What if I’m writing about the worst person on the planet?

I don’t know. I’d say you need gigantic skills for that. Because your task remains the same. It sounds traumatic to me, who am not up to this. I have bitten off enough, haven’t I?

I have chosen Temujin, whom I like and admire and who committed massacres.

If you read a few heavyweight dudes on war such as John Keegan (A History of Warfare) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization), they are left sprawling about steppe warfare and make cultural explanations from a distance – speculating about why aliens do what they do. I am dissatisfied with these books, where I am not annoyed. Culture is important – too important for non-experts to offer general statements without in-depth cultural exploration. From memory (I need to refresh my memory on Gat) both hang an understanding on what is a popular ‘explanation’: the Mongols massacred the way they butchered animals. Inured to blood because they lived by heavy livestock and the hunt. This line, wherever I read it, assumes that the anthropology is the same as for a butcher in Yorkshire. It isn’t: if you say this, you must study Mongols and animals. Exhibit: Natasha Fijn, Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia [Cambridge UP, 2011]:

‘Mongolian herders have a different perspective and attitude towards their herd animals compared with most views espoused in Western discourse… Mongolian herders’ attitude towards their herd animals is based on an animist perspective of the world, in which other beings are considered as persons… These belief practices are quite different from monotheistic beliefs that are based on the Old Testament.’ [19, 35, 47]

Everything about interaction with animals is unJudeo-Christian, Fijn explains.

Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road [Princeton UP, 2009] has done much to un-other the steppe ‘barbarian’ on war. To him, the notion that the steppe way of life fitted them for war is a nonsense (why aren’t travelers’, anthropologists’ steppe populations bellicose, more bloody than the settled?). As a matter of fact I don’t go along with him altogether, but it is still a bravura performance of un-Othering.

One clarification. Genocide, a 20th-century word, has been applied to Mongol massacres, but (I thank God) in error or loose language, for genocide means to try to extinguish an ethnicity, a religious group or a race, and Mongol wars were never about ethnic cleansing. I don’t know how I’d have the heart to write about them if they were, but I have set myself sufficient challenges.

It is perhaps enough that I take Bo’orchu to the massacres in Turkestan.

My Bo’orchu, if you’ve met him, exemplifies the adjective ‘decent’. He has already, in emergency, practised a style of warfare that shocks a reverend old war chief, versed in traditional methods.

Because Tchingis Khan was an innovator in war. He was not a cultural machine who behaved as a steppe nomad is wont to do, when confronted with a city. He thought outside the square, and shocked his own.

My Bo’orchu has already reeled in horror at the sight of the Naiman army, then his enemy, in a corpse-pit on a scale he has never seen. We’ll have to find out how he feels when the corpses are more strange to him, in Turkestan.

I have spent my first two books, quite deliberately, making 13th-century Mongols as familiar as possible, Mongols ‘at home’, without insertion of escape factors for later on in the story (such as, ‘steppe culture was cruel. Life was cheap to them’). These excuses do not reconcile with views of the Mongols at home. And so they are every bit Terence’s homo sum: there is no way for you or I to think of them as Other, not by now. They have ethics, faith, humanity and everything we have. We can’t be let off the hook, I the writer or any readers out there.

I still have no idea how Bo’orchu is going to travel in Turkestan, to be honest in this blog. We’re not there yet. I have drafted in Temujin’s psychology, until the end. It might change. But Bo’orchu I suppose is my every-person, likeable and well-intentioned, not overly religious for his times and no great genius. I love him dearly, and, well, I’ll be there.

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Image: an illustration to Juvaini, who recorded the massacres.

The School of Death and Chaos

In late Jurchen China, as the Jin dynasty slowly lost its war with the Mongols, a school of poetry came into existence, coalesced among intellectuals in Pien where the court, and cultural figures, retreated for the last few years. It’s called the School of Death and Chaos. Alternate translations: Death and Disorder, Loss and Chaos. Yuan Haowen, who was captured with the city in 1233, was its chief poet. In the week between the Mongols’ seizure into custody of the entire Jin court and his own removal as a prisoner, he wandered the empty royal chambers (as he was allowed) and wrote a suite, ‘In the Farcical Style’. There isn’t much of farce about these poems, beyond the savage irony of that title and the employment of an unusual measure, for serious verse.

Stephen H. West: ‘[Yuan Haowen’s poems] are seen by traditional and modern critics alike as some of the finest examples of historical poems ever written and are extolled for the way in which they carefully trace and lament the decline and subsequent extinction of the Jin.’ The above-mentioned cycle of fifteen ‘introduce the master tropes that will govern his poetry over the next two years: the cold seas of political chaos and the flowing rivers of cultural dissolution’. Everything was at stake in the view of Yuan Haowen: ‘…by the imagery of dissolution and exodus, he suggests a return to a precivilized state… the dispersal of Chinese civilization’. [1]

J.I. Crump: ‘Much poetry written during this period is called sang-luan verse, or “poetry of death and destruction,” and sang-luan verse in many ways is a far more accurate measure of the emotional battering the Chinese underwent at the hands of the Mongols than any amount of historical documentation.’ [2]

It’s a tragedy of Jin that this century-old foreign dynasty was finding its own distinctive voice, its unique arts, as the Mongols struck, and inspired unexpected loyalty in its last fight. I’m a fan of Jin China; being both short-lived and foreign, it hasn’t had much glory in the history books. Those books, too, disagree, by wide margins, on how much fight Jin put up against the Mongols. My answer: Jin put up enormous fight, and the loyalty of Han and non-Han – old chauvinism, often, set aside – was of great inconvenience to Temujin.

When Song China in the south went to war against Jin in the north, on the eve of its Mongol troubles – Song thought to exploit a difficult situation for Jin, that hadn’t used its once-frightening war machinery in years, that was meant to be crippled by floods and famine – Song sent out agitation for the native Chinese population to rise against the foreign rule. For Han officers to mutiny and kill Jurchen officers.

It didn’t happen. Jin discovered they had a unity that nobody knew for sure was there, until Song tested them. This is bad news for my Temujin. And that war machinery, which Song hoped had rusted in their forty-year peace? Functions pretty well.

Another tragedy of Jin: some historians say the dynasty didn’t come to terms with the Mongols the way a traditional Chinese dynasty might be expected to; they refused to pay the Mongols off, which perpetuated the war. That is, the fact they were foreigners and didn’t act to script led to confusion and unusual destructiveness. My story’s a little different to this. But the achievements of late Jin, as a culture and as a society, are found, are recognised, even as they are engulfed. And that is tragic.

I’m going to have to antedate the School of Death and Chaos, give them a slightly early start, because I end when Temujin ends and he’s not around for the win over Jin’s fallback capital at Pien. Artistic license: no way am I missing out on the Death and Chaos School. As an arts person, I notice that the story can be told through the fate of the arts, and isn’t well-told without. There are, of course, other tales. In enclaves of Chinese who had made peace with the Mongols under local leadership, zaju drama was hatched, even while the war went on, from a fusion of cultures, as creative people gathered to these safety areas too.

A week back I nearly disqualified myself from writing book three, as I watched Aleppo on Twitter and told myself, I haven’t been in an Aleppo. How do I have the nerve? Past couple of days, end-of-year existential angst hits and I feel, past two years, everything I hold dear is under threat. My only enemy is on the loose. And my mind reverts to the Death and Chaos School, which I was fascinated by as I’ve always been fascinated by ruin, but which I did not foresee I’d feel so close to.

Writers are vultures.

 

1 ‘Chilly Seas and East-Flowing Rivers: Yuan Haowen’s Poems of Death and Disorder, 1233-35’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, State University of New York Press, 1995.

2 Chinese Theater in the Days of Kublai Khan, University of Arizona Press, 1980.

Image  A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening, 1918, from the Commons.

Racism again

Last year I wrote a post where I used the word racism of the state of affairs in Mongol studies. A year ago (but doesn’t a lot happen in a year, these days?) that felt almost daring, actually, because very few seemed to be addressing it, or calling it out, as I said. The skimpy bibliography I attached to the post was the most I knew of to point to.

Racism: In a history book near you

It was a crude post, because I don’t have the analytic tools on this subject of racism. But boy, have I been bothered by its obvious presence in Mongol history-writing.

Now a PhD candidate, Sierra Lomuto, has written a post that is being much shared, on ‘the utter lack of racial consciousness in our field of Medieval Studies’.

White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies

It’s a welcome post, and what excites me is that Lomuto says she is working on Mongols and race: ‘As a mixed-race Asian woman working on histories of racial structures in medieval European-Mongol relations, this lacuna in Medieval Studies is not news to me. I regularly read adjectives like “uncultured” and “barbaric” to describe Mongols in books published within the last decade. I still see “Oriental” used uncritically to refer to Asian peoples.’

I hope she publishes soon. I hope she or others address racism in the historiography on Mongols.

New project: Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century

frontispiece-genghizcan-the-greatIt’s been quiet a while on my blog – ever since I went back to university to study historiography. The way we write history. This I was led to by curiosity as to the way we write the Mongols’ history. I was in search of explanations as to why we write the way we do, what goes on behind the results I read in my research books, and what goes wrong with that process.

I have turned my eyes back to the 18th century. Edward Gibbon’s views on Zingis fascinated me back when I first encountered our great Mongol (in those years of early intellectual stirrings; I have kept my notebooks, fondly. I like my consistency). To study Gibbon is mostly an excuse to bathe in his sentences: listen to the cadence in this, his most famous pronouncement on Zingis.

But it is the religion of Zingis that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.  [7.64]

Thank God for historians who are great writers.

Much more recently I have become intrigued with a life published in London in 1722, translated from the French by a novelist, Penelope Aubin (I’m sidetracked by her too). Its original was written in the 17th century by François Pétis, an interpreter of Arabic and Turkish at the French court, and published by his son François Pétis de la Croix twelve years before its Englishhing. Perhaps the title, The History of Genghizcan the Great, First Emperor of the Antient Moguls and Tartars, gives its rather heroic flavour.

I want to know both about the state of knowledge and the attitudes in these 18th century works, so I am out to investigate as part of my historiography study.

I don’t like to drop old history in the bin. Obviously one doesn’t drop Gibbon, being a great writer with a great concept of how to write history. But the idea that most history books become obsolete never made sense to me. The ‘of-its-timeness’ that is easy to spot in an old history book, is just as true of the histories written in our time, where, being contemporaries, we cannot spot it. So it’s terribly useful to read history from another time. Also, let us not assume that the latest history is the most intelligent. By golly, I haven’t found that true in Mongol studies. I feel the need to get back behind the 19th century, with its huge ideas that affected history-writing.

It is easy perhaps to see why we’d want to get back behind the 20th century. Those World Wars influenced the way we think of the Mongol world war. Is that influence for better or for worse? Either way, post-20th century it is inescapable, unless you go back and read history written beforehand – and see the difference. Mired in our time, we might think them innocents (‘now we’ve learnt what a world war is’) or we might think them imprisoned by ideas of religion or politics. But we do not see our own prisons, although we are guaranteed to be in them. This is about the struggle to get out.

So I am going to bask in 18th century English for a bit, and try to see the whys and wherefores of their biographies of Genghis Khan. Who knows? They might have been placed to understand things that we are not placed to understand. In fact, I think that’s a safe bet for any era, on any subject.

Facsimile of François Pétis’s Genghizcan the Great here.

This is my ornamental set of the Decline and Fall. I have updated them for research purposes.
gibbon-ornamental-set

John Caviglia on Amgalant

travelling, talking 1This short entry is to link to a most observant discussion of my historical fiction project by John Caviglia: a post on the blog of Rounded Globe, who have just published my ‘Voices’ essay.

Observant is what I might expect from John Caviglia, who is both a writer (premodern, epic-in-scope historical fiction) and in his past a professor of comparative literature. I particularly enjoy his remarks on Elizabethan theatre-style staging. Certainly I imitated theatre in a few ways. There are scenes where I cease to write in anything other than people’s spoken lines, to be like a play script: because these ought to do, they ought to stand by themselves. And I several times had in mind Elizabethan resemblances. My acquaintance with theatre is largely Elizabethan, let’s face it; and for reasons unspecified I did often want a theatrical air.

“He can tell a hawk from a hatchet flung at his head.” – Jamuqa misquotes Hamlet.

travelling, talking 2

Images
Book art from the Ilkhanlig: a Mongol court travelling, talking…
The Diez Albums, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Published: Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe

VoicesToday my digital book for Rounded Globe, Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, is published. Available here.

There are two aspects to this essay. Chiefly, it is source criticism – a study of my primary source the Secret History of the Mongols – and on the side, it is a creative writer’s interactions with the body of secondary work on this source.

Academic historians may or may not be aware that outside of other historians and history students, they have a large readership among historical novelists. I’ve become conscious of this since I joined Goodreads: often I look up a history book and find its single review, or its most in-depth review, is from a novelist who engaged with it for her material. These reviews frequently enter into passionate conversation with the historian – as I know I do in the privacy of my home. Novelists rarely hide their investment in their subjects; although this need not mean we do not strive to be fair-minded.

Novelists, inevitably, have a different perspective on the source material (unless a historian moves along the spectrum towards a novelist’s position). We weigh things differently; we seek out things of less concern to historians. Or so I have found in my fifteen years spent with my primary source and the secondary work upon it. I began with no preconceptions (I had not thought about these issues); and at the end I know that my experience, which I write about in this essay, is a case study, that is, a single case, whose applicability to other cases I cannot guess at. Other novelists might nod along, see familiar trends, even an analogue. My source is a peculiar one in its own level of artistry (to an extent it is written ‘like an epic’). No doubt every source is a peculiar one, and every novelist’s engagement singular. I believe in the worth of case studies, and have simply written out my experience: the three-way conversation between source, novelist and historians.

On the specifics of the Secret History of the Mongols, I have reached a few conclusions which are not in the main history books, or the major commentary. I offer these as the arguments a novelist uses for her own purposes. Perhaps she does tend to interpret differently because she is a novelist: I do not say for certain; no doubt her ethos is different, probably her method. I am happy for the chance to make a few arguments, which otherwise I have only had the opportunity to put (persuasively or not – you be the judge) in fictional format, in my set of novels Amgalant. The original argument most likely to catch people’s interest, I imagine, has to do with Temujin’s own contributions to the Secret History: the idea that we have his memories, as he told them, and with this, we have insight into his psychology.

I owe great thanks to Simon Cook, co-founder of Rounded Globe. Firstly, for seeing worth in my Mongol novels; secondly, for seeing value in my account of how I came to write them, and commissioning this essay.

Complaint of a Mongolian princess, 1935

Mongol princess article - better cutI celebrate International Women’s Day with this transcript from an English-language newspaper in China from the year 1935. A Mongolian princess warns the world’s feminists that the Mongol experience (been there, done that – for 600 years) isn’t so crash-hot. I find her view of the matter both intriguing and funny.

 

 

 

Mongol Princess Declares Independence of Mongolian Women Has Its Drawbacks

Laws Framed By Genghis Khan 600 Years Ago Provide Single Standard In Sex, Work And Play; “Woman Is Less Fitted For Life Struggle,” She Says

By LaSELLE GILMAN (CHINA PRESS special correspondent)

PEIPING, Sept. 10. – The independence of Mongolian women, as compared with the dependence of Chinese women, is not as desirable as it might be supposed. Mongolian women do not gain by their equality with men. The strain of such equality is too intense. Primitive peoples try the single standard, but eventually they abandon it, as the Chinese have long since done.

That is the opinion of Princess Nirigidma de Torhout. She is a Torgut Mongol princess in her own right, but was educated in France and has lived much abroad. She considers Peiping her home, however, and she knows whereof she speaks when she discusses the condition of Mongolian women, for she was born on the vast, barren steppes of the Gobi borderlands.

Genghis Khan framed the Mongolian laws as they exist today some 600 years ago, and by those laws Mongol women are completely equal with men. So much so, in fact, that the word “woman” does not exist in the language now, the same word “kun” applying to either sex.

The Mongolian woman is as free as the man; she saddles her horse and goes to visit her relatives and friends; she receives her guests and calls on whom she will; her sexual morals are the same as the morals of her roaming brother. She is equal to him before the law, is completely responsible for herself. Adultery is punishable by death, in the case of both men and women. She has the right of inheritance, of owning property and bringing up children, of seeking marriage or divorce, of serving in the army.

Princess Is Sceptical

But the Princess Nirigidma, considering the state of her sex in her own country, is not certain that it is an enviable one. Equality of men and women is only natural, she feels, because in primitive society each sex was adapted to one form of work and they thus shared the tasks. Woman’s only inferiority was in maternity which unfitted her for any activity for a year. This weakness of her sex brought her privileges eventually and she became dependent on the man.

Today, everywhere, the women are shaking off the yoke of this dependence and demanding equality – which will compel them to renounce their privileges. This, the princess believes, is a serious matter in view of the condition of Mongol women.

“I do not know whether the Great Khan was honoring the woman or simply putting her in her rightful place at the man’s side,” says the princess. “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know. I have been told that a matriachate prevailed in the old times, but its memory is lost, for it is never spoken of in Mongolia.”

The Mongol woman’s equality may appear all very nice, the princess points out, but there is another side to the story.

“Because she is the comrade of the man, the Mongolian woman is an object of no particular regard. She shares all the man’s hardest tasks, watches the flocks in rain and snow, loads the beasts, cuts wood. She enjoys no kind of precedence; she rises when a man older than herself comes in and gives him up her place at the fireside or the softest cushions. Man and woman share equally the expenses of life. Flatteries, deferences, everything that in the West is called chivalry – are non-existent. The orphan is protected but not the woman. Having the same rights, she also has the same duties and responsibilities.”

Less Fitted For Struggle

By her constitution, general sentiments and habit of mind, woman is less fitted than man for the struggle of life, in the princess’ opinion. And if women in their struggle for equality do succeed, she does not believe they will gain by it.

“Look at the Chinese woman who until recently was of all women the type most dependent on the goodwill of the man,” the princess declares. “She had no rights in public life. She had no existence, but she was and still is the absolute mistress in her family and almost sovereign in that public life in which she never shared herself. In China a woman is infinitely respected. A man never contradicts her, agrees with her even when she talks nonsense, carries out her whims!

“Compare these two women and ask which is the more enviable lot. Is it not better to have fewer legal rights and preserve the privilege of exerting influence, of being respected, flattered, spoiled, of being free from all responsibility? Or should one prefer the Spartan life of the Mongol woman? Is the emancipated Mongolian woman really happy?”

The princess is willing to concede, however, that all women in the search for equality are perhaps unconsciously groping for something beside happiness. If feminists claim their right to restore to women a happiness and a freedom of which they consider they have been cheated, she argues, then they are taking the wrong road. But if their aim is to open new horizons, aiming at a more spacious and a more worthy life, if with their new rights they are ready to accept all the consequences, then she agrees that that is courageous and admirable – if not particularly wise.

 

I’d better say at once that I am not educated in early 20th century Mongolia and can’t comment on conditions then. What interests me is that in 1935, she ascribes the social and legal status of women to the Great Khan.

When Ed Bazalgette did his rather fine doco-drama for the BBC [1] my sister sent me a TV guide feature from the UK with a headline that still makes me laugh: next to a nobly inspired shot of the actor, Genghis Khan: Early Feminist. That’s their British way of gently teasing because Bazalgette gives an unexpectedly likeable Genghis; I don’t remember that feminism looms large in the documentary. How much of a feminist was Genghis, himself? Princess Nirigidma hasn’t the evidence to say whether he improved the status of women or whether he merely legislated along the lines that his society already ran: “To decide that I should have to know what the position of woman was before him, and that I do not know.” It’s still tough to distinguish, since the Mongols weren’t paid much attention pre-Chinggis and the Secret History is our earliest internal source. The princess herself, with her views on the advancement of societies, seems to suggest that he needn’t get the glory – civilization in general has been bad for women, if more comfortable.

#

1. imdb entry
‘Rather fine’ in that it follows faithfully the Secret History – until the Secret History tails off, with the conquests, and he has to switch over to non-Mongol sources: we then devolve into sensationalist drivel. This problem plagues Mongol studies – not just documentaries.

Cross-faith conferences: Mongols and Mughals

Lorenzetti_Ambrogio_martyrdom-of-the-franciscans-This post looks at Mongol China and Mughal India: the reigns of Khubilai Khan (1260-94) and Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605). These figures were conscious innovators in the old worlds of China and of India. Khubilai introduced a universal script, Akbar a universal religion; neither invention is thought to have outlived its sponsor, but even so, these remain great experiments in change. I want to focus on a tradition of cross-faith conferences staged at Mongol courts, transported into Khubilai’s China, and culminating in Akbar’s House of Worship: it seems to me that this might well be an inheritance, where Akbar built his house on foundations from his steppe ancestors.

Khubilai and Akbar have commonalities. They were the main establishers of post-nomad states in the great cultural worlds of China and of India. Akbar was more distanced from his Mongol background, but a few scholars have directed attention to Central Asian influences in the Mughal state.[1] Self-consciously, the two were unifiers: although Khubilai was frustrated in his claim to the world-kingship of the Mongols, he returned the north and south of China to unity, which Chinese dynasties had tried and failed to do since Tang; while Akbar united large areas of India that had not been one before. Religious pluralism was important to their politics, and this they had in common with other Inner Asians in custody of settled territory – not only the Qaraqorum Mongols before Khubilai, but the Qara Qitai before them, in Central Asia. Akbar introduced diversity into his government by employment of Rajputs and other Hindus; Khubilai staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian.

Iqtidar Alam Khan traces a general Mughal tolerance, as against the persecutory Islam seen in the Delhi Sultanate before them, back through Timurid traditions to the yasa (legal code) of Chinggis Khan, from whom Babur descended on his mother’s side. The thirteenth-century Persian historian Juvaini, employed by the government of Mongol Iran, gives in ideal terms Chinggis’ edict on the coexistence of religions.[2] Even after the Mongols took on world religions in Iran and China, their policy of religious pluralism was never altogether abandoned, although it became inconsistent – Mirza Haydar Dughlat relates bloody conversion tales among the Mughals’ cousins in Moghulistan, with a prince executing his unconverted entourage.[3]

The objective of religious pluralism in the Mongol world is often misunderstood. It had a history in Inner Asia, and was practiced similarly by the shamanist and Buddhist Qara Qitai in their poly-religious khanship just prior to the Mongols in Central Asia.[4] To see this policy as merely state pragmatism – or worse, a crudity of mind – is to neglect the indigenous religiosity. Of help here is a book on Mughal religiosity: A. Azfar Moin explains Akbar’s ‘participatory acts’ in a way that sheds light on the Mongols’ participation in the rituals and the gestures of religions they did not profess, as orthodox adherents understood profession.[5] Akbar’s sense of religion was ‘embodied’, ‘local’, centred on holy persons rather than on doctrine.[6] Shamanist peoples, Mongols and others, had a preference for Sufis, and this, along with the disruption of the Mongol invasions, aided a shift in religious weight and sentiment from the ulama to Sufis.[7] In Devin DeWeese’s study of the transition to Islam in the Golden Horde, the closeness, even the conflation, of shaman and Sufi, can be seen in depth.[8] Jesuits felt themselves led on by Akbar, and experienced disillusionment when they realised he wasn’t serious: this happens again and again at Mongol courts, and the Jesuit complaint is uncannily alike to the revolving feelings recorded by the missionary friar William of Rubruck, in the account I look at next.[9] Neither Akbar nor the potential converts Rubruck meets were cynical or exploitative, nor did they have simply state concerns in mind. Religious pluralism, as a policy, was certainly pragmatic for the Mongols, but it also made religious sense to them. Both these motives are evident in the religious debate at Grand Khan Mongke’s court in (or near – they were nomads) Qaraqorum.

This debate is a precursor to Khubilai’s debates, and is a cultural heritage behind Akbar’s House of Worship (‘Ibadat Khana). Our witness is Friar William of Rubruck, who gives us our closest view of a court-led interfaith discussion among the Mongols. Its purposes can be ascertained, in spite of Rubruck’s misconstructions. The debate was announced a few days after an incident of hostilities between Christians and Muslims in front of the khan’s brother Arigh Boke, who intervened to stop the exchange of insults. Arigh Boke had met the Christian group, of whom Rubruck was one, with a sign of the cross: here is a ‘participatory act’, that led to rumours he was Christian. Later, the quarrel became physical, with a monk answering Muslim taunts with his whip; Rubruck’s party was reprimanded by being told to make camp not beside the khan’s tent as hitherto, but with the other foreign envoys. Clearly, the debate, an opportunity to air conflicting views, with orders from the khan for no ‘provocative or insulting remarks’, no ‘commotion that might obstruct these proceedings,’ is a response to these unseemly incidents.

It is also clear that the other participants in the debate understood the khan’s purposes better than did Rubruck. First, a ‘tuin’ – probably a Buddhist – attempts to tell him that instead of there being one God, there are evidently gods for regions of the world just as these regions have their kings. This is to phrase another way what Mongke himself says to Rubruck in an audience the day after the debate: ‘God has given ways and religions to man as there are different fingers on one hand.’[10] Thus the khan draws his lesson to the visiting friar. Rubruck and his party have been the most volatile contenders at the debate; the opposition ceases to dispute him, but quietly hears him out. Rubruck believes he has reduced them to silence by his arguments, but it is more likely that they are acquainted with Mongke and behave in a manner that might meet with his approval. They do not clash. They allow Rubruck to air his views, and next day, Mongke expresses to Rubruck what he hoped to achieve: not a win by one religion or another, but coexistence. Mongke’s sentence has the feel of an old saying, although unattested (in this largely oral culture): it is a neat formulation of an Inner Asian religious outlook.

Mongke’s debate was held in 1254. Four years on, in 1258, he assigned his brother Khubilai to adjudicate between Buddhists and Taoists in north China, again for conflict resolution – this time serious disorders. It is frequently said that Khubilai was predisposed to the Buddhist side and did not judge objectively.[11] However, these unprecedented conflicts were caused by his grandfather Chinggis Khan, and he presumably felt a duty to undo the damage. Chinggis had evinced a personal respect for Qui Chuji, head of the Taoist Quanzhen sect, and from the distance of Central Asia granted him a general ‘superintendency’ of religions in north China.[12] As a result Taoism enjoyed a short-lived heyday; a contemporary said that a fifth of the population joined the sect in Mongol favour.[13] By the time of Khubilai’s interfaith court case, Taoists had severely encroached on Buddhist rights and property, and the situation in north China had devolved into violence against religious precincts and personnel.[14] Khubilai redressed the imbalance.

There were further Buddhist-Taoist hearings and debates, but Khubilai, when khan in China, did not pursue the idea of the wide interfaith conference, in spite of the several faiths in his officialdom. Khans in Iran held debates on a reduced scale, often, seemingly, to indulge the curiosity of the prince himself; there is no sense in Mongol Iran that cross-religious discussions were staged for the harmony of the realm – in fact scholars tend to talk of them as a sports-like entertainment.[15] Mongke’s debate had public ends and he himself did not attend, although well-informed by his ‘umpires’, three secretaries of different faiths. Participants had included Catholic and Nestorian Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, shamanists and quite possibly others that Rubruck cannot identify. Nothing like that range is seen until Akbar’s House of Worship, where there gathered ‘Sufi, philosopher, orator, jurist, Sunni, Shia, Brahman, Jati, Siura (Jains), Carbak (the Charvaka school), Nazarene, Jew, Sabi (Sabians – a Gnostic tradition), Zoroastrian, and others.’[16]

Still, Khubilai, frustrated in his claims to universal khanship, increasingly a khan of China, kept a diversity of ethnic make-up in his government. The one thing he did not accede to from Confucian-minded advisors was to reinstate the examinations for civil service entry: he was determined to draw on a wider range of talents than those shaped by study of the Confucian classics.[17] In the China he took over, even diplomats were not thought to need another language; hence his reliance on a ‘steppe intelligentsia’ with language facility, Uighurs, Khitan, Tanguts, Central Asians, employed as interpreters and translators.[18] Linguistic skills were critical for Khubilai; while Akbar attempted to amalgamate religions, Khubilai, instead, tried to introduce a universal script. As outsiders, they were innovators, across cultures. Chinese officials had been previously dismayed by Khubilai’s insistence on colloquial Chinese, for ease of access; there was much hostility towards the universal script, in spite of its effectiveness.[19] Here we see innovations, attempted changes, that were defeated by traditional ways. It is worthwhile to ponder for a moment what might have come had a universal script been successfully introduced for government affairs. Change consists of failed experiments too, not only in the official halls of China; abandoned innovations testify to new ideas. Khubilai’s bold stroke of a universal script in which to write every language was a possibility open to an outsider, a result of the meeting of cultures. It should not be lost to view because it failed. Recent discoveries have proved that the script – named Phagspa after its Tibetan creator – was far more widely and persistently used than has been assumed: this is a caution not to let the master narrative erase changes, as if they never took place.[20] Chinese official histories cannot be expected to pay attention to the Phagspa script. The compiler of the Yuan history (Yuan shi), indeed, was staunchly a Chinese classicist in an essay he wrote on art – no friend to Mongol-era deviation.[21]

For Akbar, the master narrative has been the intellectual tradition – doctrinal, legal; political philosophy and ethical tract – by light of which we write our histories of statecraft and government in Islam: this is the argument of A. Azfar Moin, who writes instead an ethnographic history with eyes on the acts and practices of kings, not the prescriptive literature.[22] Akbar’s religious experimentation then falls into place with Safavid Iran and Timurid Central Asia in an age when kings and messiahs fused. Religious curiosity on Akbar’s part, even his personal quest, cannot be cleanly separated from an ideal wish to resolve or harmonise ‘the confusion of religions and creeds.’[23] His House of Worship was on a grander scale than any conference held by a Mongol prince, but these are a possible transmission line. The House was interrupted by a rebellion, after which Akbar only resumed religious inquiry in his private quarters. By the accounts of both Abul Fazl and Bada’uni, discussion at the House of Worship caused acrimony, uproar, wrangles and hostilities;[24] Akbar’s subsequent Religion of God or Divine Religion (Din-i Ilahi) took a different approach towards universalism. He sought to unify religiosity in a discipleship to himself: this transcended, rather than amalgamated teachings.[25]

As an example of continuity with ways of religion on the steppe, there is the Jesuit ordeal at Akbar’s court. It was Akbar himself, Moin persuasively argues, who urged a display or spectacle of a fiery trial by ordeal between Jesuits and Muslim ascetics.[26] He need not have heard of the judicial ordeal in Europe, as was the Jesuit explanation, or if he did, he might well have recognised a consonance: in the Golden Horde, Sufis and shamans competed against one another in just such physical ordeals, wherein they were to conquer fire.[27] It was a language both sides understood. The Jesuits did not feel themselves such wonder-working saints and declined the contest, with difficulty.

Akbar, in the spirit of the age, transcended dogma in a saintly discipleship centred on his person – not an option open to Khubilai in China. Both Akbar and Khubilai were invaders, and brought potential for change, with themes of unity and universality, of diversity and pluralism, running through their governments. They faced different fates in the cultural worlds of China and of India, but we see the persistence of a shared heritage. The interfaith debate, used to specific purpose in Khubilai’s China, went into decline as Mongols entered the spheres of world religions; but Akbar, for a few years, made an institution of it.

Image  Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Martyrdom of the Franciscans (1342), from the Commons. This intriguing Italian painting deserves a post to itself. But in short, the scene is set at an unidentified Central Asian court under Mongol rule, and this time tolerance has broken down; the visiting friars are killed. Roxann Prazniak has explored this artist’s Mongol contacts; she points to the disbelief or dismay in the reactions of the court, who are presented as poly-ethnic. Lorenzetti is commenting on religious coexistence, both at home in Siena and in the Mongol world he knew. For more, see:

Prazniak, Roxann, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol
Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, vol. 21, iss. 2, 2010, pp.
177-217.

Footnotes
[1] Books on this theme include Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia, London and New York, 2012. However, she treats strictly the Timurid legacy, without attention to any memory of the Chinggisid Mongols. Another is Richard C. Foltz, Mughal India and Central Asia, Oxford, 1999, which I have not been able to consult.
[2] Iqtidar Alam Khan ‘Akbar’s Personality Traits and World Outlook: A Critical Reappraisal’, Social Scientist, vol. 20, iss. 9/10, 1992, pp. 17-18; Juvaini, Genghis Khan: The History of the World Conqueror, trans. J.A. Boyle, Manchester, 1958, p. 26.
[3] Dughlat, A History of the Khans of Mogulistan, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston, London, 2012, p. 21.
[4] Michal Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitay in Eurasian History: Between China and the Islamic World, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 171-201.
[5] A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, New York, 2012, p. 151.
[6] Ibid., pp. 130-69.
[7] Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Philadelphia, 2010, p. 201.
[8] Devin DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition, Pennsylvania, 1994.
[9] For Jesuits, see Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 146-52; Rubruck, The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Mongke, trans. Peter Jackson, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1990; see p. 224 onwards.
[10] Ibid., p. 236. In order to bring out the sententious quality I alter the translation, that has been through Rubruck’s Latin too.
[11] For example, Morris Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, Berkeley, 1988/2009, p. 41; George Lane, ‘Khubilai (Qubilai) Khan’, entry in Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, 3 vols, Great Barrington, MA, 2014, ii, pp. 827-8.
[12] F. W. Mote, Imperial China, Cambridge, MA and London, 1999, p. 500.
[13] Yao Tao-chung, ‘Buddhism and Taoism under the Chin’ in China Under Jurchen Rule: Essays on Chin Intellectual and Cultural History, eds. Hoyt Cleveland Tillman and Stephen H. West, New York, 1995, p. 154.
[14] Rossabi, Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, p. 36.
[15] George Lane, ‘Chingiz Khan: Maker of the Islamic world’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 16, iss. 1, 2014, p. 143.
[16] Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, 3 vols, trans. H. Beveridge, Calcutta, 1897-1939, iii, chapter 95.
[17] Morris Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’ in The Cambridge History of China, Volume 6: Alien Regimes and Border States, eds. Herbert Franke and Denis Twitchett, Cambridge, 1994, p. 416, 418, 427.
[18] Ibid., p. 416; for Chinese diplomats, see the Introduction by the editors, p. 20; ‘steppe intelligentsia’ is from Igor de Rachewiltz, Hok-lam Chan, Hsaio Ch’i-ch’ing and Peter W. Geier, eds, In the Service of the Khan: Eminent Personalities of the Early Mongol-Yuan Period, Wiesbaden, 1993, pp. xiv-xv.
[19] Rossabi, ‘The reign of Khubilai Khan’, pp. 466-7.
[20] Shane McCausland, The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, London, 2014, pp. 231-2.
[21] Ibid., pp. 238-9.
[22] Moin, The Millennial Sovereign.
[23] Abul Fazl, The Akbarnama, iii, chapter 100.
[24] Ibid., iii, chapter 95; Bada’uni, Selections from Histories, 3 vols, trans. George S.A. Ranking, Sir Wolseley Haig and W.H. Lowe, Calcutta, 1884-1925, ii, chapter 69.
[25] Moin, The Millennial Sovereign, pp. 138-46.
[26] Ibid., pp. 148-9.
[27] DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde, pp. 167, 243-56.

Amgalant graphics

These gorgeous Mongolian graphics with Amgalant quotes are made by my sister Julie Bozza.

graphic - Our children

graphic - He only knows a single thing

graphic - Divine guidance

graphic - None of his sonsgraphic - The sun is a flower

This last is a line from a poem found in the Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, edited by Robert Irwin. Jamuqa, who knows a bit about battle poetry (joke), appreciated it in his last hours.

If you had only been with us at the
wedding-like battle, when red saffron blood was the perfume of heroes.

The sun was a flower, the evening, crescent
moons, the arrows were rain, and the swords were lightning flashes.

(translation by Bellamy and Steiner, Ibn Said al-Maghribi’s Book of the Banners of the Champions. In the Penguin, p. 301)

Images

The sun is a flower: ‘Poppies in the sun’ by jiimms
http://www.freeimages.com/photo/poppies-1331125

None of his sons were perfect: ‘Mongolian little girl’ by Vadas Robert
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:XMongolPeople4.jpg

Divine guidance: unknown photographer
https://twitter.com/Mongolia976/status/563922205772218368

He only knows: ‘Terelj skies’ by P Lechien
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Terelj_skies.jpg

Our children: ‘Mongolian Youth’ by Erhart Christoph
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mongolian_Youth.jpg