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:

Author page on Goodreads:

The Green Phoenix at Amazon US.