Friday, January 27, 2017

A Few Historical Tidbits about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang

On this day (January 27) in 1688, a pivotal historical figure from the Qing Dynasty passed away. This person was a Mongolian princess named Borjigit Bumbutai, better known as Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, who was the progenitor of all subsequent Qing Emperors. She is the protagonist of my novel The Green Phoenix.

The life and deeds of this Mongolian princess were critical to Chinese history in that she was directly responsible for preventing disintegration of the fledgling Qing Empire in its early days. It can be said that without her sharp wit and charismatic leadership, Qing history, and for that matter Chinese history, would’ve been re-written. The reason is that at the time when her son Shunzhi and grandson Kangxi came to the throne in tandem, they were only small children, and those times were steeped in social and political chaos and unending wars while the ruling Manchu clan of Aisin Gioro was split by vehement discord and self-interested strife among its clansmen.

When Bumbutai was twelve years old, by design and fate, she was given by her grandfather, the Khorchin Mongol tribal leader, in a political marriage to a powerful Manchu prince, Hong Taiji, who later became the first Qing Emperor. Twenty-one years her senior, Hong Taiji obviously could not compete with his handsome and young half-brother Dorgon for Bumbutai's heart. Nonetheless, she had to submit to the fate of a Qing consort, whose primary duty was to bear a son for her Emperor. This she did. But when her son Shunzhi was five years old, Hong Taiji passed away, leaving the Aisin Gioro clansmen in a bitter feud over who should take up the throne. Finally it was decided that the child Shunzhi should ascend the throne, with Dorgon taking up the regency.

Historians have long been bickering over the question of whether Bumbutai married Dorgon some time after Hong Taiji's death. (For the purpose of my novel though, I had to take a stance!) As Shunzhi's mother, she sometimes found herself wedged between her son and Dorgon, who were hostile to each other. But Dorgon passed away after a seven-year stint in the regency.

As fate would have it, Shunzhi lived a short life of 23 years, his time on the throne even shorter – only 18 years. During his reign, Bumbutai tried to steer him on the right track by advising him to look to the German Jesuit priest Johann Adam Schall von Bell for governing guidance. He did, but was nevertheless too coerced by self-seeking and corrupt ministers like Oboi to rule effectively. Before he could put things right for his afflicted subjects, he contracted small pox and passed away. The Empress Dowager wisely chose the brilliant Kangxi to succeed Shunzhi. When Kangxi was enthroned, he was only a seven-year old child, but he smartly looked to his self-taught grandmother for advice, guidance and support, which she graciously bestowed. Aided by her shrewd planning, he managed, at fifteen, to overpower the treacherous Oboi, and go on to make his mark in history. Her greatest contribution was perhaps teaching Shunzhi and Kangxi to appreciate the importance of soft power, respect for cultural diversity and humanity.

History would witness Kangxi eventually becoming the most culturally-minded, tolerant and benevolent of emperors. Under his auspices, the Kangxi Dictionary was compiled. Poetry lovers would no doubt know that the world-renowned Three Hundred Tang Poems were distilled from the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems), the compilation of which Kangxi had personally championed.

In 1691, in honor and memory of his beloved grandmother and mentor, Kangxi built a temple called “In Eternal Veneration” (永慕寺) in South Park (南苑), the imperial hunting park located south of Beijing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Jason Pym's Commemorative Scarf Design

2016 was the 400th anniversary of the passing of two equally iconic playwrights: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu (of the Ming dynasty). In commemoration, art designer Jason Pym created this stunning silk scarf portrait which blends scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream with those from The Peony Pavilion, as Mr. Pym believes these two plays, one English and one Chinese, share the same themes. I would have to agree with Mr. Pym. Both plays sing the praises of freedom to pursue true love and courage to resist unreasonable conventions.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review - "The Peony Pavilion: Mudang Ting" (牡丹亭) by Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖)

I remember vividly a time in my childhood when my grandmother used to take me to watch Cantonese operas. A scene from one such opera etched an indelible mark on my young mind: the scene of reincarnation of a beauty who was the subject of a portrait. It just felt shockingly unbelievable to me then! The opera was The Peony Pavilion Dream (牡丹亭驚夢) directed by the iconic Tang Ti-sheng (唐滌生). It was only much later in life that I found out that the opera was based on Ming playwright giant Tang Xianzu's (湯顯祖) famous drama entitled The Peony Pavilion.

The play was written in 1598 (eleven years earlier Tang Xianzu had written the popular drama The Purple Hairpin (紫釵記)), and the setting was in Southern Song. The story is about a cloistered aristocratic young lady's listless pining for true love and freedom from social conventions, her dream of sexual romance with a young scholar in the garden pavilion, her tragic death from unfulfilled longing, the subsequent reincarnation through her own hand-drawn portrait and reunion with the scholar, her father's stubborn refusal to allow their marriage and the final happy ending brought about by the Emperor acting as the arbitrator.

It has taken me over six weeks to finish reading the play as it was written in classical Chinese text and was full of metaphors with historical allusions, which meant that I had to constantly refer to the annotations. Although I had had training in school in reading classical Chinese texts, it has been a long time since I last read anything in the antiquated language, except poetry. Yet it was such a pleasure to savor the lyrical metaphors and the choreography of imagery in the play. What struck me as most incredible was the occasional erotic description. Overall I was greatly impressed by the author's embrace of the idea of youthful optimism and relentless pursuit of freedom.

This literary gem deserves no less than 5 stars.

P.S. I've just stumbled upon a piece of beautiful artwork by Jason Pym - "The Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu Silk Scarf", the design of which combines scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Peony Pavilion.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading - 2016 & 2015 Year End Reviews

In 2016 I read 19 novels, 2 plays and 4 non-fiction titles (including the history tome The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle). My favorite fiction of the year is War and Peace and my favorite non-fiction title of the year is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Monthly favorites:-

January - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
February - The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
March - Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
April - Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant
May - The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia by C.W. Gortner
June - Unless by Carol Shields
July - Watership Down by Richard Adams
August - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
September - Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska
October - The Masterpiece by Émile Zola
November - The Book and the Sword by Jin Yong
December - The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren (a Chinese classical play)

 In 2015 I read 4 non-fiction books and 18 novels - a total of 22 books, which was not bad considering I was engaged full-time on a writing project for the first half of the year!

Of the non-fiction category, my favorite would be Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, with Marie Antoinette: The Journey trailing right behind.

Of the 18 novels that I read, these found their way to my heart (not in any order):-

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
A Woman's Life and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Odyssey by Homer
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola
Wolf Of The Plains by Conn Iggulden