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.

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