China Underground > Magazine > China Magazine > Interview with Alice Poon, author of Tales of Ming Courtesans

Interview with Alice Poon, author of Tales of Ming Courtesans

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alice Poon steeped herself in Chinese poetry and history, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels and English Literature in her school days.

This early immersion has inspired her creative writing. Always fascinated with iconic but unsung women in Chinese history and legends, she cherishes a dream of bringing them to the page. She is the author of The Green Phoenix and the bestselling and award-winning non-fiction title Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong. She now lives in Vancouver, Canada and devotes her time to writing historical Chinese fiction.

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Where does the interest in the lives of these three fascinating female figures come from?

When I did research in 2014 for a subplot minor character Chen Yuanyuan for my earlier historical novel The Green Phoenix (published in 2017), I accidentally stumbled on Liu Rushi’s biography, titled An Ulterior Biography of Liu Rushi, written by the eminent historian Chen Yinke, who lauded her as the embodiment of the Chinese nation’s spirit of independence and liberal thinking. My interest in Liu was immediately piqued, and a vague idea of blending Chen’s story with Liu’s was formed then. Between 2015 and 2018, on and off, I plowed through the 800,000-word, 3-volume, biographical tome.

In 2016, I also chanced to read Kong Shangren’s famous classic historical play The Peach Blossom Fan, and Li Xiangjun’s story left a deep impression. It then struck me that these women were among the Eight Great Beauties of Qinhuai and their lives were the most dramatic. I felt strongly that they had far more moral courage and integrity than people are willing to give them credit for.

 

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By early 2018, the idea of writing a novel featuring them took concrete shape.

Tales-of-Ming-Courtesans-by-Alice-Poon
Tales of Ming Courtesans

How long did it take you to make this volume? How did you go about finding information?

The research started in 2014 and continued in fits and starts until early 2018. In mid-2018 I started to work on the first draft. The full manuscript was completed in mid-2019.

The main source of information for Liu Rushi was her epic biography by Chen Yinke. For Li Xiangjun, I relied on The Peach Blossom Fan and Hou Fangyu’s short biography of her. As for Chen Yuanyuan, Wu Weiye’s narrative poem Song of Yuanyuan and Mao Xiang’s memoir Reminiscences of the Plum Shaded Cloister were the key source.

Other information about the period and cultural details mainly came from Yu Huai’s Banqiao Zaji (Diverse Records of the Wooden Bridge), Jonathan Spence’s Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man and Zhang Dai’s The Dream Recollections of Taoan, plus various English-language reference books related to women, culture and the literary world in Ming China.

Why did you choose this particular historical period? What did the invasion of the Qing mean for Chinese society and culture?

Portrait of Chen Yuanyuan (1624–1681), concubine of Wu Sangui (1612–1678). Qingshi tudian 清史图典 [“Illustrated compendium of Qing history”], vol. 2, Shunzhi chao 顺治朝

The period in question is one that straddles two ruling regimes: the Ming and the Qing dynasties. I have a particular interest in this turbulent period because growing up I had come across intriguing and poignant human stories of love, sacrifice, divided loyalties and patriarchal cruelty from the period through books, operas, movies and TV dramas. As a grown-up, I’ve found these stories highly relatable, as they seem to reflect in some way our present-day human condition. Also, this period in Ming history saw the culmination of literary (in particular poetry) and music development. It witnessed a dynamic interaction between cultured courtesans and the literati, both in the romantic and literary sense. In short, in my new novel I wanted to highlight three courtesans’ love stories and their gritty struggle against a misogynistic society, as well as the era’s unique and vibrant artistic tapestry.

The Qing’s invasion into Han China certainly stirred up violent resentment in Chinese society, especially during Regent Dorgon’s oppressive reign as he tried to use brutal force to subdue the Han Chinese by foisting Manchu customs on them despite their repulsion (a notorious example was the shave-head mandate on pain of death). Luckily his violent rule didn’t last long, and thanks to the benevolent rule under Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang/the Shunzhu Emperor and later the Kangxi Emperor, there came a chance for war-torn China to heal and prosper as the Manchu rulers realized that only civilized ways could win hearts and minds.

The Han culture and civilization had very deep roots and had always been the Han Chinese’s pride, so the initial violent clash with the Manchu couldn’t but leave gaping wounds on society, both physical and emotional. As a matter of interest, this part of Chinese history is fleshed out in my 2017 novel The Green Phoenix.

Portrait of the courtesan Liu Rushi, ink on paper, by Lu Ji and Cheng Tinglu

How does the fate of these three women intertwine with the fate of China?

While alive, all three women struggle for survival, dignity and hope for a better life, but that struggle is in vain, much like the Ming Dynasty’s futile fight to avert its fate of humiliation and defeat.

But in the story, the women refuse to give up hope.

How were courtesans socially considered in China at the time?

Courtesans, like actresses, entertainers and prostitutes of the time, were socially classed as “jianmin” (worthless people).

They were considered below the commoner class, which effectively meant they were social outcasts.

alice-poon
Alice Poon

What was the fate of the protagonists?

Liu Rushi, upon her husband’s death, was bullied by her husband’s relatives into taking her own life. Li Xiangjun passed in her sickbed with a broken heart, having been abandoned by her lover.

Chen Yuanyuan lived into old age, but her fading years were said to be spent in quiet solitude in a nunnery.

What were the episodes that most touched you?

To tell you the truth, I teared up in several places of the story while writing the first draft.

One episode that touched me most was where the child Liu Rushi faces the death of her mother. I still choke up whenever my mind goes over that scene, because it always brings back the sad memory of my own mother’s death from lung disease.

There was a scene where Liu Rushi and Chen Yuanyuan have a heart-to-heart talk on the night before Liu’s wedding. They have been estranged from each other for a while due to an earlier row based on some misunderstanding. The way they are able to bare their souls to each other that night moved me deeply.

Painting of Li Xiangjun 1817, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Are there traces in contemporary Chinese culture of the influence of these female figures?

Many Chinese people are familiar with the folklore about Chen Yuanyuan. One of Jin Yong’s famous novels – The Deer and the Cauldron – recreates Chen’s story and features her daughter as one of the wives of the protagonist. There are numerous movies and TV historical drama series that feature Chen.

Iconic historian and intellectual luminary Chen Yinke (1890 – 1969) spent ten years of the latter part of his life to write the 800,000-word An Ulterior Biography of Liu Rushi. He reconstructed Liu’s life story from her impressive collection of poetry and letters as well as her peers’ literary works (poetry, epistolary writings and memoirs). Some of Liu’s paintings are in the custody of The Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. There is a 2012 China-produced film that features Liu Rushi as the protagonist.

Both Chen Yuanyuan and Li Xiangjun were both renowned kunqu opera singers. This operatic art reached its peak of development in the late-Ming era. Kunqu opera was named one of the masterpieces of Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2001.

 


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