Friday, June 16, 2017

Book Cover of My New Historical Epic "The Green Phoenix"

Earnshaw Books will be releasing my new historical epic titled "The Green Phoenix" on September 1, 2017. It is a novelized account of the life of Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess who became a consort of the Manchu court, and then the Qing Dynasty's first matriarch. She lived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky Empire out of a dead end to peace and stability. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson - all emperors and supreme leaders of the Qing Empire - to success against the odds.

Advance Praises:

So much of imperial Chinese history is an enigma; a world we, as outsiders, are shut out off. Alice Poon’s novelised life of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang fictionally pulls back the curtain on Manchu court life and lets us step into a forbidden world.

Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking

Alice Poon has written a masterpiece of Chinese history little known in the West. It's a story of love, betrayal and loyalty, and shows how one woman inspired the reunification of China. For so long the West has fixated on the end of the Qing dynasty, but as Poon beautifully recreates in her book, the real heroine of the Qing is the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang. Never before has this story been told in English, and it's arguably the most important historical novel of early Qing Dynasty China.   

Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife:
 A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

History and Historical Fiction

Historians have attributed the demise of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) to various reasons, the most prominent being: emperors indulging in extravagance and/or self-glory or being pathetically paranoid and/or incompetent, factional feuds between eunuchs and officials in court, endemic corruption in all levels of administration, and the court overtaxing the already desperate underclass of peasants. It took a long period of time (stretching over the reigns of the last three or four emperors) for these factors to foment and become a deadly tumor that set the nation’s body and spirit on an irreversible trend of decay. This internal cancerous growth, in convergence with fateful external factors like the emergence of an ogling neighbor state and the rise of rebellious commoner leaders, ultimately put the Dynasty to rest. Indeed, those internal causes of death sound almost banal, given that they can probably be applied, with adjustments here and there, to any previous dynastic era in China’s long history.

In the case of the Ming Dynasty, one external factor - the “ogling neighbor state” - turned out to be the Manchu Empire, a newly united tribe of cavalry Jurchens under Nurhaci of the Aisin Gioro clan. The origins of the Jurchens could be traced back to the Great Jin Dynasty (1115 to 1234), which had persisted in nettling the Southern Song Dynasty after defeating the Liao in Northern China. It was Hong Taiji, one of Nurhaci’s sons, who established the Qing Dynasty in Mukden, just outside the borders of Ming China. But his dream of conquering China proper was not to be realized in his lifetime. Just one year after his death, though, his half-brother Dorgon, Regent to the child Shunzhi Emperor, fulfilled that dream with the uncanny help of a Ming General, Wu Sangui. Yet the fledgling years of Qing were far from stable, and it took the wits and tenacity of one Mongolian woman – Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang - to keep the multi-ethnic Empire from crumbling.

Those are just some basic facts of history at the crucial crossroads where Ming’s end met with Qing’s start. The study of history can turn people off if it involves only chewing on dry hard facts. But we ought to sing the praises of historians who take great pains to attempt an unbiased and accurate recording of historical facts, if only because our collective future depends on drawing valuable lessons from and avoiding disastrous mistakes of our past, all races included. That said, we must remember that history is often written by the victors, or those who dominate or suppress others (no distinction is made between Western and Eastern history here), and thus we should keep a questioning mind. As well, there is always the element of historians’ own subjective interpretation of facts, so that three different historians may well present three accounts of the same event with quite different slants. All of them valid.

Yet, history is intrinsically made by people and it is always the “actors” of history that make the study interesting or even worthwhile. It should not be surprising then, that some of us love reading historical fiction for the very reason that such fiction focuses on telling the personal stories of those “actors” of history.

The task of weaving historical facts with fictional narratives (in some cases with fictional characters) falls to historical novelists, whose mission is to work creatively with the gaps left by historians, while animating the actors of history with feelings, emotions and thoughts. In general, historical novels are invariably more enticing and less intimidating than dry, non-fiction history, thus more likely to reach a wider audience. If such novels can pique readers’ interest and curiosity and make them want to learn more, then they will have served one great purpose.

I am not a historian, at best only an amateur in Chinese history. But I am passionate about writing historical fiction set in China’s distant past, in which is embedded a colossal untapped reservoir of juicy materials to write good fiction from. The historical fiction genre has long been skewed towards Western history and badly needs diversification into Oriental history. I, for one, would certainly love to see more historical fiction writers jump on this Old China bandwagon.

The above is my humble view.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review - "Azincourt" by Bernard Cornwell

This was my first Bernard Cornwell novel and I picked it up because I wanted to learn about the historical background of the Battle of Azincourt, one of the significant battles in the Hundred Years' War, and about Henry V of England. When I closed the book, I was a little disappointed at the dearth of historical details relating to the ultimate and proximate causes that led to the battle, and the character of Henry V still seemed somewhat blurry in my head.

In the sweltering summer of 1415, the English army, having crossed the channel, engaged in the siege of Harfleur (in Normandy), which ended in a hard-won English victory. This prelude is followed by the English march north towards Calais (English-occupied). Then in the rainy and gloomy month of October, the English army had to face off with the far-outnumbering French army waiting in the muddy field of Azincourt in Picardy. The battle scenes are vividly drawn, with lots of gore, savagery, horror and obscenities (and feces too). Descriptions about armor, weapons and archery, in particular the usage of longbows, are expertly detailed. But some episodes as well as the ending of the novel come across as a bit cliched.

I did come away with a better understanding of why the English and the French hated each other's guts for so long.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review - "Katherine" by Anya Seton

I’m giving this novel 3.5 stars. It is overall a meticulously researched and well-written historical romance set in 14th century England about Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

The first half of the book is dedicated to describing the romantic love that develops in a tortuous way between the two protagonists. Katherine is initially married off against her wish to a brutish husband, whose faults include poverty that results from mismanagement of his estates. Then Prince Charming, who is happily married to a charming and kind princess, comes along and delivers the poor girl from despair. Then the lovers find ways to carry on with their illicit love affair, always plagued by guilt towards their respective spouses. I find this portion too drawn out with too many happy coincidences, that is, too much of a Cinderella type of story. The bits about John’s childhood bête noire and his squire’s murder of Katherine’s husband are contrived.

The second half is much better and more realistic and the pace is quicker. I like the back stories about the Plantagenet family, the political intrigue surrounding religious reform and the lead-up to and the actual June 1381 peasants’ revolt in London. But the part about Katherine’s self-imposed penitence drags too much.

By the time I was near the ending, I could pretty much predict what was going to happen.

I’m glad though to have learned where Henry V and Henry VI of England came from, and the origins of the Beaufort/Tudor line and of the Yorkists.