The warrior emperor and the five phoenixes

Updated 2017-06-25 12:21:13 China Daily
The main structure of the Shenyang Imperial Palace was built in 1625.

The main structure of the Shenyang Imperial Palace was built in 1625.

In the blood of the man who laid a pathway to Beijing for Manchu rulers, war was mingled with love

He is notorious for his cold calculation, credited with forcing his stepmother to commit sacrificial suicide upon the death of his father to clear himself of a potential political foe. He was also a man of great ambition and amorous passion, his renown owing as much to his horseback achievements as to the fabled members of his harem.

This is Huang Taiji, founder of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and today there is no other place where his colorful life is more powerfully evoked than in the Shenyang palace.

In the late 16th century, Nurhaci (1559-1626), a chieftain from Northeast China, united all the feuding tribes of his Manchu roots, before launching attacks on the already-rickety Ming Empire. He soon conquered what is now Liaoning and used it as a base for much more daring military moves. Around 1625 (the exact year is a matter of conjecture), Nurhaci ordered the construction of his royal palace, in Shenyang.

However, Nurhaci, who died a year later, in 1626, never spent a day in the residence he envisioned for himself as an emperor. It was Huang Taiji (Huang is not his surname, as the surname for the Manchu royal blood is Aisin-gioro.), Nurhaci's fourth son and successor, who later became the master of the Shenyang palace.

Enter the Shenyang palace from Daqing Gate, the main entrance, and you find yourself facing a yellow-roofed expanse, the Chongzheng Hall, where the emperor pored over mountains of documents or discussed state matters with his generals and court officials. Chongzheng means to fulfill royal duty and be a diligent ruler. Many of the plans that guided the Manchu troops from one military triumph to another must have been hatched here.

The interior of Empress Jerjer's palace.

The interior of Empress Jerjer's palace.

The day I visited, early this month, Chongzheng Hall was shrouded in scaffolding because long overdue conservation work was being carried out.

Next on the palace's central axis is its tallest building, the Phoenix Tower, which was Shenyang's tallest building when it was completed. Five "phoenixes" resided right behind this tower, each with their own separate abode. They are Huang Taiji's empress and four highest-ranking concubines. (The emperor had 10 other low-level concubines.)

Each deserves a book of her own. Two were former wives of the last ruler of the mighty Mongol Empire, which at one stage seemed utterly invincible. Both women were obviously consummate political pragmatists. When their husband, Ligdan Khan, suffered a humiliating military defeat at the hand of Huang Taiji and died in 1634 they knew that the best way of protecting their own people was to side with the Manchu ruler-or, better still, marry him. They did so in 1634 and 1935. (Another three of Ligdan Khan's eight wives married the Manchu emperor's brothers and son after their surrender.)

Huang Taiji's other three wives, including his empress, all bore the same surname, Borjigit, and are believed to have come from the same clan as that of the great conqueror Genghis Khan.

In 1614 Jerjer Borjigit, 16, was married by his father, a Mongol royal of the Khorchin tribe, to the Huang Taiji, 22, in a union of political expedience rather than of love. For three centuries, forming an alliance with the Mongols became a national policy, one all Qing emperors pursued and implemented with vigor.

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