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Huang Taiji:Love story that ended in tears

2017-06-24 15:49 ChineseTime

The warrior emperor and the five phoenixes

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
The main structure of the Shenyang Imperial Palace was built in 1625. Photos By Zhao Xu / China Daily and Provided To China Daily

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.

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
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.

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
The cradle Harjol once used for her short-lived son.

Eleven years later in 1625, to further cement the relationship between this Mongol tribe and the rising Manchu power, Jerjer's 13-year-old niece, Bumbutai, was married to Huang Taiji. One year later, Huang Taiji, now 34, ascended to the throne, making Jerjer his empress.

Then, in 1634, Bumbutai's blood sister, Harjol, 26, was married, again to Huang Taiji. Harjol, four years older than Bumbutai, and would become the love of the emperor's life. (At a time when teenage marriage was the norm, especially for women, 26 was not regarded as particularly young, and many historians have postulated that Harjol was married previously, although there is no firm evidence of this.)

So fast had Harjol insinuated herself into the heart of the Manchu ruler that when Huang Taiji officially conferred titles on all his consorts in 1636, she was made head of all concubines, second only to Empress Jerjer, an aunt to her and Bumbutai.

This enviable position was reflected by the exact location of Harjol's palace in the harem quarters, right behind the Phoenix Tower in the Shenyang palace. Directly behind the back of the tower is Empress Jerjer's abode, flanked by two palaces on the right and two on the left. Harjol's Guanju Palace, first on the left-hand side, sat in the east. (Ancient Chinese considered east a more noble position than west.)

Here, those who have been to the Forbidden City in Beijing need to lower their expectations: the so-called palaces are much more humble versions of their Beijing counterparts. But still, back then, they were the height of luxury for those who had spent their days on horseback or in tents.

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
The interior of Guanju Palace, the abode for Harjol.

Take Harjol's one for example: the interior of the palace is composed essentially of an outer section and an inner section. The outer section features a table and cushions, a Buddhist shrine and two big closets, all placed on a bench that surrounds the entire room. Here prayers were said and guests received. According to my guide, the top layers of the closets were always kept empty, to symbolize plenitude.

Also in this section are two pots, set into the bench. They were not used for cooking but for boiling water to increase humidity in Shenyang's cold, dry winters.

The interior of the palace was the resting area, with a bed (for Harjol and Huang Taiji) and a cradle (for Harjol's son). Today the cradle, most probably a replica, still dangles from the ceiling as it did nearly 400 years ago. And it serves as a reminder not only of a long-lost Manchu tradition, but also of a love story that ended in tears.

In 1637, one year after Harjol moved into her new palace, she had a son, upon whose birth Hang Taiji granted immunity over the land he ruled. However, the baby lived for a mere seven months, breaking the heart of his mother Harjol, who died three years later.

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
The bedroom for Harjol and Huang Taiji.

According to the official record of the Qing Dynasty, Huang Taiji was away fighting Ming troops when Harjol fell seriously ill in her palace. Between battlefield glory and the woman he loved, the emperor chose the latter. However, it took a galloping horse five days to race from the frontline, about 250 kilometers away, to Shenyang, and by the time Hang Taiji charged through the door, 33-year-old Harjol had closed her eyes.

The emperor was devastated, and he grieved over his loss for two years, and then died aged 52.

However, the end of one legend gave rise to another: Bumbutai, long overshadowed by her older sister, now made a grand entrance onto the historical stage.

Upon Huang Taiji's death, Bumbutai's son Fulin, born in the Shenyang palace, became the new emperor. In 1644, Fulin, 6, moved to Beijing, after his mighty troops trampled all resistance. The new empire was named Qing, a decision that Huang Taiji had made in 1636.

Bumbutai the empress dowager was to spend the next 44 years in the Forbidden City in Beijing until her death in 1688. Having experienced heartbreak of her own-Fulin died in 1661 at the age of 23-she went on to bring up her grandson, who later became the much-venerated Emperor Kangxi, the longest-reigning emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

In the intervening years Bumbutai also witnessed the death of her aunt, Empress Jerjer, in 1649, as well as the death of Huang Taiji's other two most prominent concubines who were the former wives of Ligdan Khan.

Huang Taiji Love story that ended in tears
Below from left: Huang Taiji Aisin-gioro; Jerjer Borjigit; Bumbutai Borjigit; Harjol Borjigit.

Back in Shenyang, Bumbutai's palace, Yongfu Palace, is second on the right-hand side of Empress Jerjer's abode, indicating her ranking to be the lowest among the five. Yet she survived and triumphed. Age had not only weathered her heart, but also given her wisdom. (No serious Qing history writer has ever suggested there was a political struggle between the three Borjigit women, but at the very least the arrangement must have put all of them under heavy pressure.)

Throughout his life, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) returned to Shenyang three times, in 1671, 1682 and 1698. Whether Bumbutai, also known as Empress Xiaozhuang, followed his grandson during one of those trips remains unknown. However, before her death at the age of 75 she made it clear that she wanted to be buried in Beijing rather than with her husband in Shenyang, a wish his grandson granted.

This also means that in death she is forever separated from her sister and aunt. The latter is often described as a determined woman and an able harem manager who earned more respect than love from her husband.

But in Shenyang, behind the Phoenix Tower, the empty palaces still stand together facing one another. They are sore reminders of the proud phoenixes who once lived there. Most of them never got a chance to fly.

7
The lives and times of Manchu rulers

1592: Birth of Nurhaci Aisin-gioro, later known as Huang Taiji, founder of Manchu Empire

1614: Jerjer Borjigit, 16, marries Huang Taiji

1625: Bumbutai Borjigit marries Huang Taiji. About this time construction of Shenyang palace begins

1626: Nurhaci dies and Huang Taiji ascends the throne

1634: Harjol Borjigit marries Huang Taiji. About this time a wife of Ligdan Khan surrenders and marries Huang Taiji

1635: Another wife of Ligdan Khan surrenders and marries Huang Taiji

1636: Huang Taiji gives the name Qing to his burgeoning empire

1637: Birth of Harjol's son

1638: Harjol's son dies

1641: Harjol dies aged 33

1643: Huang Taiji dies aged 52. Fulin, Bumbutai's son, ascends the throne

1644: Fulin, or Emperor Shunzhi, moves to Beijing with his court

1661: Emperor Shunzhi dies aged 23, succeeded by his son, Emperor Kangxi

1688: Bumbutai dies aged 75

 


 ( By Zhao Xu ; China Daily )

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