Laurence Yep: Among the difficulties were the sources. The primary one was in medieval Chinese, which is different than modern Chinese, and in the political chaos the names of the towns and districts were applied to different places, reflecting the loss of Chinese control. The secondary sources were in German and French. Moreover, the Princess' tribe had to be identified and information about them had to be tracked down then. Finally, the Chinese culture of medieval times was quite different form the modern one the historians knew — e.g. chairs were becoming an innovation, tea was not yet a popular drink, etc. So part of the satisfaction was becoming a treasure hunter searching through the stacks of the University of California at Berkeley Library and then taking the pieces and putting them together into a picture. It's a bit as if I asked you to build a house out of toothpicks, but before I let you do that, I scattered the toothpicks all over the state so you would have to pick them up one by one.
RFA & EST: In many ways, the women in Princess Redbird's diary are stronger and, perhaps, more courageous than many of the men. Is this unique to the princess' life story or to this period of Chinese history?
LY: The southern Chinese are a mixture of the Han, or northern Chinese, and the local tribes, some of which allowed women a great deal of freedom — much to the horror of the Chinese who were good Confucians. As a result, the folklore from southern China has strong females; and I found that the folktales mirrored my own experience. My grandmother, my mother and my aunts and their friends were all of southern Chinese ancestry and they were all strong figures. Though if you asked them who was the head of their families, they would have said their husbands; and yet it was the women who ran everything. And I see that same independence and strength in my nieces and now in my great-nieces.
RFA & EST: In doing your research on this period in Chinese history, what did you learn that surprised you most?
LY: Since China has such a strong tradition of theater, I was surprised that Chinese drama had not begun yet by this period. Rather, it was kind of a dance that would act out a story.
RFA & EST: If you could select only one word to describe Princess Redbird, what would that word be? Why?
LY: Courageous. She was a mixture of Joan of Arc and King Arthur. She was brave not only because she led troops into the field from her teenage years well into her eighties; but because she had the courage to insist on a rule of peace and of law. At a time when it was common to favor your own family, she insisted on treating commoners and nobles the same. That was a bold concept at the that time.
RFA & EST: One of the most exciting parts of the book is the section where the scorpions, snakes, and other venomous creatures are dropped on the elephants and the Dog Heads. Does this incident or the supposed magical powers of the Five Clans have an actual historical base?
LY: The ku-magic is a very ancient magic. It predates Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. I retold one of the folktales in The Boy Who Ate Snakes.
RFA & EST: The Lady of Ch'iao Kuo book is labeled as a Special Edition of The Royal Diaries. Would you explain what this means?
LY: The book is longer than the usual Royal Diary book. I tried my best to keep it to the normal length, but the Lady kept coming back to me and saying that I had to put different scenes in. She can still be rather feisty after all these centuries.
RFA & EST: Readers might be surprised to learn of elephants used in battle in China. Were they indigenous to China or imported by people like the Dog Heads?
LY: Elephants, rhinoceroses and other animals were quite common in southern China at this time which was still covered by tropical rain forests. In fact, the poems and letters written by Chinese colonials sound like the poems and letters written many centuries later by British colonials, reflecting their fear of the jungle and the beating of the drums. However, as the Chinese colonies spread across the area, they wiped out the forests and killed or drove out the many different animals of the time. The Lady would not recognize southern China today. It's a lesson in ecology, I suppose. The rain forests of Vietnam are a remnant of what once was.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Princess Redbird's diary one question after they finished reading your book, what would that question be?
LY: Could you put peace and justice above revenge? When something horrible is done to you, the natural impulse is to strike back. Despite all the atrocities that the Dog Heads and later enemies did to her, the Lady had the courage and the vision to see that peace and justice were the most important thing.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Lady of Ch'iao Kuo?
LY: I hope that after meeting the Lady in my book, young readers can take courage in these terrible times. Like the Lady's world, our own seems ready to slide into madness and violence, but it's possible through hope and reason to create peace; and it's possible for an individual to bring this about.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.