To the Discussion Leader
Prize-winning author Laurence Yep continues his thirty-year exploration of China, the Chinese people, and his own heritage in Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South. Through the character of Lady Ch'iao Kuo, also known as Princess Redbird, Yep transports readers into southern China, A.D. 531. He describes a world filled with cinnamon smells and the beauty of kingfisher birds set against a background of constant tribal wars, bloody battles, and dreams of peace.
Princess Redbird's diary chronicles her growth as a young woman and popular leader of her people. In a book filled with portraits of strong women, the princess learns from her role models; discovers the power of an education; and strives for peace in her homeland.
Far more than lifeless history, Yep's story is chock-full of action. Readers witness the brutality of the Dog Head people. Elephants lead warriors into battle by toppling barricades and trampling the enemy. The Five Clans and their magical powers are introduced: Baskets of poisonous frogs, scorpions, deadly snakes, lizards, and insects are used to counter the Dog Heads and their elephants in a battle scene not soon forgotten. History comes to life.
Laurence Yep says that the research he did for Lady of Ch'iao Kuo was some of the most complex he has undertaken, "...yet, despite the difficulties it was also one of the most satisfying books to write." He found Princess Redbird intriguing, dynamic, and resilient. Readers will feel the same way.
"I should be happy now, but my brother's words still hurt...I keep thinking about what my brother called me. Am I really only half-Hsien now? And do the others agree?" Princess Redbird, eldest daughter of the king of the Hsien, feels caught between two worlds. It is 531 A.D. in Southern China. During holidays, Princess Redbird is with her parents, brothers, and sisters at Kingfisher Hill in the Great Forest. The rest of the time she boards at the school in the Chinese colony of Kao-liang where she is learning to read and write the Chinese language. Although her ways are very different from the Chinese, Princess Redbird has come to admire her teacher Master Chen; to love the many books in his library; and to consider his daughter-in-law, Madame, and her children a second family. The threat of war is always present because the Dog Heads, a "savage folk, who take people's heads for the power they symbolize," have been feuding with the Chinese and the Hsien for centuries.
When the Dog Heads attack the Chen's carriage one night, Princess Redbird must return home. There, the king's army prepares for war. Since the Chinese have proposed an alliance with the Hsien to defeat their common enemy, Princess Redbird is designated the official interpreter to enable the sides to communicate with each other. She writes, " I know now that's what my parents had planned all along when they sent me to the Chinese school. I had thought it would be boring trade and diplomatic matters. I had never expected it to be something this urgent."
Princess Redbird has great hope that her father will "save civilization." But he is killed and beheaded by the Dog Heads. The princess is grief-stricken and angry. She writes, "I hate the Dog Heads. I want them all dead. Then I'm going to do to them what they did to father." Meanwhile, the town of Kao-liang is destroyed. Master Chen has been killed along with his eldest granddaughter. His remaining grandchildren have been taken as hostages, and Madame is in shock. Princess Redbird braves a fire in the library to save as many of Master Chen's books as she can.
The fear that the Dog Heads will attack again prompts Princess Redbird to develop a plan. Since the Dog Heads use elephants to break down town walls, the Hsien dig a large trench lined with sharpened stakes to prevent the elephants from advancing. When this plan fails, the princess enlists the aid of her aged nursemaid Kumquat who has a secret weapon, "The Five Clans." Through careful planning and modifications, the Five Clans help to defeat the Dog Heads, sending them retreating in terror. Princess Redbird's elation at the victory soon changes to sorrow as she views the battlefields with many dead and dying. Her resolve to punish the Dog Heads evaporates as she views the prisoners. She says, "I expected to see monsters. All I saw were miserable lumps of humanity." She convinces her brother, Little Tiger, who is now the king, to work for a "'civilized' peace."
The Dog Heads accept the settlement, which includes returning their hostages. Madame, still badly shaken, is reunited with her surviving children. General Feng Jung comes to discuss a treaty and Prince Redbird becomes acquainted with his son, Feng Pao. She discovers she and Feng Pao share many interests including a love of books. She says, "for the first time in a long while I don't feel lonely." Life is peaceful again. The kingfishers are flying. Princess Redbird writes, "So many kingfishers are darting and skipping through the air now. I think they must love the sunshine as much as I do... I feel all warm inside. And safe. And happy. I can almost feel Father is with us, grinning again."
Thinking About the Book
- Why do the king and queen send their daughter, Princess Redbird, away to school in the Chinese colony?
- Princess Redbird writes that the kingfisher birds she and her father love so much are becoming extinct. Why is that?
- Master Meng believed, "Humans were good at heart and so kindness will drown cruelty just as water will put out a fire." Does this idea come true by the end of Princess Redbird's diary?
- "The Dog Heads are savages who should be crushed like so many maggots. I hate Dog Heads. I want them all dead." Which character thinks these thoughts? Explain why.
- What are the Five Clans? Explain their importance in the battle between the Dog Heads and the Hsien.
- Princess Redbird wonders, "Is Great-Uncle Sambar right? Is feuding part of our very natures?" What do you think? Provide examples to support your case.
- Other than Princess Redbird, who is the character you remember most from the diary? Why?
- Do you think Princess Redbird would make a better leader than her brother Little Tiger? Cite examples from the book to support your opinion.
- The most powerful weapons the Dog Heads possessed were the elephants. Do some research to see what you can find out about elephants being used in combat, in different periods of history and civilizations. Share this information with members of your discussion group.
- Princess Redbird mentions her beloved scrolls many times. In fact, her diary is divided into seven scrolls. What does a scroll look like? Create a scroll in which you record several diary entries that might have been written by Uncle Muntjac or Little Tiger.
- Ask each member of your discussion group to pick one of the following people or places. Write a short description of the person or place and its importance in Princess Redbird's story. Share this information with the whole discussion group.
- Lord Leopard
- Cinnamon Pass
- Kingfisher Hill
- Feng Pao
- One of the most exciting scenes in the princess's diary occurs when the Five Clans help to beat the attack elephants and Dog Heads. Draw a picture of what you think this scene might have looked like.
- In her diary Princess Redbird mentions a Great Wall the Chinese built to keep out barbarian hordes. Find out more about the Great Wall of China. Share what you found out with other members of your discussion group.
- Princess Redbird describes herself as a "savage princess" because she was able to fight and use weapons. Another Chinese warrior princess was Hua Mulan who also lived in the sixth century A.D. Find out more about her. What did you learn? Now view the Disney movie Mulan. Do you see any similarities between Mulan and Princess Redbird?
Discussion Guide written 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.