Having been in the book business for over 30 years, Old Haleian Bill Liddelow knows a little bit about books. Bill shares his thoughts below on the latest book, China, by Edward Rutherfurd.
What would he have thought of Edward Rutherfurd’s “China”? Often academics look down on historical fiction, generally when too much licence is taken with the truth so far as it is known. But I feel that he would have enjoyed this book, in which history is brought to life with a mix of real and imaginary characters. I certainly did.
Rutherfurd has a collection of major historical novels under his belt. I’d previously read his “Paris” and “New York” both of which pleasantly filled in gaps in my knowledge of these cities and enriched the experience of visiting them. “China” is a bit different, in that it is set in a whole country over a shorter time frame. It has the hallmarks of all his works: great characters, a great story, and historical accuracy.
The events in the book start with the Opium Wars of the late 1830s, through which China was forced to trade with the West on Western terms, and end with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. It’s the half century of the decline and effective destruction of the Qing dynasty, held together for much of the period by the legendary Dowager Empress Cixi. It’s also the period of Western intrusion in and military successes against China, leading to unequal treaties and exploitation by Britain, Russia, France, the U.S, Germany and, towards the end of the period, Japan.
Of course it was easy prey, crumbling from within, failing to modernise, and divided. The Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 was the bloodiest civil war in world history with between 30 and 50 million dead. Even after the fall of the Qing in 1912, it took until 1949 for a unified China to emerge under Mao Tse Tung.
The story is rich in detail, following the lives of Chinese at different levels of society and in different parts of the sprawling Empire, as well as of Westerners who exploited and humiliated them. The cruelty and oppression on both sides is sickening, but Rutherfurd draws his characters sympathetically and enables us to enter this exotic world and to empathise with all kinds of people whose habits, customs, motivations or actions might not be agreeable to us.
We follow the lives of English, American and Chinese traders, Generals and naval commanders, Taipan religious zealots, smugglers, peasants, lofty Mandarins, and inhabitants of the Forbidden City from eunuchs to Princes, Emperors and the Dowager Empress Cixi. The Chinese characters include Manchus, Han, and Hakka, through which Rutherfurd reveals the social and political complexity within China at the time.
We journey with characters whose aspirations lead them to bind the feet of their daughters, to choose castration and employment in the Forbidden City over poverty in the streets, smugglers who risk everything for their livelihood, even peasants who work as bonded labourers laying railways across the American Rockies. We partake in intrigues and plots, and feel like we’re there and part of it.
At over 780 pages this is a substantial book in every way. It’s a great story that kept me riveted to my seat. I was both fascinated and informed about numerous aspects of nineteenth century Chinese life and events. After finishing it, I could readily understand why many Chinese might have a festering resentment of the West. I recommend it to you as the ideal companion for the cold winter nights and days ahead.
China by Edward Rutherfurd, 784 pages, softcover.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton. RRP $32.99, $26.99 at Boffins Books