‘You must always remember that the emperor of China sits at the centre of the world, and he rules by the Mandate of Heaven.’
The novel opens in 1839, at the beginning of the First Opium War between the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty and the west and unfolds over the remainder of the Qing Dynasty, closing with mention of Dr Sun Yat-sen, General Yuan and Edmund Backhouse in the early twentieth century.
We follow the fortunes of members of different Chinese, British and American families over this period. I was particularly interested in Mr Rutherford’s depiction of various Chinese: from the Confucian principles outlined (if not always followed) by the Mandarins; of the differences between the Han Chinese and the Manchu; and of the customs described. While this novel is against the background of only a small period of Chinese history, Mr Rutherfurd’s characters reflect the conflict between the values of the Middle Kingdom and western imperialism. While I think Mr Rutherfurd depicts them accurately, I am less sympathetic to the western characters, especially the opportunistic traders and missionaries.
For me, most of the characters were less important than the story they were part of. They each served to highlight a particular part of history, to present a viewpoint consistent with the position occupied. I especially liked the eunuch Lacquer Nail’s description of the Empress Dowager Cixi’s reign, and I also enjoyed the stories of Shi-Rong (a young Mandarin at the beginning of the novel) and Mei-Ling (from a village near Guangzhou).
While I was hoping for a novel set in China before the impact of western imperialism, I quickly fell into the rhythm of this novel and enjoyed it. Chinese history is fascinating, and Mr Rutherfurd brings this particular period to life.
‘China’s history is long. The pattern takes new forms, but in essence it is always the same. A dynasty slowly degenerates. Outsiders encroach. Insiders rebel. The Mandate of Heaven is withdrawn. The dynasty falls. A period of chaos and warlords follows. Finally order is restored by a new dynasty, usually from within. The old empire rises again for a few more centuries.’
I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in China.