Cover art for China
Hodder & Stoughton, May 2021
Softcover, 784 pages
23.2cm × 15cm × 4.6cm

China An Epic Novel

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The internationally bestselling author portrays the great clash of East and West in his new epic: China

China in the nineteenth century: a proud and ancient empire forbidden to foreigners. The West desires Chinese tea above all other things but lacks the silver to buy it. Instead, western adventurers resort to smuggling opium in exchange.

The Qing Emperor will not allow his people to sink into addiction. Viceroy Lin is sent to the epicentre of the opium trade, Canton, to stop it. The Opium Wars begin - heralding a period of bloody military defeats, reparations, and one-sided treaties which will become known as the Century of Humiliation.

From Hong Kong to Beijing to the Great Wall, from the exotic wonders of the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, to squalid village huts, the dramatic struggle rages across the Celestial Kingdom. This is the story of the Chinese people, high and low, and the Westerners who came to exploit the riches of their ancient land and culture.

We meet a young village wife struggling with the rigid traditions of her people, Manchu empresses and warriors, powerful eunuchs, fanatical Taiping and Boxer Rebels, savvy Chinese pirates, artists, concubines, scoundrels and heroes, well-intentioned missionaries and the rapacious merchants, diplomats and soldiers of the West. Fortunes will rise and fall, loves will be gained and lost.

This is an unforgettable tale told from both sides of the divide. The clash of worldviews, of culture and heritage, is shown in a kaleidoscope of jaw-dropping set pieces. China is a feat of the imagination that will enthral, instruct and excite, and show us how things once were, and how the turmoil of the nineteenth century led to modern China's revolution and rebirth.

Reviewed by Bill

Bill is the Buyer for Boffins, so blame him when you don’t find the book you want. He reads widely, particularly non-fiction, and reviews books monthly on Wednesdays with Gareth Parker on radio station 6PR.

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 a death toll estimated at between 30 and 50 million people. 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. If you like historical fiction at its best, try this book.

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