Edward Rutherfurd is known for massive historical novels usually set in cities like New York, Paris and London. They dig deeply into a specific place and he focuses on a certain period. His latest is titled China and spans the last seventy years of the Qing Dynasty: which covers the Opium Wars, Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, and Pu Yi’s ascension to the throne as the last emperor.
The novel begins with a fictional English character named John Trader, down on his luck and massively in debt, who connects with opium dealers. He works alongside the real life characters of William Jardine, James Matheson and Charles Elliot. Trader is kicked out of Canton with the rest of them in 1839 and finds refuge in Macao. There’s a Hakka pirate-turned-British informant named Nio and his relative Mei-Ling, a sister-like figure. Trader’s estranged cousin, Cecil Whiteparish, is a missionary who has second thoughts about the British in Asia. A eunuch named Lacquered Nail becomes close to the Empress Dowager Cixi. There are also Manchu warriors in supporting roles. Many of these characters and their children intersect over the years as the historical events in the storyline allow.
Rutherfurd’s thorough research shows again here in his descriptions of China and other places in Asia like Hong Kong and Macao.
The Portuguese island in the China Sea had a Mediterranean air. Tiny antique forts, more picturesque than threatening, dotted its modest hills. The place had known glory. Two and a half centuries ago, in the shining days of the Ming dynasty, before even the great basilica of St. Peter in Rome was completed, the Jesuits had built the magnificent stone church of St. Paul on the top of Macao’s central hill, to proclaim the Catholic faith’s renewed might, even in Asia.
Besides place, Rutherfurd also has thoroughly researched the many complexities of Chinese culture. For instance, the character Nio is named by his relative Mei-Ling, who combines the Mandarin “Niu” and his village dialect “Nyok” to come up with Nio. As a Hakka, Nio has complicated feelings about China’s rulers, which show the complexity of the politics of the time.
It had been one thing as a boy, to resent the distant Manchu rulers in Beijing; but it had still been a shock to discover that China’s mighty empire could be humiliated by a handful of barbarians. He had only contempt for the Manchu emperor now. And the Han Chinese … were scarcely better.
Rutherfurd has made some compromises. At the start of the book, he notes that he uses pinyin romanization in most instances apart from the words Canton and Peking, which, he states, people would have used in conversation back then. This newer romanization, while perhaps a more accurate representation of actual pronunciation for at least Mandarin as opposed to the systems in use at the time, is anachronistic.
In a story set during a time when the West forced China to open, Rutherfurd doesn’t romanticize the British or American characters, yet some of his Chinese characters come across as exotic. Mei-Ling’s daughter Bright Moon undergoes foot binding and Lacquered Nail undergoes surgery to become a eunuch as a grown man who is married with children. Both are explained in descriptions many pages longer than strictly necessary.
The end result is nevertheless an entertaining, if long, account of 19th-century China. Although Rutherfurd has no apparent prior connection to China or even Asia, China can perhaps be placed in the same basket as the James Clavell novels of Tai-Pan and Noble House. Sometimes the historical events outshine the stories of the fictional characters, but those that remain from start to finish hold the story together and make it worth sticking with all 760 pages.