Book Reviews

Book Review: China

China: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first Rutherfurd novel and a pleasant surprise. I feel it is difficult to write about a foreign culture, let alone one with such a tumultuous, profound and controversial history. Instead of writing about the actual historic characters, Rutherfurd chooses a safer route by creating fictitious ones that are loosely associated with several prominent figures in Chinese history. The book follows several storylines. Representing the English point of view is an opium merchant, a couple of missionaries and a brief examination of colonial lifestyle in India. An eunuch with an unusual life provides a glimpse of life within the forbidden city. We also follow the lives of a mandarin from the north and wealthy land owners of the south, allowing a somewhat harmonised view of the North/South divide in Chinese cultures. Other notable characters include a gang of pirates plus a father and son pair who went to California as labourers for the rail track construction.

Rutherfurd writes with confidence, broaching on several complex subjects matters such as the use of Confucius to create order in society and China’s stubborn rejection of the international trade in contrast with the Japan that went through the Meji revolution to make up for the decades lost in matching Europe with industrialisation. The book starts off at the climax of the opium war, where the British uses the addictive concoction to tip the balance their trade deficit with China. Several Chinese officials expressed their shock in the underhandedness of this manoeuvre and in fact attempted to write to the Queen of England, appealing to her moral righteousness to stop the decay of the nation through addiction. The storylines then ended around the close of the 19th century, when China was on the cusp of a series of painful revolution that resulted in the present day superpower.

“Think of it: we want China to be open and to trade with us. When they won’t, because however foolishly they closed themselves off from the outside world, we come in and ruin them. Is that going to induce them to welcome us? Is that even going to make it possible for them to increase their trade?”

One of the prominent character expressed this perspective towards the end of his life. It makes me wonder if that is Rutherfurd’s own reflection upon the impact British trade had on old China. After the British looters pilfered and destroyed the summer palace, an eunuch expresses his angst, “For it is not wise to tell a vanquished enemy that you despise him and everything he loves. he will not forgive it. In the Celestial Empire, as I still call it, the rape and burning of our paradise and the contempt it showed will never be forgiven or forgotten. Not in a thousand years.”

This book describes the first significant conflict between China and the Western world. It puts modern day rivalry into perspective. It is apparent to me China never forgive nor have forgotten their recent humiliation. The West still has a love/hate relationship with China – there is constant criticism on China yet the West reluctantly accepts that it is dependent heavily on China for manufacturing to support their consumerism lifestyle as well as Chinese dollars in pushing forward world economy. It often causes me great frustration to explain to person of European descent, that while China is not without faults, many severe ones, Westerners are poorly placed in history to criticise China for anything at all. After all, their wealth and lifestyle that resulted in the educated masses were as a result of their relentless plundering of the rest of the world for centuries.

I applaud Rutherfurd’s endeavours to provide a balanced view. I applaud him double for the tremendous and thorough research.

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