One for the Books: Travel back to imperial China

Cover of the book "China' by Edward Rutherfurd. The ccover shwos a round porthole with red floral design around it. Through the porthole is a painting of a harbor, with tall ships and rock islands jutting from the water.

Ken Follett. James Michener. James Clavell. You know these names if you enjoy epic reads that take you into another place and immerse you in the goings-on of well-drawn characters in war, community-building, passion and survival. Add to these Edward Rutherfurd, author of such wonders as “Sarum,” “London,” “Paris,” and the two-volume Dublin Saga, among others. For the fan of historical fiction, Rutherfurd’s newest work, “China,” is just delicious.

Rutherfurd’s saga begins in 1839 and carries us through China’s Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Among the variety of people we meet are British opium traders, Chinese magistrates, pirates, missionaries, palace eunuchs and the Dowager Empress. Many of these disparate souls eventually interact with each other, sometimes in surprising ways.

Through the traders, Rutherfurd explains the tea-opium/China-India connection: “The British drink tea, which is imported from China, because that’s almost the only place which grows it. The tea is taxed. And the tea tax pays for most of the running costs of the British Navy. … It’s a triangular trade. … Chinese dealers get their hands on opium through our Canton agency men. Those Chinese pay our agency men with silver. The agency men use the silver to buy tea. But where does the opium come from? India. … Grown by the East India Company.”

So much money is involved that it naturally leads to smuggling, corruption and greed. The Chinese emperor wants to stop the entire opium trade because so many of his people are addicted to the drug. But the British and American traders won’t let the trade be stopped, and they have no qualms about using their more powerful weapons against the Chinese to keep their trade going.

I have to admit I don’t usually like battle scenes and war maneuvers, and there are plenty here, on land and sea. But these held my interest. Where the tome really comes alive for me is in the life stories, especially in the fascinating tale of a palace eunuch. I loved his descriptions of palace life, intrigue among the eunuchs, and working for the royal family. His first-person narrative is what I was waiting for from Rutherfurd — the re-creation of a place in time, details of life, human nature revealed through characters, and some lovely writing. Here the pages almost turned themselves: “There had been a light dusting of snow over Beijing. … The sky was a crystalline blue. The huge all-white expanse in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony shone so brightly in the sun that I had to blink. Its vast roof, however, since the snow was so thin, gleamed white in the furrows, with myriad ribs of gold where the yellow tiles showed through. It was, I think, the most magical thing I ever saw.”

At the Summer Palace, the eunuch tells us, “We were in paradise. How can I describe it, the most beautiful place in the world? People call it the old Summer Palace now, but the palace itself, the emperor’s residence, was just one compound in the Yuanmingyuan — the Garden of Perfect Brightness. And when we say ‘garden,’ we don’t mean a walled enclosure, but a huge park, a landscape with lakes, islands, and wooded hills, sprinkled with temples, villas, pagodas — everything to delight the eye and calm the soul.”

I was captivated by the descriptions of what life was like for women, including the horrors of foot binding. Rutherfurd’s female characters are not drawn in as much depth as some of the men, but they’re still engaging: “Willow’s feet had been bound when she was a girl, so that she now walked with the fashionable totter that marked her out from the poor peasants like Mei-Ling, whose family labored in the fields. … Mei-Ling was small and … the prettiest girl in the hamlet. If her parents hadn’t been so poor, they might have bound her feet and dressed her in fine clothes and sold her to a merchant in one of the local towns as a junior wife or concubine.”

Rutherfurd even gives us some humorous insights into human nature: “So I told her everything. … The only thing I left out was about my money and where I’d hidden it. It’s always a good rule in life to be as honest with people as you can, but never tell them where the money is.”

For further reading suggestions, if you like the battle themes, try James Clavell’s “Shogun,” set in Japan. If you want to know more about the fascinating Dowager Empress, I suggest Pearl S. Buck’s excellent novel “Imperial Woman” or Jung Chang’s biography, “Empress Dowager Cixi”; you can look up “Cixi” online; or ask a librarian for more books on Chinese history.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.