China by Edward Rutherfurd – Review
By Sandra Callard
The book is huge, heavy and unwieldy. It has no illustrations and the print is relatively small. It has 763 pages of packed text and is called, simply, China. Written by Edward Rutherfurd, the author of a number of geographically named novels such as Russka, Paris, New York and London, it seemed a daunting project to tackle as a review subject, and it took me until page 150 to realise I was reading a spectacularly glorious epic!
Reviewers like to quantify the strength, or lack of, an author’s research, and Rutherfurd’s is flawless and frighteningly revealing. The story follows an extensive number of characters’ lives throughout the nineteenth century in China, so he cannot have had a real life experience of the country then, but he seems to have done it somehow. China rises up like a lion in the mind’s eye. The emperors, the poor, the greedy and the religious stream before the reader in a fantastic panoply of the country and its customs, its politics and the everyday life of a people whose whole aim of living is to work, bribe or kill their way to a higher plateau of society.
China was, and perhaps still is, a country of contrast with heart-rending beauty and a populace that, certainly in the nineteenth century, lived amongst, and accepted, the most appalling brutality, even to themselves. Where else in the world would a father show his seven year old son how to kill himself quickly if an unbeatable enemy approached him.
The book shows that China is ruled by invisible Emperors with the power of the gods. A worker can be beheaded for spilling a liquid on the clothing of the Emperor or his wife or concubine, and the population at large has no power whatsoever against this and the countless similar laws. It is into a land such as this that British traders and missionaries deigned to enter. The commodity the traders valued most was Chinese opium, which was used liberally by the natives and was also a drug to be coveted by the outside world. The British government freely agreed to traders dealing in the drug, which made both traders, dealers and governments huge fortunes. Because it was legal to trade in opium, it achieved a cloak of respectability and one of the major characters in the story, John Trader, married into a wealthy family and bought himself a Scottish castle and estate and lifelong respectability on the back of his earnings from opium.
Rutherfurd’s text flows easily between the different nationalities, all of which tend to stay within their own creeds, but it is the traits and beliefs of the Chinese that tend to hog the limelight. Their little known beliefs such as painful foot binding for children so they can, inexplicably, as women, be considered beautiful and elegant, thus making a good marriage, is revealed in all its vicious detail. It was new to me that foot binding was only used by a small number of Chinese so-called aristocrats, with the majority of the population thankfully ignoring it.
China is a challenging book, but the more you read the more intriguing it becomes, as the reader is slowly captivated by this strange and complicated nation. The characters, both Chinese and British, are solidly real people with the same human frailties that all people have. We can sympathise with some, dislike others and feel for the downtrodden, as nineteenth century China and Britain vie for superiority. As the twentieth century beckons, both nationalities begin to realise that to have a booming economy between the two nations requires peace and talking, rather than the continual spats of war that were the norm, and this barnstormer of a book can take its rightful place as a true historical epic.
‘China: An Epic Novel’ by Edward Rutherfurd is published by Hodder & Stoughton, out 13th May