Mandarin by Robert Elegant

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This is marketed as being the second in a trilogy, but it’s actually got nothing to do with Manchu, apart from the fact that they’re both written by Robert Elegant and set in China. This one covers the Taiping Rebellion, and is set mainly in the “foreign” quarter of Shanghai, where Saul Haleevie, who left Baghdad due to anti-Jewish sentiment and moved, via Bombay/Mumbai, to China, is in partnership with Aisek Lee, a Chinese man.  Most of the Haleevies’ acquaintances are from Britain, the United States, or various European countries.  The Empress Yehenala/Cixi/Orchid, many miles away in Peking/Beijing, also features prominently.

Aisek falls foul of the Chinese authorities and is unjustly sentenced to exile, after which Saul and his wife Sarah adopt Aisek’s sons, Aaron and David. Meanwhile, the Haleevies are desperate to find a suitable husband for their daughter, the oddly-named Fronah, whom they’re concerned is becoming too involved both with Chinese affairs and with the Western community, and also attracting the interest of an American, Gabriel Hyde.  They manage to pair Fronah up with Lionel Henriques, a well-to-do (so they think) and well-connected (so they hope) Englishman who conveniently happens to be Jewish.  Rather unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that Lionel is a paedophile and an opium addict, who was packed off to China by his horrified family to avoid scandal in London.  Opium, OK, but did we have to have paedophilia in the book?  Surely some other sort of vice, one which wasn’t quite so sickening, would have sufficed for the storyline.

David becomes a prominent Mandarin, whilst Lionel and Aaron join the Taiping rebels. Lionel is killed, but no-one tells Fronah because they’re worried it’ll lead to a recurrence of the depression and anorexia from which she suffered when he first left, and then, ten years later, there’s a rather unconvincing farce in which no-one tells anyone else what they know and everyone gets the wrong idea, before Fronah and Gabriel finally get together and, hopefully, live happily ever after.

That makes it sound like a romance or a family saga, which it isn’t. There are a lot of scenes showing the utter horror of the Taiping Rebellion, as experienced by Lionel and David, the effects on everyone of the fighting in and around Shanghai, Fronah’s attempts to help the children who are suffering as a result of it, and the sacking and pillaging of Peking by Western forces.  There are also a lot of scenes showing the Empress Yehenala, presenting her in a much more positive light than she’s often been shown in historically.   It’s a big book and there’s a lot going on, with the action moving between the main characters in Shanghai, Lionel and Aaron with the rebels, and Yehenala at court.

It does get a bit confused sometimes, especially in the rather silly who-knows-what scenes leading up to the end. Also, the author gets his cuisines confused, but I suppose that doesn’t really affect the story!   But there’s a lot in it that’s well worth reading.

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The Durrells – ITV 1

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This is turning into one of those very popular sitcoms that we used to have in the 1980s. I don’t think for a minute that Gerald Durrell intended his memoirs to come across as situation comedy, and I’m not sure that ITV intended their adaptation of them to do so either – which means, hooray that we’re not getting annoying canned laughter all the time, as we do in programmes that are actually marketed as sitcoms – but it’s working very well as one.  Why don’t they make ’70s and ’80s style sitcoms any more?  Everyone used to watch them, and I think we could all do with a bit of gentle comedy in our lives, with all the doom and gloom going on at the moment.

Despite the rather obvious differences in time, location and social class 🙂 , there’s a definite feeling of Bread about this.  We’ve got a group of family members who are all rather annoying, most of whom seem to think that it’s OK not to pay their way and could really do with a good slap, but who somehow form a genuinely entertaining unit.  Then there’s the location.  We didn’t really get exotic locations in ’80s sitcoms.  I don’t think the TV companies could afford them back then!  Sun, sea, sand, stone, countryside … it’s all there.  And there’s the Brits Abroad/Culture Clash element, which is always good for a laugh.

In the first episode of the new series, the Durrells had failed to pay their rent – which they didn’t seem to feel at all stressed or guilty about. Louisa Durrell seemed to think that saying “Sorry” to the nasty new landlady (who was jealous because she thought Louisa had caught the attention of her ex) would make it all OK.  Even the Boswells wouldn’t have done that.  And it didn’t seem to occur to any of the adult children that maybe they should try to earn some money. Larry was trying to write a book … but dropped his typewriter out of a tree, as you do.  Yes, we all know that Lawrence Durrell became a successful author, but at this point he was just expecting his mum to support him from her widow’s pension.  Leslie wasn’t doing anything at all, other than messing about with shotguns and accidentally injuring the family dog.  And Margo was spending all her time chasing after a monk, not realising that monks were celibate.  See what I mean about how they could do with a good slap?!  But somehow it was funny!  Meanwhile, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that young Gerry ought to be at school, rather than wandering about looking for otter poo.

So Louisa decided to make some money by selling traditional British food at the market. In a series of scenes that could have come straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo, she stood there being terribly polite and British, until Spiro, her Greek pal, pointed out that she needed to flirt with the male customers and call out histrionically about how her family were all going to starve unless people bought her wares.  So then she did very well … until everyone who’d bought her stuff got food poisoning, possibly because the dastardly landlady had nobbled it.

I really don’t think it’s meant to seem quite as farcical as it does. Or that we’re meant to think of Gerald’s siblings as scroungers.  But, even if it’s not meant to be a sitcom, it’s working really well as one.

And what about the historical element of it? Well, it isn’t really there – and maybe that’s part of the appeal.  This is the late 1930s, and the storm clouds are gathering.  In a few short years’ time, war is going to break out, and Corfu is going to be occupied first by Mussolini’s Italy and then by Hitler’s Germany.  Louisa, Gerry and Leslie are going to return to England and have to cope with life on the Home Front.  But no-one seems to have the slightest inkling of, or even the slightest interest in, what’s going on in the outside world.  No-one seems to own a radio, and I don’t think we’ve even seen anyone reading a newspaper.  In a world of 24/7 news coverage, much of which is enough to make anyone feel anxious and downhearted, the idea of being able to escape from it all to some sort of sunny idyll has its appeal.  OK, in reality I’d be screaming out for the internet, a TV and a 24 hour Tesco after a day, plus I really, really hate not knowing what’s going on in the world.  But it’s a nice idea.  Especially on a Sunday evening, in that gentle-Sunday-evening-viewing slot where lovely programmes like Heartbeat and Born and Bred and Where The Heart Is used to be, and which The Durrells is filling quite nicely.

 

 

 

 

Manchu by Robert Elegant

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If you’re going to write a book about the Manchu conquest of China, obviously you need a hero from Clitheroe. Well, it didn’t actually mention Clitheroe, LOL, but I’m guessing that the American author, whilst reading up on the English Catholic college at St Omer, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, noted that the college was the “ancestor” of what’s now Stonyhurst (i.e. the well-known Catholic boys’ school near Clitheroe) and decided that his hero should come from Lancashire for that reason.  Oh, and don’t use “the Duchy of Lancaster” as a synonym for “the county of Lancashire”.  It’s totally inaccurate and very annoying.  Furthermore, our hero’s family had apparently had their estates confiscated because they were Catholic.  Er, what?!!   Fines for recusancy, yes.  Estates being confiscated, no.  And apparently they held these estates because they were yeomen.  How much of an estate did your average Elizabethan yeoman hold?!

OK, that’s enough moaning about the author’s errors regarding Elizabethan England. The book actually starts in the time of James I, when our hero Francis is studying at St Omer but doesn’t fancy becoming a priest.  The next thing you know, he’s working for the Portuguese in Macao, as an expert in ammunitions.  I really want to write an essay on the Habsburgs now, because I know where I am with the Habsburgs and I really don’t know where I am with 17th century China, but suffice it to say that, at this point, Macao, because it was under Portuguese control, was under the rule of Philip IV of Spain, and linked with the Spanish Netherlands for that reason.  Well, until 1640, when Barcelona and Madrid had one of their many spats and Portugal decided to declare independence in the middle of it all.

So we are now in Macao, under Portuguese administration but Chinese sovereignty. And the Manchus are looking to overthrow the Ming dynasty and take control of China. Rather confusingly, the book keeps referring to the Manchus as Tartars, which is what Westerners would have done at the time but is, like the Duchy of Lancaster thing, totally inaccurate and very annoying.  The Portuguese are on the side of the Ming dynastyAnd there are Jesuit priests hoping to convert Chinese bigwigs to Catholicism (Francis is the lone Englishman, the other Westerners all being Portuguese or Italian, but not very much is said about that), members of the Chinese upper and middle-classes who have converted to Catholicism, and conflict’s brewing between the Manchus and the Mings … and, as the book progresses, Francis gets caught up in it all.

He’s also pushed into marriage with a Catholic Chinese woman; then, after being kidnapped, he’s pushed into taking a Manchu woman as a concubine; and then, after ending up back in Macao, he marries a Portuguese woman (his first wife having died by then). Keep up!!  There’s something a bit Boys’ Own-ish about the way he keeps being kidnapped, escaping, ending up in the thick of everything and saving the day, but it makes things exciting!  And there’s also something rather dated about the way we see everything through the eyes of the Western characters, but the book’s over 50 years old so it can’t really be criticised for that.  It really does drawn you in.  There are war scenes, there are political scenes, and there are detailed domestic scenes which describe everyone’s clothes and hairstyles.  So there’s a bit of everything.

I feel as I’m writing this in a rather confused way, but the book is a bit higgledy-piggledy, especially with the relationships with the three different women.  Also, the style in general seems quite old-fashioned now, but, as I’ve said, you can’t criticise a book that’s over 50 years old for that.  What it is is a very interesting introduction to an environment with which the reader probably isn’t going to be familiar.  And a time when, as the book points out, it took two years to travel between China and Portugal or England. It’s not an easy read, but that’s probably because it is unfamiliar territory.  But it’s worth the effort.

Empress Orchid and The Last Empress by Anchee Min

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The second half of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century were not good times for China. The Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864, arguably considered the largest conflict of the nineteenth century, caused widespread devastation.  The country was politically weak and industrially backward and, with its huge economic potential, a load of foreign powers were after a piece of the action.  Japan and Russia were both keen to seize pieces of Chinese territory.  Britain had Hong Kong and, as was France, stepping up her influence in neighbouring countries.  All four powers, along with Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, were after trading concessions and trading bases within China; and Austria-Hungary and Italy joined most of the others in getting stuck in during the nationalistic Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901.

The Qing dynasty produced three successive emperors who died young, leaving children to take the throne after them. The first two were personally and politically weak, and the second two were unable to produce direct heirs.  Tensions between the ruling Manchus and the majority Han Chinese, and between traditionalists and reformers, were rising, both at court and elsewhere, and court bigwigs were jockeying for position.  A series of natural disasters didn’t help.  Nor did activity by Western Christian missionaries, offending local traditions.

From 1861 to 1908, much of the power in China was held by the Dowager Empress Orchid, usually known as Cixi, one of the concubines of the Emperor Hsien Feng and regent for her son and nephew, the next two emperors. She’s had a terrible press, both in China and beyond, being portrayed as a despot and a corrupt money-grabber and even being accused of poisoning her nephew and other family members.  In recent years, views of her have begun to change, and Anchee Min presents her, the eponymous heroine of both these books, as someone who genuinely had the interests of the country and the imperial family at heart and always did her best under very difficult circumstances.

Despite the complexities of the situation and the fact that English language readers are probably not going to be very familiar with the culture of the Chinese court, the books are fairly easy to read, and very interesting. There’s a lot of information about court life and traditions, and, if the idea of the books was to get the reader to like and sympathise with Orchid/Cixi, Anchee Min does an excellent job of it.  I don’t really know enough about Chinese history – although I’m trying to learn! – to be able to have a proper opinion on whether or not the Empress has been unfairly maligned, but there are many characters in history who’ve been given an unfairly bad press and many who polarise opinion, and it looks as if she’s one of the former and is becoming one of the latter.

These are novels, written in the first person, and, presumably, very much aimed at giving a positive view of the Empress Orchid/Cixi. They’re not textbooks – but they’re not meant to be textbooks.  And they do a very good job of holding the reader’s attention and explaining the fascinating and complex world of the Chinese court at a very difficult time in its history.