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.