Kinfolk by Pearl Buck


There a lot of books about immigration (or emigration, depending on how you look at it), but there aren’t that many about return migration. Well, the standard immigration novel involves people leaving poverty, persecution or both to seek a new life in a new country, and going back to the old country afterwards wouldn’t really work well with that, either in real life or in fiction.  There is the idea of someone, usually a young man, going off to seek their fortune and then returning in triumph, but that isn’t usually associated with immigration in Anglophone culture, maybe because it tends to make a strong distinction between immigrants and expat workers.  It’s a “thing” in Southern Europe, though.  I recently went to Galicia (the one in Spain, not the one in Ukraine), where the Galician nationalist movement was given huge impetus by people who’d gone off to Argentina or Cuba and then come back.  Then there’s return migration associated with a change of regime: in recent years several return migrants have become involved in politics in former Eastern Bloc countries.

What happens in this book, though, is different to any of that. Four Chinese-Americans, two American born, two born in China but taken to the United States as very young children, move to China, shortly after the Second World War. It starts off with a really bog standard immigration plotline.  We’re in New York. In this case, the characters are the six members of a Chinese family, but the same storyline would work just as well with a family from any of the other groups of people who’ve moved to New York over the years.  The parents want the children to carry on doing things as they were done in the old country.  There are particular issues over the roles of women and girls.  The younger daughter (there are two daughters and two sons) finds a WASP boyfriend.  The parents hit the roof.

However, the eldest son, a doctor, has already decided that he wants to move back to China. And the eldest daughter wants to follow him.  They’re both full of idealistic notions about being able to do good there, in a country that’s struggling to get back on its feet after years of war with Japan.  Whilst the father has initially opposed the decision of his eldest children to move to China, he now decides that it would be a good idea for all four children to go.

The book then shifts away from the issues of immigration and assimilation in the United States, and becomes more about the conflict between new ideas and tradition in China. Having said which, we continue to see how the parents are going on in New York, and the issues within their marriage; but most of the action from then on is in China. The younger daughter finds another WASP boyfriend, an American soldier based in Beijing, marries him, and moves back to New York.  The younger son becomes involved in student protests, and is murdered by the authorities.  The elder son and daughter don’t feel that life in Beijing is what they came back for, and move back to the family’s ancestral village, where life is very far removed from what they were used to in New York.  He sets up a medical centre and she sets up a school, but there’s resistance from the people there to the changes.  There are now three strands – the traditional life of the village, the modernising ideas of the Chinese-Americans, and the Chinese Civil War … although the war is rather in the background, with the real conflict in the book being between tradition and new ideas in one small village.

It’s an unusual story. The experiences of immigrants and the conflict between tradition and modernisation are common themes, but it’s unusual to see them combined in a tale of return migration – return migration from another country with a completely different culture, rather than from a city to a village.  James and Mary reject the idea of the American Dream: they want to go back to … I was going to quote Gladys Knight and say “a simpler place and time”, but it isn’t that at all.  If anything, they’re going to a more complex place and time, because it would really have been much easier for them to have stayed in New York.  And it’s not just a personal thing, it’s because they genuinely want to do good, and feel that they can do that in China, not by trying to bring about a revolution but on a very small scale, in one small village.

This book explores some very interesting themes, and it gives the reader quite a lot to think about.

The Far Side of the Sky and Rising Sun, Falling Shadow by Daniel Kalla


These are the first two books in a trilogy – I’m waiting for a cheap copy of the third to become available on Amazon – about life in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. Some of the principal characters are Chinese, others are Westerners who were working in Shanghai when war broke out and became trapped there, and others, including the “hero” of the series, Dr Franz Adler are Austrian Jewish refugees who, trying to leave Vienna after Kristallnacht, found China willing to give them refuge when so many other countries were not. Franz becomes involved with, and eventually marries, the “heroine”, half-Chinese, half-American nurse Soon Yi Mah, and they both work at a refugee hospital in the face of threats from both the German and Japanese authorities.

The author is a doctor – formerly the head of emergency medicine at a hospital in Vancouver – and there’s a strong medical theme to the books … sort of historical novels crossed with Casualty.  We see the medical staff struggling to cope with both injuries due directly to the war and outbreaks of disease caused by the terrible conditions, as well as the issues caused by shortages of supplies.  We also see them facing ethical dilemmas when Nazi and Japanese officials are brought to the hospital for treatment.  It’s a side of things which isn’t often covered in historical novels, and it’s dealt with very well.

The whole subject matter is an area that isn’t often dealt with in historical novels. I think everyone is aware that the Japanese perpetrated atrocities in China, but it’s something that is perhaps overshadowed by both the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe and the appalling treatment meted out by Japan to Allied POWs.  And the arrival of thousands of Austrian, German and Polish Jewish refugees in wartime Shanghai, and the later creation of a “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees” by the Japanese authorities there, certainly isn’t particularly well known.

These aren’t the greatest historical novels you’ll ever read, but they’ll certainly keep your attention, and they’re about something with which most people probably aren’t very familiar … and which happened well within living memory.

Mandarin by Robert Elegant


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.

Manchu by Robert Elegant


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


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.





Peony by Pearl Buck


Pearl Buck, the daughter of American Presbyterian missionaries, grew up in early 20th century China and wrote many books about the country. This one focuses on the little-known Jewish community of Kaifeng, descended from – as far as anyone can tell – a small community of Persian Jews who settled in the area in around the 11th century AD. The chronology of the book is rather confused, as the afterword, written by an expert on the subject, explains. From what it says about Kaifeng, it ought to be set in the very early 19th century, but it refers to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and Chinese empresses from the very late 19th century, as well as making some vague remarks about persecution of Jews “over the mountains” which sound as if they refer to events in the late 19th century Russian Empire. However, the focus is on domestic rather than political events, so just accept that it’s set some time in the 19th century and try not to think about it too much!

Peony, the “eponymous heroine”, is a Han Chinese bondmaid in the home of a leading Kaifeng Jewish family; but the book isn’t really about her, more about the family. Peony loves David, the only child of the family, with whom she’s grown up, but, because she’s a servant, knows that she can’t hope to marry him. David’s marriage is going to be the turning point for the family. The Kaifeng Jews have, over the years, intermarried with their Han Chinese neighbours, and Jewish religious practices and cultural identity in the area are dying out. David’s mother wants him to marry the daughter of the town’s last rabbi, and become the leader of the Jewish community. His father thinks that a marriage with the daughter of one of his Han Chinese business partners may be a better bet. Peony, feeling that the rabbi’s daughter is suspicious of her attachment to David and may want her to leave, pushes him towards the business partner’s daughter.

Without wanting to give away too much about how it all happens, David eventually marries the Han Chinese girl, and accepts that the remaining Kaifeng Jews will become fully integrated into the Han Chinese community. According to Wikipedia, there are still about 500 people in Kaifeng, mainly of mixed heritage, who identify as Jewish. Pearl Buck, who, as the daughter of missionaries, was denounced by the Chinese authorities as being a “cultural imperialist”, something which she was very distressed by, writes very movingly about both Peony and about David and his family. Peony’s meddling in David’s life is rather annoying, but no-one ever said that main characters have to be likeable!

Peony’s own story, incidentally, takes a rather far-fetched turn, but never mind!   The book isn’t particularly about her. What the book does do is ask a lot of questions, relevant in many societies both today and in the past, about the relationships between religious or ethnic or cultural minorities and the wider communities in which they live. David is aware that, in many parts of Europe, Jews have historically been discriminated against and even persecuted, whereas, in China, that hasn’t been the case at all. He knows that his mother would prefer for the remaining Kaifeng Jews to remain distinct from the rest of the population, and that something will be lost if they do not, but he also asks himself what is to be achieved by particular groups of people keeping themselves apart.

That can be asked in all sorts of different circumstances. In the case of 19th century Kaifeng, there’s a very small minority group within the general populace. In other cases, there are groups with similar numbers, as in parts of Belfast, or where the minority group is politically dominant, as happened in colonial South America, or where there’s quite a large minority group. A few months ago, Sky News presented a report from the Glodwick area of Oldham, where the white and Asian communities live in different areas and representatives from both communities said that they preferred it that way, despite concerns that that sort of voluntary segregation is fostering ethnic tensions.   It’s a complex issue, addressed in this book within the context of a community about which little (although apparently there was a musical which completely flopped) has been written.

There are a lot of books about tensions and discrimination, but very few which look at things from this sort of angle.  It’s something different, and well worth a read.

The Story of China – BBC 2


Word PressI do like programmes presented by Michael Wood!  No dressing up in costumes as if it’s a primary school trip rather than a historical documentary, and no getting hyper (his way of showing excitement is to talk in a sort of loud whisper!).  Best of all, he’s got a lovely Manchester accent :-).  Trying to tell the history of China in six hours is obviously a lot easier said than done, so we’re only getting an overview, but it’s a fascinating overview, of a subject which not many people in the UK are particularly familiar with.

The first episode began with China’s earliest recorded history, reminding us that China – a relatively united state despite its size and diversity – has long outlasted all the other ancient civilisations, and many powerful civilisations which have come and gone in the meantime.  Michael Wood also made some very interesting points about how elements of Chinese culture which go back hundreds or even thousands of years were suppressed under the communists but are now being celebrated again.  That’s wonderful.  It really is.  Things die out so easily, whether it’s because of deliberate political/ethnic/religious/linguistic repression or whether it’s just a result of socio-economic change and urbanisation.  Even the tomb of Confucius had been damaged, but it’s been repaired now.  History is important in China.  So it should be!

I’m not sure how much we’re going to take in in what can only be a whistle-stop run through a very big subject, but Michael Wood is doing his best to make it appealing, and largely succeeding.  The main theme of the first episode was “ancestors”, and basing a programme on theme rather than chronology doesn’t always work, but for a subject as big as the history of China – in six hours! – it does seem like a good approach, because it might all seem too daunting otherwise.  Looking forward to more of this.  I know embarrassingly little about the history of China, but am keen to learn more :-).