The Invention of China by Bill Hayton

And the point is…?


The basic premise of the book is that China, as a nation-state, only came into existence as an invention of a few intellectuals in the 19th century, and that therefore its claims to a 5,000-year-old civilisation are somehow false. It’s the “therefore” in the proposition that is the problem – the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premise. Take the UK – a construct of a few power-brokers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Does that somehow negate the shared history of the four nations prior to the Union, even if that history was often one of strife? Or take the EU, if it survives in the long-term – will future generations suggest that Europeans don’t have a shared history prior to the end of WW2?

Hayton argues that the intellectual underpinning of the idea of a Chinese nation-state was absorbed from European ideas in the 19th century – agreed, of course. He also seems to suggest that the idea of an ancient nation of “China” is used still today to promote the idea of a Chinese race, as distinct from a Chinese nationality. Well, OK, perhaps – but, in reality, is that much different to the West? We’re so tied up in questions of race and nationality that people now often need several hyphens to describe themselves – Kamala Harris, first Asian-African-American woman to become VP, etc. If we haven’t learned to think of Brits as simply Brits rather than Asian-British, Afro-Caribbean-British, etc., can we afford to be too sniffy about China’s failures on racial integration? We may talk the talk, but the year of race protests and riots we’ve just endured suggests that perhaps we don’t walk the walk much better than China.

Hayton suggests that part of China’s foreign policy is to keep the diaspora feeling that it is Chinese in order to promote China abroad, partly by automatically allowing citizenship to those descended from a Chinese ancestor. Well, while it’s not (as far as I know) British policy to exert some form of British control over its diaspora now, it certainly was in the days of Empire – we fought wars over it, eh, America? And we certainly still give priority paths to British citizenship to people descended from a Brit – my greatest fear is that Trump will remember his Scottish mother and decide to seek residency here, which we would be hard put under our rules not to grant, I believe. As evidence of China’s desire to influence its diaspora, Hayton discusses events held abroad to promote Chinese culture and heritage to emigrants of Chinese descent. Hmm, not so different, I felt, to St Patrick’s Day parades, beloved far more by the Irish diaspora than at home, and heavily promoted by Ireland nowadays to boost the tourism industry, and used in the recent past to garner Irish-American support for the IRA terrorist campaign against the UK; or Burns Night, a knees-up that is more enthusiastically attended among descendants of Scots abroad than it is here in Scotland. We even have an annual Tartan Day parade in New York, specifically promoted by the Scottish government to try to make Scottish-Americans so nostalgic about the old country they will spend lots of American money on Scottish goods. Not sure it works.

Chinese New Year – Melbourne-style

So the more I read about how different China supposedly is, the more I felt that it was pretty much the same as all the other nation-states with imperial tendencies – perhaps it just took a little longer for it to adopt an essentially European idea. And I don’t think that its modern nation-state status in any way means it shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to its 5000-year-old history. We do. We look on Roman Britain as our heritage – iron age Britain, Viking Britain, Norman Britain, Empire Britain, multicultural modern Britain – all parts of what makes us us, for good or ill. And for most of that long history, we weren’t a nation-state either.

Hayton suggests, though, that the Chinese desire to maintain control over places like Taiwan and Tibet arise out of an untrue history that all these regions (or nations) are historically part of a nation of China which he suggests never existed before the 19th century. Again, simplistically true, but is not that always the way of Empire? China is simply at a different stage than Europe – we have been forced unwillingly to accept the loss of our Empires and redefine our nation-states and re-write our histories accordingly; China is still grimly hanging on to its claims over its ancient tributaries and, as we did, using distorted narratives and racial arguments to justify them. Let’s face it, fan though I am of the Commonwealth, it exists merely to tie together the countries that were once part of the British Empire. Is that a bad thing? The only difference is that states can leave the Commonwealth if they choose, but that’s only been the case for half a century or so. No doubt in time the Chinese Empire will go the same way, and who is to say if the breakaway parts won’t find, as with the old colonies of the European Empires, that there is a benefit in maintaining historical, cultural and economic ties once the shackles of enforced domination have been thrown off?

I gave up on the book halfway through, since I found the arguments tenuous, shallow and not particularly well laid-out. And, to be honest, I’m not sure if the point is one that it was worth the effort of making. China is a fascinating nation with many facets, good and bad. It does many things I find objectionable, especially in terms of its human rights abuses. But this effort to deny it its claim to its heritage seems odd – a throwback to the days when we in Europe looked sneeringly down on the rest of the world. We don’t still do that. Do we?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher Yale University Press via Amazon Vine UK.

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The Ghost Marriage by Peter May

Take this woman…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This short novella is a new follow-up to Peter May’s China Thrillers. This was the series that originally turned me into a May fan, long before the Lewis Trilogy made him a major star in the firmament of crime fiction. So it was a pleasure to revisit Margaret, the American forensic pathologist, and her Chinese partner, Li Yan of the Beijing police.

Margaret and Li Yan are still living together, now with the addition of their young son, when Margaret is approached by an elderly woman who tells her that her granddaughter has gone missing, and begs Margaret to use her influence with Li Yan to get him to investigate. As Li Yan gradually finds out what happened to the girl, the story takes us into a mysterious and macabre aspect of Chinese tradition, and into the secrets and lies that can exist in families.

Because the story is so short, I won’t say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling it. What has always attracted me most to May’s writing is that he chooses interesting settings for his crimes and his impeccable research allows him to create a great sense of place. This was always particularly true of the China Thrillers, especially since he began the series way back when the idea of visiting China still seemed like an exotic dream for most of us. The length of this one doesn’t allow for much description of Beijing itself, but the plot gives an insight into some of the strange superstitions and rituals that still exist in the country, while also touching on some of the issues thrown up by China’s long-standing but now abandoned one-child policy.

From the South China Morning Post: Dolls represent the happy couple in a Chinese-style “ghost wedding”

With Margaret being a pathologist, the China Thrillers also contained some rather gruesome autopsy scenes, and that tradition continues in this one. There isn’t room for a huge amount of detection – really we just see the story unfold along with Li Yan as he gradually uncovers the truth. I enjoyed it as a way to catch up with two characters who feel like old friends, but I think it would work equally well as a brief introduction to the style of the series for people who haven’t tried it yet. There was never much doubt that Margaret and Li Yan would stay together as a couple so although this takes place after the other books, it’s otherwise spoiler free.

Peter May

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, narrated by Peter Forbes who, I believe, has been the narrator for May’s books for a long time now. I thought his narration was very good – I have no way of knowing whether his pronunciations of Chinese words and names is accurate, but I certainly found them convincing. The decision to give the Chinese characters Chinese accents didn’t really work for me, I admit – I feel that if characters are supposed to be speaking their own language, then they shouldn’t be made to sound ‘foreign’. I listened to a Maigret novel immediately following this, where the narrator gave all the French characters English accents appropriate to their class and position in society, and I must say that felt much more natural and authentic. However, it’s a debatable point, and some people may prefer the ‘foreign’-sounding accents.

Overall, a short but enjoyable return to the world of Beijing. I’m now wondering whether this is a kind of coda to the series, or whether it’s to whet our appetites for a future new novel? I hope it’s the latter…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK via MidasPR. The story is also available as an e-book.

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The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Lessons in love…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

the valley of amazementViolet Minturn is the daughter of an American woman, owner of a high-class courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Violet grows up believing she is an American but is shocked to discover that in fact she is half-Chinese, daughter of a man who abandoned her mother when Violet was a baby. As a young teenager, she is separated from her mother and sold into a courtesan house, and the story follows her trials and tribulations through her life into middle-age.

The story is mainly told in the first person and Tan uses a rather formal, precise prose that gives the impression of someone speaking excellent English but as a second language, or perhaps as a translation. This is quite effective in preventing Violet, who despite her parentage has always lived in Shanghai, from sounding too American. At first, Violet considers herself to be American and thus (in the attitude of that time) superior to the Chinese but, once she is left to fend for herself, she has to learn to live as Chinese. The book shows quite clearly how someone of mixed-race was looked down on by both American and Chinese, and Violet’s struggle to be accepted by either group runs through the story.

“It’s one thing to lash a beauty’s arms to the high corner of the bed and quite another to hang her upside down like a monkey from the chandelier. They don’t care if the chandelier crashes down or an arm is twisted loose from its socket. I know of one girl who fell on her head, and afterward she put her clothes on backward and never said two words that made any sense.”


Although Violet’s early story sounds fairly horrific – sold into prostitution – this is lightened by the fact that she grew up in a courtesan house and therefore wasn’t as shocked as a normal Westerner would be. In fact, the chapters where Magic Gourd (her mentor and friend) teaches her about courtesanship have a lot of humour which, although it’s obviously sex-related, rarely becomes too graphic to be comfortable. The book gives a fascinating look at this lifestyle, where the women must be ‘courted’ with gifts, sometimes for weeks, before any rumpy-pumpy can take place. Although the courtesans aren’t considered completely respectable, they aren’t reviled as common prostitutes either – they have their own place in society and the hope of each is to become a wife to one of their patrons which, as Tan relates it, happened fairly frequently.

“The only problem with old men is that they die, sometimes suddenly. You may have one as your patron who gives you a handsome stipend. It’s a sad day when you learn his sons are burning incense for him at the family temple. You can be sure that his wife won’t be toddling over with your stipend in hand.”

Amy Tan
Amy Tan

Unfortunately after this promising beginning, the book begins to drag. Yet again, at 600 pages, this one could have done with being cut by at least a third. Violet leaves the courtesan house and her life unfolds through a series of love affairs and tragedies. Some parts have the same interest as the first in showing a different lifestyle – for instance, how a Second or Third Wife could be treated in a land where women had very few rights. But other parts are repetitive and long drawn out. Although very well-drawn, Violet is not the most likeable lead character – she is strong, but she is also proud and arrogant and never really loses her sense of superiority over everyone she meets. Magic Gourd, on the other hand, is a great character who provides much of the humour which lightens the book. We don’t get much feel for Shanghai outside the courtesan house, and major events like WW1 and the war with Japan are skipped over lightly without much insight into how this affected life for the Chinese. There are parts of the story that should have been very emotional, but somehow didn’t quite work out that way – perhaps because Violet’s strength of character and lack of vulnerability prevents the reader from truly empathising.

All in all, a patchy read with some very good bits but other parts that were far too long and meandering. The strengths are in the writing and characterisation and these would persuade me to try more of Tan’s work, but I can only recommend this one half-heartedly. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

“When the country is humiliated, its spirit will be aroused.” Wei Yuan, 1842

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“From ‘Our technology is not as good as other people’s,’ to ‘Our political system is not as good as other people’s,’ and on to ‘Our culture is not as good as other people’s,’ Chinese reflections on our own defects probed ever deeper. But the primary mind-set that guided the probing was neither ‘liberation of humanity,’ nor even ‘enriching people,’ but rather a sense of shame at China’s loss of sovereignty and other national humiliations.”

wealth and powerThese words of Nobel Prize winning dissident, Liu Xiaobo, give a rather neat summary of the arguments put forward in this fascinating and thought-provoking study of the Chinese psyche over the last 150 years or so, as evidenced and influenced by its greatest intellectuals, writers and leaders. The aim of the authors is to shed some light on how, in the last three decades, China has risen out of the poverty and political turmoil of the preceding century to become one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.

The authors show how the encroachment of the Western empires and defeats at the hands of enemies within and without led, not just to the fall of the empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but to the creation of a national mind-set that has kept the aim of achieving ‘wealth and power’ at the heart of Chinese politics ever since. The succession of military defeats and subsequent ‘unequal treaties’, which forced China to pay punitive reparations and give territory and access to foreign states, led to a spirit of ‘national humiliation’. Far from allowing this to become a negative factor, however, successive intellectuals and leaders used it as a spur to galvanise China into a process of ‘self-strengthening’. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, the main thrust was to borrow what was needed from the West in terms of technical and scientific knowledge, while maintaining the existing Confucian culture. But the authors show how, as that failed to make China strong enough to defy the many circling predators, gradually some intellectuals began to believe that there must be a period of ‘destruction’ of cultural sacred cows before ‘construction’ of a new and stronger state could begin.

Feng Guifen
Feng Guifen

Each chapter focuses on one man, a leading intellectual or politician, taking us gradually through the decades from the end of the Opium Wars to the present day. The emphasis is not on the events of any given period, although of course they are referenced and highlighted. Rather, the authors concentrate on the writings and speeches of each man, showing how each generation of political thought adopted, rejected or built on the ideas of the one before. Many of the people who are discussed were entirely unknown to me, especially those prior to WW2, but the authors create a continuous chain of intellectual development, clearly showing how and why ideas were influenced by, and adjusted in reaction to, events at home or abroad.

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong

The authors take a sympathetic approach to their subject – in the afterword they tell us that the book is part of a project undertaken by the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York to examine China’s reform movement and transition to modernity. They attempt, successfully in my view, to explain to a Western audience the cultural differences that have enabled China to follow a path that seems, to our eyes, doomed to fail – to build a society that values the acquisition of ‘wealth and power’ above things that we see as essential for progress: intellectual freedom, human rights, democracy. While in no way condoning the horrors of the era of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, they suggest that this period of destructiveness may in fact have cleared the way, culturally, for the creation under Deng Xiaoping of the ‘Leninist capitalist’ system that has enabled China to become the powerhouse it is today. An unequal society, yes, and with repression still at its core, but a country governed largely with the consent of its people nonetheless.

They end with some informed speculation about where next for China – having gained ‘wealth and power’ will they use that power to bully other nations as they were bullied in their nineteenth century weakness? Or will they, from a position of strength, continue to open up their society and perhaps gradually move towards an intellectual position and political system more closely aligned with the West?

Liu Xiaobo (photo: David Turnley)
Liu Xiaobo
(photo: David Turnley)

I found this a lengthier read than its size would necessarily suggest, since after every few pages I would discover that I was staring at a wall and thinking. It has challenged and changed my pre-existing assumptions, certainly about China’s culture and system of government but perhaps also about our own. It has gone a long way towards answering the question why China, alone of all the major states that adopted authoritarian non-democratic systems during the twentieth century, seems eventually to have made a relative success of it while retaining the support of the majority of its citizens.

Apologies for the length of this review, but I still feel I’ve given the merest glimpse into this illuminating and thought-provoking read. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is interested in understanding the national psyche of a nation that seems destined soon to be the wealthiest and most powerful of all.

orville schellOrville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, is a long-time China observer, author, journalist, and former Dean and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

john deluryJohn Delury is a senior fellow of the Center on U.S.-China Relations and an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Yonsei University. He has taught Chinese history and politics at Columbia, Brown, and Peking University, and received a PhD in Chinese history at Yale.

(Source for bios:

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck

imperial womanMay you live in interesting times…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is the story of Tzu Hsi, who ruled as regent and Empress of China from 1861-1908, effectively the end of the empire, which collapsed just 3 years after her death. For the major part of her reign, Tzu Hsi tried to hold back the tide of progress being forced on her by the various Western powers as they jostled to gain a foothold in this vast country.

Pearl S. Buck, as the short biography at the end of this new Kindle edition reveals, was the daughter of missionaries and lived in China for many years as both child and adult. Born in 1892, she would undoubtedly have been old enough to remember the end of Tzu Hsi’s reign and would have had
first-hand experience of being a child of foreign Christians during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century.

Tzu Hsi is portrayed here as a beautiful, ambitious tyrant, scheming to become and then remain Empress. First as concubine to a weak Emperor and then as regent for her son, she uses her beauty and charm to manipulate those around her; but when beauty and charm fail, she is content to use torture, beheading and ‘slicing’ to get her own way, with a calm ruthlessness that never prevents her from ensuring that she is well-perfumed and beautifully dressed. Buck lets us see her tyrannous side growing as she faces threats from domestic rebels, plotting courtiers and foreign armies. But we are also shown her loneliness and isolation, and the personal sacrifices she has to make to hold her position in a society where women are considered inferior and unsuited to rule.

‘In the fourth moon month the wisteria blooms. It was the duty of the Court Chief Gardener to report to the Empress the exact day upon which the vines would blossom and he had so reported. The Empress did then decree that upon this day she would not appear in the Audience Hall, nor would she hear any affairs of state.’

Portrait of Pearl S Buck by Quistgaard (
Portrait of Pearl S Buck
by Quistgaard

Buck uses a stylised form of prose suggesting perhaps a translation of the formal language of the court. Whether this tone is authentic, I don’t know, but I’m afraid I found it intensely irritating after a while. The book is filled with descriptions of clothes, palaces, jewellery and the minutiae of how the Empress lived and, while this is interesting at first, it quickly becomes repetitive, pulling the story down to a slow – very slow – crawl. Although told in the third person, we see exclusively through Tzu Hsi’s eyes which means that, like her, we are isolated and cut-off from the world outside the imperial court – a missed opportunity, it seemed to me, to get a feel for the realities of what was happening in China at the time.

I’ve struggled to rate this book. On the one hand, the stylised prose and the over-detailed descriptions meant that the long slog of reading dampened any sense of tension or excitement that should rightly have been created by the events being related. On the other hand, Tzu Hsi’s story is a fascinating one and certainly worth the telling, and overall I’m glad to have read it – so recommended, but with reservations.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

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Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight_in_Peking‘The evil that men do lives after them…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a fascinating story of a true-life crime committed in the last days of old Peking as the threat of invasion, war and revolution spread fear amongst the Chinese and foreign inhabitants of the city.

Author Paul French has researched the murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner thoroughly and tells the tale well. Was Pamela an innocent schoolgirl or an independent and rebellious young woman bent on sampling some of the excitements Peking could offer? Was she murdered by a maniac or by someone closer to home? French shows how the investigation developed, first through official channels of the Chinese police and the British Legation, then when that led to nothing, through a private investigation funded by Pamela’s father. And French’s solution, when it comes, is as convincing as it is horrifying.

Pamela Werner Schoolgirl?
Or sophisticate?
Or sophisticate?

While the story of the murder is intriguing enough in itself, the added interest of the book comes from the light French sheds on the city of Peking at this time of fear and change. He is scathing about the diplomatic cover-ups and corruption that hampered the investigation as the British Legation tried to stamp out any word of scandal that might reflect on their community. He shows the contrast between life within the gated foreign quarter, with its dances and tea parties, and life outside in the Badlands, a place where vice of all kinds was available for a price, a place where some of the ultra-respectable foreigners led a very different life. French gives a clear account of the political picture of the time as the Japanese surrounded the city prior to invasion, as the ideas of fascism and communism were spreading throughout the world, as war seemed an ever more likely prospect.

Paul French
Paul French
A very well written book about a dark episode in a fascinating period – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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