CHINA by Edward Rutherfurd

From the publisher:

The internationally bestselling author of Paris and New York takes on an exhilarating new world with his trademark epic style in China: The Novel

Edward Rutherfurd has enthralled millions of readers with his grand, sweeping historical sagas that tell the history of a famous place over multiple generations. Now, in China: The Novel, Rutherfurd takes readers into the rich and fascinating milieu of the Middle Kingdom.

The story begins in 1839, at the dawn of the First Opium War, and follows Chinese history through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and up to the present day. Rutherfurd chronicles the rising and falling fortunes of members of Chinese, British, and American families, as they negotiate the tides of history. Along the way, in his signature style, Rutherfurd provides a deeply researched portrait of Chinese history and society, its ancient traditions and great upheavals, and China’s emergence as a rising global power. As always, we are treated to romance and adventure, heroines and scoundrels, grinding struggle and incredible fortunes.    

China: The Novel brings to life the rich terrain of this vast and constantly evolving country. From Shanghai to Nanking to the Great Wall, Rutherfurd chronicles the turbulent rise and fall of empires as the colonial West meets the opulent and complex East in a dramatic struggle between cultures and people.

Extraordinarily researched and majestically told, Edward Rutherfurd paints a thrilling portrait of one of the most singular and remarkable countries in the world.


This novel is a well researched venture into the period of about 1830 until the Boxer Revolution of 1900 in China. The author chooses several different families and individuals to frame his story on. These are characters that experience what was the Chinese culture during the time of their lives. Overall Rutherfurd utilizes the character of Cixi, the dowager empress, as the individual influencing events in the country both during her own lifetime and attempting to continue to do so after her death.       

The story opens with what were the Opium wars of the early 1800s in which England carried on a lucrative trade of selling opium to China and buying tea from them. The Chinese realizing that they were getting generations of dope addicts as the price being paid to allow England to actually pay for tea attempted to keep the British from bringing the narcotic into their home ports. With fortunes riding on continuing the opium sales battles were fought between the modern weapons of the English and easily defeated Chinese troops.   

Rutherfurd aptly shows a country with a rich history going back almost 5000 years with a population of a rich and also a destitute poor class. The path to wealth is mainly through entrance into some level of the ruling class and only minor possibilities through opening a successful business. One of the leading individuals is a man that faced with feeding his family decides to embark upon a path that would be impossible to conceive of by most men. He elects to become a eunuch in order to obtain work at the emperor’s palace where that condition is mandatory to hold a position. He consults his wife and his father getting their approval and goes ahead with the change. By a lucky occurrence he obtains the job of doing the nails of Cixi than the emperor’s concubine pleases her and continues on. He is dubbed “Lacquer Nail” the name that sticks with him permanently and is in a position to follow Cixi as she marries the emperor and in time assumes the role of dowager empress.   

In 1900 a rebellion breaks out looking to stop the many groups of foreigners from continuing to bleed the country. The initiators of the insurrection are known as Boxers due to their interest in the martial arts. The foreigners centered in the city of Peking group together for mutual defense in the British legation using small groups of soldiers from the countries residing in China to defend them. Word is sent to a combined army of troops sent to restore the safety of the people working in China as part of their legations to come to their rescue. The section of the novel dealing with the rebellion and the subsequent arrival of the rescue force is a very well done portrait of people facing a situation that they are not attuned to contending with.       

The book is a long one, but Rutherfurd’s ability to create a story and the people involved in it makes for one excellent read and a commanding portrait of a civilization not like that of most of the western world.

5/2021 Paul Lane

CHINA by Edward Rutherfurd. Doubleday (May 11, 2021). ISBN: 978-0385538930. 784 pages.

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