Post for The Tome Traveller’s Weblog
Globe-trotting with my nose in a book!
~A well composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter any other way....Caroline Gordon~
Monday, January 5, 2009
Robert Hart, a young Irishman, came to China in 1854 to work for the British Consulate. He ended up spending his life there and becoming intricately involved in the development of modern China, helping to found the railroads, postal service and schools.
This novel fictionalizes Robert's first year or so in China. He is confronted almost immediately by the vast moral differences between eastern culture and the Christianity that he has grown up with. He has a hard time reconciling the Chinese practice of owning people, especially concubines, with his own beliefs. The Chinese system of status and rank is also difficult for a westerner to understand.
He originally decides to remain celibate, but once he meets and falls in love with the concubine Ayaou his problems seem to mushroom. He becomes caught up in the violent Taiping Rebellion where he witnesses terrible atrocities. Then Ayaou is bought by an American pirate who hates Robert and he must figure out a way to free her. In the process he ends up, almost accidentally, buying her younger sister, Shao-mei. He loves both women and his conscience is sorely tested by his situation. The only way to live the life he wants to live is to completely abandon his previous life and learn to be Chinese. Along the way he finds that he loves his adopted culture, their art and philosophy inspire him.
I enjoyed this book, particularly the setting and depictions of 1854 China. I felt for Robert and his inner conflicts and would like to know more about his life after the events of this novel. It would be interesting to read (perhaps in a sequel?) of his advancement within the Chinese system and his later family life.