EDWARD Rutherfurd has been fascinated by Russia and China since he was a young boy.

His grandfather had spent a number of years in Tsarist Russia, sparking his interest there.

When he was twelve, his godfather gave him a book about China, which also piqued his imagination.

For a while he debated studying Chinese at university: growing up in the ‘grand days of Kissinger’, the teenage Rutherfurd thought, ‘I’m going to become some sort of diplomatic figure and save the world.’

Instead, diplomacy’s loss was fiction’s gain.

An international bestseller ever since his debut novel Sarum, Rutherfurd returned to these twin childhood interests by writing first Russka and now, in his first new work for seven years, China.

As anyone who has read Sarum or any other of his other books knows, Rutherfurd has that rare skill as a writer of stitching together widescreen stories and histories through a dizzying cast list of individual characters.

As a writer myself, my head hurts thinking about how he plots and holds all of this together, not to mention the amount of research required.

But it’s a style that allows him to tell a story from all angles, and chimes with what he describes as his ‘humanistic’ interpretation of history.

The focus of China is the events of the nineteenth century, when the west were responsible for nefarious triangular trading arrangements and one-sided treaties that became known as China’s Century of Humiliation.

The starting point was Britain’s ever-growing taste for tea.

At the time, this all came from China, who would only sell it for silver. Silver, for various reasons, was in short supply at the time.

To buy the tea, the British sold the Chinese opium, grown by the East India Company in India: they then used the silver to buy the tea to sate demand at home.

‘We were drug barons,’ Rutherfurd says, ‘there’s no two ways about it.’

The result was the Opium Wars. For China, their defeat was a huge cultural shock: for centuries they had seen themselves as the Middle Kingdom, the main actor in their part of the world.

But in 1860, Anglo-French forces reached Beijing, where the British High Commissioner ordered the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, then one of the wonders of the world. It took 4,000 British troops three days of burning to destroy it.

Although this is a historical tale, Rutherfurd describes how the period is crucial in understanding how China deals operates today: ‘The burning of the summer palace is completely in their mind,’ he says.

‘The feeling that they have lost an empire and it’s been taken from them, and the West does not treat them fairly, is there.’

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