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Epic, tender, brutal. Manying and her family are ordinary people with extraordinary life stories.
What kind of readers does it appeal to?
General readers of historical fiction with a touch of the exotic, as well as those with a knowledge of China. I have had a lot of interest from from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China, mainly from Chinese people who are fascinated to see their country portrayed through the eyes of a foreigner.
What’s the ‘one China’ philosophy all about?
Historically China, like Rome, was a great empire and was seen as the centre of civilisation. Beyond the Empire are the lands of the barbarians. Believing in the historic mission of restoring China as the centre of civilisation is behind what is often described as the ‘one China’ principle.
Chairman Mao was a proper wrong ‘un, which is great material for a writer…
Mao single-handedly changed China more than anyone else. Without him the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution could not have happened. He also killed more Chinese than eight years of resistance against the Japanese; who occupied most of the population centres of China. His legacies are still with us; the same political system is in place, though the Communist Party has learned the lesson and now practices collective leadership in order to preempt a new Mao from seizing power.
Illustration: Rebecca Hendin
How has this helped to shape Chinese identity?
I admire Chinese people greatly. Particularly the way my generation of Chinese, who were children during the Cultural Revolution and had their schooling interrupted, have still managed to educate themselves, start businesses and help build the modern China we see today. All that in a quarter of a century.
The book kicks off in 1949…
1949 was the year the Chinese Communists won the Civil War and drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government to Taiwan. It was a chaotic time with hyperinflation and tens of millions of refugees on the move. As a novelist I was touched by the high drama and the impact of 1949 on the lives of the ordinary and extraordinary people who lived through it.
Tell us about Manying, the main character in the novel…
She is the wife of a Nationalist General, who is fighting the last decisive battle of the Civil War. As her friends flee the capital city of China, Nanjing, she waits for news of her husband. In the dead of night her childhood sweetheart, also an officer in the Nationalist Army, comes to put her and her baby son on the last train to leave as the Communists close in. The eve of Nanjing’s fall to the Communists is a fascinating time for a novelist. It was a turning point in history, as the old world under Chiang Kai-shek was swept away and Mao Zedong got ready to launch ‘new China’. The legacies of the Civil War still affect Chinese life today, as Mao then failed to take Taiwan, an island fort that Chiang picked to make his last stand.
Then they shut up shop…
After 1949 borders were closed and families were separated for four decades. Those that stayed behind lived through the worst excesses of Maoist China, when 45 million died in famine and nearly one in ten suffered persecution. Those who managed to leave had different fates. Many did not choose to join Chiang in Taiwan, which would become a democracy by the nineties. The bulk of them went to Hong Kong as refugees. Manying was one of them.
When did your love affair with China start?
It wasn’t love at first sight. It started as a challenge - to learn a completely new and notoriously difficult language - and the lure of the exotic. So I chose to become a Sinologist at Oxford, and it changed my life. I learnt to see the world from a non-European, Judeo-Christian perspective. I’ve had a lot of fun and adventure out of it and made many lifelong friends.
What’s China like to visit?
When I first visited in the summer of 1986 I was shocked at how backward and poor it was. Not a lot had changed since 1949, which I saw firsthand as I went to school in the city of Tianjin. It was like a black and white film moving at half speed. There was little colour or excitement. Most people wore army green, worker blue or plain black. I did get a sense that some were happy to see foreigners back but they were often too afraid to make contact. There were few street lights and cars, no headlights and everyone rode bicycles.
How did this compare elsewhere?
Barely six months later I went to study and work in Taiwan and travelled to Hong Kong. The difference was heaven and earth. It was vibrant, colourful, noisy and far more glitzy than anything I had seen in Europe. Today China is like the Hong Kong and Taipei that I first knew, just more magnificent in its newly built infrastructure.
The book reaches its climax in present day Shanghai. What kind of a place is that?
It’s paradise for adventurers. Anything goes in Shanghai, be it in the old international settlement or in modern Shanghai. The glitzy Pearl of the Orient and Pudong Development symbolises the new China dream, the only limit to what is possible is your imagination. Intrigues and plots are everyday fares. Chinese family feuds across the globe are often settled there.
Any travel tips for us?
I love the Forbidden City in the middle of Beijing. Go at the end of the day when all the tourists have left. Contemplate and you can see the ghosts of emperors, royal concubines, ministers and generals plotting against each other.
The Woman Who Lost China by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is available from Open Books, £10.89