My job usually takes me to familiar European climes, but occasionally I get a taste of the exotic: Japan, China or, most recently, Macau. A former Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China in 1999, although traces of its Portuguese heritage remain strong. All street signs and civic buildings bear Chinese and Portuguese names, while delicious egg-custard tarts are ubiquitous in the city’s many bakeries. Arriving by air from Taipei, I was surprised to see rocky, verdant hillsides rising from the sea, looking more like the Amalfi Coast than the smog-wreathed towers of Shanghai (my only available comparison for Chinese landings). Those bucolic hillsides were a little misleading, because what awaited me was a vibrant and frequently jaw-dropping city, where everyday life shoulders up against neon lights, all-night casinos and extravagant amounts of gilding. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, Macau has become a playground for this vast country’s rich and hopeful, with flashy hotels to match. I thought I’d give you a brisk whirl around the main things I managed to see during my busy fortnight; and fear not: there’s plenty of bling ahead. It’s a long one. Buckle up!
There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.
The Imperial China Trilogy: Book I
Sometimes a book wears you down. You find yourself plodding away at it, determined to finish but finding that the number of remaining pages never seems to get any less. This, I’m afraid, was one of those books. A sweeping epic following the Jesuit mission in China in the mid 17th century, and told through the eyes of an ambitious young Englishman, it had scope to be very engaging. And it isn’t screamingly bad. It’s well-informed and detailed to a fault. But one is left with the powerful sense that 200 of its 634 pages could have been cut without any great loss to the story – in fact, probably to its advantage.
Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains
Some time ago, I heard about a book called Leaving Mother Lake, which told the story of a young woman raised in a remarkable tribe in western China near the Tibetan border, and her journey into mainstream Chinese life. I haven’t yet got round to reading that, but it meant that I immediately jumped on this forthcoming book about the same Mosuo tribe, this time told by someone entering, rather than leaving, the community. The Mosuo are remarkable as (apparently) the only remaining matriarchal and matrilineal society in the world, and this book tells the tale of a successful Singaporean lawyer who takes early retirement and finds a spiritual home in this unique community.
The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China
My recent Chinese escapades left me with a burning desire to find out more about the country’s history and culture, so I couldn’t resist this biography of Wu Chao, a remarkable woman in the 7th century who clawed her way up from the status of a lowly concubine to become Emperor of China in her own right. She was, predictably, a fascinating character and her court, in its intrigues, corruption and eventual dissipation, makes the worst excesses of Westeros look like a village fete. Her rise and fall are worthy of a Greek tragedy but, alas, this book isn’t the best way for a newcomer to encounter her story.
In my last post, I wrote about some of the famous gardens and parks of Suzhou, but here we get down to the really good stuff: the museums which preserve and record the city’s history and handicrafts. We didn’t have time to see all the museums in Suzhou, but those we did visit helped me to put things in context a little better and left me itching to find out more. I’m going to start with the place where I spent most of my time: Suzhou Museum.
Two hours west of the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai lies the city of Suzhou, which is small only in relative terms – it’s home to more than six million people – but feels very different, as it has managed to preserve the old town at its heart. Enclosed by walls and moats, the grid layout of this area has barely changed for a thousand years. Suzhou itself has existed for 2,500 years and is now one of the most popular tourist destinations for Chinese visitors. It’s famous for its canals, its silk, its tea, its opera and its gardens. I’ve just spent two weeks working in this fascinating place (hardly ever leaving the bounds of the Old City), installing an exhibition in Suzhou Museum, which is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its new building in 2016. It’s been a wonderful experience and I wanted to share some of the places we were shown by Allen and Alice, who were looking after us.
The Dandelion Dynasty: Book I
Choosing books by their covers has sometimes come back to bite me, but not in this case. I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since I saw the simple and very elegant cover design, and the wait was worth it. Although the book has inevitably been dubbed the ‘Wuxia Game of Thrones‘, that doesn’t do just to its dense and labyrinthine originality. Political ambition is interwoven with martial glory, technological experiment and cunning, as two very different but equally brilliant men vie to define the future of a crumbling empire, and the gods themselves are tempted to break their own laws and interfere in the affairs of men. Indeed, so much happens in this book that attempting a summary is doomed to failure, but I’ll give it a go.
I watched Farewell my Concubine on the same day that I finished reading The Chevalier and found it interesting to compare these two very different stories about the mimesis of femininity. Directed by Chen Kaige in 1993, the film resonates much more strongly, which is unsurprising considering its status as a modern classic. It takes a deep and moving look at the psychological toll of assuming another sex and, using one enduring friendship, tells the story of China’s tumultuous relationship with its own cultural history during the course of the 20th century. Moreover it was my introduction to traditional Chinese opera, which fascinated me of course, even though I feel that the singing is something of an acquired taste for Western ears.
(Victoria & Albert Museum, London, closed on 19 January 2014)
This exhibition was the hit of the autumn in London. Many people told me how wonderful it was, but for various reasons I only managed to get there on the final weekend, when a friend and I realised that we were in danger of missing it altogether. How I wish I’d managed to go a little sooner! It would have been great to read the catalogue and then go back again to savour it all from a more informed perspective. As it was, I was almost completely ignorant of what to expect, and found myself bowled over.