In the last years of the 19th century several of China's ancient secret societies enjoyed a major revival, notably in the north-east of the country. They traditionally combined skills in the martial arts with shamanistic doctrines attributing to themselves magical powers. The adherents of one of these, a branch of the Society of the White Lotus, practiced boxing to train themselves, and so were called "Boxers" by the many Westerners, who were by this time resident in China.
Their influence came to a head in 1900 when, believing foreigners were the cause of China's misfortunes, they stormed the foreign legations in Beijing. The Empress Dowager Cixi -- after much vacillation -- opted to side with the Boxers, and in the chaos that ensued many Westerners and Christian converts were beheaded. The foreign powers responded by attacking and then looting Beijing, and later imposed on China the notorious Boxer Indemnity, a promise to pay them the staggering sum of 450 million ounces of silver, almost twice the Chinese government's entire annual income. And, because this was to be paid over 40 years, it has been calculated to have in fact amounted to 982 million when the high interest payable on loans from banks, run by these self-same foreigners, is included.
This indemnity was only one in a long line of such payments demanded of China by Britain, France, Russia and Japan in the period, often for relatively trivial incidents such as the disappearance of a missionary at some remote frontier post. They constituted a coordinated and cynical attempt to bleed a vast but relatively powerless country dry. As the French historian Jacques Gernet wrote in his A History of Chinese Civilization (1972, English translation 1982), in a chapter entitled "China Crucified," "It became clearer and clearer that this country in which so many people lived in profound poverty ... could never rid herself of the enormous burden imposed on her by the richest and most prosperous countries of the world."
Against this background, it is disappointing to read a long novel set at the time of the Boxer uprising that for the most part ignores this wider picture. There are glancing references such as, "Is compensation not what you foreigners usually demand?" and "The Chinese government is working out how they are ever to pay the enormous indemnity that has been agreed." And it's true you don't get a roistering account of the heroic defense of the legations against hordes of murderous peasants. But you don't hear much about the terrible history of forced indemnities and reparations either, let alone the collapse of the Chinese economy that resulted.
That having been said, the historical background to what the author calls his "romance" has been very thoroughly researched. Moreover the story is told with good-natured openness, frankness and genial good-humor. While the focus remains on the British experience in China, a large cast of other characters play out their varied and well-imagined roles.
In addition, there is a great deal of familiarity with Chinese life displayed by the author, an employee of 18 years' standing in the Beijing offices of the archetypal Hong Kong trading company, Jardine Matheson. He was recently honored by the UK government for services to British trade, but this is apparently his first appearance in print as a novelist.