Both were times when Western ideas were challenging established Chinese orthodoxies, railways against feudalism in the 1890s, stock markets and IT against communism in the 1990s. In both eras, undreamed of wealth and stimulating new reforms and ideas materialized; the GDP rose, but at the cost of change to a conservative society which many found disrupting, even damaging and certainly traumatic. The reaction to this change in our day hasn't produced the bloodbath that slaughtered missionaries in 1900, but it can be seen in the antics of the Falungong and, more seriously, in the anger that followed the cover-up during SARS, when some of the dirty underside of 1990s growth was revealed. Western ideas and systems, in both eras, had the same ambivalent allure. Nothing could be more high minded and efficient than our stress on transparency and equitable systems, but many Chinese sense the stink of greed behind, and question what is being offered (and after Enron and Iraq, why shouldn't they?). In the 1890s, as foreign powers grabbed land and peasants lost their hauling jobs to the steam trains, there was certainly a questioning of the benevolence of progress. It is interesting that Chinese intellectuals are re-examining the historical period in which I set my novel. The television series, Towards A Republic (Zou Xiang Gonghe) that was shown earlier this year and is now banned, depicted the Boxers not as proto Revolutionary Patriots, as the Communist Party would have them, but as ignorant, superstitious peasants, reacting in a bewildered fashion to the events of the times by escaping into animist mumbo-jumbo and for their pains being manipulated by a terrified Court. That interpretation is closer to mine, as is the portrayal of Minister Li Hongzhang who was shown not as the man who sold China to the foreigners which is the current orthodoxy, but as a forward-thinking statesman who realised that China's only hope was to ally itself to the new progress brought by the West – whatever the contradictions.
The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure (ISBN 0-340-82789-0) by Adam Williams is published by Hodder and Stoughton. It is available online and in airports in the Asian Region.
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