Reviewed by Misty Urban
Lee Su-Mei is an unconventional guan (nobleman’s) daughter: she refuses to let her feet be bound, and she drives her father to despair with her lack of filial piety. Sent to a Catholic convent in the Portuguese colony of Macau, Su-Mei eagerly studies the language of the “foreign devils” and makes a friend of Pai Chu, a young novice. When the emperor’s push to end the illegal opium trade results in the arrest of her father and a sentence of execution for her family, Su-Mei enlists the help of British naval officer Travers Higgins, who is smitten with her, to take her brother Da Ping out of the country. But the weak-willed Da Ping, a reluctant soldier and opium addict, refuses to leave, and when the British retaliate for the Chinese envoy’s seizure of several thousand tons of opium with a declaration of war, everyone Su-Mei loves will come in the line of fire.
Wang vividly depicts the First Opium War (1839-1842) with enlightening and easy-to-read exposition that explains how the British pushed illegal Indian-grown opium into China in return for silver then used to buy tea, spices, and porcelain for British markets. If the omniscient point of view is less than seamless and the characters are rather one-note, these small flaws are made up for with the detailed immersion into the cultural attitudes of the time, from British imperialism to the intricate Chinese system of patronage, loyalty, face, and reverence for the emperor. Wang foregoes easy resolutions to emphasize the destructiveness of the opium crisis and Britain’s ruthless insistence on “opening” Chinese ports for trade, illuminating this shadowed piece of history with a compelling narrative and smooth, engaging prose.