Amidst the violence of the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion, Nina Ward, a young China-born Englishwoman finds herself under siege alongside the city’s overseas population.
China-underground: Who are Nina Ward and Oscar Fairchild?
Clare Kane: Nina and Oscar are fictional characters, but representative of the foreigners present in Peking at the turn of the twentieth century.
Nina is the China-born daughter of a British academic, and as a result of her upbringing straddles both Chinese and European society.
Not fully belonging to either culture allows her a unique and somewhat more objective take on the Boxer Rebellion, but also means she is innocent of European ways, with her naïveté eventually leading to her downfall.
Oscar is a young diplomat transferred to China following the successful quashing of an uprising in India.
The Boxer Rebellion, however, will prove somewhat harder for him to manage.
How did you discover their story ?
I studied the Boxer Rebellion as part of my Chinese degree at Oxford, and was fascinated by it.
Not only the uprising itself and the social, economic and political factors that led to its creation, but also the idea of all of Peking’s foreigners held under siege for fifty-five days.
When writing an essay I came across an almost throwaway line in one reference book about illicit affairs taking place in the Legation Quarter under the stress of the Rebellion.
The heat, the overcrowding, the fear of impending death, the disapproval of the many missionaries present – all of that fired my imagination and led me to Nina and Oscar.
The book takes place during the Boxer Rebellion. How do national events reflect on the fate of individuals?
The Boxer Rebellion started some time before the siege of 1900, but was mostly confined to the countryside and mainly affected missionaries.
Layman foreigners in Peking and other cities around China were aware of arson and murder in the hinterlands, but there was no major impact on their lives despite the quite terrible violence taking place elsewhere.
When the Boxers reached the capital, however, the everyday existence of European, American and Japanese residents was immediately turned upside down.
Many had to abandon their homes for the safety of the Legation Quarter, normal work was suspended in favour of defense, and food became scarce.
People who had been living in colonial luxury found themselves hungry and scared.
They lived in close, cramped quarters with people they did not necessarily know well, with all the fallout you might expect when strangers are forced together. After the Rebellion was put down, many of those present during the siege left China.
This was often a bittersweet departure, with foreign residents both relieved to escape the horror and violence of that summer and mournful at losing what they had seen as their China.
Some missionaries stayed, however, and as we know, foreign influence in China continued for a few decades more.
How did public opinion react to the scandal?
Peking was quite a moralistic place.
Shanghai and other treaty ports might have been swinging, but in the capital most foreigners were either government or church officials, who were not exactly famed for their open-mindedness in 1900.
When the affair between Oscar and Nina is discovered it is handled with a careful firmness; not addressed outright but whispered about in the shadows.
Public opinion is slightly more forgiving of Oscar as a married official, but the situation is extremely treacherous for unmarried Nina, who is already something of an outsider given her unique cultural background.
Was it difficult to find the research material?
Not particularly – many of the foreigners present in Peking at the time kept diaries, which were incredibly useful for adding human texture to the facts, and I still had a number of academic texts from my time at university.
Particularly helpful were Women At The Siege by Susanna Hoe, The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston, and History In Three Keys by Paul A. Cohen.
What was the cultural atmosphere of the foreigners’ community in Beijing?
The foreign community in Peking was small.
Of course there were picnics and parties and all the trappings of colonial life, but it was also a highly, sometimes uncomfortably, intimate society, and the rules from back home still very much applied.
What was the fate of the protagonists?
I don’t want to give anything away! What I will say, however, is that while the individual fates of the protagonists are very clear, who comes out of the situation best is very much up to the reader to decide.