I was asked this question by my agent. I’m sorry, I said, but there wasn’t one. At least, there was no single inspiration for my next novel, provisionally entitled ’Emperor’, but instead a coming together of bits and pieces over time.
The first element was my own confusion and ignorance about China and the enigmatic nature of its paramount ruler.
It boils down to an idea that becomes something of an obsession. Some ideas die in minutes, hours, or days. Perhaps they’re just too impractical or absurd. Others stick around for much longer.
Clearly we’re in the midst of a fierce, prolonged and well-funded propaganda war over China’s place in the world, so much so it’s hard for most people – me included – to know what to think. My first impulse was to sympathise with such an ancient nation and assemblage of cultures that have suffered so much for so long at the hands of greedy foreigners and which today offer an alternative to Washington’s ‘rules based order’, but obviously there’s a lot more to it than a colonial legacy and Beijing’s aggressive challenge to the established hegemon in east Asia.
Because the life of China’s paramount ruler is such a mystery, whoever he or she is, I decided to try to get inside this fictional character’s head and heart. The result is Qin, who’s nicknamed by supporters and detractors alike as The Emperor.
That was the primary idea.
What would it be like to be a Chinese Communist leader with absolute power, unaccountable to anyone, an autocrat whose relationships are purely transactional, a creature of the Party with no notion how to live happily, but someone who believes implicitly in the march of history and his role in directing it?
Quite a challenge, then, for an ignoramus on all matters Chinese.
For a start, I read biographies of Deng Xiaoping and the current leader, Xi Jinping, and delved into the histories of Chairman Mao, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, then on to the period that saw an opening up to foreign investment and a short-lived revival of hopes for democratic reform.
I realised how dangerous the conflict was over Taiwan’s future when I read two books in particular. The first was ‘The Trouble With Taiwan: History, the United States and a Rising China’ by Kerry Brown and Kalley Wu Tzu-hui, and the remarkable work of Ian Easton, ‘The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia’.
Easton shows what can be achieved with linguistic ability, an analytical mind and a grasp of what open sources have to offer in military and security issues.
Thanks to Jaidev Jamwal and his revealing blog, I was able to update some of Easton’s details – notably the People’s Liberation Army’s order of battle in the eastern theatre.
It’s odd how coincidences seem to occur once you settle on an idea – newspaper headlines, books and documentaries seem to pop up out of the blue just when they’re needed. They’re not really coincidental; it’s just that having the idea in the back of your mind means you notice a lot of related stuff that was there all the time.
Finally, I have a friend fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese who provided valuable insights into life in China, much of it anecdotal, but unfortunately he cannot be named for security reasons – he lives within range of what is euphemistically called “the relevant department.”
One thing quickly became clear; China is no longer socialist and with every day that passes, it becomes increasingly authoritarian, brutal and corrupt.
To the leadership, control is everything.
As for the pool that figures so prominently in the story, it’s based on the same indoor pool Mao used, and where he humiliated Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1958.
Will there be war over democratic Taiwan? My own opinion – which is next to worthless – is yes, there will be, but not quite yet. My money’s on 2025.
I hope I’m wrong, I really do.