An essential expedition

By Mei Jia ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-10-05 07:37:07

So in the novel, the two female protagonists explore how people go through the wasteland to heal each other and themselves.

British girl Catherine Cabot went to China to seek her father, who was missing, and was caught between love affairs with two brothers. There she met again with her former classmate at Oxford, Yu Fu-kuei, a Chinese girl who was "spying for the wrong man".

The two women's interwoven stories happen with the outburst of historic events including the Northern Expedition and the assassination of Chang Tso-lin, and move on with the tension of a spy story in which Yu is betrayed by her lover, who's also a spy for her enemy.

"This book is poetic and romantic in parts, harrowing and tragic in others. It's not exactly light holiday reading, as it requires a hefty amount of concentration, but persevere when the going gets tough and you'll be richly rewarded," comments the UK's Heat magazine.

Williams' great grandfather David Muir came to China in 1895 as a missionary doctor. He was said to have earned a golden dragon medal from the Qing (1644-1911) government for his contributions to defeating plagues.

Muir's experience inspired Williams' novel The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, set during the period of the Boxer Movement, 20 years before the events in The Emperor's Bones.

It's a novel about the moral choices of two men, an idealist western doctor and a pragmatic Chinese official, who were enemies but had to cooperate to fight a narrow escape.

Williams is also known for The Book of The Alchemist, another historical novel he wrote based on the Spanish civil war in 1938.

His works are well accepted and now translated in 15 countries.

Born to a father who was a leading businessman and public figure in Hong Kong and a mother who had once been a model, Williams says his fondness for writing came very early at age 8. His debut was a play he wrote and directed when he was still in middle school, before going on to Oxford University where he was trained in English language and literature.

After school, he went on expeditions from which he fostered a writing habit.

"I tried to follow the adventurous course and I spent a cold winter trying to sell encyclopedias in North London in a vain attempt to raise money for a camel expedition across the Sahara. I only managed to sell one," he writes.

"And my farseeing father, who had realized the importance of a newly reawakened China, persuaded me that I should return to Hong Kong to learn Chinese," he adds.

He tried journalism and was finally involved in trade like his father, for which he received an O.B.E. in 1999.

In between, he never abandoned his dream of expeditions and in 1995 he organized a camel expedition to the Taklamakan Desert to locate lost ancient towns. He also participated in a 40-day ride in a vintage car rally from London to Beijing in 2000.

Williams, who speaks fluent Mandarin, says he feels very lucky to have lived in China for more than 30 years. He remembers the dim city lights decades ago when he was first there and people having eye problems because of malnutrition.

"The years here in China that my family and I experienced and witnessed is almost like hundreds of years of European history squeezed into a very short period," he says. "Never in world history has there been such changes and growth that also affected so many people and in such limited time." He believes a good country is one that looks after its people.

"To me, the greatest achievement China has made is that its people have an ordinary life, and they're ordinary, boring people," he jokes, adding "that's marvelous."

 An essential expedition

Williams is always adventurous and once joined a vintage car rally as well as a desert exploration. Provided to China Daily


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