Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2016

The Empress Lover (2014), by Linda Jaivin

The Empress Lover

The Empress Lover is Linda Jaivin’s sixth novel, but I ‘discovered’ her when I went to a translation symposium where she talked about the perils of translating Chinese films for subtitles and then read her Quarterly Essay, Found in Translation, in praise of a plural world.

My experience of reading books set in China is limited.  I read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck (1931) ages ago, and I’ve read some of that genre of Chinese émigré writers now living in the West who write stories of female oppression (Wild Swans and the novels of Amy Tan come to mind), and also the Nobel Prize winning Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible about life under the Cultural Revolution).   I’ve  read novels by contemporary dissidents such as Yan Lianke and Liao Yiwu, and also Sheng Keyi.)  But Jaivin’s is the first I’ve come across which is written with the eye of a contemporary Western insider who has developed an intimate knowledge of Beijing over many years.  The insights into Chinese life are fascinating.

The story focusses mainly on the female narrator, Linnie, a woman of uncertain identity.  Of Eurasian appearance with an unknown father, she leaves Australia in middle age when her foster parents die, and returns to Beijing where she has traumatic memories of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the memory of a lover called Q.  Fluent in Chinese, she makes a scratchy living as a film translator, writes an unpublished novel called The Empress Lover about the Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873-1944), and casts an acerbic eye on the rampant consumerism around her.  One day she receives an enigmatic letter which offers the prospect of finding out who her father was.

The novel is narrated mostly by Linnie, and these are the most successful and engaging sections.  As you may have seen from the Sensational Snippet I posted earlier, Jaivin’s observations about Chinese life then and now are profuse, opinionated and fascinating.  She notes with China’s attack on its own past with dismay:

The old city was disappearing at the speed of memory, leaving only its stories to hover over once historic sites like lonely ghosts.  It wasn’t just physical heritage under attack.  In its media, schools and museums, the Party-state was single-mindedly sandblasting the rich, complex and untidy history of the country itself, cleansing it of ambiguity, purging it of shame, and scouring it of blood, unless the stains were conveniently on the hands of enemies.

The relentless scrubbing and scratching has achieved the desired effect.  You meet young people here all the time who have only the vaguest concept of when the Cultural Revolution took place, or what it was about; when I asked one to guess when he thought it had occurred he hemmed and hawed and finally, tentatively, guessed: ‘After Liberation?’ Others referred in all confused innocence to the Maoist era as ‘feudal times’ but to Mao as a hero.  As for the events of 1989, those too young to have lived through them knew so little that one had asked me if it had anything to do with the Falungong.  I felt as though I inhabited two cities – one callow, corrupt, clueless, swelling in wattage, concrete and steel; the other cultured, critical, conscious, dimming into oblivion and leaving behind only a few clichés in the form of Olde Peking picture postcards, regrets and the shadow of defiance… (p. 143)

It was this kind of insight that elevates the story from a mildly interesting mystery into an engaging philosophical journey exploring the boundaries between between truth and fancy, between what’s knowable and what’s not.  However, there were implausible elements of the plot which test the reader’s patience a bit, and I should warn readers that there’s some (a-hem) ‘earthy’ erotica narrated by Sir Edmund Backhouse.  (Drawn, according to the notes at the back of the novel,  from Backhouse’s erotic ‘memoir’ of his affair with the Empress Dowager).

The South China Morning Post reviewed it too.

Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: The Empress Lover
Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins), 2014
ISBN: 9780732291273
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Available from Fishpond: The Empress Lover


  1. An interesting book Lisa. I’ve always been fascinated with China and when I visited in 1979, it had only been opened up in a broad sense to Westerners. Gough visited there 1975 and after that Aussies could go with the Govt’s blessing, but you had to go in as part of a tour, which I did. When I worked at Melb Uni, in 2008 a group of young Chinese from the Beijing University that had led the protests in 1989 visited – none of course had been born then. And when I talked about 1979 and described my experiences I could have been talking about another country, and of course, few wanted to discuss 1989, although they were visiting to learn the implementation of various methods of student democracy!


    • Mairi, there might have been a good reason for Chinese visitors here not wanting to discuss contentious things. I can’t tell you how I know this, but I know for a fact that even quite recently groups from China sometimes have a ‘minder’, someone who appears to be there like any other member of the group, but is in fact there to report on their behaviour to the authorities back home.
      Also, you may recall that we mentored a young international student #NoNames from a communist country a little while back? It took well over a year before he trusted us enough to talk about any aspect of politics in his home country.
      So I think a well-justified wariness is to be expected when they visit us, and that makes it hard to guess from that, just how much they know about their history and politics. That’s what makes Jaivin’s insights so interesting – she’s observing from the inside, and without a language barrier too.


  2. […] and unconvincing.  (I kept thinking of Linda Jaivin’s lively evocations of modern China in The Empress Lover and found A Map of Betrayal unsatisfactory by comparison).  Lilian gradually adds to her store of […]


  3. […] Radish is one of a series of Penguin Specials, marketed as short books designed to ‘fill a gap’, and designed to be read in a single sitting.  Suitable for the commute, the lunch break, or between dinner and bedtime, they say.  Radish is only 86 pages long and the prose is simple and easy to read. But it manages to convey striking ideas, where the reader has enough knowledge of the subtext to recognise them.  Like all writers in China, Mo Yan is writing under the constraints of heavy-handed censorship and so there are allusions to events and perhaps to people that are not immediately obvious.  The reader has to be in the know, and I think it’s a safe bet to say that most westerners don’t know much about Chinese history.  It’s possible that young people in China also aren’t much in the know, if their ignorance of their own history is as widespread as Linda Jaivin suggested in The Empress Lover. […]


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