An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan …

Well, that’s certainly a title.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I’ve been doing a lot reading about the British colonial experience in Asia, including the literature of the time. Inevitably this segues into reading about the Great Game, which was essentially a nineteenth century cold war between the British Empire and Imperial Russia in Central Asia.

One of the centres of intrigue was Kashgar in (neutral) Chinese Turkestan – now Xianjiang. Impossibly remote, only visited by the hardiest of travellers, Kashgar hosted both a Russian and a British consulate, plus a small community of other western missionaries.

George Macartney, the first British consul, had arrived with Younghusband’s expedition in 1890 as an interpreter and stayed on as consul, marrying his wife, Catherine, the English lady of the title of this blog post, which is also the title of her memoirs of her time in Kashgar.

George Macartney wrote no autobiography, so we have no real idea of what went on in Kashgar at the time other than what is contained in his reports to the India office.

So, for background to the period, I tracked down a copy of his wife’s memoirs. They’re out of print and not available online through Gutenberg, but there was a paperback edition published by the Asian arm of the OUP in the 1980’s, but through Abebooks I managed to track down a copy at a reasonable price and condition to a second hand bookstore in Seattle.

The book is a charmer – well written and witty in a style reminiscent of Beth Ellis’s An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah, but ever so slightly anodyne, as if Catherine Macartney had taken steps to ensure that nothing too political sneaked into her book, even when discussing the events of the 1911 Chinese Revolution in Kashgar, she concentrates on the here and now narrative, rather than attempting to describe the politics and politicking that must have gone on, especially after a substantial detachment of Russian soldiers was deployed, ostensibly to protect the European population.

That said, its an enjoyable read if you like late Victorian memoirs, and describes the daily life of the consulate, not to mention the joys and perils of travel to and from Kashgar before there were any roads to speak of ….

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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