The Chinese Statue by Jeffery Archer is a short story which takes us on a fascinating journey of different people spanning across many generations and their interaction with a mysterious statue. Jeffery Archer in his distinctive style provides us with a unique ‘twist in the tale’ at the end of the story. The twist is a common occurrence in many of Jeffery Archer’s short stories and even his longer novels. ‘The Chinese Statue’ is part of a collection of short stories titled ‘A Quiver full of Arrows’.
The Chinese Statue | Summary
The Chinese Statue opens in the present with the Lot item number 103 coming up for sale. The item is a ‘delicate piece of ivory.’ Now we go back in time to 1871 when the statue was first acquired after the Opium wars and subsequent treaties of the British with China.
Sir Alexander Heathcote who is described as being very precise and exact is serving as a diplomat in China. It is also mentioned that he has an amateur interest in the art of the Ming dynasty.
Sir Alexander after arriving in Peking meets the Empress Tzu-His and gives her a letter from Queen Victoria. The Empress then wishes him success in his term in office and he is escorted out of the Imperial Palace by a Mandarin ( a bureaucrat).
As Alexander walks out he admire the collection of ivory and jade statues that adorn the Imperial Palace. Alexander’s appointment in China is only for three years so he decides to use his time wisely and decides to travel. On his travels he is accompanied by a Mandarin who acts as an interpreter and also a guide. On such a journey Alexander comes across the small village of Ha Li Chuan. He stumbles onto an old craftsman’s workshop and finds magnificent works of jade and ivory. Alexander expresses his desire to view the craftsman’s work and admires the old craftsman’s skill for over an hour. He is full of praise and admiration for the craftsman.
As Alexander begins to reveal his love and knowledge of the Ming dynasty the old craftsman makes a confession that he has an ivory statue from the Ming dynasty which has been in his family for seven generations. The statue is brought before Alexander and he is convinced that the statue is of Emperor Kung and was crafted by the great Pen Q near the end of the 15th Century. The only blemish of the statue is its missing ivory base and in its stead it has a small stick jutting out from the bottom.
Alexander admires the beauty and craftsmanship of the statue and expresses a desire to possess the statue. As the Mandarin translates Alexander’s words he realizes that in Chinese tradition the request of an honoured guest if accepted would result in the growth of the person in the eyes of his fellow men. The old craftsman though sad presents the statue to Alexander. The craftsman gives a final touch to the statue by adding a base before presenting it to Alexander.
On Alexander’s return to Peking the Mandarin inform him Chinese tradition also states that is some stranger has done a good deed that favour must be returned within a year. Alexander now begins to assess the value of the statue using the Embassy’s library and comes to the conclusion that the statue is worth about three years’ salary for an employee of the British Empire. Alexander now wishes to repay the old craftsman so he writes to his bankers, Coutts & Co. in London and requests them to send him a large portion of his savings. He also finds more about the old craftsman and discovers that his family have been craftsmen for over five hundred years and the name of the craftsman is Yung Lee. The craftsman now wishes to retire to the hills above the village where his ancestors have always died and leave the workshop to his son.
Nearly a year after the statue came in possession of Alexander, he sets of once again accompanied by the Mandarin to visit the old craftsman and says he has come to repay his debt and asks the old craftsman to accompany him on a short journey.
They set off and after travelling for two hours reach the village of Ma Tien where they stop near a newly completed small white house of perfect proportion which Alexander says is his gift to the craftsman. The craftsman is fearful as it was forbidden for an artisan to accept gifts from a foreigner but Alexander explains that the Empress herself had sanctioned this request. Alexander is satisfied with his deed and rides back to the Embassy content.
Upon completing his duty in Peking the Empress awards him the Silver Star of China and the Queen awards him the K.C.V.O. (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) and he retires to his native Yorkshire where the statue occupies the centre of the mantelpiece of his home. After the death of Sir Alexander he wills the statue to his firstborn son or daughter and request that they too pass it to future generations.
The next character that we are introduced to is Major James Heathcote, who is serving the Queen in the Boer War and he decides to loan the statue to the regimental mess at Halifax so that his brother officers can appreciate it. Later when James becomes a Colonel he places the statue on the table alongside the trophies won at different locations. The Ming statue remained there till James retired to Yorkshire and the Emperor once again occupied the mantelpiece.
The statue after the Colonel’s death passes on to his first-born, Reverend Alexander Heathcote and he places the statue on the mantelpiece of the vicarage, where it is appreciated by a few people. Later when Alexander becomes the Right Reverend the statue finds its way into the Bishop’s palace and it gathers all the admiration it deserved. Many find the story of how the Bishop’s grandfather acquired the statue fascinating. The Bishop too before death wills the statue to his son Captain James Heathcote who is serving in his grandfather’s (Colonel James Heathcote) regiment and returns it to the mess table at Halifax. The Second World War begins and Captain James Heathcote is killed during the Dunkirk evacuations and the statue is passed on to the two-year-old son of the captain.
Alex Heathcote is not made of the same mettle as his ancestors and has no desire to serve anyone but himself. Alexander’s mother on providing everything for her young child manages create what the grandmother calls ‘a spoiled, selfish little brat.’
Alex leaving school Alex cannot seem to hold down to a job and Alex turns to gambling. He tries to find a system where he cannot lose. However he loses much of his money and has to borrow to cover his losses. As the debts start piling up Alex decides to sell the statue of the Ming Emperor.
The head of the Oriental department at Sotheby’s is convinced that the statue is a fine example of Ming dynasty work. However after a week when Alex returns to find the value of the Ming emperor he is informed that the statue is a copy and is no more than 250 years old, and is worth no more than seven to eight hundred pounds. However the base of the statue which is in fact a work of Ming dynasty was valued at a much higher price. The base is entered as Lot No. 103 and is sold for twenty-two thousand guineas while the statue is obtained by the narrator for seven hundred and twenty guineas.
The Chinese Statue | Title
The title of the story is the Chinese Statue and tells us the story of a Chinese Statue through several generations. The story of the statue begins with Yung Lee the old craftsman’s family having possessed the statue for several generations. The statue is then passed on to Sir Alexander Heathcote who decides to pass it on to his firstborn as a family heirloom. This tradition is maintained by all successive generations of Heathcotes till it reaches the hands of Alex Heathcote who has to sell it to pay his debts for excessive gambling. The story takes us on a trip through time from Imperial China to the British Invasions and subsequent treaties with China.
The Chinese Statue | Themes
As the East India Company became wealthier, it started looking for other trading opportunities and sought to expand and encourage trade with China, establishing a base in Singapore to help coordinate this trade. The East India Company was interested in the tea and silk from China but the Chinese were only interested in receiving payments in silver from the British.
The East India Company produced no products of interest to the Chinese authorities. However, there was one product that was of interest to some in Chinese society; Opium. The English East India Company preferred to sell this addictive drug rather than using its cash resources for trading with China. This would eventually put Britain on a collision course with Chinese which resulted in the Opium Wars of the 1840s and late 1850s. By this time, the industrial power of Britain with its cutting edge military technology meant that it held a decisive advantage over China.
The resulting wars were fought ostensibly for ‘Free Trade’ principles but in reality were to allow Britain to continue its exploitative trading relationship over the Chinese. Britain was to receive Hong Kong as a base to ensure that it had access to Chinese trade and ports. This port would grow to become an important trading posts connecting the British Empire to the resources of China.
In the story the British Ambassador Alexander takes the ancient Chinese Statue from the old Chinese craftsman……
Rise and fall of the British Empire
The story the Chinese statue is set in 1871, after the Opium wars with China, when the British Empire was at the height of its power. Sir Alexander is an Ambassador to China and his duty is to maintain diplomatic relations with the Empress of China. Sir Alexander’s son Major James serves in the Boer war, which was fought between the British Empire and the South African Republic (1899-1902). The British Empire is still strong and continues to add more colonies to its Empire.
By 1913, the British Empire ruled over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 24% of the Earth’s total land area. At the peak of its power, the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.
Reverend Alexander Heathcote dies somewhere around the time of the Second World War and this is the major turning point for the British Empire. Having already fought a First World War which had much effect on the resources of Britain a Second World War proves devastating to the British Empire.
Captain James Heathcote dies on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940 where the British troops are retreating after they are unable to free France from Germany and risk getting annihilated. This signals the end of the British as the world’s most powerful country and new contenders Germany, U.S.A. and Japan and Russia challenge the dominance of the British Empire. After the war as young Alex Heathcote grows up, much of Britain’s Colonial Empire has disintegrated and Alex turns to gambling to earn money and has to sell the family heirloom as the family honour is now at stake.
Appearance and Reality
The theme of appearance and reality is the underlying theme of the entire story. The statue of the Chinese Emperor is falsely believed by Sir Alexander to be of very high value and is passed on as a family heirloom. However it is not the statue which proves to be the one of high value but the base of the statue which the old craftsman assembles onto the statue in a hurry. Alex Heathcote even thinks of buying a gun to shoot himself when he realizes the value of the statue is no more than 700 pounds. However fortune smiles upon him and the ivory base is bought by an American for more than double of what he expected for the statue.
The Chinese Statue | Characterization
Sir Alexander Heathcote- Ambassador to China during 1871. He is the one to come across the statue and pass it on as a family heirloom.
The old craftsman (Yung Lee) – The Chinese craftsman who was in possession of the statue.
Major James Heathcote- The son of Alexander Heathcote. He fights during the Boer wars and places the statue of the Chinese Emperor at the officer’s mess in Halifax.
Reverend Alexander Heathcote– Son of Major James Heathcote. He first becomes a parish priest and later the Bishop and places the statue into the Bishop’s palace.
Captain James Heathcote- Son of Bishop Heathcote. He takes the statue back to the officer’s mess in Halifax but is killed on the beaches of Dunkirk during the Second World War.
Alex Heathcote- The last of the Heathcotes’ mentioned in the story. He has a gambling addiction and is forced to sell the statue of the Emperor to pay off his debts.
The Chinese Statue | About the Author
Jeffery Archer is a bestselling English author and a former politician. Archer has also served as a member of the British Parliament (1969 – 1964) and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party (1985 – 1986).
His novels and short stories include ‘Kane and Abel’, ‘A Quiver full of Arrows’, ‘A Prisoner of Birth’ and ‘Cat O’ Nine Tales’ and numerous others. He has topped the bestseller lists around the world, with sales of over 275 million copies. He is the only author ever to have been a number one bestseller in fiction (nineteen times), short stories (four times) and non-fiction (The Prison Diaries).