‘The Chinese Statue’ by Jeffrey Archer
The Storyline / Plot Summary
‘The Chinese Statue’ by Jeffrey Archer, published in his book ‘A Quiver Full of Arrows’ in 1980, revolves around a Chinese statue brought to London by sir Alexander Heathcote who was posted in China as a British Ambassador.
The story starts at Sotheby’s, a famous auction house. A porcelain Chinese statue was being auctioned off to a motley crowd and not-so-serious bidders. In order to grab the bidders’ attention, the auctioneer presented a fact sheet about the history of the statue. It said that the statue was brought from a place called Ha Li Chuan in China. To hide the owners’ identity, the word ‘gentlemen’ was used instead of his real name.
The narrator of the story, seated amidst the bidders, was intrigued by the statue’s history. He tried to delve deeper into its history and found that the statue was bought by Sir Alexander Heathcote, a diplomatic person of great acclaim. He also happened to be a very fastidious person. He would have breakfast at the same time every morning, with the same ingredients in the exact same quantity, reached his office desk at the Foreign Office at exactly 8:59 AM and left for home at exactly 6 in the evening.
He perhaps got the punctuality habit from his father who had been a General. Alexander followed his father’s footsteps and became the His Highness in Peking (now Beijing). Alexander had been a sincere follower of Chinese art during the Ming dynasty. His interest in Chinese artisans is perhaps what made Mr. Gladstone offer him the position and Sir Alexander was more than delighted to accept it.
After two months of voyage, Heathcote finally arrived at Peking and handed over his credentials to the Empress Tzu-Hsi in a traditional ceremony which took place in the Imperial Palace. He knew his stay there was for 3 years only so he wasted no time. He travelled to all the places he had read about or heard of. During his visit to the countryside he came across an art workshop.
Being an art lover, he was delighted to see the beautiful Chinese arts. The craftsman, upon realizing his deep interest in Chinese art, showed him a porcelain Chinese statue of Emperor Kung which had been in his family since 7 generations. Sir Alexander was sure that the statue must have been made by Pen Q and even calculated that it must have been made during the turn of 15th century. The only flaw was that the base of the statue was missing.
Alexander Heathcote could not contain his heart’s desire and said “How I wish the piece was mine”. Upon seeing his interest, the craftsman, with a heavy heart, fixed a base of his choice on the statue and gifted it to him. It was the Chinese custom to oblige if an honoured guest requested something. To pay the craftsman back, Alexander constructed a beautiful house on the hills for the man to settle down. The craftsman accepted it only after knowing that the Empress herself sanctioned the gift.
Sir Alexander was so fond of the statue that he wrote in his will that it must be passed on generation to generation and mustn’t be sold until and unless the family’s reputation was at stake. The statue, now regarded as a family heirloom, was passed on to his great-great grandson Alex Heathcote who got into a financial crisis and decided to sell it.
Alex brought the statue to the Sotheby’s. The head of the department was sure with a glance that it was the work of Pen Q. But later on, it was discovered that the statue was fake, a mere copy of the original one. But the base which the craftsman had gifted so casually turned out to be a genuine piece of art. The narrator bought the statue for seven hundred and twenty guineas and an American gentleman bought the base for a whopping twenty-two thousand guineas.
The Chinese Statue: A Commentary
‘The Chinese Statue’, as the name suggests, revolves around a Chinese statue. The author, famous for his literally brilliance, has shown the real beauty of Chinese art and the Britishers’ love for exotic orient quite nicely.
The story is set at two different locations and two different time periods. Moreover, the author has employed the technique of ‘story within a story’. Though the story opens with the scene of an auction house in England, it takes us back to 1871 in a village named Ha Li Chuan in China,
The characters are well portrayed in their own perspectives. Sir Alexander’s uprightness and Yung Lee’s humbleness and respect for traditional values make them memorable. Though the characters are quite different from one another, one thing is common between them: love & respect for art.
The main themes of the story are appearance versus reality, the love of art, respect towards the customs & traditions and desire to own the exotics. Appearance versus reality is shown in how the Chinese statue which was thought to be an original piece of art and regarded with such high esteem turned out to be fake. On the other hand, the base of the statue which the craftsman set so casually proved to be an original piece of art worth twenty-two thousand guineas. Love for art is seen in every prominent character – Alexander Heathcote, Yung Lee and the narrator.
The ending of the story isn’t what anyone would have predicted. It will be a bit of a shock to the readers but definitely not in a bad way. The author has put in a great effort in the detailing of everything; Chinese artisan, Alexander’s fastidious nature, Young Lee’s devoutness towards his trade & culture. And the outcome is more than beautiful.