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Behind the Story – Empress Cixi

Behind the Story – Empress Cixi

If you have read any of my books, it’s pretty easy to see that China’s last empress, the Dowager Empress Cixi, is a recurring character. Who was Empress Cixi and why do I write about her?

Empress Cixi was born in 1835 to a poor and unimportant Manchu family, but she didn’t remain in obscurity for long. When she was only 16, she was among several young ladies selected as a consort for the Xianfeng Emperor, but only a 6th rank consort. It took her three years to climb to 5th rank, but the following year, in 1855, she gave birth to the emperor’s only son, the future Tongzhi Emperor, and was elevated to 2nd rank, second only to the empress, Cian.

When the Xianfeng Emperor died in 1861, he appointed 8 ministers to serve as joint regents until his son came of age (who was only six years old at the time). Most scholars agree that this was a poor decision (though making poor or even disastrous decisions was what he did best), but no one could have predicted what happened next.

Cixi, with the support of the emperor’s closest brother, Prince Gong, staged a coup. Together they outsmarted the ministers, had them executed or banished, and Cixi and Empress Cian were made co-Regents with Prince Gong as Prince-Regent.

Empress Cian had no interest in politics, but she was an excellent manager of the Inner Court of the Women, so Cixi effectively ruled China in the name of her son alone, with Prince Gong serving as an advisor and diplomat, until he came of age in 1873. Cixi again took over the regency when Tongzhi died in 1875. She stepped aside again in 1889 when her nephew and adopted son the Guangxu Emperor came of age, but after he attempted to have her killed in 1898, she once again stepped in to rule and placed him under house arrest until both of them died in 1908.

This is just a quick and dirty summary of her life, but suffice to say she was a brilliant and complicated woman. While she was villainized by many both during her life and after her death, Pearl S. Buck, who was alive and living in China during the last years of Cixi’s reign, said in her forward to her novel about Cixi, Imperial Woman, that those who hated Empress Cixi were “more articulate than those who loved her.” She also said that decades after Cixi died, she “came across villages in the in-lands of China where the people thought that she still lived and were frightened when they heard she was dead. ‘Who will care for us now?’ they cried.”

Jung Chang’s biography of Cixi, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. I read it several times in the years leading up to my release of Threads of Silk.

In my own writings, Empress Cixi pops up again and again. In Threads of Silk, I use her name because I tried to portray her as authentically as possible. In Murder in the Forbidden City and in the upcoming The Emperor’s Seal, I don’t name her because I wanted more leeway in how she was portrayed, but who is to say which version is the real Cixi? I don’t think any writer can really pin down a woman as complicated and contrary as Cixi.

While she has often portrayed as the quintessential cruel “dragon lady,” she was also a woman who loved photography, Pekingese dogs, opened the first schools for girls, and tried to abolish foot binding. She ended the method of torture and execution known as the “death by a thousand cuts” and allowed women to be opera singers. When she died she was on the cusp of establishing a Parliament in an attempt to give the people more say in their government and preserve the Qing Dynasty.

While many people tried to blame her for the collapse of the Chinese Empire, she was the only person who held it together for decades. While she lived, there was no organized concerted effort to overthrow her. Instead, out of respect, rebels and revolutionaries waited until she died before trying something new.

She was not a perfect ruler or a perfect person, but she was not the evil monster who single-handedly led China to disaster that many people like to pretend she was.

She was flawed and fabulous. 

Threads of Silk Now Available As An Audiobook!

Threads of Silk Now Available As An Audiobook!

I’m excited to announce that Threads of Silk is now available as an audiobook! The book was narrated by Leanne Yau. You can download the book from Amazon here.

To celebrate, I’m giving away 5 copies to some lucky fans! Just enter your email address below!



This promotion is only available for US Audible members. You don’t have to be a current Audible member, but you will have to open a US Audible account.

You can also open a free 30-day trial account and get a copy of my book for FREE by going to

This feels like a big step as an author to have my book available in audio. I am very thankful to Leanne for taking this project on. It’s a really long book, over 100,000 words! I hope you enjoy it!

About Threads of Silk

When I was a child, I thought my destiny was to live and die on the banks of the Xiangjiang River as my family had done for generations. I never imagined that my life would lead me to the Forbidden City and the court of China’s last Empress.

Born in the middle of nowhere, Yaqian, a little embroidery girl from Hunan Province, finds her way to the imperial court, a place of intrigue, desire, and treachery. From the bed of an Emperor, the heart of a Prince, and the right side of an Empress, Yaqian weaves her way through the most turbulent decades of China’s history and witnesses the fall of the Qing Dynasty.

Indie-pendence Blog Hop & Giveaway

Indie-pendence Blog Hop & Giveaway

Welcome to the Indie-pendence Blog Hop & Giveaway, hosted by Love Kissed Book Bargains!

For those of you new to my blog, I am Amanda Roberts. I am an American but I have been living in China since 2010. I write historical fiction and cookbooks. 

For the hop, I’m giving away a $20 Amazon Gift Card and 5 paperback copies of my new release, Murder in the Forbidden City

Winners will be chosen at random. Giveaway is open from 12pm EST on 7/14 until 11:59pm EST on 7/28.

The next stop on the hop is Leigh Anderson To enter to win her prize, please visit her blog here

Don’t forget to visit to enter the Grand Prize Giveaway to win a FREE Kindle!

Click here to view this promotion.
3 Defectors – Memoirs from North Korea

3 Defectors – Memoirs from North Korea

Even though my main focus is China, I’m also very interested in what is going on in North Korea. I know that for most Americans, North Korea isn’t really on their radar, but here in China, the “hermit kingdom” can’t be ignored. Even though I mostly review books on this site that specifically deal with China, almost all North Korean defectors pass through China. In fact, North Korea wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for China’s support. So here are reviews for three defector memoirs I have read in the past couple of months.

  1. A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim.
    Kim’s story is of the type you expect to read. Her family suffered greatly during the great famine of the 1990s that left millions of North Koreans dead. After many of her family members died, Kim’s mother made the decision to flee to China with her two young daughters. It was a harrowing and terrifying journey that took them nine years to complete. The time they spent in the countryside when her mother is trafficked to marry a Chinese villager is especially poignant. Countless North Korean women are trafficked as “brides” into Northern China every year. Most of them will never escape or have the chance to tell their story.
    Of the three books in this post, this is the one I would recommend the most if you are interested in learning just a bit about North Korean defectors and the challenges they face in North Korea, China, and in South Korea.
  2. The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee.
    This is a different kind of defector story, one that didn’t happen because the author chose to leave or was forced to by starvation. Lee was born into an elite class of North Koreans, so even though she is the same age as Kim and lived through the great famine, she was never hungry. She was never homeless. She lived in Northern North Korea and barely even saw the death that surrounded her. She was extremely sheltered and protected.
    Her defection was an accident. When she was seventeen she simply wanted to slip across the Yalu River and enjoy a Ferris Bueller type day off in forbidden China. But she was never able to return.
    Her story is less harrowing than Kim’s, but it gives a different viewpoint, one of a person who didn’t suffer in North Korea and if given the choice between leaving and staying, she would have stayed in her home country.
  3. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Story of Shin Dong-hyuk).
    If you have any interest in North Korea, this is the book you have probably heard of. When Shin’s story broke in the US in 2008, he became an instant celebrity, the poster child for North Korean horrors. His story was shocking, and still is despite controversy.
    I have mixed feelings about this book. I don’t really care about the supposed discrepancies between the 2012 version and the updated 2015 version, because even the least horrifying version of his story is shocking. My issues are with the way the story is told. Even though Shin spent his whole life in a maximum security camp and lived to tell the tale, this book is the shortest of the memoirs I’ve read (only 210 pages), and half of that is not Shin’s story. For every paragraph that talks about Shin’s life, Blane adds a paragraph of exposition about what was going in North Korea or other parts of the world at the time. I suppose he gives this information as context, but most of this context has scant little to do with Shin. While some context is important, it shouldn’t be equal to the story itself.
    I really don’t know why this memoir is the most popular when there are so many other better-written ones available.
    I wouldn’t go so far as to say “don’t read this book,” but if you only read one North Korean defector memoir, pick another one.

Of course there are many other defector memoirs out there to choose from. These are only the ones I have read lately. Next on my list is In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park. You can see a speech she gave in 2014 about her experience below.

Have you read any North Korean defector memoirs? Which would you recommend?

There and Back Again – Going Full Circle

There and Back Again – Going Full Circle

I mentioned in a previous post that big changes were coming (as if bringing our daughter home only six months ago wasn’t a big enough change!). So today I can finally announce that…

We are moving to Yangshuo!


Our China journey began nearly seven years ago in Yangshuo in Guangxi province. We came to China with Buckland Education Group, which was headquartered in the tiny town. We loved Yangshuo and thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. Even though we have traveled extensively since then, our opinion on that front hasn’t changed much.

In April, my husband’s job at a game company came to an end, and instead of looking for another grinding office job, he decided to take a job working from home. It is a lot less money, but he is spending a lot more time with our daughter. In fact, he is transitioning to being her primary caregiver so I can focus more on my work.

Last year, I rage quit my job at the Shenzhen Daily (which I just now realized I haven’t written about on here, so I’ll share that story soon). I also decided to work from home instead of looking for another office job. I’ve been a full-time freelance editor since then, but I’m transitioning to full-time writer.

So since we both now work from home, it didn’t make financial sense to stay in Shenzhen, a city where just our rent is more than we were paying back in the US, not to mention the high cost of living for everything else.

This week we went back to Yangshuo and found an apartment. We found something that was twice the size of our current place with three (huge) bedrooms and all new decor and appliances for about a third of the price. It was so cheap, in fact, that we were able to prepay the rent for the whole year. Talk about eliminating stress!

My husband is so in love with the new apartment he couldn’t wait to share it with the world, so he took a video. Feel free to check it out if you want to know what you can rent in a small town in China for only US$365 a month, or about $4,400 a year.


But check out that view!

Of course, being Yangshuo, that was not the most beautiful view we saw all weekend. Check out this shot from a house in the countryside we looked at that our friend Cherith took.

It feels as though our life in China has come full-circle, and we are back to the beginning, but a lot has changed as well. Not every part of our China journey has been easy, but it has all been amazing, and our baby girl makes every hardship worth it. One of the things we are most excited about is raising our daughter(s) in the country, with good people, fresh air, and an easy life.

Be sure to subscribe to our mailing list so you never miss a post about life in China!

A Chat with Cherith Vaughan, Cover Designer for Murder in the Forbidden City

A Chat with Cherith Vaughan, Cover Designer for Murder in the Forbidden City

Today I am so excited to share the cover for my new novel Murder in the Forbidden City!

Aren’t they just gorgeous! I am so excited for this novel. Check out the blurb:

Peking, 1867

When one of the Empress’s ladies-in-waiting is killed in the Forbidden City, she orders Inspector Gong to find the killer. Unfortunately, as a man, he is forbidden from entering the Inner Court. How is he supposed to solve a murder when he cannot visit the scene of the crime or talk to the women in the victim’s life? He won’t be able to solve this crime alone.

The widowed Lady Li is devastated when she finds out about the murder of her sister-in-law, who was serving as the Empress’s lady-in-waiting. She is determined to discover who killed her, even if it means assisting the rude and obnoxious Inspector Gong and going undercover in the Forbidden City.

Together, will Lady Li and Inspector Gong be able to find the murderer before he – or she – strikes again?

Be sure to add the book to your shelf on Goodreads! The book will be available for preorder on June 20th!

I am going to be talking a lot about this novel over the coming weeks, but I wanted to give my cover designer Cherith Vaughan a chance to talk a bit about what went into creating this cover. I honestly did not think she would be able to pull this one off, at least not in this way. She designs all of my covers and while I am happy with all of them, this one was one of my most difficult requests. “I want it to look like a movie or TV poster,” I said. “You know with the floating heads over the city?” But when it comes to stock images, Asian faces are so hard to find, which she mentions in her interview below. So when I saw the mockup, I just was just in awe of how beautiful the cover was and that it was exactly what I was looking for. I’ll let her tell you more.

Interview with Cherith Vaughan, Cover Designer

I have always loved looking at book covers, but for most of my life I never thought about the work that goes into creating one. To me, they were simply something that sold the story behind the cover.  (No matter how many times we’re told not to judge a book by its cover, we all do it!)

It wasn’t until about 5 years ago, when Amanda asked me to create a book cover for her, that it dawned on me how much work can go into making a good cover. I still remember how much my heart raced, the thrill… the terror of starting something new but wanting it to turn out well, especially for such an great friend. Looking back now, I have to laugh at how bad the cover is (I’ll probably think the same when I look back at covers now in a few months), but it was this humble beginning that pushed me to where I am today and into a career path I truly love.

I’ve learned – and am still learning – so much about cover art creation over the months. While I love learning and love working on covers, it’s not always the easiest task. Here are a few of my observations about cover art creation: Where are all the Asians?! I work on a lot of Asian themed books and, even with 1/3 of the population being Asian, almost half of the “Asian” images feature other ethnicities or are poor quality.

  • Where are all the Asians?! I work on a lot of Asian themed books and, even with 1/3 of the population being Asian, almost half of the “Asian” images feature other ethnicities or are poor quality.
  • Most of the popular Asian themed books use stereotypical Asian elements to portray the story such as fans, tea cups, etc. While this is fine, I’m a little shocked that almost every other category has at least a good mix of abstract vs. concrete concepts.
  • It’s always better to include multiple mockups. At least one or two with the author’s ideas incorporated as much as possible, and at least one or two of your own inspiring.
  • The more we know the better, as much as your ideas inspired your story, they inspire us. Details are extremely important, and can often inspire us when we’re looking for a new way to portray your story in cover form.
  • A good cover is not as expensive as it seems. Most quality custom covers go for about $250+ when not on sale. This includes hours upon hours hunting down, editing, drawing, and designing the final product. It’s sometimes hard to forget when we just see the final product, but  a good custom cover is a true labor of love.
  • A  good cover will, in a single moment, convey the mood, characters, summary of the book while still being able to draw in potential readers using just a teeny tiny thumbnail image… and to think that this split second of judgment took hours, days even weeks to make!
  • To me, a cover is a representation of myself and my work. I don’t want to put out a product that I can’t be proud of, and I want my authors to feel proud of their covers as well.

And finally, please, for the love of all things good, find a good cover designer! No more boxed out images (lesson learned), no more weird cropping, no more rainbow arch font in times new roman. Let’s be the start of something amazing… Let the good cover art revolution begin! 😛

If you are looking for a cover designer, you can see Cherith’s portfolio and contact her through her website, Shredded Potato. You can also purchase her premades at Empress Author Solutions (more premades coming soon!)

Hiring a Housekeeper in China

Hiring a Housekeeper in China

Long time readers of this blog might remember one of my more popular posts from a couple of years ago about my Housekeeper from Hell, Annie. Long story short, Annie came across some very personal photos of mine while cleaning and shared them on WeChat, China’s most popular social network, and called me a prostitute. It was a very shocking incident as Annie was well known in the Shenzhen expat community (so many of our friends saw the photos) and had worked with me for about a year and a half. I fired her immediately, changed the locks on our apartment, and shared my experience widely to help protect other expat families.

Li Ayi helping our little girl practice walking.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to trust another ayi (what we call housekeepers here). I still get upset when I think about what happened. I fired her about a month before we went to America for holiday and after we got back I still didn’t hire anyone for a couple of months, but at the time I was working full time and had a two-hour commute every day and was ramping up my writing career. I simply couldn’t keep up. Also, one of the reasons I live overseas is so that I can afford certain perks, such as hiring people to do the things I don’t want or have time to do. So after talking to other expat residents in my building, I finally hired a new ayi. And she changed my life for the better.

When I hired Li Ayi, I did something I had not done before, I also hired her to cook. This was the best thing I ever did for myself, my family, and my career. I read an article recently about the mental burden that women carry. Even in families where men and women share housework and childcare, the mental work that goes into running a household still tends to fall on women. I didn’t realize until I hired someone else to cook how much of my daily mental capacity was being spent on meal preparation. This is especially true in China, where a lack of processed foods and climate controlled kitchens means that you have to go to the store to buy food fresh almost every day. I was spending a ton of time planning meals, going shopping, cooking, and cleaning every single day.

After I hired Ayi to cook and clean six days a week, I finally was able to finish my first novel, Threads of Silk.

She has always been wonderful with my dog, Vash, who is a handful, and she is so great with the new kiddo. She isn’t responsible for any childcare, but she does play with her and sometimes even take her outside to play.

So what is it really like having a housekeeper in China?

It’s great. I am always telling my friends over here that they should hire an ayi to help them out. Our ayi eats dinner with us every night. She cleans the kitchen, does the laundry, sweeps and mops the floors, and generally straightens up every day. She can’t really do anything about clutter because we are always bringing new stuff home and leaving stuff laying around and if she moves stuff it will get lost. She also doesn’t do any deep cleaning like scrubbing the bathtub or cleaning out the cabinets. So I still have to do some housekeeping every week, but only a fraction of what I had to do before.

While we really appreciate our ayi and are friendly, I try not to consider her a friend. I think of her like an employee. But I certainly want to be a good employer and know that my employee is happy working for me. I’m in a Hong Kong moms group and the way ayis are treated in Hong Kong is horrifying. I can’t imagine treating someone who cooks your food, takes care of your kids, and is in your home every day like garbage.

How much does it cost?

The cost of a housekeeper in China can fluctuate depending on a number of factors. Where you live and whether or not she cooks being the two big questions. Also, nannies will cost more. But just to give you an example, here in Shenzhen, for an ayi to cook and clean six days a week is 2,000RMB per month. That’s about $300.

How to find an ayi.

If you are interested in hiring an ayi, the best way is to ask around. Ask fellow expats or the people in your building. There is also an app you can download to help you find an ayi, but I haven’t use it yet. I don’t know if it is good for finding a permenant ayi or if it is just for one-time help. It is called Ayi Bang (阿姨帮) and you can download it here

Li Ayi has been with us for over two years now and has been a wonderful part of our lives. I decided I better share a little about her and our life with an ayi because some big changes are coming soon and she probably won’t be with us by the end of the summer. We will certainly miss her, but we are excited to start this new chapter of our lives (I can’t wait to share the changes with you!) and I am so thankful to ayi for helping me trust again.

Do you have an ayi? Share your experience in the comments.

Killing Roaches Naturally

Killing Roaches Naturally

Surprisingly, we never had any pest problems during our time in China until about two years ago. Even when we lived over one of Shenzhen’s most popular (and filthy) food streets, we never had issues with roaches and our pets never had fleas. It wasn’t until we moved into a fancy (for us) apartment building in a new development that we suddenly had roaches and the pets got fleas.

The roach infestation was horrendous. They were absolutely everywhere. We tried everything to get rid of them. RAID, bombs, exterminator quality poisons, traps. Nothing worked. And when we moved to another apartment, the little monsters traveled with us and were even worse! Walking into the kitchen at night was like walking into a den of nightmares. Remember the scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Billy lifts her lantern to discover she is SURROUNDED by bugs? Yeah, it was kind of like that.

So I was of course desperate to get rid of the bugs, but nothing had worked and I didn’t like using so much poison anyway. I have a very small dog and cat and a new baby, so since the chemical poisons weren’t working anyway, I wondered if there was a natural alternative.

And there was! I discovered boric acid. Boric acid is a naturally occurring substance from volcanic regions. The look and texture of boric acid is very similar to baking soda.

While boric acid can cause some mild irritation to humans and pets, it is not toxic, so it is safe to use. Just wash your hands after use. Boric acid works as a sort of stomach poison to the roaches. Even better, they don’t die instantly, but crawl back to the nest to die where the other roaches cannibalize them, thus poisoning the nest-mates as well.

If you plan to use boric acid, be patient! The roaches will not die instantly. You will still see roaches the next day, and probably the next, but over time, the roach numbers will dwindle until one day you say, “Hey, I haven’t seen any roaches lately.” You should notice a significant decrease in the number of roaches you see within a few days and they should be nearly gone in about a week or two.

While there are several “recipes” out there for using boric acid as a bait and poison (like mixing the boric acid with powdered sugar), I have found this to be totally unnecessary. I simply sprinkle a light dusting wherever the roaches seem to travel, like along the back of the counters, behind the microwave, or around the refrigerator. You don’t want to create piles of powder as the roaches will simply walk around it.

Boric acid can also work on other small pests like ants, termites, and silverfish.

If you live in the US, you can easily find boric acid on Amazon. If you are in China, you can find boric acid (硼酸) on Taobao.

Have you tried boric acid or another natural way of dealing with pests? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Today I get to celebrate my first official Mother’s Day! Even though my sweet Zoe always wishes me a Happy Mother’s Day, it certainly has more meaning this year. I’m celebrating by spending the afternoon away from the baby hahaha! Zoe is taking me to fancy high tea and then to get a massage while Daddy spends time with his little girl. *bliss*

Friday was our little Tiger’s 5 month home anniversary! I can’t believe how quickly time is passing. We had some family photos taken a couple of weeks ago, and they came out so cute!

Right now, our lives completely center around our little cutie. And I’m okay with that.

Guest Post – Beijing with the Family by Melissa Addey

Guest Post – Beijing with the Family by Melissa Addey

Today’s guest post is by Author Melissa Addey! She recently came to China on a research trip for her next novel, and she was gracious enough to share some highlights from her trip and some tips for your own trip to Beijing!

I recently made a long-awaited and eagerly anticipated research trip to Beijing. It was in part for my Creative Writing PhD and in part for the historical novels I write set in the Forbidden City of the 1700s. These are the things I found out about being a tourist in Beijing that really made the trip the most fun – for me and for my family: husband and two small children aged 2.5 and 5.5.

Get up early! My first day of sight-seeing was a massive disappointment as we visited the Yuan Ming Yuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness). It’s an exquisite, huge park full of lakes and tiny waterways that used to be the summer home of the imperial family. It opens at 7am but we got there in a leisurely way about 10am, by which time it was already chock-a-block with tourists. It was hard to move around (the walkways are often very narrow), impossible to take scenic photos and quite tricky to experience the ‘atmosphere’ of the 1700s I’d come in search of! I got stroppy and disappointed and worried that the trip would be a disaster from the point of view of my research. I learnt from this. I started rousing the family at 5.30am and getting us to locations by 7am. It was a transformation. We had beautiful locations almost to ourselves and it stayed peaceful for a few hours. When it started to get crowded we frequently hopped onto a little pleasure boat if we were near a lake and escaped the crowds while the kids had fun steering (with us grabbing the wheel to avoid accidents!). It was magical. Then we’d retreat for lunch and a little nap or rest to make up for the early start.

Eat local! Looking back, the best food we had came from the tiniest street stalls.  We experimented with dough sticks and dumplings for breakfast and they were not only delicious but extremely cheap by London standards: you could feed a family of four for less than £2. I found a tiny store near us that made noodles and little breads, some of them stuffed with greens, which swiftly became my favourites for lunchtimes, along with made to order crunchy savoury pancakes at stalls all over the city. We ate in a few fancy restaurants because we wanted to try out specialties like food the imperial household would have eaten or Peking Duck (well it would be rude not to), but mostly we ate simple and local and it was delicious. We rented a spacious Air BnB apartment for about the same money as one hotel room and it made us feel like we had a little neighborhood of our own to explore.

Don’t just gawp at it, get inside it. A popular tourist activity is supposed to be getting a rickshaw to drive you through the hutongs (old and tiny original streets with original housing, some built around courtyards: there aren’t many left) but I found the drivers a bit pushy and the whole notion a bit ‘gawping at the locals’. Instead we walked through quite a few on our way to other locations as well as booking a noodle and dumpling making class in what was originally a home within a hutong and had a fantastic time, fully converting my usually picky son to dumplings. You can also stay in a hutong.

Avoid the obvious. The Forbidden City receives an average of 40,000 visitors a day. This blew my mind. Of course we went, it’s one of my key locations, but instead of walking down the central axis (where all the tour groups go and you could barely move), we meandered off to the sides of this vast location and found ourselves almost alone on occasions, or with a perfectly manageable 20-50 people around rather than literally thousands. Result: I soaked up the 1700s atmosphere and could poke around the areas where the imperial family actually lived, my husband got about a million gorgeous photos, the kids got to pet stray cats and run around safely without getting lost. Also, if you’re visiting, go nice and early and visit the Workers’ Cultural Palace park, located just before you get to the Forbidden City. It’s an unprepossessing name but it was actually originally a temple complex and is filled with beautiful buildings (which everyone back home mistook for the Forbidden City as the architecture is exactly the same style), lovely gardens and hardly anyone around except some older people doing their Tai Chi and sword practice.

Embrace the kids’ stuff. If you have kids, Beijing is very child-friendly and I have to say everyone we met was super-kind as well as very affectionate to our two little ones. Two of our most fun activities were the kids painting ‘longevity’ peaches made of clay in a tiny pottery shop using red gold and green paints on offer for less than £1 to take their masterpieces home and the return trip from seeing the Great Wall: on a toboggan! I’m not kidding. It’s a giant slide to get you back down the mountain, you sit on a little toboggan which thankfully has brakes and zoom down, with mountain goats barely a yard away ignoring you as you zip past them. Authentic and cultured? No. Loads and loads of fun? Absolutely.

Buy something different as a souvenir. I’ll be honest, the souvenirs I saw were in the main pretty awful, made of poor quality materials and not very desirable.  The things we did find to bring home which we loved were the hand-painted tourist maps for key locations that are beautiful enough to frame, the shards from broken Qing pottery turned into jewellery by The Shard Box store and the incense bought from little shops near any of the main temples. Friends and family back home also liked the tea and sweets we brought home: probably run-of-the-mill to locals but their different tastes and packaging made them fun and easy to transport as small gifts. Oh and yes: we did succumb to dressing-up fever and get done up as the imperial family and have our photos taken on lavishly golden sets. Too irresistible.

The trip was an eye-opener for us: having not been away long-haul since our children were born, we realised they are now a good age for starting more interesting adventures again. We did have to pack ludicrous amounts of entertainment and snacks in our carry-on luggage to get through the flights. But Beijing was definitely worth it.


Melissa Addey writes historical fiction set in China and Morocco and is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey. She has two small children and lives in London.

If you’d like to try The Consorts, a historical novella set in the Forbidden City and the Yuan Ming Yuan you can get it for free at

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