ADAM WILLIAMS knows too much about China to attempt to write about the nation today. As the chief representative for Jardine Matheson on the mainland, he has a rare view of the transformation of the country his British family have called home since the 1890s. But Williams, 50, found it easier to write a novel about the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 19th century. 'China is a very dynamic, changing place,' he says. 'The China that you think you have come to grips with may not be the same five years on. 'So I wrote about a distant China, a China of a hundred years ago, which has parallels to the present. 'In both times you've got old orthodoxies being challenged by new western ideas. In the 1890s it was the railway, the missionaries and the modern ways of medicine, this great western web of capitalism coming in and really shaking the old feudal ways. Obviously there were great contradictions. Chinese embraced the new ideas and reacted against them. The Boxer Rebellion came out of that,' he says. 'If you look at the 1990s you had another orthodoxy - communism and Marxism - being shaken again by corporate America. It was the idea of getting rich and glorious in the American way, by opening up stock markets and capital markets and getting into real estate, setting up golf clubs and the whole panoply of the west. 'Again, it caused a lot of contradictions, which Sars brought out. There's a whole dirty underside to this corporate growth in the 1990s that is evident now. Sars showed that there's absolutely no welfare in the countryside. You had all this growth at the golf clubs but there's no medical assistance. You have corruption at almost every level of society now. You have terrible over-production in every sector. I don't think we're going to see hordes of screaming Boxers today but there is a reaction taking place. It's not anti-western but there is a feeling that the imported globalism has got to be tempered slightly into a Chinese way of doing things.' The Boxer Rebellion is less distant and the parallels stronger when you belong to the Williams clan. The author's maternal great-grandfathers were in China during the rebellion, one as a railway engineer, the other a medical missionary who escaped Changchun as the city was taken by Boxers, fanatics who slaughtered foreigners and Christians in the name of traditional Chinese values. The novel's idealistic medical missionary, Dr Airton, is largely based on his great-grandfather. Williams' epic novel, The Palace Of Heavenly Pleasure, uses the family stories he heard as a boy to explore the cultural complexities of east meeting west in 1899 at the fictional city of Shishan. 'I find it fascinating when I see in business negotiations that the Chinese and the westerners are agreeing with one another and not realising it. I really wanted to put that idea in the book,' he says. 'When you're faced with a situation like the Boxer Rebellion, a complete revolution of ordinary life, what decisions do you make? What is right in one circumstance may be completely wrong in another. This is the awfully difficult dilemma for the doctor, who has an absolute guideline on the way to live. The more flexible mandarin knows that you do what you have to do and that virtue is doing the right thing at the right time. 'High-minded maxims for creating progress and the perfect way of life are very much the western way. We tend to look at things in terms of absolutes and ideals,' he explains. 'Coming to China, what's appealed to me is that it starts at a very different level. Relationships are very, very practical. That comes from a society in which everyone lives on top of each other and the social antennae are so developed that there's great sensitivity of understanding and compromise in relationships, which leads to a way of looking at the world which, to a westerner, can sometimes seem rather mercenary and grubby but in fact is very sophisticated and has its own ideals.' After spending most of his life in the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where he was a South china Morning Post reporter, Williams speaks Cantonese and Putonghua. He met his wife of 25 years, Fumei, while studying in Taiwan and is the son of P.G. Williams, late chairman of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. While well qualified to explore the sensitivities that led to the rebellion, Williams says he understands why Chinese people challenge him for writing about their country. 'Westerners have always misread China. I've always felt that westerners are a notch behind wherever the pendulum is. 'There's this idea that China is incomprehensible. This is something the Chinese encourage. Chinese people like to think of themselves as being completely different to everywhere else. 'It's part of a game. I try to play it the other way round and tell people that they don't understand us westerners. They get very infuriated.' The Palace Of Heavenly Pleasure has landed on book shelves around the world amid good reviews - particularly in London - and new fads for big books and Chinese stories. Williams is modest about his writing ability, saying his ambitions became 'clogged' after reading the literary greats at Oxford University and having his journalistic flourishes slashed by the protectors of the declarative sentence - Post sub-editors. 'I wound up with a romantic adventure story, but that was not the original idea. I wanted to do a Conrad-type story of moral choice.' The book's success, according to Williams, comes down to China's hold on the western imagination. 'It's a romantic idea that every generation recreates. So there's always a market for China fiction,' he laughs. 'There always has been in the west a romance about China, which has transmuted over the generations and centuries from the 18th-century view that it was the perfect society of bureaucratic officials, to the 19th-century one of a corrupt, stinking empire full of souls to be saved, to the feeling in the 1940s that China is the great disappointment to America and the great red peril. 'Every generation has a different China, but it has always managed to be strange, which is bizarre because there's almost nowhere in the world more covered by the media.' Williams started writing in 1989 after dodging bullets on the balcony of his office in the Beijing Hotel during the Tiananmen massacre. His report on the crackdown was handed to the British embassy. He describes writing as an adventure akin to his travels through Xinjiang and Pakistan in 1989. Williams organised a camel expedition in 1995 to find the remains of 1,700-year-old cities in the Taklamakan Desert. He has taken part in car rallies through Africa and from London to Beijing. Four years ago he hiked through the Hindu Kush and Hindu Raj mountains, following the path of the explorer George Hayward. But the father-of-two will be restricted to travelling between his home and office until he completes his second novel. Using his family as inspiration once more, Williams will set the new book in the 1920s - 'the most degenerate decade in Chinese history'. Having written a third of the book, he admits to feeling the pressures of deadlines and expectations. 'My mistake was not killing off all my characters so you can't do a sequel.' Adam Williams will speak at the British Council and sign copies of his novel on Tuesday at 6.30pm. Inquiries: 2250 3126 'Westerners have always misread China. I've always felt that westerners are a notch behind'