An epic jour­ney from deck­hand to revered China hand

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE -


One morn­ing in 1998, David Leff­man awoke with a desert-dry throat, a thump­ing hang­over and a note­book lit­tered with jottings about an up­ris­ing in the 1860s that re­sulted in the deaths of 3 mil­lion peo­ple.

The hang­over, cour­tesy of a three­day “sis­ters meal” with the Miao peo­ple in the south­west­ern prov­ince of Guizhou, even­tu­ally sub­sided, but he could not get the scrib­bled notes out of his mind.

De­spite be­ing well-grounded in Chi­nese his­tory, the Bri­tish author was as­ton­ished he has never heard of the up­ris­ing and de­cided to learn more.

That week­end marked the start of a 15-year ob­ses­sion with Wil­liam Mesny, a Bri­tish ad­ven­turer who ar­rived in China as a pen­ni­less sailor in 1860 and rose to the rank of gen­eral in the Im­pe­rial Army of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911), be­fore dy­ing as he had ar­rived — al­most broke — in Shang­hai in 1919.

The up­shot of that decade and a half of re­search is Leff­man’s re­cently pub­lished book, The Mer­ce­nary Man­darin: How a Bri­tish Ad­ven­turer Be­came a Gen­eral in QingDy­nasty China.

Although a bi­og­ra­phy, the book also acts as a guide to the his­tory of the pe­riod and the con­di­tions un­der which peo­ple lived.

Mesny, a na­tive of Jer­sey in the Chan­nel Is­lands, led a dan­ger­ous life in China, ply­ing many trades — gun­run­ner, jailer, news­pa­per colum­nist, govern­ment of­fi­cial, sol­dier, bridge de­signer, author and his­to­rian, to name just a few — be­fore don­ning his gen­eral’s uni­form.

He spoke flu­ent Chi­nese, ad­vo­cated the mod­ern­iza­tion of all ar­eas of so­ci­ety, and (un­usu­ally for a Westerner at the time) had sev­eral close Chi­nese friends and seemed un­tainted by no­tions of su­pe­ri­or­ity. Mesny also mar­ried two Chi­nese women — at dif­fer­ent times, of course.

His trav­els were so re­mark­able, and well-pub­li­cized at the time, that it is sur­pris­ing that The Mer­ce­nary Man­darin is the first full bi­og­ra­phy of Mesny, although Leff­man ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for Keith Stevens’s A Jer­sey Ad­ven­turer in China, pub­lished in 1992.

In Leff­man’s hands, Mesny emerges as some­one who was al­ways — at least in his own ac­counts — in the thick of the ac­tion. On the pos­i­tive side, he was in­ge­nious, in­dus­tri­ous, gen­er­ous, re­source­ful, coura­geous and hon­est.

Sadly for Mesny, those at­tributes were over­shad­owed by less-ad­mirable qual­i­ties, such as im­pul­sive­ness, a de­sire to stand on his dig­nity and an al­most child­like naivety.

He also had a ten­dency to take credit for other peo­ple’s ideas, de­spite his qui­etly deep Methodist faith, while his re­fusal to give “gifts” to lo­cal of­fi­cials of­ten hin­dered his progress in terms of ge­og­ra­phy and his ca­reer.

The first of­fi­cial ref­er­ence to Mesny comes in 1860 in an Aus­tralian news­pa­per re­port about the 18-year-old sailor be­ing fined for an un­pro­voked at­tack on his ship’s bo­son. De­cid­ing that sea­far­ing was not for him, Mesny headed to Shang­hai.

It was a brave move, given that China was in tur­moil — the Taip­ing Re­bel­lion (1850-64) was in full swing — and with the Sec­ond Opium War (1856-60) about to reach its bloody con­clu­sion, Bri­tish ad­ven­tur­ers were far from wel­come.

Leff­man’s in­tro­duc­tion to China was less dra­matic. In 1985, then a 20-year-old pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dent, he was left a small in­her­i­tance, so he asked his tu­tors for per­mis­sion to travel to China dur­ing term time to un­der­take a pho­to­jour­nal­ism project.

That visit was hard work be­cause he spoke no Chi­nese and had only a vague plan of ac­tion. He re­mem­bered the trip as be­ing “alien­at­ing, over­whelm­ing, filthy and de­press­ing”.

When his brother ar­rived in Bei­jing, the two set out to see the sights.

One day, at the Great Wall, they spot­ted a cou­ple of Western­ers be­ing guided by a large group of Chi­nese of­fi­cials and sur­rounded by pho­tog­ra­phers.

Although they did not speak, the two groups ac­knowl­edged each other. Only later did the broth­ers re­al­ize the two men were Ge­orge Michael and An­drew Rid­g­ley, then bet­ter known as Wham, the first Western pop group to per­form in China.

Later, they en­coun­tered one an­other with de­press­ing reg­u­lar­ity. “In those days, there weren’t that many places to eat or visit in Bei­jing, so we con­stantly saw them (Wham) in restau­rants and other places,” the 52-year-old author re­called, laugh­ing.

“When­ever they spot­ted us, one of them would mut­ter, ‘It is those guys again.’”

The broth­ers’ pres­ence ob­vi­ously per­plexed Michael, who paid Leff­man “a huge com­pli­ment by com­plain­ing loudly to his en­tourage of pho­tog­ra­phers that I did not look like a Wham fan”.

Although he did not know then, Leff­man had been bit­ten by the China bug. A few years later, as a fledg­ling author for the Rough Guide travel se­ries, he used his pho­to­jour­nal­ism ex­pe­ri­ence to suc­cess­fully lobby the ed­i­tors to send him to south­west­ern China.

That trip sparked a love af­fair with Guizhou, Sichuan and Yun­nan prov­inces.

In ad­di­tion to China, Leff­man has writ­ten guide­books about many coun­tries and re­gions, in­clud­ing Ice­land, Aus­tralia and In­done­sia, and has even ghost writ­ten a Chi­nese cook­book.

He es­ti­mated he has vis­ited China more than 15 times since that 1985 trip, trav­el­ing, ob­serv­ing, learn­ing and writ­ing about a country that has fas­ci­nated him for 30 years.

Although it took many years to re­search Mesny’s life, in­clud­ing re­trac­ing his steps, Leff­man rarely con­sid­ered he might not fin­ish The Mer­ce­nary Man­darin.

“It was some­thing that es­ca­lated as I gath­ered in­for­ma­tion, rather like read­ing a good mys­tery or thriller and in­creas­ingly won­der­ing how it was all go­ing to turn out,” he ex­plained.

“And hav­ing spent 25 years work­ing to deadlines, it was an in­dul­gence to set my own pace.”

Mesny’s af­fec­tion for most things Chi­nese is high­lighted in The Mer­ce­nary Man­darin through his own words, culled from thou­sands of items, in­clud­ing news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, pub­lished col­lec­tively as Mesny’s Chi­nese Mis­cel­lany.

Run­ning to 2,000 pages across 30 vol­umes, the mis­cel­lany con­tains Mesny’s thoughts on life in China; pol­i­tics, food, so­cial mores, ail­ments and treat­ments, and his own per­ilous fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion.

Every­thing was grist to his mill, and although he rewrote pre­vi­ously pub­lished ar­ti­cles to bring his own role to the fore, the col­lec­tion re­mains a valu­able win­dow into the last decades of the Qing Dy­nasty.

Leff­man re­traced Mesny’s seem­ingly end­less treks, vis­it­ing the places he fought or lived, and in­ter­view­ing di­rect de­scen­dents of many of his friends and col­leagues, but he also set great store in the mis­cel­lany as a source for his sub­ject’s opinions of the peo­ple and events he en­coun­tered dur­ing nearly 70 years in China.

As Leff­man pointed out in his in­tro­duc­tion to The Mer­ce­nary Man­darin, the mis­cel­lany is an ex­tra­or­di­nary work, given that Mesny left school when he was 8 and his English was ini­tially poor.

As the Chan­nel Is­lands are ge­o­graph­i­cally closer to France than the Bri­tish main­land, the Mesny fam­ily spoke French at home.

Mesny’s life has many par­al­lels with mod­ern China, ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher.

“Then, as now, China was open­ing up to the world af­ter a pe­riod of iso­la­tion, and every­body — for­eign and Chi­nese — was jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion, try­ing to stay ahead of the curve and milk po­lit­i­cal and so­cial changes for what they were worth,” he said.

“There’s an in­creas­ing in­ter­est in the for­eign view of China, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 19th cen­tury.”

Leff­man has de­cided that it is now time to close the book on Mesny and he is jug­gling ideas for a new project.

“At the mo­ment I’m wa­ver­ing be­tween a cou­ple of ideas, one a his­tory, the other fic­tion. So watch this space.”

There’s an in­creas­ing in­ter­est in the for­eign view of China, es­pe­cially dur­ing the 19th cen­tury.”

Bri­tish author

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