Review of Yang Shen from by David

James Lande has told a whale of a yarn here. His hero steps ashore in 1860 Shanghai, vibrating with trade between what we now call the Western Powers and China,a China split by one of the biggest civil wars in history, the Taiping Rebellion. Armies of tens of thousands are marching, holding and losing cities, and in the bargain threatening Shanghai itself. The Europeans/Americans cannot take sides in the civil war even though they are about to march on Peiching themselves. Fletcher Wood finds a niche for destiny’s child, himself, as a brash mercenary proposing to concoct a small foreign (non-Chinese) contingent of a few hundred men to take the field against the Taiping. The story is closely rooted in history, meticulously researched, and painted on large canvas. The Wood character is based on a real American original. Lande has mastered the detail and told a fine story. Great reading.
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One Response to Review of Yang Shen from by David

  1. Administrator says:

    Last edited by the author on Jun 7, 2012 12:00:20 PM PDT
    Old China Books says:

    One phrase especially stands out in this review: destiny’s child. I did not know the phrase when I came upon it here, but assumed from the religious tone that destiny’s child was at least an allusion if not outright allegory. Little did I expect to have to wade through pages of Beyonce and the R&B group Destiny’s Child (also unknown to me) to get at a glimmer. By that time, Isaiah was clearly a source to be consulted, which also proved problematic, as Isaiah does not mention specifically “destiny’s child,” or “child of destiny,” as least not in translation. So the phrase seems to have been divined since, based on the prophecy in Isaiah of the child born in Bethlehem, and come to be used for other children who would grow up have extraordinary influence on the destiny of a people, such as David, or Isaac. Now, the Fletcher of Yang Shen is hardly a Jesus, nor a David or Isaac, but Fletcher might be said to be an extraordinary child the allusion suggests will also make his, however more humble, mark upon the world.

    Fletcher, of course, comes back to China unannounced by anyone, still less by an angel, and if he is indeed to be a child of China’s destiny, he will have to work out for himself the mystery of how that is to be accomplished. Especially considering his inauspicious beginning, as a filibuster – a fomenter of foreign insurrection – who intends to make part of China his own little kingdom. How he comes around to his later views is, of course, wherein the tale lies, for Fletcher’s view of the Chinese, as likely did Ward’s, suffers a sea change rich and strange and, in spite of those who would belittle his experience, he does come to have a profound, if quite unexpected, influence on the fate of Chinese in the 19th century.

    The reviewer also notes the story “is painted on a large canvas,” which is a particular object of the novel. Rather than confine the action to a hermetic little corner of the world, which could hardly be a reality for most stories, the novel observes that minor skirmishes along the lower reaches of the Yangtze delta in 1860 were buffeted by influences coming from far away and originating with people and policy quite ignorant of the lighter drama in the delta.

    So the tale ranges ’round the world, from Shanghai to Peking, and thence to Paris, London, Moscow and Washington, even to Manila. We like to say now that our world has been made smaller by changes in how information gets around, so much more quickly than via steamer, telegraph, and Pony Express, but in 1860s Shanghai the world was not so small, even then, but rather diverse in its many varieties of people and the unending grief they caused one another.

    This scope is present not just in characters and events, but also in the minds of characters whose thoughts (as do ours) meander around among the people and places of their own past. So, it’s no accident that a character like John Colter, for instance, relates his experience leading wagon trains over the Oregon Trail, even while he trains in an isolated backwater of Shanghai to fight a war against people about whom he knows next to nothing.

    James Lande

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