Review of Yang Shen from by RK

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Yang Shen: The God from the West puts the reader directly into the chaos of mid-19th. century Shanghai. As a center for international trade, the Shanghai of 1860 was a turbulent mix of Chinese and foreign influences. Opportunistic French, British and American traders–supported by their Consulates and military detachments–jousted with Chinese administrators and corrupt local businessmen in a city filled with saloons, brothels, foreign soldiers, drifters, adventurers, and pirates. Inland from Shanghai the Taiping Christian Society fought a protracted rebellion against the Chinese emperor. Although their rebellion is little noted in the west, its death toll exceeded that of World War I. By mid-1860 the rebels were systematically moving toward Shanghai, and the Imperial troops seemed unable to stop them.Yang Shen places the reader in the company of Fletcher Thorson Wood (modeled closely after Frederick Townsend Ward in this work of historical fiction), a 28 year old American seaman and mercenary soldier, who played a pivotal role in Chinese history. The book begins with a gripping account of how Mr. Wood, a passenger on the sailing ship Essex bound for Shanghai, saved all on board from certain death at the hands of the English pirate, Fokie Tom. From that beginning Wood built his reputation through exploits on a Yangtze River steamer. As the rebel threat grew, the local government’s only option to avoid destruction was secretly to hire Mr. Wood who assembled and armed a band of foreigners, eventually to become the Ever Victorious Army that finally suppressed the rebellion.James Lande’s purpose is more than a retelling Mr. Wood’s saga. It is to place the reader into 1860’s China, such that the reader sees, feels, and understands the tumult. Lande fills the Yang Shen with detail: the ships and weapons, the countryside with its intricate network of canals, the arcane maneuverings of Chinese politicians and merchants and the equally complex rivalries among the foreign powers, the squalid bars and brothels whose denizens simply struggled to survive each day and the equally squalid conditions of the Chinese people in their villages.Lande’s account of China in 1860 is dark. Most of its characters, the powerful as well as the common, face threats from every side, and survive only through a combination of guile, treachery and fatalistic perseverance. A few, Fletcher Wood foremost among them, exhibit some concern for their fellow humans, though no one here acts from noble motives. Yang Shen, in addition to being a compelling account of China in the midst of the Taiping rebellion, reminds us that civilization has come a long way in the 150 years since 1860. I highly recommend Yang Shen to any reader with an interest in history and adventure, and especially recommend it to anyone with an interest in China.

For the true Sinophile Mr. Lande provides over 70 pages of historic sources for Yang Shen, including maps, a glossary of English and Chinese terms of the time, hundreds of footnotes (“Yang Shen Underfoot”) relating actual events to Mr. Lande’s historical fiction,and a reading list of 450 English and 50 Chinese titles.

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One Response to Review of Yang Shen from by RK

  1. Administrator says:

    Old China Books says:

    The best reviews often call attention to points not fully perceived even by the author, to wit: “Lande’s account of China in 1860 is dark.” Of course, upon reflection RK is quite correct, and glimpsing back over the story again from a greater distance, I see that now. The pervasive desperation felt by characters in Book I, foreigners and mandarins in Shanghai facing a constant threat from bloody rebels and pernicious conflicts among themselves, and Christian rebels in outlying walled towns and camps harried by imperial soldiers, is well represented by, say, the American Consul Shanks, who appears ready to have a mental breakdown over it all. As events in Book II will darken still more, I will take more care to modulate the tone and find the places where the light breaks through.

    I am heartened that RK feels that the book places “the reader into 1860’s China, such that the reader sees, feels, and understands the tumult.” An extraordinary amount of research went into understanding the time, place, and people, and much attention was devoted to incorporating detail unobtrusively into the narrative to give a reader an impression of being there with the characters. Description and narrative are bone and marrow in the telling of a historical tale, and a balanced integration of the two is a challenge to sustain. Fortunately, there remains ample detail not yet presented to keep the ambiance fresh in the next parts of the novel.

    James Lande

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