Extraordinary biography of one of the first Old China Hands

Mesny in Mandarin attire, 1875

Rising to the exalted status of Old China Hand is not easy – ask any of our latter-day China expats who aspire to that station. Most people today, let alone China expats, are not familiar with one of the earliest and most accomplished Old China Hands, the Englishman William Mesny. The tale of this swashbuckler, who started out in 1862 running guns up the Yangtze River to the rebels at Nanking and over the next 50 years became a general in the imperial Chinese army, an advisor to Chinese statesmen, and the author of an indispensable and near inexhaustible compendium of information about China and the Chinese of late imperial China, is told with flair and fidelity in David Leffman’s The Mercenary Mandarin.

For a fellow who himself traveled so much, Mesny could not have found a better biographer than travel-writer David Leffman, who dogged Mesny’s footsteps all over China for fifteen years researching his life in remarkable depth. Leffman’s account expands substantially the average reader’s exposure to the little known hinterlands of China, with descriptions of the country well beyond the confines of Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton, and delves into the history of 19th century China in which Mesny played a significant role. The history related here, however, is so much less tedious for the disinclined because it’s told through the adventures of a foreign rogue.

Photo by David Leffman

In his forward, Leffman sets the tone for the adventure to come by relating some of his own unique experiences in Mesny country, the far west of China. “Miao are hospitable people and outsiders at the event were dragged cheerfully into the chaos; before even entering the town I’d been stopped by a roadblock of women in festival dress and handed a buffalo horn of wine, knowing that if I touched the goblet I’d have to drain it. …Several attempts later… I was led through into Taijiang, fuzzy-eyed and reeking of spirits. The party lasted three days.” The festival is called the Sisters Meal, an occasion for young girls to come down from the hills in their gayest finery and hunt for husbands, dancing in circles and singing “flirty, dirty songs” in falsetto. Leffman describes his early trips to China and the culture shock he experienced due to the unexpectedly rough conditions, and how over subsequent years of travel in China he was witness to the gradual changes that came to the lives of ordinary people. After once swearing he would never return to the country, his persistence (“bloody-mindedness”) over the years paid off, and his appreciation of the country advanced apace with the improvements.

In 1862 Shanghai, Mesny rubbed elbows with the American freebooter Frederick Townsend Ward when Ward was recruiting for his Ever Victorious Army (EVA), but answered the sound of a different bell and navigated his own course to fame. We can speculate, however, whether if Ward had not died in 1862 but stayed on in China, he too might have achieved a notoriety similar to that of Mesny. And it is satisfying to find Leffman feels that many accounts overplay “Chinese” Gordon’s leadership of the EVA, which was created and developed by Ward, and Gordon’s involvement in the suppression of the Taiping rebellion – this is a welcome observation coming from a British author.

Mesny boarded ship on the Yangtze to escort commercial junks through the rebel blockades, making several successful runs before being captured by the Taiping and spending five months as their prisoner. Released, he went on to settle in Hankow and was involved there in several enterprises until he left for an opportunity in suppressing the Miao rebellion in Western China. In 1868, he was commissioned into the Sichuan Army as an entry-level military mandarin, and advanced in rank over the following years during the campaign against the Miao, becoming acquainted with a variety of Chinese officials. In 1877, he traveled with William Gill from Sichuan to Burma, returned to Britain for a short while, traveled for several years in China’s northwest and then toward Beijing in the early 80s. Here he met provincial governor Zhang Zhidong, who welcomed his advice on matters related to modernization, as well as the famous statesman Li Hongzhang. Mesny served for a year or so with Zhang Zhidong, working up plans for telegraphs and railways, mines and steel mills, and providing Zhang with the foundation for his later efforts in China’s Self-Strengthening Movement.

As a mandarin and minor military official, Mesny was privileged to display official insignia and wear official robes of office and be treated with the courtesy and consideration of native Chinese officials as entitled by his rank. For Ward and his co-commander Burgevine, the ranks and robes may have been little more than quaint awards, but Mesny often played to the hilt his role as a real mandarin, calling upon the officials of each city he visited and insisting they accommodate him and his retinue at official expense. Leffman describes several occasions during Mesny’s travels when said officials did not appreciate having to provide for Mesny’s bed and board out of their empty coffers, and gives a good account of the enmities acquired along the way by this foreigner in Chinese robes and his impositions.

(Image from Wikipedia)

So highly regarded is the boy from Jersey (the Jersey across the pond) that “a set of six stamps was issued in Jersey in 1992, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, showing Mesny in various roles in China (Wikipedia “William Mesny”).”
Top l. 1860, William Mesny, Shanghai.
Top r. 1862, Running the blockade.
Mid l. 1874, General Mesny, River Gate.
Mid r. 1877, Mesny accompanies…Gill to Burma.
Bot l. 1882, Mesny advises Governor Chang (Zhang).
Bot r. 1886, Mesny Mandarin First Class.

The bibliography cites a number of worthy primary and secondary sources. Some of Leffman’s sources are my old friends, so I know he has been in good company. Arriving at the 1863 fall of Soochow and “Gordon’s Folly,” I was pleased that thus far there had been no detail in Leffman’s account that was off key. And by the time I anchored safely at “Hankou in the 60s,” I was confident that because of Leffman’s solid reporting to that point I could rely on his even account of the rest of Mesny’s tale.

William Mesny is one more in a large cast to step out upon the stage of China and speak their lines and play their part. From Matteo Ricci to Richard Nixon, the foreign chorus line has pranced before the footlights of an indifferent Chinese audience, persistently hidebound in their notion of country, and the world around them, isolated from any experience of their own. Occasional exceptions set aside, the impression that foreigners have made has remained in various degrees outlandish, leaving the Chinese impervious to any real understanding or appreciation of what lies outside the Great Walls in their minds. This is something the West, especially the equally isolated Americans, has not and is never likely to grasp about the Chinese in China. We keep approaching them like a bumptious puppy, and they respond with the disdain of an arrogant, self-satisfied feline, revealing nothing of their true thoughts and feelings. Mesny’s experience took place many generations ago, and some readers of this biography might think he is outdated now. But look only a little more closely, between the lines of Leffman’s story, and you may find many things that resonate with the present day.

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2 Responses to Extraordinary biography of one of the first Old China Hands

  1. Andrew Hicks says:

    Chronicles of contacts between foreigners and the peoples of China are truly fascinating and the mutual comprehension so very evident. Now at least there is a remarkable convergence as is made clear by this remarkable book. I much respect the author’s achievement and have myself immersed myself in the experiences of a later ‘China hand’. My book is called A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA and is about WWII. I have twice been to Tengchong and seen it being torn apart, though the old British consulate still survives. I wonder what progress there is in integrating it into a preserved heritage area?

  2. Michael Watson says:

    David has produced an excellent book on my great grandfather

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