One bottle too many into a late-night session and sometimes my thoughts turn sour at living in such an adventureless age. The time when there were still blanks on the map – a mere two generations ago, almost within reach, damn it – is as distant as the days of Herodotus. I’ve made peace with the sad reality that there are no uncharted territories awaiting the red-blooded explorer and that, as a result, we are left to indulge our passions by proxy, reading about and researching the lucky few who once trod new horizons. But even so, it often seems as if all the major historical episodes and personalities are familiar, and that, as readers and writers in search of new stories, we have to settle for minor players in B-list stories.

What a wonderful, wonderful tonic to such melancholy thoughts is The Mercenary Mandarin. David Leffman’s outstanding book is proof that there are still big untold stories awaiting discovery. I had not previously come across the subject of his account, Englishman William Mesny. Mesny was not some minor personality in a backwater, the likes of a priest in a mission station with a butterfly named after him or some treaty port bureaucrat caught up briefly in a revolution. Instead, Mesny was in the thick of action time and again in nineteenth-century China; he was a prisoner of war, a weapons smuggler, a customs official, an advisor to two influential governors, a military instructor, an explorer, and a writer.

When Leffman, a British travel writer, came upon the Mesny story, he hit the motherlode. Of course, there was still an enormous amount of work for him to do turning inspiration into a fleshed-out account – fifteen years’ work to be exact – but all the essential elements were there. In fact, let’s run through a checklist for the perfect biography of an Old China Hand.

obscure – I’d not heard of Messny and I’m sure few have.

important or at least involved in important events – The subject of a biography shouldn’t be obscure from having done nothing. Mesny was involved in seismic events such as the Taiping Rebellion and the modernizing Self-Strengthening Movement.

involvement in lesser known events – The Taiping Rebellion is well known, but not so the deadly and long-running Miao Rebellion in which Mesny was involved.

likeable – Mesny seems to have been friendly, honest, and brave.

not a bastard to the Chinese – There’s a certain guilty pleasure in reading non-PC accounts about the Celestials but these can quickly wear thin. Mesny treated the Chinese as individuals and his writings on China are largely free of the racial stereotyping of the age.

not Mr Perfect – Biographies of remarkable individuals gliding from achievement to achievement can leave you feeling somewhat inadequate and resentful. Mesny suffers sufficient setbacks and has enough minor character flaws for us to offset our envy.

written material – There needs to be material written by and about the person otherwise the author is left with gaping holes to fill with guesswork and years of often-fruitless drudgery. Mesny wrote swathes of material.

a biography – Ideally, some minor biography should already exist. Leffman was lucky; a short but excellent earlier biography gave him a framework and a vital head start, and it also gave him the freedom to pen something other than a straight biography.

romance – Mesny married twice, both times to young Chinese women.

adventure – He was involved in numerous life-and-death incidents including gun-running, bloody battles, and exploration.

exotic and varied locales – Many biographies of treaty port days center on Peking and Shanghai. Mesny spent time in Shanghai but also in the treaty port of Hankow, the little known province of Guizhou, and in China’s frontier areas.

a varied career – With a missionary there would be too much religion, a diplomat too much politics. Mesny is perfect in having been involved in martial and government service as well as a multitude of business pursuits.

a long span of time – Mesny was in China from 1860 to his death in 1919.

William Mesny (1842–1919) was from the Channel Islands, born to a poor family, his father a Methodist preacher and cobbler, his mother an invalid. Mesny’s rise to influence is a telling example of how the class-obsessed Victorian Age could sometimes offer more social mobility than what we now enjoy. Mesny left school at the age of eight. The practical on-the-job training that followed – criminal child abuse by current standards – provided a better education than today’s prolonged academic nonsense. He worked:

at the brickyards and then with stonecutters, carrying tools to the blacksmith to be sharpened. He picked up the basics of smithying along the way and within a few years was learning how to draw up plans, survey with a theodolite and use explosives for excavating.

When Mesny was twelve, he was taken on as crew aboard a short-handed cutter. He spent five years at sea, sailing as far afield as Africa, South America and Australia, before deserting his ship in Shanghai in 1860. After a short stint as a prison guard in Hong Kong, he became a blockade-runner on the Yangtze, taking guns and scarce commodities such as salt to the Taiping rebels (or whoever was paying). The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) was an immensely bloody conflict, estimated to have left at least twenty million dead. Although the Taipings were self-professed Christians (and led by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ), the Western powers chose not to help them and eventually sided with the ruling Qing dynasty. 

For his part, Mesny’s sympathies were with the rebels. Had foreign powers not intervened, he believed that the Taipings would have defeated the Qing armies and that China would then have become a Christian country, if an unorthodox one, and open-minded to Western culture and influence. He was probably wrong but, now that British neutrality was over, the Taipings no longer had any reason to respect foreign vessels.

Mesny was taken captive by the Taipings and held as a bargaining chip after the foreign powers allied with the Qing forces. Five months into his captivity, he managed to smuggle several letters out of Nanjing and a short time later a British gunboat appeared demanding his release. Mesny held no malice towards his captors. Instead, he felt so much goodwill that he turned down a lucrative job offer: “Put ashore at Zhenjiang, Mesny was immediately offered three hundred dollars a month to drill Imperial troops, but felt uncomfortable putting his talents to use against his former companions.” He was later offered the position of aide-de-camp by Charles Gordon – of the Ever Victorious Army (and later Khartoum) fame – but once again declined.

Although the Taipings were finally defeated in 1864, rebellions continued to rage across China, and Mesny found employment as a military instructor in the southwestern province of Guizhou helping put down the Miao Rebellion. Mesny’s sterling war service earned him a new post in 1871, Provincial Superintendent of Foreign Arms, at the attractive provincial capital of Guiyang. The following year saw a return to the field fighting Muslim Hui insurgents in the southwest, for which Mesny – just thirty years of age – was promoted to the rank of major-general and bestowed with the honorific title of batulu for his bravery.

In 1877 Mesny gave up his position to travel with explorer Captain William Gill on an extended journey through western China looking for a trade route from British India into China’s untapped interior. Gill wrote an account of the trip, The River of Golden Sand, and also kept diaries in which he recorded: “his candid first impressions of Mesny’s impulsive, honest and frequently naive character: ‘Mesny is an exceedingly fat man and a fearful talker who seems unable to keep his tongue quiet a moment.’”

In the following years Mesny went on to explore many of China’s frontier lands, gaining a rare depth and breath of knowledge of the country. However, his zest for new horizons hurt his career. He suffered various failures and scandals: losing money, prestige, and government employment.

Yet he earned very little reward after abandoning his military post in Guizhou to follow Gill across China in 1877. While it’s true that this allowed him to become a great traveller, travel was both his strength and his weakness: without it he would have never have acquired his specialist knowledge of Chinese landscape, language and life, and so have had nothing to write about; but with it, he was too restless to forge the lasting official contacts that allowed many of his foreign contemporaries in China to carve out successful careers for themselves.

The preceding paragraph is a good example of how author David Leffman writes about Mesny with insight and empathy, understanding the pull of the road and the tradeoffs of self-employed freedom over climbing the workplace ladder.

With his star in descent, Mesny turned to a massive writing project. Starting in 1895, he began publishing a magazine called Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany: A Text Book of Notes on China and the Chinese. As the title suggests, Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany was an eclectic mix of information about China, personal reminisces and opinions. Released over the following decade, the magazines were later gathered together into four bound volumes of around five hundred pages each.”

But for a man with almost no formal education, and who ran off to sea at the age of twelve, Mesny’s finest memorial is his four-volume Miscellany, with its first-hand accounts of events, places, personalities and all things Chinese: a rich sample of the cultural fragments that made up China’s late nineteenth-century.

Without being hagiographic, Leffman has produced a warm account of the English adventurer, someone he obviously likes and admires. They have covered the same ground in China, been driven by the same wanderlust. Thankfully, though, Leffman has none of the longwindedness and egotism that Mesny sometimes did, and he stays out of the book, except for the occasional interesting detail about visits to places associated with the story. This is not an “in the footsteps of” book, nor a historian’s procedural overly in love with the chase.  

David Leffman first visited China in 1985 and it made a lasting impression. He’s returned numerous times since then, often doing extended fieldwork for travel guidebooks. It was during one of his research trips that he came upon the story of the Miao Rebellion and Mesny’s involvement. Leffman spent over fifteen years on Mesny’s trail, visiting the sites of events, interviewing people, and sifting through written records, including private letters.

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The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British adventurer became a general in Qing-dynasty China is published by Blacksmith Books

It is also available from Amazon.com and other retailers.

For more information about David Leffman and his writing, visit his website and read his interview with Bookish Asia.       

Although the book is well illustrated with maps and photos, Leffman has created a Mercenary Mandarin Facebook page with countless pictures, research notes, and other material that didn’t make it into the book.