Reviewed by Isham Cook.
Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.
The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.
The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.
If the 21st century sees another one of these big blowouts, it won’t be pretty, given the tensions in today’s China. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll hold off for a couple more decades, thank you, and I won’t be around any longer to witness it, presuming I’m still a resident of the country, if the next blowout does prove to be inevitable.
Getting back to the Taiping Rebellion. It has always remained a mystery to me how so many people could be killed. I mean, isn’t there a limit to the number of people it is possible to kill? The Nazis, who had the benefit of modern weapons, were confronted with this problem in the early years of WWII. There were only so many people they could machine-gun in the pits before the gunners became too exhausted or freaked out to continue. They found their solution in the scalable approach to mass execution of the gas chambers and crematoria. Like most wars, the Chinese Civil War of the 19th century was a chaotic affair and had nothing like the organization required for industrialized slaughter. We do know that most of the victims died of starvation, but how did the armies achieve this, who were themselves often starving yet laying waste equally to farmers, livestock and agriculture, the very means of sustenance they needed to survive?
A good introduction to the Taiping Rebellion is provided in Jonathan Spence’s account, God’s Chinese Son. He tracks the inexorable progression of the disturbed loner and Imperial exams reject Hong Xiuquan, from his initial wanderings in southern Guangxi Province collecting Christian sympathizers to the mad tyrant occupying one of China’s greatest citadels, Nanking, from 1853 till his death in 1864 (the same length of time, incidentally, that Hitler controlled Nazi Germany). Yet Spence’s account falls short in that he has almost nothing to say about the devastation. It’s as if he had written a history of Nazi Germany without addressing the Holocaust. Even with the help of the Imperial forces — both sides were responsible for the slaughter — how could so many people be mowed down? It’s a burning question I’ve always wanted to know.
James Lande’s Yang Shen or The God from the West (Book 1), by contrast, thrusts us right into the action in 1860, the momentous year when the slaughter was at its peak, when the Taiping broke the siege of the Imperial troops surrounding Nanking and began marching on Shanghai, and British and French forces marched on Beijing and sacked the Summer Palace. As its brightly designed cover reminiscent of a 1950s or 60s adventure novel suggests, the narrative starts off as a sea novel, with an exciting sea battle. The American clipper Essex is ferrying a shipment of arms from Hong Kong to Shanghai for secret sale to the Chinese in contravention of neutrality policies prohibiting mercenary activity. It’s commanded by the novel’s protagonist, Fletcher Thorson Wood, who is based on the historical figure of Frederick Townsend Ward (1831-62). His mission is to put together an army of Westerners and Filipinos to fight off the Taiping through superior weaponry and secure a safe and profitable Shanghai for business. The rest of the book’s action takes place largely along the Yangtze between Shanghai and Nanking, with much shifting back and forth from Shanghai to the other locales.
If there is one thing that justifies this marvelous novel for me, it’s that it explains how some of the mass slaughter occurred. Those living in the walled cities that fell one by one only to be retaken by the other side were, as a rule, decimated — looted, raped, but primarily removed to free up food. The bulk of the destruction took place along the Yangtze and surrounding countryside. This was marshy land, and canals and waterways were the primary means of travel. The clashing armies moved by boats and war junks. The very thing that protected self-sufficient rural communities surrounded by water made them vulnerable to an aquatic army. With no space to flee, they were sitting ducks. Everything was set to fire. Those who weren’t shot or burned to death starved to death. What we have here isn’t really warfare in the traditional understanding. There were battles, but most of the death consisted in the murder of as many unarmed civilians as possible in any given area. In other words: genocide. Then multiply literally by many more millions across the region.
In Lande’s account we learn close up what it’s like to tunnel your way under the wall of a rebel-controlled city and be greeted with swords stabbing you as you emerge from the hole on the other side. Or have feces and sewage and boiling oil poured over you as you climb the city wall and your ladder pushed out from under you. Lande’s lens also zooms out to take in the larger view with battle tableaux that often rise to the sublime:
Fletcher peered through a telescope out over encampments of rebel tents along the shore opposite Heart-of-the-River Island. The fluttering banners and flags and bright uniforms of a rebel column could be seen three miles distant trudging north through the thick mud of towns and villages west of Nanking. In the wake of the rebel army lay the ruins of smashed wooden stockades that for months had protected imperial regiments camped near the southwest corner of the city. More stockades nearby roared and crackled with white heat like huge crematoriums, encircled now only by armies of decapitated imperial dead.
The language crackles with energy: “Tom watched as dragon’s blood filled the sky above the western horizon. The dark red flame kindled ablaze water yellow with windblown loess from Mongolian deserts and ochre loam from the Yangtze River watershed, transmuting the sea into a revelation of ruin.” He’s also good at mimicking the voices of an epic cast of characters, such as the Shakespearian twang of the English pirate Fokie Tom:
Hang it all! What’s wrong with that blasted buoy? Storm make it drag anchor? Villagers divine it offends the fong-shway of the place, violates that barbarous geomancy of wind and water they invoke to measure the pulse of the sea-dragon king, and move it to where it can’t offend the spirits, frighten the fish, or bring flood, famine, and foraging rebels? Or pirates? No, villagers wouldn’t move it, they’d sink it or burn it; but pirates would move it, and leave it where it would ground some skylarking ship.
Puritan critics advise against any use of alliteration in literary prose, an injunction I counter with this animated passage anthropomorphizing Wood’s vessel as it enters Shanghai port:
Essex approached the harbor like a timid yet restless green sailor, slipping gingerly into his first noisy grogshop, bowled over by the rush of girls to get at his towrope. The anxious ship would not turn, and her momentum advanced her past the channel into the flux where the current shoved at her hull, the wind blew on her bow, and she menaced the lighters and sampans sculling headlong around her. She bellied up to the chow-chow rip, slammed against it, and offered drinks for all. But the flow out of Soochow Creek surged up and bounced her back out into the channel before she could swallow. She picked herself up, blinked at the light, shook her sails a few times, gazed about for a new bearing, and then staggered away, chastened but cheered by her narrow escape.
Every character major and minor is limned with the same fine-haired brush: “Alexander was a slight young man of twenty-eight years, in a linen sack coat with Carnelian Vest and a broad-brimmed straw hat. His short, light-red hair, sea-blue eyes and pale, freckled skin gave him a sprightly appearance – some old-country codgers expected him to sprout diaphanous wings and fly up into the nearest tree or rafter.” What’s most remarkable about the novel is the consistency of the style throughout. Even the longueur passages of drawn-out protocol among Chinese and British or American authorities are depicted with an extraordinary attention to dialogue and historical particulars. Indeed as if to underscore this intent, Lande lays out each chapter as a theatrical set piece with a “Dramatis Personae” at the head listing the attendant cast of characters like a play. There is not a scene in the entire tome that is unequivocally superfluous. As with all very good writing, you know at the outset that a second reading at a later date will reveal the book in an entirely different, and richer, aspect than the first.
The book is almost frightening in its relentless, machine-like control of plot, description and dialogue from start to finish. And there’s the rub. If it’s the product of a kind of literary genius, it’s not an artistic but rather an obsessive-compulsive genius. Artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract; the artist is always in control of the zoom lens. Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for most of the narrative, as if broken. Everything, and I mean everything, is attended to. Of course, Lande wants us to see the fruit of his three decades of background research that went into the book. If nothing else, it’s an exhaustive, highly informative and rewarding work of history. And he cares about all the details, such as the 2,500-word passage describing the setting up of a 6-pounder field gun to replace the 24-pounder cannon the Essex lost after the ship is grounded on a shoal, before it gets off its first round at an attacking pirate junk. Here’s an excerpt showing the microscopic level of detail we’re talking about:
The spongeman threw his weight on the rammer and forced the cartridge to the bottom of the bore, checking the mark on his rammer to be certain the round was all the way in. Rammer withdrawn, the spongeman and loader stood to one side, and the spongeman called out:
“Gun loaded, sir!”
The Pendulum-Hausse rear sight was affixed to its mount on the base of the breech. The elevation screw under the cascabel was turned to raise the gun to the 2º mark on the sight, for a range of 800 yards with spherical case shot. The rear sight was removed and put back into the leather pouch. The gun commander checked the direction of fire.
The ventsman moved the trail to the right when the gun commander tapped with a handspike on the right side of the carriage, and to the left when the left side was tapped. The gun commander raised both arms. The ventsman returned to his post.
This fanatical attention to every particular has a leveling effect, reducing such passages to lists. Lande does break up or punctuate the lists with dialogue and other stylistic diversions. A literary artist, on the other hand, knows when to compress or cull, and then expand for comic effect. The ability to zoom in and out is not just a rhetorical device, it’s a form of humor, the supreme form of humor in writing, really: the selection of which items conventionally regarded as serious are to be put before the funhouse mirror. This is what makes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick essentially a comic novel, though one needs to be somewhat well-read to appreciate this. It’s not just the religious symbolism of the dead whale’s interior and its precious substances (spermaceti oil, ambergris) that occasions Melville’s flights of poetic fancy; the distorted reality inside the whale is meant to be funny rather than horrifying, and hence intriguing and absorbing. To use a Russian Formalist expression, writers don’t just capture reality, they change it by making it strange. A classic example of a novel stuck solely and willfully in zoom-in mode is Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. Over the entire narrative (including footnotes that go on for pages), we don’t get much farther than a flight up an escalator, as the author obsesses at great length on the mechanics of shoelaces, plastic straws, staplers, toothbrushes, etc. Baker’s fresh insights into the most pedestrian of objects and experiences makes it one of the oddest and funniest books ever written.
One curious feature of Yang Shen is the minute attention to characters’ clothes. This does not appear to be for comic effect, but to catalogue the author’s knowledge of period apparel: “Mrs. Fitch was tightly corseted in a black broadcloth carriage-dress; her gray-streaked brown hair was drawn back under a quilted black poke-bonnet, and across her shoulders lay a lace-trimmed Paisley print shawl from Scotland, popular since Queen Victoria built her castle at Balmoral.” During the pirate attack, three of the crew are mortally wounded and brought down to the saloon, where Hannah Fitch (wife of the ship’s wealthy owner Cornelius Fitch) and her daughter Elizabeth attend to them as best they can. Elizabeth is beautiful and is eyed enviously by Fletcher, though their class disparity rules out any future romance. That’s okay, this is a sea and a war novel after all, and a good enough one that you don’t mind the absence of the opposite sex in the rest of the book any more than in Moby Dick.
In one touching scene when alone in her cabin to catch her breath, the dazed Elizabeth removes her blood-stained dress (down as far as her undergarments) and mulls over which among her hundreds of dresses in her eleven trunks is appropriate for the circumstances. Lande revels in the riot of fabrics and the sublimated eroticism of it all (much of it quote-worthy). This is safe territory and places the book squarely in the benign tradition of Victorian fiction, with displaced impulses substituting for overt sexuality. A modern writer of a more perverse cast (can an artist in our era not be?) would have taken more liberties with Elizabeth — you know, roughed her up a bit — considering the setting does occur during a pirate battle.
Let’s have a bit of fun with this and imagine the Essex hadn’t gotten its 6-pounder working in time and they were overrun by Fokie Tom’s pirates. Of course, they would all have quickly been massacred and the book stopped dead in its tracks — except for a plot twist. “Well, well, well,” we can imagine Fokie Tom saying upon discovering Hannah and Elizabeth down in the saloon, a big smile on his face. “What the bleedin’ devil ‘ave we ‘ere, a couple pretty little bitches.” Now, it would be no fun leaving the two women for last, and the slaughter is delayed; the Essex crew are tied up and gathered in the saloon to watch. As each piece of fabric is carefully detached from Elizabeth’s body by sword, the itemization of a wealthy 19th-century girl’s apparel could be unveiled (for our edification) in more effective fashion than a mere list. Depending on how long we keep the tap of depravity turned on, Fletcher’s surreptitious wiggling free and dramatic rescue could take place just as her chemise is about to come off or somewhat later, after the pirates have all had their turn with the women. Given the high-resolution recording capabilities of Lande’s zoomed-in lens, the results would be interesting.
It might be objected there is nothing in the historical record to justify such a liberty in the story. But that’s the difference between the writing of history and a historical novel. There is only one rule regarding departures from the facts: they need only be consistent with the personage’s character, and plausible in the context.
A word of warning about the Kindle edition, which I presume most buyers will opt for, with its attractive $4.99 price (especially considering the amount of text and the decades of effort and care that went into it). Once you’ve loaded it onto your Kindle, you’ll notice the book length is a shocking 55,450 location units. According to one conversion standard, this is equivalent to a printed book of 3,330 pages. I myself was almost scared off until I paid closer attention to the table of contents (which not all readers can be counted on to do) and realized the book is duplicated in the Kindle edition by a second version with Chinese characters inserted after every line of dialogue among Chinese speakers. There are also many added pages of notes and appendices (called “Underfoot”). The actual length of the unduplicated narrative is a more modest 328,000 words, equivalent to a 1,000-page novel or so, still quite substantial but manageable. Personally, I would have streamlined the Kindle edition by eliminating the duplicated version and hiding the Chinese characters and appendices in instantly accessible hyperlinks. The paperback edition, meanwhile, squeezes the Chinese-text version and appendices into 556 pages with small font and is priced at $20 (note that this is the 2nd edition; avoid the $12 1st edition which has errors).
Reviewed by Isham Cook (the review originally appeared on Cook’s website, ishamcook.com).
Isham Cook’s interview with James Lande.