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The extraordinary romance of an American clipper ship officer – inspired by true events.
In a China torn apart by rebellion and war, a lone American adventurer – Fletcher Thorson Wood – becomes mired in a maelstrom of battle and intrigue, and swept into a tempest of love and betrayal…
Yang Shen tells of the encounter, sometimes the clash, of Americans and Chinese, evoking times long past and recalling long-silent voices of people in America, China, England, and the Philippines who lived through cataclysmic times and whose anguished cries echo still.
This blogspace is set aside for author James Lande as a personal journal of subjects pertaining to his novels, historical writing, Chinese history, ongoing discussions with other lights of the blogosphere, and anything else of interest.
James has another blog where reports are posted for the survey of central California intertidal ecology he conducted during the Spring of 2014. The primary objective was to record detail of environmental conditions and catalogue invertebrate species and marine plants at selected survey sites. All are invited to review the results.
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.
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.
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.
When a reader is swept up in a genre he rarely reads, you can bet he’s reading a damn good book! That’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. Normally I would pass on kungfu fantasy, but this novel is set in 1898 San Francisco Chinatown – that’ll catch the attention of historical fiction readers – and moves swiftly through a phantasmagoria of spirits, ghosts and monsters that recalls images from Tolkien’s goblin wars to Alice in Wonderland. To wit, a three-tailed tiger in the shape of an orange-robed monk, soothsaying spirit seagulls, a spirit eyeball with arms and legs that loves soaking in cups of tea, a two-tailed shapeshifting warrior cat (think Cheshire Cat on acid), and hordes more all visible to a young woman born with eyes that can see all the supernatural denizens of the spirit world invisible to us.
She is Xian Li-lin, ghost hunter, spirit medium, exorcist, kungfu adept, destroyer of devils and monsters. However, Li-lin’s yin eyes make her something of a monster herself, and perhaps a little more inclined to empathize with monsters that do no harm. Still, as her father is a Taoist patriarch whose magic protects communities of ordinary Chinese from the dreaded spirit world, Li-lin is bound to defend Chinatown against all comers. When a vicious enemy injures her father, Li-lin must face unknown terrors using her own fledgling powers, calling up spirits and ghosts to assist her in her fight. And fight she does, taking down one after another adversary until, bleeding and broken, she confronts something too terrible even to contemplate
The extraordinary detail in this book suggests deep insight into the arcana of Chinese superstitions and sorcery, based on reading and research that included interviews with hundreds of informants on details of Chinese life and folklore, which must add something to the veracity of the narrative, assuming the informants were completely candid; many older Chinese are often reticent about revealing anything about themselves or their community. All that makes The Girl with Ghost Eyes an exceptional debut novel well worth the reading. Its shortcomings are quite few and only natural in a first effort. One may expect that the author’s style of telling this kind of story will develop in the books yet to come.
The author’s uninhibited use of Romanized Chinese words without apology is admirable; most such words are easily conned from context. Kungfu jargon obscures descriptions of fight scenes, as does Taoist argot muddle some underlying motivations. A glossary would be a welcome enhancement, helping readers recall meanings later in the narrative, although perhaps an impediment in the view of today’s readers.
Some key relationships are treated in a cursory manner. We learn little about the important character of Li-lin’s husband, and much about her father comes from backlloaded exposition, so the narrative seems driven more by plot and action than by character. One reader in conversation felt Li-lin’s character was not sufficiently engaging and recommended Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who battled monsters in a different medium and became an “archetype of the gothic heroine” as well as the galactic super-mom. However, in a genre that has always let action overwhelm character, it may be too much to expect very many exceptions; still, Ripley developed a great deal between her first appearance and her second tussle with monsters, and perhaps Xian Li-lin will also.
A contrived resolution has Li-lin learn in a few moments from her enemy a new fighting technique to save the day when she has been struggling over a couple hundred pages to improve her skills. This example, together with the sudden revelations from her father at the very end, unbalances the narrative.
The historical setting is more sparse than it might be. San Francisco’s Chinatown is described often, but the period in which the story is set fades – I was surprised when Li-lin comes upon horse-drawn carriages, which re-established the period in my mind, and I really should not have lost that dimension.
The narrative frequently is repetitious. If necessary at all, restatement needs to be different, varied. Often it just may not be necessary – instead of repeating a thought, bring it back later in a different guise to get the effect. And trust that the reader will remember the information from one chapter to the next, and certainly over several pages.
Told in 1st person, the writing is circumscribed by the sensibility of the protagonist Li-lin, and opportunities for enhanced figurative language and contrasting POV are limited to her experience. If nothing else, a 1st person narrator can incorporate what others have been heard to say, or imagined to say, and thereby enliven the writing.
The Historical Novel Society has said that the “book is difficult to follow, given the various unfamiliar worlds the reader must enter…” This is ingenuous coming from a “society” of historical novelists writing about unfamiliar worlds. Setting that aside, I am impressed by the author’s bravery just leaping right into the mysteries of Li-lin’s world with so little exposition. In the end, I think it works for many people happy to suspend credibility in return for admittance to the author’s fantasy, as well as for other readers who absorb the strange notions and make of them imagery of their own.
(Reposted after lost in system failure)
“Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.”
(Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea)
A reader recently asked…
“Loved Yang Shen, have both editions. When will James Lande’s next book be published? Hope it will be soon – he’s a great writer” (Brian).
Thanks to Brian and the handful of other readers who have liked Yang Shen for their appreciation of the book. Brian has been following Yang Shen since 2015, so he certainly deserves to know when I will publish again. I also would like to know.
In an interview last August (2016), Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande, Isham Cook asked a similar question: “This volume is only Book I and there are two more volumes to go – when will you finish?” I answered saying “At the rate I’ve been going on Book II it will need at least several more years. …Over the past year or so my steam engines have been throttled down to slow ahead in order to navigate around obstacles like old-age, crippling arthritis, and dwindling enthusiasm for a book in which very few people take an interest.”
The interviewer also asked “How can you, at age 72, expect to finish this book or any others now that your waning powers languish on many years past the allotted span of more famous writers like Steinbeck [d. age 67], Faulkner [d. age 64], or Hemingway [d. age 61]?” I answered again, saying “First of all let us set aside those fellows, with whom there is no comparison. They are lodestars for the rest of us lesser lights, the definition of talent and persistence, their accomplishments something to strive for.”
“…Like Harry under Kilimanjaro, I have, if not entirely destroyed, at least compromised my “talent” by not using it and at this late date am scrambling to make up for the loss. I might live long enough and join the roster of Artful Codgers. Maclean wrote River at 74; Doerr published her first novel at 74; Updike was still scribbling at 76, Marquez at 81, Bellow at 85. Elmore Leonard is 87, Doris Lessing is 94, and Herman Wouk is 96, and they’re still writing. Will-o’-the-wisps? Maybe, especially if I don’t find a way out of the doldrums.”
“…Square-riggers were becalmed in the Horse Latitudes for weeks, occasionally a month or more, but with luck found wind in their sails before they starved. Dismasted and weather-worn, I may still be able to get up some wind that would take me into a current. Or maybe I’m not in the doldrums at all, maybe I’m already the walking dead and just don’t know it yet, won’t lie down like I’m supposed to. Imagine a gnarled hand gripping a broken quill pushing up through the soil above a coffin and scribbling in the dust.”
I regret deeply that barring some miracle I will not be able to finish the remaining volumes of Yang Shen. In addition to the other maladies noted, arthritis in my wrists makes it near impossible to type and so I now have to dictate to software that converts voice to text. More importantly, I also find that what once was my agile and tolerably inventive mind is no longer able to think metaphorically and that most of my facility for figurative language has expired, I cannot imagine writing anything new, and can only hope to edit and publish whatever already has been written.
Yang Shen Book II has been completed up to the sixth chapter, which describes the Foreign Rifles assault on the city of Tsingpoo in August of 1860. There is still some editing needed, however I’m considering publishing that draft of six chapters as an inexpensive eBook for readers already invested in the novel Yang Shen.
Several other projects are being edited for release as eBooks.
Yang Shen Journals. Six short volumes of journals I kept while working on Yang Shen between 1995 and 2010, as well as several journals that followed.
An early novel, unfinished, called Land of Lost Content, set in an American university in the late 1960s.
Another early novel, also unfinished, called The Cinnabar Phoenix and set on the Chinese island of Formosa (Taiwan); this novel was to be worked up as the second part of a trilogy about the encounter of Americans and Chinese on the island.
Also in the hopper are several videos, one assembled from film taken in Taiwan in the 1980s, another a videolog of a week living in a truck camper in California’s San Gorgonio Wilderness, and more.
Hemingway’s Santiago went too far out to sea pursuing his great fish. He was too old – too far out in time as well – to have the physical ability to land a marlin longer than his skiff. I attempted a magnum opus before succeeding with smaller efforts, took on too late more than I was able to accomplish, and drifted too soon into old age and frailty and could not land a book as large as my ambition.
Like Santiago, I just went out too far.
This deftly fashioned retrospective of the island sixty or so years ago, Memories of Taiwan by Luther Deese, begins with the poem by Meng Hao-ran 春曉, Spring Dawn: 春眠不覺曉, 處處聞啼鳥, 夜來風雨聲, 花落知多少. Waking sleepily on a spring morning, everywhere there is the song of birds; in the night came the sound of wind and rain, and I wonder how many flowers have fallen. This, I suppose, to set an elegiac tone for how much has been lost. The images following start up accompanied by the maudlin Mandarin standard Wang-bu-liao, Unforgettable, which is likely how many of us who lived there back then regard that experience. For us these images are more than just Auntie and Uncle’s boring old slideshow – in some ways, our lives began there and, in other ways, they ended when we left.
My version is called Ilha Formosa – Taiwan in the 1960s, also at Youtube, and has smaller scope but is prompted by what is probably similar nostalgia. Old men try not to dwell on these things too much but, when little else is left but your memories, they keep returning.
On my YouTube channel there is a playlist, Life in Taiwan, of several videos about the island back in the 60s and 70s, some narrated in Mandarin, when it was still a “rustic paradise” which can be better appreciated now that Arcadia is slowly succumbing to the creep of development: industry, suburbs, McDonalds, Starbucks, iPhones. A lot of the old-style life, however, probably can be found if one travels far enough into the hinterland and high enough up into the mountains. It will look like what can be seen in some of these videos.
Vincente Macanaya we met in my post Manilamen and Mandarins – Filipinos in 1860s China, Part 1: Vincente Macanaya. Now we find Vincente with the Foreign Riflles in the dark of night aboard Chinese junks sculling over a narrow canal toward the walled town of Tsingpoo. The Koronel, Fletcher Thorson Wood, has ordered his small army to climb the city walls and capture the town. The chapter has no narration – only the thought of four men, one of whom is Vincente. His musing begins with Fletcher, then Vincente hears a fish jump, and a rooster crow, and an owl screech – each small disruption briefly takes his thoughts away from the impending battle.
So, Koronel, a filibuster you are called, un filibustero. What is that anyway, filibustero – pirates, mercenaries, like they call Manilamen? Back in Pangasinan filibusteros are those who would overthrow Spanish friars and drive out cuadrilleros, but you do not overthrow any long-nosed deputies of God or drive out Spanish constabulary. You fight rebels, fight against the filibustero Taiping armies. They would banish Tartars from China…just as would we the Spanish from our country. Imagine an army of Manilamen – new Cuesta or de la Cruz rebels – landing at Manila to expel the Spanish from the Philippines? Sling too tight, loosen it, no just unsling and set against rail; homemade sling works pretty well with saddle rings. Linen cartridges, how many did I make? Time yet to make a few more. Reflects moonlight this silver box, soft click, soft leaf, small nut – larger too strong, get dizzy – pepper tang from betel leaf, clove cuts bitterness, feels warm now, not so kulang balisa, not so anxious. First you were dayo, stranger, banty rooster, then pare, friend. Much longer and you will be bayani, a hero like Handyong, who also fought many battles, defeated many monsters – the giant flying sharks Triburon, the giant crocodiles Baloto, the wild carabao, and won the allegiance of even the sweet-tongued shape-shifting serpent Oryol. Very brave the Koronel, especially Sungkiang, first into smoke at outer gate, squeeze alone under inner gate, arrows fly, musket balls hiss, first up steps into rebel mob. Brave man you, fearless like us, Manilamen almost worship that kind of courage, follow you anywhere, believe you cannot be killed. And no bullet can pierce my body, at least that’s what others believe, invulnerable like the first man, Tuglay – no knife could wound the neck of Tuglay unless fire was first laid on his throat – old legends from childhood, old heroes we never forget. I can only hope to be invulnerable like Tuglay. Iron ball put this notch in my earlobe, not completely invulnerable, eh Vincente? But you, Koronel, it is strange to us that you seem not to like people around you, while we are always many people together and never alone. Difficult to understand someone who is, what? Mapag-isa – someone who is not close to others? I think the Koronel does not understand this very well. Buyo stimulates now, blood is rising, ready to fight. Notch feels huge, inner courtyard steps, bloody steps, so few yet so long, hours to get up those steps. Many died. Monkey Kapit from Lapulapu, mestizo Benicio from Manila, sword Espada from Bulacan. Others too, that Merryweather, more. Bleeding from musket balls, sword cuts, choking blood into my hands, nothing to be done, no medicine, no instruments, no water, nothing. And before them all, Naguapo.
Dalag never jump like that. Eat on bottom, come up to gulp air. Now best time for dalag, rice-paddies flooded, drift small frog over egg clutch, catch small bagyo – typhoon, twist, turn, pull away, ugly like Handyong monster, ulo tulad ng ahas head like snake, slender body sometimes three feet long, wriggle, writhe, fight fiercely, finally drag ashore, scrape scales, gut entrails, cook in palayok clay pot over kalan clay oven, garlic, onions, squash, peppers, juicy and sweet. Little clay oven for cook I told the Koronel – Iluminada said life in pueblo good, simple, live in bamboo hut, thatch with nipa palm, sleep in hammock, drink nipa wine, chew betel nut, hunt boar in forest, swim and fish in stream and ocean, trade for rice, corn, cigarillos at tianggi weekly market. Iluminada made a pretty picture for the Koronel, but Pangasinan was much worse. Iluminada I could help at river town, on Confucius I had shiny metal instruments in my canvas pouch, took out the iron pieces, washed with whiskey, bandaged, send on Ah-shan’s junk to Shanghai. Not at Sungkiang, no help there. Not here either. And the Koronel said we might not return on the canal. If we walk back, how do we get our wounded away? No Ah-shan’s junk for wounded. Cannot carry them all. Shoot some ourselves so rebels do not get them? Those we can take away, who will pay for the care? This is not Confucius, no Captain Ghent to pay money. That’s not a worry – has the Koronel not paid before? He will pay again. Wounded back from Shanghai, crazy Balla, Palaso the arrow, piggy Baboy, one-eye Kirat, not healed yet, wounds can open again, better with artillery, not climbing wall. Should still be at Kuangfulin watching training, not here. Trained six days, only, almost two hundred, what did they learn, need drill – drill drill drill – drill needs time. Not six days. Six days for Spanish friar’s God, more for Foreign Rifles. Now, with no drill the Foreign Rifles climb the wall on ladders, like Paco told us they did the first time at Sungkiang. Climbed east gate wall after the Americans tried to explode the gate, watched the red-haired sergeant and the French sergeant plunge down from wall, falling like sailors blown off a maintop, tumbling through rigging, crashing on deck. Sergeants and others shot away from the wall for no good reason, only because of bobo mayor stupid major. Must not happen here, not now that the Koronel leads, not now that these brothers, these kapatid, follow me. Poor fools trust me, because we are countrymen, think I would not betray that trust. What can I do to keep them from harm, from falling off this wall, from dying in this China? We train, but not enough, too little time. Most are sailors, climb in ship’s rigging, maybe do not need drill to climb ladders. And they are brave malakas ang loob. Still, many will die, as always, no matter what I do. Bahala na in the hands of God. What can anyone do, besides get that anak ng ulupong son of a cobra out of the way. Diyos ko! the bobo mayor commands the guns – he will fire at the wall, right over our heads. Diyos protektahan sa amin God protect us.
There’s a rooster, crowing very late or very early, always early back home, flew up on our little hut, cogan grass thatch, woke everybody, except Lola – she woke the chickens, cooked breakfast, pork tapa, tocino and sausage, camote fritters, fried bananas, salted eggs, rice porridge. Lola and Nanay start bickering again, Joselito and Pepito went early to the fields to get away – what to do when Grandmother and Mother fight all day? Go to sea – Joselito and Pepito wanted to go. Like to have pan de sal with mango jam just now. Crawled down off my plank bed, went outside carrying garlic fried rice with sun-dried milkfish and strong kape barako coffee, thanked the sky for another day, asked a blessing from our anitos, wherever they are. Not there, not in Pangasinan mountains, where I fled with Lola, Nanay, and the children to escape father’s enemies, stayed apart from family in Lingayan to keep danger from them. Living away from family, isolated, alone, hard on older folks. Children too, girls, Nenita, Perla, no school, no playmates. Nanay went to visit, Lola was too old. Still alive? Joselito, Pepito, busy tilling with carabao, planting, harvesting our abundant fields of yellow-fleshed camotes, plowing paddies and taking rice sprouts from seed beds to flooded terraces for planting, always extra rice to exchange in village, even had tobacco, a small plot deep among the corn plants, hidden from cuadrilleros. My Lola and my Nanay never stopped arguing; the heart of it all – grandmother blamed father for grandfather’s death, and blamed mother for marrying father. “If you never married that miscreant,” masamang tao she called father, “grandfather would still be here and I would not be alone.” Both Joselito and Pepito wanted to run away to sea – you have utang na loób I said, like Chinese filial piety, must stay home and care for grandmother, mother, sisters, grow camotes, plant rice, and I would bring money. Brought enough each year for at least part of the next year. Lola scolded, ungrateful child, neglect parents, have no gratitude walang utang-na-loób, but Nanay said go, care for us better by going to sea as a sailor.
Such a noise! There, huge owl, flew across the moon…an aswang – a ghost, a ghoulish vampire? Some change shape, into animals, maybe an owl, search for small children to devour, land on rooftops, put long tongue down into a house where children sleep, suck their blood. Aswang. Evil flying through the air. Who will die? Me with no holy water, no crucifix, no rosary, not even garlic, just shark teeth – powerful magic, protects me, ever since my lance went through its heart, spouted black blood, roped tail and dragged ashore, cut out jaw, boiled down, many teeth fall out, twenty-nine large teeth, tie around wrist. With teeth like these, a shark takes big bites, rips flesh away, swallows it down, arms, legs, devours a human body, same way buso in a graveyard dig up a fresh corpse, huge claws rip away flesh, buso drinks the blood, devours the body, climbs back up into trees, disappears. Shake my wrist, shark’s teeth rattle and click, aswang frightened…maybe. Better than rosary. There’s that creek, on the right, Bean Curd they called it. Too small for Confucius. Tuglay killed eight-million buso with his shining kampilan and with that sword killed eight-million more. If only Tuglay were here to fight the rebels our victory would be certain. No matter what some may think, Vincente is not Tuglay. But many still follow Vincente. What can I do to keep them from harm? Without training, without drill – makes me very angry. We need a big gun, 32-pounder, to blow the gate down, and we have left only one 12-pounder guarding Sungkiang. Should not have to climb walls, too dangerous, falling off the wall, lose too many, die in this China, explode gate with artillery or powder, or swim under water gate, but Koronel say we can’t do that at Tsingpoo, have to climb the wall. Bahala na in the hands of God. Yet, would Tuglay say that, would Handyong say that? One thing is in the hands of Vincente, one thing I can do to help my kapatid brothers who follow – I can go before them and clear the way of as many of the enemy as possible.
Old China Books is pleased to announce that an ebook of the memoir TOUJOURS GAI by Luise Shannon Landers is now available for purchase from Amazon.*
In this unique memoir, a lady 95 years old recollects her long and tumultuous life growing up in Southern California, reflecting on how the times changed and how she changed (or did not) with them. Toujours gai, “always merry” as often quoted by Don Marquis’ Mehitabel the Cat, was her motto, and “there’s a dance in the old dame yet” is as good a motif as any for her life.
“My memoir runs a gauntlet of two world wars, and more since, the Great Depression, five marriages, twenty-two jobs, seventy-six addresses, law school, and travel to seven countries…”
*Amazon’s problems with pre-order (delay, no Look Inside, no reviews) prompted us to change to immediate purchase.
Why did you begin with a long novel before ever having any other writing success?
The author of Yang Shen is like the fellow who decided that without ever having constructed a building or a bungalow he could go directly to the erection of a 100-story skyscraper simply because he once built a tolerable doghouse. College bestowed upon me the bubbling assurance that any graduate could write a novel, and the computer has been my codependent enabler of this fallacy. Before computers someone like me could never have written this novel – given the countless mistakes I make, writing a book with paper and a typewriter would take more than one lifetime. An experienced writer can invent characters for a story – Robert Jordan, Pilar, and Pablo, or Atticus, Jem and Scout – and manage them for the length of a novel. But an inexperienced writer might just as well ask for water from the moon as to hazard the creation of dozens, even hundreds, of interesting characters in a single novel. Richard McKenna did that with his first novel The Sand Pebbles, but such exceptions turn up about as often as a Cubs World Series win and themselves contribute to the pathology that says “he could do it, so why can’t I?”
What do you think you should have done differently?
Start by writing stories and poems and submitting them to magazines. When after a few years and many stories written and critiqued by editors and teachers you begin to publish with increasing regularity and chance a short novel. Then several more, until they began to find their way into print. You’re a journeyman writer for a decade or more before you attempt a novel of three or four hundred pages, because only by this time you invent characters and write narrative, description and dialogue without undue difficulty or delay. Your modest readership earns you a following of editors and publishers. Encouraged by the modest success of your first mid-size novel, you write several more, with each one practicing your craft and accumulating more experience. Finally, looking back over your long list of published titles, you decide it’s time for a tour de force of twelve hundred pages, You are ready to take three or four years to write a long novel, supported by your longtime editor and publisher, and confident that your growing audience of readers will want to read your book. By then you may even have learned how to live more comfortably in the company of others so that writing does not need complete isolation from anyone who might still love you.
Would you say that historical fiction is more difficult to write the contemporary fiction?
Not always, from the viewpoint of research. A great deal of contemporary fiction also involves extensive research, but the information is closer at hand. At the same time, writers of historical fiction are challenged less to find plot – history more or less is the plot. Yang Shen’s stringent approach to historical subject, the bias to capture the full scope of events, the obligation to never stray very far from historical fact when imagining characters and events, and the writer’s effort to incorporate historical fact into the narrative seamlessly, add to the complexity.
So, the scope of Yang Shen is larger than just China?
One reviewer noted 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.
Doesn’t keeping close to the facts impose a greater burden?
Not on some historical novelists, to wit Frasers Flashman series, where in one book he has Flashman in bed with the Dowager Empress of China. Such books are entertainment and not believable historical fiction. Other writers will keep their interventions within the boundaries of facts when they are known and keep any extrapolations consistent with the known history. In Yang Shen we note that the columns supporting the House of History are so far apart that a novelist could drive wagonloads of fictional detail between them, so we believe it is not necessary for our narrative to drift into historical fantasy. And we are pleased that a historian like Pam Crossley, who wrote about the Manchu in The Orphan Warriors and ought to know, agrees and praises the book as “historically convincing, and very, very lively!”
What do you mean by “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
Poorly done incongruent facts call attention to themselves and distract the reader. Often writers are content to employ random facts as little more than window-dressing for setting a scene. “More and more men poured into the street putting on coats and hats, many already armed with pistols and muskets, a few with the latest American breech-loading rifles” is an example from Clavell’s Gaijin. The unfortunate image of “streets putting on coats” is only a distraction when “latest American breech-loading rifles” stands out as a fact clumsily calling attention to itself. An alternative like “the crowd grew with men struggling into coats and hats, nervously fingering pistols and muskets or breech-loading rifles” assimilates the historical fact quietly but without losing the import of the fact; the gaffe really is the word “latest” and, once removed, the fact becomes more demure. Clavell also mentions Yedo, “which one day would be called Tokyo.”
How do you “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
The method of deftly blending historical fact into narrative and dialogue I call “assimilation.” As an example take this snippet from Yang Shen that underwent assimilative surgery. “The buoys at the Lang Shan crossing, which had just recently been placed by H. M. S. Bouncer after Admiral Hope’s expedition to Nanking, were visible in the distance.” Here the sentence is both encumbered and unbalanced by historical trivia that serves no purpose; it’s also ambiguous about what was placed, the buoys or the crossing. “In the distance they could see the recently placed buoys at the Lang Shan crossing.” This sentence calls attention to itself with unexplained trivia. Why should I care they’re recently placed? “Recently” acts like “latest” in Clavell’s example and calls attention to the planting of a fact. “The pilot gave the signal to slow as the Triton approached the Lang Shan crossing. ‘Why are we slowing?’ asked a passenger. ‘Of all the shifting shoals in the Yangtze, this place is the worst, even with the new buoys in the shallows. Bouncer placed ’em after the British Admiral ran aground here. Trying to get upriver to parley with the rebels, he was. That was last April, or May, an’ I’d bet gold bars ‘gin gum drops that the channel’s already twisted around some differn’t way. If Triton’s going aground, I’ll be damned if it’s not on a risin’ tide at three knots.” The history’s been better assimilated into narrative here. First, it’s not just thrown out as a one liner to get it in. Second, it serves a narrative purpose as well as dresses up the windows: it’s part of the pilot’s justification for slowing the vessel. Third, its presence has inspired something more than would’ve been there: “on a risin’ tide at three knots” is a good line, an enhancement that came from playing with the historical allusion. Now all that’s needed is to reduce the post-surgical swelling of the text.
Why would a novel need maps for every chapter if the story is told well enough?
Few stories can convey the precise geography of a location in description so, while that’s not always important, some stories that depend on location benefit by having maps, usually one or two at the beginning of a book like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. Yang Shen has large-scale maps of China for Chapter One and then, as the action in later chapters moves about the Yangtze River delta and narrows to specific places, has smaller scale maps with local detail.
Why the drawings and photos – shouldn’t such things be left to a reader’s imagination?
Readers do not always have the experience needed to imagine accurately, and much of 19th century life in China is simply beyond imagination, so Yang Shen has several drawings to enhance the imagery. The rigging of clipper ships is shown because such is mentioned often in the narrative. A drawing of the Shanghai Bund in 1860 details all the foreign trading firms. A unique drawing of the Shanghai native city comes from an 1873 Chinese gazetteer. The drawings of the sternwheeler Vulcan and the river steamer Confucius help the reader see these vessels as quite different from the old Mississippi steamboats. Even the battle between Essex and Fokie Tom’s pirates is diagramed to make the action clear to readers who might find that sort of thing hard to follow. Tables for rates of exchange place the different currencies in relative context, and the table of mandarin regalia illustrates the buttons and belts of the different ranks. The photos of the Astor House and the old Shanghai Custom House are the real McCoy taken from contemporary sources. Most readers would not trouble to look up such things but do appreciate finding them there in the novel.
We are pleased to announce a new review of Yang Shen called “The Taiping Up Close” just posted on the Yang Shen Amazon page by the accomplished essayist, novelist and literary critic Isham Cook (author of Lust and Philosophy, The Exact Unknown). Isham approaches our book as a reader, but also as a writer with particularly keen ideas on how to write and what to write about. He disdains “certain formulaic constraints geared to profitability (the first page that “grabs” you, the compelling storyline, heart-wrenching sympathetic characters, and the like),” so we have been waiting on tender hooks for his discussion of Yang Shen, not expecting to leave unscathed, but still eager for insights we can carry forward into Books II and III. Our language finds praise, but our execution is judged less that of a literary artist than of an obsessive-compulsive uncertain when to compress or cull (as in “too many notes, Mozart!”). Read Isham’s review and see if you agree it should be taken to heart.
The Isham Cook blog simultaneously posts a longer version of the Amazon review about Yang Shen, titled Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande, that contains a lengthy Q&A with us that delves into the genesis of the novel. After placing the Taiping Rebellion in the context of other catastrophic conflicts, and mulling over how it is possible for so many people to die at one time, Isham Cook to our gratification selects three passages as exemplary prose before moving on to the Q&A discussion of the research and writing for Yang Shen. There is even a brief burlesque that speculates on what might have happened if Fokie Tom, instead of being hulled, had captured Essex and had his way with the female passengers, ala Isham Cook.
In this excerpt from Chapter 30 of Book II the Foreign Rifles are attacking for the second time the walled city of Sungkiang (Songjiang) and are trapped like “turtles in a pot 壺中之龜” in the courtyard between the inner and outer east gates and have just set blackpowder charges against the inner gate.
“All the way out,” Hannibal shouted, “out the other gate.” This will not be just firecrackers, you fools.
The 1st Platoon ran on down the length of the passage and through the outer gate, taking shelter at the foot of the wall on either side, protected by the rifles of platoons across the moat. Only Fletcher, Hannibal, and Vincente remained, just inside the archway, anxiously watching over the sizzling fuses. The smell of the burning black powder drifted into the archway and up the walls. A shout in Chinese echoed around the courtyard. Rebels disappeared off the walls. After a few moments, a rope dropped down from the barbican and a soldier climbed down, followed by another, and started for the explosives. Fletcher’s Colt Navy dropped the first before he took six steps, and the second as he touched the ground.
“Damned fuses’re as slow as a woman!” Hannibal hissed. “How long’re you gonna stand here?”
Inside the inner gate, there were sounds like fumbling with the wood bar that served as a latch.
“This is going to be close,” Fletcher said. “You and Vincente go on.”
“Au revoir, mon amie,” Hannibal said, shaking his head. He turned and withdrew back into the passage. Macanaya stayed.
“Vincente, get the hell out of here,” Fletcher whispered. “It’s about to blow!”
Fletcher watched for the door to open a crack, ready to shoot the first rebel who came through, and guessed at the time left on the shortest fuse. He put from his mind the vision of a fuse burning unevenly and sputtering up the last couple of inches in a single flash.
“I go when you go, koronel,” Vincente said, craning his neck around Fletcher to see the fuses.
“Hell, you just want to pick up the pieces.”
“Not so many pieces, maybe.”
They both leapt for the opposite side of the passageway and dashed toward the other end. The rest of the platoon was no longer anywhere under the wall. Fletcher and Vincente just made it over the scorched remnants of the outer gate when the charges went off, not all at quite the same time. The deafening explosions sent flames and debris high into the air, kindled the towers above both inner and outer gates, and incinerated the walls inside the passage. Flames belched out through the outer gate like dragon’s breath.
“Good lord!” Falconer muttered. Looking on from across the moat, he might have sworn that the entire structure – wall, gate, and towers – was lifted off the ground by the finger of God.
Fletcher and Vincente lay next to the moat, where the concussion of the blast had thrown them. Fletcher felt as if he had been struck down by a runaway wagon, several times. He could not find any place on his body that did not hurt, and the cathedral bells were ringing again inside his head. With great effort, he rolled over. Vincente was on his back staring into the night sky.
“Humihinga pa, Vincente?”
Vincente’s chest heaved. “Si, señor, it would seem so.”
After a moment, Vincente added: “This very hard way make living, koronel.”
“Ha! Would you talk like a woman? C’mon, that was just the sideshow – now the circus really starts.”
Fletcher slowly struggled onto his knees.
“See how…easy it is?” he said.
Fletcher lifted one knee and put the foot flat on the ground, pressed both palms on the raised knee, and pushed with the other foot, letting out a long groan as he slowly rose to his feet. He looked around groggily, then reached down for Vincente.
“This way,” he said, starting for the wall. Vincente looked in the other direction.
“Shanghai, that way, señor.” Fletcher looked back over Vincente’s shoulder for a moment. Going back to Shanghai now would lose everything.
“C’mon – this way,” he said ruefully, starting for the wall, lurching. Vincente followed.
Hannibal watched them as they climbed over the broken outer gate and reentered the passage. That explosion was a helluva of stage trick, he thought, a coup de théâtre, of which I had not thought our colonel capable.
“First Platoon, follow me!” Hannibal shouted, and the Manilamen formed up behind their officer as he entered the gate behind Fletcher and Vincente. The walls of the corridor were blackened as if with chimney soot and were smoking hot. They stank of exploded black powder. At the entrance to the courtyard, they found their colonel and sergeant staring at the inner gate in dumb disbelief.
The doors were undamaged – seemingly untouched but for a huge blast scar and a lot of scoring. The courtyard was thick with ash and smoke, and the smell of burnt powder, and was as hot as a kiln. The formerly gray stone walls were as black as boiler clinkers, and fragments of debris and tufts of grass were on fire, but the door was like some monument impervious to the machinations of men.
“Lord,” Hannibal said with a sigh, “tell me for what sins I am being punished.” From coup de théâtre, he thought, to Grand Guignol, from melodrama to the macabre.
Black smoke, drifting white ash, and floating red sparks settled at the foot of the inner gate. Archers and pikemen appeared on the wall, peered timidly over the parapets and, seeing the gate was unhurt, jeered at the foreigners. The entire gate was not visible from inside the archway, so Fletcher stepped out into the courtyard. An arrow whizzed past his collar, and he returned the courtesy with his .38 and sent a round whining off the stone of a parapet. Manilamen stepped out from under the archway and ringed him round, rifles pointed up at the walls. Each time a head poked up far enough over a parapet, and a weapon showed, the rebel got a lead ball for his trouble. Fletcher figured they could not stand out in the open for very long before the rebel hordes got past their befuddlement over the explosion and came at them again. He started to turn away, but then caught sight of something curious.
“Hello!” he said. “A bunghole!” At the corner of the left door, teakwood planks had separated from the lowest iron hinge.
Hannibal peered out. “An oily rabbit couldn’t get through there,” he fussed.
“Major, get some more men out here to cover us.”
On the major’s order, the rest of the men streamed out into the courtyard and took up positions under the walls. With covering fire, Fletcher felt safe enough to genuflect before the gate and peer through the opening.
On the other side of the inner gate was another passageway, shorter than that under the outer wall , lit by torches under the archway at the far end. The archway faced south and Fletcher could see the outline of the stone embankments of the creek, where it emerged from the water gate. The shadow of a small bridge crossed over the creek, and sallowish lanterns lit the facades of shops and restaurants along the far side of a large, dark empty space. Beyond the buildings, rising high into the night above, was the darker silhouette – the distinctive shape of the pagoda visible above the wall earlier in the day. The passageway was empty – the explosion would have frightened everyone away and, anyway, all the rebel soldiers were above on the walls. Beyond the creek, where a short stretch of wall became visible, lay wounded men and piles of dead, and he could see wounded under lanterns on the creek bridge. Fletcher leaned back against the wall and dismantled his Colt to replace the cylinder.
“Major Benedict,” Fletcher said loudly, standing up, “send a messenger to bring over the other platoons. Leave Falconer and the 2nd Platoon in their present position, to deny the enemy the use of the outer gate, and suppress activity on the battlements.”
“We go in?” Vincente asked, wide-eyed.
“Of course we go in. Come on, men. Tayo na, let’s go!”
Fletcher knelt again at the opening, pushed his shoulders under the bent iron of the lowest hinge, turned sideways and flattened between the door and the wall, scraped at the gravel with his boots, and wriggled through.
Roughly thirty-eight men of the 1st Platoon, those still standing, watched dumbstruck as the koronel himself crawled through the tiny hole under the charred gate, ahead of everyone else, into a town full of raging rebels. They all crowded forward, jostling to be next after him.
Fletcher stood up, alone and unseen by the enemy, and examined the damage to the heavy bar securing the gate. The force of the explosion, which evidently went mostly straight up, pushed hard against the two great doors – enough to put a crack the teakwood bar. With effort, a detachment of his men might get the door open and let through the rest of the platoons. He walked slowly forward along the west wall to the archway, removed the torch from its niche and extinguished it against the stone wall. Behind him, he could hear Vincente scraping through the hole under the gate.
Fletcher stepped to his right around the archway. The creek, on his left, continued west into the town; there was another bridge over the creek about two hundred feet away. On the west side of the large empty square were more lantern-lit shops and restaurants and past them another black silhouette with three roofs stood out dark against the backdrop of the night sky. He turned around and, atop the wall, counted six rebel howitzers. He fancied that he could hear rifle fire from Falconer’s 2nd Platoon, pinning down rebels on the outside of the wall.
“Yang-kuei-tzu, foreign devil!”
A high-pitched cry came from the bridge opposite the archway. Wounded men sat up and stared in silent astonishment at the lone devil in black standing under the archway in dim torchlight. A wounded bowman loosed a shaft that nicked the arm of the black devil’s coat and, as he nocked another arrow, the devil shot the archer. A musket flashed on the bridge, a ball whizzed past the devil’s ear, and the devil shot that man before he could reload. Three more on the bridge, wounded officers, shook off their stupefaction, drew their swords, and limped toward the enemy.
The two shots of Fletcher’s revolver seemed extraordinarily loud and rang in his ears. The rapid gunshots called the attention of every rebel within hearing to the solitary black devil. Musket balls and arrows thunked into the face of the archway or ricocheted whining into the passage.
The wounded rebels on the bridge saw the ugly face of another devil appear beside the first, a darker devil, holding a western-style rifle. Behind the two devils, in the dim light at the far end of the passageway, another devil was appearing – from under the door of the inner gate! The door of the inner gate was foaling devils!
“You make them very mad, páre,” Vincente said, chuckling as he chambered a paper cartridge.
Fletcher looked around at the Manilaman and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Vincente, I am very glad to see you.”
“Nice to be here, páre.”
“Yang-kuei-tzu, Yang-kuei-tzu!” The cry was taken up on the bridge and then on the wall above the archway. Rebel soldiers came lumbering along the top of the wall, firing wildly at the archway. Several stopped immediately above and knelt to take careful aim. Vincente and Fletcher quickly stepped back into the shelter of the archway. Vincente put out the other torch.
A rebel officer yelled a command. The rebels around him rushed for the summit of a wide ramp that came down from the wall over the creek and ended twenty feet from the archway. Fifty angry, screaming rebels lunged down the ramp to kill the intruders.
[To be continued]