Living the Taiping

God from the West book coverA century ago, China experienced one of its periodic apocalypses, where tens of millions died in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927–50: two to eight million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45: up to twenty-six million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958–62: fifteen to forty-five 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 forty years ranges from a conservative thirty-five million to an upper estimate of eighty million. The true figures will never be known.

The apocalypse of the century prior to that, the Taiping Civil War (1850–64), was not quite as bad or was just as bad, depending on which sources you consult. Scholarly estimates range from twenty million to up to seventy million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means almost one fifth of China’s population (at the time) died in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, it’s proportionately even more catastrophic than China’s twentieth century, not to mention it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history, and it happened a mere century and a half ago. The only previous cataclysm of comparable scale in the country was the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with twenty-five million dead.

The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that we lack a framework for understanding 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 the affair, 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 a mere fifty thousand, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers was negligible—in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion that was going on in the Chinese interior at the time (ethically speaking, of course, I don’t mean to suggest fifty thousand deaths in an imperialistic war was negligible).

Like most premodern wars, the Taiping Civil War was a chaotic affair and had nothing like the organization required for industrialized slaughter. We do know that many of the victims died of starvation, but how did the respective armies—both the rebels and the Imperial forces were responsible for the slaughter—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? Isn’t there a limit to the number of people it’s possible to kill? The Nazis, who had the benefit of modern weapons, were confronted with the problem of how to operationalize genocide in the early years of WWII. There was only so many people they could machine-gun in the pits before the gunners got exhausted or too freaked out to continue. They found their solution in the scalable approach to mass execution of the gas chambers and crematoria.

In God’s Chinese Son, Jonathan Spence tracks the life of the disturbed loner and Imperial exams reject Hong Xiuquan from his initial wanderings in southern Guanxi Province collecting Christian sympathizers, to the mad tyrant lording over one of China’s greatest citadels, Nanking, from 1853 till his death in 1864 (the same length of time, incidentally, Hitler controlled Nazi Germany). Yet Spence’s account ultimately falls short in that he has little to say about the unprecedented scale of the devastation. Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, on the civil war’s latter years, while gripping, considers primarily military strategy, also at the expense of eye-witness accounts of the death and destruction close at hand. Such accounts, however, are needed to help the reader visualize how it all unfolded at the local level, only to be replicated over and over in hundreds of places to swallow up tens of millions of lives.

Lost as well in conventional historical war narratives is the tragedy of women, who without any military role to play tend to be relegated to the background and rendered invisible, despite comprising a large share of the victims. Some of the most vivid surviving snapshots of the Taiping devastation on the ground involve defiant, courageous women, scattered voices reaching us as curses and screams, as Tobie Meyer-Fong documents in What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China. There was, for example, the anonymous “singular lady poet” with whom Xu Feng’en, author and secretary to the Hangzhou vice prefect, “had pleasantly exchanged verses…cut down in the heroic act of mocking the rebels,” when that city was overrun by the Taiping in 1860; or the mother stabbed to death in the same attack in front of her eight-year-old son, later the author Zhang Guanglie (Record of 1861), after “she flung her ebony tobacco pipe at her Taiping attacker” (cited in Meyer-Fong).

Few horror writers could fashion a depiction of slaughter as harrowing as the woman killed by her Taiping captors in the Shaoxing region of Zhejiang Province, witnessed by another little boy, traumatized into becoming a writer years later:

I once saw a woman at Lu’s Dike who came with several [Taiping] bandits from the east. They were laughing and joking with one another, and seemed quite jolly. Then suddenly she said, “Dong Er, you heartless man!” One bandit asked, “What do you mean?” The woman laughingly dumped on him. In a fit of anger, the bandit drew out his sword. The woman said with a chortle, “Why, just try and kill me!” Even before she finished her words, he cut off her arm. The bandits were still laughing as the arm was severed. Then they took off her clothes, exposed her breasts, cut them off, and threw them away. Still laughing aloud, they left. I went over to look at the breasts: they were covered with blood, and inside they were filled with something of a pale red color like pomegranate seeds. I picked one up to take a closer look, and it seemed to be quivering in my hand. I was seized with a great terror and went home. (Zhang Daye, The World of a Tiny Insect)

The Imperial armies were responsible for an equal amount of wanton degradation and murder, but as they emerged victorious at war’s end, all surviving incriminating accounts were expunged and eradicated by officials, propagandists and historians of the Qing. We can reconstruct in retrospect how most of the devastation occurred. Those living in the walled cities falling one by one only to be retaken by the other side were, as a rule, decimated—looted, raped, but primarily gotten out of the way 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 which were 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 sense. There were battles, but most of the death consisted in the starving, burning or mowing down by cannon and musket of as many unarmed civilians as possible in any given area. Multiply that by many more millions across a wide swath of Chinese territory.

James Lande’s engrossing and visceral historical novel Yang Shen: The God from the West (Old China Books, 2013) is perhaps the most successful attempt yet to dramatize the conflict at close up. It’s 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, even as British and French forces were marching on Beijing to sack the Summer Palace. 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 novel thrusts us right into the action, as we tunnel our way under the wall of a rebel-controlled city to be greeted with stabbing swords upon emerging from the hole on the other side. Or feces, sewage and boiling oil are poured over you as your ladder is pushed out from under you while climbing the city wall. Lande 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 sizzles with energy. The English Pirate Fokie 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.” Lande is also adept at mimicking the voices of an epic cast of characters, such as Fokie Tom’s Shakespearian twang:

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.

Puritanical critics advise against any use of alliteration in literary prose, an injunction I counter with this animated passage anthropomorphizing Fletcher’s vessel, the Essex, 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 a 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 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 as in a play. There is not a scene in the entire tome that is unequivocally superfluous. From the outset it’s clear that a second reading will reveal the experience 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 genius, it’s equal parts literary and obsessive-compulsive genius. Artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract; the artist always has his hand on the zoom lens. Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for much of the narrative, as if broken. Everything, and I mean everything, is attended to. Of course, the author wants us to see the fruit of his three decades of research that went into the book. If nothing else, his 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 six-pounder field gun to replace the twenty-four-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 detail has a leveling effect, reducing such passages to an accumulation of items, a list. Lande does break up or punctuate the lists with dialogue and other stylistic diversions. But a literary artist should know 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: 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 an experienced reader 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 reality 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, and the like. 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 fair 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 that the Essex had not gotten its six-pounder working in time and they were overrun by Fokie Tom’s pirates. Of course, they would all have 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 nineteenth-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 have been interesting, if the author had managed to come up with this idea.

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. Lande is well informed on the challenge of historical fiction. The suggestion here is that he could have taken even further liberties, sexual liberties, concerning which Yang Shen’s fussiness is in this one respect all too true to the Victorian character of the age.

A word of warning about the Kindle edition, which I presume most buyers will opt for, with its attractive $4.99 price (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).

Click here to see Interview with James Lande.

A distinction must be made before I get off on the wrong footing with certain readers, between the system of domestic sexual slavery in China that lasted up to the mid-twentieth century known as concubinage, and concubines. I don’t support slavery in any form, sexual or otherwise, but I would, in the right circumstances, support a concubine. For the right concubine, I would pay. I think you would too. Say you encounter the woman of your dreams—one with the kind of body that would tempt you to cheat on your wife or girlfriend. There’s not a man around who doesn’t secretly fear this future disaster. She also happens to be smart, cultured and talented—poet, belly-dancer, jazz aficionado, Derrida fan, you name it. And here’s the clincher: she’s into you as well. But there’s a catch. In her country, where you two have met, you are not allowed to lay a hand on her unless you buy her. No, not a one-shot gig like a prostitute, but really buy her, for good. You can have her all for your very own, provided, of course, you set her up and take care of her, ensure her welfare. On the other hand, she is affordable. By purchasing her you will be considerably improving her economic circumstances, and thus her ability to develop her talents and self-actualize to her fullest potential. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? In fact, this scenario is not all that different from what already exists in our day and age. It’s called marrying up. The terms are just not so cut and dry. Bourgeois marriage has more in common with concubinage than you might think, since both are founded on sexual ownership, or as we are more delicately inclined to put it, sexual “fidelity.”

In pre-Communist China, such a woman was called a concubine. More precisely, the husband’s wife was chosen by his parents, whereas he got to choose his concubines. Most concubines were unwanted teenage girls at the bottom rungs of society, sold off by their parents and purchased by men higher up on the social ladder for their own pleasure or abuse (or sold again in turn to someone else if she didn’t deliver). Englishman Robert Hart, the hero of Lloyd Lofthouse’s historical novel My Splendid Concubine, is initially appalled by concubinage when first encountering it upon his arrival in China in 1854, to work as a consular assistant. He then does an about-face and buys one himself, a sexy—and it turns out very horny—fourteen-year-old named Shao-mei, for seven pounds (USD $700-$800 at today’s rate), from a British sea captain working for Jardine, Matheson & Co. (the famous opium-trading company), who keeps her thirteen-year-old sister Lan for himself. Sir Robert Hart is, in fact, an important historical figure, and much about his life is well known, including the fact he had a concubine. Consorting with a concubine of whatever age was perfectly legal in China at the time.

The one who had originally caught Robert’s eye was not Shao-mei but her elder sister, the sixteen-year-old Ayaou, but she is clandestinely sold off to Frederick Townsend Ward (the same historical Ward, or Fletcher Thorson Wood, in James Lande’s Yang Shen), the American mercenary hired by the Qing Government to help fight the Taiping rebels, before Hart has the chance to buy her. He quickly snags Shao-mei instead. He soon, however, finds occasion to steal Ayaou and subsequently offers Ward 500 pounds outright for her (around $50,000 in today’s money—he had to borrow some of it), but the deal is sidetracked due to chaotic circumstances. Hart sets the two sisters up in a small flat in Ningpo (today’s Ningbo), where he stealthily retreats at night after his day job at the British Legation outside the city walls. He teaches the sisters to read and write, while they instruct him in turn in Chinese culture.

Any city in old China would have been a scary place for “foreign devils.” Apart from the usual crime and banditry, foreigners were widely hated, particularly since the first Opium War, and if caught were often attacked and killed with virtual impunity, in the face of inadequate constabulary. Recall the film The Sand Pebbles, with its screaming crowds and summary public executions, to give you an idea of the menacing atmosphere of Chinese cities in the 1920s, when the film is set; things were worse in the nineteenth century (see my Chapter 4). Hart is required to don disguises, crawl along roofs, and carry a gun. Thankfully not all Chinese hated foreigners, and he probably owed his life on numerous occasions to his loyal eunuch servant Guan-jiah, who secretly watched him in bed with the sisters, with Robert’s tacit approval, as well as watching out for his safety when going about.

The cover of My Splendid Concubine is indicative of the book’s approach. It supposedly represents Ayaou dressed in an elaborate dancing costume, whose streamers and sashes suggests at once the stylized sleeves of Peking opera and the female spirits or apsaras painted in Buddhist cave grottos. The image is beautiful, if the cover is not (the stark background, the ill-chosen font). I mention this because it stands in distinct contrast to the covers of typical Chinese historical romances published by major publishing houses in the U.S., with the same clichéd images of a cheongsam-clad Chinese female holding a fan or parasol, face pensively askance or viewed from behind the shoulder, as if looking an Oriental person in the eye constitutes some kind of violation. It is to Lofthouse’s credit that he resolutely avoids slavish conformity to the genre stereotypes.

There are limitations to the writing: transparently linear storytelling in a plain, at times flat, yet easy-to-read style, with not much in the way of narrator distance or irony, or the layered meanings and perspectives one associates with literary fiction. A more artistically inclined novelist might, for instance, have cast the narrative in multiple first-person voices (a la The Sound and the Fury), allowing the other key players—Ayaou, Guan-jiah, Patridge, or even the repulsive, misogynist Ward—to tell the story (as Lofthouse portrays him, that is; the historical Ward had no interest in concubines and was steadfast and loving toward his Chinese wife; see Caleb Carr, The Devil Soldier: The American Soldier of Fortune Who Became a God in China). While easy to read, the language is wanting in incisiveness, and metaphors are often clunky—“lowered eyebrows that looked more like storm clouds”; “The anger locked inside felt like fists pounding to escape”; “His insides were going crazy flopping around like a fish out of water” (though some sort of work: “His back felt as if it were crawling with wasps”). There is also unnecessary repetition of detail and gratuitous scenes worthy of pruning.

Lofthouse carefully attends to period detail, which lends needed visual texture. Ningpo’s business district is “a jumble of storefronts and noodle shops hung with glazed duck carcasses. Dry good shops, job printers, and bakeries were crowded together. Pharmacies sold roots and herbs, powdered deer antlers, withered frogs, and snake glands.” Some set pieces are effective and memorable, such as the ferocious battle with a Taiping rebel camp that was holding friendly hostages ransom: “The breaking dawn sent blood-red cords of pale, washed-out light over the earth along the eastern horizon. Behind them, orange flames from the cannons still flashed from the smoke-filled river. Bodies and body parts were strewn everywhere, but there were still hundreds to fight.”

The ominous background events to the story—the Taiping attacks, the random banditry, the betrayals and reprisals by equally violent foreign players including Ward and his ilk (again the historical record paints Ward in a kinder light)—maintain interest throughout the narrative. But it is Hart’s relationship with Ayaou and Shao-mei that provides the central tension and fascination. He is one sexually confused man. Most people are sexually confused, I suppose, and so he serves as the perfect psychological template for the conventional reader to identify with and project normative expectations onto. His servant Guan-jiah, his British compatriots, and Ayaou and Shao-mei themselves all reassure him again and again that it’s okay, and perfectly logical and correct, to have sex with both of his concubines, even in the same bed. But since he has already done the dirty deed with Ayaou, his strict Christian upbringing prevents him from devirginating the horny Shao-mei. Their triadic relationship is soon complicated by Ayaou’s growing jealousy (which however is out of character with her initial acceptance of Shao-mei’s sexual participation and seems engineered to extend the narrative). Hart’s moral dilemma is drawn out at tortuous, and torturous, length. Depending on your open-mindedness to polyamorous relationships, or lack thereof, you may be gripped by a relationship which in its convoluted agony is probably unprecedented in the entire literature on threesomes, or your patience tried. The excruciating dilemma with Shao-mei is finally resolved, but I won’t divulge the outcome here.

I will mention another temptress who appears in the novel’s second half, after Hart has achieved career success through his exceptional linguistic (now fluent in spoken and written Mandarin) and political skills and becomes one of the highest-ranking foreigners in China ever, employed by the Qing Government as Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. Given audience at a formal banquet in Peking, where he now resides (you can still see his plaque in the lane in Beijing’s former Legation Quarters where he lived), he’s introduced to the captivating seventeen-year-old Nee-Nee, niece of Prince Gong, who is being offered to Hart as a more practical and politically appropriate concubine than Ayaou, the lowly fisherman’s daughter. There is a pointed parallel to their respective meetings, in the way each girl caresses him on first encounter. When he first meets Ayaou, “she stared at him as if she were memorizing his features before gently caressing the back of his hand with her fingertips. Then she nodded and retreated.”

Nee-Nee is a whole new experience. She “held her hand out to shake in the Western style. He took hold of her fingertips and his heart started to pound….He tried not to stare at a perfect red dot painted on her lower lip…She had large eyes that wove a spell over him, and he felt dizzy.” They start talking about literature. “‘Chinese novels can be classified into several types,’” she says. Nothing too impressive here—I recall my own university students in Beijing reciting similar stock phrases to impress. Then Nee-Nee boldly mentions The Plum in the Golden Vase, a sexually explicit fiction classic, still banned in unexpurgated form in the PRC; no student of mine would ever have referred to it unless already on familiar terms with me. Nee-Nee’s “fingers still rested on the back of his hand. When she finished saying the name of the pornographic novel, she ran her fingernails across his skin setting his nerves on fire.”

I found this passage exciting in an erotically visceral way (though Lofthouse could have lopped off the redundant “setting his nerves on fire”). Something about the girl’s self-confidence and nervy attitude, at such a young age, would disarm any grown man. But apart from one later brief mention, Nee-Nee never returns. Hart’s devotion to Ayaou is steadfast and true. This does not always make for the best fictional material. Both are too sincere and single-minded in their love to present much occasion for literary amplification. You can’t keep on singing the praises of the same woman. It results in too many of the following types of passage, however touching, even after Ayaou’s passing and he has only her memories: “The silk sheet slid off revealing her breasts. He couldn’t take his eyes off them, so he pulled the sheet back to cover them. He wanted to pay attention to what she was saying. She might test him to make sure he was listening. She’d been doing that recently.”

Nonetheless, there is much of interest in this substantial novel, a solidly conceived, intensely intimate and troubled love story set against an equally fraught and dramatic historical backdrop. For an independently published book it’s doing well, too. Its sales and proceeds would be the envy of many mid-list authors in the legacy publishing industry. Since its publication, over 23,000 copies have been sold.

Click here to see Interview with Lloyd Lofthouse.

*     *     *

Of related interest by Isham Cook:

Chungking: China’s heart of darkness
Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai Wall came down
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

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5 replies »

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  2. David, here is my reply to your Amazon review of Yang Shen.

    Thank you very much for your review of Yang Shen. Your insights are especially appreciated as you both tell us what you liked about the book – many readers are less attentive – and what are the failings of the writing. I had not thought of each chapter “as a theatrical set piece with a ‘Dramatis Personae’ at the head” but am pleased now to think of the chapters that way. You also point out that “artistry has a flexible quality to it, an elasticity that knows when to expand and contract” and that such artistry is overwhelmed in Yang Shen by an overabundance of detail – “Lande’s lens is stuck in zoom-in for most of the narrative.” I would have to admit to a dread of zooming out so far that detail is lost, and that concern arises from my belief that little can be closely understood without adequate detail. However, it would appear that I have not exercised enough discretion in choosing detail if such aggravates readers; as the tale moves on into Book II, I shall ask myself more frequently where the close-in observations are really needed, and just how close they need be, and perhaps get a better feel for when to compress and where to cull. I will look again at the more detailed sections of Book I and think on how they might have been viewed with a longer lens, and perhaps that exercise will improve the telling in Books II and III.


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