Jersey-born William Mesny ran off to sea as a boy and jumped ship at Shanghai in 1860 when he was just 18. Amid the chaos of foreign intrigue and civil war in 19th-century China, he became a smuggler, a prisoner of the Taiping rebels, a gun-runner and finally enlisted in the Chinese military. After five years of fierce campaigning against the Miao in remote Guizhou province, Mesny rose to the rank of general and used this privileged position to travel around China – to the borders with Burma, Tibet and Vietnam – writing opinionated newspaper articles, collecting plants and advising government officials on the development of railways, telegraphs and other modern reforms. Mesny eventually settled in Shanghai with a 16-year-old concubine and published Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, a weekly magazine about his experiences. But his story was not to end well. After his implication in an illicit arms deal, his fortunes never recovered, and when he died in 1919 he was working as a desk clerk. David Leffman has spent over 15 years footstepping Mesny’s travels across China, interviewing locals and piecing together his life story from contemporary journals, private letters and newspaper articles.
“David Leffman writes about Mesny with insight, warmth, and modesty… The Mercenary Mandarin is more than just a well-written biography of a fascinating life; it’s also a panoramic look at the last half-century of Qing-dynasty China.” – John Ross, Jottings From The Granite Studio
“Fizzes with lively characters… packed with stirring tales of derring-do and deftly interwoven with the events that drove the times… the author’s grasp of history provides an excellent guide to late 19th-century China and the conditions under which people lived.” – China Daily
“Scholarly in its approach, and clearly distilled from an immense amount of research… Leffman’s telling of this tale is well-paced, his writing elegant and his knowledge of China impressive. The book is full of period detail, much of it showing just how remote inland China still was: in the 1860s the 800km journey up the Yangtze from the Three Gorges to Chongqing took six weeks, longer than a sea trip from Shanghai to London; while a Chinese general Mesny meets when he gets to Chongqing is amazed to discover that foreigners have knee joints.” – South China Morning Post
“Seasoned travel writer David Leffman has guided us through the Middle Kingdom for decades, and in Mesny he has found his spiritual ancestor. Written with great care and attention to detail, The Mercenary Mandarin documents the life and exploits of one of the great overlooked adventurers of colonial-era China. A tale of war and discovery set in one of China’s most tumultuous periods, it is a valuable contribution to any traveler’s bookshelf.” – Derek Sandhaus, editor of Decadence Mandchoue; author of Baijiu: the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits