Traveling in China before the modern era of tourism was not for the faint-hearted. The country didn’t really have a tourism industry to speak of until the turn of the 21st century. Chaperoned group tours were available from the 1980s, but it wasn’t a very friendly place for the individual traveler or backpacker. I recall the lore about one Frenchman in the 1980s who dressed in Chinese clothes and swam his away across China in the Yangzi; the sight must have been so unbelievable that he couldn’t have otherwise gotten away with it. In my own travels in China’s northeast in the early ’90s, locals had to help me call up hotel after hotel in the phone book to find one that would accept a foreigner; in Changchun I ended up spending the night in a dorm-style inn for transient prostitutes which didn’t require registration.
With this finely written account of one particularly intrepid 19th-century adventurer, William Mesny, Leffman has helped to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive history of travel in China. See Old China Books’ review [below] for an overall summary. I’d just like to point out the author’s attention to telling details. Note that Mesny was no vagabond but a mandarin official fluent in Chinese traveling in a sedan chair, a status earned through his years of aiding Imperial troops in the Miao Rebellion: roads unsuited for wheeled transport, inns so squalid Mesny and his retinue were kept awake all night scratching off vermin, guest rooms shared with livestock and no food to eat, their luggage ransacked or stolen, no standard currency to pay for anything (Mexican silver had to be exchanged for local coins after tiresome haggling), towns refusing entry to
Read these in-depth reviews for the Mercenary Mandarin
Any reviews of our books on Amazon are most welcome, but especially when they are as detailed as these ones. The Mercenary Mandarin (Amazon link here) tells the story of William Mesny, a Jersey boy who ran off to sea and arrived in Shanghai in 1860 when he was just 18. Amid the chaos of 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 army, rising to the rank of general. Author David Leffman has spent 15 years retracing Mesny’s travels around China.
David I. Cahill says of the book: