William Mesny (1842–1919) was born in Jersey, ran off to sea as a deck hand aged 12, and finally wound up at Shanghai in 1860. China was being dismembered by foreign powers and civil war, and amid the chaos Mesny became variously a prisoner of the Taiping rebels, a smuggler, a customs official and an arms dealer. He eventually enlisted as an instructor in the Chinese military where, after five years of fierce campaigning in remote Guizhou province, he rose to the rank of general.
Mesny witnessed many of the period’s brutal conflicts first-hand, from the Taiping, Miao and Muslim rebellions – civil spats responsible for the deaths of over twenty million people – to territorial wars with France, Russia and Japan which saw China lose valuable tributary states. He spoke fluent Chinese, was twice married to Chinese women, and spent twenty-five years orbiting the country between Beijing and Burma, writing opinionated newspapers articles on everything from mining opportunities to local cuisine, ethnic customs, the appalling state of the roads and inns, and the rigours of dealing with petty officialdom.
Having served as an advisor to several prominent officials – including the enthusiastic industrialiser, Zhang Zhidong – Mesny eventually settled down at Shanghai with his second wife and published a magazine about his experiences, Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, whose four collected volumes comprise a fascinating mosaic of late nineteenth-century China.
Pieced together by footstepping Mesny’s travels across China, interviewing locals and plenty of archive research, Mesny’s adventurous life is now chronicled in The Mercenary Mandarin, available through all your favourite online bookstores, or direct from the publisher, Blacksmith Books (with free postage in Southeast Asia).
You also might like to check out the Mercenary Mandarin Facebook page, featuring hundreds of photographs, research notes and extracts from the book that didn’t make it to the final version.