A warrior’s phoenixes

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

Here’s a stone rubbing of a pair of phoenixes amongst peonies, overshadowed by a wutong tree. Peonies are considered the “king of flowers” in China, often paired in art with the phoenix, which usually represents female power. But here, as both male and female phoenix are shown, the peonies simply emphasise the regal nature of the birds. The tree links …

Verbiest’s World Map 坤與全圖

David LeffmanAntiques, map, Mesny, Verbiest, William Gill, Woodblock print Leave a Comment

In 2016 I was extraordinarily lucky to come across this woodblock-printed world map at an antiques stall in Beijing. (The poor quality of the photo is because they didn’t want me taking one, and I had to sneak it from a distance with my ancient, low-res ipod touch camera. They wouldn’t sell me the print either.) The original version dates …

Across Guangxi By Boat

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

In March 1879, after spending nearly two years on the road between China and Europe, Mesny left the southern metropolis of Guangzhou to head home to his wife in Guizhou province, a journey of perhaps 1000km. Renting a roomy daobazi (刀把子) or “knife-handle” houseboat, named after the shape of their sterns, Mesny followed the Xi river to Wuzhou before turning …

Was Mesny a Liar?

David LeffmanMesny Leave a Comment

Reading the Miscellany, with all its action, great claims and grandstanding, you have to wonder – how much of it is true? After all, there’s no doubt that the Miscellany was written as a piece of propaganda, designed to restore Mesny’s reputation at a time that his life was unravelling. Could anyone have led such an adventurous life, and yet …

The Battle for Changshu, 1863

David LeffmanGeneral Hou, Mesny, Taipings Leave a Comment

During one of his smuggling operations along the Yangzi river in November 1862, Mesny was captured by Taiping rebels off Fushan, a small village notorious for its pirates and gun-runners. First threatening him with execution, then planning to ransom him for $100,000, the rebels eventually decided to keep Mesny alive as a bargaining chip. Mesny was escorted 16km south along …

Mesny’s Famine Report, 1889

David LeffmanAnhui, Famine Relief, Hefei, Mesny Leave a Comment

In 1889, Mesny made a brief survey of the countryside around Hefei, the modern capital of Anhui province, for the Shanghai Famine Relief Committee. This had been set up to raise and distribute funds during a prolonged drought in eastern China, which had hit central and northern Anhui particularly hard. Mesny’s task – undertaken voluntarily – was to see that …

Mercenary Mandarin Sources

David LeffmanMesny, Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Mesny on Mesny The biggest single source of information for Mesny’s life are his own writings, especially the four-volume, 2000-page Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, published between 1895 and 1906. Aside from thousands of random articles on Chinese subjects, the Miscellany sketches in Mesny’s childhood and time at sea (1842–1860), before focusing in-depth on selected episodes from his first fifteen years in …

Mesny 1862: A Prisoner on the Yangzi

David LeffmanGeneral Hou, Mesny, Taipings, Travel writing Leave a Comment

During the Taiping Uprising, Mesny found work as a “Blockade Runner”, ferrying contraband arms and salt upstream along the war-ravaged lower Yangzi between Shanghai and the inland metropolis of Wuhan. The work was profitable but extremely dangerous, and it wasn’t long before Mesny was fighting off pirates and getting himself badly battered during a near-fatal assault by the Qing navy. …