According to Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, in the early 1870s Mesny bought a farm in the vicinity of Shuitian village (水田), 18km to the northeast of Guiyang. Around 1879 he sold the land at cost price to his former commander, Tang Jiong (唐炯), who was looking for a good burial spot for his mother-in-law.
In 2015 my local contact, Mr Li Maoqing, located the former Tang Family mansion – a tumbledown timber structure – at the hamlet of Zhulin (竹林), perhaps 3km from Shuitian. On that occasion we spent a fascinating few hours there, being made welcome by the caretaker, Mr Li Xinfa. In 2019 another friend and Mesny researcher, Mr Yu Dow, took me back to have a look inside the mansion, and also provided information about two more of Mesny’s Chinese friends who lived in Shuitian.
According to Li Xinfa, the Tang family was originally from Sichuan but moved to Shuitian nine generations ago. In the early nineteenth century, Tang Shuyi (1793–1854) became a magistrate; he supported Lin Zexu after Lin was blamed for precipitating the opium war and exiled, and when Lin was rehabilitated he brought Tang Shuyi to Beijing and had him promoted.
The local story is that Tang Shuyi died fighting the Taipings near Wuhan and was buried by his comrades on the river shingle where he fell. Years later his son, Tang Jiong – who had never known his father – tracked down the remains and had them brought back to Shuitian for proper burial. Official histories, however, say that Tang Shuyi committed suicide, after his troops deserted.
Tang Jiong himself led a chequered career. Having been court-martialled for alleged cowardice while fighting the Miao, he later worked for Ding Baozhen on salt reform in Sichuan, and in 1885 was put in charge of troops combating French incursions into northern Vietnam. Blamed for China’s subsequent defeat and sentenced to death, he was pardoned and ultimately rehabilitated, dying in 1909.
When he wrote about his farm at Shuitian, Mesny never mentioned the Tang family’s long connection with the area. But as Tang was one of the few Chinese officials that Mesny wholeheartedly admired, the fact that he bought land in the same village only confirms the friendship between the two men. A friend of Mr Li Xinfa, Mr Feng Fei, told me on the phone that he has a letter from Tang Jiong to his son mentioning Mesny.
Tang Jiong’s mansion is a two-story timber affair, most of which dates to the early twentieth century. Nobody lives there today, and it’s not in particularly good order, but you can see from the internal pillars – each made from a single tall strong vertical post – that the house belonged to a wealthy, important patron; even in the nineteenth century, tree trunks this size were expensive and difficult to find. Grey brick cladding around the rear wall – in an area where all houses were once built of wood alone – was another sign of status.
In the 1980s, antique collectors paid local thugs to dig up Tang Jiong’s grave and cart away anything valuable; Li Xinfa caught them but they shot at him with pistols and ran off. He secretly buried the broken fragments of Tang Jiong’s headstone for safekeeping, but in 2012 had recently dug the pieces up (these had been hidden again in 2019). The inscription translates: “Deceased Master of the Imperial Prince, Governor of Yunnan”.
As to his farm, Mesny described it as having excellent feng shui, set on a south-facing hillside with slopes to the north and water in front. A spread of land 500m from Tang’s former home, dotted with graves, fits the description exactly; Mr Li said that Tang Jiong bought it during the 1870s “from another official”.
Just downhill from Tang’s mansion is another old building, now very much the worse for wear, with a two-story concrete apartment emerging through the middle and the outlying wings falling to ruin. This belongs to the Fan family, almost certainly descendants of Mesny’s great friend Fan Heting (范鶴亭), who along with Bai Meitang (白美堂) was a former Taiping rebel. On the run from Imperial wrath and wanting to start new lives, Fan and Bai accompanied Mesny from Hankou to Guizhou in the late 1860s, joined the Sichuan Army fighting the Miao, and later received full pardons from the Qing court.
In 1877, the British missionary Charles Judd mentioned the men in China’s Millions, the magazine of the China Inland Mission: “We spent two nights in the house of Mr Fan… a pleasant and plain Chinese gentleman, who was one of the kings in the Great T’ai-p’ing rebellion. At one time 5000 tael (£1200) was offered for his head. But he is now put into this quiet little place out of the way. He and his neighbour Mr Peh [Bai] were professed Christians in the rebellion, but have now gone back to some degree of idolatry.”
Tang Jiong’s grandson, Tang Eryong (唐爾鏞), was head of the Guizhou Provincial Education association and a friend of Sun Yatsen. He initially raised Republican forces in Guizhou, but lost his enthusiasm for the cause and pretended to go mad, walking around with a bamboo winnowing tray on his head. He died in 1912, just after the Republic was formed. Tang’s twelfth granddaughter married an Englishman, and though she died in Taiwan apparently some of her children still live in the UK.