Thought some of you might be interested to know how I went about researching Mesny’s life. Here’s how I identified one of the minor but still important Chinese officials that he knew, using online and written sources.
Mesny was captured by the Taiping rebels at the Yangzi River town of Changshu in November 1862 and held hostage for five months, until the British sent in a gunship to rescue him. Throughout his captivity, he was attached to the household of a man he identifies in his Miscellany only as “General Hou”, who held the title of wei wang.
An online search in Chinese provided a list of the Taiping rebels’ hierarchy. There were several wei wangs – the term (卫王) means “Royal Guardian” – but only one named Hou. This was Hou Guansheng (1829–1865; 侯管勝), also known as the “Forest King” (森王). Further searches in Chinese turned up the fact that Hou Guansheng’s house in Changshu (at 山塘涇岸80—90) is a protected monument, and provided a photograph of him.
A Chinese biography said that after Nanjing fell to Imperial troops at the end of the rebellion, he changed his name to Hou Yuntian (侯裕田) and escaped to Hong Kong, but that the British later handed him over to the authorities at Guangzhou for execution.
Though not mentioning him by name, Augustus Lindley’s book, Ti-Ping Tien-Kwoh, written in 1866 by a former British naval officer who had fought on the Taiping side, gave a detailed account of a wei wang‘s execution at Guangzhou after being extradited from Hong Kong on a trumped-up charge of piracy. An article titled “The Surrender of the Alleged Mo-Wang” in the Hong Kong China Mail of May 10, 1866, detailed the arrest of Hou Yutian for piracy “on a certain river in Chinese territory”.
A return reading of Mesny’s Miscellany again confirmed that Hou fled to Hong Kong, but Mesny didn’t seem aware of his ultimate fate. Easy to miss this snippet the first time around – the Miscellany is 2000 pages long, and Hou’s escape is mentioned in just one sentence.
It took two years for me to gather all the information on Hou, though just an hour or so to piece it together.
Ain’t literary research grand?