Lately I have been going through Project Guttenberg and reading old books set in China. Late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch there is nothing to touch a ripping yarn like
You may not know the book,1 but you may be familiar with some of the author’s other work like the “Mates Series” the “Pacific Coast Series” “Forward March” etc. It may not be deathless prose, but if the action lags you can always think about what it shows about the people who read this stuff.
Our story is a about Joseph Lee (Li Ching Cheng, usually referred to in the story as Jo, or Chinese Jo) son of a progressive mandarin, and his friend Rob Hinckley, son of an American missionary. These two end up seeing most of the Boxer Uprising. Our Lads get to steal a locomotive (which blows up at just the right time in a chapter entitled The Timely Explosion of a Boiler), witness the death of the German Ambassador to China, and die and get wounded at just the right points to be dramatic without messing up the story. It is fun to read a story where the author does not worry too much about things like plausibility and can beam his characters around as he wishes. We get all the things you might expect, including plot convenient language ability or inability, disguises (Rob passes himself off as a Chinese monk), mocking of Chinese superstition, and a bad guy who is defeated through pulling him down by his pigtail.
One thing I found interesting about the book is how pro-Chinese it is. Missionaries die, but always offstage, and most of the blame for the Uprising is placed on the poverty and desperation of the peasants of drought-stricken China and a handful of evil people like Cixi.The post-Boxer looting is not glossed over
So Pekin fell, almost without a struggle, and for a year afterwards the city was misruled and looted by foreign soldiers, who destroyed many of its most beautiful structures and carried away its most precious works of art. From it also they ravaged the surrounding country, sending out punishment expeditions to kill, burn, and destroy in every direction.
Jo is the most interesting character, and he
was not quite certain that he did not approve of the plan for driving all foreigners from China. Foreigners expelled Chinese from their countries, so why should not his people in turn expel foreigners from China? Still, he did not express any views on the subject at that time, but changed the topic of conversation
His antipathy towards foreigners is not surprising, as at the beginning of the book he was sent to Connecticut to study. Needless to say, he is assaulted by a mob on his first day, and while the mob are “Dageos” and “Imitation Americans” even the right sort, like his friend Rob and his missionary uncle point out that he was asking for it by going out in a skirt. Jo turns against the Boxers after they kill his father, of course, and dies before he might be called on to express an opinion on the outcome of the whole Uprising, but he is a remarkably sympathetic character for someone who never shows any interest in Christianity and is arguably anti-American.
Monroe did his homework pretty well, and there are surprisingly few howling errors for a book like this. Its a fun enough read, and worth every penny.
published in 1904 ↩
Yes, the ultimate irony is to pick up a book we have already categorized and discover that its author knew far more about the people and culture of his/her setting than we presumed, and that his characters’ opinions of the country and its inhabitants were not as simplistic and racist as we had imagined they must be.
By Gad, there are things we can learn from the past!