Book Review: Tai-Pan – by James Clavell

Tai-PanClavell wrote Tai-Pan in 1966. Almost 50 years later I finally get around to reading it. This is a novel about China and the beginnings of Hong Kong. It plays in 1841 in the Hong Kong area, including some scenes on the Chinese mainland and Macao.

The Tai-Pan is the “CEO” of a trading company. This is the story of Dirk Struan, a middle-aged Scott who worked his way up from cabin boy on a ship at age 12 to one of the richest men in the world. He is not only running his business, shipping tea, silk and opium between ports in England, India and the Orient, he is also shaping politics with the Chinese and creating the free port of Hong Kong, which he sees as pivotal to trade in Asia.

When Clavell wrote this novel in 1966, China was a sleeping giant behind the Communist iron curtain. Mao ruled the country with the will of a dictator, and the rest of us knew very little about China, except that one in four people in the world was Chinese.

Today, China is no longer a sleeping giant, but rather one that is very much awake and shapes international politics and commerce unlike any nation since the emergence of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. When Clavell wrote about China, he wanted to educate the population in the sixties about the country. Little did he know that I would learn immensely about China reading Tai-Pan in 2014.

It does not matter that the story plays in 1841. China is ageless and its rich history and culture permeated the world in 1841, then it went to sleep under Communism for most of the 20th century, only to awaken again.

The Tai-Pan tells his son Culum:

“First thing to understand: For fifty centuries the Chinese have called China the Middle Kingdom—the land that the gods have placed between heaven above and the earth beneath. By definition a Chinese is a uniquely superior being. They all believe that anyone else—anyone—is a barbarian and of no account. And that they alone have the God-given right, as the only really civilized nation, to rule the earth. As far as they’re concerned, Queen Victoria is a barbarian vassal who should pay tribute. China has nae fleet, nae army, and we can do what we like with her—but they believe they are the most civilized, the most powerful, the richest—in this I think they’re potentially right—nation on earth.

– Tai-Pan (p. 91)

There was more wisdom that I enjoyed reading about:

“The rich are too rich and the poor too poor. People pouring into the cities looking for work. More people than jobs, so the employers pay less and less. People starving. The Chartist leaders are still in prison.”

–  Tai-Pan (p. 81)

The rich were too rich and the poor too poor. That was the problem in England in 1841, as told by Clavell in 1966. Here we are in 2014 and we’re telling ourselves that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. People are still pouring into the cities looking for work. They take jobs at Wal-Mart for minimum wage. People are starving. We pay out welfare. It is strangely comforting to realize it’s been like this for a very long time. Income inequality rules now, and it ruled then:

Do you know the price of bread is up to a shilling and twopence a loaf according to last week’s mail? Lump sugar’s costing eightpence a pound; tea seven shillings and eightpence; soap ninepence a cake; eggs four shillings a dozen. Potatoes a shilling a pound. Bacon three shillings and sixpence a pound. Now take wages—artisans of all sorts, bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters—at most seventeen shillings and sixpence a week for sixty-four hours’ work; agricultural workers nine shillings a week for God knows how many hours; factory workers around fifteen shillings—all these if work can be found. Good God, Mr. Struan, you live up in the mountains with incredible wealth where you can give a thousand guineas to a girl just because she’s got a pretty dress, so you don’t know, you can’t know, but one out of every eleven people in England is a pauper. In Stockton nearly ten thousand persons earned less that two shillings a week last year. Thirty thousand in Leeds under a shilling. Most everyone’s starving and we’re the richest nation on earth.

– Tai-Pan (pp. 560-561)

I enjoyed reading Tai-Pan immensely. Not only did I learn a lot about trade two centuries ago, the political situation in China, and the formation of Hong Kong, and the way of life and thinking of the ordinary Chinese, but the entire “lesson” was wrapped into a riveting plot that kept me turning pages.

Rating: *** 1/2

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