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The Mercenary Mandarin – a Book Review

Mercenary Mandarin is the account of an eccentric Victorian adventurer, William Mesny. During his time in China, he worked as a smuggler and gun runner, got imprisoned by the Taiping Rebels, and eventually landed himself a job as a general for the Qing Emperor, charged with overthrowing a Miao Rebellion in the mountains of Southwest China.

This book, written by a friend of mine, David Leffman (who has guestwritten on this site), is an excellent window into China a hundred years ago. If you are interested in China in the pre-modern era, this book is a must read. For other similar books on China, check out my list of must-reads here.

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Buying a Balisong in The Philippines

buying a balisong knife in taal

taal, hometown of the balisong knifeFor my last day in the Philippines, my new friends drove me out to Tagatay, to see the large lake with a volcano in the middle. It was about a two hour drive outside of Manila, most of which was spent just getting through the city traffic! As we got out of the city the air turned clean and fresh, and the temperature dropped slightly. The driving was still crazy though! Tagatay is a small town on the side of the lake, which is essentially a volcano with a lake in the middle, which has another smaller volcano on an island in the middle. We picked a restaurant and had lunch while admiring the view. Our lunch consisted of a local specialty of bone marrow soup and garlic rice, along with fresh coconut juice to drink. After lunch we drove further on, to the town of Taal, where the famous Balisong knives (aka butterfly knives) are made.

Taal is a fairly small town, with a descent amount of old Spanish houses and a very large 500 year old buying a balisong knife in taalchurch. It has a crumbly, run down feel to it, but has a definite charm. The streets were literally lined with shops selling knives and we found a decent looking one to check out. The girl selling the knives told us that usually the knives are homemade in the town, and she showed us a few tricks. After looking at a few blades I settled on a medium sized one which had a nice handle and seemed decent quality. I bargained the price to 450 pesos, so was fairly cheap.

After buying a knife we headed to the old church to take a look around, and also the old houses surrounding it.

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Mantis Exchange in Manila

On the second and third day in Manila, Arnold had a couple of students take me around Manila to see some of the sights. The first day, we went to Intramuros, the old Spanish colonial area of town. Intra means inside, and so this area is surrounded by a huge stone wall, built by the Spanish to protect themselves from uprisings or invaders. There are a few cobbled streets and many old houses and churches in this area. It is much quieter than the rest of Manila, and so is relaxing to walk around. We visited Fort Santiago, as well as a renovated Spanish house and a museum about Chinese-Filipinos.

Later that evening we went to Mall of Asia, the largest shopping mall in Asia, for a buffet and some drinks. Arnold and the students were celebrating their victory in the Macau lion dance tournament.

The third day I spent exploring Chinatown and more of Intramuros, before heading to Quaipo Cathedral and the large market behind it. The market is a haven for pickpockets, and it only took five minutes of being there before I had an old lady following me, constantly trying to stuff her hands in my pockets! She wasn’t even discreet about it! They have this idea that all white people are rich; but comparatively we are, as the level of poverty here is high. The market sells all kinds of things from amulets and charms, to folk medicine and fake DVDs. I didn’t buy anything though, I think I may go back another day to look at the amulets, and explore the Muslim district nearby.

Later we went over to Arnold’s school. The school is sponsored by the KMT, the government of Taiwan, so there are a lot of pictures of Chiang Kai Shek and Taiwanese flags up. Out of nowhere, Arnold asked me to teach the class. Without any preparation, I stuck together and warm up, did some stretching, then took the students through the basic stances of Taiji Mantis, showing them how to check their structure. I then introduced them to some basic partner exercises as well, arm conditioning, and Jie Hai Chui, and then adding some basic applications in. The students demonstrated some forms for me, and I showed a few Taiji Mantis forms to them as well.

For me, this was just day 3 in Manila, but was the last chance to hang out with them, as in the morning they left for Sinagpore, to take part in a lion dance competition. They really treated me well as a guest and I had a great time with them. I hope I can visit again, or they can come and visit me too.

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Some Top Books About China

After the positive feedback I received from my list of top books on Martial Arts, I thought I’d also do a list of some my favourite reads about China; books which have a focus on either travel in the China, or life through the eyes of a foreigner who lived here… some in modern day, and some in old China.

Behind the Wall

I read this book back in 2007, as I was on my first trip in China. Behind the Wall is one mans travels through China in the early 1990s, and his encounters with various people along the way. Written while the Cultural Revolution was still a recent memory for people, a strong theme throughout the book is his talks with everyday Chinese people about their experiences and feelings of the Cultural Revolution, and how China is recovering. He was met with constant curiosity, as this was a time when foreigners had only just been allowed into China, and people had all kinds of strange ideas. The one that really stood out for me was one man believing white people were tall and strong, due to the fact they only ate honey and drank milk!

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

One of the most well known books about life in China, River Town is set in a similar time period to Behind the Wall. This is the story of two young guys who came to a small town in Sichuan province to teach English, and their attempts as crossing the cultural barriers faced in every aspect of life. Highly recommended for people wanting to come here to teach, particularly smaller cities.

 

 

Forgotten Kingdom

Going back a bit now, this book is set in pre-communist China, and is the account of Peter Goullart, who lived in the city of Lijiang, Yunnan province, right on the borders of Tibet. Lijiang is the centre of the Naxi people, a unique ethnic minority in China with a fascinating culture unlike any other. Nowadays, the city is a popular tourist spot, for its ancient architecture and its stunning mountain scenery. If you are visiting Yunnan province, this book is an absolute must to get an understanding of its history.

 

My Journey in Mystic China: Old Pu’s Travel Diary

Jon Blofield is one of the most highly regarded translators of Chinese Buddhist texts. He lived in China around a similar time to the above book, and had some fascinating adventures visiting remote temples deep in the mountains and drinking with poets and scholars in old Beijing. I particularly enjoyed this book, because it painted a picture of the China I wish I could have experienced.

 

American Shaolin

A must read for anyone coming over to China to train Kung Fu! While things have changed in China over the last twenty years, this book will really get you prepared for the craziness that is China! And its not even only for martial artists; I feel like this book should be on any China enthusiasts list. The writer was one of the first foreigners to train at Shaolin Temple in the early nineties, and his accounts of rural China at that time are both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits

Bill Porter is the foremost Buddhist scholar and translator of poetry and Buddhist scriptures. This book is an absolute classic,which recalls his experiences visiting and living with Buddhist and Taoist hermits in the remote mountains of Zhong Nan Shan. The Chinese version of this book inspired an entire generation in China, and helped revive the hermit movement in contemporary China.

The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British adventurer became a general in Qing-dynasty China

The Mercenary Mandarin is a well researched and entertaining book which tells the story of William Mesny, a real life Indiana Jones who set off to Shanghai at the age of 18, became a weapons smuggler, and had all kinds of adventures before landing himself a position as a general in the Imperial Army and quelling a Miao uprising in southern China. A truly fascinating read for a look at China during the days of the British Empire.

 

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The Undiscovered North of Bali (and why hiring your own driver is awesome)

temple in the north of bali

Bali is one of Asia’s most popular destinations, and for good reason: the culture, the people, the natural beauty; however a lot of the island has suffered from over-development. When I visited with my family, I didn’t even bother with Kuta or Seminyak, instead I spent most of my time in the north of Bali, an area called Lovina.

temple in the north of bali

The northern area of Bali is much less visited, the only foreigners tending to be here either for the diving or dolphin watching, as well as a handful of retired Australians who have huge villas hidden away in the hills. In fact, this areas largest weakpoint also turns out to be its strongpoint: transport is very limited. The best thing you can do is either hire a car or hire a driver. We chose to hire a driver for two reasons: firstly, I don’t really want to drive on the windy roads with the crazy traffic, and two, a driver also acts somewhat as a tour guide. They can recommend sites, restaurants, and help you negotiate lower prices when shopping.

The driver we hired, a man called Agus, really made the trip for me. Balinese people are stereotyped to be really laidback, super friendly, and constantly happy. For Agus, this was definitely true. He organised some really cool trips, stuff I never would have found just relying on a Lonely Planet guide. For example, we decided we wanted to go to see the dolphins at sunrise, followed by snorkelling on the reef. Agus got us a boat that took us well away from the typical crowded snorkelling spots and we had a reef all to ourselves. Granted, seeing the dolphins, there were a lot of other boats, but there were hundreds of dolphins, and they only feed in one area.

The northern area also had some beautiful temples, some perched on rocks overlooking the sea, some in the jungle clad hills more inland. Hinduism in Bali is much more laidback than what I’d seen in India; there is no discrimination of caste, and no ill-treatment of women. It was a common site in Bali to see colourful parades and ceremonies, in fact my mum was joking that she was surprised Balinese ever get anything done with all the praying and rituals they do! For those interested in the more spiritual aspects of Balinese culture, the classic Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is a must read.

If you are visiting the northern area of Bali, I would highly recommend the services of Agus. You can contact him at +6281805699660 or a.widiada@gmail.com.