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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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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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Tai Chi MMA Fight: Some Afterthoughts

In my last post on Tai Chi MMA, I discussed my opinions on the fight between MMA guy Xu Xiao Dong and Tai Chi guy Wei Lei. The video has gained a huge amount of attention on Chinese social media, with people asking the question “what is the value of traditional martial arts”. In fact, Chinese state news even covered the story, where they interviewed a senior member of the Chinese Martial Arts Association as well as a professor of martial studies from Beijing.

The overall gist was that pride has been hurt and face lost, all kinds of excuses are coming out. But the issue of what is the appropriate image for kung fu to be portraying in the modern world? Is it just about health and socialising as some have stated? Is it about reconnecting to cultural roots? I want to discuss my ideas in a more detailed way, particularly as my last article was just a spur of the moment thing.

In this video, I talk about how sparring is the the biggest thing in martial arts training that helped me overcome obstacles in my own life. I believe strongly that the greatest part of all martial arts training is self improvement. But self improvement and combat are not antithetical (if you haven’t read Bruce Lee’s works, then you should!). The relationship between combat and self development has been discussed as far back as the ancient Greeks, and has been written about in many Chinese and Japanese military texts. (Hagakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai for example)

If we are to develop ourselves fully as human beings, how can we fullfill our potential if we have never pushed ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone? The issue here I believe is that as modern day people we get too comfortable in our own lives, we dont “eat bitter” as the Chinese say. Once we become too content we dont push ourselves and egos grow. My teacher grew up in the Cultural Revolution, he trained his Praying Mantis Kung Fu in secret, while the country was falling apart around him. Moving on to the 80s, things stabilised, but people were still poor, and violence was very common. He grew up fighting, as did many males of his generation. There is a marked difference between martial artists of his generation and the younger ones.

My own answer to the question of the value of traditional martial arts is as follows. Most of us don’t live in a world of violence and turmoil. We don’t need to learn deadly techniques, weapon skills etc. But that doesn’t mean martial arts don’ have any value. As I said above, combat is one of the best methods of personal development, it is the only thing that pushes you beyond the edge of your comfort zones. Self defense is something we also need, and the confidence to know that should an altercation occur, we can handle ourselves easily. Sparring and other forms of combat training are a crucial part of martial arts, and challenges, done without ego or spite, are a good way to make friends. Visiting another school and exchanging skills in a mutually agreed environment is good fun, and allows for exchanges of skills to take place. The problem is that most Kung Fu people don’t spar, have never even been on the receiving end of a punch, and yet make big claims. I would like to see more Kung Fu people train for UFC and other competitive formats. Of course adaptations need to be made, but that doesn’t mean “not being true to your art”. It is doing the art a service. It also doesn’t mean getting rid of any traditions, it just means that people with the inclination to compete, can follow a certain road. This is not for everyone though.

Kung Fu has developed a bad reputation, mostly to frauds creating all kinds of scams, and as a good friend of mine says “good businessmen aren’t necessarily good martial artists, and vice versa”. The history of Kung Fu has also been askewed with myths and legends, and a lot of people struggle to seperate that from reality. A good book which clears up a lot of this is The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts.

So as a final thought, I think Xu Xiao Dong is doing a service to Kung Fu, and I don’t agree with figures like Jet Li, Cheng Zheng Lei and the Chinese Martial Arts Association shunning him. Regardless of what I think of him as a person, he is shaking things up, and I would love to see a good Kung Fu person step up and kick his ass. If this doesn’t get shut down by the Chinese government, then it’s only a matter of time.

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The MMA vs Tai Chi Fight Everyone’s Talking About

(I’ve since written a more in depth article on my thoughts about the situation here)

Here in China everybody is talking about this MMA vs Tai Chi fight. Basically Xu Xiao Dong is the father of MMA in China. Although he hasn’t actually had any fights per se, he is responsible for establishing the sport in China. He started attacking Tai Chi on social media, calling the majority of masters phoneys who can’t really fight. One man, Wei Lei, founder of Lei Gong style Tai Chi, took up the challenge, claiming he could get out of a reverse choke with just one hand. A fight was arranged, and Xu Xiao Dong flew out to Chengdu to fight Wei Lei. As you can see the fight was over very quickly. Now Xu is basking in his glory, and calling out more people. Chen Village and Wudang have been his main targets.

So, as a Kung Fu practitioner, what do I think about this situation? Well, I think it is really good for Chinese Martial Arts. In China, words like “master” and “high level” are thrown around way too easily. Almost any middle-aged man in white silks who has a half decent form gets called those words. Tai Chi is notoriously bad, as they make many mystical claims, their egos growing as big as the fantasies they live in. Sure, they can do some Push Hands tricks on cooperating students in the park. Its easy to say “the soft overcomes the hard” or “using four ounces to repell a thousand pounds” when the student is just tensing up on the spot as an examples of “hard force”. These guys need a reality check, while their egos are inflating on a daily basis, they are giving Chinese martial arts a bad name. This is not to say Tai Chi itself is inherantly bad, I have met some good practitioners, and Push Hands does have a lot of value IN THE RIGHT SITUATION. If Wei Lei had prepared himself to deal with the aggression of a real fight, I think his Tai Chi would have come into play once they closed the distance and got into grappling range. The problem arises when these people make big claims, but can’t back them up with real fighting experience.

There is tremendous value in genuine Chinese Kung Fu. I wouldn’t have packed my bags and moved across the world for ten years if there wasn’t. It was developed on the battlefield, refined by great generals, before being disseminated among the common people. Not only does it have excellent strategies and techniques for combat, but it is a holistic system for living, covering all aspects of life. The problem really, is how over the last hundred or so years, it has gone into a decline. There are still many people who can and do fight. My hope is that the recent events will bring them into the spotlight, the good guys will take up the challenge and the people who can’t fight, but make big claims, will take a long look in the mirror, and make some changes. This is a perfect opportunity for Kung Fu to move forward into the modern world, to embrace modern combat sports without losing its values.

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Meeting a Master the First Time – What You Should Do

When coming to China to train Kung Fu, many people are unsure how to act when meeting a master. China is a heirarchical society, and if you are meeting a master for the first time there are certain things that should be considered. Don’t get too worked up over it, Chinese etiquette is incredibly complicated and even they realise that. This is one of those times when you can “pull the laowai card”, although if you follow these steps you will be sure to impress! For a glimpse into the relationship between master and student, I recommend Steal My Art: he Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master T.T. Liang.

Gift Giving

When meeting someone for the first time, it is common in China to give a gift. If you are meeting a master for the first time, it may be a good idea to bring a gift. Typically in China, common gifts will involve alcohol, cigarettes or tea. My personal suggestion will be to give tea, as while most Chinese over the age of 50 smoke and drink, some may not. Typically, Chinese like things in even numbers, so you should give either two or four jars of tea, rather than one or three. If you are tight on money, going to the market and buying some fruit is an acceptable alternative. How much you spend isn’t important, and nothing will be expected, but going the extra mile will show you understand Chinese culture, and are a person who is appreciative and respectful.

Refusing to Receive and Being Pushy to Give

Ok, this one is the most difficult for most people to get their head around. Generally speaking, if Chinese people offer you something, it is rude to accept it outright. You should make a scene by refusing several times and making them force it in your hand. Then you should make out that them giving you this thing (no matter how small or insignificant it is) was really a big deal to you and you are totally embarassed to take it. However, when somebody you don’t know very well invites to buy you dinner or have you come to their home for dinner, it would be over-stepping your boundary to accept. If on the secone or third meeting they still insist, then you can agree.

On the other hand, when you offer something to someone, be VERY pushy. Force it into their hand, shove it in their pocket, pretend to be angry that they haven’t accepted it. You may have seen Chinese people fighting to pay the bill in restaurants. The key here for both the giving and receiving is generosity is considered a virtue and greed a vice, so people want to appear as much the former and little of the latter as posible.

Train Hard and Dont Slack Off

If your first time meeting a master involves training, then you best train like you never have before! The first impression will really decide whether a master accepts you or not. It’s common that at first you will be taught by a senior student, not the master himself, and they may not pay much attention to you. Actually, they are! Just repeat whatever has been taught, drill it again and again. Don’t ask too many questions in the early stages, as you don’t wanna come across cocky. I say this not because I think questioning is wrong, but because I see many people ask questions in a way that appears to be challenging the authority of the teacher. It’s better to build a rapport first, as like I mentioned earlier, heirarchy is important in Chinese culture.

Don’t Brag

There’s nothing worse than when someone is meeting a master the first time, and they reel of their CV of previous martial arts training or masters they know. In China, being humble is considered an important virtue. In time, people will come to know more about you, there’s no need to tell them more than “I have trained before, so I’m familiar with the basics”. It’s possible you will be asked to show a form, or perhaps spar a senior student. In this case, perform at your best, but be humble. As there is a lot of inter-style rivalry, also be prepared to be told what you have done before is totally wrong. Take it with a pinch of salt, and show you are willing to learn and improve.

So these are just a few suggestions to make things go smoothly. As I stated, people will understand you are a foreigner, and so will make exceptions if you break etiquette. Don’t stress about it! Take it as part of the fun of living in another culture!