Book: The Mercenary Mandarin | David Leffman

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Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 4.06.39 PM.png

Book: The Mercenary Mandarin | David Leffman


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

by David Leffman

Dimensions 140 × 216 mm

Pages 372

Binding Paperback

Illustrations 21 b/w illustrations

SKU: 978-988-13765-4-1

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Jersey-born William Mesny ran off to sea as a boy and jumped ship at Shanghai in 1860 when he was just 18. Amid the chaos of foreign intrigue and civil war in 19th-century China, he became a smuggler, a prisoner of the Taiping rebels, a gun-runner and finally enlisted in the Chinese military. After five years of fierce campaigning against the Miao in remote Guizhou province, Mesny rose to the rank of general and used this privileged position to travel around China – to the borders with Burma, Tibet and Vietnam – writing opinionated newspaper articles, collecting plants and advising government officials on the development of railways, telegraphs and other modern reforms. Mesny eventually settled in Shanghai with a 16-year-old concubine and published Mesny’s Chinese Miscellany, a weekly magazine about his experiences. But his story was not to end well. After his implication in an illicit arms deal, his fortunes never recovered, and when he died in 1919 he was working as a desk clerk. David Leffman has spent over 15 years footstepping Mesny’s travels across China, interviewing locals and piecing together his life story from contemporary journals, private letters and newspaper articles.

Media attention

“David Leffman writes about Mesny with insight, warmth, and modesty… The Mercenary Mandarin is more than just a well-written biography of a fascinating life; it’s also a panoramic look at the last half-century of Qing-dynasty China.” – John Ross, Jottings From The Granite Studio

“Fizzes with lively characters… packed with stirring tales of derring-do and deftly interwoven with the events that drove the times… the author’s grasp of history provides an excellent guide to late 19th-century China and the conditions under which people lived.” – China Daily

“Scholarly in its approach, and clearly distilled from an immense amount of research… Leffman’s telling of this tale is well-paced, his writing elegant and his knowledge of China impressive. The book is full of period detail, much of it showing just how remote inland China still was: in the 1860s the 800km journey up the Yangtze from the Three Gorges to Chongqing took six weeks, longer than a sea trip from Shanghai to London; while a Chinese general Mesny meets when he gets to Chongqing is amazed to discover that foreigners have knee joints.” – South China Morning Post

“William Mesny’s exploits in 19th-century China are the stuff of legend and make for a thrilling book” – an excerpt from The Mercenary Mandarin is printed in Post Magazine

“Seasoned travel writer David Leffman has guided us through the Middle Kingdom for decades, and in Mesny he has found his spiritual ancestor. Written with great care and attention to detail, The Mercenary Mandarin documents the life and exploits of one of the great overlooked adventurers of colonial-era China. A tale of war and discovery set in one of China’s most tumultuous periods, it is a valuable contribution to any traveler’s bookshelf.” – Derek Sandhaus, editor of Decadence Mandchoue; author of Baijiu: the Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits

“Checking in to his temporary quarters at the rear of the Black Sage temple, the newly-appointed Provincial Superintendent of Foreign Arms found the halls packed to the rafters with barrels of gunpowder, took one look at the worshippers lighting sticks of incense and candles, and decided it would be safer to bunk elsewhere. Despite his Chinese robes, whose leopard rank badge and pale blue hat button identified him as a military mandarin of the third rank, there was something decidedly unusual about this young, thickly-moustached officer: he was British, and his name was William Mesny.” – David Leffman describes Mesny’s adventures for The Diplomat

“In this first part of a two-part series we examine the forgotten life of William Mesny. Drawing from author David Leffman’s 2016 book The Mercenary Mandarin, Laszlo discusses an unknown character from the bad old days of late Qing-dynasty China. Though he never made it to the history books, he nonetheless witnessed and took part in a lot of it. Through Mesny we can once again wander through some of Imperial China’s worst years.” – the China History Podcast

About the author

David Leffman was born and raised in the UK, took a degree in photography, spent 20 years in Australia and then relocated back to Britain in 2009. He first visited China in 1985 and has since authored travel guidebooks to China, Hong Kong, Australia, Indonesia and Iceland for publishers such as DK and Rough Guides; helped compile a Chinese cookbook; and written articles on subjects ranging from crime to horse racing. The Mercenary Mandarin is the result of 15 years spent in archives and on the road, following Mesny’s trail around China’s backblocks.

For hundreds of photographs, research notes and extracts from early versions of the book, like “The Mercenary Mandarin” on Facebook or visit the author’s website at