Michael Havens's Reviews > Tai-Pan

Tai-Pan by James Clavell
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Sep 14, 2008

liked it
Recommended for: Historical Fiction lovers
Read in July, 2008

What can I say about ‘Tai-Pan’? Is it really a Historical novel? Is it a Alternative History? These are the two questions I keep asking myself while working my way through the late James Clavell’s Asian saga, which for your consideration are the following:
‘Shogun’ (1600)
‘Tai-Pan’ (1841)
‘Gai-Jin’ (1862)
‘King Rat’(1945)
‘Noble House’(1963)

Before joining Goodreads, I had already read ‘Shogun’, so you, my friendly reader, do not have the luxury of a review of that as comparison, but I believe that what I say about ‘Tai-Pan’, set in Hong Kong, can easily be said of it’s predecessor.
First off, let’s talk about historical content. Clavell has said himself in interviews that the reason his characters are based on historical figures, the changes of names from historical to fictional ones are due to the fact that he wanted them to do something and say something outside their historical content (an interesting text ‘What we can learn from ‘Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy’ :Editor Henry Smith/The Program for Asian Studies, University of California, Santa Barbra), is available online as a searchable text: (http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/learning/) is an interesting group of essays both praising and criticizing certain aspects of Clavell’s novel, but he makes clear that as a novelist, he was not so interested in historical accuracy as he was in storytelling. This puts him somewhat apart from the likes of John Jakes, who attempts to portray the American epochs in his long Kent family chronicles and shorter Civil War epic as true as can possibly be. But Clavell goes farther, for while there is a George Washington and an Abraham Lincoln who resemble who they generally were in history in Jakes‘ series, Clavell actually invents names to stand in to the company of historical figures. So, with ‘Shogun‘, instead of William Adams, we have John Blackthorne and in place of Tokugawa we have Toranaga. In the case of ’Tai-Pan’ and the case of William Jardine, we have the Scotsman, Dirk Struan.
Why am I making such a big deal with names? Nothing, except that what Clavell is doing rather than telling a historical story, is to make commentary on the times, not by addressing what a given period does that can be seen and addressed like many pieces of literature can and does do (note that I’m not criticizing Clavell’s desire to make commentary here), but by allowing the historical characters to think and do things which may not be historically accurate, yet can ultimately serve Clavell’s point on the subject, especially of East/West cultural and political issues, and one with an Anglo-centric slant.
I have read many commentaries about Clavell being balanced in his view of the far East and the West, for example, unlike Blackthorne, who by the end of the novel practically swallows Japanese culture whole, Dirk Struan’s character in ‘Tai-Pan’ wants to strike a balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities. But while trying to see their point on two novels so far, I find something rather interesting. It seems that there is a circular argument, at least in ‘Tai-Pan’ that while Struan appreciates Chinese/Cantonese culture, it is because he is not only a merchant, and one waging a personal vendetta/war against the other merchant rival, Tyler Brock, former, somewhat sadistic shipmaster, but because he’s from Great Britain proper, that his perspective carries more weight, and not necessarily that China has truly (e.g. “spiritually“), opened his eyes, and certainly not to the degree of Blackthorne’s love affair with Japan. So, in the end, rather than being a balance between Eastern and Western cultures, as an Asian saga might imply, it is more Asia as seen through Anglo-Saxon eyes.
Another point in the novel that brings this home and actually puts ‘Shogun’ ahead of ’Tai-Pan’ is the fact that scenes in ’Tai-Pan’ are almost entirely set up in the British settlements around Hong Kong. We don’t see an equal representation with the Asian side of things as we do with ‘Shogun’ and the interplay with Toranaga (Historical name: Tokugawa) and other Japanese in dealing with the “foreign issue” What we get are snippets, then brought back to the British side of things, for example, we get Struan’s mistress, May-May and himself in conversations, or there are dealings with her bastard son through Struan, the secret Triad member, Gordon Chen, the only two “major” Chinese/Cantonese characters in the book. There are other more minor scenes and references, but the story is always planted more firmly in British soil. Around this time, there was an ever growing xenophobia in China that could have been more fully examined, but never reaches that point, only touched upon. This could have allowed more characters from the Asian side to participate in the drama. As it is, the main center of the story revolves around the one-upmanship between Struan and his company, Noble House which is based on the real Jardine Mattheson Holdings Limited company, and Tyler Brock, with British politics, both domestically and abroad, occurring intermittently.
Once again my question. Just what type of novel is this? Is it historical fiction, or historical commentary wrapped around an Anglo-centric bias? Why, if this is an Historical fiction, are there not major, or even minor fictional characters finding themselves in the time period, experiencing things for themselves, and addressing what they see are the main issues? Even the word “Tai-Pan” is used somewhat incorrectly, as it implies in the novel that the Tai-Pans (Definition: The head or owner of a business establishment), have great political power, maybe even more impressive power than the British Government itself, certainly something that Struan leaves an impression on from time to time, but not an emphasis which the word lends itself to.
The most irritating thing about the book is Clavell’s Chinese character’s sense of diction, accent, and manner of speech. Most of the Chinese dialog in this novel is dominated by May-May, semi-main characters, like her and Gordon Chen. In any given pages she comes out sounding cartoonish. Dialect, accent, and diction are very hard things to do. In fact, to take Clavell off the hook , there are only a few great authors who can pull these things off without a hitch, so I sympathize. But reading May-May’s lines I grimace, as they sound so clunky. For a few lines, May-May sounds proficient, adding to her vocabulary Struan’s Scottish nuances, like “You dina…” (‘Tai-Pan’ 194), or “Na so loud! The sea god may hear you.”, as she attempts to appease the Chinese god’s to help their listing boat to safety, by pretending to offer the god gold, but “cheating” in the end, and promising Struan that the god would never know that she tricked the god out of her end of the bargain by not dropping some gold into the sea (195). As she is Struan’s mistress, picking up on Struan’s Scottish dialectical and phonetic nuances are understandable. We are never really given an approximation as to how long she had been with Struan, but it seems to be a significant time. Long enough to pick up the habits of the user of the second language she is learning from. But like many other Chinese characters in the book, she reverts at times from perfect sounding English to becoming the stereotypical Asian woman, speaking cute, quaint, but gibbering English (and I won’t repeat the sexual innuendo associated with Asian women trying to speak English, but I assume you get the idea!).
What gives this book a plus, aside from the historical problems is that it is a decent drama and adventure. It has all the passion of ambition, love, and danger one can expect from a story with an “exotic“ setting and an adventure behind it. For this, I gave it three stars. But it doesn’t get more, because it doesn’t significantly deliver on its promise on the cover to be part of an ASIAN SAGA; one in which two cultures encounter one another, and the political and cultural consequences that follow. There is a Hong Kong hidden somewhere between two formable and foreign entities rivaling each other. But it is mostly a shadowed figure sandwiched between an Anglo-centric storyline, no matter how much Dirk Struan asserts his admiration and assimilation to some, and in the pages of the book, very little, Chinese culture.
I still have four more novels in this series to go. I wonder how much further along Clavell will get in addressing things from both sides of the world?

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