The Bitter Tea of General Yen

I’m having enormous fun with The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Not the movie with Barbara Stanwyck; the book by Grace Zaring Stone.

It’s set in the treaty ports of China, in 1911, I think.

Here we have troops from all over the European empires guarding the International Settlement — Senegalese, Annamites, Sikhs and Durhams with machine guns

In the harbor you have gunships from England, France, Holland, Italy, Japan and America.

You have your collapsing Qing Dynasty and then your Nationalists, some of them communists, others not, and Russians, White and Red, supporting one side or the other

Then there are your religious missionaries and your medical missionaries and there’s even a mention of Yale in China — Boola, Boola!

Lots of room for international intrigue.

The story begins with the arrival in China of Megan Davis, who is from a small college town in New England (Amherst or Hanover?) who has come to marry her medical missionary fiance, but gets swept up in the capture of Nanking by Nationalist forces

She ventures out of the International Settlement to help a courageous doctor rescue some orphans, but they are set upon by a mob that doesn’t like foreigners and the doctor gets knocked unconscious and she’s getting beaten up, and then she gets rescued by the eponymous General Yen, who happens by in his private train and turns out to be a very amusing fellow.

Megan being a prospective missionary’s wife, there are a lot of interesting discussions about Western attitudes toward the Chinese and vice versa. At one point she’s giving the General a hard time because the mob set upon her and the doctor when they had a safe-conduct with his (General Yen’s) signature.

“I see now your safe-conduct was worthless. But I did not know at the time. You see, I have lived all my life in a country where if a situation comparable to this were possible, such a pass would be effective. The whole temper and training of the people would make it so

[Pretty hypothetical and conjectural, if you ask me]

“Do you speak seriously?” General Yen replies. “Where is this country you are talking about that has no mob spirit, no race hatred, but only a perfect respect for law and authority? I had supposed that you were an American.”

Score one for the eponymous general.

“Megan realized too late that she had been carried away,” Stone continues, “and simultaneously that she must not be carried away again.”