Dirk Struan

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Dirk Struan
Tai-Pan character
Created by James Clavell
Gender Male
Nationality British

Dirk Lochlin Struan is the fictional main character of James Clavell's 1966 novel Tai-Pan. The title comes from a Cantonese term that Clavell loosely translates as "supreme leader", and Struan is the taipan or head of his own trading company in China, Struan's. In Clavell's literary universe, moreover, Struan is presented as the Tai-Pan, and his company as the Noble House, the greatest private trading company in nineteenth-century Asia. A Scotsman, "the devil Struan" is portrayed as a tough and resourceful rogue, endowed with vision and determination. A man of extremity, he is capable of tremendous love and terrible hate. He will stop at nothing to protect his home, his family, and the Noble House.

In the back-story as revealed in the novel, Struan begins his nautical adventures as a powder monkey on a King's ship at the battle of Trafalgar, and he remains bound to the sea for life. At the age of fourteen he finds service on an East India Company merchant ship to China, under the command of his future nemesis Tyler Brock. He suffers ruthless punishment from Brock and makes a holy oath to someday destroy him. On a fateful night the ship runs aground on a reef and sinks. Struan swims ashore and finds his way back to the local Portuguese trading settlement of Macao.

Thereafter Struan works only for himself; he starts by practising piracy on Chinese junks and uses them to make dangerous opium runs up the China coast. He expands his smuggling business and eventually masses a fleet of clipper ships and a large fortune. But Tyler Brock also survives the shipwreck to found his own company, Brock and Sons. The two rivals rise to dominate the China trade. But Struan is almost always a little stronger, a little smarter, and a little richer than his nemesis.

The enmity between Struan and Brock is a prominent theme in Clavell's Asian Saga. Struan dies in a typhoon before he can fulfil his oath to destroy Brock. Both men leave many children, legitimate and illegitimate, who take up their fathers' mantles and continue the battle. Thus begins a vicious cycle which lasts many years. It is passed down through the generations. The last descendant of Tyler Brock, Quillan Gornt, dies in a boating accident over 120 years later. After this accident there is no one from the Brock line left to threaten the Noble House.

Struan has a Chinese mistress, May-may, and their romance is developed within the conventions of the genre as the basis for the novel's optimistic theme of cross-cultural fusion.[1] The character also has several children who feature in the story, including Culum Struan, Winifred Dunross and Gordon Chen.

Clavell's hero was inspired by the historical William Jardine,[2][3] and the Noble House of Struan's is modelled on the real-life "Princely House" of Jardine, Matheson & Co of Hong Kong.[4]

Depictions in Film[edit]

Patrick McGoohan was announced to play Dirk Struan in a film version of Tai Pan in 1968 but this was never made due to budget issues.[5][6] In the late 1970s Steve McQueen signed to play the role for a reported $10 million fee in an adaptation written by George MacDonald Fraser (who thought Sean Connery would have made ideal casting); however he later dropped out of the project; Roger Moore became briefly attached, but the movie was never made.[7]

Eventually Australian actor Bryan Brown played Struan in the movie Tai Pan (1986), which was a box office flop.


  1. ^ Gina Macdonald, James Clavell: A Critical Companion (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1996), pp. 64-69.
  2. ^ John Makinson, "Books: Jardine story – The Thistle and the Jade: A Celebration of Jardine, Matheson & Co. edited by Maggie Keswick", Financial Times (16 October 1982), p. 12.
  3. ^ "Book (1966): Tai-Pan, James Clavell", South China Morning Post (29 March 2009), p. 7.
  4. ^ Robyn Meredith, "Sailing From Old to New Asia; Jardine Matheson is ever more a play on its traditional region", Forbes Asia, Volume 4, Issue 15 (15 September 2008), p. 88.
  5. ^ 'Tai-Pan' Filming Postponed Over Costs The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 23 July 1968: B6.
  6. ^ MGM Seeking Oriental for Lead in 'Tai Pan' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 15 Aug 1969: d16.
  7. ^ George MacDonald Fraser, The Light's On at Signpost, HarperCollins 2002 p198-212