Tai-Pan (novel)

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This article is about the novel. For other meanings of Tai-Pan, see Tai-Pan (disambiguation).
Tai-Pan (novel).jpg
1982 paperback edition
Author James Clavell
Country United Kingdom, United States
Language English
Series Asian Saga
Genre Historical fiction, Novel
Publisher Atheneum
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 727 pp
Preceded by Shōgun
Followed by Gai-Jin

Tai-Pan is a 1966 novel written by James Clavell about European and American traders who move into Hong Kong in 1842 following the end of the First Opium War. It is the second book in Clavell's "Asian Saga".

Plot summary[edit]

The novel begins following the British victory of the first Opium War and the seizure of Hong Kong. Although the island is largely uninhabited and the terrain unfriendly, it has a large natural harbour that both the British government and various trading companies believe will be useful for the import of merchandise to be traded on mainland China, a highly lucrative market.

Although the novel features many characters, it is Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, former shipmates and the owners of two massive (fictional) trading companies who are the main focal points of the story. Their rocky and often abusive relationship as seamen initiated an intense amount of competitive tension. Throughout the novel, both men seek to destroy each other in matters of business and personal affairs. Struan is referred to throughout the novel as Tai-Pan, indicating his position as head of the largest of all the trading companies in Asia. Clavell translates Tai-Pan as "Supreme Leader"; although "Big Shot" might be more accurate. Brock, owner of the second largest of the trading companies, constantly vies to destroy Struan's company and reputation in an attempt both to exact revenge on Struan and to become the new "Tai-Pan" of Chinese trade.

Other important characters of the novel include:

  • Culum Struan - Dirk Struan's son and future Tai-pan
  • Robb Struan - Dirk Struan's half-brother and business partner.
  • William Longstaff - first Governor of Hong Kong
  • Jeff Cooper, American trader and secret partner to the Noble House
  • Wilf Tillman, American trader and partner to Jeff Cooper. Guardian to Shevaun Tillman. Advocate of slavery.
  • Count Zergyev - Russian diplomat and spy to gauge British influence in Hong Kong
  • Gorth Brock - Tyler Brock's boat-captain son.
  • Jin-Qua, Chinese tea and opium trader, lends Dirk Struan "40 Lac" (about 1.656 million Pounds sterling, or 8 million dollars in silver bullion) to get out of debt to Tyler Brock. He is the originator of the "coin debt" to which Dirk and future Tai-Pans must swear to uphold (revealed as well in Noble House)
  • May–May - Dirk Struan's Chinese mistress, granddaughter of Jin-Qua, instructed to teach Dirk "civilized" (Chinese) ways.
  • Liza Brock, wife of Tyler Brock and Tess' mother
  • Aristotle Quance - Painter and hedonist, always in debt. The Struan family own several of his paintings.
  • Shevaun Tillman, ward of Wilf Tillman and hopeful bride to Dirk Struan.
  • Captain Orlov, "The Hunchback" Finnish opium ship captain under Dirk Struan. Often has visions of precognition of future events.
  • William Skinner, editor of the island newspaper, privy to secrets handed to him by Dirk Struan to keep his rivals off balance
  • Gordon Chen - Dirk Struan's Eurasian son by a Chinese mistress and secret head of the first Hong Kong Triad (underground society)
  • Tess Brock, daughter of Tyler Brock and eventual wife of Culum Struan. Also known as Hag Struan in later novels.
  • Mary Sinclair, secret English prostitute and devotee/spy of Dirk Struan, and sister of Horatio Sinclair.
  • Captain Glessing, former ship captain of Royal Navy and harbor master. Has a peninsula named after him. Loses an arm in the typhoon.
  • Horatio Sinclair, clerk to Dirk Struan, church fanatic and harbors incestuous desires for his sister Mary.
  • Wolfgang Mauss, renegade priest and teacher to Gordon Chen.
  • Roger Blore, gambler, makes an unheard of record time journey to Hong Kong, later becomes Dirk Struan's horse racing club owner.
  • Captain Scragger, pirate and negotiator for Wu Fang Choi, a pirate king. Scragger's family line is mentioned several times in the following books of the Asian Saga.
  • Wu Fang Choi, pirate king and secret partner to Jin-Qua, as the bullion for the deal came from him.

Political subtext[edit]

As per normal for Clavell's novels, there is quite a bit of subtext to Tai-Pan. Clavell was a proponent of free trade, an ardent individualist and anti-fascist - the novel alludes to these concepts through the often critical depiction of both European traders and hostile Chinese and to a lesser degree, the British Parliament and their trade policies and practices, especially where the opium trade was concerned. Dirk Struan embodies Clavell's concept of the Hero whose vision for a proper form of cultural integration between East and West finds Dirk throwing off much of what he disliked of both Chinese and European society, yet fusing all that he does admire into a new way of living.

Historical basis[edit]

As with Clavell's other novels, the setting and many characters are based on actual events, which set the stage for the novel.

Struan's "Noble House" trading company is based on Jardine Matheson & Co., a major Scottish trading company of the time now known as Jardine Matheson Holdings. The company was preeminent among the "Hongs", trading companies then operating under the Canton System in the southern Chinese port of the same name (now known as Guangzhou), and later Hong Kong.

  • Dirk Struan is loosely based on William Jardine.
  • Robb Struan is loosely based on James Matheson.
  • The artist character Aristotle Quance may be loosely based upon George Chinnery, a close friend of Messrs Jardine and Matheson who was the most prominent artist in South China during the period.
  • Jin-Qua is loosely based on Howqua.

The firm Cooper-Tillman is loosely based on Russell & Co.

The Brock family is loosely based on the Dent family and the firm Dent & Co.

Shevaun Tillman is loosely based on Harriet Low.

Gordon Chen is loosely based on Sir Robert Ho Tung.


Clavell had written one novel, the autobiographical King Rat. He was challenged to write a second book because "that separates the men from the boys".[1] He said he wanted to write a book which did for Hong Kong what James Michener's Hawaii did for that state.[2]

He spent nine months researching the novel in Hong Kong. He says it took him five false starts, 241 days to write a first draft, and 12 weeks to do the second. He did so much research it gave him the idea to write a trilogy.[3]

In film[edit]

Main article: Tai-Pan (film)


  1. ^ AUTHOR JAMES CLAVELL: A LEGEND IN HIS OWN TIME Rosenfield, Paul Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Apr 19, 1981; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. L5
  2. ^ 12-HOUR TV MOVIE: 'Shogun' to Be Filmed in Japan Smith, Cecil Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); May 2, 1979; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. F1
  3. ^ JAMES CLAVELL: Filmdom's Do-It-Yourselfer Warga, Wayne. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 04 Apr 1969: h13.