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Book review – Tai Pan by James Clavell

Updated on February 19, 2011

Tai Pan is the second book chronologically speaking from Clavell series. As in Shogun, the book plot is also based on a fight between two epic figures of that time located in Hong Kong, rulers of the most important commercial empires from that area, Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock.

Another resemblance between Shogun and Tai Pan is that both books are picturing around the plot the main characteristics and peculiarities of different cultures in that period. The action in Tai Pan begins around middle of nineteenth century, after the first Opium War. This is a time when business flourished and all the merchants tried to increase commerce with China. The most important business belonged to Tyler Brock and Dirk Struan. The link between those two is strong, based on pure hate. They hate each other with a passion derived from their former statute. Dirk Struan was a former employee of Brock who developed his own commercial empire after being mistreated by the latest. He is visionary, is the first to understand political importance of Hong Kong, a small undeveloped island, for the British Empire as a foothold in the region and acts in all possible ways to achieve that. He also acts without social constraints, involving romantically with a Chinese girl and bringing this bond in the open, a thing unthinkable for the time. He swore revenge against his former employer and acts in all possible ways in order to bankrupt his rival. Brock on the other hand is the prototype of merchant in that period. Strong, brutal, acting with no restrain on legal or illegal ways in order to gain more power for the company and himself. He also hates his former employee for his achievements, for the fact that he is no longer the most important key figure in the area.

The beauty of the book reside though not in the action itself but in the extraordinary portrait of the two civilizations that have interacted, the Chinese who at the surface were uncivilized and poorly prepared to interact economically speaking with merchants from Europe and America but on a closer view they prove to be extremely capable but hard to understand because of their cultural habits and the Western society represented by English and American merchants, very tough people, the founders of the purest form of capitalism, unstrained by a set of thick laws, only driven by their desire to accumulate riches and social status.

All in all this is one of the masterpieces of universal literature, a book that you will find hard to let go once you start reading it.

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