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On the morning of April 19, the American merchant clipper Essex departs the port of Ningpo, unaware her pilot
will guide her into the waiting clutches of China Sea pirates led by the renegade Englishman Fokie Tom. When
Essex is run aground at the Volcano Islands, a bold passenger, Fletcher Thorson Wood, rallies the crew and
helps fight off the pirates while Essex struggles free.

As Essex later makes her way toward Shanghai, the ship owner’s daughter, Elizabeth Fitch, is dismayed to learn
that Fletcher, the “hero of Essex,” returns now to China to snatch for himself some portion of the Chinese
empire. Upon landing at Shanghai, however, the American consul has Fletcher taken into custody by the U. S.
marshal as a filibuster – a fomenter of foreign insurrection – because of Fletcher’s experience years before in
Mexico with the notorious William Walker. Championed by the owner of Essex, Augustus Fitch, Fletcher deftly
manipulates the American marshal and consul who hold him prisoner, with the result that he is ordered aboard
the river steamer Confucius and is appointed mate by the gruff old captain R. S. Ghent on a run up the Yangtze
to bring down to Shanghai a valuable cargo of tea. From the tea agent aboard the steamer, Chester Hicks,
Fletcher learns much about the rebellion and the warring parties, the Taiping rebels and the armies of the
Manchu emperor, and is witness to a violent battle for control of the walled city of Nanking, the capital of the
Taiping empire.

Fletcher decides to throw in with the "imps," the imperial forces, because of what he has seen of the rebels and,
as a firm supporter of the Union, he would not be a rebel himself. He devises a plan for fielding an army of
derelict sailors and British deserters to defend Shanghai against the rebels, and through the introduction of Hicks
presents the plan to Yang Fang, whom the foreigners know as Takee, a mandarin with the wealth needed to pay
for Fletcher’s army. Yang Fang is impressed by the brash foreigner, but wonders what are Fletcher’s true
motives, and how he can be controlled. Yang Fang must confer with his superior, the taotai Wu Hsü.

The fall of the city of Soochow to the rebels heightens the panic among the Chinese of Shanghai – the governor
finally approves the plan to hire an army of foreign rifles. Fletcher searches out Hannibal Benedict for his second-
in-command, and together they scour the bars and brothels and seaman’s homes of Shanghai to collect their
army. Their first recruits are British drill sergeants, Nigel Falconer and Darby Garden, men who can train other
men, who conclude they can go off with the Foreign Rifles for a brief lark, while their ship waits in harbor to go
north to fight the Chinese emperor, and be back before they’re missed. The taotai Wu Hsü watches Fletcher’s
men closely where they muster in the Shanghai temple of the Fire God, and sends them to Kuangfulin, four hours
southwest of Shanghai, to make a camp and train.

The Foreign Rifles set up camp at Kuangfulin, expecting to have months to get ready, but the mandarins are
anxious to see results for the money they spend and call the foreigners to battle only weeks later. Fletcher’s men
join the soldiers of the Chinese commander Li Heng-sung and go with the governor’s troops to the city of
Kating, where they support the attack with rifle fire, and then to Taitsang. There they again cover with rifle fire
the attack of Chinese troops against the city gate. Afterward, the Foreign Rifles assume they will have more time
to train, but after only days they receive another call to war. Rebels have taken the nearby town of Sungkiang,
and the Foreign Rifles are ordered to retake the town. As Fletcher’s army sets forth to recover Sungkiang, he
and Hannibal wonder how they can be expected to take a walled city without artillery.
In April of 1860, alarm among Westerners living in Shanghai soars as Chinese rebels cut a swath through and
rich Chinese traders in the native city begin to panic when nearby Hangchow is overrun by the rebels and tens
of thousands slaughtered. British and French naval forces and marines will soon depart for the north to war
against the Manchu emperor, leaving Shanghai defenseless. And the fickle gods of China are about to place the
fate of many into the hands of a lone American adventurer aboard a ship approaching Shanghai.
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It is a desperate time everywhere in China. Taiping rebels have captured Nanking and threaten Shanghai and the rice-
producing farmland in the surrounding countryside of the Yangtze delta. The armies of the Chinese French fleets
in Hong Kong prepare another campaign against the Chinese, the third in three years, to force the emperor to
ratify the treaty agreed upon in 1858. In 1859, the British and French attempted to force passage at the Taku
forts, at the entrance to the river leading to Peking, and were soundly bested by the Chinese – now the
foreigners return with more than 10,000 men and hundreds of ships to wreak their vengeance.