Tai-Pan by James Clavell

August 31, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): It is the early 19th century, when European traders and adventurers first began to penetrate the forbidding Chinese mainland. And it is in this exciting time and exotic place that a giant of an Englishman, Dirk Struan, sets out to turn the desolate island of Hong Kong into an impregnable fortress of British power, and to make himself supreme ruler…Tai-Pan!

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • I really enjoy Clavell’s writing style. As you can tell from this blog, I read a wide range of books. Inevitably, some of the authors I run into can come off as complete amateurs in terms of writing ability. Clavell certainly doesn’t fall into that category. He was indeed a master of his craft.
  • The love story between Struan and May-May was surprisingly touching and compelling. This was my favorite plot thread in the entire book. I loved the scenes between these two, and how Struan went all out to find a treatment/cure when May-May came down with malaria. The fact that they died in each other’s arms was probably a bit sappy, but it fit with the situation, so I give it a pass.
  • I liked the little tidbits of Chinese culture that were sprinkled throughout. This was really why I wanted to read the book in the first place. I was actually hoping for more insight into the culture (something similar to what Clavell did in Shogun, for example), so was kind of disappointed in that respect. But what Clavell did decide to include was interesting.


  • As with Shogun, Tai-Pan got off to an extremely slow start. The first 50-60 pages took a lot of work to get through because they were so boring and introduced so many characters all at once. I almost gave up because of the slow start.
  • There was a decided lack of action in this book. Most of the scenes consisted of Dirk talking to somebody about his plans for Hong Kong; the only real action was provided by Gorth Brock and the typhoon at the end. I don’t mind character studies, but the characters should at least be interesting. I didn’t think Dirk was complex enough to warrant all the attention.
  • Struan was unlikable. I’m not sure why, but I just never warmed to the character. I think it was because every single plan he set in motion worked out to perfection, despite heavy reliance on other people’s reactions. Nobody can predict with 100 percent certainty how others will react to whatever bait is laid at their feet, yet that’s exactly what Dirk was able to do. And he wasn’t just predicting one person’s reaction; his plans were predicated on multiple people doing things just so. I really dislike protagonists that are always right. It’s just way too unrealistic.
  • The rendering of pidgin English quickly became tiresome to read through. I get that Clavell was aiming for authenticity, but the pidgin English was very difficult to read for pages on end throughout the whole book.


If you’re new to James Clavell, Tai-Pan is probably not the best place to start. I read this book because I’m planning on reading the whole “Asian Saga” in order, and this happened to be the next title up. Personally, I greatly preferred Shogun to this one — and I’m not even particularly fond of Shogun. The lack of action and unlikable protagonist doomed this book for me. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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  1. I just added your blog to my roll. Your “reports” are great. I also LIKE spoilers whether in a book or a movie. Odd – I know! Thanks!

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