During the TaiPing Rebellion, ca. the 1860s, there was one infamous foreign commander among the ranks of the Qing Dynasty’s Imperial Army. His name was Ward, and he was such a capable fighter and officer that many of his contemporaries say that he would’ve made a fine General during the American Civil War. The only thing that prevented his possible ascension through the American military machine was the fact that he was in China during America’s war.
Instead of fighting in the States, Ward was commanding a ragtag group of rowdy foreigners—mercenaries is the appropriate term, half of them too drunk to fight on any given day—during one of Imperial China’s civil wars. The ones that could stand and fight for the unpopular Qing government were paid handsomely. Ward would recruit the roughnecks for the foreign fighting legion from the seediest locales in Shanghai, frequently picking up unruly characters from the docks or the brothels.
In this current era that discourages the virtues of brazen recklessness, thirst for adventure, and appetite for destruction, Ward would find himself out of place. Even Ward’s former base of operations, Shanghai, is a very different place in the world of today. Shanghai is commercial as they come, the principle industry being commerce. And, given the amount of consumers in Shanghai, business is good. This is civilization at its utmost, isn’t it? Mmm, not quite right. Perhaps it fails to capture the most idyllic goals of humanity. What then can be said of this lifestyle in Shanghai? Life stretched to the max? Certainly. This awesome scale is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Shanghai.
One can still find the sort of characters that would’ve been willing volunteers in Ward’s rough-and-tumble regiments though. But, to contrast the darker nature of this city of transients, there is also a posh side to this urban populous. There is a passivity as well. I might even go so far as to say there is an apolitical, anonymous, and apathetic feeling to this city.
Albeit, on a man’s worst night in modern Shanghai he can envision himself cut out for Ward’s crew. He is able to immerse himself so deeply in depravity and apathy that risking life and limb for an unpopular imperial regime seems like a good scheme. It’s a shot at respectability even. Ah, we’re a far cry from the days of fortune and glory, that’s for certain. But villains abound nonetheless.