Gideon Chase, a young man who, at the age of seventeen, is a junior clerk in the Canton offices of a large American trading firm, the Meridian Company. He is industrious, diligent, quick-witted, and curious. The youngest character and an orphan, he spends much of the first half of the novel watching (and learning from) the others, particularly on their escapades to the “flower boats” and forays into the city proper, as well as to the haven of Macao. Later, he is revealed as the main protagonist, acting on his own initiative, though to higher purpose than his friends; his rites of passage become a main focus of the book. Gideon is at first easily led by his mentor and father figure, Walter Eastman. Gideon absorbs many of Eastman’s attitudes, particularly a distaste for the opium trade promoted by the British empire in China. The younger man soon surpasses the elder, in several ways. When Eastman is ignominiously discharged from his position at Meridian, Gideon resigns in support of his friend; moreover, his is the inspiration to begin the newspaper the two publish, The Lin Tin Bulletin and River Bee, and his is the more mature and reasonable rhetoric. Gideon also departs from Eastman in his ability (and his willingness) to see the Chinese as people and as individuals, not merely as an abstract value. This attribute is enhanced, if not fostered by, his study of the Chinese language, which, although against the law, allows him to enter the realm of the native. During his excursions through the war, from which struggles Canton emerges as Hong Kong, Gideon learns to see not only the humanity of the oppressed but also the brutality (and sometimes depravity) of the conquerer. Finally, Gideon becomes a more mature, a more discerning, and a more completely developed person than Eastman through his perception of the reality below the gaudy and often deceptive surface.
Walter Eastman, a twenty-four-year-old senior clerk with the Meridian Company in Canton. He is outspoken in his condemnation of the British opium trade, through which the empire financed its Indian ventures and realized a substantial...
(The entire section is 892 words.)