Douglas & McIntyre
The Horse That Leaps through Clouds

Book details:

September 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-269-4
6" x 9"
520 pages
History / Asia / China HIS008000
Current Affairs
$34.95 CAD


  • The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds has won the 2011 Ottawa Book Award

Douglas & McIntyre

The Horse That Leaps through Clouds

A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China

Excerpt / Additional Content

Prologue: Crossing the Mannerheim Line

To know Mannerheim strengthens one’s belief in mankind, for he is in fact the chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. —Former Colonel Paul Rodzianko, Imperial Russian Army (1940)

On June 4, 1942, Adolf Hitler’s private plane, a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, dropped out of a stormy sky on its descent to an airstrip in Imatra, a picturesque Finnish town about two hundred kilometres from Leningrad, where Nazi troops were laying siege to the beleaguered Soviet city. It was a rare outing for the Reich Chancellor. He had been to Rome, had met his victorious troops in Paris and had made inspection tours in Poland and Russia. But this visit was truly extraordinary and took everyone by surprise: the Führer was flying to Finland for a birthday party.

Baron Gustaf Mannerheim, Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland, was turning seventy-five. He had written his sister insisting that any sort of celebration would be in “bad taste” given the war casualties being suffered by Finns fighting alongside German soldiers.² He planned to tour the front lines instead. But at 8 o’clock the night before his birthday, Hitler’s aide-de-camp, General Rudolf Schmundt, called to say that the Reich Chancellor would be at Mannerheim’s party the next day. And, the General politely added, he would need to be served a special diet.

Mannerheim greeted Hitler and his entourage in front of a railway dining car hidden in a forest near the airstrip. Inside, the partygoers feasted on a hastily organized luncheon of cabbage pasties, cold salmon with mayonnaise and goose stuffed with apples and baked in cream.³ “While the rest of us enjoyed the good but simple dishes,” Mannerheim later recalled, “[Hitler] ate his vegetarian meal washed down with tea and water.”⁴

After birthday congratulations, Hitler said how he, “an unknown soldier from the First World War,” appreciated meeting Mannerheim, a decorated First World War general and Finland’s liberator. (In 1918, Mannerheim led Finland’s meagre army to defeat socialist insurgents in a civil war and became founding regent of the independent republic.) Hitler then turned to current events. In a low-pitched and somewhat hoarse voice, the Reich Chancellor rambled, repeated himself and frequently paused to collect his thoughts. (Some eleven minutes of this bizarre birthday were secretly taped, the only recording of Adolf Hitler in private conversation.⁵) The war wasn’t going well; his attack on Moscow had turned into a debacle. The number of Soviet tanks they had encountered, Hitler sighed, was a “surprise of a most unpleasant nature.”

Mannerheim knew well the unpleasantness of Soviet might. Only a few years earlier he had become known around the world for leading Finland’s defence against Soviet invasion. For 105 days during the Winter War of 1939 –40, the free world held its breath—and stood idly by—as one of the world’s smallest and poorest democracies defended itself against the largest and most heavily industrialized empire the Earth had ever seen. Stalin unleashed a quarter of his armed divisions against the Finns, who had no tanks, few planes and many cannons dating from the nineteenth century. “History affords few examples of a conflict so overwhelmingly onesided,” writes one historian.⁶

Finland eventually sacrificed its eastern province of Karelia but miraculously saved itself. Soviet propagandists and foreign correspondents quickly attributed Finland’s success to a defensive line of concrete bunkers and ramparts made of earth and timber stretching eighty kilometres across the Karelian Isthmus. They dubbed it the Mannerheim Line. In reality, as its namesake knew, the hastily reinforced line was too old and too thin to withstand modern artillery. It was the bravery, wits and sisu (guts) of Finnish soldiers that held the line—and halted Communism’s advance.

Mannerheim became an instant celebrity for outwitting the Red Army, although some in the West expressed unease about this “generalissimo” who could have made himself Finland’s dictator but did not.⁷ The Marshal certainly looked the part: he paraded around in riding boots and an impeccable uniform with a swastika embedded in an iron cross around his neck. During Finland’s civil war, some of his own countrymen called him “The Butcher.” One North American newspaper said he was “as pro-German as his name denotes” and had “a record for ruthless treatment of his political opponents which could only be matched by Hitler himself.”⁸ He was, the newspaper concluded near the end of the war, a “naturalborn Fascist.”⁹

Yet Mannerheim wasn’t a Nazi, pro-German or even an ethnic German. His name was of Dutch ancestry and he was born a baron into a Swedish-speaking noble family in Finland. His swastika had nothing to do with Nazism either: the Finnish air force had adopted the swastika in 1918 as a lucky symbol, a popular motif at the time. Mannerheim had been decidedly anti-German throughout his military career. He fought against Germany in the First World War and would do the same by the end of the Second World War,¹⁰ his secret lunch with the Führer notwithstanding. In fact, a German military attaché noted the jarring contrast between Mannerheim, “a man of the world, a tall and slender apparition, with the unaffected movements of a grand seigneur” and “Hitler, thick-set, with lively, definite movements and an imperious expression.”¹¹

The two seemed to have nothing in common besides fighting the Soviets. Yet the Führer and the Marshal had a mutual Swedish friend, a link that suggests at least one other shared interest.

Sven Hedin mesmerized a generation with his stories of adventure in the unknown world of Inner Asia. As a boy, Hitler had read the legendary Swedish explorer’s books and befriended him later in life. In 1936, Hedin gave the opening address at the Berlin Olympics and published a book the next year with the inopportune title of Germany and World Peace, in which he praised Hitler for his “humanity” and “unswerving desire for peace.”¹² Part Jewish, Hedin was ridiculed and ostracized for his naïveté toward the Nazis.

Hedin even secretly intervened to seek Hitler’s help in defending Finland against Soviet attack in 1939. Yet at one meeting in Hitler’s new Empire-style chancellery in Berlin, the Führer seemed more interested in the Oriental diet of the plucky seventy-five-year-old: “Give me the key to your secret and tell me what you do to keep so healthy and alert at your age!”

Hedin told Hitler about the dry, alpine air of Inner Asia and his Tibetan diet of “thick yellow sour milk, and also the delicious sweet milk of the yak cows.”

“Yes, yoghurt, sour milk is the best of all foods,” Hitler agreed, “healthy and good to eat . . . But a people that lives at such a terrific height and in such a hard, cold climate must surely eat a great deal of meat and fat?” History’s most fanatical vegetarian wondered whether Tibetans were “not liable to certain diseases brought on by their constant meat diet?”

As the conversation wore on, Hedin began “to fear that the reason [Hitler] was digging his teeth so firmly into the Tibetan diet was to keep me off the subject of Finland.” By the end of their meeting, Hitler had acquiesced to none of Hedin’s pleas to help Finland.

An interest in Inner Asia also forged Mannerheim’s lifelong friendship with Hedin. In 1906, both men were conducting clandestine expeditions into the heart of Asia. Hedin snuck into Tibet—a land forbidden to foreigners—disguised as a monk. A brilliant cartographer with an ego the size of the peaks that he scaled, the Swede mapped this uncharted world and met the Panchen Lama, the second-holiest pontiff of Tibetan Buddhism. Mannerheim was a thirty-nine-year-old colonel in the Imperial Russian army (Finland was, at the time, a grand duchy of the Russian Empire), but masqueraded as an ethnographic collector. He was on a two-year secret mission for Tsar Nicholas ii to collect intelligence for a possible invasion of China. Mannerheim was the last Tsarist agent in the so-called Great Game, the struggle for empire between Britain and Russia in Asia.

For much of the twentieth century, little was known about Mannerheim’s expedition. He published only one ethnographic paper in 1911 on two obscure nomadic tribes living on the margins of the Gobi Desert. Only a few copies of Mannerheim’s Russian military intelligence report on China—marked “Not to Be Made Public” on the cover—had been distributed to select friends and scholars in Finland: it was largely unknown in the West. And, oddly, he only instigated the editing of his travel journal at the start of the Second World War—thirty years after his epic trek. When the two-volume Across Asia from West to East was finally published in 1940, Hedin praised it fawningly. The travelogue with maps and photographs, he told Mannerheim in a personal letter, had forever earned “its honorary position in the history of Asian discoveries.”

“For hours,” Hedin added, “I dug deep into the rich and extensive observations.”¹³

I grew up on a hardy staple of war stories. “Marshal Mannerheim was a great hero,” my father would often say. In 1942, as Hitler was eating asparagus soup with Mannerheim, my father was a sixteen-year-old farm boy across the Gulf of Finland in Estonia. He remembers a rousing radio speech Mannerheim once made calling on Finns and Estonians, whose language and culture are closely related, to overthrow their Soviet occupiers: “Finland shall become great, Estonia shall become free and the Russians shall be crushed!” For my father’s generation, Mannerheim is a national hero beyond reproach. His reputation, like an Arthurian legend, has only grown with time. He’s even been called “the last Knight of Europe.”¹⁴

In 2000, while I was studying Nordic politics at Lund University in Sweden, a Finnish friend, Anssi Kullberg, told me about Mannerheim’s trek across Asia. We talked about one day retracing the Marshal’s footsteps. Several years later, and back in Canada, I ordered a copy of Across Asia through my public library. Only five hundred copies were originally printed in 1940, and even a 1960s reprint is an antiquarian find today.

As a result, the book is virtually unknown among scholars.¹⁵ What little has been written about Mannerheim’s ride along the Silk Road, I came to realize, is largely ethnographic in nature. Yet the most remarkable aspect of his journal—and what distinguishes Mannerheim from most other Silk Road explorers of the time—is the detailed military, geopolitical, economic and social observations he made during the last years of the Qing Dynasty.

It was a heady time in the Middle Kingdom. Secret societies and revolutionaries were provoking mass uprisings. The Imperial Court, in response, was implementing extensive reforms to strengthen its rule. In his intelligence report and travelogue, Mannerheim chronicles almost every facet of Chinese modernization, including reform of the military, foreign investment, coal mining and industry, railways, education, local administration and the colonization of Muslim and Mongolian borderlands. Near the end of his trip, he even met the exiled Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who was campaigning to free Tibet from Peking’s repressive rule.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, bookshelves were chockablock with titles such as Changing China, The Awakening of China, The New China, The Rebirth of China and so on. Western technology and imported consumer goods—along with radical political ideas, democracy and Christianity—were spreading to every corner of the Chinese Empire. The country was rapidly opening itself to the modern world after four hundred years of self-imposed isolation. Western businessmen fantasized about a market of 460 million new customers. Others saw a vast workforce. “The Chinaman fulfils in the highest degree the ideal of an intelligent human machine,” wrote one American in 1899. “The people themselves may lack the initiative, but foreign capital will utilize the opportunity for flooding the markets of the world with the products of cheap Chinese labor.”¹⁶

The Far East was rising—economically and militarily. In 1905, Japan defeated Russia in a war in Manchuria, a victory that shocked the world. In Europe and the United States, talk turned to the “Yellow Peril,” a growing menace in the East. Hawkish scribes were busily writing books of their own: The Coming Struggle in Eastern Asia, The Orient Versus the Occident and, most ominously, The War of the Civilisations.

The world of a century ago seems strangely familiar.

“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Mark Twain once quipped. A century after Mannerheim’s trek, bookstores are being inundated with dozens of similar titles, such as China Shakes the World, The Chinese Century, The New Asian Hemisphere, China Rising, China Wakes and more. “China in the first decade of the twenty-first century stands on the edge of something very big, something very different from anything that has gone before,” writes one author.¹⁷ Yet the same thing was said about China at the beginning of the last century.

Is China really shaking the world, I wondered, or is the world shaking up China? Could the Communist Party truly open the country to the outside world yet keep Western ideas such as democracy and freedom at bay, as Qing officials mistakenly believed a century ago? What could reform during the late Qing Dynasty teach me about China’s current breathtaking rise? “Chinese leaders began the adoption of Western arms and machines,” writes historian John Fairbank about the Qing Dynasty, “only to find themselves sucked into an inexorable process in which one borrowing led to another, from machinery to technology, from science to all learning, from acceptance of new ideas to change of institutions, eventually from constitutional reform to republican revolution.”¹⁸ Could the very reforms meant to strengthen the Communist Party’s grip on power be their undoing?

These questions gnawed at me. And the answers were nowhere to be found in recent books or newspaper stories with hyperbolic headlines warning about a ravenous industrial dragon gobbling up the world’s resources and markets.

History, carefully studied, does have much to teach us. Nobody knows this better than the Chinese. Their scholars, writes historian Margaret MacMillan in The Uses and Abuses of History, frame history not as a linear process but in terms of “dynastic cycles,” where dynasties come and go “in an unending repetition, following the unchanging pattern of birth, maturity, and death, all under the aegis of heaven.”¹⁹ Could Mannerheim’s century-old journal, I began to wonder, be a cautionary tale about China’s breathtaking rise today? “Study the past if you would divine the future,” to quote a popular Confucius aphorism.²⁰

And so, on the centennial of his expedition, I set out in the footsteps of Baron Mannerheim. Armed with his travel diary and maps, a notebook, sketch pad and camera, I boarded a train at the Helsinki railway station one brilliant summer’s morning. Finland marked, Mannerheim believed, “one of the farthest outposts of Western civilization.”²¹ Beyond Finland, beyond one of the most democratic, prosperous, open societies in the world, beyond the shattered remnants of the Mannerheim Line, lies Eurasia, a vast continent ruled by a bizarre patchwork of oil-soaked autocrats, one outlandishly ruthless crackpot and the world’s last major Communist regime and rising superpower. Before me stood a gauntlet of political and geographic extremes, including some of the world’s hottest deserts, highest mountain ranges and cruellest dictatorships. My overland route—much of it tracing the famed Silk Road—stretched seventeen thousand kilometres to Beijing.

It was a vast region I knew virtually nothing about. Reading Mannerheim’s journal only piqued my curiosity. His descriptions of sweeping oceans of broiling sand, velvety alpine pastures dotted with yurts and buried Buddhist ruins seemed fantastical. Many of the ethnic groups he encountered sounded like alien beings from episodes of Star Trek: Abdal, Torgut, Yugur, Shiksho, Pakhpo, Dolan, Xibo. Had these mysterious races living in China’s outer reaches survived to the twenty-first century?

One of Mannerheim’s photographs, in particular, captivated me. It shows a “zigzag path” winding through a treacherous alpine pass dusted with fresh snow. His small horse caravan was attempting to cross the Tian Shan range, or “Heavenly Mountains,” in winter. The soaring massif separates China from Central Asia. A charcoal-coloured crag loomed in front of him, its top shrouded in clouds. Somewhere, beyond those clouds, I hoped to find the answers to my questions.

However, before even departing my hometown of Vancouver—a hotbed of refugees and ex-patriots from the People’s Republic—the Chinese consulate, through its network of spies and informants, caught wind of my plans to venture into China’s restive and rugged borderlands. I was repeatedly denied a visa. Trekking through China would be trickier than I imagined. Like Mannerheim, I would need a cover.