It happened half a century ago in western China. "We were coming down the side of Mount Emie, in Sichuan province. We hadn't eaten for a day and a half, my servant and I, so I loaded for pheasant, or for whatever game I could get. I was carrying my shotgun down in front of me. A bandit with a fuse rifle jumped up, said, 'I want your money,' and aimed at me. He hadn't lit the fuse. So I fired my 12-guage and blew a big hole in him."
As soon as Emmanuel S. "Jimmy" Larsen finishes that story, he tells another, about the time he convinced a bandit not to rob him. He prefers this story to the first, for it portrays his mastery not only of the Chinese language but also of the Chinese virtues of tact, negotiation and compromise.
With a sharp and prodigious memory, the 83-year-old Larsen is a walking encyclopedia of one of the most turbulent periods in China's long history, the four decades between the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911 and the Communist takeover in 1949.
Larsen was more than a passive observer. During his long life he served three governments: the Danish, the Chinese and the American. He married three women, each of a diffeent nationality and kept a mistress of a fourth.
He is probably the only man both to have served in Chaing Kai-shek's Chinese Secret Service and to have been hounded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy -- this last the result of his involvement in the Amerasia affair, one of the most notorious of the "espoinage cases" of the 1940s and 1950s.
Now, having put his memories into six unpublished novels, Larsen lives quietly inan apartment on Harvard Street in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. He tells his life story with vigor and precision, spelling out Chinese names and places and giving the exact dates of events that occurred decades ago.
Born in San Rafael, Calif., in 1897, "Jimmy" Larsen was taken to China in 1906 by his father, a Danish professor of Latin and French friendly with followers of the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen. As the Manchu dynasty was being toppled five years later, however, the family left the violence of China for Denmark. There Larsen attended the University of Copenhagen, taking a B.A. in European history. Upon graduation, he served six months in the Danish Army.
But the lure of China proved strong. By late 1916 he was back in China as an official in the Chinese Postal Service. A few months later, after a bout with malaria in the southeastern coastal city of Canton, Larsen requested transfer to a drier, healthier climate. He was ordered inland to Chengdu, the city in the western province of Sichuan (Szechwan) that he considered his home town.
Back then, the easiest way to cross China was by boat. Traveling up the Yangtze River to his new post, Larsen witnessed the first attack by the Nationalists, most of them southern Chinese, on the northern Chinese warlords who when held power in Peking.
At a place named Ching Ngai Tze, where high bluffs overlook the river, Larsen wa awakened in his berth by the sound of gunfire. Crawling into the hall, he found his way blocked by a body. He turned around, only to find two bullet holes in his bed, from shots fired through the roof by soldiers on the bluffs.
In all, 19 persons aboard the steamboat died in the attack. But, says Larsen, he eventually got through to Chengdu, where he "spent a hell of a happy year" getting up every morning, riding his horse to a temple outside the city, having tea with the monks there and then starting work at 9 o'clock.
Larsen's skills soon became known to his superiors, and before long he was being sent all over China as a roving troubleshooter for the postal service. His first mission began when the director general of posts called him and told him that the postal service had 190,000 silver dollars in Shaanxi, a province n northern China along the Yellow River.
"'The postmaster is nervous, because the commadant of the garrison there, an ex-bandit, is threatening to take the money,' the director general told me." Armed only with the power to make vague promises -- "make him a governor, give him face, promise him fresh ammunition, whatever" -- Larsen set off.
"yi was living with a Chinese woman at the time," he recalls. "She said, 'Don't tell the general what you came up for. Get friendly -- drink his booze, sleep with his women, go hunting with him.' General Chen was kind of a rough diamond. After I'd had his brandy and his mistresses and gone hunting with him, we were sworn brothers, and he said to me,'Jin Mee, what did you really come up for? Jin Mee meant 'golden rice,' a name given me by my mistress.
"So i told him: to stop him from taking the 190,000 silver dollars. 'How are you going to do that?' he asked. I said I wouldn't, couldn't, stop him -- we were brothers, after all. So he looked at the ceiling and said he wouldn't take the money. So e said, 'Fine, I'll recommend that they make you a governor, and put you in the National Army, and send you fresh ammunition.'"
It was a good life. Larsen married his second wife, a Russian woman named Dora (his first marriage, to an Englishwoman, had lasted only a year in the early 1920s) and settled down in the Manchurian town of Tao'an.
That life ended in 1929, Larsen recalls, when "the Japanese came in.
The pro-Japanese Chinese troops were tough. They said, 'You have no right to be here.' They hit me across the face with a rawhide whip. They hit me four times. My face was cut up and swollen."
So he moved a bit south to Peking, where he worked for the British-American Tobacco Co. and then, for five months, for the Chinese Secret Service. His assignment was to track down arms smugglers. The Japanese did not like that, he says, because most of the arms were received by pro-Japanese forces.
"One day a Japanese colonel I played golf with suggested I take a long leave, because Japanese Army truck drivers were 'very careless' and I might have an acident, even if I were walking on a sidewalk. At that time i Was gettng a divorce from my Russian wife Dora, who had fallen in love with a German aviator who flew for Chaing Kai-shek. So in 1935 I returned to the United States."
He soon found a job as the U.S. Navy's first Chinese research analyst.He also found his third wife Thelma, a secretary at Naval Intelligence. Larsen remained with the Navy unitl 1944, when he was transferred to the State Department.
On June 6, 1945, he was arrested in his home by FBI agents. The charge: conspiring to violate a law dealing with unauthorized possession or transmittal of defense data. This was the beginning of the murky affair that came to be known as "the Amerasia case." Naive, perhaps, about American ways, Larsen had provided information about Chinese political figures to Philip Jaffe, the editor of the left-wing magazine Amerasia.
Admitting to having been indiscreet but denying he had been spying, Larsen pleaded "nolo contendere," which does not admit guilt but does not contest the charge. He was fined $500 (which was paid by Jaffe, who himself was fined $2,500) and resigned from the State Department.
With that, he thought, the case was closed. For a few years he tried to amke a living as a free-lance writer, putting out an unprofitable newsletter about Asian affairs and writing hard line anti-Communist articles for right-wing magazines.
Then, in 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy proclaimed that the quick prosecution of Larsen and Jaffe had been a whitewash. The Amerasia case, he claimed, was "the ey to the Communist fifth column in the State Department."
If it was, Larsen did not help prove it.He was what one history book calls an "unpredictable" witness, of little use to McCarthy or anyone else. He controdicted his previous statements, said that he knew one person involved in the Amerasia affair was a communist but that he did not know about the others, and disavowed assertions about communist influence in the State Department tht had been made in a magazine article appearing under his byline.
Asked today about that article, which appeared in "Plain Talk" magazine in 1946, Larsen says with perceptible bitterness, "That was a dirty trick. I was asked to write about it (the Amerasia case), with all expenses paid. I sat in a hotel and wrote the damn thing out."
Then the editor, Isaac Don Levine, "said he wanted to make some 'corrections.' I argued. He said he wasn't going to pay me. Well, I was flat broke in New York. So I finally signed." But Larsen says that at the time he would hve written for any magazine: "I wasn't politically inclined."
It was the end of Larsen's career in Chinese affairs. Reached by telephone at his home in Front Royal, Va., S. Gordden Link, a retired Army colonel who has known Larsen since 1935, says the loss was the nation's: "He was a man who surely would have been an assistant secretary of state if all this hadn't come up."
A career military intelligence officer, Link says that had there been anythinguntoward about Larsen, "I would have dropped him like a lead shot. It was a put-up job. He wasn't the type of person who would do anything questionable."
Larsen remained unemployed for three years, until a friend offered him a job as a cashier at the old Roger Smith Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. He stayed there for 16 years.
Upon retiring in 1969, Larsen delved into his memories. Using his Chinese diaries and photo albums as guides, he wrote six novels between 1969 and 1973, with titles such as "Warlord" and "Tienshu."
One of the novels, a fictionalized autobiography called "Golden Rice and Precious Jade," occasionally reads a bit awkwardly, but is full of insights rarely found in Western novels about the Far East. Larsen says that what the books need for publication is "a good American editor."
"I'm really Chinese," he says, "not by appearance, but inside."
Larsen says he now his finished his writing. He spends his days reading Chinese history, teaching Mindarin Chinese (he has one student) and baby-sitting for his granddaughter, the child of his son by his third marriage. That son, Jan, 31, is a systems analyst at Georgetown University. A daughter from that marriage, Linda, 42, is a Washington housewife.
A stepson, Michael, 51, adopted by Larsen when he married his Russian wife, is a bookbinder with a Washington printer. Larsen's other surviving child, James, the product of his brief marriage to the Englishwoman, lives in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Larsen says he has not seen him since 1935 but corresponds regularly.
Larsen's present wife, Thelma, 67, retired from the U.S. Postal Service a year ago.
Larsen has little to say about contemporary China, except that the current regime is "finding out how hard it is to run a country on theory." Larsen does, however, like China's new leaders more than he did Mao Tse-tung.
"That little man, Deng Xiaoping, he's good." Larsen's perspective on the diminutive Chinese leader is quite different from that of most Americans: "I knew a family named Deng in Guangan, the town in Sichuan where Deng comes from. The man named Deng was my father's silversmith."
Comparing his life today in Washington with his days in warlord China, Larsen comes to a surprising conclusion: "You weren't as threatened in China then as you are now by these hoodlums here in Washington. There is an atmosphere of fear. It'slike 1933 in Peking, a period of restlessness when there was robbing and looting. But Peking was usually safe."
Larsen says he has been mugged three times in the last four years, most recently in Juen, when he was robbed at 11 in the morning as he returned from the supermarket.
He shakes his head. The man who faced down Chinese bandits and warlords says he no longer goes out after sundown.