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The Vermilion Pencil

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About the Author of The Vermilion Pencil

Homer Lea

Homer Lea is often portrayed as a colourful character – a five-foot-tall American hunchback who became a general in Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary army; a military genius; and a visionary who predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor decades before it happened. Others see him merely as a crank, a charlatan, or a racist. Unravelling the truth is not always easy.

Homer Lea was born in Denver, Colorado in 1876. He was treated for curvature of the spine during his childhood, but developed a hump that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He often missed school because of ill health, and never grew taller than five feet in height.

His family moved to California in the early 1890s, and Lea attended Los Angeles High School, where he did well academically, took part in school politics, and became interested in military science and Chinese affairs. He and his friends often visited Chinatown, which was close to their school.

In 1896, Lea went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, intending to transfer to Harvard a year later. He passed the Harvard exams but never took up a place, citing money difficulties. He entered Stanford University instead, where he became involved in journalism, continued to study military science, and joined a cavalry unit when the Spanish–American War broke out. His health grew worse, though, and he left the University for good in 1899.

In 1900, the myth of Homer Lea began to take shape. A San Francisco newspaper reported that he was about to depart for China, where he intended to start a revolutionary war in Hong Kong or Macau, establish a military training school in China, then take command of rebel forces fighting to overthrow the Empress Dowager and the reigning Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

These ambitions seem extraordinary for an American man in his early twenties, especially one with serious health problems. One of his biographers, Eugene Anschel, speculated that Lea had spent the year since leaving university studying Chinese, immersing himself in emigrant Chinese politics, and becoming involved with Chinese secret societies, whose aim was to overthrow the foreign Qing rulers and restore the native Mings to the throne. There is no doubt that he was familiar with secret societies : his novel The Vermilion Pencil contains a minutely detailed account of a triad initiation ceremony, as well as a fascinating outline of the language, rituals, and origins of the southern Chinese triads.

Lea spent about six months in China, during which time he attempted to recruit and train volunteers for the hoped-for uprising. His lack of military experience meant that he did not do well at this task, but he appears to have been rewarded with the rank of Lieutenant General for his efforts. He left China in December 1900, as the reformers and rebels were being effectively crushed, and returned quietly to the US in the spring of 1901, having spent the intervening months in Japan. He now began organising visits for prominent Chinese revolutionaries, and helped to found the Western Military Academy in Los Angeles, a Chinese military school financed by the Chinese Empire Reform Association. Appointed commander-in-chief of the Military Academy, he chose several ex-US military men to head the various companies, and was known as ‘General’ Homer Lea from 1903 onwards. Although his ‘commission’ derived from his earlier work in China, Lea’s actual experience of military command came mainly from this private militia.

Lea met Sun Yat-sen in the US many years after his initial Chinese adventure. The two men enjoyed an undoubtedly warm friendship, but Lea’s role in Sun Yat-sen’s struggle was apparently more that of advisor or strategist than combatant. His influence was, however, significant, and Lea was with Sun in Nanjing when the latter was declared president of the new republic on 1 January 1912.

Lea fell seriously ill in Nanjing the following month and returned home for medical treatment, but little could be done for him. He died of a stroke at Santa Monica in October 1912.

And there the story might have ended – with Lea a mere historical footnote – were it not for Pearl Harbor and Lea’s book The Valor of Ignorance.

Lea wrote only three books. The Vermilion Pencil (1908), his only novel, was the first of these. It was filmed in 1922, and starred Sessue Hayakawa, perhaps best known for his 1957 performance as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai. His other two works were The Valor of Ignorance (1909), and The Day of the Saxon (1912), both political and military treatises. It was the first of these treatises that gave Lea a reputation as a visionary, as it contains a closely reasoned argument for the installation of US coastal defences, citing the possibility of an attack from the East, particularly Japan. After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1942, the book was hastily brought back into print. It was followed by a flurry of newspaper articles about Lea’s supposed military expoits, and in 1945, a book entitled Double Ten was published : a racy, inaccurate memoir of Lea’s life and work that was largely responsible for the ‘swashbuckling hunchback soldier’ legend that made its way into several Boy’s Own-type comic books and, nowadays, the odd online forum.

Lea lived to see the end of Manchu rule: if he had lived longer, might he have given up revolutionary politics and embraced the life of a writer? Probably not. He had married a few years before his death, but rather than settling down at home, he had continued to involve himself in the Chinese revolution. His writings had earned him the respect of some high-ranking military men in the US and Europe, but Lea’s goals had always been more military than literary. Unable to enter the army because of his medical condition, he cast in his lot with the Chinese reformers and did his best to make his mark that way. All of the evidence suggests that, given more than thirty-six years of life, Lea would have continued to follow and support Sun Yat-sen until his death, and, later, Chiang Kai-shek and his republic-in-exile in Taiwan.


Read about the Historical Background to Lea’s novel,
The Vermilion Pencil.


Homer Lea Site

The Vermilion Pencil in Film
The Internet Movie Database entry for the 1922 film of The Vermilion Pencil.

Anschel, Eugene. Homer Lea, Sun Yat-sen, and the Chinese Revolution. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Kaplan, Lawrence M. Homer Lea: Soldier of Fortune. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

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