Big Tiger and Christian: Their Adventures in Mongolia

Fritz Mühlenweg

Big Tiger, a Chinese boy, and his friend Christian, a European boy brought up in Peking (now Beijing), go kite-flying one afternoon in the early 1920s. Accidentally they become mixed up in China's civil war in 1920s and find themselves on a 1200 mile journey across Inner Asia and the Gobi Desert through Mongolia to Urumchi, sent as messengers on an army truck. During the course of their journey they meet and befriend the desert nomads, and from herdsmen, horsemen, soldiers, Buddhist llamas, traders and travelers of all kinds learn the customs and courtesies of the life of the Mongols. Their truck is stolen, they become involved with bandits and robber barons, good men and bad, and throughout they apply their native wit and intelligence to outwitting danger and helping their friends.

One of the great things about this book is that the boys, both 12, do the sort of things that real boys could actually do – the same way that the Swallows and Amazons do things that people of their ages would be able to do.

This is a terrific adventure story, and it helps that the author spend years in Mongolia. The places and many of the people are real and the author gives them their real names. He spent New Year 1931-32 with the Mongolian shepherd Naidang and his daughter Sevenstars, who appear in this book, and to them he owes a large share of the story. I loved this book when I first met it at the age of 12 myself, and was delighted to find a well-worn copy years later. It is now part of my collection, and I reread it occasionally just as I reread Arthur Ransome's books. The protagonists are real people doing real things, and it is a delight to share their adventures with them.

Reviewed by Dave Thewlis, February, 2001

In 2008, I donated a copy of Big Tiger and Christian to the TARS Library. Here is the review I wrote for the Library at that time:

The Author: (1898-1961) Fritz Mühlenweg was born in Constance, Germany, where his father kept a chemist shop. He took over the shop upon his father's death, but moved to Berlin in 1926 to work for Lufthansa Airline which had just been founded. He participated in three meteorological expeditions to Central Asia in 1929-1932 and learned Mongolian. following which he took up a career in the arts, married, and settled in Allensbach. He was forced to work as an interpreter in Bordeaux during the Second World War, when he started writing. The BBC has an excellent article on Mülenweg located at wherein they note that he "wrote incredible books but never got the credit he deserved" as his works were classified as books for children and teenagers.

The Book: Big Tiger and Christian is an English abridgement (at 500+ pages!) of the original novel in German, In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi, or 'On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert'. This is the story of two boys, both 12-13 years old; Big Tiger (a Chinese boy) and Christian (a German* boy, although the translation refers to him "speaking Chinese just as well as English"). They set out one day in Peking in the early 1920s to fly a kite, get caught up with a group of soldiers going to battle on a train, and find themselves on a secret mission through Inner Asia and the Gobi Desert to Urumchi. The author ays that the people in the book are real and "appear in this tale, good and bad, just as they really were." He "...knew many of them personally, and he celebrated the New Year Festival of 1932/1933 in Naidang's yurt" with Naidang and his daughter Sevenstars, both of whom are in the story. The story is well-paced, the characters engaging (and sometimes intimidating), and the two heroes just believable in the best adventure tradition. At the end one agrees with Big Tiger's grandfather that it is a "good thing for boys to start being brave and enterprising in their early years".

Notes: The American (Pantheon, 1952) and British editions (Jonathan Cape, 1954, 1966, 1971) of the book are slightly different in packaging and were definitely reset, but contain the same text. However the U.S. edition has different dustcover notes and a colour illustration on the inside front and back cover, whereas the British edition has an excellent introduction by Peter Fleming. Readers should note that many of the words and phrases they encounter may be Chinese or other ethnicity instead of Mongolian - the area that Big Tiger and Christian traverse is really right on the border between Inner Mongolia (now part of China) and Outer Mongolia. A look at maps of the area show that Mühlenweg really was there, and really knew the land and the locations; it's reasonable to presume his presentations of the people were as accurate.

P.S. Accompanying the British edition will be colour copies of the American edition's dust cover front and back, which feature a photograph of the author! It is curious that even the illustration stamped on the front cover of the book differs between the two editions.

*Update to the Review: September 27, 2009

In my review I said that Christian was "a German boy, although the translation refers to him 'speaking Chinese just as well as English'". I said Christian was German based on a review I found of the original German book. However, circumstantial evidence in the translation suggests that Christian is American. In addition to Christian "speaking Chinese just as well as English", in Chapter 19, during their meeting with the King of the Sunit Mongols, we find "They talked about the boy's visit to Sinkiang and desired Christian to tell them about life in America. But Christian knew no more about it than the King himself, and much less than the old cousin, who had studied in Peking and was very clever."

In the British edition I gave to the Library, Peter Fleming's Introduction refers to Christian as European, but the references noted above are the same as in the American edition.

I have recently been assisted by Mr. Alvin Fritz, the Germanic Languages librarian of the University of Washington Library, who looked at the sections I asked for in the University's 1960 edition of In geheimer Mission.... It turns out that the translators not only abridged the book, but carefully changed "just as well as German" to "just as well as English", and "life in Europe" to "life in America".

There seems no doubt that Christian is German in the original book, which of course is more likely as the book was written in German, by a German, for a German audience. My thanks to Mr. Fritz and the University of Washington Library for their valuable assistance.

I do not know why the translators decided to change Christian's nationality; it may be they felt that American readers would find an American protagonist more accessible, or perhaps, it being fairly soon after WWII, they felt that an American audience would not be as sympathetic to a German protagonist.

This article is ©2001, 2009 by David C. Thewlis, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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