East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

John Blofeld


His father was the inspiration for the James Bond villain.

6273610-MI discovered John Blofeld‘s The Secret and the Sublime when I was sixteen.
The book, in its gaudy, cheap Italian paperback edition, was interesting for two reasons.
First, because it connected with my growing interest for zen and taoism.
Second, because it promised to reveal Taoist Mysteries and Magic – which was extremely good, because I was tired of the standard, psaeudo-celtic, or D&D-derived magic in fantasy stories, and was looking for some off-beat inspiration*.

In the end, the book was useless in developing my own magic system – but in retrospect, it was probably instrumental in convincing me that “magic system” is the wrong idea when writing fantasy.
Magic should be magic – and sure as hell it feels that way in Blofeld’s book.
On the other hand, Blofeld’s book fueled my interest in the East, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, and I still feel a strong affection for this small book.

John Blofeld was an eccentric – a British upper class kid (b. 1913) who felt he was the reincarnation of an Asian mystic, and therefore devoted his life to the study of Eastern philosophies and mysteries.

Quoting from Wikipedia

Starting in 1937, he traveled around south China and southeast Asia, visiting Guilin, Hanoi, Kunming (where he spent ten months meditating in the Hua Ting monastery), and eventually returned to Hong Kong to resume teaching at the Min Sheng Academy. But after several months there, he returned to England in 1939, to enroll in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he studied Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Malaysian. His academic studies were again interrupted, this time by World War II. After one year of studies, he enlisted in counterintelligence (otherwise he would have been conscripted without a choice of which service to enter), and was soon promoted and sent to the British Embassy in Chongqing as cultural attache, on the basis of his proficiency in Chinese.

And that was just the beginning.
He engaged in a number of activities, and his remains are preserved in a Chinese temple he helped building.

So he was an eccentric, but was also a learned eccentric.
And an adventurer.
And a spy.
Not bad, as a CV.

The Secret and the Sublime – which is not listed on Wikipedia among his major works – is an unusual book, as it’s an essay that strives to convey the “look and feel” of a Taoist essay.
It might feel rambling, unlikely, and somewhat metaphore-laden.
Blofeld is not an unbiased observer, but a seeker of occult knowledge.
Which means that sometimes he goes over the top – like when he tells us about his meetings with immortals and fox women.
But it’s part of the charm of the book.

As I said, you can’t extract a magic system for your story or your roleplaying game from this book**.
But it’s an interesting read, and one that succeeds, in a few chapters, to build a sense of the magical, with a strong Taoist flavor.

A good read, a good resource for writing (look no further if you need one of your characters info-dumping a little Oriental Mysteriousness in your story), and a good source of inspiration.
All for the price of a cheap paperback bought second-hand from a street stall, for the price of a packet of crispies.

Books are like that.

  • Now that I think about it, getting Blofeld’s book was the same as buying, years later, Barefoot Doctor’s Handbook for the Urban Warrior as a resource for Shadowrun – discovering another intelligent, eccentric taoist book.
    Both books are milestones along a road that led me to giving public lectures and holding courses about Taoism.

** And, considering the abundance of details about sexual alchemy in the text, maybe it’s better that way.


Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

7 thoughts on “John Blofeld

  1. Man, what a character! And what a life (I’ve done a bit of research about this guy). What amazes me the most it’s the easy way he got to shift from culture to culture, from country to country. All the world is a stage…


  2. Very interesting. I’ve read Blofeld’s translation of Huang Po and found it very good. This book actually tries to take the mystery out of the teachings, leaving just the core. What an interesting life! I recognise how you can sometimes pick up a real gem for next to nothing in a pile of second hand books. 🙂


    • Second hand bookstores and used books stalls in flea markets are treasure troves of forgotten marvels.
      And it feels good, providing a new life and a new home for an old book.


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  4. Very nice story. But this small chest big picture represents Lama Anagarika Govinda or Lama Anangavajra Khamsum Wangchuk.


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