I have just finished rereading Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age for about the fourth time and am still confused about the ending.

The part that is confusing me is as follows:

Both the Fists and the Mouse Army come from the Celestial Kingdom yet they seem opposed - surely Dr X would have wanted the Mouse Army to support the Fists. Maybe I misunderstood?

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    Spoilers! I haven't finished reading it yet... Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 19:09

5 Answers 5


I think the issue is the Primer. I don't think X truly understood what he was giving them: he thought they would be educated, sure, but looking back from a more mature perspective, the sort of education the Primer dishes out is serious stuff.

The Mouse Army is doing it's own thing. They're a bunch of self-actualizing badasses, not following the sort of simplistic ideology of the Fists.

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    Also, there is a difference between the real Primer and the mass-produced Primers at the end of the book. The mass produced Primer has a real opportunity for abuse through propaganda, which is more difficult for the real Primer
    – SteveED
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 17:36
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    @SteveEd: The mass produced primer would only have been an opportunity for abuse if it had been modified. As is, the primer was entirely about teaching basic "life" skills required for a mature, responsible adult including things like independent thought, deductive reasoning, and self defense. Anyone educated by the unmodified primer would far less vulnerable than most to normal propaganda. Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 3:31
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    The Primer was supposed to be more than just educational. But wasn't the whole thing with Nell and Miranda supposed to show that Nell's copy of the Primer was more "powerful" because it had human intensity behind it? So the mouse army would benefit from the primer, but not in the same way as Nell. Commented Apr 17, 2013 at 22:57
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    I think the change done in the Mouse Primer, was to make them loyal to the first Primer, to Princess Nell.
    – Feiteira
    Commented Sep 9, 2022 at 9:56

All these answers miss the point that when Hackworth is being sentenced by Judge fang he subverts the books to be linked to the missing primer (the one owned by Nell).

"At this point, John Percival Hackworth, almost without thinking about it and without appreciating the ramifications of what he was doing, devised a trick and slipped it in under the radar of the Judge and Dr. X and all of the other people in the theatre, who were better at noticing tricks than most other people in the world. “While I’m at it, if it pleases the court, I can also,” Hackworth said, most obsequiously, “make changes in the content so that it will be more suitable for the unique cultural requirements of the Han readership. But it will take some time.” "

He basically takes a subversive book makes it more Chinese and respectful of authority but he makes the authority the owner of the missing book.(Even Hackworth has no idea who owns this book at this stage.) Thus the hunt for Princess Nell by the mouse army.

"Hackworth sat down across the table from Dr. X. A young woman padded out of the kitchen on silk slippers and gave Hackworth his own tumbler full of green tea. Watching her mince away, Hackworth was only mildly shocked to see that her feet were no more than four inches long. There must be better ways to do it now, maybe by regulating the growth of the tarsal bones during adolescence. It probably didn’t even hurt.

Realizing this, Hackworth also realized, for the first time, that he had done the right thing ten years ago."

So the girls will become Leaders of a new way, with out the foot deforming etc, but with the use of the seed.

"The provisional commanders of her divisions stood foremost, as did her provisional ministers of defense, of state, and of research and development, all of them bowing to Nell, not with a Chinese bow or a Victorian one but something they’d come up with that was in between."

The book of the seed is inside Nell's Primer at the end and being worked on by the drummers even as they remove Miranda from the Drummer community.

"“Hackworth is the Alchemist,” Nell said, “and he is using the wet Net to design the Seed.”"

As for them both leaving the Middle Kingdom they attack the fist checkpoints while Hackworth is watching and tie them up. This is after they discover their leader in the Primer after Nell breaks the last turing machine and the land beyond disappears. So they meet Nell in the book get turned into humans in their primers and then in real life head to where Nell is as an army of followers.

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    Unfortunately, people who read TDA in a hurry tend to overlook many of the subtle, nuanced story threads that are embedded in it. Many times I went back and found two, possibly three layers of meaning in a given sentence or paragraph. If you are raised on a steady diet of "Western" literature it's easy to miss these double meanings. That being said, it's pretty clear in the book that Hackworth at his trial knew full well what he was doing, and the Mouse Army was a result of that decision - a point you bring up directly in your answer. Commented Sep 29, 2015 at 17:41
  • Yes. Very good answer. But don't forget one of the overarching theme of the book is that "some cultures are objectively better than other cultures." That's one of the reason why Nell is east-asian and born in poverty at the lowest status. This is also a continuation of Snow Crash and the "me" -- civilizations programed to follow an operating system. In this case, culture is the OS. Nell is able to take the best of Victorian culture and merge it with Chinese culture to create something new. (Although it helps that she has a bunch of followers). Without a phyle/culture she is weak. Commented Oct 12, 2023 at 19:52
  • "makes the authority the owner of the missing book" <== Is this part true? I thought the main 3 primers were identical. I got the impression that Nell is the only girl that followed through the entire primer and mastered it. I don't think Hackworth ever imagined (b/c of his sense of moral superiority) that an uneducated "street rat" would outperform "high class" Victorian girls. Commented Oct 19, 2023 at 13:28

Remember that a key part of the Primer - kept secret by Finkle-McGraw - was that the book was intended to be "subversive." Dr. X didn't know this; also, toward the end of the book, he explicitly says he regrets educating all the girls via the book, presumably because they are not cooperating.


The very beginning of the book, where Lord Finkle-McGraw and John Percival Hackworth discuss the idea for the primer, made clear that it was intended to produce not just educated girls but subversive ones who can think for themselves and take charge.

Then the first set of orphaned girls got old enough for the high-tech "foot binding" process to be used on them.

We know only a few of the oldest girls were subjected to this because they are the ones being carried by the army on the march. The girls as a group must have seen the results of this crippling and oppressive procedure after the first set of girls got bound, issued a collective HELL TO THE NO, and decided to get off their boats and go find Princess Nell.

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    Very interesting. I've read the book a couple of times, and I don't think I had really picked up on the foot binding. Now that you point it out, though, it really makes quite a bit of sense.
    – Beofett
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 18:03

It seems that they are meant to represent the melding of two cultures.

The Boxer Rebellion was lead by The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, and was anti-foreign. If the novel draws from this event, then we can see this as antagonistic towards the Victorian principles and "colonization".

From Wikipedia: "The Confucian solution of the Primer was hierarchical, while the Victorian was highly individualistic." So the Mouse army, can be thought of as the combination of the best elements of both cultures/worlds. On top of this, the networked Primers form a sort of communication network for the Mouse Army (similar to the Drummer network). The Fists are going to try to hold back this new group and use them for their own benefit. The only way to combat this is through... combat.

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