The novel begins following the British victory of the first Opium War and the seizure of Hong Kong. Although the island is largely uninhabited and the terrain unfriendly, it has a large natural harbour that both the British government and various trading companies believe will be useful for the import of merchandise to be traded on mainland China, a highly lucrative market.
Although the novel features many characters, it is Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock, former shipmates and the owners of two massive (fictional) trading companies who are the main focal points of the story. Their rocky and often abusive relationship as seamen initiated an intense amount of competitive tension. Throughout the novel, both men seek to destroy each other in matters of business and personal affairs. Struan is referred to throughout the novel as Tai-Pan (which author Clavell translates as "Supreme Leader," although this is not the accepted translation of the term) indicating his position as head of the largest and most profitable of all the trading companies operating in Asia. Brock, owner of the second largest of the trading companies, constantly vies to destroy Struan's company and reputation in an attempt both to exact revenge on Struan and to become the new "Tai-Pan" of Chinese trade.
As per normal for Clavell's novels, there is quite a bit of subtext to Tai-Pan. Clavell was a proponent of free trade, an ardent individualist and anti-fascist - the novel alludes to these concepts through the often critical depiction of both European traders and hostile Chinese and to a lesser degree, the British Parliament and their trade policies and practices, especially where the opium trade was concerned. Dirk Struan embodies Clavell's concept of the Hero whose vision for a proper form of cultural integration between East and West finds Dirk throwing off much of what he disliked of both Chinese and European society, yet fusing all that he does admire into a new way of living.
As with Clavell's other novels, the setting and many characters are based on actual events, which set the stage for the novel.
Struan's "Noble House" trading company of the novel is based on Jardine Matheson Holdings Limited, a massive Scottish trading company that operates out of China.
Dirk Struan is loosely based on William Jardine.
Robb Struan is loosely based on James Matheson.
Jin-Qua is loosely based on Howqua.
The firm Cooper-Tillman is loosely based on Russell & Co.
The Brock family is loosely based on the Dent family and the firm Dent & Co..
Shevaun Tillman is loosely based on Harriet Lowe.
Gordon Chen is loosely based on Sir Robert Hotung.