A Wayfarer in China/Chapter 10

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



AFTER the toilsome life of the last three months it was good to look forward to ten days or so of laziness, for surely river travel may be the most luxurious of any sort of journeying, and even a humble native boat on the Yangtse affords many delights. You make yourself comfortable with your own bed and chair, stop at your pleasure, go as you choose, without hurry and without noise through charmingly varied scenery, now soft and cultivated, now wild and grand.

My own little apartment occupied the middle of the boat, screened off with mats and curtains from the ends occupied by the boat people and my men, and though it was necessarily a thoroughfare, my privacy was always respected and no one attempted to enter without permission. By an ingenious arrangement of the mat roof I could lie at ease on my camp-bed and watch the shores slip past, but toward evening when the sun was setting, I often sat out on the extreme prow of the boat where I could enjoy the full sweep of the view up and down. Liu, the cook, had provided himself with a little cement cooking arrangement on which he prepared me very savoury messes. He and the Yunnan coolie and the interpreter and the boat people all chummed together very amicably, and I was impressed again, as so many times before, by the essential democracy of China. The interpreter was several pegs above the others, socially, but he showed no objection at going in with them, and more than once, when the inns were crowded, took up his quarters with the coolies, but—he always got well waited upon. Nor was the captain's wife kept in seclusion (it would have been hard, indeed, to get it in a thirty-foot wu-pan), but all day long I could hear her chatting with the men in cheerful give-and-take fashion.

By the way, the name which Europeans give to the river down which I was floating, the Min, is quite unknown to the Chinese, and it may have originated with the Jesuits, the first men from the West to make their home in Szechuan. By the natives the river is sometimes called the "Fu" because of the three "fu" towns on its banks, Chengtu, Chia-ting, and Suifu, and sometimes they speak of it as the Ta-kiang, regarding it as the upper waters of the Yangtse.

Below Chia-ting the river, by whatever name called, flows through a smiling, open country, with gently varied scenery. The soft slopes on either hand were richly cultivated with maize and rape, and nameless little villages, picturesque with black timbered houses and red temples, peeped out of groves of banyan and bamboo and orange. Then the hills closed in on the river and the current ran like a millrace. Often a promontory was crowned with one of the many-storied white "chuman" pagodas of Szechuan, while in the face of a cliff I could now and then discern openings which I knew were the famous, mysterious cave-dwellings of a bygone time and an unknown people found all about Chia-ting. I visited one that had been converted into a miniature temple, and there are several in one of the mission compounds. I believe they are known only in this region. They have been excavated by an expert hand, showing traces, it is thought, of Indian influence. Much conjecture has been expended upon them, and as yet there is no advance upon Baber's conclusion "that these excavations are of unknown date, and have been undertaken for unexplained purposes, by a people of doubtful identity."

As the river was now high, the current carried us along at a good speed, but I was in no hurry and we made many stops, when I got out to stretch my legs along the bank. At night we always tied up, and it took some effort to secure a place to the liking of us all. I wanted air and quiet, but the desire of my boat people was set on a chance to go a-marketing or to do a little visiting. Sometimes I got what I wished, sometimes they did, but they did their best, I think, to gratify my strange whims.

One night when they had their way and we were tied up to a shingle alongside some forty or fifty junks and small craft, we had all to turn out on a grand hunt for the "tailless one" who had gone astray. As soon as the plank was down, I went ashore followed by the dogs. As it grew dark I sat down on a rock not far away, and Jack curled up by me, but the other one went back to the boat. Presently I saw the men come ashore and walk up and down swinging their paper lanterns and sending out long, loud cries. The little dog was missing, and they were afraid he was being kept concealed on one of the other boats, for, so they said, people liked to steal little dogs. I asked if they thought it would help if I went with them along the beach and they called out that I was looking for the dog. They were sure it would, so we paraded up and down the long line of junks, flashing out our lanterns while the men called, not to the junk people, for "face" must be saved, but to the little dog himself, "O tailless one, come home, O tailless one, come home, the foreign devil is seeking thee." And presently there was a joyful shout from our boat. The "tailless one" had come walking up the gangplank, quietly returned under cover of darkness. The men were immensely pleased, and said it was all due to me; the people were afraid to steal from a foreigner.

Three days after leaving Chia-ting, we came in sight of Suifu, most picturesquely set on a rocky slope at the junction of the Min and the Yangtse. But how changed was the Great River since I crossed it at Lung-kai, four hundred miles to the west. There it dashed furiously along, dammed in between precipitous cliffs and fretted to foam by rocky reefs. Now it flowed broad and deep and quiet between soft wooded banks, bearing many craft on its strong current.

The streets of the prosperous city of Suifu, the starting-point of all overland traffic to Yunnan, are broad and attractive, and there was a great display of fruit and vegetables in the open shops, but it needs much faith in the cleansing power of boiling to overlook the sights of the river front where vegetables and feet are washed side by side, while as to the fruit, that had been gathered green, as is so often the case in China, why I could not learn. Some said the Chinese preferred it so, others that if it were kept on the trees it would be stolen long before it ripened. But to tell the truth, the goodness of Chinese fruit seems to be all on the outside. I never saw finer-looking peaches than in Szechuan, but they proved worm-riddled and tasteless. Apparently all that the Chinese can teach themselves has been learned, in fruit-growing as well as in other things. Now if they are to advance they must begin to borrow, and much else besides money. I was glad to learn that one of the American missionaries at Ya-chou is in close touch with the Department of Agriculture at Washington on a basis of give and take that ought to be to the advantage of both sides.

We covered the distance of nearly two hundred miles between Suifu and Chung-king in good time; the weather was favourable, and the river now ran so high that the troublesome rapids had disappeared. The scenery was charming as ever, but I was wearying of inactivity and it was a relief to see the crenellated walls of Chung-king come in sight. I paid off my boatmen, who had lived up to their agreement (not written this time) in every particular, and in an hour I had ferried across the river and found myself once more being carried over the steep hills that here form the south shore of the Yangtse, to meet a kind welcome from the friends of friends to their charming summer refuge high above the depressing heat of the Yangtse valley.

Chung-king, which has been dubbed the Chicago of West China,—Hankow claims the name in East China,—is one of a trio of cities that cluster around the junction of the Chia-ting and the Yangtse, and it is easily the chief, with a population of close on half a million. The approach from upstream is very striking, a grey city perched on a huge grey reef and enclosed in a strong, crenellated grey wall. The narrow strip of shore outside the walls is filled with poor, rickety buildings easily removed when the river rises or as easily swept away if not taken down in time. Broad, steep flights of steps lead up from the river to the city gates, and over these stairs all the water used by hundreds of thousands is carried in buckets.

In 1895 Chung-king was declared open as a treaty port, and since then its commerce has grown in true modern fashion by leaps and bounds, and there seems no limit to its development, for it is in a position to control the up-country trade. The fleets of junks lie closely packed three deep along the shore, and within the walls the multiplying thousands are even more densely crowded, for the room to expand is set by the limits of the great rock on which Chung-king stands, and apparently every square foot of land within or without the city is already occupied by the living or the dead. Nowhere did I see such crowded streets, and nowhere missionaries living in such cramped quarters as in Chung-king, a confinement all the more unendurable because of the long months of damp heat.

The large foreign community of Chung-king has many elements, missionary, merchant, and officials of the customs, post-office, and consular services. And lying in the river opposite the city are generally English, French, or German gunboats. The relations between all these seem more cordial and helpful than in some treaty ports. So, too, Europeans and Chinese are on an unwontedly friendly footing in Chung-king; perhaps something may be due to the fine standard set in the mercantile community by that pioneer trader, Archibald Little, who boldly established himself here eight years before the town was made a treaty port. And on the Chinese side there seemed readiness to appreciate what the West has to offer; in fact the town has a distinctly go-ahead air. It has already held one commercial exhibition on Western lines, and is planning another, and it is now lighted by electricity, boasting the best plant west of Shanghai, which it sets up against Chengtu's mint and arsenal. There is, in fact, a real Western flavour about the rivalry of the two Szechuan cities, recalling the relations of Chicago and St. Louis.

As a purely trading centre Chung-king lacks some of the interest of the capital, but the merchant class, the backbone of China, is well represented here, and is famed for its intelligence and initiative. Through the kindness of Mr. Warburton Davidson, of the Friends' Mission, I was given a chance to meet members of this class, and also to see something of a very interesting experiment he had recently started. Realizing the importance of making known to this influential element the best that Christian civilization has to offer, but well aware of the difficulty, indeed, the impossibility, of meeting them through the ordinary channels of missionary effort, Mr. Davidson hit upon the idea of starting a social club where men of standing, Christian and non-Christian, European as well as Chinese, might mingle on an equal footing. The plan proved successful from the start. Largely through the interest of a Chinese gentleman of Chung-king an attractive house has been put up and equipped with newspapers, books, games, and the beginnings of a museum, and here in the reading and recreation rooms some of the best business men of the city meet for social intercourse, discussions, and occasionally a lecture on such up-to-date subjects as X-rays, tuberculosis, and, very recently, the American Constitution. It is now open every day and evening except Sunday, and already it is making itself felt in the life of the city.

Mr. Davidson kindly planned for me to visit the Friends' Institute, as the club is called, and to meet some of the Chinese committee by which it is managed, for very wisely things are left as far as possible in the hands of the natives. For two hours or more I had the pleasure of talking with these gentlemen, and I was much impressed with their keen interest in outside matters. All were of a type new to me, quiet, dignified, interested, with the fine manners of the Chinese gentleman, but without the rather lackadaisical superciliousness of some officials, nor was there anything Western about them; they were not copying Europe, but learning how to be a new, fine sort of Chinese. Among those whom I met were Mr. Yang, president of the Institute, and a prominent business man of Chung-king, and Mr. Cheo, the elderly head of the Chinese Imperial Telegraph, who has now been succeeded by another member whom I also met. When I left they all escorted me most courteously to my chair, the passers-by stopping to gape with surprise. So far as I know the club is a new departure in mission work, and most worthy of support as a rational and hopeful method of presenting the best of Christian civilization to a class often repelled by missionary propaganda.

In Chung-king I parted with the faithful coolie who had come with me all the way from Yunnan-fu. As carrier or as cook's helper he had worked well; indeed, on more than one occasion he had cooked my dinner when Liu was under the weather, and he had become so dexterous in waiting on the table that he had grown ambitious and was now looking out for a place in a restaurant. I wrote him a "chit," or letter of recommendation, which I hope served his purpose if he could get any one to read it. At least I made it look as imposing as possible. How would the wheels go round in the East without "chits"? You are called upon to write them for every sort of person and every kind of service or none. On one occasion the recovery of a stolen necklace brought upon my head demands for a whole sheaf of letters, every one concerned, no matter how remotely, wanted one,—hotel proprietor (it was at a hotel that the affair occurred), hotel manager, clerk, servants, chief of police, ordinary policemen. Finally in desperation I offered one to the thief for allowing himself to be caught so promptly. But I think the strangest one I was ever called upon to write was for a tiger-tamer in the employ of an Indian rajah. I protested I knew nothing about such things, but he would not take no, and as he had reduced the big brute that he brought to my bungalow to the point of drinking milk from a china bowl that I put before him, I agreed to recommend him as a trainer of tigers. But for my Yunnan coolie I wrote a good letter most willingly in spite of the fact that he was a confirmed opium-smoker; in all the long journey that he made with me I could not see that it weakened his wits or his muscles. I was told that such journeyings were not at all uncommon, the coolies taking work wherever offered, and going on and on as new jobs turned up. With all its shortcomings the Manchu Government did not make the blunder of imposing artificial restraints upon the movements of the people, and since no passports were required within the empire, men could come and go at their own will. The part of the commercial traveller in creating the American nation has been noted. Who can tell what the Chinese coolie is doing in the same way?

At Chung-king I had to arrange for the trip down the river. I might take passage on the wonderful new steamer plying with some regularity between the city and Ichang; but that went too fast for my liking, besides giving me no chance to go ashore. Or I might engage a houseboat ; but at this season of the year the charges were high, as it might be weeks before the return trip could be made, and one hundred taels was the best rate offered. So in spite of the fact that "nobody travelled that way," or perhaps because of it, I, being a nobody, decided to try the humble wupan again, and through the efforts of one of the Christian helpers in the Friends' Mission I secured a very comfortable boat to take me and my reduced following to Ichang for twenty-five dollars Mexican. The boat was all that could be desired, and the captain, or "lao-pan," proved skilful and obliging, but unfortunately he was not, as is usually the case, the owner of the boat, and still more unfortunately, one of the owners, a rather old man, was serving with the crew. Nothing happened, but I had at times an uncomfortable feeling that nobody was in authority over any one.

I started down the river at noon on a fine day at the end of June, and a little over forty-eight hours brought us to Kwei-fu at the head of the gorges. For the most part it was a country of soft undulating slopes and comfortable farmhouses, with here and there a little hamlet or a bustling town, framed the last part of the way by strange-looking pyramidal hills. On we went, hurried along by the strong current, stopping for an hour's marketing at Foo-chou at the mouth of the Kung-tan Ho, navigable for one hundred and fifty miles by boats of strange shape known as the "Crooked Sterns," and again at Wan-hsien, famous for its cypress-wood junks, then on past the City of the Cloudy Sun, attractive with broad streets and lovely temples, past the Mountain of the Emperor of Heaven, where for a few cash you may have a pass direct to Paradise, past Precious Stone Castle, a curious rock three hundred feet high standing out boldly from the shore and surmounted by a temple which contains gruesome paintings of the horrors of hell, through the Goddess of Mercy Rapid and the Glorious Dragon Rapid, and several smaller ones that I did not even know were rapids, for with the high water these tend to disappear, while wicked-looking bays of swirling water showed the peculiar danger of the summer, the great whirlpools. The nights were very hot, and all our efforts did not avail to get the air which alone could make sleep possible. Before this the mosquitoes had given little trouble, but now they sang outside my net all night long, while the poor, unprotected boatmen, robbed of their hard-earned sleep, kept up an accompaniment of slapping on the other side of the curtain. The river was falling again, leaving long stretches of mudbank over which I had to clamber if I tried to leave the boat for a little change, but I always managed to go on shore for a while when the men were cooking and eating their supper. They took an interminable time over it, and I never could see why they did not burn us all up, for their cooking was done in the tiny hold in an unprotected brazier. In fact, we did catch fire one day, but of course there was plenty of water at hand.

The third day about noon we tied up for a short time to cook some sort of a meal, and the rain coming on, the captain thought it best to wait. To escape the bad air of the boat, where all the mattings were down, I sat under an umbrella on the bank. A huge junk slowly pulling upstream moored close at hand, and I watched with interest the trackers making fast. They were men of all ages and sizes, but mostly young and well grown. Their naked bodies were well developed and muscular, but often cut or scarred with falling on the rocks. Having made all secure they too got under cover on the junk, and fell to eating, naked and wet as they were. It seemed to me that I sat for hours on that mudbank while the rain fell in torrents and the river rose higher and higher, for the changes in level are extraordinarily rapid. It was almost dark before we could set off again, and then we got no farther than Kwei-fu, the trackers' Paradise. Perhaps that was the reason why we could not start the next morning, but I fancy it was the truth that the water was too high to be safe, for there were double rows of junks moored under the walls of Kwei-fu, and I saw no boats starting down. When the water covers the great rock at the mouth of the Windbox Gorge, two miles down the river, the authorities forbid all passing through. And anyway there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Kwei-fu is a pleasant-looking town set in maizefields which grow quite up to the walls. A few years ago it was notorious for its hostility to foreigners. No missionaries were admitted, and when Mrs. Bird Bishop came this way in 1897 she did not attempt to go inside the town. Now all is changed; the China Inland Mission has a station here, and I went about freely. But I did not see much of Kwei-fu, as I preferred to enjoy that Paradise from afar; so we pulled a little way downstream, tying up near some maizefields in which I promptly got really lost, so tall and thick was the growth.

The next morning dawned clear, and the lao-pan declared we could start, as the water was falling, but he professed unwillingness to take me through the dreaded Hei Shi Tan, or "Black Rock Rapid," near the western end of the first gorge; so I carried two two-carrier chairs for myself and the interpreter, paying one thousand cash for thirty li. At starting, the road made a bend away from the river, passing through a succession of hamlets, the homes of the trackers. Leaving my men at a tea-house I walked on, following a well-made path which led me finally into the White Emperor's Temple, beautifully set on the very edge of an angle of the cliff, affording wonderful views down the gorge. It was clean and light, and the priests who came to greet me in the usual kindly Buddhist fashion had rather nice faces. It was a place to dream away a glorious day. At our feet the rippling water just revealed the dreaded Goosetail Rock, now almost submerged, but in winter standing like a sentinel forty feet tall at the mouth of the gorge; and over our heads towered, on both sides the narrow waterway, grey vertical cliffs, fifteen hundred to two thousand feet high. I hated to leave, but as I had plainly lost my way there was nothing to do but go back and seek to overtake the men who were pounding along on the right path, trying to come up with me.

It is here that the great Szechuan road begins, a pathway galleried into the solid rock for the whole length of the gorge at about one hundred and fifty feet above the winter level of the river. It is a fine piece of road, the gift, I believe, of a rich Kwei-chou merchant. The surprising thing, of course, is not that it is good—the Chinese have built many good roads—but that it is new. At present it stops at the Szechuan frontier, but there is talk of extending it across Hupeh.

The day and a half that I spent in going through the gorges of the Yangtse were the most exhausting part of my whole trip; from the mere strain of seeing and feeling, one's senses were all the time on the rack. Scenes of overpowering savagery and grandeur that held one spellbound, were relieved by beautiful bits of cultivation, little hamlets of brown houses and red temples half concealed in groves of golden bamboo and the glossy green of orange trees; moments when the boatmen lounged on the deck or hung exhausted over their oars were followed by grief, fierce struggles against the dreadful force of a whirlpool that threatened to engulf us.

But, after all, that which most often comes back to me as I recall those days is the feeling of the ruthless human will grappling with nature and winning the mastery. Who can call China aged and in decay face to face with her success in conquering a passage up these gorges? Who can question the vitality of the Chinese, that has watched the trackers at work pulling a huge junk against a current like the rapids of Niagara, clambering over wet, rough boulders, creeping like cats along a thread of a trail overhanging the

A Wayfarer in China fp 218.jpg


gulf, clinging to the face of rocks that do not seem to offer a foothold to a mountain goat, and all the time straining with every muscle at a thousand-foot rope. An inhuman task where men take great risks for a pittance, where death by drowning or by being dashed to pieces on the rocks confronts them at every turn, and where, at best, strains and exposure bring an early end. In my dreams I see them, the long lines of naked men, their strong bodies shining with wet and bleeding from many a cut, keeping time in a wild chant as they tug at the taut line; a rope breaks and the toil of hours is lost; one misstep and a life has ended.

But this is the sole highway to Szechuan; all the trade of China's largest province, the one best endowed by nature, must pass up and down here. Any people less prodigal of their strength, less determined and less resourceful than the Chinese, would have given up the struggle before it was begun, and Szechuan would have slumbered undeveloped and forgotten, instead of being as it is now the richest and most advanced part of the empire.

And the next step is assured; before many years have passed, a railway will connect the western capital with Wan-hsien and Hankow, the deserted gorges will no longer reëcho the cries of the trackers, and the upward trip that now takes six weeks will be a matter of two or three days. It will be a different Szechuan then, with its resources exploited, with mines and factories, good roads and fine hotels, a power in the world's market, the goal of the tourist, and—I am glad I saw Szechuan before the railway came.