CHAPTER I (Three Years in Western China)




Western China and the interest attaching to it—The way thither—An unsuccessful attempt to reach Ichang—Ichang at last—Difficulties of navigation—Commercial importance of Ichang—My native passenger-boat, opium-smoking skipper, and crew—The navigability of the Upper Yang-tsze by steamers—Dangers and difficulties of the Ching T'an Rapid—Up and down the rapid—The poppy—Ch'ung-k'ing.

The most interesting part of China, from a geographical and ethnological point of view, is the West—geographically, because its recesses have not yet been thoroughly explored, and ethnologically, because a great part of it is peopled by races which are non-Chinese, and one at least of which, though nominally owing allegiance to the Great Khan, is in reality independent. It was my fortune to be stationed in Western China from 1882 to 1884, and, during these three years, I was enabled, in the performance of my duties, to collect information regarding the country and its people; and it is in the hope that this information may not be unacceptable that I venture to lay the following pages before the public.

Reports of the journeys which I made in Western China during the above years have already appeared in the shape of Parliamentary Papers[2]; but, written as they were without any idea of publication and intended as mere trade notes, strung together from day to day on the march, they are not sufficiently connected to present a fair picture of this remote region.

That part of Western China, with which I am personally acquainted and with which I propose to deal, lies to the south, and embraces the provinces of Ssŭ-ch'uan, Kuei-chow and Yün-nan, which, interesting in themselves, have become of considerable importance since the extension of the Indian Empire to the frontier of China and the absorption of Tonquin by the French.


The great highway to the West is the River Yang-tsze. By the Agreement of Chefoo of September, 1876, the port of Ichang, situated on the north bank of the Yang-tsze about a thousand miles from the sea, was opened to foreign trade and foreign steam navigation; and, by the same Agreement, the residence of a Consular Officer at the city of Ch'ung-k'ing, in Ssŭ-ch'uan, to watch the conditions of British trade, was provided for. It was to take up this post that I left Wuhu towards the end of October, 1881. On arrival at Hankow, I discovered that the steamer, which had for some years been employed to run to Ichang, was undergoing extensive repairs at Shanghai, to better fit her for the navigation of the Upper Yang-tsze, and that another and larger steamer belonging to the same Company had just returned from Ichang with little hope, owing to the sudden fall of the river, of being then able to make another trip. A large quantity of cargo, however, which had accumulated at Hankow, induced the Company, much against the captain's will, to send the steamer forward again; but, drawing only nine feet, she was unable, after a day's journey, to push her way through six feet of sand and water, and had to return. After about a month's delay, the smaller steamer arrived at Hankow, and, laden to six feet, reached Ichang with considerable difficulty on the 17th of December, the trip having occupied eight days. On this section of the river, navigation commences at daybreak, and, unless there is good moonlight, ceases at dark. Owing to the shifting sands, which constitute the bed of the river, the channel is constantly changing, and it is not uncommon to find the passage, which the steamer took on the up passage, completely barred on the down trip. The consequence is that soundings have constantly to be taken, and delay is the result. This refers to the winter months only, when the river is low, as, during high water, little difficulty exists, and the distance has been covered in fifty hours.

The selection of Ichang as an open port has frequently been called in question, and it has been pointed out that Sha-shih, a town farther down the river and one of the six calling stations for steamers, would have been a preferable choice. Much may be said for Sha-shih, which is the principal terminus of the junk traffic between Ssŭ-ch'uan and the eastern provinces of China, but statistics clearly prove that Ichang has after all been a success. Although it is neither a producing nor a consuming district of any importance itself, the net value of the trade which has gravitated towards it has risen from £18,000 in 1878 to over £1,000,000 in 1888. This, it should be remembered, represents the trade in vessels of foreign build only.

After a few days bargaining at Ichang—passage by steamer being no longer available—I succeeded in hiring a native passenger-boat to convey myself, servants, and baggage the four hundred miles that still lay between me and my destination for the exorbitant sum of one hundred and eighty taels, or forty-five pounds. A larger sum was at first demanded, and, there being only two or three boats of this class in port, whose owners combined to "squeeze" me, I was ultimately obliged to pay about a third more than the customary price. Travelling boats on the Upper Yang-tsze are, as a rule, very roomy and comfortable. They can usually be divided off into as many as four or five small rooms by wooden partitions; and, travelling as I was in winter, I had a stove fitted up, regulating the temperature by the windows which run along the sides of what is really an oblong house placed on the boat's deck. In a good boat, the roof is over six feet in height, so that one can walk about comfortably from end to end. A mast is shipped right in front of and against the deckhouse, and this is utilized both for sailing and tracking—the tracking line running through a noose fixed near the top. In front of the mast is a broad deck, contracting towards the bows, accommodating from ten to a dozen rowers, and convertible at night into sleeping quarters for the crew. Over a well in the bows, and attachable to the deck by a noose, hangs a long heavy spar by which the boat can be speedily steered in any required direction—an absolute necessity where, tracking being carried on, sunken rocks close in-shore have to be avoided, or the tracking line gives way in a strong current.


In the agreement entered into between the skipper of the boat and myself, it was stipulated that there should be seven of a crew and fifteen trackers. The crew consisted of the skipper, the bowsman or pilot, who stood at the bows all day long and sounded continually with a long iron-shod bamboo, the steersman, three deck hands, and the cook, who exercised his culinary art in a primitive kitchen constructed in an opening in the deck near the bows.


The skipper, being a confirmed opium-smoker, proved of little use; and it was not until the second night from Ichang that I discovered his smoking propensities. I lay with my head towards the bows and, being awakened during the night by someone crying, I saw a light shining through the chinks of the partitions. On calling my servant to see what was the matter, I learned that the light was the light of an opium lamp, and that the wife of the skipper was crying because her husband would not come to bed. I got up and found him lying at full length alongside his lamp. I bundled him into the little room which he, his wife, and two children occupied over the stern, and blew out his lamp.

After this episode, the smoking was never carried on in any place likely to attract my attention, although the sickening odour frequently penetrated to my rooms from deck and stern, several of the crew being also addicted to the drug. I had repeated conversations with the skipper as to the craving he had contracted; and, one morning, I overtook him on shore walking rapidly and in rather an excited state. I asked him what was the matter, and he replied that the weather was so cold that it was necessary to lay in a supply of coal at once, and that in order not to delay the boat, he was hurrying to the next village to make the purchase. I left him there and continued my walk.

On boarding the boat above the village, I asked my servant where the coals had been stowed, when, to my surprise, he told me that no coals had come aboard, but that the skipper had laid in a fresh supply of opium, that his stock had been exhausted over night, and that he had been dying all morning for a smoke! He fought shy of me for several days after this, knowing that his tampering with the truth had been discovered. Smoking had reduced him to such a state that he had really no command over the boat or crew; when an accident happened—an event of common occurrence—he used to crawl on to the top of the deckhouse and find fault in a querulous voice, which was quickly suppressed by the bowsman telling him to mind his own business. When high words ensued, the cook, in addition to his own special functions, assumed the part of mediator, and used to groan and plead for silence after each explosion. When the trackers were on shore and the other hands were all busy on deck, it likewise devolved on the cook to jump from his lair and signal the trackers, who were nearly always out of calling distance, by beating the small drum which lay at the foot of the mast. The bickerings between the skipper and his crew sometimes reached a climax. On one occasion, after dancing an angry jig on the roof of the deckhouse to a stormy vocal accompaniment, he scrambled on deck and was proceeding on shore to continue his harangue from terra firma, when the plank gave way and he disappeared amid the boisterous laughter of the crew, quickly reappearing like a drowned rat, and thoroughly cooled for the rest of the day.

The trackers, too, deserve a word of mention. They were, with the exception of the musician and the diver, almost all lithe young fellows, always willing to jump on shore, never spending more than a quarter of an hour over their rice and vegetables, and never out of temper. The musician and the diver were somewhat aged. When there was no tracking ground, and the oars had to be called into requisition, the former used to sing his boat songs, the whole crew joining loudly in the choruses, the echoes reverberating from cliff to cliff in the gorges. If the tracking line got entangled among the rocks off the shore, the diver would doff everything, slip overboard, and swim to the rescue. I pitied this individual very much; he used to scramble on board chattering with cold, and had no sooner got warm than his services were again in demand. The boat was always moored before dark, and, until supper was ready, the crew were busy rigging up the roof-mats to form their night quarters. Then the beds with their coir mattresses were produced from under the deck; and, with the exception of two or three opium-smokers, these hard-working fellows dropped off into well-earned sleep until daybreak, when the same round of toil awaited them.

Such was the boat and crew with which I ascended from Ichang into Western China, reaching Ch'ung-k'ing on the 24th of January, 1882, after a passage of a month. It is unnecessary for me to describe this journey in detail. Blakiston, Gill, Little, and others have given their experiences; they have painted living pictures of the grand, majestic gorges; they have brought the world within earshot of the hissing, seething rapids; and it only remains for me to say a few words on a subject which has of late years received no little attention—the navigability of the Upper Yang-tsze by steamers. The question is about to be put to the test in accordance with clauses in the Agreement of Chefoo, which state that "British merchants will not be allowed to reside at Ch'ung-k'ing, or to open establishments or warehouses there, so long as no steamers have access to the port. When steamers have succeeded in ascending the river so far, further arrangements can be taken into consideration."


Ever since I ascended the Upper Yang-tsze, I have not ceased, both in China and England, to advocate the advisability, from a commercial point of view, of steamers attempting the navigation of these waters. Difficulties have been pointed out, but I have endeavoured to show that these have been greatly exaggerated; and the "Upper Yang-tsze Steam Navigation Company," lately formed, would appear to be of like mind. The obstacles that exist lie between Ichang and the Ssŭ-ch'uan frontier, a distance of about one hundred miles: beyond the frontier, all is plain sailing, not only as far as Ch'ung-k'ing but even to Hsü-chou Fu, some two hundred miles further west. They consist of a series of rapids, which prove very trying to native craft when the river is low, that is, from the middle of November to the middle of March or a little later—the very time when junks are best able to ascend; as, during the rest of the year, the increased volume of water, although obliterating the rapids altogether, flows with a strong current, which renders tracking very difficult and frequently impossible.


The season, then, that proves all but impossible for junks is the very season when steamers could run, and vice versâ. During low water, there is, in my opinion, one, and only one, insuperable obstacle to a steamer—the Ch'ing T'an Rapid, the first serious rapid above Ichang. It lies at the eastern entrance of the Mi-tsang or "Granary" Gorge. When I passed down in the end of December, 1884, there were three channels in the rapid—the chief or central channel never attempted by ascending junks, and two side channels separated from the central by masses of rock. The central was the only channel available for a steamer, but it consisted of a clear fall of from six to eight feet. The side channels were narrow, with a very much less volume of water and fall. In ascending these, junks could be dragged over close to the rocks, which would be impossible in the case of a steamer. In the gorge itself, the current was very sluggish, and boats were passing and re-passing just above the rapid. I stood a hundred yards to the west of it, and saw junks disappearing one after the other. As their masts are always unshipped in the down passage, they seemed to me to be passing with their human freight into eternity. The strange sight insensibly drew me to the rapid itself, and I stood facing it to watch the movements of my own boat. It was pulled out into mid-stream, and allowed to float stern down until about to enter the rapid, when it was gently wheeled round and drawn into the fall. It is difficult to describe what happened next: a sudden plunge, considerable confusion on board, the junk herself floating helplessly stern down stream, the skipper on the roof of the deck-house frantically waving his arms, one of the three lifeboats, which are always stationed below the rapid, approaching the boat and then rescuing the crew, the deserted junk making for the scattered rocks which jut out from the right bank at the second rapid two hundred yards below the fall, its safe passage through the rocks and rapid, its salvage by our accompanying gunboat, all presented a picture which will never be effaced from my memory. The cause of the accident was thus described to me. In shooting the rapid, several of the crew lost their heads and their oars, and the others, unable to keep the bows down river or to control the boat, and being afraid that she would be dashed against the rocks at the second rapid, called for the lifeboat and abandoned her. Such accidents are of frequent occurrence, and are very often accompanied with damage, wreck, and loss of life. We were lucky in being able to continue our journey after a couple of hours' delay.

I have described the descent of the Ch'ing T'an Rapid in this place, in order to show the different phases which it presents at the same season in different years, for when I ascended it on almost the same day (December 29th) in 1881, not a rock was visible above water, and we had little difficulty, with the aid of some fifty additional trackers, in being dragged over it. Were this rapid a race, as it is not, I should have more hesitation in describing it as insuperable for a steamer during low water; but I consider it extremely doubtful whether the slow fall would be sufficiently powerful to raise a steamer's bows off the sunken rocks. It has been said that, if the Upper Yang-tsze were navigated by steam, collisions would be of frequent occurrence, but not more so than in the section between Hankow and Ichang. In ascending, junks are tracked as close to the banks as possible, while in descending, they keep to the middle of the river. In fact, collisions should be of rare occurrence. West of the Ch'ing T'an Rapid, there is nothing to interfere with the ascent of a steamer for more than five hundred miles.

It was during my daily rambles along the banks of the river, that I first made acquaintance with the poppy of commerce. Before entering the province of Ssŭ-ch'uan, I spoke to the boatmen, and asked them to tell me as soon as they saw the plant growing; and from Wan Hsien westwards to Ch'ung-k'ing there was one continuous yell of Ya-pien-yen, which means the opium! It shared the banks of the river with wheat, peas, and beans. The spikelets were from four to five inches above ground, and little did I think, when I looked at these tiny plants, that it would be my lot at no distant date to wander through hundreds of miles of beautiful poppy flowers. On arrival at the district city of Yün-yang, I visited the picturesque temple that peeps through the dense foliage which clings to the steep sides of the hill forming the right bank of the river; and, in course of conversation with the head priest, I remarked that there seemed to be less poppy here than farther east. Raising his hand and pointing to the opposite hills, he replied, "There is nothing but poppy beyond."


The city of Ch'ung-k'ing, in lat. 29° 33′ 50″ N. and long. 107° 2′ E., occupies the apex of the peninsula caused by the attempt of the Yang-tsze on its north bank to pierce the sandstone cliffs under the little walled town of Fu-t'ou-Kuan, and join its turbid waters with the clear flow of the Chia-ling Chiang some four miles from the actual junction of the two rivers. It is built on a slope which extends from hill-tops overlooking the Chia-ling to the bed of the Yang-tsze. Outside the walls there are no suburbs of any importance. A bird's-eye view from the opposite hills shows that there is scarcely a patch of ground which is not built upon. One or two plots of vegetables inside the north-west corner of the wall, and a few trees here and there, are the only exceptions to the grey mass of buildings clinging firmly to the hill-side. It contains a population estimated at some 200,000 souls, and may be described as the commercial metropolis of Western China. This was the spot chosen for the residence of a Consular Officer, to watch the conditions of British trade in Ssŭ-ch'uan; and it was here that I took up residence in January, 1882. I do not intend to weary my readers with trade statistics; those who are interested in commerce will find some of the results of my enquiries and observations in a subsequent chapter specially devoted to that subject. What I propose to do is to carry them with me in my wanderings through Western China, with Ch'ung-k'ing as a base, and endeavour to show them the country and its people as they appeared to my eyes.

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