CHAPTER V (Three Years in Western China)



Fu-t'ou-kuan—The country and its products—Chinese New Year—Charcoal from bracken—Ramie fibre and grass-cloth—Down a tributary of the T'o—The T'o and its commercial importance—The salt wells of Tsŭ-liu-ching—Sugar and Safflower—The Chêng-tu plain—Beggars—The capital of Ssŭ-ch'uan.

In February, 1883, I found myself at liberty to carry out the resolution which I had made to visit Ta-li Fu and the west of Yün-nan—all that remained for me to do was to decide what route I should follow. Mr. Baber's admirable description of that part of Western Ssŭ-ch'uan which he had explored, induced me to endeavour to penetrate Yün-nan through the valley of Chien-ch'ang, and accomplish the journey which Baron von Richthofen had attempted, but, owing to an unfortunate accident, had been compelled to relinquish. As a preliminary to the execution of this scheme, it was necessary to reach Chêng-tu, the capital of Ssŭ-ch'uan, and the present chapter will be devoted to a description of the products and industries of the country lying between Ch'ung-k'ing and that city.

My caravan was, owing to the length of the proposed journey, somewhat larger than on the previous expedition. There was one pack animal which, however, succumbed to the hardships of the route.


The small walled town of Fu-t'ou-kuan, some four miles to the west of Ch'ung-k'ing, is perched on the sandstone shoulders of the peninsula which divides the Yang-tsze from its northern tributary, the Chia-ling. Midway, and near the entrance to the village of Hsin-p'ai-fang, is a large Mohammedan cemetery, sloping towards the left bank of the Great River. In Ch'ung-k'ing, the followers of the Prophet are reckoned by thousands, and it is to their presence that the foreign resident owes one or two of the daily luxuries—in more civilized parts of the world they would be called the necessities—of life. With the exception of a spacious temple, erected in honour of the Goddess of Sericulture, with extensive grounds crowded with mulberry trees, just inside the west gate, Fu-t'ou-kuan has little to boast of in the way of architecture; but outside the gate a number of fine memorial stone portals arch the roadway, which is also edged at short intervals with stone tablets recounting the virtues of deceased officials, and acts of filial affection.

To the west of Fu-t'ou-kuan the country is somewhat broken; low hills alternate with plains dotted with farm-houses, nestling amid clumps of bamboo—a proof that here at least there is security for life and property. Nor are villages and market-towns wanting. The latter frequently vie with walled cities in commercial importance. In the plains, wheat, beans, rape, poppy, and peas were growing luxuriantly, while many plots of paddy land were submerged in preparation for the summer sowing. The hill-sides were also covered with beans, which seem to thrive well on a scanty soil. The low, umbrageous wood-oil tree was likewise scattered thickly on the rocky ground. Beneath the huge, dark-green, spreading banyans by the road-side, houses and restaurants spring, mushroom-like, and invite the traveller to tarry for a moment and enjoy their cool shade. As pack animals are usually turned loose to forage for themselves, the peasantry, whose lands adjoin the high-road, have hit upon a novel plan to prevent their depredations. Wheat and beans were thickly sprinkled with feathers, which, as might naturally be supposed, are not a pleasant sauce.

For some days at the Chinese New Year, business of every description comes to an absolute stand-still; houses and shops are shut, and in semi-darkness the inmates eat, drink, and make merry. As we started from Ch'ung-k'ing on the fourth day of the first moon (February 11th), we found that the people were still bent on pleasure, and that dice and theatrical performances were dividing the attention of those who had escaped from their New Year's imprisonment.

Although coal is found in abundance near the district city of Yung-ch'uan—some sixty miles to the south-west of Ch'ung-k'ing—I noticed in the streets large quantities of charcoal, prepared from the stems of bracken. These are placed in a pit and covered over, so as to prevent blazing after ignition.


The district city of Jung-ch'ang Hsien lies on the left bank of a tributary of the T'o River, which enters the Yang-tsze at the city of Lu Chou. It is distant forty miles west by north from Yung-ch'uan, and is approached through the same broken hilly country. It is famous for its breed of pigs, and is noted as a centre for the manufacture of fans and grass-cloth. The bamboos, of which the framework of the fans is made, are carefully cultivated along the banks of the river, while the cloth is manufactured from Ramie fibre, Boehmeria nivea, grown extensively in the district. The Chinese, unlike the home manufacturers, have not yet been inflamed with the desire to possess machinery capable of separating the fibre, and at the same time preserving the silky gloss which adds so much to the beauty and value of the cloth. Here it is entirely hand labour. The stems are cut down in the fields and carried home for manipulation. The skin or bark is first removed from the stems by hand and the branches and leaves from the bark, which is steeped for a few minutes in water. The strips are then taken one by one by the operator, who is provided with a thick broad iron thumb ring on which a short blunt blade is fixed and a curved knife equally blunt, and passed rapidly between the two blades, which are held in the left hand. By this means the green or outer bark is removed and the inner white fibre remains. The latter is afterwards handed over to women, who shred and twist it into thread ready for weaving.

The process of removing the bark from the stem has reached a higher state of development in the seaboard provinces, and merits the attention of cultivators in other countries. In the province of Chê-kiang, where I am now writing, decortication is effected in the field. The workman grasps the plant between the finger and thumb of his left hand, about six inches above the ground, and drawing it slightly towards him, seizes it two inches or more higher up, between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. A smart forward push with the right at once causes a compound fracture of the stem; the forefinger of the right hand is inserted at the point of fracture and drawn up to the top of the plant, separating the bark on the left from the bark and broken stem on the right; the bark on the left is then drawn down and is easily detached at the root, the bark and stem on the right being treated in the same manner. The stem is removed with ease, and the branches and leaves give way when the strips of bark are passed through the right hand. By this means a much longer fibre is obtained, and the branches and leaves remain on the field to assist in manuring the second and third crops. Care must be taken not to twist the plant in giving the forward push; I spoiled at least a dozen stems before I succeeded in causing the necessary compound fracture. In Chê-kiang, a flat piece of wood takes the place of the blade on the thumb-ring, and the curved knife is supplanted by an instrument resembling a shoe-horn made of iron. The cloth, after it leaves the loom, has to undergo a considerable amount of bleaching, before it attains the beautiful white colour which it presents in the piece. It is of various qualities, and ranges from one pound to two shillings and sixpence per piece of forty-six Chinese feet long and eighteen inches broad.

Instead of crossing the handsome stone bridge of seven arches, the "Lion's Bridge," which spans the river to the west of the city, we took boat and dropped westward with the stream for a distance of five miles. The river frequently expands to a breadth of one hundred yards; but even in the short space it bore us, rocks project into it at two places from the left and right bank respectively, leaving only a very narrow channel just sufficient for one of these small boats to pass. A little above our landing place on the right bank, a stone bridge of thirty-eight arches runs across the river, rocks showing everywhere. The arches are very low—only one is available for boat traffic—and we slipped through with very little to spare between the roof of the arch and the tops of our chairs. Excellent coal in large quantities was being carried up river to Jung-ch'ang.


On the afternoon of the 15th of February we entered the city of Lung-ch'ang, which presented a picture of business both outside and inside its walls. It is also famed for its grass-cloth. It lies in the centre of a carboniferous region, about a hundred mines existing in the neighbourhood. Many of them, however, have suffered that fate which attaches to most mining industries in China: they have been flooded, and the workmen are not supplied with the necessary appliances called pumps.

The immense salt traffic, which we met going east, tempted us to leave the main road to the capital and pay a visit to the celebrated salt wells of Tzŭ-liu-ching, farther west. Two stages lay between us and the wells, and we spent the first night on the left bank of the T'o River, probably the busiest stream of its size in Western China. Rising to the north-east of the provincial capital, it flows through the great sugar region of the province, and to the south of the district city of Fu-shun it is joined by a tributary which connects it with the salt wells. In return for its salt and sugar, it absorbs enormous quantities of raw cotton and cotton cloth, so that there is one continuous stream of traffic on its waters. The sugar factories to the west of the river were indeed merry; the din that came from them resembled very much the music from an iron foundry, only louder.

On the following day we struck the left bank of the tributary, took boat for a short distance, and again landed on the left bank before ascending the low hill, on the slope of which the town of Tzŭ-liu-ching is built.

This great salt belt stretches west to the left bank of the Min River and south towards the Yang-tsze. In the Shê-hung district, a hundred miles to the north-west, salt beds are also found and worked; but it is from the former that the greater parts of the provinces of Ssŭ-ch'uan, Kuei-chow, and the north-east of Yün-nan are supplied. I spent a whole day in visiting the larger wells, which are situated inside the town, and a short description of one of the greatest industries of Western China cannot fail to be of some interest.


When I had prevailed on the immense crowd that accompanied me on my round of sight-seeing, to leave an open space, so that I might be observed to greater advantage, and that I might catch a glimpse of what I had come so far to see, I found myself seated—a settle had been procured for me—beside a square stone embedded in the ground, with a central hole a few inches in diameter. From the hole there was issuing a hempen rope, about an inch thick, which, ascending, passed over a movable wheel fixed at the top of a staging some sixty feet high and bearing a striking resemblance to the shears at a dockyard. On leaving the shears, the rope descended and passed under another wheel fixed a few feet above ground, whence for the moment it escaped from our range of vision. After the lapse of a quarter of an hour, the top of a tube, from nine to ten inches in circumference, attached to the rope, made its appearance and was drawn up to within a foot of the wheel. Meantime a workman, stationed at the mouth of the wheel, had thrown a rope round the tube, which was composed of the stems of a number of bamboos fixed together, and, immediately the lower end appeared, he drew it to one side and over a wooden reservoir built into the ground. Embracing the tube with his left arm, he plunged an iron rod which he held in his right hand into the bottom, and raising a leather valve, which was there adjusted, allowed the contents, consisting of black, dirty-looking water, to escape into the reservoir. This was the brine. The tube was again placed over the well, and descended with great rapidity. Whence the motive power that raised the brine? Following the rope after it left the second wheel, I found that it entered a large shed, the floor of which was several feet underground. In the centre of the building was an enormous bamboo wheel or drum, twelve feet in height and sixty in circumference, placed on a vertical axis, to which the rope was attached six feet from the ground. As I entered, four huge water-buffaloes were being harnessed, at equal distances, to the circumference of the drum; each buffalo had a driver, whose duty it seemed to be to belabour the animal with a short, stout hempen rope to induce it to break into a trot. As the drum revolved, the rope coiled round it at a sufficient height not to impede the buffaloes. For a quarter of an hour, that is, until the tube had been again raised, this unmerciful beating went on, when the poor beasts, exhausted and white with froth, were unharnessed and led back to their stable, whence a fresh relay was brought. When the animals were unharnessed and the signal given, the drum reversed with great velocity, creating a violent wind all round. Forty animals were employed at this well, and each relay raised the brine about ten times every twenty-four hours. They are specially selected for the work, and cost from forty to fifty taels apiece. The specimens I saw were fat and in excellent condition; but, although they are carefully fed and attended to—each costing three hundred cash a day—their staying power does not exceed five years. Many even fail within the first year; nor is this to be wondered at, for the make of the animal fits it for a slow plodding life only.


Retracing my steps to the large reservoir by the well, I found that the brine was being carried off in bamboo pipes laid down between it and smaller wooden reservoirs in the evaporating sheds, which I next visited. On the floors of the latter, rows of brick furnaces with round openings at the tops were built. On each furnace rested a round, shallow, iron pan, about four feet in diameter, filled with brine conducted in open bamboo pipes from the reservoirs, which occupy one side of each shed. Where was the fuel? Under each pan was a flame blazing from a bamboo tube coated with lime and fitted with an iron burner, while all round flames burst from smaller upright tubes and lighted the sheds, for there is no cessation, night or day, in the work of evaporation. I was next conducted to the "fire-well" whence the fuel is procured. It was quite close to the brine well, and was carefully built over, bamboo tubes covered with lime to prevent escape ramifying from the cap covering the mouth to the evaporating sheds. There can be little doubt that the "fire wells," which are nearly all situated within the town, contain petroleum from which the vapour or gas arising supplies the natural fuel. They have, however, never been worked for the oil. The stench which permeates the whole town reminds one forcibly of a gasworks, but the gas has not, as in some parts of Ohio, been utilized to light the streets. All the wells, which are worked by private companies, are now under Government control, and there is an office established at Tzŭ-liu-ching through which all salt transactions are carried on. The actual cost price of the salt is thirteen to fourteen cash a catty, but the Government manages to extract from buyers twenty-two to twenty-three cash.


The salt is of two kinds—pan or lump, and granular salt. The former is from two to three inches in thickness, and is of the same shape and size as the evaporating pans. In preparing the latter, bean flour is used to give it a whiter appearance. The work of evaporation occupies from two to five days, according to the strength of the gas-flame. As the salt wells number over a thousand, and the "fire wells" only about a score, much of the brine is carried into the town for evaporation. Pans are leased by the year, the privilege costing about forty taels each. A contractor supplies the pans, which weigh 1600 lbs. apiece, for from thirty to forty taels a year each—the old pans, which are changed about once a fortnight, being the property of the contractor. Brine is found at depths varying from 700 to over 2000 feet, and from a dirty yellow in the shallower, becomes a deep black in the deepest wells. Twice as much salt is evaporated from the black as from the yellow brine—the deeper the well the stronger the solution. As the region in which the wells are situated is of sandstone formation, the difficulties of boring to these great depths, even with primitive machinery, are not very great. A bamboo lever is erected over the spot where the operations are to be carried on; an iron jumper over one hundred pounds in weight is attached by a bamboo rope to the thin end of the lever; on both sides of the thicker end, scaffoldings with plankways are built; several men jump simultaneously from the planking on one side to the planking on the other, using the lever as a stepping stone; and the jumper is raised, released, and falls crushing the stone, a rotary motion being imparted to the weight by a man who stands by the mouth of the well, and twists the bamboo rope as the lever is about to drop. The rope is lengthened as required by adding strips of split bamboo. I have heard doubts expressed as to the depths of these wells; but the figures given are unimpeachable. The well which I visited was over 2000 feet in depth, and I arrived at this result by a very simple calculation. The drum was sixty feet in circumference, and thirty-four coils of rope were wound up before the tube reached the mouth of the well. In boring in the vicinity of the town, at least, it is impossible to predict whether petroleum or brine will be struck; but as both are valuable, the result is always satisfactory.

The workmen presented a very worn and unhealthy appearance, and, to judge from the alarming number of beggars in the town, life at the wells must be very trying and short. Their wages range from 1200 to 1300 cash per month, with board—not a large sum for labour amid noxious gases which permeate the whole place.

The history of this great industry is lost in antiquity; but salt is said to have been worked at Tzŭ-liu-ching as early as the Minor Han Dynasty, which was established in Ssŭ-ch'uan, A.D. 221-263.

We had found the inns on the main road comparatively comfortable; on the branch road to Tzŭ-liu-ching we were confronted with wretched dens specially intended for the accommodation of salt carriers. A bed-room is easily described. A trestle framework, two feet high, ran the length of the narrow cell; on the top was spread a straw mattress, an inch and a half thick, covered with a rush mat. During the day the bedding, which consisted of a long bag padded with cotton, was stowed in the office, and was not issued till payment of the few cash necessary to ensure a night's lodging.

Daylight of the 19th of February found us marching northwards to regain the high-road to the provincial capital. On leaving the salt area the road winds round low hills terraced and cultivated, each terrace rising above the other and faced by a wall of dark, bare sandstone. So much did they resemble circular forts, that one felt inclined to look for the embrasures and guns. These rocks were, however, fast crumbling into soil, their colour being easily distinguishable in the adjacent fields amid the beans and peas springing up from the old cane-brakes, and the rape and wheat which occupied the rest of the arable land. Farther north the yellow soil showed that hills had been entirely disintegrated by the weather, assisted by the hoe. In other places the hills were partly clad with stunted pines, while clumps of bamboo and an occasional pumelo and banyan were to be seen. The poppy was not at all prominent—it prefers a heavier soil than sandstone. The 20th of February broke dull, and by noon, when we struck the right bank of the T'o River, opposite the city of Tzŭ Chou, the day had fairly broken down; and on a vote being taken whether we should proceed or spend the afternoon and night within the walls, my followers to a man—just as I expected—preferred the latter course. The river was of no great depth: a bamboo proved sufficient to guide the movements of the small boats in which we were ferried across.


Tzŭ Chou is an inviting city; it possesses broad streets of large, prosperous-looking shops, and its numerous blue-brick houses give it an air of substantiality. The district in which it is situated is a great producer of sugar; while the soil, being light and sandy, is likewise favourable to the growth of the ground-nut, Arachis hypogæa L., whence a sweet cooking-oil is extracted. Coal is also found in the immediate hills. The distance from this city to the provincial capital is reckoned as four stages; but, although we succeeded in accomplishing the first without mishap, rain and snow compelled us to distribute the remainder over four days. Beyond the weather, no other difficulty presented itself. The sandstone country extends a little to the north of the district city of Tz'ŭ-yang Hsien, which, like Tzŭ Chou, stands on the right bank of the T'o River, whose course the high-road follows in the main. Bare, red hills then put in an appearance, and cultivation, except at their bases, stops. This belt of hills extends for twenty-five miles, when it gives place to a long, wide plain—the plain of Chien Chou—famous for its opium. It is interesting to watch the effect which one foreign industry has had on this remote spot. Previous to the introduction of aniline dyes into China, the department of Chien Chou was widely famed for its safflower, Carthamus tinctorius L., which, with that grown within the Shun-ching prefecture, not only sufficed to meet the wants of the province, but was annually sent eastward in large quantities. All is now changed. Safflower has been supplanted by "Pure Soluble Scarlet" in bottle, and the plain of Chien Chou has been converted into a poppy garden. The plant is still cultivated, but in very small quantities and almost entirely for local use. The plain, which was dotted with farm-houses and homesteads peeping out from bamboos and cypresses, runs due north and south. In the north lies the city of Chien Chou, the approach to which is marked by three pagodas, one of them thirteen storeys high. It occupies the right bank of the river, which is joined to the immediate north of the city by a tributary from the west. Crossing the latter by a five-arched stone bridge, we followed the main river through orange groves and copses of bamboo and cypress, which would have met with admiration but for a low thermometer, a piercing north wind, and a drenching rain. A few salt wells to the north of the city were being worked, charcoal being the fuel used in evaporation.


Leaving the river we struck west by north through the belt of low hills which separates the Chien Chou and Ch'êng-tu plains. These hills are rocky and little cultivated, the thin poor soil not holding out that inducement which even a Chinese expects for his labour. Snow was falling thickly when we reached the rim of the immense plain—the plain par excellence of the province of Ssŭ-ch'uan—and the imperfect glimpses which we caught through the snow-flakes revealed flooded paddy-fields and the ordinary winter crops, the most prominent of which was the poppy. Over fifteen miles still separated us from the eastern wall of the city, but we were fated, before reaching this centre of wealth and luxury, to be reminded that riches and poverty always go hand in hand. Under a memorial archway near the entrance of one of the market-towns in the plain, lay a beggar stark and stiff. The yard of matting, which was the only clothing he possessed and which covered his loins, had proved insufficient to ward off the chill hand of death. A few yards off sat some companions, listless shivering wretches, with faces pinched and worn, outcasts from their kind. Hundreds of beggars crowded the eastern suburb of the city, and it was with difficulty that we pushed our way through the mass of rags and dirt that held the bridge, which spans the stream flowing southwards under the eastern wall. They seemed to have just returned from the public soup-kitchens, which open in the large towns of China during winter, and dole out to the most necessitous enough to keep them from actual starvation. We had no sooner settled down in a comfortless inn than the underlings of the various officials came to prey upon us. They came laden with offers of assistance; they departed, each with a handful of cash, satisfied that they had done their duty. We saw none of them again—the key to peace and quietude was cheap at the price.

Ch'êng-tu, the capital of the largest and probably the richest province in the Empire, is a splendid city, fifteen hundred feet above the level of the sea, enclosed by an excellent wall about twelve miles in circumference. It is the seat of a Viceroy, or Governor-General, whose jurisdiction extends over the one province only. With the exception of Chihli, it is the only province in China which is thus honoured. Of the other sixteen, each is entrusted to the care of a Governor; but with the exception of Shantung, which has no superintending Viceroy, and of the three Provinces of Kiangsu, Kiangsé, and Anhui, which are under one Viceroy, they are divided into groups of two, with a Viceroy over each group. The city is divided into two parts, the quarter occupied by the Tartar garrison and their families, and the Chinese or commercial quarter. It is without exception the finest city I have seen in China; Peking and Canton will not bear comparison with it. The streets in the Chinese quarter are fairly broad, paved with stone, and slope gently to either side. They were clean and in excellent repair. During my two days' sojourn I traversed many of the streets, and, notwithstanding the fact that it rained heavily the whole time, they were crowded with moving masses of bustling, gaily-dressed, well-to-do people. Chairs with their passengers and ponies with their riders were everywhere on the move. But the prettiest sight of all was the signboards. The reader must bear in mind that these are not placed horizontally over the shop doors as in Europe; they hang vertically from iron bars projecting from the walls. In Ch'êng-tu they are one mass of gold and colour, decorating the streets and proclaiming, at the same time, the names of the shops—not the names of the owners—and the wares on sale. It may be that the unfortunate weather prevented me from seeing anything prepossessing or attractive in the Tartar quarter. Here the streets were broad, unpaved, and muddy; the people, especially the women, were badly, even slovenly, dressed; everything announced the presence of parasites battening on Government pay, without affording any adequate return. Much of the land in this quarter, which is thickly wooded, is devoted to gardens; but I should question whether these slip-shod, down-at-heel, lazy-looking Tartars possessed the energy to grow sufficient vegetables to supplement their government rice.

Ch'êng-tu derives considerable importance from being the meeting point of the great high-roads from the Eastern and Northern provinces, from Yün-nan and Tibet, and it is undoubtedly the place whence the latter may most easily be entered from the Chinese side.


My aim was now to reach Ta-li Fu, in Western Yün-nan, by way of Ya-chou Fu, the valley of Chien-ch'ang or Ning-yuan, and Yung-pei T'ing. In undertaking a long and arduous journey such as this, it might have been more advisable to take boat to Chia-ting on the Min River, or even as far as Ch'êng-tu, and then start afresh; but in that case I would have missed one of the most interesting sights and industries of the province—the salt wells of Tzŭ-liu-ching. My men grumbled loudly because I declined to stay longer than two days in Ch'êng-tu. Finding, however, that I was inexorable, they gave in, and on the morning of the 28th of February, we were all ready to penetrate the wilds and backwoods of Western China.

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