CHAPTER VIII (Three Years in Western China)



A view from the walls of Ta-li—The Mohammedan Rebellion—A dying patriot's prayer—Tibetan dogs—Amherst pheasants—A visit to the marble quarries—False musk—Min-chia maidens—The Ta-li plain—Playful gusts from the Tsang-shan—Good-bye, Ta-li—A folklore hunting ground—The Erh Hai and the Mekong—Trade with Upper Burmah—Canton peddlers—Hsia-kuan, or the "Lower Fortress"—Ruined cities—Wretched roads—Half-starved—The foreigner and the camel—Marked courtesy at Ch'u-hsiung Fu—Yün-nan salt wells—A sackful of mails—A roadside trial—Across the Yün-nan lake—Three days in Yün-nan Fu—Trade with Western China, and the introduction of railways.

"The pen is mightier than the sword." But the pen has not yet been manufactured which is able to present a living picture of Ta-li Fu and its environs. I have read the few published descriptions of the scene, and, good though some of them undoubtedly are, how short, how far short they all fall of the reality! I would fain throw down this worthless, halting pen, and leave the grandeur to the imagination of the reader, and, if I venture to daub a few rough outlines on the canvas, I must beg that full play be given to the imagination in adding the finishing touches.

On the afternoon of a day towards the end of April 1883, I stood on the north-west angle of the walls of the city of Ta-li. Overhead, white fleecy clouds were floating eastward across the azure blue, veiling, at short intervals, the warm glow of the declining sun. To the north stretched a plain studded with villages peeping through the light green of encircling trees, beginning to array themselves in the garb of summer. Three miles to the west the Tsang-shan range, serrated, capped with snow, towered seven thousand feet above the plain, itself nearly seven thousand feet above the level of the sea. Three miles to the east, the western shore of a fine sheet of water, which runs the whole length of the plain and is backed by high hills which rise from its eastern margin, was lost among the glistening white poppy fields, which seemed to merge in the silver beyond; and specks of white, favoured by the cool breezes from the snows, were skimming over the bosom of the glorious lake. Wait a moment. The sun is now half hidden by the white belt of snow. He is gone. Darker and yet darker grows the face of the giant range, throwing into still greater prominence the numerous gullies down which flow the icy rills to nurture the plain and then lose themselves in the waters of the Erh Hai. How calm, how peaceful!

From these I am loth to turn to the city itself and account for its ruined condition. Within this walled square of about four miles in circumference there are only two good streets, which cross each other at right angles and terminate at the four gates. What of the rest? It consists of ruined and dilapidated houses and cultivated plots of land. During the Mohammedan rebellion, Ta-li was the centre round which the fiercest struggle raged. When the rebellion broke out, it was seized by the insurgents and held by them until they surrendered to the Imperialist forces which beleaguered the city. Then occurred that scene of bloodshed, butchery, and destruction, the like of which, happily, is to be witnessed in uncivilised countries only. Extermination was the order passed along the ranks of the besiegers, and the streets of Ta-li were quickly turned into shambles ankle-deep in blood. Men, women, and children who managed to elude the murderers fled into the fields bordering on the lake, into which they were ultimately hunted like wild beasts, preferring death by drowning to mutilation, defilement, and massacre.


This, then, was the answer to the prayer of the Mohammedan leader, Tu Wên-hsiu, when he surrendered to the besiegers. The interview is graphically described by Mr. Baber:—"When the Mohammedans had surrendered and given up their arms, Tu Wên-hsiu, the so-called 'Sultan,' came into the camp of the besiegers, borne in a sedan chair, and inquired for Ma, the Imperialist commander. Being introduced into his presence, he begged for a cup of water, which being given him, he said, 'I have nothing to ask but this—spare the people.' He then drank the water and almost immediately expired. It appears that he had taken poison, which was suddenly brought into action by the water. His head was immediately cut off and exposed, and, heedless of his prayer—probably the most impressive and pathetic ever uttered by a dying patriot—the victors proceeded to massacre the helpless garrison and townsfolk."

More fortunate than the members of the Grosvenor Mission, who were lodged in an inn where a thousand Mohammedans were cooped up and butchered in cold blood, I was, through the kindness and hospitality of Mr. George Andrew, of the China Inland Mission, provided with a comfortable room in his house, where I rested a fortnight before turning my face toward Ch'ung-k'ing. During my stay I visited the lake, the marble quarries in the Tsang-shan, and the annual fair which was being held outside the west gate. I was also fortunate in being able to witness a review of about five thousand troops, which took place on the parade ground close to the Mission House. I was most courteously received by the Commander-in-chief of Western Yün-nan, and the Taotai, who claimed to be an old friend—having travelled in my company to Yün-nan Fu the previous year—was kindness itself.

As to the fair, I can add little to the description of it given by Mr. Baber. The Ku-tsung, or Tibetan men and women, were present with their encampments and wares in great numbers, and I was so charmed with their fine powerful dogs that I endeavoured to procure one. The idea had, however, to be abandoned, for the animal brought to me for inspection required the whole strength of a Tibetan to keep him in check. Had I bought the dog, which was offered for ten taels, I should have had to engage his keeper also. I succeeded in purchasing a tiger and two leopard skins, unprepared of course, for a sum equivalent to a little over two guineas, and, for several hundred cash, a couple of live Amherst pheasants, which I carried in baskets to Ch'ung-k'ing. This beautiful variety of phasianidae, now common enough in Europe, is very abundant in Western Yün-nan, where its tail-feathers are highly prized for decking pack-animals. They are inserted, several together, in the brow of the bridle, and wave over the animal's head. Trade is dear to the Chinese heart. I found that, while I was buying, my followers were rapidly disposing, at an immense profit, of a bundle of razors which they had carried all the way from Ch'ung-k'ing.


Small slabs of white marble streaked with dark green, and supposed to represent trees, mountains, and lakes, were extensively exposed for sale in the shops and on street stalls. Their abundance pointed to a very considerable industry, the working of which I resolved to see for myself. One morning, taking a few men with me and a guide, I left the city by the north gate, and, proceeding over the plain in a north-westerly direction, struck, in a couple of hours, the base of the mountains where the ascent to the quarries begins. A stiff climb of over three thousand feet through a botanist's paradise landed us at the mouth of a quarry, where a number of men were bringing out blocks of pure white marble. I told the workmen that I was anxious to see streaked marble in the rough; but they innocently replied that such marble was rare indeed, and that they considered themselves lucky if they came across such a block in the course of a year. Whence, then, all the streaked marble? The villagers on the plain can answer the question, for to them is confided the polishing, painting, and baking of the slabs, and the filling up of inequalities with bees' wax. A scene to suit a purchaser's taste can be ordered in advance. The inhabitants of the Ta-li plain are not behind their brothers on the eastern seaboard. A couple of pods of musk, which had been purchased for a trifle at the fair, were brought to me to look at; although to outward appearances they were intact, a close inspection revealed that they had been opened, and again carefully closed by means of a needle and thread. Their buyer probably paid a high price for all the musk which they contained.

From the quarries a splendid panorama of plain and lake stretched below us. To the north lay Shang-kuan, with its extended southern wall connecting the lake with the western mountains—the northern defence of the city and plain. Hsia-kuan—the "Lower Pass or Fortress"—was concealed by mountain spurs, which creep into the plain to the south of the city. The two pagodas, each of thirteen storeys, which grace the plain between the city and the Tsang-shan, and which are built of bricks stamped with Tibetan characters, looked in the distance like inverted clubs. As we sat drinking in this never-to-be-forgotten scene, a number of Min-chia maidens, with bundles of pine branches on their backs, passed swiftly down the mountain side. The most striking part of their dress was a close-fitting black cloth cap, shaped very like a fireman's helmet, and adorned with rows of white beads. Our appearance, I regret to say, somewhat hastened their movements.

As might naturally be expected, the half of the Ta-li plain which lies near the foot of the Tsang-shan range, is less fertile than the eastern half. It consists of stones, pebbles, and gravel, which have been quickly dropped by the mountain streams, while the finer particles of mud have been carried along to add to the soil of the half bordering on the lake. The shores of the lake itself are composed of fine yellow sand thickly scattered with a variety of large shells. Cold water, whether for drinking or washing, is abhorrent to the Chinese; and when, on reaching the lake one day, I expressed my desire to engage a small boat at a fishing hamlet to take me out for a swim, my local escort stood aghast and tried to dissuade me with all sorts of imaginary dangers. The end of it was that we were soon, escort included, at a distance from the shore; and my little dog and I, followed by our guardians in the boat, disported ourselves for a quarter of an hour, chasing each other in the clear cool lake. The fish in the lake, to judge from the specimens I saw caught, belong to the carp family.


As a general rule, the Chinese, as I have just remarked, abhor to eat or drink anything cold; but in Ta-li, snow mixed with sugar is eagerly devoured by the people in summer. This brings me to the question of perpetual snow on the Tsang-shan range, and, although snow is visible on the plain for only ten months, yet there can be no doubt that it is found during the other two months in the crevices near the summit, and can be bought in the streets throughout the whole year. The temperature even in summer is delightful; the wind sweeps down from the snows in sudden gusts and cools the atmosphere of the plain. Of these sudden gusts I had myself a somewhat startling experience. As we neared the city on the day of our arrival, the large heavy top of my official chair, weighted though it was with pens, ink, paper, and thermometers, was lifted up bodily and carried into an adjacent field. Another effect of the presence of the Tsang-shan is that the crops are always late, the early setting of the sun behind the range depriving the plain of two hours' daily sunshine.

So pleasant had been our stay in Ta-li that I was troubled with a heavy heart when, on the morning of the 2nd of May, everything was ready for a fresh start, and I had to bid good-bye to my kind host, who worked at his remote station with a heartiness and a will that I have not seen surpassed. To me, Ta-li and its surroundings had become a kind of paradise, and had it not been that duty called me back to my post, I would fain have lingered there during the summer months. Passing through the south gate we entered a long-ruined suburb, which in former years must have been very extensive. Streets and cross streets are numerous; but the floors of the fallen houses have been converted into vegetable gardens. There is, indeed, a legend that in palmier days this suburb ran as far as Hsia-kuan, a busy town on the high-road which connects China and Upper Burmah, ten miles to the south of Ta-li. Frontier towns are noted, however, as the cradle of romance, and, if I could remember half the myths which were related to me about the White Prince of the "Country of the Golden Teeth," of which Ta-li is a part, they would make a very interesting volume. The object of my journey was, fortunately or unfortunately, to collect facts, not fables; but to the student of folklore, untrammelled with trade statistics, I can confidently recommend the Ta-li plain as a happy hunting-ground. The lake is drained by a river which, leaving its south-western corner, divides Hsia-kuan into two parts, and then goes west and south to join the Mekong, or, as it is called in China, the Lan-tsang Chiang.


Some days previous to my departure from Ta-li, I despatched my writer to Hsia-kuan to collect all available information on the subject of Chinese trade with Burmah; and, on my arrival there, I spent some time in overhauling the statistics which he had amassed, and in obtaining corroborative evidence. This, added to valuable information which I subsequently obtained from a gentleman in Bhamo, led me to the conclusion that the total annual value of the trade between Western China and Burmah amounted at that time to about half a million sterling. As we were discussing trade matters in the inn, a crowd of Canton peddlers turned up, and grinned from ear to ear at the strange apparition of a foreigner so far from the seaboard. They were a rough-looking lot; instead of the usual carrying pole, at the ends of which the loads are swung, each was provided with a wooden spear fitted with a long iron blade, from which dangled an antiquated horse-pistol. They were on their way to Ta-li to exchange their wares for new opium. Hsia-kuan lies much nearer to the nearest point on the Burmese frontier than to Yün-nan Fu, and, had I possessed the necessary authority, how gladly would I have gone west to Bhamo. It was not to be, and I had to content myself with walking to the western end of the town, and looking longingly in the direction of our Indian Empire, so near, and yet to remain unvisited.

There is little for me to add to the descriptions given by Margary, and by Messrs. Baber and Davenport of the Grosvenor Mission, of the country between Ta-li Fu and Yün-nan Fu. After our experiences of the Chien-ch'ang valley, it was so tame and monotonous that I resolved to push on with all despatch, and we succeeded in covering the distance of two hundred odd miles in thirteen days without resting. Of the six cities which lie on the high-road, the only one that may be singled out for special mention is Ch'ao Chou, the end of the first stage from Ta-li. It showed more promising signs of revival than any of the others. Chên-nan Chou, Ch'u-hsiung Fu, Kuang-t'ung Hsien, Lu-fêng Hsien, and An-ning Chou were in a very dilapidated condition. In most of them the walls, which were breached, had not been repaired; nor within the walls was there any marked indication of returning prosperity. In many of the villages, however, building operations were going forward apace. To say that the road was best where there was no road may seem paradoxical. It is nevertheless true, for, where the paving had disappeared, fine battened sand or clay gave an excellent foothold except when it rained. In many places paved mounds rose in the middle of the roadway, and these were carefully avoided by man and beast. Not unfrequently, too, so distorted was the paving that it had every appearance of having been convulsed by an earthquake.


East of Ch'ao Chou the cities occupy valleys drained by streams, which go north to join the Yang-tsze. Between the valleys are hill ranges covered with pine, oak, and brushwood, affording excellent cover for game. It was no uncommon occurrence for half a dozen pheasants to rise from the cover by the roadside, startled at our approach, and drop within easy range. Poppy, wheat, and beans occupied the few patches of ground under cultivation among the hills. On the third day from Ta-li we skirted the southern shore of a large lake, called the Ch'ing-lung Hai, which was literally covered with duck. An incident which occurred the same evening photographed that picture on my mind. We lodged for the night in the miserable village of Yün-nan-yi, where, with an exhausted larder, I could get nothing to eat for love or money. It is not a very pleasant position to be stranded in the dark without food, and to know that only a few miles off there are thousands of duck cackling to their hearts' content. On the whole, I thought it as well to take the matter philosophically, so I smoked vigorously for an hour to ward off hunger, and then went to bed. Next day at noon, while I sat in my chair in the street which constitutes the village of Shui-p'ang-p'u, breaking my fast by devouring a couple of hard boiled eggs, I found myself the object of intense attraction to the inhabitants, who were parading backwards and forwards with a business air that seemed somewhat out of harmony with their wretched surroundings. Their curiosity was still unsatisfied when the head, and gradually the ponderous body, of a camel appeared at the other end of the street. In a moment we were deserted, and as we left the village we looked back, and saw the whole population following the camel westwards.

On the seventh day from Ta-li we reached the remains of the prefectural city of Ch'u-hsiung, where we were received with marked attention and courtesy at the hands of the local authorities. A mile from the city a temporary reception room was erected, and a captain, with a file of soldiers, awaited our arrival, and conducted us to a spacious inn outside the west gate; and early next morning the same ceremony was repeated outside the east gate. On the 10th of May we lodged for the night in the village of Shê-tz'ŭ, to the immediate west of which branches a road to the chief salt wells in the province, about fifty miles to the north. Up to this point, nothing of commercial importance had been noticed going eastward; but from Shê-tz'ŭ to Yün-nan Fu there was one long string of caravans laden with pan salt. From the east came caravans of cut tobacco from Chao-chou Fu, in the Canton province, straw hats, and tin from the Kuo-chiu-ch'ang mines in the district of Mêng-tzŭ, in the south of the province. They were bound for Ta-li and the west of Yün-nan. The tobacco was said to be in exchange for tin exported from the above-named mines to Tonquin. Soon after leaving Shê-tz'ŭ we came upon a man carrying a sack, the contents of which—seven bundles of despatches, letters, and papers forwarded to me from Ch'ung-k'ing—were soon emptied by the road-side. At Ta-li, Père Leguilcher favoured me with a perusal of the latest telegrams which he had received by native post from Ch'ung-k'ing, where all the important items of news appearing in the Shanghai papers are translated by, and printed under the superintendence of, my friend Père Vinçot, and forwarded to the various Mission Stations throughout the West of China.


While I was deep in the middle of my letters, my escort came up with a man they had made a prisoner, and I at once proceeded to hold a roadside investigation. The charge brought against him was that he had allowed one of the animals of his caravan to push one of my baggage waggons, with a bearer, down a gully which the road skirted, much to the damage of the baggage and the injury of the bearer. An examination of the former failed to prove any damage, while the latter had escaped with a few skin-deep bruises about the face. After a prolonged inquiry, I found that both parties were to blame; but I added a rider that I was of opinion that the chief blame lay with the local authorities, who allowed the road to remain in such a frightful condition. My own men grumbled at the decision; but I ordered the immediate release of the driver, and advised him to hurry back to his caravan as fast as his legs could carry him—which he did.

A noble stone bridge of seven arches—the most substantial and artistic I have seen in Western China—spans a stream which flows southwards to the west of the district city of Lu-fêng, on its way to swell the Song-koi. The city itself is badly ruined; but the plain in which it lies contrasts very favourably in an agricultural point of view with the valley occupied by the next city to the east—An-ning Chou. The latter suffered severely during the rebellion. The walls lie where they fell, the gates are wanting, and the whole scene was dreary, desolate, and dead. There is, indeed, a local industry of inconsiderable proportions. In the eastern part of the city are three wells, about a hundred feet deep, containing weak brine, which, on being passed through earth, leaves a saline deposit. From this, which is collected and placed in water, salt is evaporated and consumed locally. The river which drains the Yün-nan Fu lake flows north under the eastern wall of the ruined city to the Yang-tsze. The village and tax-station of Pi-chi-kuan crowns the last ridge that has to be crossed before descending into the large plain, wherein lie the provincial capital and the lake. Instead of following the high-road we made for the north-western margin of the lake, and at the fishing village of Kao-ch'iao engaged a couple of junks, which bore us eastward, with the aid of a stiff breeze, past beds of tall reeds sheltering teal, duck, and geese, to within a short distance of the western wall of the capital.

In Yün-nan Fu I found Mr. Mesny, of the Chinese Military Service, whom I had met eleven weeks before in Ch'êng-tu. He had now made up his mind to proceed to Canton by way of the West River, and he was good enough to give me the first offer of his horse and mule, which he could easily have disposed of to Chinese. I closed with his offer, and a bargain was soon struck. The same kind hospitality was held out to me by the members of the French and China Inland Missions as on my previous visit, and I spent three very pleasant days with old and new friends.

Three roads lead from Yün-nan Fu to Ch'ung-k'ing; there is the road by way of Tung-ch'uan and Chao-t'ung to the Yang-tsze, and the road by way of Kuei-yang, the capital of the province of Kuei-chow. Both of these routes I traversed in 1882. But there is an intermediate road which, leaving the high-road to Kuei-yang at Chan-i Chou, goes north and east through the north-west corner of Kuei-chow to the Yung-ning River and the Yang-tsze, and this route I now decided to follow.


Before giving a description of this country, however, I must say a word about the West of Yün-nan, and the prospects of trade across the Burmese frontier. The most casual reader will have observed that the province of Yün-nan is covered with ruined cities, towns, and villages; that its soil, fruitful without a doubt, is only partly cultivated; and that its population is exceedingly scant. True it is, immigration is taking place from the northern province of Ssŭ-ch'uan, and lands laid waste by the rebellion are being taken up; but the process is very slow, for, among the hardy Ssŭ-ch'uanese, Yün-nan has an evil name, and they are loth to quit their own productive fields to till what is at present inferior land. Room must, however, be found for the ever-increasing population of Ssŭ-ch'uan, which is surely destined to develop both Kuei-chow and Yün-nan; yet many years must elapse before such a happy consummation can be effected. Until that time comes, no great development of our trade with Western China through Burmah need be looked for. It will be said that these are the views of a pessimist, and that the introduction of railways would put new life into the country. Granted that there are people foolish enough to furnish capital for the construction of railways through an impossible country—that is, supposing the necessary permission to have been obtained—I have yet to learn that there can be trade without trade-products, and that shareholders would expect no remuneration from their capital. It will be time enough to think of railways when half the province of Yün-nan is under cultivation and some of its dead industries have been revived.


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