River Scenes in China. 1

Towards the end of last year two sets of people were staring at each other with the utmost intensity for nearly eight weeks. To all appearance the mutual study left them mutually pleased; and, if so, the only thing to be wished is, that we could learn the precise impression made on both parties as accurately as we can on one.

The one party was the population along the banks of the great Chinese river, the Yangtse, from its mouth to the group of three large cities, six hundred miles up; and the other party was the British Embassy. Six hundred miles may appear a small portion of a river which measures upwards of three thousand, but it is enough to carry strangers into the heart of China, where they can see the genuine Chinese people living in their ordinary way, and unmixed with such a sophisticated population as that of Canton, and of all the ports where foreigners trade and reside.

For four hundred miles up, the tides affect the surface of the vast stream, while its mass of waters keeps its way below, to the sea, for ever deepening its channel, and draining the interior of the country from side to side, after having done the same for a part of Thibet. The ebb of the tide is so strong that, before the days of steam-navigation, the ascent of the river was out of the question, except in the native vessels.

Lord Amherst’s party reached the Poyang Lake, in junks, in 1816, turning thence southwards to Canton. In 1854, an American vessel, the Susquehanna, worked her way up to Woosoo, sixty miles above Nankin: and none but native vessels had ever passed that point till last November, when Lord Elgin and his attendant ships and gun-boats achieved a memorable voyage. They made a fine study of “the son of the sea,” as the Chinese call the mighty stream, and it seems as if the untravelled citizens along the banks had made an earnest study of them.

If the inhabitants would but record their impressions in their dearly-beloved “literature,” we might know, in the course of a generation or two, how the celebrated barbarians appeared in their eyes. As for us at home, it was an anxious season while our countrymen were behind the curtain which veils the interior of China; but when they came into view again, and related what they had seen, it became as evident as it always does on analogous occasions, that men are very much alike everywhere in the make of their heads and hearts, and quite capable of being useful and agreeable to each other whenever all parties desire to be so.

It must have been a wonderful day for the country-people — and for the towns-people, too — when the British squadron came in sight, round a curve of the stream, perhaps, or from behind one of the rocky islets with which its channel abounds. Perhaps it was first seen by the bonzes on the height where Bhuddist temples usually stand.

The poor priests have nothing to do when their mechanical prayers are said — four times a day — but to sit and look abroad from some ledge or bench: and it is not often that one of their wretched order lights on such a chance as seeing Lord Elgin’s squadron come upon the scene.

First, there are the two gun-boats — Dove and Lee — approaching as the advanced guard, the white steam gushing from their cylinders at every stroke, and curling and melting in the air. They hold a steady course between the centre and the banks of the stream, where the channel admits of it, and thus seem to measure its width by keeping a mile or two apart.

Then follow the three larger vessels — the Furious, with Lord Elgin on board — in the middle. Whether the tide is flowing or ebbing, on come “the fireships'” of the strong barbarians. And they are not like the clumsy junks which roll and wallop, and lean over when anything goes wrong. The little outriders of the English squadron give warning when the water shoals, and say whatever they please by shifting their flags. They try here and there — push and probe — go round and about, talking their signal talk all the while; and the large ships watch, listen, and obey — slacken, stop, and even turn and go back when so advised.

What a sight for the Bhuddist priests! They never before saw ships independent of wind and tide, and are half persuaded that these must be alive and rational. But when the fleet comes abreast
of their rock, and the great ships stop while the little ones explore, what a sight it is to see the chief man of the foreigners come ashore, and walk up the hill!

He has an interpreter with him, and he wants to hear about the temple, and the ways of the priests. He learns why the head of one has twelve bald places, the signs of vows he has taken against twelve vices, and what the priest expects to happen to him if he breaks any vow on the list; and how he spends his time without books or business: and finally the great barbarian gives five dollars, to the astonishment of the holy group.

The news is now pretty sure to spread up the river. The imperial troops surrounding a city hear of it from their scouts, and the besieged rebels learn it from the bustle outside the walls, and look out from their forts and prepare to fire on the strangers. The peasants driving their cattle in long strings away from the seat of war, see the apparition on the broad stream, whose surface, as polished as a mirror, reflects the native rafts and boats, but breaks into ripples wherever the “fire-ships” turn.

The people who are cutting their bulrush-crop in the flats rush to the banks to behold the sight; and even the opium smoker delays lighting his pipe for the moment to witness the miracle of a group of vessels ascending the strong river without a wind, and against the tide. The lime-burners appear from the quarry in the hills, and the oil-mill stops, while the crushers of the seed run to the banks, where the whole population of a village or a town, at present free from the rebels, range themselves — a vast orderly multitude — to see the strangers pass. Some have heard of these barbarians, but more have not; and when the few are set talking the most astonishing stories pass from mouth to mouth.

Will they act for or against the rebels? is the practical question. Nobody can answer it now. Is there any one who will venture to inquire the next time the fire-ships stop to rest?

Quick eyes soon discern a Chinaman acting as pilot on board the chief vessel; and from point to point of the shores it becomes known that more and more of the country people have held conversation with the strangers, and have come out none the worse from the adventure; till at last it becomes an object of eager desire to sell them food; and the folk make haste home, and collect then fowls and eggs, or go out to fish in the night, for the chance of a market in the morning.

This much we know, because this much was visible from the deck or the masthead of the English ships, with a little help from interpreter and pilot; but beyond those outward demonstrations all is dark. How far the people understand us, and what they think of us, we can learn only by an incident here and there in the experience of many weeks.

On board, meantime, impressions are gathered from hour to hour. When the channel is clear and the progress rapid, the shifting scenery is full of interest and instruction; and when shoals or perilous rocks delay the ships for hours or days, or compel the unloading of even the coal, the gentlemen of the expedition go ashore, and walk in all directions, climb up to temples and forts, traverse villages, enter farm-houses, go shopping in towns, and exchange visits with high officials. On this side the question, therefore, we know a good deal.

There were parts of the scenery which reminded the travellers strongly of Egypt. Sometimes there was a dreamy softness about the hills like that of a sunset on the Nile. Swampy flats where reeds or grain grew tall, and where the tallest were cut for fences, or for the walls of houses, were like Egypt too; and so were the interminable strings of wild fowl. One which passed over the Yangtse was several miles long, folding and twisting so that it literally darkened the sky. Again, some parts subject to inundation, and buried under four or five feet of sand, were like the junction of the Lybian desert with the fertile ground. In Egypt the peasants cut down through the sand to form their cucumber beds below; and in China they break up the clay subsoil and mix it with the sand for tillage.

When the flats were left behind, and the rocky hills drew close to the river to form a pass, the scenery became Scotch in its character: at least, so say the Scotchmen of the party, including the ambassador himself. Their hearts warmed to the distant hills, with a purple bloom like heather upon them; and the clefts, and the wooded hillocks, and the stretches of dark firs, with grey rock peeping out, reminding them of hunting days of old.

Elsewhere there were woods reflected in the waters in all the brilliant hues of an American autumn. Here and there occurred large towns, supposed to contain hundreds of thousands of busy people, but found on entering to be mere heaps of ruins, with broad avenues grass-grown, and narrow streets choked with heaps of fallen dwellings. The war which caused this devastation sometimes came forward itself upon the scene.

An army on the hills made a great waving of flags; and another army in the plain below waved other flags, so as to present a fine show; and now and then a cannon-shot was fired on the one side or the other. If any prisoners were taken their heads were cut off, the natives said: but this did not very often happen. The liveliest battle-scene seems to have been at Nganching, where the imperialists were watching the city.

The rebels within the forts were foolish enough to fire on the British ships, which silenced them with the smallest possible number of replies, the effect of which was to send the rebels scampering out of the city directly into the arms of the imperialists, who were marching up. As seen from the mast-head, the scene was a curious one: the gesticulations and gambols of the advancing force, the rush of the rebels from the fortified pagoda, and their consternation at finding themselves between two foes. The British, however, were in no hostile mood, and they moved on, leaving the coast clear for a return to the pagoda, where they left the silly aggressors pouring in as fast as they had run out.

This was not the only occasion of attack from the shore. The story of the Nanking forts firing on the whole line of ships is well known through the newspapers, and need not be repeated here. When the aggressors had received their lesson, they were all eagerness to apologise for the mistake of some foolish people, who had been decapitated.

Such was the account they sent with all zeal up and down the river, and acted upon when the gunboats came down without the larger ships, and were obliged to stand in near the shore and its defences. The Taiping people, some way up the river, learned their lesson quickly — their rebel chief, our “humble younger brother,” desiring aid against the “demons” (the imperialists), and when that could not be afforded, sending down to the shore a present of two pieces of red bunting and a dozen fowls — a better offering than puffs of white smoke and hot cannonballs.

Rebels and imperialist soldiers were not, however, the sort of people the British had most curiosity about, for they were no fair specimen of the inhabitants. A landowner with whom the travellers had some conversation thought the rebels very presuming in their claims. He said that they laid hands on everything wherever they went, as given to them by their Heavenly Father; and that they vowed, in their grace before meat, to destroy the demons, but that their Heavenly Father did not seem to think much of them, for they were “poor creatures,” and did not get on very well. It was more pleasant and profitable to make acquaintance with the people who lived beyond the limits of the war on the river; to stop and converse with such men as this landowner, and look into the peasants’ dwellings, and watch the buying and selling when the ships were taking in stores.

While the gun-boats were hunting for a channel it was always a temptation to go on shore and shoot; for the whole country was like a game preserve. Birds sprang up from under the sports men’s feet in places as strange as the burial grounds which Bayard Taylor tells us of as harbouring pheasants in the grass of the graves. In the midst of a walled-town as large as Canton, but partly in ruins, Lord Elgin’s party started two brace of pheasants on a hill-side. In the regions of lakes and ponds, the wild fowl were inexhaustible, and little interfered with by the people.

There were no signs of a degree of poverty which made the question of subsistence a difficulty. Game could not continually abound among a starving people, and be neglected by them, however fond of a vegetable diet in preference to meat. The chatty and good-humoured cottage farmers, who were always ready for a visit from the strangers, gave a pretty comfortable account of themselves. They said they had generally from two to three acres a-piece, and paid about a tenth part of the produce as a tax. If they worked for hire they got 120 cash (sixpence) a-day.

The larger farms were known by the herds of buffaloes in the pastures, each one with a little boy on its back to keep it in order. Among this rural population, as well as in the towns, the supreme reverence is for intellectual superiority. In the house of a proprietor of three or four acres there was a tablet, in the place of honour over the door, in celebration of a brother having gained the highest literary degree, and being therefore eligible for the highest offices in the state. The proprietor was not so distinguished, and had bought his Bachelor’s degree for £35, contenting himself with this because he must have paid nearly ten times the amount for the degree of Master, besides having some sort of examination to go through. The anecdote indicates a somewhat Russian tone of public morals — a condition of public examination which needs reform.

There were hamlets in which some of the peasants found it difficult to pay the two dollars a year requisite for the children’s schooling ; but it was in such places that miserable men were found lying on the bare ground, in poor reed huts, with a lamp between two, smoking opium. The habit entails poverty of course; the mere opium costing four pence a day, while the working man’s wages are but sixpence.

Wife and children depend on the bit of land, three acres of which were said to yield about a ton and one-third of pulse or grain annually, the value of which is forty dollars, and the tax three-quarters of a dollar. Such was the account given through the interpreter: but it seems as if there must be some mistake about the quantity of land. We can be no judges of the value of produce there, nor of the proportion of taxation; but the produce, in a country where three crops and upwards are taken in a year, must surely be larger than half a ton of pulse or grain per acre annually. It is true, where the father is smoking opium, and the children are untaught and untrained, the case is no fair specimen.

The travellers admit that it was difficult to obtain clear information as to the amounts of land and produce. On the whole, though the dwellings of these peasant-proprietors were often excessively dirty, and the sins of intemperate parents occasionally brought misery on the children, the class seemed to be comfortably provided for. They had the appearance of a prosperous peasantry.

One tenant of a somewhat larger farm said that he paid his landlord four-tenths of the produce of his land. The lime-burners were willing to stop for a chat, and tell their terms — selling their lime at 17 s. per ton, and buying their small coal for the process at 25. per ton. The cotton and hemp spinners were as full of smiles as the rest, and paused for a gossip; and so did the oily people who were crushing the cotton-seed in a mill. Little incidents occurred which showed that the natives were as observant of character as their visitors.

 

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