River Scenes in China 2

Kienkiang is a city beyond Lake Poyang, and of course beyond the range of European intercourse. No person in European dress had perhaps ever been within it: and it was therefore just the place in which to note the impressions made on the people’s minds. Outside, the city appeared to be about five miles in circumference: within, Lord Elgin found a mere wilderness of weeds and ruins, with a single street running through it.

The desolation was recent, and the work of the rebels. The inhabitants were merry and easy, and ready to laugh at every joke of the interpreter; but not the less were they watching the morality of the barbarians. The opportunity was taken to buy some articles of food; but the party had only Mexican dollars with them, to which the first seller objected as strange money. He was told that he should have sycee silver if he came to the ship, whereupon the interpreter heard the remark among the bystanders: “See how just these people are! They do not force their coin upon him.”

Nothing seems to have impressed our countrymen more, in their whole intercourse with the Chinese, than their perpetual and practical regard to principles of “justice” in their ideal and in their conduct. Among the facts which came before them was this.

When Commissioner Yeh was raising money for the defence of Canton against the allies, he called upon an old man there for taels to the amount of about 1000 2., in addition to the established taxation. “You have two sons,” he said, “who are making money in the service of the barbarians, and you must pay in proportion.” The old man had not the money, and prepared to sell his patrimony as the only means of raising it.

On hearing of his intention, his sons, in English employment, sent to him to say that he must not sell his estate, nor suffer on their account: that it was true that they were profiting by the barbarians, and it was therefore just that they should pay in proportion. They sent the 1000 2., and engaged to bear their father harmless. Such incidents as these seem to authorise Lord Elgin’s conviction that there must be some other way than terror and violence for managing a people who form their judgments by an ethical standard, criticising barbarians, and regulating themselves, by the idea of what is “just.”

It was vexatious to find every possible obstacle thrown in the way of intercourse with the people by the mandarins, who, on pretence of keeping order, beat away with bamboos all natives who approached the strangers with genial dispositions. Lord Elgin baffled this tyranny by dodging the mandarins, landing where he was least expected, taking spontaneous walks, and declining to turn back when once inside a city gate.

Everywhere he found the inhabitants delighted to be spoken to and traded with; and thus some agreeable general views of our future aims were arrived at. But the study of individual characters seems to have been nowhere practicable among the unsophisticated Chinese. The nearest approach to this was perhaps in the case of the pilot taken on board at Kiewhien.

He was a talkative and inquisitive Chinaman, wanting to hear all about everything, and proposing to go to England, but not forgetful of family duty meanwhile. When the commodore sent for him, and told him that he was wanted to carry the ship safely up the river, he fell on his knees, and observed:

”That is a public service; and if your Excellency desires it, I must go. But I have a mother and sister who must be provided for in my absence.”

“Certainly,” was the reply.

“Then I am ready,” said the pilot.

And ready he was; for he stepped into the boat forthwith, and established himself on board the Furious. Next day, he went ashore in the evening at Tunglew, to get the forepart of his head shaved, and extol the barbarians.

On his reappearance, the ambassador asked him what the people on shore were saying about the expedition. They had been greatly alarmed, it seemed, lest the fireships should attack them; and their hearts went pit-a-pat; but when he told them how well he was treated, and that the British were no friends to the rebels, they said, ”Poussa, that is Bhudda’s doing;” —equivalent perhaps to “Thank God!”

This person seems to have been just the speculative moralist that the writers of Chinese proclamations appear to be; and, like a good many people outside of China, always ready to explain any phenomena that came to hand. His squadron did not get up the river so easily and safely as he could have wished, being brought to a stop, and kept waiting very frequently and vexatiously.

Some of the vessels were large, the depth of water was constantly changing, and perhaps some of the shoals might be so too. However this might be, the journals of the voyagers tell of incessant explorations by the gun-boats, disappointments and delays; unloading of the vessels; unexpected release at one moment, and turning back at another; now a whole series of discouraging signals; and again shouts and hurrahs, heard miles into the interior by the ambassador, while pursuing his explorations among the villagers.

The pilot was as perplexed as other people; and, when asked how it was that he could not get through a channel which he had emphatically recommended, he sighed out, “The ways of waters are like those of men: one day here, another there, who can tell?” This reminds one of the eternal “Quien sabe?” —the lazy answer to all troublesome questions on the opposite shore of the Pacific. Mexicans and Chinese solace themselves in difficult cases by their sentimental “Who can tell?” precisely when the North Americans and British are resolving that they will know the reason why.

Not the less, however, does the Chinaman offer an explanation of what he can least understand, as when accounting to Lord Elgin for the destruction of the temples by the rebels — to the amount of thirty such edifices at Chinkeang.

The Bhuddist priest on the spot believed they did not like temples because they did not use them for worship; but our pilot went more deeply into speculation on the matter. He said that the rich had the advantage over the poor with Bhudda, because they could offer more joss-sticks and other gifts. The rebels disapprove of the gods being so partial, and foil them by destroying the temples altogether. This appeared to be the popular view of the conduct of the rebels, and it must strongly promote their cause with the multitude as against the rich.

Our ambassador had his special opportunity of studying the doctrine of the rebels for himself. Possibly the leaders thought it well to take the chance of converting him. When the expedition was descending the river in the gun-boats, having been obliged to leave the larger vessels among the shoals, intimation was sent to the rebels who held the towns that the British intended to pass up and down, between the port and their ships, doing no harm, and expecting no molestation.

In reply, came on one occasion a letter, about three fathoms long, written in royal vermilion on yellow silk, and addressed, “Foe, the jewel glance of the Earl.” A translation is before us; and a more wearisome piece of verse than this immense epistle surely never was penned. It assumes at the beginning to be “a proclamation for the information of our foreign younger brethren of the western ocean;” and ends with the invitation, “Come rejoicing to court, and give thanks.

Foreign brethren of the western ocean, worship Shang-Ti.” But the yellow silk, and the vermilion, and the adorned envelope, and the mystic seals, and the theology, and the verse, and the summons, all failed. Not one of the voyagers went to court in consequence of the invitation, nor before, except for the purpose of conveying Lord Elgin’s intimation of the freedom of the river.

Their guide, a rebel officer, was anxious to be carried away by the British; and when they declined his company, begged for opium, saying that about one in three of the force in Nanking smoked it. No reliable tidings of the original prince-leader could be obtained, though some insisted that he was living in seclusion with three hundred wives. Opium smoking and matrimony in this style will hardly regenerate China.

While beyond the reach of letters, newspapers and familiar faces, our countrymen must have felt as if transported into the world of many thousand years ago, — so rampant was the fetishism they met at every turn, and so wild the fables which are attached to every prominent object in the scene. At the Hen-barrier, for instance, near Nganching, where the only passage is close to the left bank, the rest of the channel being occupied with rocks like stepping-stones for giants, the pilot explained why passengers were crowded in upon the shore.

The great rock on the right bank, shaped like a hen, was once an evil spirit which coveted the good land on the opposite shore. Step by step the great hen crossed, barring the stream as she proceeded. In consternation the good spirits appealed to a bonze, who lived in a temple niched like a nest in a pyramidal rock on the left bank 300 feet high, overlooking the pass. The bonze after much reflection, began to crow like a cock, to make the hen turn round, which would break her power. The hen supposed she heard her mate, and turned her head; after which she could never move again. The country-people cut off her head; and there lies her body, and there stand her stepping-stones, with the river perpetually rushing against them.

But we must hasten to the end of our sketch — past open expanses strewn with islands, wooded to the water’s edge — past rocky gorges where the current runs like a cataract; — past prairies where lakes gleam at intervals, and hamlets peep forth from the groves, and corn-fields, divided by causeways, stretch to the horizon; — past the entrance to the Poyang Lake, with its guardian bluff crowned with a fortress, and the circuit of mountains closing in the loveliest view on the river; — past the Benevolent Tiger Mountain, darkening as gloomy weather came on, on the descent of the stream; and, finally — past the scene which presented itself after Christmas Day, when the hills in the background were white as the Alps, and thatched cottages and fir-woods on the rising grounds sprang conspicuously out of the sheeted snow, while the shore was thronged with a multitude canopied with red umbrellas, and an official personage stood on the brink, waving a red flag. These are only a specimen of the varieties of scenery explored by our countrymen for six hundred miles, while we were wondering what they were about.

The grandest show they saw in China was at the extremity of their voyage, where the three great cities of Hankow, Hanyang, and Woochangfoo, in a group, constitute ”the heart of the commerce of China.” Some other hand, with more space at command, will, no doubt, describe this remarkable confluence of rivers, markets, and populations. We can only just notice the meeting of the authorities.

It was here that the greatest efforts were made to interpose mandarin meddlers between the people and the strangers. Presents were sent to preclude traffic for food; but the ambassador sent back the presents, and announced his wish for supplies, and his intention to pay for them. A hope was hinted that he would not cross the river to Woochangfoo, whereupon he intimated by letter his intention of calling on the Governor-General there the next day.

A day’s delay was begged, in order to make due preparation. Lord Elgin could not have thirty chairs for his suite, nor eight bearers for himself. The reply that he would go with eight bearers and his suite in thirty chairs, or not land at all, settled the business. The authorities objected no more; but, on the contrary, the Governor-General became obsequious — shook his head at the folly of Yeh, who would have behaved very differently if he had been at Canton at the time — knew all about us, and how we had now arrived, bullying the Chinese who had once bullied us, approved of settling matters reasonably, and would do everything possible to promote trade, now that the river was opened, and so forth.

The visit and return visit were very grand — salutes on both sides — a great guard of British marines and sailors, and the procession of thirty chairs passing through a smiling multitude; conversation and tea in a great room; a sumptuous feast in a larger apartment; everything plentiful but conversation; ambassadors to the East finding it hard work to talk with nothing to say, and to say that nothing through an interpreter. But the host was handsome, well-dressed, courteous, and less formal than most of his order.

The return visit, the next day, was more lively; salutes again — yards manned in all the four ships — sun shining brilliantly when the Governor-General’s huge glittering junk left the bank, towed by six boats covered with triangular flags of all colours; troops, horse and foot, keeping the line from the city to the river, and along the beach in odd and showy uniforms; and on board great eagerness to make the Governor-General happy — to feast him, photograph him, amuse him for three hours, and send him away thoroughly propitiated.

This was done. He no doubt has recorded the greatest event that has been witnessed in the interior, in connection with barbarians; while our ambassador declares that the most splendid reception he experienced in China was six hundred miles up the river, just midway between the Court at Pekin and our old and hated haunt — Canton.

Rivers, ports, seas, courts, are all open now — thanks to Lord Elgin. Every step of his progress was animating to himself, his comrades, and the English at home; but the point around which the strongest interest will probably cling — at least in the minds of the voyagers — is that at which they turned back, leaving a group of three vast cities waiting and longing for the apparition of more pleasant barbarians, bringing with them the commerce of Europe.

HARRIET Martineau. (To be continued.)

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