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Ascend the Lun-ke river — A musical Buddhist high priest — Hoo-shan monastery — Its silk-worms — Mode of feeding them — General treatment — Their aversion to noise and bright light — The country embanked in all directions — A farmer's explanation of this — Town of Mei-che — Silk-worms begin to spin — Method of putting them on straw Artificial heat employed — Reeling process — Machine described — Work-people — Silk scenes in a monastery — Industrious Buddhist priests — Novel mode of catching fish — End of silk season — Price of raw silk where it is produced.
I SPENT a week in the midst of this beautiful scenery, and experienced nothing but kindness and civility from the hundreds of natives with whom I came daily in contact. During this time I gained a good deal of information regarding the hilly districts to the westward, which I intended to penetrate before I left this part of the country. I found that a river of considerable size flowed up to the west gate of the city, and apparently emptied itself into the net-work of canals which cover this extensive plain; and I was informed that it was navigable for upwards of twenty miles to boats much larger than the one I was travelling in. My object now was to get my boat into that river, and as all these rivers and canals are connected this was accomplished without the least difficulty. We returned to the south gate of Hoo
chow, where we found a wide canal leading round the walls to the west gate. Following this canal we soon skulled round, and found ourselves on a wide and deep river which takes its rise amongst the hills in the far west. It is called Lun-ke by the natives, and probably one of its most distant sources is near the celebrated Tein-muh-shan — a mountain said to be the highest in this part of China.
In sailing up this river I observed that the plantations of mulberry still formed the staple crop of the country on all the flat lands which were raised above the surface of the rice-fields. About sixty le west of Hoo-chow-foo I observed a large monastery not very far from the banks of the river, and as it seemed situated in the midst of rich and luxuriant vegetation, I determined to moor my boat to the banks of the river, and remain in the neighbourhood for a few days. As I was going up the road in the direction of the temple I met an old respectable-looking priest carrying a kind of flute or flageolet in his hand, which he induced now and then to give out not unmusical sounds. His head was shaven after the manner of the priests of Buddha; but the three nails on his left hand were each about two inches in length, denoting that he did not earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and that in fact he was one of the superiors in the order to which he belonged. This old gentleman met me in the most dignified manner, and did not express the least surprise at seeing a foreigner so far from home. He asked me to accompany him home to his temple, and when we arrived there he introduced me to his own quarters and desired his servants to set tea and cakes before me. He then led me over all the halls and temples of the monastery, which, although very extensive, were in a most dilapidated condition. They were too much like buildings of this kind in other parts of the country to require any further notice.
If there was little to notice in these temples with reference to Buddhism and its rites, there were objects of another kind which soon attracted my attention. The halls and outhouses of the monastery seemed to be converted for the time into a place for feeding silk-worms. Millions of these little animals were feeding in round sieves, placed one above another in open framework made for this purpose. So great was the number of the worms that every sieve — and there must have been many hundreds of them — was crammed quite full. In one large hall I observed the floor completely covered with worms. I shall never forget the peculiar sound which fell upon my ear as I opened the door of this hall. It was early in the morning, the worms had been just fed, and were at the time eagerly devouring the fresh leaves of the mulberry. Hundreds of thousands of little mouths were munching the leaves, and in the stillness around this sound was very striking and peculiar. The place too seemed so strange — a temple — a place of worship with many huge idols, some from twenty to thirty feet in height, looking down upon the scene on the floor. But to a Chinese there is nothing improper in converting a temple into a granary or a silk-worm establishment for a short time if it is required, and I suppose the gods of the place are supposed to look down with approbation on such scenes of peaceful industry.
When from the large number of worms it is necessary to feed them on floors of rooms and halls, there is always a layer of dry straw laid down to keep them off the damp ground. This mode of treatment is resorted to from necessity, and not from choice. The sieves of the establishment, used in the framework I have already noticed, are greatly preferred.
Whether the worms are fed on sieves or on the floor they are invariably cleaned every morning. All the remains of the leafstalks of the mulberry, the excrement of the animals, and other impurities, are removed before the fresh leaves are given. Much importance is attached to this matter, as it has a tendency to keep the worms in a clean and healthy condition. The Chinese are also very particular as regards the amount of light which they admit during the period the animals are feeding. I always observed the rooms were kept partially darkened, no bright light was allowed to penetrate. In many instances the owners were most unwilling to open the doors, for fear, as they said, of disturbing them; and they invariably cautioned me against making any unnecessary noise while I was examining them.
At this time nearly all the labour in this part of the country was expended on the production of the silk-worm. In the fields the natives were seen in great numbers busily engaged in gathering the leaves; boats on the rivers were fraught with them; in the country market-towns they were exposed for sale in great quantities, and everything told that they were the staple article of production. On the other hand, every cottage, farm-house, barn and temple, was filled with its thousands of worms which were fed and tended with the greatest care.
This part of the country is very populous, villages and small towns are scattered over it in every direction, and the people have the same dean and respectable appearance which I had already remarked in other parts of the silk districts. In making my observations on the rearing of the silk-worm I visited many hundreds of these towns and villages, and never in one instance had any complaint to make of incivility on the part of any one.
After staying a few days in the vicinity of the temple of Hoo-shan — for such was its name — I gave my boatmen directions to move onwards further up the river. We passed a number of pretty towns and villages on its banks, and arrived at last at a place called Kin-hwa, where I remained for two days, and employed myself in making entomological collections and examining the productions of the district. We then went onwards to a small town mated Mei-che, which was as far as the river was navigable for boats, and from thirty to forty miles west from Hoo-chow-foo.
Here I moored my boat at a little distance from the town, and determined to remain in the neighbourhood long enough to examine everything of interest which might present itself. Although the country was comparatively level near the banks of the stream, yet I was now surrounded on all sides by hills, and the flat alluvial plain of the Yang-tse-Kiang was quite shut out from my view. In its general features it was rather curious and striking. Everywhere it was cut up into ponds and small lakes, and wide embankments of earth seemed to cross it in all directions. At the first view it was difficult to account for this state of things, and I could not get any satisfactory reason for it, either from my servants or boatmen. I knew well, however, that the Chinese have a good and substantial reason for everything they do, and determined to apply to some farmer as the most likely person to enlighten me. One day when out on an excursion in the country I met an intelligent-looking man, and to him I applied to solve the difficulty.
"These embankments," said he, "which you now see cutting up the country in all directions, were formed many hundred years ago by our forefathers in order to protect themselves and their crops from being washed away by the floods. The vast plain, through which you have come from Shanghae, is scarcely any higher in level than where we now stand, for you will observe the tide ebbs and flows quite up to Mei-che. With this slow drainage for our mountain streams to the eastward we have frequently a large body of water pouring down upon us from the west, which overflows the river's banks and carries everything away before it. The embankments which you observe running in all directions are intended to check these floods, and prevent them from extending over the country."
Upon giving the matter a little consideration I had no doubt that the explanation given by the Chinese farmer was the correct one, and that however strange these embankments might appear they were necessary for the safety of this part of the country.
Mei-che is a long town on the banks of the stream, and as the river is no longer navigable for the low-country boats a considerable business is done here in hill productions, which are brought clown for sale. They are put on board of boats here, and conveyed in them to the towns in the plains.
This town appears to be almost the western boundary of the great silk country. Here the mulberry plantations, although pretty numerous, do not form the staple crop of the district, nor do they seem to grow with such luxuriance as they do further to the east about Hoo-chow and Nantsin. Large quantities of rice and other grains now take the place of the mulberry. In the mountains to the west considerable quantities of tea are produced, and fine bamboos which are sent down to the low country are made into paper. A mountain called Tein-muh-shan, celebrated amongst the Chinese for its height and for its temples, lies to the west of this, and further west still is the great green-tea country of Hwuy-chow, which I examined during my former visit to China.
On my way up from Hoo-chow-foo to Mei-che, and about the 23rd of June, I observed that many of the worms had ceased to feed and were commencing to spin. The first indication of this change is made apparent to the natives by the bodies of the little animals becoming more clear and almost transparent. When this change takes place, they are picked, one by one, out of the sieves, and placed upon bundles of straw to form their cocoons. These bundles of straw, which are each about two feet in length, are bound firmly in the middle; the two ends are cut straight and then spread out like a broom, and into these ends the worms are laid, when they immediately fix themselves and begin to spin. During this process I observed the under side of the framework on which the bundles of straw were placed surrounded with cotton cloth to prevent the cold draught from getting to the worms. In some instances small charcoal fires were lighted and placed tinder the frame inside the cloth, in order to afford further warmth. In some of the cottages the straw covered with spinning worms was laid, in the sun under the verandahs in front of the doors.
In a few days after the worms are put upon the straw they have disappeared in the cocoons and have ceased to spin. The reeling process now commences, and machines for this purpose were seen in almost every cottage. This apparatus may be said to consist of four distinct parts, or rather, I may divide it into these for the purpose of describing it. There is, first, the pan of hot water into which the cocoons are thrown ; second, the little loops or eyes through which the threads pass; third, a lateral or horizontal movement, in order to throw the silk in a zigzag manner over the wheel; and lastly the wheel itself, which is square. Two men, or a man and woman, are generally employed at each wheel. The business of one is to attend to the fire and to add fresh cocoons as the others are wound off. The most expert workman drives the machine with his foot and attends to the threads as they pass through the loops over on to the wheel. Eight, ten, and sometimes twelve cocoons are taken up to form one thread, and as one becomes exhausted, another is taken up to supply its place. Three, and sometimes four, of such threads are passing over on to the wheel at the same time. The lateral or zig-zag movement of the machine throws the threads in that way on the wheel, and I believe this is considered a great improvement upon the Canton method, in which the threads are thrown on in a parallel manner.
The water in the pan into which the cocoons are first thrown is never allowed to boil, but it is generally very near the boiling point. I frequently tried it and found it much too hot for my fingers to remain in it. A slow fire of charcoal is also placed under the wheel. As the silk is winding, this fire is intended to dry off the superfluous moisture which the cocoons have imbibed in the water in which they were immersed.
During the time I was in the silk country at this time I was continually visiting the farmhouses and cottages in which the reeling of silk was going on. As silk is a very valuable production, it is reeled with more than ordinary care, and I observed that in almost all instances a clean, active, and apparently clever workman was entrusted with the care of the reeling process.
The old temple at Hoo-shan, which I visited again on my way down, was in a state of great excitement and bustle. The quantity of silk produced here was very large, and all hands were employed in reeling and sorting it. The priests themselves, who generally are rather averse to work of any kind, were obliged to take their places at the wheel or the fire. But as the silk was their own they seemed, notwithstanding their habitual indolence, to work with hearty goodwill. My old friend the Superior, however, was exempt from labour. When I called, and found all the verandahs and courts in a bustle, he was quietly smoking his pipe and sipping his tea with his favourite flageolet by his side. I remained with him during the heat of the day, and in the evening he walked down with me to the river side where my boat was moored. He readily accepted an invitation to come on board, and while there took a great fancy to a copy of 'Punch' and the 'Illustrated London News.' I need not say I made him a present of both papers, and sent him away highly delighted. My boat now shot out into the stream, and as we sailed slowly down I could hear the wild and not unpleasing strains of my friends flageolet as he wended his way homewards through the woods.
On our way down the river that night we came upon some people fishing in a manner so curious that I must endeavour to describe it. The boats used for this purpose were long and narrow. Each had a broad strip of white canvas stretched along the right side, and dipping towards the water at an angle of from thirty to forty degrees. On the other side of the boat a net, corresponding in size with the white cloth, was stretched along above the bulwarks. A man sat in the stern of each boat and brought his weight to bear on the starboard side, which had the effect of pressing the white canvas into the water and raising the net on the opposite side. A small paddle was used for propelling the boat through the water. This will be well understood by a glance at the accompanying sketch.
As we approached these strange fishermen, I desired my boatmen to take in our sail, and as my boat lay still on the smooth surface of the water, I watched their proceedings with much interest. It was a fine, clear night, and I could see distinctly the white canvas shining through the water, although several inches beneath its surface. The fishermen sat motionless and silent, and scarcely noticed us when we joined them, so intent were they upon their work. We had not remained above a minute in the position we had taken up, when I heard a splash in the water, and distinctly saw a fish jump over the boat and get caught by the net on its opposite side. The object in constructing the boats in the manner I have described was now apparent. It seemed that the white canvas, which dipped like a painted board into the water, had the effect of attracting and decoying the fish in some peculiar manner, and caused them to leap over it. But as the boats were low and narrow, it was necessary to have a net stretched on the opposite side to prevent the fish from leaping over them altogether and escaping again into the stream. Each fish, as it took the fatal leap, generally struck against the net and fell backward into the boat.
My boatmen and servants looked on this curious method of catching fish with as much interest as I did myself, and could not refrain from expressing their delight rather noisily when a poor fish got caught. The fishermen themselves remained motionless as statues, and scarcely noticed us, except to beg we would not make any noise, as it prevented them from catching fish.
We watched these fishermen for upwards of an hour, and then asked them to sell us some fish for supper. Their little boats were soon alongside of ours, and we purchased some of the fish which we had seen caught in this extraordinary and novel manner.
On the following morning, when I awoke, I found myself quietly at anchor close by the west gate of Hoo-chow-foo, my boatmen having worked all night. I spent the next few days in the country to the northward bordering on the T'aihoo lake, and partly near the town of Nan-tsin, being anxious to see the end of the silk season. About the eighth, or from that to the tenth of July, the winding of the cocoons had ceased almost everywhere, and a few days after this there was scarcely a sign of all that life and bustle which is visible everywhere during the time that the silk is in hand. The clash of the winding-machines, which used to be heard in every cottage, farmhouse, and temple, had now ceased; the furnaces, pans, and wheels, with all the other parts of the apparatus in common use during the winding season, had been cleared away, and a stranger visiting that country now could scarcely have believed that such a busy bustling scene had been acting only a few days before.
During my perigrinations in the silk country I made many inquiries amongst the natives as to the price of raw silk in the districts where it is produced. An inquiry of this kind is always rather difficult in a country like China, where the natives are too practical to believe one is making such an inquiry merely for the purpose of gaining information. On several occasions the reply to my question was another, wishing to know whether I wanted to buy. Most of the natives with whom I came in contact firmly believed my object in coming to the silk-country was to purchase silks; and neither my assurances to the contrary nor those of my servants, who were generally appealed to on the subject, were sufficient to make them change their opinion. I believe, however, the information I gleaned from various quarters at different times will be found to be tolerably correct. At Mei-che the price was said to range from twelve to eighteen dollar's for 100 taels of silk. At Hoo-chow and Nantsin, where the silk is of a superior quality, the prices in 1856 were from eighteen to twenty-two dollars for 100 taels. The price of raw silk, like that of everything else, no doubt depends in a great measure upon the supply and demand, and varies accordingly.