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ACROSS CHENGTU PLAIN
Thoroughly set up by the day's rest in Ya-chou, my men were on hand at five o'clock on the morning of May 24, in good spirits for the rest of the trip. Even the ma-fu, whom we had left behind at Hua-lin-ping, turned up with the coolie and pony sent round from Lu Ting.
Two missionaries going down the river to Chia-ting, at the junction of the Min and the Ta Tu invited me to take a turn at rafting, and I was glad to go with them for a few li. The Ya Ho joins the Ta Tu just west of Chia-ting, the fall from Ya-chou being about six hundred and fifty feet in a distance of ninety miles. So swift is the current and so tortuous and rocky the bed of the stream that the only navigation possible is by means of bamboo rafts fifty or sixty feet long, with a curled prow. Amidships is a small platform partly roofed over with matting. In spite of the rapids, which at times make the trip vastly exciting, there is no danger save the certainty of getting wet. The scenery on either hand is very beautiful; the great mountains recede in the distance, fading out in the soft light, but the fine red sandstone cliffs, alternating with the brilliant green of bamboo groves and rice-fields on the lowland, afforded a charming picture at every turn.
My men were waiting for me at the appointed place, and ten minutes' precarious scrambling along the narrow dykes between the fields brought me to the great highway leading to the capital, four days' march away. All this day and the three succeeding ones we were travelling through a district park- or garden-like in its exquisite artificial beauty. The trail, which was at first fairly good, ran now along the top of an embankment some six feet broad constructed across the swimming paddy fields, then dropped into a little valley shaded with fine "namti" trees, and again it wound along a low ridge. Far off against the western horizon stretched the splendid snow-line of the Tibetan range from which I had just come, but now more than a hundred miles away. Every inch of land that could be irrigated was under cultivation, save where a substantial looking farmhouse set in groves of fine trees, bamboos, cypress, and namti, occupied a little knoll laboriously built up above the encircling marsh. Last year their crumbling walls testified to the security of the country, but I wonder what has been the fate of these solitary houses in the recent months of lawlessness. Toward the end of the day a soft mist settled down upon the earth, outlining the nearer hills and throwing up against the sky the distant peaks.
We had tiffin at the little town of Ming Shan-hsien. About five miles west of here rises from the plain the Ming Shan, a small mountain famous throughout China for its tea, which is grown by the priests of a Buddhist temple on the summit. According to tradition the seeds from which this tea is produced were brought centuries ago from India by a Chinese pilgrim. Only a few pounds are gathered annually and these are always sent as tribute to Peking for the use of the imperial household. To whom will they now fall? There is a saying current in China that to make a first-rate cup of tea you must take "leaves from the Ming Shan and water from the Yangtse." No one believes for a moment that the turbid water of the Great River is meant here, and yet no one could explain what it did mean. But De Rosthorn, in his interesting pamphlet on "Tea Cultivation in Szechuan," gives what seems to him the true explanation. Crossing the bay at Chen-kiang he saw men in boats filling buckets with water. Asking what they were doing, he was told that there was a famous spring at the bottom of the river well known from the time when the riverbed was dry land. Here, then, was the Yangtse water which, combined with leaves brought from Ming Shan two thousand miles away, made the best tea in the world.
We stopped for the night at the village of Pai-chang, where I spent a tiresome evening trying to arrange for a pony to take the place of mine, left behind at Ya-chou, as he seemed in need of a longer rest. The weather was now too hot for walking, but all day in the chair was unendurable, so I hoped here to hire a pony for half a stage. I refused to engage one without seeing its back, but nothing appeared to be inspected, why, I could not tell. The shifts and turns of the oriental mind are not our shifts and turns, so I finally gave up trying to find out, and went to bed, telling the fu t'ou he must have something ready in the morning, only if its back was sore I would not take it. But morning came and no pony. I was told it was waiting for me outside the town, and there it was, sure enough. Ordering off saddle and blanket I inspected its back to make certain that all was right, as it was. But the strange ma-fu seemed quite overcome with consternation at the sight of me, while the fu t'ou collapsed on a stone wall near by, doubled up with laughter. At last an explanation was made. When the fu t'ou tried to get a pony for me from the pony hong he was met by a refusal. No foreigner should ride one of their horses; they had let one to a foreign gentleman not long before, and he had abused it and gone so fast that the ma-fu could not keep up, and nearly lost the pony; nor were they to be moved. Anyway, the fu t'ou told them, he must have one himself. When it was brought to the inn at dawn he mounted and rode outside the town. There, finding he had forgotten something, — me, — he went back for it, while pony and ma-fu waited. In true Chinese fashion the ma-fu accepted the inevitable and walked quietly at my side, but he had an anxious expression at first, as though he expected me at any moment to whip up my steed and vanish. I am not wise in horseflesh, but at least I try to be merciful to my beasts. When I got off, as I did now and then, to save the horse over a particularly bad place, the man began to cheer up, and finally when, according to my custom, I took the pony outside the village to graze a bit while the men had their breakfast, — a very unsuitable proceeding, I was later told, — his surprise broke forth. "What sort of a foreign woman was this?" At noon I sent the pony back, paying for the half day one hundred and forty cash, about seven cents gold.
Just before reaching Cheung-chou, where we were to spend the night, we crossed the Nan Ho by a fine stone bridge of fifteen arches. The Nan is one of the lesser waterways of West China connecting this corner of Szechuan with the Great River, and many cumbersome boats laden with produce were slipping down with the rapid current on their way eastwards.
I entered the gate of the town with some doubt as to my reception. Baron von Richthofen, who passed through here a generation ago, wrote of the place: "All the men are armed with long knives and use them frequently in their rows. I have passed few cities in China in which I have suffered so much molestation from the people as I did there; and travellers should avoid making night quarters there as it was my lot to do." Time enough has elapsed since the good baron went this way to have changed all that, but the missionaries at Ya-chou had also cautioned me against the temper of the people, relating some unpleasant experiences of recent date. They had kindly given me a note of introduction to two missionaries who had their headquarters at Cheung-chou who would make me safe and comfortable in their house. I had sent this ahead only to learn that the mission was closed, as the people were touring in the district; and so there was nothing to do but go to the inn as usual.
In the narrow streets of the town there was of course the everlasting pushing, staring crowd, but I saw no signs of unfriendliness, and Jack's gay yaps in response to pointing fingers and cries of "K'an yang kou! k'an yang kou!" ("Look at the foreign dog! look at the foreign dog!") brought the invariable grins of delight. Later in the day, wearying of the confinement of the inn, and not unwilling to test the temper of the people a bit, I went marketing with the cook. Of course a crowd of men and boys dogged my steps, but it was a good-natured crowd, making way for me courteously, and when they found that I was looking for apricots they fairly tumbled over each other in their eagerness to show us the best shop.
Cheung-chou lies on the southwestern edge of the great plain of Chengtu, which, although only some ninety miles long by seventy miles wide, supports a population of four millions, so kindly is the climate, so fertile the soil, and so abundant the water supply. Two of these blessings are the gift of nature, but the last is owed to the ingenuity of Li Ping and his nameless son, known only as the "Second Gentleman," two Chinese officials who worked and achieved and died more than two thousand years ago. At Kwan-hsien there is a temple, perhaps the most beautiful in China, erected in their memory, but their truest monument is this beautiful plain, blossoming like a Garden of Eden under the irrigation system which they devised, and which will endure so long as men obey their parting command engraved on a stone in the temple, "Dig the channels deep; keep the banks low."
The people of the plain were as friendly as the mountain folk I had been travelling amongst, but they displayed less of the naïve curiosity of the out-of-the-way places. Evidently the foreigner was no novelty, nor the camera either. At one village I stopped to photograph a fine pailou, not to the "virtuous official" this time, but to the "virtuous widow." A little group of villagers gathered to watch, and would not be satisfied until I had taken a picture of another local monument, a beautiful three-storied stone pagoda rising tall and slender above the flat rice land. These picturesque structures add much to the charm of the level plain which tends to become monotonous after a while. As far as one can see stretches the paddy land in every stage of development. Some fields are hardly more than pools of water mirroring the clouds overhead. Others are dotted over with thin clumps of rice through which the ducks swim gaily, while still others are solid masses of green, and transplanting has already begun.
Although we were now approaching the largest city of West China, and the capital of the empire's richest province, the roads went steadily from bad to worse. Made with infinite labour centuries ago, they had been left untouched ever since, and weather and wear had done their work. For long stretches the paving was quite gone; elsewhere you wished it were. The people have their explanation of these conditions in the saying, "The hills are high and the emperor far." It remains to be seen if that will hold good of the new government. Certainly nothing will mean so much in the development of the country as good roads. We were now once more on the line of wheeled traffic, and the wheelbarrow was never out of sight or hearing. Enormous loads were borne along on the large flat-bottomed freight barrow, while on every hand we saw substantial looking farmer folk, men, women, and children, going to town in the same primitive fashion.
To save the journey a little for my chair-men, and also for the fun of a new experience, I bargained with a barrow-man to carry me for a few miles. My coolies took it as a fine joke, and after starting me off trotted on behind, but my military escort looked troubled. No longer striding proudly in front, he showed a desire to loiter behind, although so long as my grand chair kept close at my heels he could save his face by explaining my strange proceeding as the mad freak of a foreigner. But finally, when I bade the chair-men stop for a smoke at a rest-house, knowing they could easily overtake my slow-moving vehicle, he too disappeared, and only took up his station again at the head of the procession when I went back to my chair after dismissing the barrow with a payment of eighty cash for a ride of twenty-five li. Barrow travelling is not as bad as it seems, for there is a chair-back, and rests for the feet are fixed on either side of the wheel. But in spite of the dexterity with which the coolie trundled me over the rough places and through the deep ruts, an upset into an unsavoury rice-patch seemed unpleasantly possible, and more than all, you can never lose consciousness of the straining man behind.
I thought the last stage into Chengtu would never end; the passing of people became more and more incessant and tiring, while the hot-house temperature of this rich lowland was most exhausting, and the occasional downpours only made the roads more impassable without cooling the air. My coolies, coming from higher altitudes, were almost used up. They stopped often to rest, and hardly one was doing his own work, making an exchange with another man, unless he had given up entirely, sweating out his job to some one hired on the way. So we straggled along, a disorderly, spiritless crowd, showing a little life only when Jack, whom nothing daunted, created a diversion by chasing the village dogs along the narrow earth balks between the fields, their favourite resting-places. Then the whole party waked up, cheering the little dog on with gay cries, and laughing impartially when hunter or hunted slipped into the muck of a rice-patch, while the toilers by the roadside thought we had all gone mad until they saw what it was, and then they too joined in with chuckles of delight. There is something quite childlike in the way in which this old Chinese people welcomes any little break in the grey days of grinding drudgery.
As the day wore on, one could guess that a great centre of government and trade was near at hand; the traffic was continuous, — coolies bent almost double under their heavy burdens, laden barrows creaking dolefully as they moved, foot travellers plodding wearily along, groups of wild Tibetans from the distant frontier, gorgeous mandarins returning from an inspection tour, all were hurrying towards the capital. Yes, we were nearing Marco Polo's "large and noble" city of Sindin-fu and it is to-day again a "large and noble" city, only now it is known as Chengtu, and the days are not so very far in the past when it was hardly a city at all.
Szechuan's later history begins with the troubled times that marked the fall of the Ming dynasty. While the Manchus were busy establishing themselves at Peking, the outlying provinces of the empire were given over to brigandage and civil strife. Here in Chengtu an adventurer calling himself the Emperor of the West succeeded in getting the upper hand for a short time, and when his end came there was little left to rule over save ruins and dead men, which was hardly to be wondered at, seeing his idea of ruling was to exterminate all his subjects. Baber has made from De Mailla's "History of China" the following summary of his measures: "Massacred: 32,310 undergraduates; 3000 eunuchs; 2000 of his own troops; 27,000 Buddhist priests; 600,000 inhabitants of Chengtu; 280 of his own concubines; 400,000 wives of his troops; everybody else in the province. Destroyed: Every building in the province. Burnt: Everything inflammable."
Since that time Szechuan has been repeopled and to-day the capital has a population of quite three hundred and fifty thousand, although the walls, that in the thirteenth century extended twenty miles, are now no more than twelve in length and enclose a good deal of waste land. The wonderful bridges described by Marco Polo, half a mile long and lined with marble pillars supporting the tiled roof, no longer exist, but the city still abounds in bridges of a humbler sort, for it is crossed by the main stream of the Min as well as by many smaller branches and canals, all alive with big and little craft. Chengtu is proud of its streets, which are well paved and broader and cleaner than common, and on the whole it is an attractive, well-built city.
The viceroy of the province has his seat here, and Szechuan shares with the metropolitan province of Chihli the honour of having one all to itself, and he is more truly a viceroy than the others, for the Mantzu and Tibetan territories lying to the west are administered through the provincial government and are in a way tributary to it. Even from far Nepal on the borders of India come the bearers of gifts to the representative of the emperor.
Ser Marco speaks of the "fine cloth and crêpes and gauzes" of Chengtu, and still to-day the merchants unroll at your feet as you sit on your verandah exquisitely soft, shimmering silks and wonderful embroideries. It was these last that caught my fancy, and the British Consul-General, himself a great collector, kindly sent to the house his "second-best" man and then his "first-best," and between the two I made a few modest purchases at even more modest prices. Imagine getting two strips of wonderful silk embroidery for twenty cents gold, or two silk squares ingeniously ornamented and pieced with gold for the same contemptible sum. That was what the men wanted at the missionary house where I was staying; at the Consul-General's they asked me twenty-five cents: that is the price of being an official.
I liked even better to go to the shops, and Chengtu is so progressive that that is quite possible. One section is given over to brass and copper dishes, another to furs, another to porcelains, and so on. Indeed, the town seems to be a very good place for "picking up" things, for hither come men from the far distant Tibetan lamasseries, and patient effort is often rewarded with interesting spoil, while Chinese productions of real value sometimes drift into the bazaar from the collections of the ever-changing officials.
But I did not spend all my days bargaining for curios, although they were tempting enough, for there were other things to do more worth while. The European community of Chengtu is surprisingly large for so far inland. In numbers, of course, the missionaries lead, and besides the Roman Catholic mission there are representatives of English, American, and Canadian churches, all working together to give to this out-of-the-way corner of the empire the best of Christian and Western civilization. Their latest and most interesting undertaking is a university on Western lines, the outcome of the combined effort of the Friends', Baptist, and Methodist societies of Chengtu. The economy and efficiency secured by coöperation must be of even less value than the force of such a lesson in Christian harmony to the keen-witted Chinese. Indeed, all over China one is impressed by the wisdom as well as the devotion of most of the mission work. And however it may be in the eastern seaports, where I did not spend much time, inland there seems to be the best of feeling between the different elements of the European community, official, missionary, and merchant. Perhaps because they are a mere handful in an alien people they are forced to see each other's good points, and realize that neither side is hopelessly bad nor impossibly good.
There is quite a large Tartar population in Chengtu, and the Manchu quarter is one of the most picturesque parts of the city, with the charm of a dilapidated village set in untidy gardens and groves of fine trees. Loafing in the streets and doorways are tall, well-built men and women, but they had a rather down-at-heel air, for their fortunes were at a low ebb when I was in Chengtu. The military service they once rendered had been displaced by the new modern trained troops, and three years ago their monthly rice pension of four taels, about $2.50, was cut down by a viceroy bidding for popular support. Although Chengtu is two thousand miles from the sea, it is one of the most advanced cities of China, and has no mind to put up with outgrown things, such as Manchu soldiers and Manchu pensions. It boasts to-day a mint turning out a very respectable coinage, a large arsenal, and a university of more promise, perhaps, than achievement; and the pride of the moment was a new arcade of shops where the goods were set out with all the artifice of the West in large glazed windows. Although Japanese and Europeans are employed, yet these are all truly native undertakings, and that, to my mind, is the best part of Chengtu's progress; it shows what the Chinese can do for themselves, not simply following Western leadership. And on the whole they seemed last year to be doing a number of things very well. It argued real efficiency, I think, that the officials at Chengtu knew at every moment the whereabouts of the travelling foreigners in a province larger than France. To be sure, we were only two, Captain Bailey and myself, but all the same they could not have done it save by a very up-to-date use of the telegraph. And again, the Chengtu police are really guardians of the peace. I had a chance to see the order that was kept one night when my chair-men lost their way taking me to a dinner at the house of the French Consul-General, quite across the city from where I was staying. For more than an hour we wandered about, poking into all sorts of dark corners, finally reaching the consulate at half-past nine instead of an hour earlier, and nowhere, either in thoroughfare or alley, was there any rowdyism, and this though it was the night of the Dragon Festival when all the people were making holiday. But then under ordinary conditions the Chinese is a peaceable man; he has his own interpretation of the rule of life: in order to live, let others live. I met an example of that in Peking. Opposite the hotel door stood a long line of rickshaws. You soon had a favourite man, and after that the others never thrust themselves forward, but, instead, at once set up a shout for him if he failed to note your appearance. However, the Chinese individual is one thing, the Chinese mob another. It was not many years since an infuriated crowd stormed through the streets of Chengtu seeking the lives of the foreigners, and in even fewer weeks after my visit other crowds would besiege the viceroy's yamen demanding justice for their wrongs. For even when I was there the undercurrent of discontent in the province was visible. The students of the university, like those in Yunnan-fu, had more than once got out of hand; people complained that the new educational system lacked the discipline of the old, and indeed Young China seems to outdo even Young America in self-assurance, and in the spring of 1911 the university was just beginning to recover from the turmoil of a strike of the students for some real or fancied slight by the Government.
And there was more serious trouble afoot. The Szechuan merchants and gentry, wealthy and enterprising, had contributed generously (for China) to the building of a railway connecting the western capital with Wan-hsien and Ichang, but now they were hearing that the money had been squandered and the railway was to be built with foreign capital. It was bad enough to lose their money, but the evil that might come in the trail of the foreigner's money was worse. So people were talking hotly against the new "railway agreement," and it proved in the end the proverbial straw, for three months later the Railway League of Szechuan set in motion the revolution which overthrew the Manchus and the empire.
But these things were still on the knees of the gods, and my stay in Chengtu was altogether delightful, save for the thought that here my out-of-the-way journeying ended. Henceforth I should go by ways often travelled by Europeans. And then I was leaving so much behind. Of my caravan only three would go on with me, the interpreter, the cook, and the Yunnan coolie, who was ready to stay by me a little longer. The rest I had paid off, giving to all a well-earned tip, and receiving from each of my chair-men in turn a pretty, embarrassed "Thank you," learned from hearing me say it. The pony, too, would go no farther, for most of the next month my travelling would be by water, so I handed him over to a horse-loving missionary, and I only hope he proved worthy of his master. My chair, which had been such a comfort for so many weeks, was left in Chengtu waiting a chance to be sent to Ning-yüan-fu, where I trust it arrived in time to serve Mrs. Wellwood on her hurried journey to Yunnan-fu at the outbreak of the Revolution. Even the little dog came nigh to ending his travels at Chengtu, for the Post Commissioner put forward a claim of common Irish blood, which I could hardly deny because of the many kindnesses received from him. But I could not make up my mind to part with my little comrade, and I said a determined nay.
It was early June when I started on the next stage of my journey, a three days' trip down the Min River to Chia-ting. The sun was sinking as I went on board the "wu-pan" or native boat lying in the stream outside the South Gate, and after carefully counting heads to make sure that the crew were all there, and that we were carrying no unauthorized passengers, we pushed off and the current took us rapidly out of sight of Chengtu.
The trip to Chia-ting was very delightful. I was tired enough to enjoy keeping still, and lying at ease under my mat shelter I lazily watched the shores slip past; wooded slopes, graceful pagodas crowning the headlands, long stretches of fields yellow with rape, white, timbered farmhouses peeping out from groves of bamboo and orange and cedar, it was all a beautiful picture of peaceful, orderly life and industry. Each night we tied up near some village where the cook and boat people could go a-marketing, generally coming back after an hour with one vegetable or two. As the river was high, we made good speed, and on the morning of the third day after starting, the picturesque red bluffs opposite Chia-ting came in sight.