Up the Grand Canal of China: Passages From a Traveler's Letter


May 9, 1873.

SINCE I last wrote, I have been up the Yangtsze-kiang as far as Hankow and back, and have seen a little of the canal life which forms such an important part of Chinese inland traffic, the canals doing here what railroads would in other countries. I hired a large boat with a cabin on it, of a Chinaman, having decided to go by this means through a series of canals to Soochow and thence by the Grand Canal to Chingkiang, one of the three open ports on the Yangtsze. Just as I was ready to start, some kind friend told me that it was necessary to have a pass from the Tantai (governor) of Shanghai, as my proposed route took me far beyond " treaty limits.” It was Saturday afternoon, and the Tantai’s office was closed until ten o’clock Monday morning, so that I had the prospect of spending two more days in Shanghai, of which I had begun to get heartily tired, and moreover of missing the east, and consequently fine, wind that was blowing. But hearing that the Mandarins up country would not probably ask for my pass unless I got into trouble, and a friend offering me an old one of his own, I decided to start and sail under the name of J— B—, British subject. The worst thing after all that could happen to me would be to be brought back under arrest.

After dinner on the evening of Saturday, April 5th, I went on board and we were soon under .way, running up the Soochow creek before a strong breeze, with one reef in our sail. On hoard I found everything very comfortable, my bed on one of the two bunks in the cabin, and four days’ provisions in the pantry. Our crew consisted of four men and a captain, and I had my own cook and boy with me. For the boat and crew and their expenses, I paid four dollars per day, which does not seem dear for a boat over forty feet long, with a cabin twelve feet by nine, and six feet high.

Next morning, on coming on deck I found we had made a capital run during the night, the fair wind still blowing, though not so strong. We continued all day gliding through a perfectly flat country, nearly the whole of it under cultivation, — mostly in wheat at this season, the rice crop being planted in the same fields after the wheat crop has been cut, — and looking very green; a few low hills only were to be seen in the distance. Here and there, for miles at a time, the canal was faced with hewn stone, now all out of repair. At intervals were to be seen elaborately carved gateways in gray stone, or posts in the form of animals standing quite alone in the middle of a wheat field, being all that is now left of what were formerly fine Joss houses (temples) or Yamuns (official residences). We passed through a number of villages, built generally on both sides of the canal, which was spanned by picturesque one - arched bridges of stone, half overgrown with creepers. The houses were nearly all of gray brick, and with their gray tiled roofs, surrounding dirt, and ruins, hardly looked inviting. Many of the bridges had been destroyed, and half of the towns and villages were in ruins; this was the case through all the country as far as Chingkiang. The devastation had been caused by the Taiping rebels.

To-day for the first time I saw the cormorant fishermen. They had little, narrow boats with outriggers on each side, where perched the cormorants, generally six or eight to a boat, while the fisherman sat in the stern and paddled his craft. There were more than a dozen of these boats, but none of the birds, to my regret, were fishing. Another odd feature of canal life is the duck boy, whom you occasionally meet in a small punt, armed with a long bamboo, on the end of which a piece of rag is tied, and with which he seems able to direct the movements of the large flocks of ducks under his charge. One flock literally filled the canal, and I counted over two hundred and fifty in it.

A little after noon we passed a large walled town built about a mile from the canal on which we were traveling. The walls of all the towns in this part of China are exactly alike, being built of gray stone, with a loop-holed parapet, reminding one of a stage fort. The Chinese seem to have had very little idea of the principles of fortification in shaping the walls round their cities, there being very few places where cannon can be planted, and then with but little effect. The inhabitants seem to depend upon the thickness and height of their walls, and the ditch about them, rather than upon science, for protection.

At half past five we arrived at Toochow the Famous, which, before the Taipings destroyed the greater portion of it, was the Paris of China, renowned all over the empire for its luxury and gayety, and the beauty of its women. But now it is merely a ruin of its former self. After stopping a little while and getting some fish, we pushed on through the town of boats that blocked up every canal for miles about the city gates. These are water gates with portcullises over the canals, through which the smaller boats can enter the town, and they are closed at seven, for the night.

I determined to skirt round the edge of the walls to the Grand Canal, which we reached after about two hours’ struggling through the narrow streets of boats amidst a perfect bedlam of shouts and shrieks from infuriated boat-women, — infuriated at what I never could make out, but apparently at the world in general, and any unfortunate who happened to look at them, in particular. From time to time we met or passed Mandarin-boats, with gongs sounding and the captain in the bow shouting to every one to get out of his way, which nobody took any notice of, while the occupants’ titles were displayed on large red sign-boards on each side, and on many flags; and restaurant boats with prettily carved wood-work about them, and parties of men and women inside, eating, smoking, chatting, and singing. As dusk came on, lights appeared at the windows of the many-storied tea-houses that seemed to overhang the canal, whilst a high-arched bridge far above our heads showed out clearly against the moonlit sky.

We finally got clear of the town and were fairly in the Grand Canal, though I should not have known it if I had not been told, as it looked exactly like those we had been passing through all day. About nine, I heard a great gongbeating and shouting, and on going on deck found these sounds came from a “Squeeze-house,” as it is called out here—an institution peculiar to Fastern countries, especially China. It is a sort of mixture of police station, tollhouse, and octroi. No boat is allowed to pass without paying something, which goes into the pocket of the Mandarin in charge of the district; and these Squeeze-houses are on all the rivers, canals, and roads throughout the empire. Our friends on shore had a boom stretched across the river, but my boatman quietly pushed it under the boat and paid no attention to the guard’s cries and blows on the gong, further than to tell him there was a foreigner on hoard. This did not satisfy him, but as he did not follow us in the little gun-boat stationed there, we were not disturbed, We had seen a great many gun-boats during the day, — two or three in every village we passed through, besides others cruising up and down the canals. I don’t imagine they are of much use except for the moral effect they may have on the wicked. You will be surprised to hear, and it certainly sounds odd, that there are pirates on the Grand Canal; nevertheless it is true. These gun-boats are long, light, flat-bottomed boats with one mast and sail, drawing about twelve or fourteen inches of water, and armed with two cannon, one at the bow and one at the stern. Their crews consist of ten braves as the Chinese call them, but their bravery depends a great deal upon the number and quality of their foes. They dress in blue trimmed with red, and wear blue turbans; and their boats are in all the canals and rivers of China.

The next day was spent gliding along the Grand Canal, which I found a very narrow affair; and on diving overboard for a swim proved it anything but deep, for I ran my arms and face into the mud at the bottom. In fact, it is not more than three or four feet deep all the way from Soochow to Tenyan. Near this latter place we came to a jam of boats in the afternoon, and others closing in behind us we could neither get on nor go back.

It was very amusing, as I was in no particular hurry, and I spent the next day watching the attempts of the excited boat people to get their craft through the mass of boats that completely blocked up the canal. It was a wild confusion of pushing, pulling, and tugging men, and wildly shrieking and gesticulating women. Many of the smaller boats were pulled along the slippery banks clear of the water, and these were the only ones that managed to get on. If by chance one of them bumped against another boat, and even a bit of straw from the thatched roof was dislodged or broken, such a storm of abuse poured from the mouths of the women of the two colliding boats, as never was heard before. The night before we had unavoidably bumped against another boat and broken a bit of wood off its cabin. The first thing I knew of it was a tremendous altercation between the respective boatmen, and seeing our chain and anchor forcibly taken possession of by the crew of the other boat, who deposited them on board of their craft, and refused to give them up until paid for the damage we had done. If I had yielded to the strong temptation to get on board their boat and give them a good thrashing, they would have complained to the Mandarin of the town we were passing through; and as he was the last person I wished to see in my assumed character of British subject, I compromised with the rascals for twenty-five cents, got back our anchor, and went on.

After passing twenty-four hours in the jam of boats, and not seeing any prospect of getting forward (the boat stayed ten days there before she could get out, as the owner told me when I returned to Shanghai), I determined to walk to Chingkiang, thirty miles off; and a very disagreeable walk it was, over a most uninteresting, flat country, nearly all cultivated, but with very few and mean villages. The path was paved with slabs of stone worn in hollows by the wheelbarrows, and very uneven, and this made the walk hard for the feet. On the road we passed a procession of wheelbarrows in which were convicts chained two and two, going into Tenyan to have their heads cut off; and we saw several Joss houses where the priests helped the cause of religion along by selling tea to the passers-by.

We arrived in Chingkiang just as they were shutting the gates for the night, and two days later, I took the steamer Hupeh, a splendid river boat, named after one of the provinces of China, for Hankow, the most interior port of China open to trade with foreigners.

In Shanghai people had said, “ What do you want to go up the Yangtsze for ? If you have ever seen the Mississippi you know what the scenery on the Yangtsze is.” This is more or less true of the part below Chingkiang, but from there up it is much more picturesque than the Mississippi, and the greater part very fine indeed, especially near the entrance to the Payang lake and about the “little orphan,” the name given to a sugar-loaf-shaped rock some three hundred feet high, rising perpendicularly out of the river, the top and one side covered with trees, and a monastery perched among them. We passed Nankin at night, stopping the engines to let some Chinese passengers come on board, who had come off in a boat, as we did at several other towns on the way up — Chingkiang, Kiukiang, and Hankow, being the only places open to trade with foreigners.

Hankow has the prettiest “bund,” or embankment, I have yet seen, —broad, lined with fine large houses and trees, with a good stone facing down to the river, which during the winter is about fifty feet below the top of the bund, and in summer rises to four or five feet above it, making the lower story of most of the houses untenable, every one going about in boats for three or four weeks. The cause of this annual rising of the Yangtsze during the summer is the heavy rains that occur among the mountains far to the west, from which this great river and its tributaries flow, and perhaps also to the melting of the snows. The river reaches its maximum height at Hankow generally in the beginning of August.

Hankow is a great centre of the tea trade, immense quantities being shipped here for Shanghai, and now the steamers take it direct to England via Suez Canal, without breaking cargo. While staying here, I met two gentlemen who were going to visit the tea district of Loongkong, about one hundred miles from Kiukiang. They had a large house boat and asked me to join them. One of the steamers gave us a tow to within thirty miles of Kiukiang, where we cast off and started up a small river which flowed in from the south. From the mouth of this river to Loongkong was said by the Chinese to be sixty miles, but before going twenty, we got into shallow water and had to leave our large, comfortable house boat, the Rose, for two long, narrow, light-draft China boats. They were scrupulously clean, and under the mat roof that covered the centre of them, we spread our beds, converted a gun-case into a table, and with nothing on but our pijamahs, the weather beginning to be quite warm, we were very comfortable.

Our course lay in a southwesterly direction, and as we got farther and farther into the country the mountains approached nearer, growing more precipitous and picturesque, the plain at their foot being all under cultivation. There was only now and then a village to be seen, and we passed but two towns on our way up. The people along the river were very curious, and flocked about the boat whenever we stopped by the side of the bank to buy vegetables, eggs, etc., squatting on their heels and making remarks about us. One day while I was walking on the bank this curiosity was carried so far as to cause a band to follow at my heels, calling out “ Foreign devil! ” and other complimentary phrases, and finally they took to throwing stones: but when I turned on them they ran as if a real devil were after them. After we had gone some thirty miles up the main river we suddenly branched off to the southward, following up a very narrow and shallow stream full of rapids, the men getting overboard to push and pull us up them. The same afternoon we arrived within a mile of Loongkong, where we left the boats and walked into the town on foot. We had no sooner reached the first street than a crowd of men and boys formed at our heels, shouting, hallooing, and rushing by us to get a glimpse of our faces. The town seemed to have gone mad, and although it was all goodnatured and only curiosity, it was very annoying to be hunted in this way, and we were glad enough to reach the house of a large tea-merchant from Canton, for whom A— had a letter. But even here we were not safe from our pursuers, who followed us into the house. Finally we got ourselves shut into some small rooms in the interior, while the hooting, screaming, noisy crowd besieged us until ten at night, pummeling at the doors and windows and making themselves generally disagreeable. The master of the house, who was as much annoyed as we were, if not more, had no power whatever to clear his premises, the Chinese not seeming to regard a man’s house as his castle, by any means.

We sent to the boat for our luggage, and spent the night with our hospitable Chinaman, who made us some of the most delicious tea I ever tasted, first showing us the green leaves as they had been picked that day. Next morning we were up at daylight, and so avoided a repetition of last night’s disturbance in the streets, our noisy friends not having turned out. Our host took us to some tea plantations about five miles off, where we saw the hill-sides covered with the tea bushes, and the young fresh leaves just beginning to be ready for picking. He had a few pounds picked for us as a memento of our trip, and by seven we were back at our boats and soon gliding down the rapid little stream, with the high hills, half rocky and half covered with bushes, on either side of us. Next morning we arrived where we had left the Rose, got on board of her, and after a fine sail down the Yangtsze arrived at Kiukiang in time to join a party of young men who were going into the Lushan Hills, about nine miles from Kiukiang, for a couple of days. Here we amused ourselves by walking to some old ruins, dating back to about four hundred and fifty years B. C., climbing the bills, and bathing in a great pool of cold mountain water. The Lushan Hills are about four thousand feet high.

I stayed a day at Kiukiang and then took the steamer for Shanghai, this time passing Nankin by daylight, but I could not see much of it as it is a mile from the main river. On the beach close to the town, in cages hung from poles, were the heads of two thieves who had robbed the Chinese passengers while waiting for the arrival of one of the steamers. There were two other cages on the ground, but the dogs had broken them open and carried off the heads. After passing three days in Shanghai I started for Tiensin, the port of Pekin, in the Chilo, with a Yankee skipper and mate. It is wonderful how many Americans there are out here, nearly all from New England.

We stopped at Cheefoo, the wateringplace of Shanghai, where the residents of the latter place come to spend a month or two each summer. It has a good harbor, sheltered by steep, barren hills, a capital beach for bathing in the beautiful, clear waters of this part of the Bay of Pechili, two or three small hotels, a cottage or two, a small native town with lots of junks anchored off it, and that is all; but in the hot weather, after Shanghai, it must seem a small paradise.

We stayed twenty-four hours in Cheefoo, and the next day were off the famous Yaka forts at the mouth of the Peiho River. The same evening, after running into the bank five times in this crookedest of all crooked rivers, we reached Tiensin. We hired boats, and the next evening started for Yungchow, one hundred and seventy miles by river, which we made in three days. From Yungchow it is only fifteen miles to Pekin, but as it was hot (eighty-five in the shade) we took carts, and had a tremendous bouncing and banging about before we reached the city; this we did the same evening, begrimed so that one could scarcely recognize his best friend, the whole air being filled with clouds of dust, which was worse when we got inside the walls of Pekin.