In 1947, Sir John Pratt documents his grand journey across China
Originally published in AR July 1947, this piece was republished online in November 2015
The old Chinese Empire which finally passed away in 1911, was a world civilization complete and self-contained. Like the Roman Empire of classical times, it was surrounded by tribes and races at various stages of political development, but all were culturally on a lower level and all looked up to China in awe and admiration as the fountainhead of civilization. China, like Rome, was invaded many times by barbarians from the north, but, unlike Rome, she was not destroyed, for her invaders, having been already half subdued by Chinese civilization, were easily absorbed and infused fresh vigour into the Chinese state. In the north and east the nomad dwellers in the steppe were under the direct control or supervision of the Chinese Government. In the south were tributary states, which were not actually the Empire but whose rulers acknowledged their subordination the Emperor at Peking. Cultural influences flowed into this Chinese world from India and across central Asia from the west, but it was cut off from actual contact with other civilizations by the steppe, by deserts, mountains, jungles, and the sea. With the rise of the industrial civilization of the west and the progressive annihilation of time and space, the sea, which before had been a barrier, became a highway and this isolation passed away. After a period of disintegration and readjustment, China emerged as one of the Sovereign States in the family of nations of which the modern world is composed.
The Chinese have existed as an organized community with a distinctive culture of their own since before the days of ancient Greece and Rome; their Empire remained in being without substantial for a longer period and covered a greater area than any other the world has ever seen; and now in their new role in the modern world they present the remarkable phenomenon of 450 million people, nearly one-fifth of the human race, who though they inhabit a region as diverse and nearly as large as Europe, are not divided into States like Europe, or split by differences of race or creed India, but are gathered into one homogeneous community. Europe is broken up into a number of States each jealously guarding its sovereign independence, speaking its own language, proud of its literature, its history, its traditions, and maintaining its own distinctive social, legal and political institutions. One cannot imagine the same language being spoken from Oslo to Rome, and from Paris to Constantinople, but in China there is one national language and one literature; the people, have the same customs and traditions and read the same books and newspapers; there is one system of education and one type of social organization, and from their childhood all Chinese, whether literate or not, absorb the spirit of the Confucian classics from which they learn men may live together harmoniously and in good order. Farrer’s description of a journey down river in a native boat conveys a generalization of China as a whole:
‘We were swept along through landscape growing steadily tamer and more silken. The pageant of China went smoothly by on either hand … the blue-clad figures at their work, their rest, their meals, the whole gigantic panorama of this people, so frugal, simple, affectionate and honest, so quietly august in the civilization they have evolved through half-a-dozen thousand years. Through all her troubles and changes China has continued firm in her grasp of essential wisdom; and as you see her unaltering history rolled out before your eyes, it is as if you were getting a glimpse through the veils of European blindness into the elemental simplicity of wisdom, impregnable and immutable, that seeks its happiness in realms beyond the reach of telephones or trams.’
The topography of China is as diversified as its people are homogeneous. There are many distinct regions with great differences of physical characteristics as well as of climate, soil, cultivation and of human types and occupations. The most striking contrast is, of course between the north and south-the dry and bracing climate of the north and the weeping steamy hothouse atmosphere of the south. North China does not begin at the Yangtse River, but at the watershed just north of it. The true dividing line is the central mountain belt, the Tsin Ling range, which breaks out from the tremendous plateau of Tibet in a series of gaunt and ragged peaks, and runs eastward gradually dwindling until it finally disappears in the alluvial plain formed by the Yangtse rivers. North of this line is a land of uncertain a brown, bare land swept by dust storms, where semi-arid conditions prevail, crop failures are frequent and famines are caused droughts and plagues of locusts. I lived for eight years the capital of Shantung, and during that time there were two bumper harvests when the whole countryside rejoiced and a spirit of gaiety spread through every town and hamlet. There were two years of famine when committees organized relief, and desperate made to keep down the toll of deaths from hunger.
There were two years of moderate harvests, and one year when floods caused much damage and loss of life. In order to make the journey from Tientsin to Tsinan I had to travel fifty miles by steam launch to railhead, and it was strange to look down and see the crops of corn and kaoliang waving under the keel of the boat. But the year of the locusts was the strangest experience of all. A cloud appeared in the sky, which in a few minutes descended, not in rain, but as a swarm of locusts. They settled in a field of ripe corn, of which a few hours later nothing but the bare stalks remained. Another swarm of locusts in the hopper stage advanced like a moving carpet across fields and lanes in a dull yellow band some fifty yards wide. As my pony crushed them underfoot they gave off a sickening odour. There was a small cottage in their path and the swarm climbed up and over it, dropped off the other side and continued their inexorable march.
The characteristic crops in north China are wheat and beans and kaoliang-a remarkable kind of millet which is often twelve feet high. It affords such excellent cover for bandits that when the Japanese undertook the administration of Manchuria they found it necessary to impose restrictions on its cultivation. There is no animal husbandry anywhere in China, and the absence of pastures and the ravages caused by deforestation are features of the landscape which are common to both north and south. Terrace cultivation sometimes carried to a great height is also found in many parts of China.
The south is a land of abundant rainfall, and the country is green, except where the soil has been washed away from hillsides denuded of trees or vegetation. Everywhere in China, whatever has not been planted for the purpose of providing food, if it is found growing in places accessible to the fierce industry of peasant farmers, is ruthlessly cut down or raked out by the roots to be burnt for fuel. In many parts of the southern province of Fukien, for example, the hillsides are composed of enormous rounded boulders, some of them as large as the dome of St. Paul’s, thrown fantastically together and forming caverns where tigers make their lairs. There is no vegetation because every vestige of soil has been washed away. Deforestation has had a most disastrous effect on climate and rainfall as well as on the general configuration of the land. Rain is no longer distributed evenly throughout the year, but is concentrated in a brief season, when it falls in torrents which rush into the sea through stony ravines, useless for either commerce or cultivation.
South China is a land of intensive cultivation and careful irrigation. The country is much intersected by canals which are used for transport as well as irrigation. The crops are mostly rice and bamboo. The sedan chair and the boat take the place of the cart and wheelbarrow of the north, while for farmwork the ubiquitous buffalo, which so dislikes the smell of foreigners, takes the place of the camel, mule and donkey. In the south the population is crowded into towns and serried into valleys. The streets of the teeming cities are so narrow that walking in them one often sees the sky only with difficulty. There are no plains or large plateaux, nothing corresponding to the great north China plain stretching from the Great Wall nearly to the Yangtse, nothing like the rolling loess uplands, wide, spacious, cold and clean, where the people live spread out in innumerable little towns and hamlets. The coast-line is also quite different. Along the whole north China coast, excepting only in the rocky Shantung peninsula, there are no places where access to the sea is easy, and there is no fishing industry or seaborne trade. The junks that before the days of steam carried Chinese produce to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf all came from ports in south China. From Shanghai to Canton there is deep water right up to the land with many good harbours and sheltered inlets, but these are cut off from easy communication with the interior by a high and difficult scarp which delimits and largely isolates the coastal fringe. The people of the coast have few interests in common with the dwellers in the river valleys; they turn their backs upon the land and gain their living almost entirely by the sea. One result of this enforced preference for the sea and for intercourse with people in foreign parts is the bewildering variety of dialects spoken in the coastal fringe. Forty or fifty miles inland some recognisable variety of the standard national tongue is spoken, but each treaty port along the coast, while able to speak the national language, has its own peculiar and wholly different dialect.
The four great rivers of China, the Huang Ho and the Yangtse, the Mekong and the Salween, all rise in Tibet, the Roof of the World, ‘a huge and hideous lifeless waste, some 17,000 feet above sea-level, an undulating abomination of desolation … over which for ever wails the merciless wind which makes all life impossible.’ After breaking through the mountain barriers the Mekong and the Salween flow in parallel courses within a few miles of each other across the southern province of Yunnan before they enter Burma. The Burma Yunnan road-the back door to China-crosses both these rivers as well as range after range of mountains from three to ten thousand feet high all lying at right angles to its course. The rivers are almost as great an obstacle as the mountains, and the jungles with which their sides are clothed. A traveller describing the Mekong and the Salween asks us to imagine a gorge five miles broad and six thousand feet deep running from Switzerland to the Dutch coast. The gorge through which the Salween flows is ten times that distance, has a deadly reputation for malaria, and can only be approached at the few places where side gullies intersect the main ravine. The river flowing at the bottom of the gorge is twice as big as the Rhine, flows with terrific speed and is liable to a sudden rise of sixty feet. The Mekong, a few miles distant, is an exact replica of the Salween on a slightly smaller scale, and both are useless for navigation.
The Mekong and the Salween flow through Burma to the sea, but the Huang Ho and the Yangtse belong entirely to China. They are described by Reginald Farrer in his great book On the Eaves of the World - one of the finest pieces of literature in the English language:
‘The Huang Ho is always a river that impresses one with a sense of incomparable force and malignity. The Yangtsekiang has a leonine magnificence of temper, intense and splendid, sometimes inspired with an appalling concentration of fury, but sometimes in a blander mood, and capable often of generosities. But his twin brother, the Huang Ho, is merciless and unresting as a tiger; well may he be called China’s Sorrow, for it is not easy to fancy him sparing life or province. How should it not be so, if environment has any influence on character? The two greatest rivers of Asia are born almost within sight of. each other, up in the frozen rims of Tibet, but within a little their divergence of direction becomes as violent as their difference of nature. A straightforward torrent, the Yangtse roars into Szechuen, is abruptly checked into obedience and diverted and shown the way he should go by the uncompromising mountains of the Likiang range ; and thence in a huge curve sweeps violently away down through Central China to the sea… . Very different is the choice of the Huang Ho, which, on leaving Lanchow, makes as violent a swing far into the north as that of the Yangtse to the south, seeking the grim austerities of the frozen Ordos deserts. These he must find sympathetic. To their bitter inhospitality his own temper naturally gravitates, and from their ungenial desolations he draws confirmation of his own unfriendliness to man. Unlike the tamed and genial Yangtse, the Huang Ho only here and there allows himself to be used for traffic, but remains on the whole a useless unharnessable force at the best, and at the worst a demon of destruction, incalculable in direction and uncontrollable in his voluminous magnificence.’
Ninety years ago the Huang Ho, which then flowed south of the Shantung promontory, changed its course and found a new outlet to the sea 500 miles further north. Such floods are liable to recur because the silt and grit washed down from the mountains of Tibet have raised the riverbed until it is considerably higher than the level of the land. In prehistoric times the river wandered almost at will over the north China plain, depositing silt and gradually filling up the Yellow Sea, but eventually the Great Yü, the legendary hero and harbinger of culture who taught the people how to control the waters, devised the aditional method of dealing with it which is still in use. Dykes are on either side about one mile from the river bank so that when the overflows it is contained within these limits until the floods subside. These fertile strips of silt, however, must not be cultivated, for human traffic would soon wear down the dykes. Constant vigilance is therefore necessary, and when this is lacking the river is certain break loose. The greatest flood catastrophe in China’s history is Titmt which occurred ninety years ago when all China was being ravaged the Taiping rebels.
Only very rarely does the ‘tame and genial Yangtse’ wreak destruction similar to this. One hundred and eighty million people inhabit the basin of the Yangtse, and no other river in the world carries the commerce of so vast a region. Ocean steamers reach Hankow, six hundred miles from the sea, and steam navigation extends for twice that distance almost to the border of Tibet. Shanghai, near its mouth, is one of the first dozen ports in the world, and long before foreigners had heard of its existence it was the greatest trading port in Asia. Its prosperity is mainly due to geographical position and not, as British merchants fondly think, solely to foreign enterprise and foresight. The few travellers who visited Shanghai before it was opened as a treaty port a hundred years ago were astonished at the forests of masts and miles of shipping that they saw. The Yangtse delta between Nanking and the sea, with its network of canals and tidal creeks, is probably the most fertile and most densely populated region in the world.
The Yangtse is chiefly famous, however, for its gorges. Rising in Tibet the river breaks through range after range of mountains running transversely to its course before it reaches the plain at Ichang, 1,000 miles from the sea. Just above Ichang begin the series of rapids and gorges which are one of the wonders of the world. Travellers have attempted to describe the awe that overcomes them when suddenly a cleft in the mountains comes in sight and the great river, narrowed to 400 yards or less, flows in majestic grandeur between limestone ,cliffs rising vertically on each side to a height of nearly a thousand feet, and closing in so as apparently to leave no room for the river to pass. Fifty years ago, before junks had been displaced by steam, a journey through the gorges was a dangerous and exciting adventure. The junk was towed by nearly a hundred trackers whose movements were controlled by beat of drum. A dozen or twenty men remained on board to work the gigantic bow sweep, formed of a single fir tree, to pole and fend the boat off boulders and rocky points, while another half-dozen men were told off to run free and be to swim out into the boiling flood and free the line whenever it in rock or boulder. When the signal to cast off was given the bow sweep sheered the boat out into the stream and was manceuvred keep her the required distance from the shore, while the trackers, scrambling with the tow line around immense boulders and along narrow slippery ledges, marked time with a lively rhythmic cry, swinging their arms to and fro at each short step and bending their bodies forward so that their fingers almost touched the ground. In this fashion the journey from !chang to Chungking, which now takes a few days, was accomplished in six weeks.
The Chinese have never felt that horror of mountains and wild solitudes that has inhibited the western mind until quite recent times. They were never victims of the arrogant illusion that all things in nature were intended for man’s use and service, or were something to be conquered and destroyed. This deep sense of man’s community with nature is reflected in their landscape painting, an art in which, from the very earliest times, they have excelled all other nations. The mountain scenery in Chinese landscapes often seems to be unreal and fantastic in western eyes, but travellers find that the mountains do in fact assume the shapes with which Chinese artists have made the world familiar. Robert Payne describes the mountains near Kueilin - ‘like immense candles raised to heaven … a fantastic landscape of cloud and slender grey pillars … with a few trees growing on the summits. … I have seen those mountains in Chinese paintings and did not believe they could exist. But there they are; and in the shadow of the immense towering cliffs black-sailed sampans move steadily down the green stream.’ Reginald Farrer, a very famous traveller, describes ‘the crest of a buttress flying off from the mountain in a succession of dwindling pinnacles and crags … in compositions as fantastic as you may see among the ancient masterpieces of Chinese art’; or the Felsenhorn with its ‘impression of gigantic majesty, the noble soaring lines of its architecture and the sweep of its descent towards the river’; or the gorges of the Blackwater where buttress after buttress of precipice stands barring the way, ‘suggestive of innumerable scenes in Chinese pictures that one had hitherto imagined were wanton fantasy.’
Nature has her gentler moods and not all landscapes are scenes of solitude and wild grandeur. It was a passion with the Chinese to escape from the life of the city to forest hill and stream, and this more intimate emotion also is reflected in Chinese landscape art. It finds expression also in the cult of sacred mountains which are found in various parts of China. The most famous of these, and the most frequented, is the Tai Shan in Shantung, the Province where both Confucius and Mencius · were born some centuries before our era. The summit, 5,000 feet above the plain, is reached by a winding stairway of stone, up which millions of humble pilgrims have toiled for thirty centuries at least. Lowes Dickenson describes how ‘it passes from portal to portal, from temple to temple. Meadows shaded with aspen and willow border the stream as it falls from green pool to green pool. Higher up are scattered pines. Else the rocks are bare-bare but very beautiful, with that significance of form which I have found everywhere in the mountains of China. To such beauty the Chinese are peculiarly sensitive. The cult of this mountain and of the many others like it in China, the choice of sites for temples and monasteries, the inscriptions, the little pavilions set up where the view is loveliest-all go to prove this …. A people that can so consecrate a place of natural beauty is a people of fine feeling for the essential values of life.’
The mountains of western China are the botanists’ paradise, and it is mainly through the explorations of men such as Wilson, Forrest and Farrer that their glories have been made known. Wilson made his great botanical discoveries in Hupeh and Szechuen at the beginning of this century. He spent eleven years exploring the region between Ichang and the Tibetan border and was rewarded by the discovery that in this vast mountain jumble there has been preserved the richest temperate flora in the world. In the 5,000 to 10,000 feet zone he found vast forests of conifers, an astonishing variety of flowering trees and shrubs and a great profusion of ornamental plants. His favourite was the rhododendron of which China has 160 species varying in size from alpine plants only a few inches high to trees forty feet tall and over. He describes the extraordinary beauty of mile upon mile of mountainside covered with rhododendron in full bloom. ‘The gorgeous beauty of their flowers defies description. They were there in thousands and hundreds of thousands. Bushes of all sizes, many fully thirty feet tall and more in diameter, all with a wealth of blossoms that almost hid the foliage. Some flowers were crimson, some bright red, some flesh coloured, some silvery pink, some yellow and others pure white.’
The mountains on the borders of Kansu and Tibet were explored by Farrer, who gives some wonderful descriptions of mountains vaster and more fantastic than those described by Wilson, of rivers rushing through gorges grander than those through which the Yangtse flows and of hillsides clothed thickly in solemn and enormous firs, or covered for many a mile with a shimmering surf of harebell poppy, ‘its blue drops quivering in the delicate radiant air over an ocean of pale golden-eyed asters amid pink-faced primulas and golden sheets of geum in the fine turf of the highlands at from twelve to fourteen thousand feet.’ The keynote of Kansu, says Farrer, is the enormous rolling uplands of loess-the fine wind-borne loam which covers the earth to a depth often reaching several hundred, and sometimes several thousand, feet. A broad belt of loess runs all the way from Central Asia to the north China coast. The western portion of this zone forms the corridor through which cultural influences flowed into China, while the eastern portion -from Kansu across the north China plain to the rocky promontory of Shantung-is the scene of early Chinese civilization. Elsewhere men first settled down to cultivate the soil in the great river valleys of the Nile, the Ganges and the Indus, but in China it was the loess in the great north China plain that favoured early cultivation. It is very fertile, there were neither marshes to be drained nor forests to be cleared, and its fertility is constantly renewed when a fresh surface is exposed by the agency of man or nature. Loess has strange laws of cleavage, and tends to fall away in smooth straight-sided walls. Cart roads wear down into deep gullies of which the traveller must beware, for in the rainy season a road may suddenly become a raging torrent. The cave dwellings constructed in the cliffs are a characteristic feature of the loesslands: ‘You see the sheer falls pocked with dark doors, and very often a whole population lives troglodytically … either in the natural grottoes in the mud or in habitations artfully scooped in its recesses.’ All the early capitals-Changan, Sian, Loyang, Kaifeng-were situated in the loess highlands in north-west China.
China has long been famous for her great cities. During the T’ang dynasty, when China was the centre of all civilization and before she had drawn aside and become a world apart, the capital was at Ch’ang An, and when the celebrated Ming Huang was Emperor, in the eighth century of our era, Ch’ang A was the capital of the world. It was the resort of poets, painters, priests and philosophers from every part of Asia and Christianity, Buddhism, Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism flourished side by side. The centre of civilization then moved east and south. The Sung Emperors made their capital at Hangchow, which Marco Polo, writing in the thirteenth century, described as the noble and magnificent city of Kinsai - pre-eminent over all other cities in the world in point of grandeur and beauty as well as from its abundant delights. The Emperor’s Palace was surrounded with ten miles of battlemented walls enclosing gardens shady with fruit trees and cool with fountains. Canals led the waters of the great river through every quarter of the city. There were twelve thousand bridges some of them so high and built with so much skill that vessels with their masts could pass under them at the same time as carts and horses were passing over their heads. There were ten principal market squares where on three days a week a vast concourse of forty to fifty thousand people assembled and covered the whole space with articles brought by cart and boat. There were twelve principal guilds of handicrafts each with a thousand workshops employing ten, fifteen, twenty or even forty craftsmen. The owners of the workshops did no work with their hands, and their wives were ‘brought up with delicate and languid habits…The costliness of the dresses in silk and jewelry can scarcely be imagined.’ The streets were all paved with stone and brick, and so likewise were the principal roads by which passengers travelled to every part.
The same overwhelming impression of great cities and teeming populations appears in the accounts of all later travellers. ‘The Countrey is so well inhabited,’ says Galeotto Perera in the sixteenth century, ‘that no one foot of ground is left untilled … you cannot go a mile but you shall see some Towne, borough or hostry the which are so abundantly provided of all things that in the Cities and towns they live civilly… . The Cities be very gallant specially neere the gates the which are marvellously great and covered with iron… . The strength of the great Townes is in the mighty walles and ditches.’ A Jesuit priest who journeyed overland from Ningpo to Peking in 1687 described how ‘there appears a continual Succession of Hamlets and Villages, which yield a very agreable Prospect, there being nothing to intercept the Sight. But the most delightful scene of all is when the Prospect is bounded by some large City.’ The country between Hangchow and Soochow is ‘the most fertile and pleasant Country in the World … divided and surrounded with Canals, quite covered with Barks; the Fields are well cultivated and full of Hamlets.’ North of the Yangtse the land is ‘a Plain as level as a Garden, full of small Townes surrounded with Fruit Trees and diversify’d with Groves of Cypress near the Tombs.’ At length he reached Lukouchiao, the little town three leagues from Peking, where hostilities between China and Japan broke out in 1937. It is famous for its marble bridge-known to foreigners as the Marco Polo bridge - ‘the finest we had yet seen; the Arches were small, but the Wails on each Side were made of a hard whitish Stone resembling Marble. Each Stone was five Foot long, three high, and seven or eight Inches thick, supported at each End with small Pillars adorned with Mouldings and the Figures of Lions. I reckoned on one side only 147 of these Pillars. It was paved with large flat Stones, joined as exactly together as the Floor of a Hall …. The Road from this City to Peking looks like one continued street, there is such a Number of People continually passing backward and forward… . About a League before we arrived at Peking we saw all the Country overrun with little Groves of pretty tall Trees, and enclosed with Walls made of Earth. These are so many different Burying Places.’
Of all her great cities, past and present, none is so complete an expression of the Chinese genius as Peking. The keynote to Peking, says Farrer, is a spaciousness so ample as to seem almost sinister. ‘The effect of Peking as you see it from the wall is of a limitless flat ocean of grey life, not huddled or crowded, but spread out among gardens in a reserved amplitude all its own. And above this ocean . . , rise the gigantic orange roofs and the vast scarlet walls of the Imperial Palace seeming to brood over the city like a long line of golden eagles.’ Within those scarlet walls are the Emperor’s lake and summer pleasure garden, the Wan Sui Shan-the Hill of Ten Thousand Years-the artificial hill raised by Kublai Khan on an island in the lake, and the white pagoda on the hill built by a Ming Emperor in honour of the Dalai Lama: of Tibet. ‘The view from the terrace of the pagoda,’ says E. L. Woodward in Short Journey, ‘is one of the wonders of the world. All the Forbidden City stretches out to the south-east. The inner northern and western walls meet a few hundred yards from the foot of the hill; the southern and eastern gatehouses rise in the near distance. Between this rectangle of walls you see the tiled roofs of two hundred palaces and pavilions. The tiles have the rich colour of beechwoods in autumn. The inner walls are dark grey; the outer gate, the gate tower and the outer wall beyond the lotus-covered moat are deep red. Here and there one has a sight of the parallel marble stairways to and from the great halls of ceremony. The perfection of this vast group of buildings may have been equalled by the Acropolis of Athens centuries ago. Nowhere to-day in Europe or Asia can one find such splendour. I do not think that this blending of rich colour in large buildings of severe and massive style has ever been carried out to such perfection as in Peking.’ After leaving China, Woodward says, he found that he had an entirely different standard of judgment for everything he saw in the west.
The Chinese people still live in farms, small towns and hamlets thickly scattered over the great open spaces of north China, in the alluvial deltas and along the sea coast and river valleys of the south, and there are as many great and densely populated cities as in the days of Marco Polo, but always and everywhere the building of man adorns and harmonises with nature. The huge barrel-shaped gates leading through the immense walls of Chungking, the gate tower of Sian, more impressive even than the crenellated walls and towers of Peking, the pagodas and temples in the Yangtse gorges or in the mountain ranges of western China, the farms and hamlets and the pale old cities of the loesslands, all seem to be a natural growth out of the soil on which they stand. The series of temples on the Taishan or the brood of elegarit little old Chinese pavilions described by Farrer are all designed and placed so as to be a new beauty in the landscape. Always and everywhere the mystic sense of man’s community with nature makes its subtle influence felt and imparts its characteristic Chinese flavour to the scene.