Wan Lik Hang

Isabella Bird

In a recent post, we previewed articles about two journeys undertaken almost 100 years apart, travelling the Yangtse river.   Over the next few weeks, we shall take a closer look at these expeditions up China’s most important river.   This is the first half of the earlier of those two expeditions and made by Isabella Bird in 1897.  I briefly described her life in the previous post.

Aged 64 and with life-long ill health, Isabella embarked from the UK, alone, to travel the length of the Yangtze.  Featured in journals and magazines for decades, Isabella had, by 1897, become a household name in Britain. In 1891, she became the first woman to join the Royal Geographical Society.  She was elected to membership of the Royal Photographic Society on 12 January 1897.   The photographs in this article are hers, taken while travelling up the Yangtse.  She processed them en route, in her small boat, using river water to dilute her photographic chemicals.  

“The actual length of the Yangtse is unknown”, she writes in her introduction, “rising, according to the best geographical information, almost due north of Calcutta (Kolkata, West Bengal).”  (This was a remarkably accurate estimate as you will see from our post about a later journey up the Yangtze in 1973 to be published soon.)

On arriving by steamer in Shanghai on a clear autumn day in 1896, Isabella writes:

My chief wish on arriving at any ‘treaty port’ in Asia, is to get out of it as soon as possible.

Despite her objections to foreign “spheres of influence” (which cost her many readers in Britain), she writes almost entirely of the foreign settlements that dominated Shanghai at the time.  In fact, “I was not prepared for the Chinese element being so much in evidence in the foreign settlements”!

Restaurants and tea houses of all grades abound.  Noteworthy among the latter is the picturesque building on the Zigzag Bridge. 

(Believed to be built during the Ming dynasty, it is known today as the Yu-yuan garden.)

Pond in Yuyuan Garden, Shanghai Old City.jpg
by Peter K Burian 

True to her convictions, in January 1897, Isabella moved on from Shanghai to Hangchow (Hangzhou).  Here she was fascinated to find another Chinese city in the ‘British sphere of influence’.  She admired the Grand Canal and its ingenious system of haul-overs that enabled boats to negotiate different levels of the canal.

The western gate of Hangchow led her to visit the many hospitals and missions that the British had established in the city.  She stayed for several days and learned with horror of the very high suicide rates and the almost universal abuse of opium.   She began her exploration of the river proper with a visit to Hankow.

When Isabella visited, Hankow was a port town in the British sphere of influence.  (It became a city in 1926 and merged to form part of Wuhan in May 1949 just before the establishment of the modern PRC).  Among other things, Isabella noted that Hankow was the most westerly port in which the Mexican dollar was used as currency!  

But the Yangtze called her, and she moved on with excitement to Ichang (Yichang).  The journey was long and tiresome.  After describing riots and ‘maltreatment’ of foreigners in China, she saw gratefully, on the approach to Ichang, “a British gunboat, a wholesome and not unneeded influence”; and this despite her anti-colonial views.  

In Ichang, Isabella comments on the foreign community (45 people only), the religious missions, orphanages and the ‘good works’ done by Christians; and she notes “large number of Protestant missionaries living in comfortable houses…” in contrast to the Chinese way of life.  But she also denounces the riots against foreigners that had recently occurred and for which the foreigners demanded damages from the Beijing Government.

(Yichang used to be known as Yiling before it was called Ichang. In 278 BCE it was set on fire by a Qin dynasty general.  In 222, it was the site of another major battle in the ‘Three Kingdoms Period’. Today Yichang administers the Three Gorges Dam.  

The dam, completed in 2006, flooded the gorges of Qutang, Wu, and Xiling, upriver from Yichang.  The flooded river, 193 miles long, begins close to Chongqing.   Isabella’s journey on the river after Yichang therefore has historic photographs and vivid accounts of life on the river 120 years ago.)

Isabella asked an English friend in Yichang what she should do on the long trip through the Yangtze rapids.  “People have enough to do looking after their lives” came the reply.  She was scornful: “the perils…of travellers about to begin a journey are greatly exaggerated.”   

Not so the perils of the Yangtze” she firmly decides!

The next few weeks were a combination of great discomfort and fear: “the boat rolled and thumped; the rudder creaked and banged; we thumped our neighbours and they thumped us; the weather relapsed; the wind howled.  The splash of the river came in at my open window and deluged my camp bed.  It was very cold.

There was also excitement: “the wild rush of the cataract; the great junks hauled up the north channel by four hundred men, hanging trembling in the rapids.”  On one occasion she watched a big junk, making no progress in two hours up a rapid, and slipping back occasionally.

Drums were beaten, and the gangers rushed along the lines of trackers (the men who hauled the boats) bringing their bamboo whips down on them. Then, suddenly, the junk shivered, both tow ropes snapped…and in a moment the big craft was spinning down the rapid; before she could be recovered, she flew up in the air as if she had exploded, a mass of wood, spars and men, their heads bobbing about in the breakers.

One junk in twenty is lost in the river like this.

She describes the desperately hard life of the trackers who worked 12 hours a day hauling the junks through the rapids.  She found them often rude and surly.  But: “poor fellows,” she says.  “I learned to pity them very much.”  They were rough, but with pluck, endurance, and ‘hardihood’.  “They might be better clothed and fed if they were not all opium smokers,” she concludes.

She found Kuei Fu (I believe this to be modern Guizhou) a ‘decaying city’.  In earlier years, the city made money by charging 5% tax on all junks that passed the city.  “But we (the British) have changed all that…. these riches now to go to Beijing.  The reader will at once perceive,” she notes drily, “the reason for the strong provincial hostility brought about by the opening of the treaty ports.”  (She might well also have found an explanation for the dislike of foreigners in China.  Isabella fails to point out that the Second Opium War, in which Britain and France ‘defeated’ China, ended only 30 years before her visit.)  

After celebrating Chinese New Year on 2 February, on 19th February she travelled on upriver to Wan Hsien (now an administrative district of Chongqing).  She was impressed by the city and its beautiful bridges. This photograph has the stains of water damage from the Yangtze!

The leader of the Christian mission with whom she stayed (“there are no Christians in this city”) had been badly beaten by crowds who believed he killed children to use their eyes.  A local official had intervened but the crowds “believed that foreign magic is equal to anything.”  However, the official had been told by Beijing to treat foreigners well and the crowd believed him.  Isabella could therefore wander round the town taking photographs with less risk.

Wan Hsien district today is the start of the lake formed by the Three Gorges dam.

Next week, Isabella Bird’s journey continues.  She leaves the Yangtze at Wan Hsien and travels by land into Sichuan and eastern Tibet.  After several weeks exploring, enduring rioting and injuries and further hardships, she returns to Chungking – modern Chongqing – to end her trip.


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