Wan Lik Hang

River Boatman

Our post on 25th February featured an article about the remarkable Victorian lady, Isabella Bird, who travelled alone up the Yangtse river in 1896.  We followed this with a second article about her journey overland to the border of Tibet.  Isabella’s accounts covered the lives of the boatmen who transported her.  It was with huge interest and excitement that we recently read of someone who had experienced this life as a young man.  Although his experiences took place 45 years after Isabella’s, life for boatmen on the Yangtse seems to have changed little.  His story was published in I-Feng.  We have adapted the I-Feng story for this post.

Zhang Kaiyuan (1926.7.8-2021.5.28), a historian and educator, has written History of the 1911 Revolution, Footprints of Trailblazers 

I was fired again (from school). I felt sorry for my eldest brother, and I was embarrassed to go to him again. However, in fact, I was not that lonely.  After being expelled, I got the help of many students in No. 9 Middle School.  When the students in the planning class learned that I had been fired, they felt deeply sorry for me. They got donations from their classmates and then entrusted someone to hand them over to me. Although most of the donations were very small, it really warmed my heart.

At this time, Ma Zhaoxin extended a helping hand to me.  His father was a professor and knew a ship owner. He introduced me to the shipowner and persuaded the ship owner to take me in.

The owner of the ship was from Hubei Province. He owned two ships and specialized in the grain transportation business. Before the war, the state taxed farmland and collected money. In the wartime, to ensure the grain supply a form of barter system was introduced. The grain was transported to the warehouse of the Ministry of Grain in Chongqing and then distributed. Thus, the need for transportation. ‘My’ shipowner was one of them. He was very nice. After meeting me, he kept comforting me: “Your current plight is only temporary, and there will still be a future. Don’t be uneasy.” He also said, “As long as I have food to eat, you have food to eat!”

The ship owner was so enthusiastic that I boarded his grain carrier and became a handyman.  I became a student at the Yangtze River University from then on!

However, I was not so gloomy. After all, you can’t continue to have free meals from friends, so you must make a new life.  What’s more, this time it was not a free meal, but a part-time job, relying on my labour to earn food, even though the shipowner may not be so happy with my labouring. 

Learning how to be a boatman

My basic “work” at the Yangtze River University was to learn how to be a boatman. When the ship travelled against the water, I participated in pulling ropes.  When it went smoothly, I helped start the fire and cook. It seemed that there was something to do every day. In fact, I played a limited role.   Mostly I was a handyman.

However, I also had time to play a key role. As a shipper transporting grain, to protect his own interests, the boat owner had to handle important people, such as acceptance clerks and local warehouse directors. The bargaining was very powerful.  In my eyes, the process was simply magical. When grain came out of the warehouse and entered the warehouse, it relied on workers with buckets. When the clerk measured the grain with a bucket, one tilt could make the rice look more, and another made it look less.  If the relationship with the bucket worker was handled correctly, we could directly increase the income of the grain carrier. 

How to deal with the clerks was not my strong point.  But I could help the shipowner handle his relationship with the warehouse director. The warehouse director was also an important person who determined the income of the shipowner. If he was stricter, the ship owner’s income was less; if he relaxed, the shipowner’s income was more. The ship owner knew that I had studied accounting. When the grain was shipped to the warehouse, he deliberately leaked the news to the warehouse director. The warehouse director was very happy and said, “Please ask this child to help me make a day’s account.”

It turned out that the warehouse did not use formally trained accountants and their statements were often criticized.  He said that there were a lot of data sheets and was going to let me help him do it for a day. I had studied accounting, and his data was easy to handle. Whether the figures were accurate or not, I could not say. But the warehouse director looked and praised me a lot. He invited me to dinner and accompanied me in person. This was the most unforgettable high-level treatment I enjoyed in my wandering career. The shipowner was also very happy. Of course, he must have gained the most.

The food on the ship was very good.  When crossing the dangerous rapids, there were also extra meals, five meals a day, and large pieces of steamed meat. When eating, several jars of local wine were placed next to it, and a few reed stalks were inserted in the jug. If you wanted to drink, you just sucked at the reed stalk. There is no need for a wine glass at all. 

In those baking-hot years, there were good days when there were big bowls of eating, eating meat, and drinking. Sometimes I even wondered if I was in heaven. 

The most inconvenient thing about life on board was that there were no books to read. One day, when cooking on a fire, I saw two newspapers, which were almost complete. I don’t know who picked them up and prepared them for lighting the fires. My eyes immediately lit up and decided to take them.  For a while, whenever I was free, I sat down and read those two newspapers from beginning to end, over and over again. 

But after that, I didn’t get a second chance and having no books to read had not changed. However, there are books without words. There is no word to read, so I turned to a wordless book – the boatmen around me, the scenery along the way, and different society were all my wordless books.

Except for having no books to read, my other distress was that I didn’t change my clothes. Because I didn’t bring my luggage, I only had a rags and a pair of shorts on the boat. There were no clothes to change, so I had to clean them at night and wear them the next day.

Generally, the sailors were not as worried as me. They usually only had a worn coat, at most a pair of worn trousers.  Their income is actually not bad, but most of them eat, drink, gamble, smoke opium, and spend it indiscriminately. The reason for this is that there is no security for life. The river is dangerous, and you may capsize at any time.

The most dangerous place is called “Widow’s Cao”.

The most dangerous part of the waterway we took was called “widow’s trough”. The reason for this sad name is that the Yangtze River was split in half by boulders there and suddenly turned sharply. The water was high, and the waves were extremely dangerous. Ships had to be very careful when passing through. They often had accidents. A sailor fell into the water and died, leaving only his lonely wife in the house, from which came the name “widow Cao”. Sailing on such a section of the river, the safety of sailors was not guaranteed. It was a problem to sail in the morning and reach the shore alive that night. Therefore, after getting rich, most of them had fun regardless of the future.

But not everyone was like this. For example, our helmsman was my hero. In his forties, he was burly and liked to drink some wine, but he didn’t smoke a lot, let alone other bad habits. When the ship sailed, he stood on the bridge. His eyes were majestic, like torches, and his strength was astonishing.  All the sailors obeyed his orders. Without relying on any instruments, he accurately judged the danger of the riverbed based on the flow of water in the river. I admired him very much. As a student at Yangtze River University, he was my tutor.

The helmsman was obsessed with cleanliness like me. The sailors slept in the cabin at night, and he slept alone on the bridge. When I first boarded the ship, I was also assigned to sleep in the cabin. But 20 or 30 people slept there and snored loudly. Some people had bad hygiene, and the air was always filled with an unpleasant smell. I understood why the old driver didn’t sleep in the cabin. So, I picked up a worn blanket and slept outside. The old driver slept on the bridge, and I slept under it. Only then did I find that the breeze and bright moon were beautiful. 

Slowly, I got acquainted with the old driver. On one moonlit night, he opened his heart and told me his story. It turned out that he once had a very good life. There was a widow, a ship owner, who took a fancy to him, and they got married.  Unfortunately, once he sailed, there was a storm, and the boat capsized.  His wife was washed away by the flood, and only just he survived himself. He missed his wife very much and never married again.

He warned me not to ruin myself like those drunken sailors. He also said to me that he looked down on the lead supervisor on our ship. He was too sissy. He said that he had seen good supervisors.  When the weather was good, their voice seemed to penetrate the river, solemn and melodious, and they could be heard up and down for twenty miles. 

But the lead supervisor and the helmsman were both the members of the ship. The salary of a helmsman was four times that of an ordinary boatman, and the salary of the supervisor was twice that of an ordinary boatman. The helmsman handled the overall situation, and the lead supervisor commanded everyone to row, pull ropes, and work together. Their cooperation was very important. Fortunately, although the old driver didn’t like the supervisor very much, he cooperated well at critical moments. I remember that we once had a “widow’s trough” and happened to encounter a strong wind and rain. The mast was broken, and the boat suddenly capsized. We survived because of the cooperation of the two of them!

My arm was broken at once

There was no moon one night, and the mountain wind made the trees rustle. I climbed a lot of bluestone steps and saw a building. At a closer look, it was a ruined temple. In front of the ruined temple, there was a broken stage. On the broken stage, several people in worn costumes were singing hoarsely. In the dim light, they looked like ghosts. I didn’t want to watch the play, so I turned to the hall for a stroll. An oil lamp in front of the Buddha was swaying in the wind. There were some broken mats on the ground, and some people lying around, smoking opium. In the other corner of the hall, a brighter kerosene lamp surrounded some people who gambled there. Many of my companions ran there immediately.

Originally, I wanted to enjoy the beautiful scenery, but I didn’t expect it to be such a tragic situation. Finally, when those companions were finished gambling, everyone returned to the boat together. The old driver had already laid down on the rudder bridge to rest. I gently spread a broken carpet under the rudder bridge and looked at the deep sky. I couldn’t calm down for a long time. In the past, I thought that the workers in the small coal kiln were already the most miserable in the world, and I didn’t expect that there would be worse than them. The tragedy of coal workers is caused by the high intensity of labor and poor working conditions, and the tragedy of ship workers is caused by self-degeneration, self-destruction, and self-anaesthesia.

Thinking about it, I closed my eyes and fell asleep. The next day, I was still called by the old driver.

“You kid, you slept so well! Something big happened last night, do you know?” The old driver asked me.

“What’s the big deal?” I look blank.  It turned out that in the middle of the night last night, a group of bandits came and robbed all the ships moored here, except that our two boats didn’t even lose a grain of rice. 

“Why wasn’t our ship robbed?” I asked the old driver.

The old driver told me, “Lao Wang, the ship owner’s helper, used to be a bandit. Although he washed his hands later, his friendship with those people was still there. Before the bandit operation, he got the news and told the shipowner that the ship owner asked him to talk to the bandits and gave him some money to avoid disaster.

Lao Wang is of medium height, but very strong. At the first meeting, he looked down on my thin arms and legs and shouted, “I can break your arm with one twist.” I was really afraid of him and didn’t dare to talk to him. In fact, he was very kind to me and sympathizesd with what happened to me, but he just thought that I was too thin and had no future as a boatman.

Say goodbye to the rafting life of the Sichuan River

I hadn’t been a boatman for a long time, about two months, but I felt that I gained a lot and learned a lot that I could not learn in school. I was happy to continue to wander in the Chuanjiang River and accumulate more boatman life experience, but I didn’t get what I wanted.

Reunion with family during the wandering of Chuanjiang River

After being expelled from the planning and political class, I was embarrassed to tell my eldest brother which made him anxious and inquire about my whereabouts everywhere. Later, he found out that I was working on a grain carrier. He made an appointment to wait at the dock where my ship had to be moored. As a result, as soon as I got ashore, I was stopped by them and thanked the shipowner together. When I left, the kind ship owner quietly stuffed me some pocket money.

My brothers didn’t blame me, but only put forward one thing: Don’t run around again in the future. The so-called admonition is actually very polite. He almost said to me in a cordial tone, “Don’t do that dangerous thing in the future. You see, how difficult it is for us to get here from our home. How  could we explain it to your grandfather and your parents? 

I was really moved, and I felt ashamed of my family, so I decided to temporarily put aside the wandering career of the Sichuan River, stay at ease and self-reliant.


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