My life in China and America/09 My First Trip to the Tea Districts



On the 11th of March, 1859, I found myself on board of a Woo-Sik-Kwei, a Chinese boat built in Woo-Sik, a city situated on the borders of the Grand Canal, within a short distance of the famous city of Suchau — a rival of the city of Hangchau, for wealth, population, silk manufacture, and luxury. The word “Kwei” means “fast.” Therefore, Woo-Sik-Kwei means fast boats of Woo-Sik. These passenger boats which plied between the principal cities and marts situated near the waters of the canal and lake system in southern Kianksu, were usually built of various sizes and nicely fitted up for the comfort and convenience of the public. Those intended for officials, and the wealthy classes, were built on a larger scale and fitted up in a more pretentious style. They were all flat-bottom boats. They sailed fairly well before the wind, but against it, they were either tracked by lines from the mast to the trackers on shore, or by sculling, at which the Chinese are adepts. They can give a boat a great speed by a pair of sculls resting on steel pivots that are fastened at the stern, one on each side, about the middle of the scull, with four men on each scull; the blades are made to play in the water astern, right and left, which pushes and sends the boat forward at a surprisingly rapid rate. But in recent years, steam has made its way into China and steam launches have superseded these native craft which are fast disappearing from the smooth waters of Kiangsu province — very much as the fast sailing ships, known as Baltimore Clippers, that in the fifties and sixties were engaged in the East India and China trade, have been gradually swept from the ocean by steam.

At the end of three days, I was landed in the historic city of Hangchau, which is the capital of Chêhkiang. It is situated on a plain of uneven ground, with hills in the southwest and west, and northeast. It covers an area of about three or four square miles. It is of a rectangular shape. Its length is from north to south; its breadth, from east to west. On the west, lies the Si-Hoo or West Lake, a beautiful sheet of limpid water with a gravelly or sandy bottom, stretching from the foot of the city wall to the foot of the mountains which appear in the distance in the rear, rising into the clouds like lofty bulwarks guarding the city on the north.

The Tsientang River, about two miles distant, flanks the city on the east. It takes its rise from the high mountain range of Hwui Chow in the southeast and follows a somewhat irregular course to the bay of the same name, and rushes down the rocky declivities like a foaming steed and empties itself into the bay about forty miles east of the city. This is one of the rivers that have periodical bores in which the tidal waters in their entrance to the bay create a noise like thunder, and the waves rise to the height of eight or ten feet.

Hangchau, aside from her historic fame as having been the seat of the government of the Sung Dynasty of the 12th and 13th centuries, has always maintained a wide reputation for fine buildings, public and private, such as temples, pagodas, mosques and bridges, which go to lend enchantment to the magnificent natural scenery with which she is singularly endowed. But latterly, age and the degeneration of the times have done their work of mischief. Her past glory is fast sinking into obscurity; she will never recover her former prestige, unless a new power arises to make her once more the capital of a regenerated government.

On the 15th of March, I left Hangchau to ascend the Tsientang River, at a station called Kang Kow, or mouth of the river, about two miles east of the city, where boats were waiting for us. Several hundreds of these boats of a peculiar and unique type were riding near the estuary of the river. These boats are called Urh Woo, named after the district where they were built. They vary from fifty to one hundred feet in length, from stem to stern, and are ten or fifteen feet broad, and draw not more than two or three feet of water when fully loaded. They are all flat-bottom boats, built of the most limber and flexible material that can be found, as they are expected to meet strong currents and run against rocks, both in their ascent and descent, on account of the irregularity and rocky bottom of the river. These boats, when completely equipped and covered with bamboo matting, look like huge cylinders, and are shaped like cigars. The interior from stem to stern is divided into separate compartments, or rooms, in which bunks are built to accommodate passengers. These compartments and bunks are removed when room is needed for cargoes. These boats ply between Hangchau and Sheong Shan and do all the interior transportation by water between these entrepôts in Chêhkiang and Kiangsi. Sheong Shan is the important station of Chêhkiang, and Yuh-Shan is that of Kiangsi. The distance between the two entrepôts is about fifty lis, or about sixteen English miles, connected by one of the finest macadamized roads in China. The road is about thirty feet wide, paved with slabs of granite and flanked with greenish-colored cobbles. A fine stone arch which was erected as a land-mark of the boundary line separating Chêhkiang and Kiangsi provinces, spans the whole width of the road. On both sides of the key-stone of the arch are carved four fine Chinese characters, painted in bright blue, viz., Leang Hsing Tung Chu:

兩 省 通 懼

This is one of the most notable arch-ways through which the inter-provincial trade has been carried on for ages past. At the time when I crossed from Sheong Shan to Yuh-Shan, the river ports of Hankau, Kiukiang, Wuhu and Chinkiang were not opened to foreign trade and steam-boats had not come in to play their part in the carrying trade of the interior of China. This magnificent thoroughfare was crowded with thousands of porters bearing merchandise of all kinds to and fro — exports and imports for distribution. It certainly presented an interesting sight to the traveller, as well as a profound topic of contemplation to a Chinese patriot.

The opening of the Yangtze River, which is navigable as far as Kingchau, on the borders of Szechwan province, commanding the trade of at least six or seven provinces along its whole course of nearly three thousand miles to the ocean, presents a spectacle of unbounded possibilities for the amelioration of nearly a third of the human race, if only the grasping ambition of the West will let the territorial integrity and the independent sovereignty of China remain intact. Give the people of China a fair chance to work out the problems of their own salvation, as for instance the solution of the labor question, which has been so radically disorganized and broken up by steam, electricity and machinery. This has virtually taken the breath and bread away from nine-tenths of the people of China, and therefore this immovable mass of population should be given ample time to recover from its demoralization.

To go back to my starting point at Kang Kow, the entrance to the river, two miles east of Hangchau, we set sail, with a fair wind, at five o'clock in the morning of the 15th of March, and in the evening at ten o'clock we anchored at a place named the “Seven Dragons,” after having made about one hundred miles during the day. The eastern shore in this part of the Tsientang River is evidently of red sandstone formation, for we could see part of the strata submerged in the water, and excavations of the stone may be seen strewn about on the shore. In fact, red sandstone buildings may be seen scattered about here and there. But the mountain about the Seven Dragons is picturesque and romantic.

Early the next day, we again started, but the rain poured down in torrents. We kept on till we reached the town of Lan Chi and came to anchor in the evening, after having made about forty miles. This is the favorite entrepôt where the Hupeh and Hunan congou teas were brought all the way from the tea districts of these provinces, to be housed and transhipped to Shanghai via Hangchau. Lan Chi is an entrepôt of only one street, but its entire length is six miles. It is famous for its nice hams, which are known all over China. On account of the incessant rain, we stopped half a day at Lan Chi. In the afternoon the sky began to clear and at twelve o'clock in the night we again started and reached the walled city of Ku Chow, which was besieged by the Taiping rebels in March, 1858, just a year before; after four months' duration the siege was raised and no great damage was done. We put up in an inn for the night. Ku Chow is a departmental city of Chêhkiang and is about thirty miles distant from Sheong Shan, already mentioned in connection with Yuh-Shan. We were delayed by the Custom House officials, as well as on account of the scarcity of porters and chair-bearers to take us over to Sheong Shan. We arrived at Yuh-Shan from Sheong Shan by chair in the evening. We put up in an inn for the night, having first engaged fishing boats to take us to the city of Kwangshun, thirty miles from Yuh-Shan, the next morning. After reaching Yuh-Shan, we were in Kiangsi territory, and our route now lay in a west by north direction, down stream towards the Po Yang Lake, whose southern margin we passed, and reached Nan Cheong, the capital of Kiangsi province. The city presented a fine outward appearance. We did not stop long enough to go through the city and see its actual condition since its evacuation by the rebels.

Our route from Nan Cheong was changed in a west by south direction, making the great entrepôt of Siang Tan our final goal. In this route, we passed quite a number of large cities that had nothing of special importance, either commercially or historically, to relate. We passed Cheong Sha, the capital of Hunan, in the night. We arrived at Siang Tan on the morning of the 15th of April. Siang Tan is one of the noted entrepôts in the interior of China and used to be the great distributing center of imports when foreign trade was confined to the single port of Canton. It was also the emporium where the tea and silk goods of China were centered and housed, to be carried down to Canton for exportation to foreign countries. The overland transport trade between Siang Tan and Canton was immense. It gave employment to at least one hundred thousand porters, carrying merchandise over the Nan Fung pass, between the two cities, and supported a large population along both sides of the thoroughfare. Steam, wars and treaties of very recent dates have not only broken up this system of labor and changed the complexion of the whole labor question throughout China, but will also alter the economical, industrial and political conditions of the Chinese Empire during the coming years of her history.

At Siang Tan, our whole party, composed of tea-men, was broken up and each batch began its journey to the district assigned it, to begin the work of purchasing raw tea and preparing it to be packed for shipment in Shanghai.

I stayed in Siang Tan about ten days and then made preparations for a trip up to the department of Kingchau in Hupeh province, to look into the yellow silk produced in a district called Ho-Yung.

We left Siang Tan on the 26th of April, and proceeded northward to our place of destination. Next morning at eight o'clock we reached Cheong Sha, the capital of Hunan province. As the day was wet and gloomy, we stopped and tried to make the best of it by going inside of the city to see whether there was anything worth seeing, but like all Chinese cities, it presented the same monotonous appearance of age and filth, the same unchangeable style of architecture and narrow streets. Early next morning, we resumed our boat journey, crossed the Tung Ting Lake and the great river Yangtze till we entered the mouth of the King Ho which carried us to Ho Yung. On this trip to hunt after the yellow silk — not the golden fleece — we were thirteen days from Siang Tan. The country on both banks of the King Ho seemed quiet and peaceful and people were engaged in agricultural pursuits. We saw many buffaloes and donkeys, and large patches of wheat, interspersed with beans. A novel sight presented itself which I have never met with elsewhere in China. A couple of country lassies were riding on a donkey, and were evidently in a happy mood, laughing and talking as they rode by. Arriving in Ho Yung, we had some difficulty in finding an inn, but finally succeeded in securing quarters in a silk hong. No sooner were we safely quartered, than a couple of native constables called to know who we were; our names and business were taken down. Our host, the proprietor of the hong, who knew the reason of our coming, explained things to the satisfaction of the men, who went away perfectly satisfied that we were honest traders and no rebel spies. We were left to transact our business unmolested. As soon as our object was known, numerous samples of yellow silk were brought for our inspection. We selected quite a number of samples, which altogether weighed about sixty-five pounds, and had them packed to be taken to Shanghai.

At the end of a fortnight, we concluded to take our journey back. Accordingly, on the 26th of May we bade Ho Yung farewell, and started for the tea district of Nih Kia Shi, in the department of Cheong Sha, via Hankau. We arrived at Hankau on the 5th of June, and put up in a native inn. The weather was hot and muggy, and our quarters were narrow and cut off from fresh air. Three days after our arrival, three deputies visited us to find out who we were. It did not take long to convince them that we were not rebel spies. We showed them the package of yellow silk, which bore marks of a war-tax which we had to pay on it, all along the route from Ho Yung to Hankau. We were left unmolested.

The port of Hankau had not been opened for foreign trade, though it was well understood that it was to be opened very soon. Before its capture by the Taiping rebels, or rather before the Taiping rebels had made their appearance on the stage of action, Hankau was the most important entrepôt in China. When the Taiping rebels captured Woochang in 1856, Hankau and Han Yang fell at the same time, and the port was destroyed by fire and was reduced to ashes. At the time of my visit, the whole place was rebuilt and trade began to revive. But the buildings were temporary shifts. Now the character of the place is completely changed and the foreign residences and warehouses along the water's edge have given it altogether a European aspect, so that the Hankau of today may be regarded as the Chicago or St. Louis of China, and in no distant day she is destined to surpass both in trade, population and wealth. I was in Hankau a few days before I crossed the Yangtze-Kiang to the black tea district of Nih Kia Shi.

We left Hankau on the 30th of June and went over to the tea packing houses in Nih Kia Shi and Yang Liu Tung on the 4th of July. I was in those two places over a month and gained a complete knowledge of the whole process of preparing the black tea for the foreign market. The process is very simple and can be easily learned. I do not know through what preparations the Indian and Assam teas have to go, where machinery is used, but they cannot be very elaborate. Undoubtedly, since the fifties, manual labor, the old standby in preparing teas for foreign consumption, has been much improved with a view of retaining a large percentage of the tea trade in China. The reason why a large percentage of the tea business has passed away from China to India is not because machinery is used in the one case and manual labor is retained in the other, but chiefly on account of the quality of the tea that is raised in the different soil of the two countries. The Indian or Assam tea is much stronger (in proportion to the same quantity) than the Chinese tea. The Indian tea is 2-1 to Chinese tea, in point of strength, whereas the Chinese tea is 2-1 to the Indian tea in point of delicacy and flavor. The Indian is rank and strong, but the Chinese tea is superior in the quality of its fine aroma. The higher class of tea-drinkers in America, Europe and Russia prefer China tea to Indian, whereas the laboring and common class in those countries take to Indian and Assam, from the fact that they are stronger and cheaper.

In the latter part of August I decided to return to Shanghai, not by way of Siang Tan, but via Hankau, down the Yangtze River to Kiu Kang and across the Poh Yang Lake. I arrived at Hankau again the second time on the 29th of August, having left there two months previous, in July. This time I came in a Hunan junk loaded with tea for Shanghai. At Ho Kow, the southern shore of the Poh Yang Lake, I had to follow the same route I took in March, and on the 21st of September I landed at Hangchau and from there I took a Woo-Sik-Kwei for Shanghai, where I arrived in the night of the 30th of September, the time consumed on this journey having been seven months — from March to October. It was my first journey into the interior of China, and it gave me a chance to gain an insight into the actual condition of the people, while a drastic rebellion was going on in their midst. The zone of the country through which I had passed had been visited by the rebels and the imperialists, but was, to all outward appearance, peaceful and quiet. To what extent the people had suffered both from rebel and imperialist devastations in those sections of the country, no one can tell. But there was one significant fact that struck me forcibly and that was the sparseness of population, which was at variance with my preconceived notions regarding the density of population in China which I had gathered from books and accounts of travelers. This was particularly noticeable through that section of Chêhkiang, Kiangsi, Hunan and Hupeh, which I visited. The time of the year, when crops of all kinds needed to be planted, should have brought out the peasantry into the open fields with oxen, mules, donkeys, buffaloes and horses, as indispensable accessories to farm life. But comparatively few farmers were met with.

Shortly after my arrival from the interior, in October, an English friend of mine requested me to go to Shau Hing to buy raw silk for him. Shau Hing is a city located in a silk district about twenty miles southwest of Hangchau, and noted for its fine quality of silk. I was about two months in this business, when I was taken down with fever and ague and was compelled to give it up. Shau Hing, like most Chinese cities, was filthy and unhealthy and the water that flowed through it was as black as ink. The city was built in the lowest depression of a valley, and the outlet of the river was so blocked that there was hardly any current to carry off the filth that had been accumulating for ages. Hence the city was literally located in a cesspool — a breeding place for fever and ague, and epidemics of all kinds. But I soon recovered from the attack of the fever and ague and as soon as I could stand on my legs again, I immediately left the malarial atmosphere, and was, in a short time, breathing fresher and purer air.