My life in China and America/12 Expedition to the Taiping Tea District



My Nanking visit was utterly barren of any substantial hope of promoting any scheme of educational or political reform for the general welfare of China or for the advancement of my personal interest. When I was thoroughly convinced that neither the reformation nor the regeneration of China was to come from the Taipings, I at once turned my thoughts to the idea of making a big fortune as my first duty, and as the first element in the successful carrying out of other plans for the future.

One day, while sauntering about in the tea garden inside the city of Shanghai, I came across a few tea-merchants regaling themselves with that beverage in a booth by themselves, evidently having a very social time. They beckoned to me to join their party. In the course of the conversation, we happened to touch on my late journey through the tea districts of Hunan, Hupeh and Kiang Si and also my trip to Nanking. Passing from one topic of conversation to another, we lighted upon the subject of the green tea district of Taiping in An Hwui province. It was stated that an immense quantity of green tea could be found there, all packed and boxed ready for shipment, and that the rebels were in possession of the goods, and that whoever had the hardihood and courage to risk his life to gain possession of it would become a millionaire. I listened to the account with deep and absorbing interest, taking in everything that was said on the subject. It was stated that there were over 1,000,000 chests of tea there. Finally the party broke up, and I wended my way to my quarters completely absorbed in deep thought. I reasoned with myself that this was a chance for me to make a fortune, but wondered who would be foolhardy enough to furnish the capital, thinking that no business man of practical experience would risk his money in such a wild goose adventure, surrounded as it was with more than ordinary dangers and difficulties, in a country where highway robbery, lawlessness and murder were of daily occurrence. But with the glamor of a big fortune confronting me, all privations, dangers and risks of life seemed small and faded into airy nothing.

My friend, Tsang Mew, who had been instrumental in having me sent traveling into the interior a year before, was a man of great business experience. He had a long head and a large circle of business acquaintances, besides being my warm friend, so I concluded to go to him and talk over the whole matter, as I knew he would not hesitate to give me his best advice. I laid the whole subject before him. He said he would consider the matter fully and in a few days let me know what he had decided to do about it. After a few days, he told me that he had had several consultations with the head of the firm, of which he was comprador, and between them the company had decided to take up my project.

The plan of operation as mapped out by me was as follows: I was to go to the district of Taiping by the shortest and safest route possible, to find out whether the quantity of tea did exist; whether it was safe to have treasure taken up there to pay the rebels for the tea; and whether it was possible to have the tea supply taken down by native boats to be transhipped by steamer to Shanghai. This might be called the preliminary expedition. Then, I was to determine which of the two routes would be the more feasible, — there being two, one by way of Wuhu, a treaty port, and another by way of Ta Tung, not a treaty port, a hundred miles above Wuhu. Wuhu and the whole country leading to Taiping, including the district itself, was under the jurisdiction of the rebels, whereas Ta Tung was still in possession of the imperialists. From Wuhu to Taiping by river the distance was about two hundred and fifty miles, whereas, by way of Ta Tung, the way, though shorter, was mostly overland, which made transportation more difficult and expensive, besides having to pay the imperialists a heavy war-tax at Ta Tung, while duty and war-tax were entirely free at Wuhu.

In this expedition of inspection, I chose Wuhu as the basis of my operation. I started with four Chinese tea-men, natives of Taiping who had fled to Shanghai as refugees when the whole district was changed into a theatre of bloody conflicts between the imperialist and rebel forces for two years. On the way up the Wuhu River, we passed three cities mostly deserted by their inhabitants, but occupied by rebels. Paddy fields on both sides of the river were mostly left uncultivated and deserted, overrun with rank weeds and tall grass. As we ascended towards Taiping, the whole region presented a heart-rending and depressing scene of wild waste and devastation. Whole villages were depopulated and left in a dilapidated condition. Out of a population of 500,000 only a few dozen people were seen wandering about in a listless, hopeless condition, very much emaciated and looking like walking skeletons.

After a week's journey we reached the village of San Kow, where we were met and welcomed by three tea-men who had been in Shanghai about four years previous. It seemed that they had succeeded in weathering the storm which had swept away the bulk of the population and left them among the surviving few. They were mighty glad to see us, and our appearance in the village seemed to be a God-send. Among the houses that were left intact, I selected the best of them to be my headquarters for the transaction of the tea business. The old tea-men were brought in to co-operate in the business and they showed us where the tea was stored. I was told that in San Kow there were at least five hundred thousand boxes, but in the whole district of Taiping there were at least a million and a half boxes, about sixty pounds of tea to a box.

At the end of another week, I returned to Wuhu and reported all particulars. I had found that the way up from Wuhu by river to Taiping was perfectly safe and I did not anticipate any danger to life or treasure. I had seen a large quantity of the green tea myself and found out that all that was needed was to ship as much treasure as it was safe to have housed in Wuhu, and from there to have it transferred in country tea-boats, well escorted by men in case of any emergency. I also sent samples of the different kinds of green tea to Shanghai to be inspected and listed. These proved to be satisfactory, and the order came back to buy as much of the stock as could be bought.

I was appointed the head of all succeeding expeditions to escort treasure up the river to San Kow and cargoes of tea from there to Wuhu. In one of these expeditions, I had a staff of six Europeans and an equal number of Chinese tea-men. We had eight boxes of treasure containing altogether Tls. 40,000. A tael, in the sixties, according to the exchange of that period, was equal to $1.33, making the total amount in Mexican dollars to be a little over $53,000. We had a fleet of eight tea-boats, four large ones and four smaller ones. The treasure was divided into two equal parts and was placed in the two largest and staunchest boats. The men were also divided into two squads, three Europeans and three Chinese in one large boat and an equal number in the other. We were well provided with firearms, revolvers and cutlasses. Besides the six Europeans, we had about forty men including the boatmen, but neither the six tea-men nor the boatmen could be relied upon to show fight in case of emergency. The only reliable men I had to fall back upon, in case of emergency, were the Europeans; even in these I was not sure I could place implicit confidence, for they were principally runaway sailors of an adventurous character picked up in Shanghai by the company and sent up to Wuhu to escort the treasure up to the interior. Among them was an Englishman who professed to be a veterinary doctor. He was over six feet tall in his stocking feet, a man of fine personal appearance, but he did not prove himself to be of very stout heart, as may be seen presently. Thus prepared and equipped, we left Wuhu in fine spirits. We proceeded on our journey a little beyond the city of King Yuen, which is about half the way to San Kow. We could have gone a little beyond King Yuen, but thinking it might be safer to be near the city, where the rebel chief had seen my passport, obtained in Nanking, and knew that I had influential people in Nanking, we concluded to pass the night in a safe secluded little cove in the bend of the river just large enough for our little boats to moor close to each other, taking due precaution to place the two largest ones in the center, flanked by the other boats on the right and left of them; the smaller boats occupied the extreme ends of the line.

Before retiring, I had ordered all our firearms to be examined and loaded and properly distributed. Watchmen were stationed in each boat to keep watch all night, for which they were to be paid extra. The precautionary steps having thus been taken, we all retired for the night. An old tea-man and myself were the only ones who lay wide awake while the rest gave unmistakable signs of deep sleep. I felt somewhat nervous and could not sleep. The new moon had peeked in upon us occasionally with her cold smile, as heavy and dark clouds were scudding across her path. Soon she was shut in and disappeared, and all was shrouded in pitch darkness. The night was nearly half spent, when my ears caught the distant sound of whooping and yelling which seemed to increase in volume. I immediately started up to dress myself and quietly woke up the Europeans and Chinese in both boats. As the yelling and whooping drew nearer and nearer it seemed to come from a thousand throats, filling the midnight air with unearthly sounds. In another instant countless torch lights were seen dancing and whirling in the dismal darkness right on the opposite bank. Fortunately the river was between this marauding band and us, while pitch darkness concealed our boats from their sight. In view of such impending danger, we held a council of war. None of us were disposed to fight and endanger our lives in a conflict in which the odds were fearfully against us, there being about a thousand to one. But the English veterinary doctor was the foremost and most strenuous of the Europeans to advocate passive surrender. His countenance actually turned pale and he trembled all over, whether from fear or the chilly atmosphere of the night I could not tell. Having heard from each one what he had to say, I could do nothing but step forward and speak to them, which I did in this wise: “Well, boys, you have all decided not to fight in case we are attacked, but to surrender our treasure. The ground for taking such a step is that we are sure to be outnumbered by a rebel host. So that in such a dilemma discretion is the better part of valor, and Tls. 40,000 are not worth sacrificing our lives for. But by surrendering our trust without making an effort of some kind to save it, we would be branded as unmitigated cowards, and we could never expect to be trusted with any responsible commission again. Now, I will tell you what I propose to do. If the rebel horde should come over and attempt to seize our treasure, I will spring forward with my yellow silk passport, and demand to see their chief, while you fellows with your guns and arms must stand by the treasure. Do not fire and start the fight. By parleying with them, it will for the moment check their determination to plunder, and they will have a chance to find out who we are, and where I obtained the passport; and, even if they should carry off the treasure, I shall tell their chief that I will surely report the whole proceeding in Nanking and recover every cent of our loss.”

These remarks seemed to revive the spirit and courage of the men, after which we all sat on the forward decks of our boats anxiously waiting for what the next moment would bring forth. While in this state of expectancy, our hearts palpitating in an audible fashion, our eyes were watching intently the opposite shore. All the shouting and yelling seemed to have died away, and nothing could be seen but torches moving about slowly and leisurely in regular detachments, each detachment stopping occasionally and then moving on again. This was kept up for over two hours, while they constantly receded from us. I asked an old boatman the meaning of such movements and was told that the marauding horde was embarking in boats along the whole line of the opposite shore and was moving down stream. It was three o'clock in the morning, and it began to rain. A few of the advance boats had passed us without discovering where we were. They were loaded with men and floated by us in silence. By four o'clock the last boats followed the rest and soon disappeared from sight. Evidently, from the stillness that characterized the long line of boats as they floated down stream, the buccaneering horde was completely used up by their looting expedition, and at once abandoned themselves to sound sleep when they got on board the boats. We thanked our stars for such a narrow escape from such an unlooked-for danger. We owed our safety to the darkness of the night, the rain and to the fact that we were on the opposite shore in a retired cove. By five o'clock all our anxieties and fears were laid aside and turned into joy and thankfulness. We resumed our journey with light hearts and reached San Kow two days later in peace and safety. In less than two weeks we sent down to Wuhu, escorted by Europeans and tea-men, the first installment, consisting of fifteen boatloads of tea to be transhipped by steamer to Shanghai. The next installment consisted of twelve boatloads. I escorted that down the river in person. The river, in some places, especially in the summer, was quite shallow and a way had to be dug to float the boats down. In one or two instances the boatmen were very reluctant to jump into the water to do the work of deepening the river, and on one occasion I had to jump in, with the water up to my waist, in order to set them an example. When they caught the idea and saw me in the water, every man followed my example and vied with each other in clearing a way for the boats, for they saw I meant business and there was no fooling about it either.

I was engaged in this Taiping tea business for about six months, and took away about sixty-five thousand boxes of tea, which was hardly a tenth part of the entire stock found in the district. Then I was taken down with the fever and ague of the worst type. As I could get no medical relief at Wuhu, I was obliged to return to Shanghai, where I was laid up sick for nearly two months. Those two months of sickness had knocked all ideas of making a big fortune out of my head. I gave up the Taiping tea enterprise, because it called for a greater sacrifice of health and wear upon my nervous system than I was able to stand. The King Yuen midnight incident, which came near proving a disastrous one for me, with the marauding horde of unscrupulous cut-throats, had been quite a shock on my nervous system at the time and may have been the primal cause of my two months' sickness; it served as a sufficient warning to me not to tax my nervous system by further encounters and disputes with the rebel chiefs, whose price on the tea we bought of them was being increased every day. A dispassionate and calm view of the enterprise convinced me that I would have to preserve my life, strength and energy for a higher and worthier object than any fortune I might make out of this Taiping tea, which, after all, was plundered property. I am sure that no fortune in the world could be brought in the balance to weigh against my life, which is of inestimable value to me.

Although I had made nothing out of the Taiping teas, yet the fearless spirit, the determination to succeed, and the pluck to be able to do what few would undertake in face of exceptional difficulties and hazards, that I had exhibited in the enterprise, were in themselves assets worth more to me than a fortune. I was well-known, both among foreign merchants and native business men, so that as soon as it was known that I had given up the Taiping tea enterprise on account of health, I was offered a tea agency in the port of Kew Keang for packing teas for another foreign firm. I accepted it as a temporary shift, but gave it up in less than six months and started a commission business on my own account. I continued this business for nearly three years and was doing as well as I had expected to do. It was at this time while in Kew Keang that I caught the first ray of hope of materializing the educational scheme I had been weaving during the last year of my college life.