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1. The River Commission

THE Yellow river is not the only one that flows across the Great Plain of China; there are many others: the Hun-ho, for example.

Now, many centuries ago the Chinese river engineers with great skill but monstrous foolishness built a canal athwart the course of those minor rivers and partly blocked their egress to the sea. In the neighbourhood of Tientsin the only provision for the drainage of the country to the west of the canal was a passage which was barely big enough to carry the flood waters of the Hun-ho; and if all the rivers were in spate at the same time a disastrous flood occurred which drowned or starved several hundred thousand country people; and this happens septennially or so.

In 1916 — or thereabouts — a flood of that kind occurred, and the country people to the westward of the canal, the elevated bed and dykes of which held back the waters, cut those dykes and flooded out Tientsin. So now the evil of the situation which had existed for so many centuries was brought home to foreign interests; and they protested and agitated, and diplomatic representations were made upon the matter. And out of it all there evolved the idea of a Commission of all the interests concerned to deal with the evil; but because of mutual jealousy there was to be, sitting jointly, one Committee of the Peking Government and another representative of foreign interests at Tientsin, the latter one being dominated by the local conservancy board — a treaty organization.

The Tientsin Commissioner at that time was Mr. F. W. Maze — now Inspector-General. In him, I saw a man of exceptional ability — one who was an administrative engineer as opposed to the more common but highly valuable class of administrative engine-drivers, a man with a broad vision of what there was to do and how to do it. Before the flood occurred he had approached me about the formation of a Committee and about my being a member of it. There were several objections to my doing so: the anomaly of a sailor being on a board of engineers; the distance of Tientsin from my office at Shanghai; and others.

On the other hand, there was my past association with the Yellow river, the opinions I had formed about it and the fact that the problem of the Hun-ho was linked with it. Above all, there was my keen interest in the problem; so I agreed that if I were invited, I would ask for the Inspectorate's permission to accept. Then came the flood and the Commission. I had expected to be a very humble person in this business, but when a preliminary meeting was held of all the members they made me Chairman of Committee in spite of my protests about my deafness; and I kept the chair until I left the country.

I became, too, at once the leader of a policy to remedy the defect of the diplomatic scheme. There were Chinese monies — reserves held as security for the service of certain loans — over which the British and French legations had control. It was from those monies that the committees were to be financed; and to provide for honesty of administration the fund was to be in the hands of the Tientsin part of the Commission. It was obvious to me that that arrangement was fraught with evils for the future. What was needed was a single body, an organ of the Chinese Government, composed of the members of the two committees and supported by the aegis of the two legations.

Such a body only could have potentialities for good; and for it such potentialities would be vast. I envisaged not merely the Hun-ho and Tientsin, but the Yellow river and the Great Plain in general. So I visited Peking to discuss the matter with Mr. Wilton, now Sir Ernest, in whose hands Sir John Jordan had placed the matter. I lunched with him — I think Archibald Rose was there — and I gave my reasons for the change I advocated. But lunch ended without a sign of appreciation of my point of view; and Wilton had an appointment, so I had to leave; but I was asked to come to tea to continue the discussion. I went away despondent; I believed that at tea-time I should get my coup de grâce; why, oh why, could not they see the obvious thing! I went back to tea prepared to make a final effort, and Wilton said: ' You need not argue any more,' and paused. Alas! Alas! — but then he went on to say, ' because you have quite convinced me that you are right. I have already seen Sir John, and you are to get your way. There is just one condition about the Treasurer.

It must be Hussey-Freke — the Secretary of the Tientsin Conservancy Board.' So that was a good beginning; and Hsiung Hsi-lin, our President, was very pleased.

Let me tell about some of the Chinese personnel of that Chihli River Commission. There was Hsiung Hsi-lin — a Hanlin scholar (1) and a philanthropist. He had been Premier for a time, but now, though on the fringe of politics, he took no active part in them. He was Director-General of Flood Relief — an onerous position. Apart from that and our Commission, his chief interest lay in his huge orphanage, where famine- and flood-stricken children found a home. It was an extraordinarily up-to-date affair, of which I will give just one example. It had a money currency of its own and a bank.
1 — The highest Chinese literary degree.

Children over twelve had cheque-books. If one of these needed, say, a pair of shoes, he was given a credit for their value on the bank, and then he cashed a cheque and visited the appropriate shop of the establishment and bought the thing he needed; and so they were trained in business affairs. Hsiung had a charming home in the Western Hills, where he entertained with simple hospitality. His wife was just a lady, and one of great capacity and character, who took a leading part in philanthropic and educational activities. Their two daughters were later sent abroad for education — I think to England. Hsiung gained my complete trust and devotion, and I like to think that the feeling was returned.

Then came Admiral Woo, who had fought in '94, and because of that time and my other services to the navy gave me a sort of distinguished consideration. He had been a Minister at some time and was a very courtly person, and at the same time a most jovial soul.

I think next of little T. S. Wei, the Commission's chief secretary and Hsiung's right-hand man — so small and slender and frail, with hands like those of a little girl. And he had a brain that I think no Westerner could have. He could listen to a speech of half an hour's length and then translate it, and not only never miss a sentence but never fail — in the other language — to give the equivalent point and emphasis. He was a phenomenon; and he had translated Dickens into Chinese.

Then there was Hollington Tong and Yang Pao-lin, and others, and for all of them I had a regard that grew into positive affection. About this there is something to be noted. If one likes a fellow countryman or a European or American, it is pleasant but not extraordinary; there is a normality that this should happen now and then that usually prevents it being stamped as something very precious. But when a real friendship exists with one of a different race and culture, and it is found that in spite of that difference there is the same thought- language and mutual trust, the experience has a very special charm; and if it is not only one but a bunch of them with whom one is associated, the charm, of course, is greatly magnified. That was my position; and I suggest it is significant of what the Chinese are or may be. But of course there is — in general — a reverse side to the medal.

Every six weeks or so von Heidenstam, another member from Shanghai, and I would take the train to Tientsin, stay a week or so and then return to our duties at Shanghai. I have already mentioned von Heidenstam in connection with conservancy affairs at Shanghai. He was the most reasonable man in conference that I ever met.

And now I must tell the story, very briefly, of how I left the Customs Service; of how I was offered and accepted the position of an Adviser to the Chinese Government. I had been offered the position some years before and declined it; for then it held out no temptation for me. I was very happy and more than contented with my lot. I had the kind of life which suited me exactly, one which combined the safety of a steady job with what amounted to adventure; I would not have exchanged positions with an Admiral. But now there was a difference in the situation. For one thing, the River Commission and the Yellow river problem pulled me strongly; for another, the anomaly of my freak-like extra-Customs activities was beginning to react both on myself and the Inspectorate.

The acceptance of an offered change seemed indicated; and Sir Francis Aglen's recommendation that I accept it was put very nicely: it would round off my career.

So in 1918 I left the Customs, and though I was pleased at the thought of my new adventure, I left it and my associates with a deep regret. The one unmitigated pleasure in the situation was the knowledge that my friend Eldridge would take my place. I had been Coast Inspector for over twenty years and my age was fifty-four.

There was regret, too, at leaving our charming little country house, which we had designed ourselves; and the garden with its fish-pond skew-spanned by a curious concrete bridge which I had built myself; our pergola with its rambler roses; the screen of bambusa gigantica; and the Japanese garden where every little shrub was petted.

So the family — we had now three girls, the youngest four — migrated to Peking; and Bisbee's dying wish came true.'