IN the early days of my appointment as Deputy Coast Inspector
there occurred an episode which, owing to its length, I have
delayed the telling of till now.
Sir Robert Hart telegraphed to the Shanghai Commissioner
to this effect: — The Viceroy of Szechuen has appealed to the
Central Government for assistance in respect to the great
landslide which fell last year into the Upper Yangtsze near
Wanhsien and formed a whirlpool in which over a thousand
lives and hundred large junks have already been lost. The
Central Government has called for my advice. Can the
Engineer-in-Chief or Coast Inspector make any suggestion
Now the Engineer-in-Chief of that time was an elderly man.
For many years his duties had been confined to lighthouse
construction; the problem of a whirlpool — over a thousand
miles up the Yangtsze river — did not appeal to him, and he
made no bones in saying it; so he left the thing to Bisbee, who
asked me what I thought about it.
It was then September. Low river would occur in January.
The range of water level was very great — a hundred feet and
more. Obviously what was needed was a study of the problem
on the spot, one beginning as soon as possible and lasting until
low river — a four months' job at least; and whoever went
should have authority to do what might prove possible in the
period to ameliorate conditions for navigation. There was a
huge traffic of native craft on that Upper Yangtsze, craft ranging
from two-hundred-ton junks to small flimsy boats that did the
downward passage only once and then were broken up for
firewood; there were no railways, no roads, to that rich
province of Szechuen which lay some fifteen hundred miles
from the coast; the Yangtsze was the only route for all its
wealth of produce. Bisbee asked me would I go? I would
go with the greatest eagerness if I could have authority to do
what might prove possible while there. What would I need?
A foreign diver and his gear; a Chinese blacksmith; steel bars
for drills; two tons of dynamite; and an anchor — for I had
read that anchors were unknown on the upper river — and funds
to engage such labour as I needed.
That was how I, a sailor-man, started off on a Civil Engineering job, and nothing could have pleased me better.
Because of the dynamite that river steamers would not carry
we travelled in a Chinese gunboat. Her Captain had the
curious name of Zi Ziang-Zung. He was an old, old man;
was mission educated all those years ago, was still a Christian,
and had a library of good English books. He spoke of many
things — of morals, philosophy and politics, and expressed his
pleasure at an English conversation which for years he had not
had. Then he told me of the famine in Szechuen and how
girls were going cheap. Would I be so kind as to bring back
six for him, so that he could sell them at a profit? He had
served with Gordon when Soochow was taken and had not
heard before that he was dead. According to his statement, he
was Gordon's A.D.C.; he told of Gordon's rage when Li
Hung-chang cut off the heads of the rebel leaders at Soochow,
for whose safety Gordon's word was given; of how he accompanied Gordon in his search for Li to shoot him; and how,
the heat of rage subsiding, the General confined himself to
language quite unprintable, which Captain Zi detailed. I am
told on good authority that his story was apocryphal. I
wonder; it was so very circumstantial.
We reached Hankow, five hundred miles or so inland, and
the limit of navigation for ocean steamers; and then the
shallow changing channels of the Middle Yangtsze, with the
uncanny fact that a rise of water level — say six feet — need
not mean an increase in depth; for the river bottom rises and
falls irregularly with the water level, due to the silt from the
mountains in the West in its unknown steps of progress to
the sea to form new islands and extend the coast.
At Ichang we reached the beginning of the Upper Yangtsze
and — at that date — the limit of steam navigation, so we
transhipped to native house-boats — kwatzes, and I said
good-bye to Zi Ziang-Zung, whose last words were a hope
that I would change my mind about the purchase of those
We sailed and tracked on that great inland waterway; hauled
over rapids with a hundred coolies on the ropes — a stiff bamboo-plaited rope, which would only coil with bights that alternately
were inside out. Mountains all the way with ranges transverse
to the river; so there are valleys running right and left, but
never fore and aft. The river crosses them; it pierces the
chains of mountains by a set of narrow gorges, precipitous
and tortuous. The river's age is greater than the mountains',
so, as the latter slowly rose, the former kept its bed. Those
massive limestone mountains, with their granite cores and
basalt dykes, had been worn down and melted through as if
they had been sugar. And every here and there are rapids,
where a sudden drop occurs; they are the steps, assisting
navigation in between, though a nuisance in themselves.
Down the river come the junks with Szechuen produce —
junks with crews of many scores of men. When the wind is
fair they sail and there is silence; but when they row, manning
the great sculling oars on either side with their screw-like
motion, they work to music. A boy's falsetto voice rings out
the solo, and a hundred men, perhaps, rasp out the chorus.
And in the gorges the reverberation from the cliffs makes this
music something never to be forgotten. Those songs are
centuries old, perhaps millenaries. They have been sung by
father and son for untold generations on that river; and junks
that a century and more ago were hauled over the Kweilin Pass
by windlasses on greasy slopes of clay and so reached Canton,
taught these songs to British sailors, and thus were shanties
born — so I maintain.
The rapids vary in their nature. Some are merely rushing
broken waters, with tortuous channels through the rocks; this
occurs where the rocky ridges are axial with the river. In
other cases a ridge lies across the stream and forms a weir,
through whose deepest part the main volume of the water
flows as a smooth sloping tongue, convex to the sky, tapering to a point, and at that point wild turbulence of waters;
and on one side, perhaps, a whirlpool, fatal to a craft of whatever size that gets within its toils. A junk comes down the
river; she is in a placid reach with little current, for the
depth is great, say fifty feet or more. Some distance off, the
surface of the water has lost its continuity; it ends, strangely
and unduly; it is the weir that forms a rapid. The sail was
furled some time before; the sculls and sweep are manned and
worked to a subdued accompaniment of' Yi-ha, yi-ha.'
laodah stands tense at the loom of that great sweep; he is
steering for the very centre of that tongue. Then he gives his
order and frenzy reigns — a frenzy of effort and of voice, wild
barbaric rhythmic shouts, accompanying the herculean efforts
to get speed on the boat for that steerage-way on which depends
their safety. That line approaches, that seeming precipice of
waters; the junk's bow reaches the edge, her fore-foot is
exposed; and then she tips and slithers down that oily slope.
The laodah's aim is true; she rides the apex of that convex
surface with its downward slope on either side; and with yells
and wild waving of his long-sleeved arms, the laodah gives
instructions for the working of the guiding sweep — great lusty
pulls to right or left. On one side of that oily tongue are jagged
rocks and on the other a gruesome whirlpool, with a vicious,
moving, sucking vortex, down which smaller boats entire, with
crews on board, can drop down as a floating fragment drops
down the plug-hole of a bath, and in which the largest ones
disintegrate. But our junk continues on the apex of the
convex tongue until it reaches its pointed tip and enters
the boiling turbulence of waters there; and all is well — the
I have looked ahead a bit, for that rapid was the Hsin-lung-tan for which we were bound.
A fine crowd, those Yangtsze junkmen; a race apart, with
traditions of conduct going back to untold ages, and the chief
of these is that traffic cannot stop. No matter what new danger
may arise, it must be taken in the stride; for thus has it always
been. So when the landslide happened and formed a rapid
worse than anything yet known, the downward junks tied up
above, and the laodahs went to view the scene to see what they
were in for. They knew that down that foul, sucking mouth,
which moved about as if alive, a thousand lives had dropped
the year before — men, women and children. Then, unhesitatingly, they shoved off to risk their lives. They could, of
course, have left their families behind. They never did. To
drown was better than to starve. Again I have looked ahead.
Now let us go back to that upward passage.
In all the world it is a feature of a boat to have bilateral
symmetry as regards its major axis; that is to say, it is similar
on each side of the keel. A catamaran is an exception to some
degree, but its outrigger is a mere appurtenance and not part of
the hull. It is reserved for the Fu-ho junks to form a unique
exception to this rule. The deck at the bow is horizontal, but
gradually it tilts to port until at the stern its tilt is forty-five
degrees. The starboard corner of the counter is thus amidships above the rudder post, and forms an apex which serves
as a bearing for a monstrous stern sweep, longer than the vessel,
whose loom is worked from an elevated bridge amidships. It
is as if a giant had taken in his hands an elastic junk and twisted
the stern through forty-five degrees. I stayed for several hours
where the Fu-ho joined the Yangtsze in an attempt to learn the
object of this curious craft; but the net result of all my efforts
was merely this: — The Fu was a very curly river and a very
curly boat was best suited to its navigation.
We had a guard boat in attendance with half a dozen soldiers
in their ancient dress, the Commander living in a little box
perched high above the counter, and in the bow was a little
cast-iron cannon; and when we landed for a walk a couple of
those soldiers followed us. But once, when we took a walk
without a guard, in the outskirts of a town, we suddenly
found ourselves in an open space where students were competing with their bows and arrows as a feature in their archaic
examinations, and our appearance was like a red rag to a bull.
A herd instinct supervened, and those students came as one,
with foul abuse, cries of Kill,' and stones. We retired, but
did not run, not from any consideration of our dignity, but
because it was safer to walk with backward rallies against those
vicious students. Our path lay beneath a bluff, with a ravine
on the other side, and from the houses on the bluff were thrown
big stones — double-handed throws. We were hit by smaller
ones, but reached our boat with only minor injuries, and then
I notified the Magistrate that I required redress and would
not leave until I had it, and that I would shortly come to see
him. So he sent his chair and, as a palliating act, his own
huge crimson umbrella. He returned my visit at two a.m.
I was awakened by the braying of the trumpets and then
witnessed the bambooing of two culprits from those houses
on the bluff.
But here at last was the Hsin-lung-tan. There was the scar
where a young mountain-top had tobogganed down a greasy
film that lay between two sloping limestone strata; and thus
formed a groyne of monstrous blocks of stone that reached
two-thirds across the river. In a portion of the gap lay the
smooth tongue of convex water, like a bent fan with the point
down-stream where the water boiled. The law of gravity
seemed to be suspended; the water did not find its level; it
was humped up higher in the middle — irregularly like a piece
of warped veneer. On the left bank for several hundred yards
the water ran up-river with a speed of several knots — four or
five; and between that upward current and the tongue —
caused by the two — there lay the gruesome whirlpool.
The summer previous a concave curve of shore with peaceful
flow of water had lain where now stood that agglomeration of
fallen boulders, and there was a farm or two and cultivation
on the hillside, for here there was no gorge and at high river
its width was half a mile or so. It was later that I learnt from
levels that that summer rise had reached 170 feet, an exceptional
amount of water being held up by the narrow gorge some
distance down. Probably the saturation of the bottom of the
greasy film between the strata had been the trigger that had
launched the slide.
But now a young town had sprung up on that filled-up bay.
A town of mat-sheds; streets of them with a population of
many thousands. The trackers alone ran into thousands, for
a single junk would occupy four hundred to haul it up between
the whirlpool and the groyne. There were shops, theatres,
brothels, opium dens, hotels of sorts, a Prefect's yamen, and
police — a little town, in fact. But like all these trackers' towns
it was a thing of annual birth and growth and death, for at high
river the site was submerged a hundred feet or more.
[click above] — excerpt of an old silent 16mm film ...
Hsin-lung-tan means New Dragon Rapid, and the Prefect,
when he called, explained at once the reason for that name.
In the story of the rapid's origin which followed, he professed
his disbelief; it was that of the ignorant, superstitious junkmen
steeped in the fables of the past; yet to ignore the opinion of
the river population would be, he said, unwise. And so he
told the story.
For untold ages there had been a dragon in the river whose
only food was human corpses, and he had caused the various
rapids as a means to get his sustenance. But of late years,
greater care in navigation, and particularly the lifeboat service,
had robbed him of his rightful meals. So in the deep water of
the gorges on moonlight nights was heard the dragon's wail: —
I have no food, what shall I do?
Hi yeh! Hi yah!
Those things I eat are now too few.
Hi yah! Mei yu fan-chih. (Nothing to eat.)
What shall I do? I'll tell you what.
Hi ych! Hi yah!
I'll drop a mountain in the pot.
Hi yah! Hao to fan-chih. (Plenty to eat.)
That wail was nothing new — for untold years these have
been the words of a junkmen's shanty, and now the thing had
come to pass. Thus the grounds for their belief; but the
junkmen further say, and this is the important point, that with
the thousand bodies he has eaten in the year, the dragon has
grown a fiercer beast than ever; so much so that it will illbrook interference. This rapid is bad enough. Who knows
it better than the men who risk their lives in it? But they say
they would rather have it as it is than risk a worse one made by
the dragon if his food is stopped.
That, in effect, was the story I was told; but with far more
fantasy of detail than I can now remember. The Prefect, I
am sure, believed in it himself, though in deference to a
foreigner's opinion he said it was based on the ignorant superstition of the junkmen.
So through the Prefect I sent a message to the people which
was posted as a Proclamation. I would give the dragon all
consideration; I could not, even if I would, obliterate the
rapid; my orders were to examine and report, though I
had authority to do what might prove possible to render
navigation safer. As to dynamite, it would be used mainly
to break the boulders on the groyne. I would remove that
groyne to low-river level, so that at next high-river the current
would get a chance to scour away some more. On the
right-hand bank, opposite the groyne, I would cut a channel
through the rock that would even out the slope of water and
enable upward junks to track with safety. For downward
junks I could provide no improvement of conditions until next
season, when nature would have added its assistance. Further,
I would do no heavy blasting in the pool below, where the
dragon dwelt, and thus the beast would have no cause for
The people gathered round the Prefect's Proclamation and
discussed it. But an old junk laodah uttered 'Hau,' which
indicated acquiescence and so tipped the scale in active favour
of the work. A few days later the village caught on fire, and
several hundred houses were destroyed, and people rendered
homeless and in distress. This gave an opportunity for a
substantial gift of money, which added to the favourable
auspices for beginning operations.
Then began recruiting; and in a week or so we had two
thousand men, and later more. Mostly they were for mere
coolie-work — carrying stone; the rest were masons and these
were taught rock-drilling. Our blacksmith made the drills
and was kept busy with re-shaping and re-sharpening them;
there were foremen of the coolies and gangers of the stonecutters, each with his distinctive coloured badge — a turban or
an armlet, so that they could be recognized; there were food
contractors for this crowd, and, of course, they tried to cheat
the men, until the Prefect had a culprit publicly bambooed.
Szechuen is a very wealthy province but it produced great
quantities of opium — the white and pink and purple of the
poppy fields was a striking feature of the country — so the coolie
class was opium-ridden, and consequently poor and underfed,
and ophthalmic and scrofulous and lousy; yet they were a
cheery good-natured lot, amenable, industrious and appreciative of decent treatment. Their life must have been one long
and weary itch; but it may be that they thought it worth it for
the pleasure scratching gave them. Where with western
navvies one would give at intervals ten minutes for a smoke,
our routine board showed ten minutes for a scratch. When
the gong beat for that interval, the spread crowd coalesced in
squatting strings like monkeys, each man scratching another's
back; and there was great contentment on their faces.
We lived in our house-boats tied up to the left bank above
the rapid. The Scotsman — a cruiser engineer — was in charge
of rock removal from the groyne. The diver — from whom
diving work was not required — had charge of the making of
the channel on the other shore for upward junks. This merely
meant the cutting of an even slope for a foot or two below lowriver level, so that when the water rose some feet, junks could
pass up in safety where they had never passed before. Near
the centre of the river on the edge of the fall and bordering one
side of the sloping tongue of water was exposed a rock. In
size it was about thirty feet square with a height of some six
feet above low river. I proposed to shatter it as thoroughly
as my means permitted and trust to scour to remove the debris
thus the downward channel would be widened. This work I
made my special task. I was told that no one had ever landed
on the rock, and that work there would be quite impossible
owing to the danger of access to it; but that was because they
did not understand the purpose of an anchor. It is curious
that an anchor is an article unknown among that Upper
Yangtsze traffic; and I blessed my foresight in providing one.
With some difficulty a boatman was persuaded to meet my
needs; we drifted down towards the rock, dropped my heavy
anchor some fifty feet above it — and the fall — in six fathoms;
then another boat, powerfully manned, brought a bamboo
rope, one end of which was fastened to the shore. To drop
down to the rock in a third boat and fix thereto another rope
was now an easy matter; so there we were on that hitherto untrodden rock on the edge of what seemed like a waterfall.
We scaled it down to a foot or so above low-water level and
built a rampart round it to prevent fluctuations of the level
interfering with the work, and then we drilled holes six feet
deep and five apart, which took several weeks to do. We
filled those holes with dynamite — about five hundred pounds
in all — and fitted electric fuses and then wired up, a single
cable leading to the shore, for I used an earth return as in naval
mining. Now there are ways of knowing all about an electric
circuit of this kind; what its resistance is and the amount of
current needed, and lastly a means of testing whether all is right,
so that when the key is pressed one knows for certain the result.
I had this knowledge and the means, but when I made my
tests I found a phenomenal resistance which my current could
not overcome. I racked my brain to find the cause but failed.
A feature of the situation was that great preparations had
been made. Within a circuit of five hundred yards all had
been warned to shelter and the junks had been evacuated; the
local gentry for miles around had come to see the show; my
little world was looking on in expectation, and now I was
confronted with this miserable fiasco.
The unexplained resistance was plainly that due to the
return current by the water, and had there been another length
of cable a double circuit would have met the case; but there
was not. A length of bare wire would have served, but I had
not got that either. So the only way to avoid the great fiasco
was to double the cable between the rock and the boat, and to
press the button in the latter. It happened that there were
some planks available, and with them a small pent-house on
the boat was rapidly arranged to give some shelter.
To fire that charge of five hundred pounds at a distance of
a hundred feet may appear to have been folly. There was
risk, of course, but not as much as most would think. I had
already had an experience, when breaking up a boulder, of a
premature explosion caused by a defective time fuse; I was
within a few feet of it at the time and was not touched. There
is a sort of safety zone within the immediate neighbourhood
the stones fly up and outwards, but not sideways as a rule.
And I judged my boat would be within that safety zone.
Facing the rock I lay beneath that little pent-house with the
key in front of me. I knew that what I was doing was exceptional, that few would risk the confidence in estimated
chances to do this thing for such a reason — to avoid a loss of
face — and the thought exhilarated me. I enjoyed the situation
and lingered to get its savour to the full. I have known what
fear is, as I have told before; but here there was no fear, only
the pleasurable excitement as of cross-country riding, when
one takes an unknown jump.
Let me tell too of a curious matter connected with this affair.
Doubtless many know, but I have never seen it said, that in
certain experiences duration moves with extraordinary slowness. I have seen some heads cut off by Chinese executioners,
and to me the movement of the sword and its passage through
the neck has been just like a slow-motion picture on a cinematograph. And so, when I pressed the button, the minute
fraction of a second that passed before the rock hove up was
most curiously elongated in duration, and the heave itself and
the movement of the flying fragments was a slow-motion
My judgment proved correct; and doubtless there was also
luck, for though small fragments rattled on my shelter the
heavy pieces curved over and beyond me. One of them killed
an old lady in a junk five hundred yards away, who had refused
to leave her cabin.
So that was that; and shortly afterwards I realized my error.
Obsessed by the practice of an earth return in naval mining, I
had overlooked the fact that while sea water is a good conductor
fresh water is a bad one.
It has been said that all my little world was looking on in
expectation, and that what I did was to avoid a loss of face;
but this was much more than a mere personal affair. A failure,
even a temporary one, might have meant a serious loss of
confidence. I had been most uncomfortably embarrassed by
the wondrous powers which rumour gave me. It was said I
had tame ducks trained to dive and place dynamite where
directed, and that I had an instrument which, pointed at a rock,
would pulverize it; so to fail in a simple matter might have
been seriously unfortunate.
The work went on successfully. The channel on the right
bank was cut and used before we left. On the groyne over
two thousand men were working like a lot of ants, and they
cut it down to near low-water level.
In the meantime the dragon put in an appearance. I was
working on the central rock and saw that there was great
excitement on the groyne. When we met — the three of us —
at lunch time the Scotsman said: 'You won't believe what I
am going to tell you, but I have seen that bally dragon.' He
had only seen its head — a monstrous snout some six feet long
with a tubular mouth like a fire-engine suction pipe. Then
my' boy 'appeared and with great excitement told how he had
also seen the beast — and he had seen its tail. I knew the fish
from their description; I had seen them in the market at
Ichang, six feet and more in length. It was said that they
were sturgeon, though they differ from the Amur fish.
I never saw the creature; I watched for hours in vain; but
it appeared occasionally round about the whirlpool for a period
of some weeks. The Chinese swore it was the body-eating
dragon that had caused the rapid; and undoubtedly it must
have been a monster fish. The conclusion that I came to was
that it was not less than thirty feet in length; and sturgeon of
that size are recorded as existing in the Amur river.
Now it is impossible to say what goes on in the mind of an
educated Chinese about an affair like this. Credulity, with
which we are all either gifted or afflicted, is his to a very high
degree. So the Prefect telegraphed to the Viceroy of Szechuen
reporting the advent of the dragon; and the answer, when it
came, was translated to me. It was very long, and in effect it
said: — The Prefect was commended for making the report —
for realizing how important this affair might be. The matter
had been referred to the Literary Chancellor, who had reported
that the archives of the province showed that a similar event
had occurred in olden times; that then a noted sage had laid
down the ceremony to be performed to exorcize the dragon,
and the Literary Chancellor recommended that the same
procedure should be followed now. With this the Provincial
Government concurred and now directed the Prefect as to
the details of the function. The Literary Chancellor was
engaged upon composing a propitiatory prayer, and commissions were being prepared for the Prefect and Mr. Tyler to
act as chief Sacrificers to the dragon. In the meantime no
notice should be taken of it, but as soon as the document arrived
the ceremony should take place.
Then came the extraordinary end to these instructions:
When this ceremony has been performed, the dragon, if it is
a sensible beast, will go down to the sea from whence it came,
but if it does not do so, you are to request Mr. Tyler to take
prompt steps to remove it by Western methods, and the local
militia armed with spears and guns is to be placed at his
disposal for this purpose.'
I rather fear this story. It sounds made up, but actually
its seeming improbabilities were greater than I tell. It is
understated rather than overstated. A commission for a
foreigner to be a Sacrificer was probably unique; but there is
this to be remembered. My appointment, in effect, was from
the Central Government. In the despatches to the Viceroy
my rank and decorations would be mentioned — the Blue
Button, the Peacock's Feather and the Double Dragon. The
cause of the ceremony was the work of which I was in charge
the nature of the ceremony was archaic even from a Chinese
point of view and called for punctilious adherence to an
ancient etiquette; and so I was included. But I did not act
as Sacrificer. There may have been later instructions from the
Viceroy on the subject — I never knew — but the ceremony was
performed without me. In excuse it was explained that I had
been misinformed about the time — for which a messenger was
punished — and it was nominally assumed that my non-appearance was due to unwillingness to act.
It was said that the dragon never came again and that the
sacrifice had been successful; but there may have been another
explanation. The rising river stopped our season's work. Of
our stock of dynamite there remained four hundred pounds
there were objections to either storing it or shipping it, so I
used it for a purpose which, while it might be useful, would
have spectacular effect. I made a mine and buoyed it and let
it drift until it caught below a rocky ledge immediately
above the rapid; then fired it. The great column of water
impressed the people vastly, and the shock of the explosion
impressed, no doubt, the dragon. The explosion being above
the rapid and sheltered by the ledge, the shock would not be
transmitted to the whirlpool with sufficient strength to stun
the monster, though many fish five feet or so in length floated
on the surface.
I had been strongly tempted to fire that mine below the fall
and so kill or stun the beast if it was there. But I had promised
when the work began that I would not do so; and I had also
to think of its continuance next season.