Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 36


Chapter 36. Through Southwest Hunan to Wugang

Jing Xian — news from a German missionary — forests of the Qu Shui gorge — mountains of Suining — opium smuggling — bamboo forests — varnish — Wugang — to Mount Yun Shan (1420m) — superstition temple woodlands — mountain structure and distant views — pilgrims

Limestone reappeared in the valley below Liping, but the crags and pavements were cloaked by luxuriant vegetation; Ficus pumila spread over even the smoothest rock surfaces. Before long the road left the valley and turned north-eastwards over a low saddle into another valley which sloped gradually downwards in the same direction until it reached the Hunan boundary. This was the fourth province of China into which my travels had brought me and, despite my plans, it was to be the last, though I was destined to remain within it longer than I had expected. Once more I had an escort of ten soldiers, as there had been a robbery only the day before, and the official had arranged for them to be relieved at Jingxian. He had also had the road tidied up, though all that his men had done was to hack away the grasses and other vegetation which overhung it, an operation which was most displeasing as it might have destroyed some plants which I would gladly have collected.

The first part of the valley was quite narrow, and for long stretches its low slopes were covered with trees which looked like walnuts. The stands were so pure that they could not have been natural, and they had evidently been planted for the sake of the oil extracted from the fruits. Before reaching Liping I had seen a single specimen of this tree in one of the villages, but here it did in fact seem to be genuinely wild, being scattered through the mixed forests of the valley slopes. These forests were quite luxuriant through oaks were not conspicuous. The pinnate leaves of the unfamiliar tree were smaller and narrower than those of a walnut and its fruits were somewhat angular and had a brown felty covering, though their internal structure was the same. It was not a true walnut but the Chinese hickory Carya cathayensis, a member of an otherwise purely American genus, first discovered in 1912 near Changhua in Zhejiang [note # 176: "This species was discovered by F.N.Meyer in 1915 in the province of Chekiang, China...." (Bean, W.J., Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 8th edition, 1970, Vol.1, Page 515).] Further on the valley broadened and the lower parts of the higher slopes on either side were thickly covered with Cunninghamia trees, though for long stretches the road passed through plantations of tea oil shrubs, a species which also occurred abundantly in the wild state. The bedrock of the low mountains was entirely green clay-slate veined with quartz, gently inclined, but down at the valley bottom there was once more a thin stratum of limestone which had weathered into karst formations. The valley then became flat and sandy. The streams were bordered by large sweetly scented trees, Viburnum odoratissimum and Xylosma racemosai the first had white and the second had yellow flowers, but most of them had faded. At one spot I found the scarlet flowered climber Bignonia chinensis, but the low hills on the approach to Jingxian were covered by sparse heath and steppe vegetation.

Jingxian, where I arrived at noon on 31st July, lay on a river crossed by a pontoon bridge. The houses along the bank were raised on tall piles, as was the inn where I sought accommodation. While I was busy making the largest and best ventilated room habitable by chucking out the straw mats amd killing the enormous bugs that lived beneath them, someone told me that there was a German missionary living in the town. I already knew that there were some fellow countrymen in Hunan, but to meet one in the very first town was more than I had dreamt of. I dashed off to visit him at once, hoping to get the latest news of the war and the situation in China. He was Herr Arendt, a German of Russian extraction. He and his wife were astonished and delighted at the unexpected arrival of a compatriot and immediately invited me to be their guest.

[p.155:] Nothing could have given me greater pleasure than that stay in their spotlessly clean house. My only regret was that it was so brief, for next morning I had to set out once more. During my travels I had enjoyed clean accommodation in American households and in the home of an English missionary in Guiyang to whom I paid a short visit, but this was a German family, and it was a joy to converse in our mother tongue without needing to struggle with a foreign language. Riga had fallen, [note # 177: Handel-Mazzetti's memory appears to be at fault here. It was not until the beginning of September 1917 that the Germans captured Riga from tne Russians 'by a surprise attack.] and there was no prospect of any further worsening in the relations betveen China and Germany. The official who called on us voiced the same opinion. Could any-thirg have done more to lighten my gloomy spirits? The official, a man from Southern China, was extremely pro-German and had nothing but harsh woids for the Beijing government's decision to break off relations with Germany. He was wearing an embroidered coat of loosely woven black silk; from there onwards all the officials whom I visited wore similar coats — yet another difference between East and West China. Herr Arendt gave me some more tinned food and the latest newspapers from Hankou to take with me, and it was with a blithe heart that I mounted my steed next morning — not quite as earty as I had planned — and rode off, he leading me for some distance, after a delightful but all too short stay in his house.

After crossing a small ridge the road soon came to he main river (the Qu Shui) and followed it for sone distance upstream. Some fine woodland survived in the warm humid gorge, and during the lurch halt at a village called Moshi I investigated it more closely. It differed considerably from the forests on the Du Jiang. Besides certain widely distributed species such as Castanopsis hystrix, Fraxinus retusa and Acer davidii, there was a new species of Hibiscus of tree-like proportions (H. saltuaria) together with Mallotus apelta and Elaeo-carpus lanceifolia, which belongs to the small family Elasocarpaceae and has numerous spreading flower spikes which drop their pointed white petals and their stamens on the slightest knock. Among others was ffelicia cochinchinensis, also having cylindrical spiles of scented white flowers with the tip of each petal rolled back in a spiral. Pterostyrax corymbosa was the most distinctive tree. Alangium faberi, the only semi-woody plant in an otherwise woody genus, was putting forth its greenish flowers. Spreading on wet rocks beneath the trees was Saxifraga samentosa with its threadlike runners; Begonia lipmgensis was flowering and the fern Trichomanes par/ulutn formed dense low-growing cushions resembling those of certain mosses which grow near springs (Philonotis). Mucomitrium quercicola, a moss first found in Yunnan growing on oaks, flourished here on drier clay-slate rock faces where it fomed large cushions. Their thicker central parts were fruiting and at their edges they were spreading outvards by means of tufted branching creeping shoots. The edge of the flood-water zone was marked by a large fern (Diplazium esculentum) with deeply dissected bright green fronds broadly triangular in outline and over a metre tall. Flowering in a few places in the same zone was a beautiful shrub (Lagerstroemia indica). The most interesting, though perhaps not the most striking plant was a climber with perfumed flowers sulphur yellow in colour. It was Mappianthus iodoides, and represented a new genus.

In some places we had to clear the path with my ice axe, as the flood-waters had washed it away, causing landslides and covering the rice fields with mud. We crossed a bridge over the river and climbed up a mountain closely resembling the one between Rongjiang and Liping, and of the same height It had a luxuriant mantle of forest and bushes consisting of rhododendrons, Quercus variabilis and, less abundantly, Q. glandulifera together with other broad-leaved trees and numerous pines. Not until the next day did we descend to the little town of Suining. On the third day, travelling through numerous tea oil plantations in intermittent rain, we reached Yazuo, a town situated near a larger river which debouched into the Yuan Jiang at the major commercial city of Hongjiang. I had just reminded Lao Li that his favourite vice of opium smoking was strictly forbidden in Hunan, and that some addicts had recently been beheaded. That evening, nevertheless, the sweetish fumes of opium came drifting up into my room in the loft, and through a crack in the floorboards I saw his lamp. As soon as I called out, demanding to know who was smoking opium just beneath me, it was immediately blown out I did not want endless strife with Lao Li, yet I had no inkling that he and the head caravanman had conspired to exploit the journey for large-scale opium trading. After we arrived at Changsha the latter disappeared with all the profits. Having returned to Kunming, Lao Li confronted him and claimed his own share, but the authorities got wind of the business and put them both in prison.

The track, in some stretches extremely narrow and rocky, continued along the river, which was bordered here and there by splendid woodland. One of the pack animals crashed down into the bushes and was rescued only after some difficulty. Another put a hoof through the edge of the track and fell into a rice field several metres below; however, it remained upright with its load still on its back and walked out of the field quite unperturbed. At Shijia-ping we crossed by a ferry. On the far side was a cliff, its picturesque appeal heightened by a little temple, but the track was so steep that the men had to carry the loads. The route then quitted the river valley and turned again to the east We were now in a land where bamboo was used for every conceivable purpose. After being floated down the mountain streams, the bundles of culms were crudely fastened together and a little hut was built on top for the boatmen whose task it was to ferry them across the Dongting lake as far as Hankou. The hillsides were clothed by a bright green mantle made up of the abundantly branching crowns of bamboo up to 10 m tall, all bowing uniformly in the same direction, borne on stems about 15 cm in diameter. Though there can be little or no doubt that this species [p.156:] (Phyllostachys puberula) grows wild in that district, the stands in their present form owe their appearance to selection by human hands, if not to actual planting. The densely interlacing network of roots, intolerant of incursions by other plants, and the litter of fallen leaves and sheaths which blankets the ground also serve to ensure the maintenance of unmixed stands. After finding our way round a landslide, we had to hack a path through the bamboo, finally emerging on to a little saddle where we halted for lunch. Varnish was tapped from a sumach (Rhus vemiciflua) which was grown there, though it also occurs in the wild. Every second year the woodmen made oblique cuts in the bark and collected the sap in mussel shells fixed beneath them. So as to enable them to climb up into the crowns they had lashed poles between them to bridge the trees together. [note # 178: See Wilson, E.H. A Naturalist in Western China, Vol. II, p.68, and illustration opposite p.70.]

Yet again there were new and interesting finds when we reached the same altitude as on the previous day. We were between the higher parts of a mountain ridge still composed of the same clay-slate, but here with a steep dip. Oethra pinfaensis, a small slender tree, was common there; its flowers, coloured by a covering of ochre yellow felt, were borne on long, almost horizontal spikes spreading like fingers above the tufts of leaves at the ends of the twigs. Another find was Sargentodoxa cuneata, a large creeper like the wild vine with red bordered leaves in threes and hanging bunches of black berries with a blue bloom carried on swollen fleshy stalks suffused with purple. It belongs to the Lardizabalaceae, a family related to the barberries (Berberis). Owing to the delays en route I was unable to travel as far as I had hoped; dusk was falling as we reached the rim of the Wugang valley and halted for the night in Pukai. Next day we passed through a small group of limestone hills on which I found Camptotheca acuminata (Rubiaceae), a tree with conspicuous, glossy leaves and white and pink flowers in large spheroidal heads, finally reaching the valley floor and following it north-eastwards. Here and there were solitary Liquidambar trees, some of them as large as any in the country, with Ficus pumila climbing up to the very tips of their wide, spreading branches. The large figs, though they look appetising, are inedible, being filled with a dry woolly mass which is used as a medicine. On our right was the Yun Shan, a higher mountain than the hills we had just crossed. Arendt had told me that the Wugang missionaries had a summer residence in a splendid forest up there. This seemed to offer an excellent opportunity for studying the mountain flora of the district Arriving late that evening in Wugang, I chanced to meet one of the missionaries, Herr R. Paul, who was down there as it was a Sunday.

Next morning we set off together, Herr Paul in a carrying chair as far as the foot of the mountain some 7 km distant, and I riding my mule. From the Banshan Miao temple the track ascended gradually at first along the western side of a small valley to the second temple, San Li An, and then ran almost horizontally along the slope until it reached the stream. Large sulphur-yellow flowers, borne in rsws on long trailing shoots, adorned the hillside. They belonged to Momordica meloniflora, a new species, and they had a remarkable structure. The male flowers, each enveloped within a pale papery to act, have large saccate nectaries covered by a lid, and short thick curved filaments, black and gleaming as if varnished; the female flowers are somewhat smaller, and the ovaries later develop into oiroid thorny fruits 15 cm long. The stream tumbled down in waterfalls which must have been quite impressive in wet weather, and the track climbed beside it up steep slippery stone steps. The hillsides had leen clear felled and the air confined between them was still and sultry. Not until we reached the Wu Li An temple at 850 m did virgin forest appear. It filled two steep-sided channels which united behind the temple, and it clothed the ridges between therr. It consisted mainly of evergreen trees, and their (lark circular crowns formed a closed canopy casting deep shade on the ground 15-20 m below them. Even the steepest slopes and crests were covered; indeed, there was not a single patch of level ground on the Yun Shan.

The track climbed in zigzags ever more steeply upwards, the stream leaping over the rocks beside it and plunging into the depths beneath. Rising out of its foam were the green sword-shaped leaves of a low growing sweet flag (Acotvs tatarinowii), which rooted in the fissures and carpeted the rocks. Newly all the trees had finished flowering, but mosl of them were species which I had not previously collected and I was glad to have them whatever their phase of development At 1190 m, in a hollow partly deforested for growing beans, was the large temple of Guanyin Ge, a place of pilgrimage. Next to it was a small temple (Shengli Si) which had become deconsecrated in Chinese eyes owing to the death of a priest, and had been rented by the missionaries, who had built a wooden house with six rooms nearby. Ten adults and ten children spent the simmer there, at an average temperature 8 C cooler lhan that of Wugang, the difference in altitude being 823 m.

That evening I visited the upper part of the forest The trees were not so tall and there was much young growth with slender trunks. Many of them belonged to the Qjpuliferae, including a beech (Fagus longipetiolata). Next day I went back to re-examine the stretch I had already traversed, and the results were so encouraging that I decided to prolong my stay by two days. The shrub meadows, which occupied all the terrain outside the forests, wen: in full flower. Most of the shrubs were Legumincsae with red blossoms. Rising above the grasses and sedges were tall herbaceous perennials; although not outstandingly beautiful, some of them were of striking colours. There were bellflowers in blue (Adenophora, Platycodon), Eupatorium lindleyanum in violet, thistles, louseworts and Anemone japoirica in red, yellow lettuces, yellow and white valerians (Patrinia scabiosifolia and P. villosa), Lysimaihia clethroides with broad white spikes, Aster sea her, Artemisia anomala with entire leaves, and others In the hollows the grass grew so high that a man standing in it was completely hidden. The highest [p.157:] sumnit (1420 m) [note # 179: 4520 ft (1378 m) on ONC H-11.] projected some distance south-eastvards. The mountain sloped down with equal steepness on all sides, and all its crests were narrow green knife edges. Towards the south was a basin 50kn across, filled with low hummocky limestone hills, stretching as far as Xinning. The exposed edges of tie stratified rocks sloped down into an almost contnuous shallow trench which separated the basin from the distant mountain range. That range formed a semicircle facing northeast, like the rim of a dish, one end of it being the Yun Shan. The mountain on which we stood was built of clay-slate, and the rang to the southwest probably consisted mainly of the same rock, though near Xinning I encountered grarite derived from that on the Guangxi border. On the morning of my departure I made another brief visit to the mountain. The change of the moon had broight splendidly clear weather in place of the previous rain, and I enjoyed long-ranging views. Eastwards the prospect stretched over the basin as far is the Long Shan beyond Shaoyang, northwards to the mountains in the vicinity of Xinhua; to the northwest was the Wugang valley, apparently a geobgical fault which recapitulated the structure of the Yun Shan, and beyond the valley was a mountain range with a few distant peaks peeping over it Far away to the west yet more mountains were visible, but I was unable to ascertain their position. I made several other excursions, notably one along the eastern part of the valley up to the tree line In many spots there were large stands of tall perennials up to 1.5 m in height, which brought back vivid memories of similar plant communities in the Yuman mountains. Among them were Saussurea codifolia, Strobilanthes pentastemonoides, Asystasia chiiensis, Cacalia leueanthema, Ligularia veitchii or-umwith giant leaves like those of our butterbur, and Eufatorium reeves/ with numerous branching stems. Growing at the margins of grassy clearings was Boehmeria nivea, known as ramie or China grass, a species of nettle with leaves snow white beneath, fron which the Chinese produce a fibre which they call bai ma (white hemp). Another trip took me dovn through the eastern part of the ascending valey system. There I found Sorbus caloneura growing epiphytically high up on the trunk of a cherry tree. It formed a broad shrub with divergent branches, some almost hanging downwards, and had several thick roots running down the tree trunk and closely pressed against it. It reminded me of a similar species I had seen in the Nu Jiang valley. The descent through the steep-sided channel was totdly pathless and somewhat troublesome. The slope grew steeper and steeper as I went down, and in some places I slid down on large masses of scree. Th; forest was so dense that I could see nothing ouside it and the channel seemed to be leading me tovards Wugang. Despite the advice of one of the missionaries who had attempted the descent, I had an uneasy feeling that I was going to emerge far from the spot at which I had aimed and would have to climb all the way up the mountain again. However,

the channel changed its direction and after scrambling up some slippery rocks beside a waterfall, I finally reached the temple track above Wu Li An.

One event during my stay was the birthday of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, the principal feast day of the Yun Shan. Bands of pilgrims came from far and wide, wearing red smocks studded with little plates of gleaming golden colour, swords buckled round their waists, some carrying little footstools on which they knelt down after every few paces and bowed down to the ground. The missionaries used this as an opportunity to send out their Chinese converts to sell their literature, although the treaties are supposed to forbid religious propaganda at places of pilgrimage. However, on the mountain there was a place of sacrifice known as the Belvedere, the only spot at the level of the temple which offered distant views unobscured by the forest The elderly Chinese priest who was in charge of the ceremonies said to the pilgrims:

"These books are evil. You ought not to read them; indeed, you must burn them. I have a fire ready here; throw them straight hi".

When taken to task by the missionaries he was ready with an apt reply: "If we journeyed to Germany and ate your rice, you would certainly not allow us to lure away your people from their faith". In fact, fanaticism is totally foreign to the Buddhist ideal, and the old priest was perfectly correct What would be our reaction if a Buddhist priest were to preach his doctrines at one of our places of pilgrimage! The treaties which oblige the Chinese to tolerate the missionaries' activities were imposed by force of arms, and their object was not to spread Christianity but to further European influence. There are more missionaries in China than there are Europeans in all other occupations together. First comes the missionary, then the businessman, and then the consul. None of this does anything to raise the level of civilisation among the Chinese. Their ancient culture — which according to Richthofen is in no sense their own, but adopted from elsewhere [note # 180: A totally discredited theory now (SGH)..]— tends to perpetuate conceit and obscurantism, and our modern civilisation seldom penetrates beneath the outer veneer. Not far from Wugang there was a good example. At spots where the road divided were large groups of stones, up to twenty-five of them side by side. Though apparently marking the route, that was not their real purpose. In fact there was a prophecy which foretold that a certain child was destined to live in danger from an arrow until reaching such and such an age. The worried father therefore erected stones at all the nearby forks in the road, each stone bearing the inscription: "This is the road to X. The arrow is respectfully requested to take the other road." Such thinking can persist only in a society where the concepts of science are totally alien. As late as 1917 Chinese newspapers were still carrying stories of dragons a kilometre long, telling how they killed people by their breath at a range of up to two kilometres.

[p.158:] On returning from the Yun Shan I found to annoyance that my horse, which had had a splendid tail reaching down to the ground, had lost half of it. The grooms told me that a crowd of children had entered the temple courtyard where the horses were my standing and had plucked out the hairs from his tail; yet they were such idiots that the idea of stopping the children had not entered their heads.

[chapter 37:]