Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 37


Chapter 37. To Changsha via Xinning and Yongzhou (Lingling)

Summer heat and its effects — film — aquatic flora — China declares war and I break off my journey — attempted poisoning ? — Hengyang — a journey by river steamer — mishaps — outbreak of civil war — the captain murdered — baggage examination

On leaving Wugang I turned my steps towards Xinning, 40 km to the south-southeast. On the way I was overtaken by a messenger bringing a specimen tube of insects which I had left behind on the mountain. He also carried a letter from L. Jensen, one of the missionaries, with the news that the Beijing government had decided to declare war on Germany. I called on the Xinning missionaries at their country residence, but as it was near the town and at no great altitude its surroundings did not offer anything of botanical interest. They told me that the Guangzhou government had previously let it be known that if Beijing declared war on Germany they would declare war on Beijing. The uncertainty regarding the political situation and its consequences for me took the edge off my enthusiasm for work, and the heat was equally dispiriting. The sun blazed mercilessly down from a cloudless deep blue sky. There was not a breath of wind, nothing more than the heat haze shimmering above the rice fields, which now, as the grain was starting to ripen, emitted a peculiar odour resembling that of iodo-form. The blue sky was mirrored in the rivers. Seen from slightly elevated spots the landscape presented a medley of colour. Every pond and stream was edged with vivid green turf; steep outcrops of red rock were dotted here and there, and between them were water meadows where the principal trees were weeping willows and Pterocarya stenoptera with its whitish trunks and broad light green crowns. Whitewashed farmsteads with coloured paintwork and carvings enlivened the scenery, and wooden houses contributed touches of brown. Small patches of woodland survived on the hilltops; though not extensive, they consisted mainly of tall trees, and stood out like tufts of hair on a man's head. Camphor trees were frequent among them, and it was in one of these little woods that I found a fine hornbeam, Caipinus handelii rehd., which was the first plant to be identified as a new species when my material from China came to be worked out at home. The route now ran across limestone; the terrain once more became barren and stony, and the sun's heat seemed even more intense. Man and beast suffering alike, we trudged listlessly onwards, I supporting myself by holding on to my pony, which had developed sores in several places in consequence of the persistent wet weather and the subsequent heat At one halt I told the mafu not to let the pony wallow in the mud, but he carried out my order by tying it to a tree with its head so high off the ground that it could not reach down to feed. That was the only occasion on my travels on which I was unable

to refrain from violence. Once or twice a tiny cloud would cover the sun for half a minute, and the men would breathe with audible relief. The thermometer rose to 38°C. In Mesopotamia I had endured temperatures 10° higher without experiencing such exhaustion, but there the air had been dry, the relative humidity being only 8%, while here it was still 30%. The skin eruption known as "red dog" (prickly heat) — unpleasant though not dangerous — is caused by hindrance to the evaporation of sweat. The Chinese employ their barbers to pinch the skin of the forehead and back until it turns blue, presumably with the purpose of diverting excess of blood from the brain.

As we progressed the mountain on our right came closer to the Xinning river. After two days' march we darned away from the latter into a side valley and crossed a low pass over a line of sandstone hills, reaching the district centre of Dongan on the fourth day. That night there was a violent storm which filled the streams but brought little respite from the heat The road continued across bare karst terrain, but here it was gay with brightly coloured blossoms. Lycoris aurea and Lradiata had put up leafless stems with umbels of flowers not unlike our Turk's cap lilies, the first being egg-yolk yellow and the second scarlet. The shrubs included Lagerstroem-ia indica, now studded with large pink blooms, and Vitex negundo carrying panicles of violet flowers. Separated from the karst ridge by a channel cut in the softer grey sandstone, a westward-facing line of limestone bluffs ran NNE to SSW, emerging from beneath layers of soft stratified rock worn smooth by erosion.

Shishi Si, the next place of any size, had been raided by bandits that spring and partially burnt down. Some of the larger villages in Hunan were built along streams, the houses carried out on piles above the water. This style of construction was also to be seen in Changsha. The latrines, always a major consideration to the Chinese, were placed above huge open wooden tubs arranged hi lines at every exit from each village, so that whatever the direction of the wind the stench pervaded the whole place. Most of the rooms in the inns were fairly large, very dark and hence tolerably cool. Although the Hunan-ese people were personally clean — in summer even the coolies washed themselves all over in hot water every evening, large wooden basins being provided for that purpose — they found nothing objectionable in having a large wooden urine bucket in every room, and in leaving it unemptied for at least a week. When I told them to take it away, they were [p.159:] The next day's journey (18th August) provided a sample of Hunan's superb aquatic flora. Every pond was now a blaze of colour. Except in places where they were shaded by the large shield-shaped leaves of the lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), the waters were crowded with Euryale ferox, a water lily with puckered, spiny, dark reddish-green leaves almost as large as those of the lotus and carmine flowers which remained almost unopened within their thorny calyx and projected only just above the surface of the water. A small white water chestnut, Trapa maximowiczii, was extremely frequent, as was Trapella chinensis, similar in appearance but belonging to a different family (Pedaliaceae), a plant with splendid pink flowers held high on slender stalks. Equally common were Nymphoides (Limnanthem-um) peltate with deep yellow flowers, Utnculana (more than one species), the white frogbit (Hydro-charis morsus-rana& and Hodez, the tall Jussiaea repens carried its striking yellow flowers in rows along its long floating stems between tufts of white aerating roots. Much rarer were Nuphar sinense (a new species) and Castalia tetragona (small yellow and white waterlilies), and the dainty white Nymphoides Mica, none of which I found until I was nearing Changsha. Other aquatic plants which I had previously met in the rice fields of Yunnan, notably Azolla pinnate, were also to be seen here. That afternoon I arrived at Yongzhou, a large town now known by its old name of Lingling.[note # : Both names are still in use, Lingling as the name of the Xian [county], Yongzhou as the name of the shi [municipality] (SGH).]

I wanted to halt there for a short rest and to despatch the plants which I had collected and dried. During my stay in Xinning — though at the time I had been visiting the missionaries outside the town — the district official and the military commander had wanted to call on me, and said that I had been specially recommended by the Beijing authorities. On arriving in Yongzhou I was therefore surprised not to find any message from the legation, and when the clerks in the telegraph office refused to accept telegrams from Germans or Austrians I at once scented trouble. Nevertheless, I showed no sign of my concern and made preparations for resuming my journey, the next objective being Chenzhou. However, a brisk attack of malaria obliged me to prolong my stay, and a day or two later an official of magistrate's rank came and told me, without giving any reasons, that I must depart immediately to Changsha. I had a pretty clear idea what it was all about, but said I was unwilling to accept that he could send me off wherever he wanted without stating the reason. However, further enquiries confirmed that China had declared war on Germany and Austria on 14th August. China? No, merely the prime minister and a small group of supporters, after parliament — which had been wholly opposed to the decision — had been dissolved by force. No one could have behaved more correctly than our ambassador, who pointed out to the President the illegality of his action and commented that the declaration of war was the decision of a party and not that of a people, and that according to law it had to be confirmed by parliament. If only we in Austria had abided by such principles, the world would be a happier place today!

I accordingly departed from Lingling (Yongzhou) on the afternoon of 23rd August with an escort of eight soldiers. Barely a week later, in consequence of the dissolution of parliament by the militarists in Beijing, the town was destined to become the starting point of a new civil war, which during the next three and a half years was to bring untold misery to the prosperous province of Hunan. I followed the main road to Hengyang. At the first place where we stopped for the night I was served with tea which had been purchased at the inn, but I rejected it, suspecting that I smelt prussic acid. The Chinese are masters of the art of poisoning; while not wishing to claim that it was an attempt on my life, I believe that some of the men — my caravan leader for instance — would have been capable of such an attempt if they had believed that I was now, as an enemy alien, outside the protection of the law. The terrain became flatter and less interesting; far away to the right I saw the mountain ranges which I had intended to visit before my plans were disrupted. Beyond Qiyang we crossed the Xiongbei Ling, a chain of bamboo-covered hills some 300 m high. On the third evening the noncommissioned officer in command of the escort told me that ten li further on was the residence of a German missionary, and said that one week previously he (the NCO!) had ordered him to leave his house and move to Changsha, so that next day he would have to travel with us. The next morning I rode on ahead, met the missionary, Herr Riedel and his wife, at the village of Huangdupu, and gratefully accepted their kind invitation to spend the day with them, although their house was merely a wretched shack, since in the unremitting heat I was still feeling far from well. The NCO grumbled at the delay, but I took pleasure in his annoyance since the tale he had told me had proved to be sheer lies. On 27th August, after travelling through rice fields bearing the second crop of the year, I arrived at the large town of Hengyang.

As the German missionary was still on summer holiday on Mount Nanyue [note # 182: This is Heng Shan, the Southern Sacred Peak (Nanyue) of China (SGH).], another famous place of pilgrimage, I took a room in a somewhat better-class Chinese inn. The local official pressed me to travel on to Changsha, but I first sent a messenger there with a letter to the consulate, as I was vaguely considering the possibility of returning to Yunnan and wanted to know whether I should have to sell my horses here, where I could find accommodation in Changsha and, in general terms how the declaration of war was likely to affect me. As boat traffic on the river was already impeded by the low water level, my messenger's return was delayed, and the answer — explaining all the arrangements in the most detailed and helpful manner — failed to reach me. In the meantime the official himself came to visit me, [p.160:] but his efforts to make me move on roused my annoyance and when Herr Breton returned from his summer holiday I moved into his residence, although the official had declared that I was under internment in the inn. I enjoyed a few agreeable days as Breton's guest, his house offering some shelter from the constant heat — the temperature was 40°.

Hengyang was the most impressive town which I had so far seen in China, the tall, richly decorated houses being especially striking. One amusing note was provided by a shoemaker's signboard, in English, hung up across the main street upside down. The roofs were made from bundles of bamboo with mats laid over them; although they shaded the streets from the sun, they also prevented noxious vapours from dispersing. Among the main sources of stench were the enormous urine buckets, standing uncovered in the middle of the streets and invariably leaky; a scientist is certainly not prudish, but anyone who sees this trade being carried on cannot but feel disgust At that time of year all the coolies in the streets went naked to the waist, as did the shopkeepers in their shops.

Owing to the drought the water level in the river was sinking rapidly, and there were fears that steamship traffic would very soon be suspended. I felt disinclined for further overland travel in that climate, which I had already got to know all too well, and therefore hired one half of a junk, one of three being towed by a steamboat. For this I paid $16, of which $3 vanished into the pocket of an official of the steamship company and $1 was surreptitiously appropriated by the NCO in charge of the escort. We embarked on 3rd September and steamed down the Xiang Jiang with great difficulty, as the channel was almost blocked by sandbanks. Every few hours the ship ran aground, often remaining fast for many hours. The three junks which it had been towing were then cast off and waited further downstream, while the tiny steamer, after various pushing and pulling manoeuvres, was finally freed by the efforts of the crew, who jumped backwards and forwards on the roof. As we were usually unable to travel at night, the journey took three days instead of one and a half. On the first evening the captain wanted to stop and send for female company from a nearby village; only after loud shouts of indignation at the delay did he agree to proceed. At one point some soldiers approached us in a boat and fired two shots across our bows. They made the ship stop and wanted to send us back to Hengshan. This was apparently the first hint of the coming unrest, for we now heard that the southern province had lodged a protest against Fu Liangzuo, the dujun appointed by Beijing to govern Hunan, and that the Hunan troops had refused to obey his orders and had withdrawn into the interior. I sent the soldiers my card and explained that I was under orders from the authorities to proceed to Changsha. The soldiers then let the ship pass, though not without compelling the caplain to fork out a few dollars.

"You still don't understand the Chinese," said my servant, "all they want is to extort money."

Once again the ship ran aground. As the junks floated downstream, the captain declared that he could go no further; the engine had broken down and he, a native of Jiangxi, had never been liere before and did not know the sandbanks. This provoked an outburst of rage from the passengers, who were already incensed at being charged five times the usual fare. For a few moments I saw a foresi of clenched fists and heard their angry shouts; then the junk drifted round a bend and the grimy steams tup was hidden from view. We landed and waited for a long time. I wanted the crew to row my junk down the river; in that way we could have reached Changsha sooner or later, ..and if the steamship did actually overtake us we could have picked up the tow tope again. However, the owner of the junk said thai he had received only a small advance and that the captain would have to pay him in full before he could proceed. I therefore sent one of the solders from my escort to fetch the captain so that the matter could be settled. While we were waiting a small boat with three passengers came past They told us that the captain had been killed because of his refusal to proceed, and the soldiers, returning shortly afterwards, confirmed their story. Nevertheless, the steamship soon reappeared and took us in tow once more. The rest of the journey to Changsha was completed without any long delays. A north wind had sprung up and the last night of the trip was quite cool. In the early morning mist the smoking chimneys of the factories on the southern outskirts seemed hostile and unwelcoming. After proceeding a little further the ship stopped before reaching the centre of the city and tied up opposite the villas on the willow-covered island of Nirtou Zhou.

Knowing nothing of local circumstances I moved into a Chinese hotel, intending to call upon my compatriots and seek accommodation. This I found with the Wollheim family, in whose house I enjoyed the warmest hospitality. That afternoon my baggage was examined by officials of the "Supervisory Commission for Enemy Nationals". Though I expected to have to surrender my revolver, I managed to retain it I placed it on a table, covered by my tropical helmet, and told the officer from the consulate, who was present during the baggage examination, that the weapon was there. At these words the English-speaking official from the supervisory commission seemed to cast curious glances in that direction but did not presume to ask questions or look under the helmet; subsequently I learned that he understood German quite well. For half a day's stay and a luncheon which I had not taken the hotel presented me with a bill for $6, including $1 for moving in and $1 for moving out, and I was unable to beat them down below half the sum demanded.

[chapter 38:]