Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti: [A Botanical Pioneer In South West China] - chapter 38


PARTY 1918 Work and Travels in Hunan

Chapter 38. Changsha

Warfare and pillage — extortion — Yuelu Shan, its evergreen forest and its gorges — bills and laterite terrain — afforestation — spring flowers of the shrub steppe — friendliness towards foreigners

Chiefly because of lack of funds but also because of reassuring reports on the climate, I decided to remain in Changsha. Herr R. Janssen kindly offered me a pleasant apartment in the consulate building, near the Liuyangmen gate on the eastern side of the town. In Changsha there was a printer who produced quite decent labels for my plants, and I was fully occupied throughout the winter in sorting out my collections. The hot weather continued until the end of September, and from then on the winter was fine and dry. As in Kunming, snow lay for only a few days.

There was plenty of excitement in Changsha. The whole of the south had declared war on the north and Hunan was the scene of the fighting. Troops from the north passed continually dirough Changsha until suddenly the counterstroke came. In heavy fighting the northerners were defeated, first at Hengshan and finally at Xiangtan. Fu Liangzuo fled one night from Changsha, taking with him $540,000 which he should have used to pay his soldiers. They came streaming back in total disarray, in overcrowded trains and steamships, or on foot along the railway and on every road and path, abandoning their equipment as they went The British kept a ship in reserve to evacuate neutrals and Allied personnel, as the soldiers had threatened to plunder Changsha if they were not paid. The southerners pressed on in hot pursuit, capturing a thousand prisoners at the southern end of the town; the estimate of ten thousand for the total number of prisoners taken during their advance is probably no exaggeration. From 20th November onwards the southern troops began to appear; most of them, like the northerners, came straggling along singly and entered the town just as they happened to arrive. They carried their booty with them; I saw some fellows witii a dozen bayonets in their belts; one soldier walked through the streets without head covering or rifle but with a bayonet in one hand and its sheath in the other, while another man had a clock hung round his neck. Horses could be bought for as little as sixteen paper dollars. A few days later they fired off all their ammunition in a feu de joie in the town, though later they were to need it very badly. I felt somewhat uneasy on venturing out into the streets, but in fact there was no disorder and no damage to civilian property. The police, who had formerly been in the service of the northern government, decided at the last moment to demonstrate their new-found loyalty to the southern cause, which they did by shooting down northern soldiers who had surrendered their arms and were attempting to give themselves up. One policeman fired his entire reserve of fifty cartridges before finally hitting a single soldier, and then bore off the dead man's bayonet as a trophy. In Linguandu another man discharged a volley blindly along the street, killing several Chinese civilians just in front of the German residents' houses; not a single soldier had been present However, such behaviour did not prevent the southerners from dismissing the entire police force and replacing them with soldiers. The southern troops advanced as far as Puqi on the Yangzi Jiang [note # 183: Puqi in Hubei province is actually just south of the Yangzi, on a tributary of the great river (SGH).] and remained there for some time. Troops from Yunnan, reinforced by robber bands enlisted as mercenaries, fought their way as far as central Hubei ("Hupeh"). The people of the south — their soldiers and the general population alike — were bitterly hostile towards the northern invaders, though the latter claimed to have come to liberate Hunan. That the hearts and other organs of enemies slain in battle were roasted and eaten is a well attested fact, yet when the Chinese declared war on us they claimed that they did so "because of our contraventions of international law".

At the beginning of March 1918 came the counterattack. The soldiers had not been paid, and when the northerners beckoned them with bright shining dollars that was apparently sufficient to induce half the southern troops at Puqi to defect to them. Nevertheless, none of the southerners dared to go any further until the commander of one contingent Colonel Chang Qinyao, promised to give them a free hand to loot the next town, Pingjiang. The town, including the American mission buildings, was then totally ransacked, and the Spanish Catholic priest wounded by a bullet The southern troops poured back through Changsha, while the last of them — Changsha men themselves — reinforced by riffraff from the town spent an afternoon and the following night looting the shops and offices in the main streets of the town. The mint was thoroughly ransacked, its own officials allegedly sharing enthusiastically in the looting, and set on fire three times. The yamen was also set alight. The civil population left the town in long columns, well dressed people carrying their belongings on their shoulders while others conveyed them on wheelbarrows, a means of transport widely used in those parts. The fields were left unfilled and the commercial quarter of the town was a scene of desolation. The shops were shut, and the streets were littered with shattered glass, broken shutters, scraps of paper and other debris thrown aside by the looters in their search for gold and silver, silk and other fabrics, and shoes. Here and there, hung up or stuck on a spike, was the severed head of a straggler who had been caught in the act of looting. Vigilantes from the town militia patrolled the streets in large detachments. A few days later the northern troops entered the town. Although they [p.162:] committed no major atrocities, the people suffered grievously at their hands. The towns of Zhuzhou and Liling fared even worse; they were completely burnt down and their people, apart from those who had already fled, were massacred.

Chang Qinyao now became dujun of Hunan. He was a master of the art of extortion and used his skill to suck the province dry. Slowly but steadily nearly all the silver coinage disappeared into his personal account in a foreign bank, and when the silver had gone he started on the copper. The paper currency dropped from 1400 cash to the dollar, falling as low as 16,000 cash. The details of how this was done fall outside the scope of a travel book, as perhaps do some of the events outlined above, but I have chosen to describe them because they governed the conditions under which I had to exist I do not propose to recount the tactical manoeuvrings of the Chinese forces, as such matters are utterly repugnant to me. For the most part they engaged in flanking movements so as to avoid actual fighting as far as possible. Major battles, when they were eventually fought, usually resulted in one soldier wounded, a few civilians killed and several villages looted. The northern authorities were interested solely in empty successes of that kind, and did nothing to enforce effective rule. In Changsha, formerly reputed to be the cleanest city in China, piles of rubbish now spread right across the streets. The tall, well equipped buildings of the commercial district still presented an imposing exterior in the glare of the electric lighting, but it was some time before they were restocked and reopened. The streets swarmed with soldiers. Though their accoutrements were modern — some even had riot shields — they were dirty, slovenly and loutish in their behaviour. The mood and atmosphere of wartime prevailed throughout the city.

None of this hindered my botanical collecting. Changsha proved to be an excellent place for the purpose, not because its flora was unusually rich — it was of a type widely distributed in Eastern China with numerous admixtures from the south — but because it was totally different from those of the areas which I had previously traversed and hence provided an almost entirely new assortment of plants, and because hardly any botanical collectors had previously worked in Hunan. The richest locale was the Yuelu Shan, a 300 m hill opposite the city. Growing on it was the only natural woodland in the district, a temple forest which covered a surprisingly large area and which had evidently enjoyed total protection from time immemorial. During the winter, even under the short-lived cover of hoar frost and snow, there were three species of Symplocos in flower, together with the evergreen trees (Quencus glauca, Castanopsis tibetana and C sclerophytta) which made up the bulk of the forest All their trunks were clothed with mosses closely pressed against the bark (Homalia targioniania, Hypnum yokohama^) together with innumerable lichens. They provided plenty of work for me, even in winter, and it was time well spent for among the mosses on that mountain there were no fewer than seven new species. Herbaceous plants began to flower in March and April, and though there were only a few in the evergreen forest I found more in the gulleys, which were filled with Liquidambar and a few other species of thin-leaved deciduous trees. Rivulets splashed down over the sandstone; ferns and liverworts clothed every damp rock-face and lined every niche with vivid green. Among the first to open their flowers with the coming of spring were a small Qiloranthus with white spikes (C fortunei), two violets, a larkspur, Arisaema ambiguum, Mazus saltuarius (a new species) and Thea fratema, a small bush with scented white blossoms tinged with pink. The Yuelu Shan was at its finest in March, when its slopes were coloured by the purple blossoms of Rhododendron simsii, although this is merely a forest undershrub and only exceptionally grows into a small tree 4 m in height At the same time the dainty white racemes of Symplocos caudata diffused their delightful scent through the air, together with contributions from the green and yellowish flowers of other species of the same genus of trees. In early autumn the low-growing Hemiboea subacaulis (a new species) opened its large flowers on the rocks, which were covered with other herbs and grasses. Further away, roughly two hours' brisk march, was Gu Shan, about 400 m high; though covered only by bushes it yielded a few interesting plants.

Both these hills offered wide vistas over the country. To the northeast the high mountains of the Pingjiang district were visible in clear weather. To the southwest was a disjointed tangle of shorter and longer mountain ranges, only in the far distance attaining heights substantially greater than my present viewpoint Far away to the east and southeast were several long low ranges, the nearest of them comprising the pointed Zhao Shan and sloping down to the Xiang Jiang at its bend below Xiangtan. The slowly flowing river was well over one kilometre wide and carried a brisk traffic of steam boats and countless sailing junks. Low water level at Changsha was only 23 m above sea level; when the Yangzi Jiang was in flood its waters filled the Dongting lake, which was of considerable size, and the water level in the Xiang Jiang between there and Changsha sometimes rose so high that the low lying parts of the city were inundated. The low ground — apart from the rock outcrops, which throughout Hunan had a southwest to northeasterly strike, and the river gravels — consisted of laterite. Richthofen states that this is the most northerly occurrence of laterite in China, but I later saw some of the same geological formation near Yueyang on the Yangzi. Its exposures revealed a red-brown loamy mass, densely interspersed with irregular narrow wormlike bands of grey-white material, said to be pure clay. It formed a tableland some 50 m above the river, seamed by small hollows and innumerable gullies, narrow and broad, and its contours were everywhere smooth and rounded. The valley bottoms were planted with rice, and at their margins were the farmsteads, always solitary, surrounded by small patches of woodland of the kind previously described, these woods being delimited by earth banks. The slopes and ridge tops were planted with pines (Pinus massoniana). Cunninghamia lanceolata was [p.163:] also frequent; young plantations looked exactly as if they were intended to produce Christmas trees of perfectly regular shape. Among them grew Hex comuta, a shrubby holly with spiny ornamental leaves. In late autumn the tea oil shrubs (Thea oleifera) were studded with large white flowers. Early in the New Year Loropetalum sinense, a shrub related to the witch-hazel (Hamamelis), made a striking picture, its closely packed flowers covering its twigs and leaves like a veil of perforated paper. The large orange-yellow blossoms of Rhododendron molle seemed to gleam with their own light, and somewhat later came the flowers of Gardenia au-gusta. All these made the environs of Changsha — once one had passed through the zone of vegetable gardens with their stench of human ordure — a most attractive place in which to roam, more so perhaps than the surroundings of any other city in China. Well kept bridle paths led in every direction. Quite apart from the excellent opportunities for botanical collecting which the district afforded, it was exceedingly enjoyable to ride through the countryside on my splendid Sichuan pony, with my collecting bag and often my camera slung over my shoulder, sometimes even with the added bonus of agreeable companions. Even the steppe grasslands brought forth flowering plants in some profusion. The narrow-leaved Viola betonicifolia began to flower very early, accompanied by Daphne genkwa, which because of its clusters of violet blooms arranged along the whole length of its stems was taken for a lilac by most of the European residents, and also by Spiraea prunifolia, a small shrub with little white flowers arranged in a similar pattern. The grasses, uniformly distributed over the ground and for the most part growing close together but nowhere forming a closed or interlacing sward, did not flower until late summer, when they reached a height of around 70 cm. In open spots lichens (Diploschistes sctuposus, Qadonia bacillaris) and mosses (Rhacomitrium canescens, Thysanomitrium blumii) carpeted the ground.

Several of our compatriots in Changsha owned motorboats and with their aid I was able to reach more distant objectives, among them Zhao Shan mentioned above. Europeans were perfectly safe in the vicinity of Changsha. The Hunanese, despite having built a dyke at Hezhou as recently as 1895 with the purpose of preventing "yangguizi" (foreign devils) from setting foot in their province, were now the friendliest of Chinese people in their attitude towards foreigners. On many occasions during my rides in the country I would halt at a farmstead for a few minutes, and the people would at once offer me tea or invite me to smoke one of their tin tobacco pipes. Nevertheless, violent crime was not unknown among the Chinese. Once when my friend Schnabel and I were on Yuelu Shan we came upon the body of a man who had just been strangled, lying beside a carved stone several thousand years old protected by a roof; the inscription which it bore was a copy from a still older stone on Heng Shan. The murderers had run off as we approached, but later, when we were some way off and dusk was falling, we saw a band of men carrying away the body. There was an Englishman who claimed to have found a head in the Yuelu Shan forest Living in Changsha were more than twenty German nationals, for the most part businessmen, mining experts or missionaries. They made up the majority of the foreign community in Hunan. In addition to those already mentioned, the mission superintendent, Herr H. Witt, was of great assistance to me. Besides correcting the Chinese names on my plant labels he also made available his painstaking route surveys for joint publication with my cartographical studies. During the following summer Herr A. Brammer collected some plants for me on Mount Yuelu Shan.

[chapter 39:]