Friday, August 29, 2008

Farmers of Forty Centuries Up The Si-kiang, West River


On the morning of March 10th we took passage on the Nanning for Wuchow, in Kwangsi province, a journey of 220 miles up the West river, or Sikiang. The Nanning is one of two English steamers making regular trips between the two places, and it was the sister boat which in the summer of 1906 was attacked by pirates on one of her trips and all of the officers and first class passengers killed while at dinner. The cause of this attack, it is said, or the excuse for it, was threatened famine resulting from destructive floods which had ruined the rice and mulberry crops of the great delta region and had prevented the carrying of manure and bean cake as fertilizers to the tea fields in the hill lands beyond, thus bringing ruin to three of the great staple crops of the region. To avoid the recurrence of such tragedies the first class quarters on the Nanning had been separated from the rest of the ship by heavy iron gratings thrown across the decks and over the hatchways. Armed guards stood at the locked gateways, and swords were hanging from posts under the awnings of the first cabin quarters, much as saw and ax in our passenger coaches. Both British and Chinese gunboats were patrolling the river; all Chinese passengers were searched for concealed weapons as they came aboard, even though Government soldiers, and all arms taken into custody until the end of the journey. Several of the large Chinese merchant junks which were passed, carrying valuable cargoes on the river, were armed with small cannon and when riding by rail from Canton to Sam Shui, a government pirate detective was in our coach.
The Sikiang is one of the great rivers of China and indeed of the world. Its width at Wuchow at low water was nearly a mile and our steamer anchored in twenty-four feet of water to a floating dock made fast by huge iron chains reaching three hundred feet up the slope to the city proper, thus providing for a rise of twenty-six feet in the river at its flood stage during the rainy season. In a narrow section of river where it winds through Shui Hing gorge, the water at low stage has a depth of more than twenty-five fathoms, too deep for anchorage, so in times of prospective fog, boats wait for clearing weather. Fluctuations in the height of the river limit vessels passing up to Wuchow to those drawing six and a half feet of water during the low stage, and at high stage to those drawing sixteen feet.
When the West river emerges from the high lands, with its burden of silt, to join its waters with those of the North and East rivers, it has entered a vast delta plain some eighty miles from east to west and nearly as many from north to south, and this has been canalized, diked, drained and converted into the most productive of fields, bearing three or more crops each year. As we passed westward through this delta region the broad flat fields, surrounded by dikes to protect them against high water, were being plowed and fitted for the coming crop of rice. In many places the dikes which checked off the fields were planted with bananas and in the distance gave the appearance of extensive orchards completely occupying the ground. Except for the water and the dikes it was easy to imagine that we were traversing one of our western prairie sections in the early spring, at seeding time, the scattered farm villages here easily suggested distant farmsteads; but a nearer approach to the houses showed that the roofs and sides were thatched with rice straw and stacks were very numerous about the buildings. Many tide gates were set in the dikes, often with double trunks.
At times we approached near enough to the fields to see how they were laid out. From the gates long canals, six to eight feet wide, led back sometimes eighty or a hundred rods. Across these and at right angles, head channels were cut and between them the fields were plowed in long straight lands some two rods wide, separated by water furrows. Many of the fields were bearing sugar cane standing eight feet high. The Chinese do no sugar refining but boil the sap until it will solidify, when it is run into cakes resembling chocolate or our brown maple sugar. Immense quantities of sugar cane, too, are exported to the northern provinces, in bundles wrapped with matting or other cover, for the retail markets where it is sold, the canes being cut in short sections and sometimes peeled, to be eaten from the hands as a confection.
Much of the way this water-course was too broad to permit detailed study of field conditions and crops, even with a glass. In such sections the recent dikes often have the appearance of being built from limestone blocks but a closer view showed them constructed from blocks of the river silt cut and laid in walls with slightly sloping faces. In time however the blocks weather and the dikes become rounded earthen walls.
We passed two men in a boat, in charge of a huge flock of some hundreds of yellow ducklings. Anchored to the bank was a large houseboat provided with an all-around, over-hanging rim and on board was a stack of rice straw and other things which constituted the floating home of the ducks. Both ducks and geese are reared in this manner in large numbers by the river population. When it is desired to move to another feeding ground a gang plank is put ashore and the flock come on board to remain for the night or to be landed at another place.
About five hours journey westward in this delta plain, where the fields lie six to ten feet above the present water stage, we reached the mulberry district. Here the plants are cultivated in rows about four feet apart, having the habit of small shrubs rather than of trees, and so much resembling cotton that our first impression was that we were in an extensive cotton district. On the lower lying areas, surrounded by dikes, some fields were laid out in the manner of the old Italian or English water meadows, with a shallow irrigation furrow along the crest of the bed and much deeper drainage ditches along the division line between them. Mulberries were occupying the ground before the freshly cut trenches we saw were dug, and all the surface between the rows had been evenly overlaid with the fresh earth removed with the spade, the soil lying in blocks essentially unbroken. In Fig. 43 may be seen the mulberry crop on a similarly treated surface, between Canton and Samshui, with the earth removed from the trenches laid evenly over the entire surface between and around the plants, as it came from the spade.
At frequent intervals along the river, paths and steps were seen leading to the water and within a distance of a quarter of a mile we counted thirty-one men and women carrying mud in baskets on bamboo poles swung across their shoulders, the mud being taken from just above the water line. The disposition of this material we could not see as it was carried beyond a rise in ground. We have little doubt that the mulberry fields were being covered with it. It was here that a rain set in and almost like magic the fields blossomed out with great numbers of giant rain hats and kittysols, where people had been unobserved before. From one o'clock until six in the afternoon we had traveled continuously through these mulberry fields stretching back miles from our line of travel on either hand, and the total acreage must have been very large. But we had now nearly reached the margin of the delta and the mulberries changed to fields of grain, beans, peas and vegetables.
After leaving the delta region the balance of the journey to Wuchow was through a hill country, the slopes rising steeply from near the river bank, leaving relatively little tilled or readily tillable land. Rising usually five hundred to a thousand feet, the sides and summits of the rounded, soil-covered hills were generally clothed with a short herbaceous growth and small scattering trees, oftenest pine, four to sixteen feet high, Fig. 44 being a typical landscape of the region.
In several sections along the course of this river there are limited areas of intense erosion where naked gulleys of no mean magnitude have developed but these were exceptions and we were continually surprised at the remarkable steepness of the slopes, with convexly rounded contours almost everywhere, well mantled with soil, devoid of gulleys and completely covered with herbaceous growth dotted with small trees. The absence of forest growth finds its explanation in human influence rather than natural conditions.
Throughout the hill-land section of this mighty river the most characteristic and persistent human features were the stacks of brush-wood and the piles of stove wood along the banks or loaded upon boats and barges for the market. The brush-wood was largely made from the boughs of pine, tied into bundles and stacked like grain. The stove wood was usually round, peeled and made from the limbs and trunks of trees two to five inches in diameter. All this fuel was coming to the river from the back country, sent down along steep slides which in the distance resemble paths leading over hills but too steep for travel. The fuel was loaded upon large barges, the boughs in the form of stacks to shed rain but with a tunnel leading into the house of the boat about which they were stacked, while the wood was similarly corded about the dwelling, as seen in Fig. 44. The wood was going to Canton and other delta cities while the pine boughs were taken to the lime and cement kilns, many of which were located along the river. Absolutely the whole tree, including the roots and the needles, is saved and burned; no waste is permitted.
The up-river cargo of the Nanning was chiefly matting rush, taken on at Canton, tied in bundles like sheaves of wheat. It is grown upon the lower, newer delta lands by methods of culture similar to those applied to rice, Fig. 45 showing a field as seen in Japan.
The rushes were being taken to one of the country villages on a tributary of the Sikiang and the steamer was met by a flotilla of junks from this village, some forty-five miles up the stream, where the families live who do the weaving. On the return trip the flotilla again met the steamer with a cargo of the woven matting. In keeping record of packages transferred the Chinese use a simple and unique method. Each carrier, with his two bundles, received a pair of tally sticks. At the gang-plank sat a man with a tally-case divided into twenty compartments, each of which could receive five, but no more, tallies. As the bundles left the steamer the tallies were placed in the tally-case until it contained one hundred, when it was exchanged for another.
Wuchow is a city of some 65,000 inhabitants, standing back on the higher ground, not readily visible from the steamer landing nor from the approach on the river. On the foreground, across which stretched the anchor chains of the dock, was living a floating population, many in shelters less substantial than Indian wigwams, but engaged in a great variety of work, and many water buffalo had been tied for the night along the anchor chains. Before July much of this area would lie beneath the flood waters of the Sikiang.
Here a ship builder was using his simple, effective bow-brace, boring holes for the dowel pins in the planking for his ship, and another was bending the plank to the proper curvature. The bow-brace consisted of a bamboo stalk carrying the bit at one end and a shoulder rest at the other. Pressing the bit to its work with the shoulder, it was driven with the string of a long bow wrapped once around the stalk by drawing the bow back and forth, thus rapidly and readily revolving the bit.
The bending of the long, heavy plank, four inches thick and eight inches wide, was more simple still, It was saturated with water and one end raised on a support four feet above the ground. A bundle of burning rice straw moved along the under side against the wet wood had the effect of steaming the wood and the weight of the plank caused it to gradually bend into the shape desired. Bamboo poles are commonly bent or straightened in this manner to suit any need and Fig. 46 shows a wooden fork shaped in the manner described from a small tree having three main branches. This fork is in the hands of my interpreter and was used by the woman standing at the right, in turning wheat.
When the old ship builder had finished shaping his plank he sat down on the ground for a smoke. His pipe was one joint of bamboo stem a foot long, nearly two inches in diameter and open at one end. In the closed end, at one side, a small hole was bored for draft. A charge of tobacco was placed in the bottom, the lips pressed into the open end and the pipe lighted by suction, holding a lighted match at the small opening. To enjoy his pipe the bowl rested on the ground between his legs. With his lips in the bowl and a long breath, he would completely fill his lungs, retaining the smoke for a time, then slowly expire and fill the lungs again, after an interval of natural breathing.
On returning to Canton we went by rail, with an interpreter, to Samshui, visiting fields along the way, and Fig. 47 is a view of one landscape. The woman was picking roses among tidy beds of garden vegetables. Beyond her and in front of the near building are two rows of waste receptacles. In the center background is a large "go-down", in function that of our cold storage warehouse and in part that of our grain elevator for rice. In them, too, the wealthy store their fur-lined winter garments for safe keeping. These are numerous in this portion of China and the rank of a city is indicated by their number. The conical hillock is a large near-by grave mound and many others serrate the sky line on the hill beyond.
In the next landscape, Fig. 48, a crop of winter peas, trained to canes, are growing on ridges among the stubble of the second crop of rice, In front is one canal, the double ridge behind is another and a third canal extends in front of the houses. Already preparations were being made for the first crop of rice, fields were being flooded and fertilized. One such is seen in Fig. 49, where a laborer was engaged at the time in bringing stable manure, wading into the water to empty the baskets.
Two crops of rice are commonly grown each year in southern China and during the winter and early spring, grain, cabbage, rape, peas, beans, leeks and ginger may occupy the fields as a third or even fourth crop, making the total year's product from the land very large; but the amount of thought, labor and fertilizers given to securing these is even greater and beyond anything Americans will endure. How great these efforts are will be appreciated from what is seen in Fig. 50, representing two fields thrown into high ridges, planted to ginger and covered with straw. All of this work is done by hand and when the time for rice planting comes every ridge will again be thrown down and the surface smoothed to a water level. Even when the ridges and beds are not thrown down for the crops of rice, the furrows and the beds will change places so that all the soil is worked over deeply and mainly through hand labor. The statement so often made, that these people only barely scratch the surface of their fields with the crudest of tools is very far from the truth, for their soils are worked deeply and often, notwithstanding the fact that their plowing, as such, may be shallow.
Through Dr. John Blumann of the missionary hospital at Tungkun, east from Canton, we learned that the good rice lands there a few years ago sold at $75 to $130 per acre but that prices are rising rapidly. The holdings of the better class of farmers there are ten to fifteen mow--one and two-thirds to two and a half acres--upon which are maintained families numbering six to twelve. The day's wage of a carpenter or mason is eleven to thirteen cents of our currency, and board is not included, but a day's ration for a laboring man is counted worth fifteen cents, Mexican, or less than seven cents, gold.
Fish culture is practiced in both deep and shallow basins, the deep permanent ones renting as high as $30 gold, per acre. The shallow basins which can be drained in the dry season are used for fish only during the rainy period, being later drained and planted to some crop. The permanent basins have often come to be ten or twelve feet deep, increasing with long usage, for they are periodically drained by pumping and the foot or two of mud which has accumulated, removed and sold as fertilizer to planters of rice and other crops. It is a common practice, too, among the fish growers, to fertilize the ponds, and in case a foot path leads alongside, screens are built over the water to provide accommodation for travelers. Fish reared in the better fertilized ponds bring a higher price in the market. The fertilizing of the water favors a stronger growth of food forms, both plant and animal, upon which the fish live and they are better nourished, making a more rapid growth, giving their flesh better qualities, as is the case with well fed animals.
In the markets where fish are exposed for sale they are often sliced in halves lengthwise and the cut surface smeared with fresh blood. In talking with Dr. Blumann as to the reason for this practice he stated that the Chinese very much object to eating meat that is old or tainted and that he thought the treatment simply had the effect of making the fish look fresher. I question whether this treatment with fresh blood may not have a real antiseptic effect and very much doubt that people so shrewd as the Chinese would be misled by such a ruse.

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