Chungking: China’s heart of darkness

One of Chongqing’s hundreds of former bomb shelters, this one serving snacks to tourists

It may not be immediately evident what Lord Byron’s Childe Harold (1811), Herman Melville’s Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) have in common, but it becomes clearer when mentioned in conjunction with several other bestsellers less known today: Murray’s Handbooks series for Travellers on the Continent (1836), Travellers in the Ionian Islands, Greece, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Constantinople (1840), and Travellers in Egypt (1847). All the above titles were churned out by John Murray of London, the first publisher to capitalize on growing public fascination with worldwide travel.

Europe had been swarming with tourists for centuries, along ancient pilgrimage routes stretching as far as the Middle East and back in time to the Middle Ages. Beyond that, much of the world was still a forbidding landscape. It would take another generation of intrepid pioneers to map out remaining territories, and John Murray snatched up their travelogues for its large audience of armchair travelers. Among the most famous of these were David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels (1857) and The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (1874), both works covering the renowned missionary’s forays in southern and eastern Africa. Younger contemporary Henry Morton Stanley famously met up with Livingstone in present-day Tanzania in 1871 (“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) and would go on to be the first Westerner to travel the length of the Congo River from its upper reaches to its mouth on the Atlantic coast in 1876–77, recounted in his gripping Through the Dark Continent (published by Harper in 1878 in the U.S., Stanley’s adopted country). Just over a decade later, a young Joseph Conrad undertook the same journey in reverse, captaining a steamer up the Congo to Stanleyville (Kisangani) and beyond; the treacherous cascades and hostile tribes would inspire his 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.

Around the time these Western explorers were working their way into central Africa, others had begun investigating the upper Yangtze River in central China. Easily traversed on the lower Yangtze were the cities of Nanking and Hankow, both opened up as treaty ports in 1842 and 1862 respectively following the First and Second Opium Wars. The upper Yangtze was another matter: it could take one to two months to ford upstream through its dangerous rapids. Only specially designed flat-hulled boats could make the journey, laboriously hauled through the crashing currents and giant rocks by bamboo ropes and scores of men known as trackers. By century’s end, six major travelogues of British adventurers up the Yangtze had appeared in print, most of them published by John Murray: Thomas Blakiston’s Five Months on the Yang-Tsze and Notices of the Present Rebellions in China (John Murray, 1862), Thomas Cooper’s Travels of a Pioneer of Commerce in Pigtail and Petticoats or, an Overland Journey from China towards India (John Murray, 1871), Augustus Margary’s The Journal of Augustus Raymond Margary: From Shanghae to Bhamo and Back to Manwyne (Macmillan & Co., 1876), William Gill’s The River of Golden Sand: Being the Narrative of a Journey through China and Eastern Tibet to Burmah (John Murray 1883), Archibald John Little’s Through the Yang-tse Gorges or Trade and Travel in Western China (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1888), and Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (John Murray and G. P. Putnam, 1899). Not only were these firsthand accounts of the difficult years of solo travel in China revelatory and highly readable, the same pioneers relied on them for the latest updated information. Cooper and Little, for example, each carried Blakiston’s Five Month’s on the Yang-Tsze, as did Gill a copy of Cooper’s Travels of a Pioneer, and Bird copies of Gill’s River of Golden Sand and Little’s Through the Yang-tse Gorges.

That these travelogues were brought out mostly by a single publisher is not necessarily significant in and of itself; publishers on both sides of the Atlantic took notice of the expanding market for travel writing. Still, it’s interesting to speculate on the extent to which international travel, even the very curiosity of the travelers themselves, was sparked and shaped by the savvy foresight of a handful of publishing houses, if not John Murray’s alone. The standard explanation of the explorers and their sponsors doesn’t fully account for an impulse that was more poignant and personal: the solo traveler’s solitary, dangerous quest, born of loneliness, in collaboration with the publisher for the joint purpose of making each other famous, in spite of the usual grand claims stated quite openly by all involved, of Western imperial designs on territories not yet opened up for trade, along with Christian missionizing. What is indisputable is the enormous impact travel publishing has had on tourist destinations the world over since the Victorian era, economically dependent as the most far-flung locales are even today on the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides series, Trip Advisor, and the like, as information conduits for travelers.

Catholic missionaries had already worked their way into many regions of China as early as the seventeenth century and as far as Chungking. But so fragile was their relationship with the Qing authorities that they had to refrain from advertising their activities, indeed made themselves as invisible as possible, dressing and eating like locals, mastering the language, and vowing to stay put in their missions until death. French missionaries, who had begun to predominate over other Catholics in the nineteenth century, were sworn to secrecy on every aspect of the country. Little was thus known about their journeys into the vast Chinese hinterland. Protestant missionaries from England and the U.S. began arriving with the first wave of nineteenth-century explorers. To anyone contemplating the trip to Chungking, a reporter for the London Missionary Society, writing in 1893, hyped it as best he could:

It is gratifying to learn that in spite of the bad reputation which Chung-king has gained for unhealthiness—a reputation which I think facts do not entirely substantiate—more workers have intimated their willingness to brave the rapids and thread the gorges in order that the work of the Society may be carried on there without interruption….While the land route…is, as a matter of fact, greatly used by Sz-Chuen opium coolies, it is, for sufficient reasons, widely discountenanced by foreign travelers….So long as there is a work for God to be done in the far West, there will be found men and women prepared to think little of the perils and less of the discomforts to be faced during a month of tedious navigation on China’s great river. (Wilson)

Chungking took on greater symbolic significance as information about the prosperous and populous (300,000 by the late 1800s) yet mysterious city filtered out. From the standpoint of the Western traveler of the time, Chungking might be described as the triumphal endpoint of a rite of passage, a spiritual as opposed to a religious pilgrimage, the treacherous Yangtze standing in the way like a valley of the shadow of death, the anticipated dangers only enticing obsessed adventurers all the more. Though for the most intrepid, Chungking was only the first major stop on an even loftier prize, one that took the traveler overland beyond Sichuan through what later became identified as Shangri-La territory in Tibet, then down to Tali (modern Dali) in Yunnan Province and across the Burmese border to Bhamo on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River, whereupon the trip was completed by boat downstream to Rangoon and back to the ocean.

Yangtze River trackers (Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing)

Most found the Yangtze entertaining enough. A British consul, Christopher Gardner, barely survived his own journey and had related the following to Archibald Little before the latter’s trip up the Yangtze in 1887:

The Consul, Mr. Gardner, had recently visited the port, and while here, he, with two other friends from Hankow, hired a native boat to visit the rapids above the Ichang gorge; they there met with a serious accident, their boat capsizing, and going, as they described it, immediately into matchwood; they themselves were only saved from drowning in the cold water, by the Chinese life-boat, one of which is stationed at the foot of each rapid. They lost their guns, clothes and everything, saving only the garments they stood, or rather swam, in.

By “matchwood” is meant the boat’s disintegration when the rope pulling it upstream snapped and it was hurled backwards against the boulders—a regular occurrence on the rapids. The same would happen when a boat piloted downstream lost control, also a regular occurrence despite only the most experienced captains being hired for the purpose. We can no longer enjoy the spectacle, but I suppose an analogy might be a professional skier on a slalom course plagued by patches of ice. As Isabella Bird described it on her 1897 trip, “I saw on two occasions junks fly down rapids, strike rocks, and disappear as unconnected masses of timbers, as if exploded by dynamite.” Yet while stranded along the banks after her own boat was damaged by rocks, she confessed to a fascination with the suspenseful procession of river traffic: “I saw over eighty big junks descend the great rapids, and it was such an exciting sight, with its accompaniments of deafening din, that I not only never wearied, but would have been glad to see eighty more” (The Yangtze Valley and Beyond).

The above-mentioned authors all made it through the gorges safely, but there were many close calls, as Little again relates:

The rudder ceased to act; our boat, on entering the down current, suddenly shot out towards the middle of the stream—the trackers were thrown down, and two badly hurt by being dragged over the rocks, while the boat heeled over, threatening to capsize on the instant; fortunately our trackers promptly cast off the tow-line in the nick of time, and we incurred no other danger than being swept violently downstream in the eight-knot current.

Back in 1868 Thomas Cooper had been accompanied by four young French missionaries out of Shanghai but got separated from them in Hankow, and they went on ahead of him. News along the river traveled quickly and he received the foreboding report that one of the missionaries had lost his life in turbulent waters which Cooper’s own boat had yet to reach:

I learnt with great regret that…the drowning of the young Father was too true. It appeared that in ascending one of the rapids he was holding on to the tow-rope, by which the junk was being dragged up, when it broke, and the recoil threw him overboard into the middle of the rapid, when he sank, and was never seen again. One of his companions jumped over after him, and was nearly drowned in his efforts to save him.

Travel conditions on the river remained unchanged as late as the first decade of the twentieth century, as recounted by Edwin Dingle on his 1909 Yangtze River journey in Across China on Foot:

At times [the trackers] are a quarter of a mile ahead. Soft echoes of their coarse chanting came down the confines of the gully, after the rapid had been passed, and in rounding the rocky promontory mid-stream, one would catch sight of them bending their bodies in pulling steadily against the current of the river. Occasionally one of these poor fellows slips; there is a shriek, his body is dashed unmercifully against the jagged cliffs in its last journey to the river, which carries the mutilated corpse away. And yet these men, engaged in this terrible toil, with utmost danger to their lives, live almost exclusively on boiled rice and dirty cabbage, and receive the merest pittance in money at the journey’s end.

Over the next several decades, the imperative of modernization finally broke the stranglehold of the tracker guilds and the mandarins profiting off them. Engineers began blasting away the big rocks and leveling the rapids enough to enable steamships to power their way up to Chungking. The epic story of the thousands of trackers memorably toiling along the rapids was now history. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam (2006–12) further diminished the drama and beauty of the Yangtze Gorges by raising the water level by ninety-one meters.

Chungking in 1861. Illustration by Alfred Barton (Thomas Blakiston, Five Months on the Yang-Tsze)

Ironically, Western travelers were at their safest during the river journey. As soon as they stepped onto land, they became subject to the mob. No place in China was free of this danger, even in the treaty ports. Margary describes a riot in 1874 in Shanghai’s French Concession when an outraged migrant community from Ningpo set fire to a whole street, after the French authorities began building a road over their graveyard. Outside the concessions, or the Christian missions in the Chinese cities, the Western traveler was on his own, at the mercy of fickle local officials, the power or lack thereof they wielded over the citizenry, and luck. As early as 1861, while the Taiping Rebellion was still raging and the lower Yangtze swarming with hostile forces on both sides, explorer Thomas Blakiston, accompanied by a handful of privately hired soldiers, made it up the river to Chungking and docked below the city wall without any major mishaps. Yet while Blakiston was preparing for his appearance at the yamen (the government office) to present his travel credentials, as was standard protocol for foreigners, the Chungking officials informed him they could not guarantee his safety once he entered the city gates, despite proclamations posted throughout affirming the peaceful intent of his visit. A missionary resident of Chungking known to Blakiston delivered a second message:

“I have heard from my Christians that the Chinese soldiers intend to murder you tomorrow morning when you go to see the mandarins. Take precautions. I have advised the mandarins of the town to look to your safety. I pray you to take your best uniform (with epaulettes), otherwise the Chinese will mock your dress. I expect you and your traveling companions to dinner. I think that the rumors of assassination are serious, and that you should take necessary precautions for your personal safety. I have the honor to be, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant, (signed) J. P. Mia. AP.”

Armed guards conveyed Blakiston safely through the city and all proceeded without incident. He attributed the hostility to a rumor that his was an advance party of British troops come to force indemnification payments from the city residents, stemming from the Second Opium War treaties that had concluded only months earlier; he was in fact a private citizen on a geographical fact-finding mission. Meanwhile Thomas Cooper, traveling beyond Chungking to Yunnan Province in 1868, was imprisoned after a failed attempt to reach Tali, suspected of being a spy, but finally released (ten years later he was killed by his own guard in Bhamo). Augustus Margary fared more poorly on his cross-country expedition to Burma via Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in 1875, intending to establish for British officials in India and Burma the feasibility of a trade route through China. He made it to Bhamo but was assassinated under murky circumstances just inside Chinese territory soon after starting his return. Assumed to have been instigated by local warlords, his murder was never solved (but did lead to British intervention and the Chefoo Convention). All of Yunnan had been rife with violence over the preceding two decades from the “Panthay” Muslim Rebellion of 1856–73. Finally put down by Qing troops, many rebels simply fled to Burma, and the porous border region remained lawless. Haunted by Margary’s murder, William Gill and fellow explorer William Mesney retraced his final route two years later, as if to prove that no place in China could scare British travelers away.

Certainly, much of the violence directed at foreigners had known causes—lingering resentment over the treaties following the Opium Wars, fear of Christianity in a country traumatized by the Taiping Rebellion, or reprisals for actual violence against locals by foreigners. One conclusion corroborated by more than a few travelers was that the social sector one might expect to have been most hostile to foreigners, the uneducated peasant majority, was the most welcoming, though liable to being manipulated; and the sector expected to be the most welcoming, the educated class, was the most hostile and most responsible for stoking rumors of foreign malfeasance. After all, the literate elite, as upholders of patriarchal Dynastic feudalism, had the most to lose from a Copernican shift in ideology that no longer recognized China as the center of the world, otherwise known as modernization. Ordinary Chinese in the countryside impressed Margary as being “well disposed, good hearted, hospitable people, but so superstitious, as to be a ready-made combustible for the use of political schemers, and the arrogant literati class, whose hatred of foreigners is at the bottom of every entente, and who know so well how to launch a mob.” Or as Little characterized the better educated:

All over the country you see scattered large houses, the homes of the gentry, and so-called Literati. Of the buildings, you see nothing but the four blank walls and a heavy closed door, and their inmates seldom emerge, but spend their time in selfish idleness; managing, however, their incomes with frugality. This is the class opposed to all progress, and which stirs up the otherwise indifferent masses against the foreigner. I confess that I loathe the bespectacled Chinaman, whenever I meet one, with his rude stare; the civility we meet with in travel is entirely confined to the lower and middle classes.

Chungking steps after a Japanese bombing raid (Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing)

There were, of course, radicals among the literati. But calls for modernization were still too dangerous to even air until after the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901). The Hundred Days’ Reform of 1898, for example, resulted in those among the movement’s leaders who were not able to escape the country being put to death.

Nevertheless, we would be doing a disservice to an honest appraisal of nineteenth-century China were we to play down or explain away the relentless, widespread and indiscriminate violence against foreigners as merely rational actions or grievances, rather than recognizing sheer xenophobia and ignorant superstition for what it was. None of the explorers I have mentioned was immune to frequent, inexplicable acts of hostility on their travels, merely for being foreign, not even Margary, a British consul, nor William Mesny, William Gill’s travel companion.

Mesny is a special case in point. Unique among the foreign explorers, he lived most of his life in China, from his arrival in Shanghai in 1860 until his death in Hankow in 1919, was intimate with and sympathetic to the culture, fluent in the language, and married twice to Chinese women, at a time when intermarriage was frowned upon by the foreign community. Mesny traveled throughout the country over his career, covering more ground than any other explorer of the time. Perhaps because his travels were too extensive to encapsulate in a book, he produced no standalone travelogue, only scattered articles for English newspapers and his own voluminous magazine entitled Mesny’s Miscellany, on topics ranging from warfare and engineering to Chinese philology. The work of culling all his travels from his own and others’ writings was recently carried out by David Leffman in The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British Adventurer Became a General in Qing-Dynasty China (Blacksmith Books, 2016). A Rough Guides author who has traveled China extensively himself, Leffman was well suited to the task, retracing many of Mesny’s routes on foot and weaving it all into an absorbing narrative of his life.

A man of action, Mesny was naturally drawn to danger. He took a job transporting supplies on the Yangtze from Shanghai to Hankow in the turbulent years of 1860–63, and at one point was taken hostage by Taiping rebels. From 1863–68 he settled in Hankow, before putting his military knowledge to use by assisting Imperial forces in Guizhou Province during the Miao Rebellion, upgrading their weapons and battle tactics and joining in the fighting over 1868–71. For his years of service and bravery the Chinese Government awarded him the rank of major-general, a rare honor for a foreigner. This entitled him to perks and protections while traveling the country and obligated local officials, if he passed through their territory, to supply him with a retinue of “food, fodder, twenty horses and eighty men.” If one would expect any foreign traveler to be spared indifferent or hostile treatment, it would have been Mesny. Yet on more than one occasion they refused to recognize his credentials and provided neither protection nor accommodation. In an 1880 excursion in Guizhou, “a mob at Qianxi—ordinary citizens led by some soldiers from the city’s battalions—made a ‘furious and murderous attack’ on Mesny’s inn for reasons which were never explained. Perhaps there were none beyond his being a foreigner. Mesny fired off a revolver into the crowd, killing four of his attackers and wounding several others,” before being rescued by soldiers (Leffman).

Chongqing steps (photo by Isham Cook, 2019)

Hardened trekkers and backpackers of today have no idea what traveling in the rough is really like, at least in a place like nineteenth-century China. To finally reach a city, exhausted, only to find its gates closed to you and being forced to pitch your tent out in the open amidst roaming bandits or freezing weather while staying up the whole night guarding your belongings with a gun; even when city gates do permit you entrance, not a single inn allowing you in, no explanation given; and on top of these indignities being pelted by screaming crowds, as William Gill’s photographer experienced on their Yangtze journey:

We went for a walk one morning on the other side of the river, and took the photographer with us and left him to his own devices. When we returned home he told us that the people had thrown stones and bricks at the camera. He said that his attempts had not been very successful. The Chinese people believe that foreigners make a juice out of children’s eyes for photographic purposes; they say, “A man, or a dog, or a horse cannot see without eyes; how then can that machine? If it has not got eyes of its own, it must have the eyes of somebody else.” Their logic is unanswerable, especially the brickbats and stones. (Gill)

In another example of national hospitality, Margary relates the failure of his party to make it to an inn in the city of Chenyuan in Guizhou Province:

The crowd, however, was too great and aggressive for all the magistrate’s men, and we had to beat a retreat to the yamen again, in which ignominious flight I had to be carried backwards through the mob. I was put under the necessity of breaking one man’s nose who had the temerity to put his head inside the curtain of the chair to insult me. Attempts were made to upset the chair, but these were frustrated by my escort. As an example of Chinese official apathy, I may as well mention that at the very spot where I was being insulted by the mob, a military mandarin of high rank was passing by, under whose very command were half the rioters around, and yet he made no more effort to repress them than a private individual. The result was that I had to sleep in the magistrate’s yamen.

The Consul’s description of an inn on the way to Tali in Yunnan Province is representative: “I occupied one corner in a horse-box sort of room, which separated me from two gaunt buffaloes, stabled on a bed of slush; the kitchen, which spread its smoke pleasantly over our lungs, took up another corner, while Messrs. Chow and Yang, whom I have described elsewhere, together with three or four servants, rested on pallets along the other two sides.”

Isabella Bird never had a moment’s privacy wherever she was permitted to stay. The clapboard walls were pried apart and holes poked through the rice paper windows in order to watch the female foreign devil undress. To their disappointment, she had acquired a set of curtains to string up over the walls, and as there were always uncovered gaps revealing more eyeballs, she regularly slept in her clothes (The Yangtze Valley and Beyond). Things weren’t much better in the Shanghai walled city, where James S. Lee, a British engineer with long experience in India and Southeast Asia but not China, stayed with his Malaysian girlfriend one night in 1906:

To reach our room we climbed a ladder, and entered it through a hole in the floor, covered by a trap door. There was nothing in the room except a bed, which was a heavy structure made of wood, the bottom, or sleeping place, being made of a kind of plaited grass matting stretched on the framework. We had brought with us two pillows and some blankets, so we were fairly comfortable….We were just dropping off to sleep when up went the trap door, and the old Chinawoman, who appeared to be the boss, came in, followed by three or four men and women. They stood staring at us for some time and then bowed and shook hands with themselves, the right hand grasping the left hand, and then went down the ladder one after the other. We talked for some time, trying to fathom the meaning of this strange behavior, and then settled ourselves down to sleep again. (The Underworld of the East)

Chongqing steps (photo by Isham Cook, 2019)

They were visited a second time during the night by a new group. They found out the reason for the mysterious visits the next morning from a servant boy: “‘Chinawoman, she chargee five cents look see Master, Missie,’ he replied in a matter of fact voice, as though the happening was quite in order.”

Isabella Bird’s experiences of the mob on her 1897 Yangtze journey sound a familiar note almost four decades on from Blakiston’s day. In her characteristically dispassionate style, which is to say it’s remarkable she herself didn’t lose her mind, she observes, “I have since quite understood what I have heard: that several foreign ladies have become ‘queer’ and even insane as the result of frights received in riots, and that the wife of one British consul actually died as the result….No one who has heard the howling of an angry Chinese mob can ever forget it.” She grew well practiced in steeling herself upon every foray into a Chinese city against the shower of mud, food, spit and curses if she so much as showed her face outside of her sedan chair, a serious error (presuming the residents were not already aware a foreigner’s chair was passing through). Things got out of hand once while traveling in Sichuan when she had to take quick refuge in an inn, hiding behind her room’s door with furniture propped against it and her gun drawn as the hysterical crowd burst into the inn and hacked at her door with cleavers, calling for her death. Soldiers rescued her just in time. Though the inn owner’s wife apologized, she asked Bird, “‘If a foreign woman went to your country, you’d kill her, wouldn’t you?’” On another occasion,

The crowd caught sight of my open chair, which, being a novelty, was an abomination, and fully two thousand men rushed down one shingle bank and up the other, brandishing sticks and porters’ poles, yelling, hooting, crying “Foreign devil,” and “Child eater,” telling the bearers to put the chair down. In the distance I saw my runners proving their right to the name. When I afterwards remonstrated with them, they replied, “What could two men do against two thousand?” but a resource of power lay in the magistrate’s letter. Then there were stones thrown, ammunition being handy. Some hit the chair and bearers, and one knocked off my hat. The yells of “Foreign devil,” and “Foreign dog,” were tremendous. Volleys of stones hailed on the chair, and a big one hit me a severe blow at the back of my ear, knocking me forwards and stunning me. (The Yangzte Valley and Beyond)

She was ferried unconscious to a room in an inn. The roar of the mob quickly roused her and she barricaded herself against the cleavers hacking away at her door, before once again being miraculously rescued by local militiamen. The effects of her concussion lasted a year.

Bird was one of the Victorian era’s greatest travel writers, having decades earlier published The Englishwoman in America (John Murray, 1856) and A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (John Murray, 1879); more books would follow on her journeys through Morocco, the Middle East, India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and China. It’s instructive to contrast her treatment in China to her treatment when traveling the American West in the 1850s–70s. The young Bird must have cut quite a figure in person. Perhaps because the sight of this solo English beauty with her Mexican-saddled horse, pretty dresses and gun was so disarming, far from being mistreated or harassed, she was met with the utmost deference and respect by the men she encountered. They included such notorious types as the one-eyed desperado Jim Nugent, “Rocky Mountain Jim,” who lived in a remote cabin in the Colorado wilds. Of fearless temperament herself, she took to him, traveled with him and was evidently romantically involved with him, though genteel constraints in the publishing industry prevented her from revealing any gritty details.

Admittedly there were key differences between her circumstances in the two countries. As a Caucasian traveling in America she was racially invisible, nor did her person represent a hostile foreign power occupying the land she was traveling in, though many weren’t shy about expressing their resentment of the English. Nonetheless, the question arises as to what kind of reception she would have received had she been a Chinese female wandering freely on horseback in the U.S. of the time, as hard as it is to imagine. Whereas Americans would likely have been pleasantly impressed and curious, her fellow countrymen would have found a Chinese woman affecting airs on horseback appalling and enslaved or killed her. To be sure, there was plenty of racial hostility among Americans toward the Chinese, and infamous riots and massacres since the first immigrants arrived in the 1850s. But anti-Chinese sentiment tended to lie dormant, exacerbated only when Chinese immigrants were competing for jobs with lower-income Whites. As long as they kept to their own and worked under harsher conditions than White laborers themselves would stoop to, they were left alone. The greater racial violence in the region was directed toward Mexicans, thousands of whom are estimated to have been murdered in Texas, California and New Mexico between 1848–1928, typically by lynching (Gibson). At any rate, the level of harassment and violence experienced by Chinese in the U.S. was less widespread and sustained than that against Westerners in nineteenth-century China, which boiled up repeatedly and culminated in the atrocities of the Boxer Rebellion.

Chongqing steps (photo by Isham Cook, 2019)

In terms of sheer proto-feminist feistiness, Isabella Bird’s real-life Chinese counterpart would have to be the formidable Ah Toy, a Cantonese female who emigrated to the U.S. in 1849 at the age of twenty-one with her Chinese husband. When he died en route, she entered into an affair with the ship’s American captain who lavished gold on her, money that allowed her to set up shop in San Francisco, a bold act of independence given that the only option for unattached Chinese female immigrants at the time was prostitution and sexual slavery at the hands of Chinese pimps. Her story can be found in many publications (e.g. Tong) and is so compelling she deserves a Hollywood biopic. Soon upon her arrival, the elegant and exotic Ah Toy was struck by the attention she was getting on the street and came up with the idea of staging peep shows through holes drilled in the wall of her apartment for a fee of an ounce of gold. Soon long lines of White men formed to watch her remove her cheongsam. When she discovered some were cheating her with brass instead of gold, she sued them, but the case was dismissed. After she quit the peepshow operation and began prostituting herself to rich White men, she became wealthy with the proceeds and opened up her own bordello, hiring Chinese prostitutes directly from China. But her most interesting achievement was her frequent courthouse appearances, honing her English skills and bringing successful lawsuits against numerous men both American and Chinese (typically vengeful tongs) for theft, harassment and mistreatment, until the California Supreme Court in 1854 passed laws forbidding the Chinese to represent themselves in court as well as against prostitution, effectively silencing her. What is significant is that she had been allowed to represent herself in American court at all.


The astonishing phenomenon of inhospitality that is the turning away of the traveler: more intimate and cutting than xenophobia and racism on a national scale. And to do so with indifference and complacence, even scorn. Fortunately, it is something few travelers need ever experience anymore and could hardly imagine. China has entered the civilized world and no longer engages in its more hateful former practices, namely working up mobs into violence. Yet remnants of the past can still be stumbled upon. I experienced my share of hotel rejections in the 1990s, notably in the northeast inland cities of Harbin and Changchun, hidebound towns with less of a tradition of international contact, if that can be regarded as an excuse. There were no hard-and-fast rules at the time and it was a haphazard affair. I was traveling with several Chinese university students, two males and a female, which made things easier to some degree as they could step in to help. Nonetheless, every hotel we tried in Harbin refused me, except one that charged me five times as much as my travel mates. In Changchun every hotel refused me as well. It was clear they didn’t know what to do with me. The receptionist would disappear into a back room to speak with the boss. I’d be standing there wondering why he couldn’t come out and deal with me directly, showing a bit of concern and leveling with me in an honest way. When the receptionist emerged, the answer was always “Bu xing” (“Can’t do”). While we were paging pointlessly through a phonebook at a street-side shop, the owner directed our attention to an unmarked transient house across the street, for sex workers on their off hours, it turned out, which took us in no questions asked. In Shenyang, private hotel operators luckily greeted us at the train station, which solved the problem there.

In that decade, the opposite sex who was not a spouse or immediate family member was barred from spending the night with you. It could apply to the same sex as well. The university guesthouse in Beijing where I lived from 1999–2001 forbade a male friend who was visiting from the U.S. to stay with me, claiming it was for my “safety”; he was put in another suite and charged hotel rates. The rules were relaxed in 2003, and the unmarried have since been allowed to room together as long as both register with their ID or passport (oddly, twenty-four-hour bathhouses with private rooms had accepted everyone without ID up till 2008). But people today are beginning to think twice now that GPS, cellphone registration and WeChat transactions enable the police to determine you and your partner’s exact real-time location and potentially turn this information against you should you be committing adultery or some other illegitimate activity.

These days the entire hotel system in China is regulated. Four and five-star hotels are generally open to foreigners, for the benefit of the tourist industry. Three-star budget chains are hit and miss; some branches accept foreigners and others don’t, and they will never tell you why (one possible reason is that the forbidden branches are located near politically sensitive buildings or military compounds). My membership cards for the Jinjiang and Home Inn hotel chains allow me to register only at the foreigner-friendly branches whenever logging onto their website. One- and two-star hotels are mostly off-limits, though there are international backpacker-designated hostels. If you are staying with a friend who lives in China, by law they must escort you to the local police station to account for you. It’s illegal for a foreigner to pass a single night in China without being registered either with the police or a hotel; this applies equally to each party residing in the same room.

Woman injured by a Japanese bomb breastfeeding her baby (Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing)

The irony of China’s age-old xenophobia is that the Chinese were never any fonder of each other than they were of foreigners. Indeed, how can xenophobia even be possible outside a matrix of universal hate? Conversely, how can friendliness—natural friendliness, agape, or Chinese ren, benevolence—be in good conscience apportioned only to some and not to everyone?

The crucible of the Chungking experience effected some change for the better. The Japanese invasion of 1937 marked the culmination of a long and fitful process of foreign invasions of China in 1839, 1856 and 1900, from which the Middle Kingdom came to understand it was not the center of the world. This isn’t to suggest wars deserve to be characterized as consciousness-raising enterprises, yet by the early decades of the twentieth century the implacable hostility toward outsiders began to ease, and a tentative humaneness took hold. The number of foreigners had greatly increased, and they could travel freely. When Chungking became the wartime capital, the U.S. army placed outposts in the city and cooperated with the Chinese Government in bringing supplies through the Burma Road and fighter planes over the Himalayas. We have vivid eyewitness accounts of the daily bombing raids, infamous for their indiscriminateness and savagery, which the city endured over the four years of 1938–41. U.S. reporter Carl Crow relates surviving Chungking during the Spring 1939 bombardment, when thousands were killed on May 3–4 alone, in his lively journal entries compiled by Paul French in The Long Road Back to China: The Burma Road Wartime Diaries. Emily Hahn, of opium addict fame (Ch. 1), was also present in the city during much of 1939–40 while researching her book on the Soong sisters. As she described the city in her memoir China to Me, “Chungking was that town up at the other end of the Yangtze where the gunboats landed after they had gone through the Gorges. Chungking was a Godforsaken hole with a club in it and nothing whatever to do there but drink, ride funny little ponies up and down the hills, and play tennis wherever you could find a piece of ground level enough for a court.” Then when the bombings began, “life for a month or so was just one rush to get into a tunnel.”

Crow and Hahn both detail the extensive system developed by the government to minimize loss of life. An array of advance-warning lookout points hundreds of kilometers to the east spotted Japanese squadrons hours before they arrived. The first air raid siren sounded fifty minutes ahead of the bombers, giving people time to find a shelter. Anyone still out on the streets by the second warning, when the planes were close, was shot dead by the police; the Japanese bombed anything that moved, and this measure prevented bombs landing near shelters. The first shelters, deep holes tunneled directly into the hilly city’s rock, were incorrectly built; the concussion from an exploding bomb killed everyone inside. The solution was U-shaped tunnels with two entrances to reduce the impact of concussions. So many tunnels were drilled throughout the bombing years that they have been in continuous use for a variety of purposes ever since—metro system tunnels, parking garages, underground restaurants, as well as air raid shelters.

Hahn was as colorful a character as Isabella Bird, and a writer of equal stature. Inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in 1930 at the age of twenty-five she took a steamer up the Congo River as far as Stanleyville, before heading off to the Ituri Forest to live with an eccentric American named Patrick Putnam and his female slaves. When she had had enough of him, she made her way through the jungle on foot toward the African east coast, finally hitching a ride to Dar es Salaam. She arrived in Shanghai in 1935. Her social savvy and growing fame as a reporter and novelist gave her ready access to the International Settlement’s high society. She was the lover of Sir Victor Sassoon, the billionaire hotel operator, and posed nude for his erotic photography collection. He couldn’t control her, and she began associating with Chinese intellectuals and became the concubine of the aforementioned Chinese poet Zau Sinmay. When the Japanese attacked Shanghai in 1937, she let Zau’s circle operate a shortwave radio and printing press for the resistance movement in her French Concession basement, at the very time she was dating high-placed men in the Japanese military. They would later be of crucial help in her hardship years under the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (Cuthbertson; Grescoe).

A surviving Emily Hahn nude photographed by Victor Sassoon, circa 1935 (it’s unclear how a porn site acquired the right to stamp its brand on the photo).

By the time Hahn was forcibly repatriated from Hong Kong in 1943, few foreigners remained in China except a handful of destitute White Russians and Jews in Shanghai. Nor were the postwar years after the Japanese surrender an attractive time for foreigners to be in the country. A curious exception was the Friends Ambulance Unit China Convoy, a group of British and American doctors, nurses and mechanics based in Chungking, who ferried medical supplies around Sichuan under dangerous conditions and low pay. The unit’s leader, Jack Jones, contributed many journal articles of their activities, and these have been collated and edited by Andrew Hicks in Jones’ A True Friend to China: The Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody. Jones writes with a lascivious humor that today would be condemned as sexist yet is refreshing and revealing of foreign-Chinese interactions close-up. Of his own hospital stay during an illness he observed: “The first two mornings I was bathed by an exceptionally pretty little nurse, a native of Chungking, whose lingering and luxurious way with a hot towel did me a world of good: in fact it did me so much good that on the third day I put the nurse in bed and gave her a bath. Shortly afterwards I was discharged.” And this observation which only males of a certain old-school temperament can still appreciate:

In wintertime the Water Carrier’s daughter wears five gowns, three jerseys, two undervests, two pairs of long trousers and a pair of underpants; in summer she wears one gown and the underpants and a pair of sandals, and the top of the gown is practically always open down to her navel. Once in Mass Observation mood I tried to make a list of the exposed female bosoms I saw from my truck: ‘Number of women with one breast exposed, such and such a date, so many; number of women with two breasts exposed so and so; number of women with three…’ and so on. The numbers were surprisingly high, though I had to watch the road at least half the time I was doing my observations.

Hicks feels obliged to distance himself from Jones’ fixations with a bit of corrective sanctimony: “His big failing is women—he has an almost morbid sexual interest in them all, specializes in women’s cases in the clinic and in their structure and relationships in his writings, and when he falls in love, which is frequent, it is with the utmost infatuation and lack of control. He is Fleda’s little dog, doing her every bidding”—referring to Fleda Jones, a Black American nurse in the convoy, apparently the sole woman he was able to start up an intimate relationship with while in China. If I may intervene, Hicks misses the point in regarding sexual preoccupation as somehow incompatible with the priorities of postwar construction, as if people cooped up with the same coworkers in dormitories can somehow contribute to a greater good by repressing their sexual loneliness—instead of acting on it. On the contrary, isn’t it precisely wartime conditions that call for sexual freedom? If people are expected to survive under extreme circumstances and lose their life in an instant, why shouldn’t they be compensated with extreme forms of love? Years later in Thailand, Jones would write, under the pseudonym Jack Reynolds, a story collection based on his years in China, Daughters of an Ancient Race (out of print), and A Woman of Bangkok (1956), a fiery novel about a Thai prostitute (reviewed in Chapter 6). The Friends Ambulance Unit China Convoy saga came to a sad end in 1951 when the Communist authorities unceremoniously kicked them out of the country, with no subsequent official recognition for their years of heroic and life-saving service in the broken Sichuan countryside.

Chungking, now respelled Chongqing, disappeared from awareness over the succeeding decades. Not being one of the major designated tourist cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an—since China’s opening up in the 1980s, it only reentered Western consciousness as the starting point for the Three Gorges Yangtze River tour. “Chongqing is still a grim and unlovely city, though now with sixteen million people crammed into its hilly streets, compared with the 600,000 who lived there back when it was China’s capital [in the war years],” wrote Simon Winchester in the mid-1990s.

Chongqing’s population has now doubled to over thirty million, partly as a result of its 1997 conversion to an independent municipality encompassing surrounding rural territory. Far from being grim and unlovely, it is rapidly becoming a spectacular city, with a skyline that rivals Shanghai’s. The Jialing and the Yangtze Rivers bounding the city’s pointed peninsula to the north and the south is reminiscent of the Hudson and East Rivers bounding Manhattan, while the dramatic topography if anything surpasses San Francisco’s. The metro system is comprehensive and includes several breathtaking elevated lines striding the downtown cityscape. Recreated “ancient streets” such as Ciqikou (磁器口), Tanzishi (弹子石), and Longmenhao (龙门浩) have added a bit of historical flavor beyond the usual wartime memorials and museums. While Chongqing lags behind Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in cultural sophistication and Western amenities (cuisine, bars, cafés), it is catching up.

The great westward expeditions of the nineteenth century haven’t been forgotten. The travel classics cited above, Edwin Dingle’s Across China on Foot and Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, came to my attention through the efforts of Graham Earnshaw of Earnshaw Books, who published them in reprinted editions and was himself so inspired by them that he undertook his own journey to Sichuan Province in 2004. Bird proceeded on land by coolie-carried sedan chair when boat travel wasn’t possible, while Dingle insisted on walking whenever on land, appalling behavior in the eyes of the Chinese but unsurprising for a foreign barbarian. Earnshaw set about walking the entire route, with a disabled leg and a limp into the bargain, hugging the Yangzte by cliff-edge trails from above. Several modern advantages made his journey easier, if still heroically strenuous: law and order, which protected him from bandits; cellphone satellite tracking to keep him on route; fluency in the language after decades of residence in China (Bird and Dingle had no Mandarin); and air travel—Earnshaw didn’t complete the journey all at once but in intervals over a six-year period, flying back to Shanghai to attend to his publishing business and returning to the exact point where he had last left off. The result, The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet (2010), is unique among China travelogues, although earlier fare such as Alan Booth’s The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk through Japan (1985) comes to mind.

To plan and undertake such a journey requires a clear purpose and methodology, lest one get sidetracked. It’s a tricky balancing act: Is the traveler just passing through with only limited time on hand? Or does he or she have scope and leisure to stop and linger, meet people, make friends, and even get caught up in their affairs? Earnshaw is a most charming travel companion, treating every person he encounters—from children to the elderly, from tramps to farmers—with equal courtesy and curiosity, saying hello to everyone, chatting and walking with them, finding out more about them, inviting them to dinner at the local restaurant, and even getting their contact information, before moving on to the next town or village:

It was a long and featureless road, relieved for a while by four eight-year-old girls who wanted to talk to me. Their leader, named Ms Li, was extremely smart and asked lots of good questions.

“What do you think of Chinese people?” she asked.

“They are people, just like people everywhere,” I replied.

Earnshaw then characteristically quips, turning his companion’s question around, “What do you think of Chinese people?”

Where the nineteenth-century Western expeditioner had to deal with the mob, Earnshaw has to deal with the police. They appear out of the woodwork at every turn, demanding to know what he’s doing and suspiciously inspecting his passport, but he treats them with the same respect as he treats everyone else, politely asking them to present their badge (to guard against imposters) and inviting them to dinner. Though he is never arrested, Earnshaw’s most interesting encounters and friction points in the intractable cultural divide are with the police. We await the day when this is no longer the case.

Chongqing across the Yangtze River (photo by Isham Cook, 2019)

Works cited

Bird, Isabella. The Englishwoman in America (John Murray, 1856).

Bird, Isabella. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (John Mur-ray, 1879).

Bird, Isabella. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (John Murray and G. P. Putnam, 1899; Earnshaw Books, 2008).

Blakiston, Thomas. Five Months on the Yang-Tsze and Notices of the Present Rebellions in China (John Murray, 1862).

Booth, Alan. The Roads to Sata: A 2,000-Mile Walk through Japan (John Weatherhill, 1985).

Cooper, Thomas. Travels of a Pioneer of Commerce in Pigtail and Petticoats or, an Overland Journey from China towards India (John Murray, 1871).

Crow, Carl. The Long Road Back to China: The Burma Road Wartime Diaries. Ed. Paul French (Earnshaw Books, 2009).

Cuthbertson, Ken. Nobody Said Not to Go: The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn (Open Road Media, 2016).

Dingle, Edwin. Across China on Foot (Henry Holt and J. W. Arrowsmith, 1911; Earnshaw Books, 2007).

Earnshaw, Graham. The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet (Blacksmith Books, 2010).

Gibson, Carrie. El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019).

Gill, William. The River of Golden Sand: Being the Narrative of a Journey through China and Eastern Tibet to Burmah (John Murray 1883).

Grescoe, Taras. Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World (St. Martin’s, 2016).

Hahn, Emily. “The big smoke,” The New Yorker (February 15, 1969).

Hahn, Emily. China to Me (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1944; Open Road, 2014).

Jones, Jack. A True Friend to China: The Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody. Ed. Andrew Hicks (Earnshaw Books, 2015).

Lee, James S. The Underworld of the East (orig. pub. 1935; Green Magic, 2000).

Leffman, David. The Mercenary Mandarin: How a British Adventurer Became a General in Qing-Dynasty China (Blacksmith Books, 2016).

Little, Archibald John. Through the Yang-tse Gorges or Trade and Travel in Western China (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1888).

Livingstone, David. The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (John Murray, 1874).

Livingstone, David. Missionary Travels (John Murray, 1857).

Margary, Augustus. The Journal of Augustus Raymond Margary: From Shanghae to Bhamo and Back to Manwyne (Macmillan & Co., 1876).

Reynolds, Jack. A Woman of Bangkok (Secker & Warburg, 1956, orig. pub. under the title A Sort of Beauty; Monsoon Books, 2011).

Stanley, Henry Morton. Through the Dark Continent (Harper, 1878).

Tong, Benson. Unsubmissive Women: Chinese Prostitutes in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (U of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

Wilson, J. Wallace. “A word about Chung-king and the way to it,” London Missionary Society (November, 1893).

Winchester, Simon. The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time (Henry Holt & Co., 1996).

*     *     *

Of related interest by Isham Cook:

Out of the squalor and into the light: When the Shanghai Wall came down
The literature of paralysis: The China PC scene and the expat mag crowd
The ventriloquist’s dilemma: Asexual Anglo travelogues of China

Like this post? Buy the book (see contents). Now available on Amazon:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.