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Map of Yangtze RiverYangtze River

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BOATS GREAT AND SMALL
                                --by Judy Bonavia


  The traditional Chinese boats that navigated the Yangtze were sanpan (meaning Three planks), the larger--sized wupan (five planks) and junks. Their sails were Tall to capture any Yangtze Cruisewelcome breeze. And stiffened by bamboo battens. The Sculling oar, or yulo, was extremely long with normally four men working it. Mats overhead provided shelter for passengers, decks were covered with coils Of bamboo rope. Local pilots were hired to negotiate the most difficult rapids.

  Their instructions were relayed to the harnessed trackers pulling the long Hauling ropes--often far ahead of the boat--by a drum beaten at different Rhythms. Large freight junks often required 300 or 400 trackers as well as groups of strong swimmers who would loosen the ropes should they snag on rocks along the way.

  An eighth--century poem gives a compelling picture of the gruelling drudgery of a boat puller's life:

A Boatman's song

 Oh, it's hard to grow up at the way-station side !
 The officials've set me to pullin' station boats,
 Painful days are more. happy days are few.
 Slippin' on water, walkin' on sand, lake birds of the sea;
 Against the wind, upstream. a load of ten thousand bushels.
 Ahead, the station's far away, behind, it's water everywhere !
 Midnight on the dikes, there's snow and there's rain,
 From up top our orders : you still have to go again!
 Our clothes are wet and cold beneath our short rain cloaks.
 Our hearts're broke, our feet're split, how can we stand the pain?
 Till break of dawn we suffer, there's no one we can tell,
 With one voice we trudge along, singing as we pull;
 A thatch-roofed house, what's it worth,
 When we can't get back to the place of our birth!
 I would that this river turn to farm plots,
 And long may we boatmen stop cursing our lots.
                                         Wang Qian (768--833)

  They were truly beasts of burden, as observed by an American, Wlliam L Hall, and his wife, who spent several weeks on a small Chinese cargo--boat in l922:

  If the boat happens to turn about when it is struck by a cross-current. a call from the pilot
brings all the trackers to their knees or makes them dig their toes into the dirt. Another call makes them either claw the earth or catch their fingers over projecting stones. Then they standTravel China perfectly still to hold the boat. When it is righted, another call makes them let Up gradually and then begin again their hard pull.

  Passengers usually took kuaize--large wupan--and paid for the Yichang-Chongqing trip l85 cash for every 100 li (l8 cents for every 50 kilometers , or 30 miles). They would also supply wine for the crew, and incense and fireworks for a propitious journey. Going upriver, this journey used to take as 1ong as 40-50 days in the high-water period and 30 days in 1ow water, depending on the size of the boat, while the downriver trip could be comp1eted in 5--12 days. At the end of the journey the passengers might buy some pork as a feast for the crew.
River life was varied along the Yangtze and its tributaries. Big junks, fitted out as theatres, sailed between the towns to give performances of Chinese opera or juggling. Some boats were built as hotels, offering accommodation to travellers arriving too late at night to enter the city gates. Others were floating restaurants and tea-houses, not to mention boats which were a source of livelihood as well as home to the numerous fisherfoIk and their families.

  Peasants along the lower and middle Yangtze first set eyes on foreign men-of war and steamers when Britain's Lord Elgin Journeyed as far as Wuhan (Han-kow) in l842. Although the Chinese had in fact invented the paddle wheel (worked probably by the treadmill system) for driving their battleships as early as the eighth century, paddle boats were not widely used. In an incident on Dongting Lake in 1135, they were proved positively useless when the enemy threw straw matting on the water and brought the paddle wheels to a stop. They seem not to have been used since.

   With the opening up of the Yangtze ports to foreign trade in the latter half of the l9th century, foreign shallow draught paddle steamers and Chinese junks worked side by side. But the traditiona1 forms of river transport slowly became obsolete, and were confined to the Yang2i tributaries for transporting goods to the distribution centres.

  Early Western shipping on the Shanghai-Muhan stretch of the river was dominated by Americans, whose experience of paddle steamers on the Mississippi and other rivers had put them to the fore. The American firm of Russell and Company was the leading shipping and trading concern in those  years. A fifth of the foreign trade was in opium shipped up to Wuhan. By the late l860s, British companies such as Jardine & Matheson and Butterfield & Swire had successfully challenged the American supremacy. Accommodation on the companies' river boats was luxurious, and trade was brisk.

  The Whhan--Yichang stretch was pioneered by an English trader, Archibald Little, who stablished a regular passenger service in l884 with his small steamer Y-Lillg. In his book Through the Yang-tse Gorges, he described the bust1ing scene on the river:
The lively cry of the trackers rings in my ears, and will always be associated in my mind with the rapids of the Upper Yangtze. This cry is 'Chor--Chor', said to mean 'Shang-chor',or 'Put your shoulder to it', 'it' being the line which is slung over the shoulder of each tracker, and attached Io the quarter-mile-long tow-rope of plaited bamboo by a hitch,which can be instantaneously cast off and rehitched. The trackers mark time with this cry,swinging their arms to and fro at each short step, their bodies bent forward, so that their fingers almost touch the ground...Eighty or a hundred men make a tremendous noise at this work, almost drowning the roar of the rapids, and often half a dozen junks' crews are towing like this, one behind the other. From the solemn SIillne5s of the gorge to the lively commotion of a rapid, the contrast is most striking.

  Other companies soon followed, but none dared travel this route at night.Again, it was Archibald Little's perseverance that brought about steamship navigation through the gorges above Yichang to Chongqing. Acting as captain and engineer, he successfully navigated his l7-metre (55--foot) Leechuan up to Chongqing in l898, though he still needed (trackers to pull him over the worst rapids.

  During the heyday of the Yangtze in the l920s and l930s, travel by steamer from Shanghai all the way up to Chongqing wn5 luxurious though not cntircly safe. Halfway, al Wuhan, passengers had to change to smaller boats for the rest of the journey.
  After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, emphasis was placed on making the Yangtze safe for navigation all year round, and all the major obstructions were blown up. The Yangtze today is still a vital artery. Many river (owns are almost entirely dependent on it for connecting 1hem to each other.The regular ferries and boats, offering a range of accommodation, always overflow with passengers. There arc also luxury cruise boat5 which normally ply the route from Chongqing to Wuhan or Yichang,. There are now more than 30 of these cruise boats, carrying from about 60 to over 200 passengers.

The Source to Yichang

•Boats Great and Small