Letter VI

LETTER VI (PROFUSION)   55″ x 45″   2008

This painting incorporates fourteen lines of writing. The words were originally done in pencil on April 18, 1911 in a cloth bound journal kept by a young man travelling up-river through the Yangtze Gorges.

The water is very low, and the tracking path very high. – in fact in many places there is no path at all … I was ashore all the afternoon walking until we tied up at 7:30 pm. All along the path one could recognize plants well known – the wild rose in profusion, the whitethorn, and the ash. Larches and pines in clumps are exceedingly common, but bamboo seems scarce.

A few days earlier Alexander Wallas, then twenty-five years old, from England, had boarded a small wooden boat on the riverside at the Yangtze port of Yichang and set off for the city of Chongqing far up the river. The trip took three weeks. His employer, the Imperial Maritime Customs Service, which was established by the European powers and Japan to control the revenue from China’s foreign trade, had assigned him to a new post in the interior. Wallas’ trip involved a journey against the current through the Yangtze Gorges, pulled by shore trackers hauling on ropes. It was a method of transportation that had little changed in a thousand years. Railways had not yet penetrated to the upper Yangtze, although everywhere railway construction was visible. Because cliffs and rocky gorges made the swift current virtually impassable, large ships could not pass north of Yichang.

Wallas’ destination, Chonqing, had been opened to foreign settlement only fifteen years before. In 1896 Japan fought an unprovoked and aggressive war against China. After China’s defeat foreigners obtained the right to establish traders and missionaries in Chongqing. It became the farthest inland point where the West and Japan acquired extraterritorial rights.

I have the original journal kept by Wallas. On the day he wrote these sentences his boat was entering Wushan Gorge. The full complement of his crew was twenty-three people, including 8 boat crew and 15 shore trackers. Some of the crew were carried on a second boat. They went about 30 miles a day, stopping along the shore at night. When they entered the rapids they relied on the shore trackers, who in teams pulled the boat up-river on long ropes from paths high up on the steep cliff sides.

Wallas was meticulous in recording the names of villages and bays, which he wrote out in Chinese. He was fluent in writing and speaking the language. His notes are full of details about the distances travelled each day and the changing winds and currents. He notices the vegetation and topography of the shoreline. When walking along the shore he names the trees that are familiar to him from his own English landscape. But he shows no interest, in his journal, in the people he is among.

Gunboats and repeated wars had opened the Yangtze as a trade route into the deep interior of China. When anti-foreign feeling in the north of China exploded in the Boxer Rebellion around Beijing in 1900, the British and other “allied” powers brutally suppressed the uprising. The British fought two earlier “wars of choice” against China in 1839 and 1860. The decisive battles of the earlier wars took place in inshore waters, in the estuary of the Pearl River upstream from Macau and around the mouth of the Yangtze – where the Chinese sail-driven vessels could not be easily manoeuvred. At that fatal moment of confrontation between two cultures, the Royal Navy was just beginning to introduce steam-powered , iron-hulled warships. H.M.S. Nemesis was a paddle-wheel vessel driven by six boilers fuelled by coal. It could operate in shallow waters and fired heavy explosives. Nemesis was the “smart weapon” of its age, present when Shanghai was taken, threading its way through the Yangtze and then up the bending arm of the Huangpo. The ease and confidence with which Wallas travelled up the river rested uneasily on sixty years of violence.

For two days Wallas passed through the Wushan Gorge. On April 23 at the end of the day his boat arrived just above Qutang Gorge and reached a place called Kweizhuo, a walled town. He spent the night moored outside the town. It was too late in the evening, he recorded, to go into the city. Kweizhou then was a small frontier custom station.

It was in this same remote river-side city that the poet Du Fu (712-770) spent two years in exile, taking refuge from a terrible civil war that had spread through the interior of China. Du Fu wrote a series of eight poems about this place called the Autumn Meditations. There is no indication in his journal that Wallas was aware of Kweizhou’s connection with Du Fu or that he knew anything about the poems.

The Autumn Meditations were written in 766. The civil war was in its tenth year. Du Fu had fled the capital Ch’ang-an (modern Xian) which was a cosmopolitan city of over a million people. In one of his poems he describes the far-away capital as “like a chess board”, alluding to both its vast urban grid of streets and the fateful game of politics and war.

Today Kweizhou has more or less vanished. The Yangtze Dam project which became fully operational in 2008 has raised the level of the river about 300 feet, creating a reservoir that extends 400 miles. The entire shoreline around Kweizhou with all its villages and cultivated hillsides has gone.

The series of eight poems, written by a man who lived there for two years 1300 years ago, includes a sensitively drawn landscape. The time is autumn. The late afternoon sun cuts in low, diagonal lines across the whitewashed city wall. At night the moon illuminates wisteria vines on the wall and reeds growing along the shore. “A thousand houses rimmed by the mountains are quiet in the morning light”. The trees he named are the maples. He writes of the wind, the mist, the violence of the waves, and the desolation. When the dark clouds descend into the canyon and the thunderous waves surge upwards, it is as if the sky has come down to touch the earth. The extreme conditions confound the natural order of things. These images of gloom and disorder prefigure the next five poems, which recount the catastrophic disorder unleashed by the war that began in 756. He recalls the elegance of the peacetime capital.

In the seventh poem, in words that apply readily to our own time, he sees the immeasurable loss of war:

Look back with pity at the singing, dancing land.


The translation of two lines from the Autumn Meditations are by A.C. Graham, Poems of the Late Tang, Penguin 1965. I have never been to the site of Kweizhou. Other transliterations of the name are Kw’eichow and K’ueichou. Recent maps show Baidicheng, which various accounts say was situated so close to Kweizhou that they were virtually indistinguishable. The rise in the level of the river has now submerged most of Baidicheng, leaving only the highest part as an island.