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The Adventures of Huc

Evariste Regis Huc was a French Roman Catholic missionary born in 1812 who had some extraordinary adventures, travelling about China and Central Asia in the 1840s and 1850s, when most of that part of the world had still yet to be visited by a white man. He was a deeply religious man, and fanatically devoted to the work of spreading the Good Word amongst the Chinese pagans. But even though he spoke Chinese, his contempt for his would-be flock sometimes overflowed, especially when discussing their ungratefulness at not welcoming the Roman Catholic faith en masse with open arms.

Huc was sent by the Vincentian order to Macao in 1839, and for the next five years lived and worked in a number of places in both southern and northern China. In 1844, he set out from To-lun (?), a town north of Peking, and travelled to Tibet with a fellow French missionary, Joseph Gabet. They reached Lhasa in January 1846 and were welcomed by the Tibetans. But the Imperial Chinese representative in Lhasa had Huc and Gabet expelled from Tibet.

His exploits on the trip to Tibet are recounted in his book “Travels to Tartary and Thibet”.

His book “Travels in the Chinese Empire” takes up the story as Huc and Gabet are escorted eastwards from Tibet into China. As the English translator puts it in his introduction, much of the book is taken up with an account of “the curious game carried on between the eternal shuffling trickeries of the Mandarins, and courage, humour and audacity of the missionaries”.

The progress of Huc and Gabet out of Tibet and through China was in marked conract to their secret journey from Macao up to Northern China, and from there west to Tibet. They were now travelling openly in the company of Mandarins, being escorted in the first place to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province where their fate would be decided.

The first town they came into after leaving Tibet was called Ta-tsien-lou, and Huc decided a show of strength was necessary to let the Mandarins know who was in charge.

“There was no middle course” we must either submit to their will or make them submit to ours.” For a start, the head Mandarin in Ta-tsien-lou would not allow the two missionaries to continue the journey in palanquins, the litters carried usually by four men. “He was obliged to give way, however, thanks to the energy and perseverance of our protests.”

There was also the question of what Huc and Gabet should wear for the journey. They decided to abandon their Tibetan furs smelling strongly of mutton and yak butter, and had some Chinese gowns made complete with red sashes and embroidered yellow caps. The authorities were outraged at this, as the red sash and yellow cap were supposed to be worn only by members of the Imperial family. Huc insisted, however, saying that as strangers they were not bound to follow the conventions of the Chinese empire. “Our obstinacy was not to be overcome — and the mandarins submitted — as they ought to do.”

They started out along the high road between Tibet and Chengdu, passing long lines of coolies transporting brick tea from China towards Tibet. “As our palanquin approached, they lifted up their heads and cast on us a furtive and painfully stupid look. And this, said we sadly, is what civilization, when corrupt and without religious faith, is able to make of man created in the image of God.”

They entered the more heavily-populated areas of Sichuan province, and as they passed along the increasingly-broad roads bordered by well-tended fields and ever-more numerous villages, the locals flocked out to gaze in astonishment on the two men from the Western Seas.

“The peasants abandoned their field labors, to run and post themselves on the road side to see us pass by. At the entrance of the towns, especially, the curious came thronging about us in such numbers that the palanquins could scarcely make their way through the throng. Our bearers cociferated, the soldiers who formed our escort tried to disperse them by dealing out blows right and left with their rattans, and while we advanced, as through the midst of an insurrection, all those thousands of little Chinese eyes were peering into our palanquins with the most eager curiousity. Loud remarks were made, without the smallest ceremony, on the cut of our physiognomies, our beards, noses, eyes, costume — nothing was forgotten. Some appeared pretty well satisfied with us, but others burst into shouts of laughter, as soon as they caught sight of what seemed to them our burlesque European features. A magic effect was, however, produced by the yellow cap and red sash, those who first discovered them, pointed them out to their neighbors with evident amazement, and their faces immediately assumed a grave and severe expression. Some said that the Emperor had charged us with an extraordinary mission, and that he had himself bestowed on us these Imperial decorations. Others were of opinion that we were European spies who had been arrested in Thibet, and that we were to be tried as a preparatory ceremony to that of having our heads cut off. These various opinions which we heard expressed all around us, were sometimes amusing, but most frequently, it must be owned, vexatious.”

At the town of Ya-tcheou, the natives became even more aroused by the presence of white men, and crowded into the inn in which Huc and his party were staying, clamouring for a view of the Europeans.

“The matter was now becoming serious, and it was evidently important to let them see who was master. By a sudden inspiration we seized a long and thick bamboo, which happened to be lying near the door of the room, and the poor Chinese, imagining no doubt that we intended to knock them down with it, tumbled over each other in their haste to get away. We than ran to the door of the room occupied by our Mandarin conductor, who, not knowing what to do in the riot, had he thought himself of the safe expedient of hiding himself. But as soon as we had found him, without giving him time to speak, or even to think, we seized him by the arm, clapped on his head his official hat, and dragged him along as fast as we could run to the gate of the inn. Then we thrust into his hands the great bamboo with which we had armed ourselves, and enjoined him to stand sentinel. “If,” said we, “a single individual passes that gate, you are a lost man;” and hearing us talk in this grand style, the poor man took it seriously and did not dare to stir. The people in the street burst out laughing, for it was something new to see a military Mandarin mounting guard with a long bamboo perfectly quiet up to the time of our going to bed, the guard was then relieved, and our warrior laid down his arms and returned to his room, to console himself by smoking some pipes of tobacco.

Those who do not know the Chinese, will doubtless be scandalized at our behavior, and will blame us severely. They will ask, what right we had to make this Mandarin ridiculous and expose him to the laughter of the people. The right, we answer, that every man had to provide for his personal safety.”

Huc found out that their Mandarin guides were cheating them by lodging them in cheap inns and pocketing most of the amount provided for their accommodation and food.

They stopped for afternoon tea at a large Buddhist monastery. Huc says the monks there were full of courtesy, “but we could not discover many signs of faith or devotion in their skeptical and cunning faces”.

Twelve days after leaving the border town of Ta-tsien-lou, they arrived in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. As they approached the town walls, a detail of soldiers appeared to escort them through the crowded streets.

“Our hearts beat somewhat quicker than usual, for we knew that we were about to be brought to trial by order of the Emperor. Were we to be sent to Pekin, to Canton, or to another world. There had been nothing to alarm us hitherto, but in the absolute uncertainty of what we had to expect, it was pardonable that we should experience a little emotion.”

Huc was impressed by Chengdu, especially after the primitive hardships of the Tibetan plateau. “The principal streets are of a good width, paved entirely with large flagstones, and so clean that you can scarcely, as you pass through them, believe yourself to be in a Chinese town.”

They were taken to a tribunal where they impressed the local Mandarin by being able to read a wall inscription in the Manchu language. They were lodged in another tribunal, and the next morning received an invitation to dinner from the local prefect. The two missionaries were joined by two Mandarins who discreetly attempted to pump Huc and his colleague for information about where they had been and what they had been doing. But they had fun dodging the Mandarins’ questions. When tea was served at the end of the meal, one of the Mandarins went out and came back with a bible and a crucifi which he said a Christian had given him as a present.

Huc opened the Bible and found inside the name of a French missionary who had been put to death in Chengdu in 1815 after having been condemned in the tribunal where the dinner was being held. The Mandarins, when told this, seemed astonished, and told Huc that whoever had told him this “fable” must have been joking.

Four days after their arrival in Chengdu, the two missionaries were informed that they were to be brought to trial. “This news, as may well be supposed, was to us matter of great interest. A trial in China, and by order of the Emperor, was no trifle. Many of our now happy predecessors had only entered the tribunals to be tortured, and left them to suffer glorious martyrdom.

They were escorted to the tribunal which they found surrounded by a huge crowd. “The Mandarins who were to take part in the ceremonial arrived in succession, followed by suites of attendants, who had uncommonly the appearance of gangs of thieves. The satellites ran backward and forward, in their long red robes, and hideous peaked hats of black felt or iron wire, surmounted by long pheasant’s feathers. They were armed with long rusty swords, and carried chains, pincers, and various instruments of torture, of strong and terrible forms.” Huc assumed the idea was to try and frighten them.

“At length every one had found his place, and the tumult was succeeded by a profound silence. a moment afterward a terrible cry, uttered by a great number of voices, was heard in the hall of audience, it was repeated three times, and our companions told us that it was on the judges making their solemn entry and installing themselves behind, and the two accused persons walked thus to judgement. A great door was then suddenly opened, and we beheld, at a glance, the numerous personages of this Chinese performance. Twelve stone steps led up to the vast inclosure where the judges were placed, on each side of this staircase was a line of executioners in red dresses, and when the accused passed tranquilly through their ranks, they all cried out with a loud voice, “Tremble! Tremble!” and rattled their instruments of torture. We were stopped at about the middle of the hall, and then eight officers of the court proclaimed in a chanting voice the customary formula: “Accused! on your knees! on your knees! The accused remained silent and motionless. The summons was repeated, but there was still no alteration in their attitude. The two officers with the Crystal Ball, now thought themselves called on to come to our assistance, and pulled our arms to help us to kneel down. But a solemn look and some few emphatic words sufficed to make them let go their hold. They even judged it expedient to retire a little, and kept a respectful distance.”

Huc informed the judges: “Every empire has its own customs and manners.” The judges decided to ignore the lack of manners shown by the French missionaries.

The Inspector Crimes, “a wrinkled old man with a face like a polecat”, began the interrogation. “He discoursed with great volubility concerning the majesty of the Celestial Empire, and the inviolability of its territory, reproached us with our Audacity, with our vagabondizing life about the provinces and among the tributary nations, and then fired off at us a volley of questions, which certainly proved his eager desire to become acquainted with every particular concerning us. He asked who had introduced us to the Empire, with whom we had entered into any relation, whether there were many European missionaries in China, where they lived, what resources they could command for their subsistence, and finally, a crowd of questions that appeared to us exceedingly impertinent. His tone and manner, too, were by no means in accordance with politeness and “the rites;” and it became necessary to give this man a lesson, and moderate his impetuosity. While he was perorating at a great rate, and allowing his eloquence to overflow into all sorts of subjects, we listened to him with great calmness and patience. When he had finished, we said to him: “We men of the West, you see, like to discuss matters of business with coolness and method, but your language had been so diffuse and violent, that we have scarcely been able to make out your meaning. Be so good as to begin again, and express your thoughts more clearly and more peaceably.”

The inspector of Crimes spluttered angrily at this slight, and the president of the court took up the questioning, asking who had brought them to China and with whom they had lodged. Huc replied that, sadly, they could not answer.

Another court official then gave them a sheet of paper on which were crudely written the letters of the European alphabet, and told Huc to read them out.

“One of us had the complaisance to speak solemnly his A B C, and during the time, each of the judges drew from his boot, which in China often serves for a pocket, a copy of the alphabet, in which the pronunciation of every European letter had been given, better or worse, in Chinese characters. It seems that this incident had been concerted and prepared beforehand. Every judge had his eyes intently fixed upon the paper, and doubtless promised himself to make in this one lesson great progress in a European language. The Assessor of the Left, keeping his eyes and the forefinger of his right hand fixed on the first letter, and addressing himself to the one of the prisoners who had just said A B C, begged him to repeat the letters slowly, and pause a little on each. The prisoner, however, making four steps forward, and politely extending his alphabet toward the philological judge, observed: “I had thought we came here to submit to trial, but it seems we came to be schoolmasters, and you to be our scholars.'”

The tribunal members shook with laughter. The president enquired as to why the French bothered to send people to make Christians in China, and asked for some information on the Christian religion, which Huc eagerly gave. Finally, the president called for an adjournment and two days later, the missionaries were informed that there would be no need of a second judicial examination, and that they were to be summoned before the provincial viceroy to be told what had been decided regarding their fates.

They were transported to the mansion of the viceroy Pao-hing, a cousin of the Emperor himself, in two sumptuous state palanquins. They were ushered into Pao-hing’s presence, and after some polite conversation, the viceroy asked the two missionaries to stand beside him.

“He set himself to take a deliberate survey of our personal appearance first of one and then of the other, while he at the same time amused himself by turning in his mouth fragments of the Areca nut, which the Mantchous like so much to chew. He took several pinches of snuff also, out of a little phial, and had the courtesy to offer it to us, though without speaking, and still seeming as profoundly occupied with observing our features as if he were about to take our portraits. We considered that he admired our beauty, for he asked whether we had any medicine or recipe for preserving that fresh and florid complexion. We replied that the temperament of Europeans differed much form that of the Chinese, but that in all countries a sober and well regulated course of life was the best means of preserving health.”

The viceroy asked them where they wanted to go, and the missionaries said they wanted to return to Tibet. The viceroy rejected this idea immediately, saying: “Thibet is a good-for- nothing place”, and adding: “Now that you are here, I must send you to Canton.”

“Since we are not free, send us where you please,” replied Huc.

The viceroy decreed that Huc and Gabet could rest in Chengdu for a while and would then be escorted to Canton, the large port in southern China which was at that time still virtually the only place in China where foreigners were allowed to go, in spite of the Opium War a few years earlier and the treaty Britain had forced China to sign, opening up other ports to foreigners and foreign trade.

After fifteen days in Chengdu, Huc was “beginning to get exceedingly tired of the city”, so he let the viceroy know that they were anxious to start their journey, and it was decided that they should leave in two days time.

They were immediately inundated with requests from various Mandarins to be allowed to be their escort to Wuchang, the capital of Hubei province to the east. “All these candidates were, if you could take their word for it, absolutely perfect men.” They explained to Huc how they were experienced, possessed the “five cardinal virtues”, and knew the country to be traversed well.

“What all these fine things really meant,” said Huc, “was that there was a little fortune to be gained by him who should have the chance to escort us. According to the benevolent intentions of the viceroy, we were to travel like government officers of rank. In that case extraordinary contributions would be levied on all the countries through which we passed to provide for our expenses and those of our escort, and the gentlemen who desired so greatly to be our conductors thought to profit by our inexperience in such matters and retain for their own share the greater part of the funds that would be allotted for the purpose by the tribunals on our road. There exist every minute regualtions concerning these sorts of journeys, but they thought we should know nothing about them. We took very good care, however, not to choose our conductors ourselves, we preferred leaving the appointment to the superior authorities, reserving in this manner the right of complaining if things did not afterward turn out to our satisfaction.”

Two Mandarins were chosen for them. One was a literary scholar named Ting, a man “of the middle size, very thin, marked with the small-pox and worm out with the use of opium, a great talker and exceedingly ignorant.” The other was a young military officer, an opium addict like Ting, but “more polished and courteous”.

Inspired by these two, Huc discourses at length on the evils of the god-less Chinese government and society, but adds: “We must not wholly despise the Chinese, there may be even much that is admirable and instructive in their ancient and curious institutions.”

But when discussing the apparent reluctance of the Chinese people to embrace the one true faith, Roman Catholicism, Huc’s anger and frustration spills over. “Truly lamentable is this obstinacy of the Chinese people in rejecting, disdainfully, the treasure of faith, that Europe has never ceased to offer with so much zeal, devotion, and perseverance. No other nation has excited such lively solicitude on the part of the church, no sacrifice has been spared for its sake, and yet it is the one, of all, that has proved most rebellious. The soil has been prepared and turned in all directions with patience and intelligence, it has been watered by sweat and tears, and enriched with the blood of martyrs, the evangelical seed has been sown in it with profusion, the Christian world has poured forth prayers, to draw upon it the blessing of Heaven, and yet it is still as sterile as ever, and the time of the harvest is not yet come.”

He laments at the failure of previous attempts to introduce Christianity to China, both by the Nestorian Christians more than a thousand years ago, and by the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Religious ideas, do not, it must be owned, strike very deep root in this country,” says Huc. “A melancholy trait is it in the character of this people, that Christian truth does but glide over its surface!”

Again and again, he says, China had disappointed the Church, and converts seemed reluctant to die for their faith as proud marytrs, inexplicably preferring to renounce their faith in the face of official persecution. But “the Church is never discouraged. The moment circumstances appeared in the slightest degree more favorable, Evangelical labourers presented themselves, no less zealous and devoted than their predecessors.”

Huc says the propagation of the Gospel was not going well. Jesuits no longer had a place in court, and Catholic priests had to slip into the country in secret and lived in fear of being discovered by the authorities. The work of recruiting and training local priests was desperately slow, but had to be continued if Roman Catholicism was to one day save the whole Empire. “It is they who can act most directly on the infidels, instruct them in the truths of religion, and exhort them to renounce the superstitions of Buddhism. But unfortunately, their zeal for the conversion of their brethren is seldom very ardent, and they need to be constantly kept up to the mark by all kinds of encouragements.”

He estimates that at the time of writing — the late 1850s — there were perhaps 800,000 Christians in the Chinese empire, out of a total population of maybe 300 million.

“Such an amount of success is not, it must be owned, very encouraging when it is remembered that it is the result of many centuries of preaching, and of the efforts of countless missionaries. It is natural that our readers should ask what may be considered the cause of this deplorable sterility. First, then, it is indisputable that, as the Government is opposed to Christianity, the timid and pusillanimous Chinese will have no great inclination to profess it, to brave the hostility of the Mandarins, and defying persecution, to exclaim with pious daring, “It is better to disobey man that God!” They will excuse themselves by referring to the prohibition of the Emperor.”

Huc defends the Church and its missionaries from the charge that they are the vanguard of European imperialism, although he admits that with European nations busily establishing colonies in all parts of the Orient, the Chinese authorities could be forgiven for their suspicions.

“The Chinese, therefore, are thoroughly convinced that, under pretence of religion, we are really manoeuvring for the invasion of the Empire, and the overthrow of the dynasty, and it must be owned, that they have under their eyes certain facts that have no tendency to convince them of their mistake.”

The Chinese government was continuing with its persecution of Chinese Christians in the belief that all Christians were in reality spies for the European powers, but Huc adds that the real reason for the Church’s lack of success lay elsewhere, in the Chinaman’s lack of religious conviction.

“It is this radical, profound indifference to all religion — an indifference that is scarcely conceivable by any who have not witnessed it — which is in our opinion the real, grand obstacle that has so long opposed the progress of Christianity in China. The Chinese is so completely absorbed in temporal interests, in the things that fall under his senses, that his whole life is only materialism put in action. Lucre is the sole object on which his eyes are constantly fixed. A burning thirst to realize some profit, great or small, absorbs all his faculties — the whole energy of his being. He never pursues any thing with ardor but riches and material injoyments. God — the soul — a future life — he believes in none of them, or, rather, he never thinks about them at all. If he ever takes up a moral or religious book, it is only by way of amusement — to pass the time away. It is a less serious occupation than smoking a pipe, or drinking a cup of tea.”

After this aside on the dire state of Christianity in China, Huc picks up his narrative again as they are leaving Chengdu on their way eastwards.

“After a three hours’ march, we reached a Koung-kouan, or communal palace, where we were to rest for a little while and take some refreshments.” On the orders of the provincial Viceroy, the local mandarins had prepared iced lemonade for them — the viceroy had found out that Europeans disapproved of the Chinese habit of drinking hot tea during the summer, and preferred cool drinks. Huc once more praises the Manchu Viceroy, and adds that “in general, we have met with much more devotion of characters among the Manchus than the Chinese — always more generosity and less treachery.”

The very first day of their march, they had problems with Master Ting their chief escort. The comfortable palanquins they had been shown before the start of the journey had been replaced by cheaper models, “narrow travelling prisons”, while each palanquin was carried by only three bearers instead of the expected four — Ting was of course pocketing the difference.

“We were not surprised at this, for we knew that a Chinese can scarcely ever keep the straight path of himself, but has to be forcefully brought back to it. We did not, however, expect to have to begin the very first day, and it did not seem a good augury.”

Huc confronted Ting about the palanquin-switch, and Ting assures them that transport more befitting their exalted station would be available in the next town which they would reach on the following day.

The next morning, they arrived at a town on the banks of the Yangtze River, and Ting informed them that they were proceed for a way by water. The prospect of a boat ride pleased the missionaries, and they immediately boarded the junk provided. Once everything, including the palanquins, was on board, the members of the Chinese escort settled themselves down in various parts of the boat.

“It has always seemed to us, that the nature of a Chinese, body and soul, had an astonishing resemblance to that of India- rubber. The suppleness of their minds can only be compared to the elasticity of their corporeal frames, and it is worth seeing how, when they have found a snug corner, be it ever so small, they will manage to stuff themselves in, and curl themselves round, and make a perfect nest of it, and when they have once taken up such a position, they are settled in it for the day.”

Ting and the military officer settled themselves in a little curtained alcove and began smoking opium. After a few pipes, Ting especially seemed to be in “a state of the highest self- satisfaction”, the cause of which, Huc says, was “the handsome profit he expected to make out of the journey.”

“This trip on the water we found had only be undertaken in consequence of a little prudent calculation. At every stage, the Mandarin of the place where we stopped was obliged to supply all the wants of the party, as well as the expenses of the road to the next stage, and to furnish bearers for the palanquins, and horses for the soldiers. These corvees cost considerable sums. Now Master Ting had made his little arrangements thus: he sent forward his scribe along the route we were to have followed, to gather the appointed tribute, but graciously to inform the Mandarins that he would spare them all the trouble of the affair by proceeding by water. It was easy, as we were going down the river, to do in one day the distance of four stages, and as the hiring of a boat costs very little, the profits became enormous.”

Some time after midnight, they arrived at a town called Kien-tcheou where they were lodged at the Hotel of Accomplished Wishes. Huc was unhappy that they had not been taken to the town’s communal palace — the official guest house, and he was even more displeased when Mandarin Ting woke them at the crack of dawn the next day to tell them to prepare to set off again.

“Take yourself off, Master Ting,” said we, “as quickly as you can — and moreover, if anyone else has the impudence to come disturbing us, we will get you degraded.”

Huc insisted that new palanquins be found. Ting and the local Mandarins insisted that there were no palanquins in the town, and that the finest palanquins were only available at Tchoung-tching (Chungking). “In that case, then,” said Huc, find a man who understands these things and send him directly to Tchoung-tching to get some palanquins. We will wait here.” Huc returned to his room.

The Mandarins were horrified by this — it meant the French missionaries would be staying in the town for who knew how long. They sent delegations to see Huc to try to get him to change his mind.

“They invented the most absurd tales, they heaped lie upon lie to prove to us that we must set out immediately. But to all this we had but one answer: ‘When men like us take a resolution, it is irrevocable.'”

Finally, the Mandarins came up with a pair of palanquins, which Huc examined and pronounced acceptable.

“Thereupon arose a new question. The Mandarins looked at one another, and asked, ‘Who is to pay?'” The Mandarins could not agree, and began arguing, so Huc suggested that Ting as their chief escort should bear the cost. “The Mandarins of Kien-tcheou burst out laughing, and said our solution to the problem was capital. Master Ting was foaming with rage and uttering yells as if his inside was being torn out.” But Ting was forced to accept the ruling, and mournfully counted out the cash.

* In an aside at this point, Huc describes something of Chinese cuisine. The Chinese have their faults, but one thing they ARE good at, he says, is cooking. “If you want a cook, it is the easiest thing in the world to supply your want, you have but to take the first Chinese you can catch, and after a few days’ practice he will acquit himself of his duties to admiration.”

But he criticises certain European writers who, he says, had had a joke at the European public’s expense by reporting that the Chinese ate such weird dishes as shark’s fins, fish-gizzards and goose-feet. Such reports were entirely untrue, says Huc, although he adds that it was possible that some Canton merchants had mischievously amused themselves at the expense of Europeans newly-arrived in China by “serving them up dishes invented expressly for them, and which had never before made their appearance at a Chinese table.”

The joke here, however, is on Huc, because Chinese people, especially those in Canton, love eating shark’s fins, fish- gizzards, goose-feet and a host of other unlikely dishes.

* They set off again, along roads that became increasingly worse as they progressed. They passed through Chungking, where they added an extra military Mandarin their retinue, and one day stopped at a town called Leang-chan. Huc understood that Christians were numerous in the town, and Huc let it be known that he would welcome visits from the faithful. He was visited by a number of local Christians, and the Mandarins were very suspicious of these local people who seemed to be so intimate with the foreigners.

Just before nightfall, while Huc was strolling in the garden of the town’s official guest house and the Mandarin escorts were sitting under a tree smoking their pipes, “our servant crossed the garden with a letter and a small packet, and took the way toward our room. The military Mandarin whom we had taken at Tehoung-king immediately followed him, and thought he had chosen his time well, we did nevertheless perceive his move, and ran to our room to see what the audacious spy was doing. We caught him in flagrante delicto reading our letter and rummaging in the parcel addressed to us. As soon as he saw us he tried to bolt, keeping possession of the parcel, but we barred his passage, drove him back into the room, shut the door, and sprang upon him, crying thieves! thieves! When he saw that we took hold of a rope as if to tie him, he cried out in his turn for help, and all the inmates of the palace in a moment came running to our room. We had no inclination to do any thing more than laugh at the adventure, but in China it was necessary to go into a violent passion, and accordingly we did so. The packet, which was open, contained only some dried fruits and perfumed necklaces, which a Christian family had the kindness to offer us.”

Also inside the parcel was a letter signed by the head of the Tchao family.

The military Mandarin, says Huc, trembled with fright. Just then, the town’s prefect arrived and announced that the head of the Tchao family had been arrested for causing the disturbance.

“‘A trial! A trial!’ we exclaimed, ‘we must have a trial!’ If the head of the family of Tchao has committed any offense, let him be punished according to the laws for an example to the people. But if the head of that family is innocent, then it is the military Mandarin of Techoung-king who is the guilty party, and he must be punished.”

The local Mandarins tried to calm Huc and offered to pardon Mr Tchao. But Huc was not to be deflected from his course, and insisted that they would not leave Leang-chan until the trial had been held.

Finally, towards midnight, Huc was woken and informed that the Mandarins were waiting to begin the trial. He rose and dressed in his finest clothes and went to the tribunal.

“We were introduced into the hall of audience, which was splendidly lit with large lanterns of variously coloured paper. A multitude of curious spectators, among whom were probably many Christians, thronged the lower end of the hall. The principal Mandarins of the town and our three conductors were seated at the upper part on a raised platform, where were several seats arranged before a long table. The judges gave us a most gracious reception, and the prefect begged us to be seated immediately, in order that they might commence proceedings. The question now arose, where were we to be seated? Nobody knew, and our presence appeared to create in the mind of the prefect himself some serious doubts on the subject of his prerogatives. He certainly bore an Imperial dragon, richly embroidered in relief on the front of his violet silk tunic, but then we had a dragon on a beautiful red girdle; the prefect had a blue ball, but then we had a yellow cap! After a few moments of hesitation we felt a sudden energetic inspiration to assume the direction of the affair ourselves, and, accordingly, we marched proudly up to the President’s seat, and coolly motioned the others to the places they were to occupy, each according to his dignity. There was a moment of surprise, and even of hilarity among the Mandarins, but no opposition. They seemed so taken by surprise as to be completely put out, and mechanically assumed the places indicated.”

The trial opened. Huc placed the main pieces of evidence — the little parcel and Tchao’s letter — on the table before him. He asked the military Mandarin Lu if it was the parcel he had opened. Lu agreed that it was. The accused, Tchao, was brought in, and Huc asked him why he had sent the parcel.

“The humble Tchao family wished to express to the Spiritual Fathers the sentiments of their filial piety.”

“How can that be?” replied Huc. “We do not know you, and you do not know us. We have never seen you.”

“That is true, but those who are of the same religion are never strangers to one another, they make but one family, and when Christians meet, their hearts easily comprehend each other.”

Huc turned to the Mandarins and asked them if the man had done anything wrong. “All replied unanimously that his conduct was worthy of praise.”

Huc pronounced Tchao to be not guilty and to be free to go, then added: “‘It is evident that the conduct of the Mandarin Lu has been culpable, he introduced himself secretly into our apartment, and has covered his face with shame, by opening a letter that was addressed to us. ‘The Mandarin Lu was appointed to be our military escort from the town of Tchoung-king to the frontiers of the province. But, as you see clearly that he has not received a good education, and his ignorance of the rites my lead him into still greater faults, we here declare that we will have nothing more to do with him: our declaration shall be made in writing, and sent to the superior authorities of Tchoung-king.’ At these words we rose, and the sitting was over. Our admirable Christian came to us, threw himself on his knees, and asked our blessing.”

Huc later wondered at the ease with which a French missionary had played the part of president of the court of a Chinese town, without any opposition. “Two strangers, two barbarians, to be allowed to master for a moment all the rooted prejudices of a people jealous and disdainful of strangers to excess, and that even to the point of arrogating to themselves the authority of a judge, and exercising it officially! How could this be possible?”

His explanation was that the Imperial red girdle he was wearing had cast a powerful spell on the Chinese, noted for their respect for authority.

When they left Leang-chan the next morning, Huc noticed Mandarin Lu was no longer in their party, and they never saw him nor heard mention of him again.

* They crossed from Sichuan province into Hubei, travelling sometimes by land, sometimes by river junk on their way to Wuchang, the provincial capital, now part of the huge industrial city of Wuhan sitting astride the Yangtze River. They passed through the town of Yichang, a town on the Yangtze just below the famous gorges, after an unpleasant incident when one of the Mandarins escorting them was found to be smuggling a large cargo contraband salt in the hold of the missionaries’ junk. By Yichang itself, Huc was not impressed. He spent a day looking around the town, but “we found nothing remarkable in it”.

“In general, all the great towns of China are much alike: there are crowds of people running about, and pushing against one another, but no public monuments, or anything to interest a traveller, such as he would find in Europe.”

They stopped for the night at various towns along the way as their boat moved down the Yangtze, the river becoming wider each day until it was several miles wide. The wind began to blow strongly, and the formerly calm river waters became increasingly rough.

“We went below, and found, as usual, our dear Mandarins lying side by side on mats, and smoking their accursed opium.”

“During the whole morning the wind had been constantly increasing, and toward noon it came on to blow so violently, that we had to take in nearly all the sail, and keep only what was just necessary to steady the junk. The river was like a great arm of the sea lashed by a gale. The waves, though shorter and lower than in the open sea, were more impetuous, and dashed furiously against each other. Our poor junk rolling and pitching, at the same time groaned and creaked in every plank.”

“While we were thus driven at the mercy of the winds and waves (but under the care of God), our Mandarins had taken refuge in a narrow cabin, where they cowered down without daring to move. We did not at all perceive on the faces of our two military gentlemen the haughty dignity that is proper to a soldier in a moment of danger. That Master Ting should want it was excusable: his quality of literary man gave him the right to be afraid. The fact was, all our conductors were affected by sea-sickness, and as they had never felt it before, nor even heard it mentioned, they all thought they were going to die.”

Mandarin Ting asked the missionaries faintly why they were there.

“Thereupon Master Ting began to curse the day when he had allowed himself to yield to the temptation of this drug, and promised, that if he escaped with his life this time, he would throw pipe, lamp, and opium overboard. ‘Why not do it now,’ said we, ‘what’s the use of waiting?’ ‘Oh, I am too ill now, I have not strength to move.’ ‘Well, we are not at all ill, we can see to this little matter for you,’ and we turned toward the place where he kept his smoking tools: but Master Ting was there before us. Suddenly awakened from his lethargy, he had made but one bound to the spot where his beloved casket was placed. The movement had been so nimble, and so totally unexpected, that his companions could not help laughing, though they were certainly not at all in the humour for it.”

In the afternoon, they reached a bend in the river, and tried to round the point by tacking back and forth across the river. But the winds would not allow them to turn the point, and three times they were thrown upon the sandy river bank. On the third occasion, the master gave up and drove the junk deeper into the sandbank, in order to lessen the damage from the waves which angrily lashed the poorly-constructed boat. The sailors fastened the ship to trees on shore using strong cables, and they sat out the storm for a whole night. The next morning, the storm had abated, and the Mandarins, particularly Msster Ting, were surprised and pleased to find they were still alive.

“‘Master Ting,’ said we, ‘You have escaped with your life and can move about quite well, so you must not forget to fulfill your promise: go and get your opium box, and let us pitch it overboard.’ He only replied by cutting a caper, saying he had only said that in fun, and to show how little disposed he was to throw his pipe into the water, he went down and began to smoke with more ardor than ever.”

On their arrival at a town called Kuen-kiang (Qianjiang), Huc was suddenly seized by violent vomiting and severe stomach pains. Chinese doctors were called but could do little to relieve the torment. The Mandarins were frantic with anxiety — it would bode ill for them if this French missionary should die while in their charge. But four days later, the sickness passed, and the chief magistrate of the town visited Huc to say how concerned he had been at Huc’s sickness — so concerned that he had gone so far as to choose a magnificent coffin for Huc at the finest coffin shop in town.

“Could there possibly be a more polite man? To have a coffin made quite ready for us in case we should want it — we could not fail to thank him with warmth for this most tender and delicate attention.”

The next stop was the town of Tianmen where the local Mandarins presented the missionaries with a pile of water-melons. Huc takes the opportunity to describe the great Chinese love for eating watermelon seeds. “We have always thought that the natural propensity of the Chinese for what is artificial and deceptive had inspired then with this frantic passion for watermelon seeds., for if there is in the world a disappointing dish, a fantastic kind of food it is this. Therefore the Chinese use them at all times and in all places.”

The Chinese gnaw at these little seeds like rats, says Huc. “The consumption of them throughout the empire is something incredible, something beyond the limits of the wildest imagination. You sometimes see junks on the rivers entirely loaded with this precious cargo, truly you might imagine yourself in a nation of rodentia.”

* They arrived at the city of Hanyang towards evening. “The shop-keepers were already lighting their lanterns, and numerous groups of artisans who had finished their daily labor were on their way to the theatre, singing and frolicking as they went, while at the street corners spectators were gathered round jugglers and public readers. Every thing wore the lively animated air of a densely-populated city, when, after the fatigues of a day of toil, all feel the necessity of a little rest and amusement.”

But he adds that the Chinese are unaware of the pleasures of going for a stroll, taking an evening’s constitutional.

“The public promenade is a thing unknown to the Chinese, who can not perceive either its charms or its wholesomeness. Those who have some notion of European manners think it very singular, if not utterly absurd, that we should find pleasure in walking for its own sake. When they hear that we consider it a refreshment and amusement, they regard us as very eccentric, or entirely devoid of common-sense. The Chinese of the interior whom business takes to Canton or Macao, always go the first thing to look at the Europeans on the promenade. It is one of the most amusing of sights for them. They squat in rows along the sides of the quays, smoking their pipes and fanning themselves, contemplating the while with a satirical and contemptuous eye the English and Americans who promenade up and down from one end to the other, keeping time with admirable precision.

“Europeans who go to China are apt to consider the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire very odd and supremely ridiculous, and the provincial Chinese at Canton and Macao pay back this sentiment with interest. It is very amusing to hear their sarcastic remarks on the appearance of the devils of the west, their utter astonishment at sight of their tight-fitting garments, their wonderful trowsers, and prodigious round hats, like chimney-pots — the shirt-collars adapted to cut off the ears, and making a frame around such grotesque faces, with long noses and blue eyes no beard or mustache, but a handful of curly hair on each cheek. The shape of the dress-coat puzzles them above every thing. They try in vain to account for it, calling it a half garment, because it is impossible to make it meet over the breast, and because there is nothing in front to correspond to the tails behind. They admire the judgement and exquisite taste of putting buttons as big as sapecks behind the back where they never have any thing to button. How much handsomer they think themselves with their narrow, oblique, black eyes, high cheek bones, and little round noses, their shaven crowns and magnificent pigtails hanging almost to their heels. Add to all these natural graces a conical hat, covered with red fringe, an ample tunic with large sleeves, and black satin boots, with a white sole of immense thickness, and it must be evident to all that a European can not compare in appearance with a Chinese.”

* The Chinese are businessmen by nature, Huc says.

“The Chinese has a passionate love of lucre, he is fond of all kinds of speculation and stock-jobbing, and his mind, full of finesse and cunning, takes delight in combining and calculating the chances of a commercial operation. The Chinese, par excellence, is a man installed behind the counter of a shop, waiting for his customers with patience and resignation, and in the intervals of their arrival pondering in his head, and casting up on his little arithmetical machine, the means of increasing his fortune. Whatever may be the nature and importance of his business, he neglects not the smallest profit, the least gain is always welcome, and he accepts it eagerly; greatest of all is his enjoyment, when in the evening, having well closed and barricaded his shop, he can retire into some corner, and there count up religiously the number of his sapecks, and reckon the earnings of the day. The Chinese is born with this taste for traffic, which grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength. The first thing a child longs for is a sapeck, the first use that is makes of its speech and intelligence is to learn to articulate the names of coins, when his little fingers are strong enough to hold the pencil, it is with making figures that he amuses himself, and as soon as the tiny creature can speak and walk, he is capable of buying and selling. In China you need never fear sending a child to make a purchase, you may rely on it, he will not allow himself to be cheated. Even the plays to which the little Chinese are addicted are always impregnated with this mercantile spirit, they amuse themselves with keeping shop, and opening little pawnbroking establishments and familiarize themselves thus with the jargon, the tricks, and the frauds of tradesmen.”

* Upon their arrival at Wuchang, the capital of Hubei province, the missionaries were virtually ignored by officialdom, and were lodged in small cubicles in a run-down pagoda, a few notches down from the official guest houses to which they had become accustomed. “The magistrates of the capital took not the slightest notice of us, and with the exception of some petty officials, no creature came to visit us.”

Huc steamed in silence for two days, then decided to confront the Mandarins. He put on his ceremonial gown, complete with yellow cap and red girdle, and set off in his palanquin for the Provincial Governor’s mansion. He marched into the outer courtyard, and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of attendants “such as usually throng the avenues of the great tribunals, with their sinister hang-dog physiognomies.” But he ignored them and marched on. As he passed into a second courtyard, a Mandarin stood in Huc’s path with his arms out- splayed and asked where he was going.

“We are going to his Excellency the Governor,” Huc replied.

“His Excellency the Governor is not there. You can’t see the Governor. Do the Rites permit people to push on in that way to the first magistrate of the province?” The Mandarin jumped about trying to bar Huc’s path, But Huc was determined and pressed on regardless, as the Mandarin retreated in front of him. They reached a set of doors, and the Mandarin threw himself on them in one last desperate attempt to stop the missionary.

“Woe to you if you do not leave that door open,” declared Huc. “If you stop us for a single moment, you are a lost man.”

The Mandarin shrank away, and Huc made his way without further trouble to the Governor’s apartments. He was granted a frosty audience with the Governor which did, however, result in the party being transferred to more comfortable lodgings in a Buddhist convent on the outskirts of the city.

The next day, Master Ting and the other officials who had accompanied them from Chengdu came to say goodbye. Huc doesn’t regret parting with Master Ting, but does add: “At bottom he was not a bad fellow, for a Mandarin, and if one only let him play the Chinese a little, that is to say, finger the sapecks (money right and left along the road, he was tolerably good-humoured and amiable.” The personal servant they had been given in Chengdu was, however, allowed to continue to accompany them on the rest of their journey to Canton.

The convent prompted Huc to comment on Chinese achievements in the field of art. The ornamentation and decoration of the convent, as with other Chinese temples, was “quite in the Chinese taste, and full of caprice and confusion — and the paintings and sculptures have little artistic merit, as the arts of design are very imperfectly cultivated in China.”

“The painters only excel in certain mechanical processes relating to the preparation and application of colors, in their compositions they pay no attention whatever to perspective, and their landscapes are most distressingly monotonous. Their best performances are in miniatures and water-colors, but though not devoid of a certain kind of beauty, they are still very inferior in style to the most mediocre of European paintings.”

Huc was likewise unimpressed by Chinese music.

“Chinese music, it is true, has a certain softness and melancholy in its tones, that pleases you pretty well at first, but it is so intolerably monotonous, that if prolonged it becomes exceedingly irritating to the nerves. The Chinese have no semi-tones in their scale, indeed, one might suppose they merely blew into their instruments, or twanged their strings at random, from the inspiration of the moment, however, it appears they have notes, and though their compositions are doubtless not if much scientific value, you do sometimes hear something like simple melodies in them, such as are heard in the chants of savagers and which are more or less agreeable.”

* With their new escort and re-furbished palanquins they started out again, skirting the low-lying lake country, then heading southeast towards the capital of Jiangxi province, Nanchang, at that time one of the most important trading cities in China due to its position on the main trade route between Canton in the south and central China. As it was “the season of tempests”, the officials decided they should travel by road rather than through the region’s extensive river and lake system.

The towns they stopped in along this portion of the journey were very poor, the inns were dirty and the food disgusting. At the town of Kuoang-tsi, no food at all was provided, and Huc, in indignation, stormed into the local magistrate’s tribunal to demand better treatment. As the two missionaries burst into the main hall of the tribunal, they realised there was a trial in progress.

“All eyes were immediately turned were immediately turned toward us, and a movement of surprise was perceptible throughout the assembly. To men with great beards, yellow Caps, and red girdles, formed a very surprising apparition. For ourselves, at the first glance we cast into the hall, we felt a cold perspiration come over us, and our limbs tottered under us, we were ready to faint. The first object that presented itself on entering this Chinese judgment hall was the accused — the person on his trial. He was suspended in the middle of the hall, like one of those lanterns, of whimsical form and colossal dimensions often seen in the great pagodas. Ropes attached to a great beam in the roof held him tied by the wrists and feet, so as not to throw the body into the form of a bow. Beneath him stood five or six executioners, armed with rattan rods and leather lashes, in ferocious attitudes, their clothes and faces spotted with blood — the blood of the unfortunate creature, who was uttering stifled groans, while his flesh was torn almost in tatters. The audience present at this frightful spectacle appeared quite at their ease, and our yellow caps excited much more emotion than the spectacle of torture.”

The smiling magistrate called for a recess and led them to a small room where he proceeded to explain the circumstances surrounding the trial. The man being tortured was the leader of a band of ruffians, he said, which had committed more than fifty murders and sundry other crimes using methods of extreme barbarity, including tearing out the tongues and gouging out the eyes of women and children, and cutting people to pieces while still alive.

“These details, frightful as they were, did not surprise us. Our long residence in China had taught us to what degree the instinct of evil is developed among these people.”

Maintaining law and order in the Celestial Empire was no easy matter, Huc says, due to the complete lack of religious faith amongst the people, their indifference to morality, and the fact that they have energy only for the amassing of money.

“The immense population of China, depraved by the absence of religious faith and moral education, wholly absorbed in material interests, would not subsist long as a nation, but would be speedily dismembered, were a system of legislation, founded on the principles of absolute justice and right, to be suddenly substituted for the strange one that now governs it. Among a nation of speculators and skeptics, like the Chinese, the social bond is found in the penal, not in the moral law, and the rattan and the bamboo form the sole guarantees for the fulfillment of duty.”

Drunkenness and gambling are problems of epidemic proportions, and Chinese are such reckless gamblers that they will even wager their own fingers and cut them off if they lose, says Huc.

“Chinese society has a certain tone of decency and reserve that may very well impose on those who look only at the surface, and judge merely by the momentary impression, but a very short residence among the Chinese is sufficient to show that their virtue is entirely external, their public morality is but a mask worn over the corruption of their manners. We will take care not to lift the unclean veil that hides the putrefaction of this ancient Chinese civilization, the leprosy of vice has spread so completely through this skeptical society, that the varnish of modesty with which it is covered is continually falling off and exposing the hideous wounds which are eating away the vitals of this unbelieving people. Their language is already revoltingly indecent, and the slang of the worst resorts of licentiousness threatens to become the ordinary language of conversation.”

Given the amorality of the Chinese people, should we be surprised by the widespread use of infanticide by parents who want to get rid of baby daughters, and by their many other vices and crimes?

“Should we not, on the contrary, have cause for surprise if it were otherwise? What motive can be capable of arresting the force of passion in men without any religious belief, in whom self-interest is the only rule of good and evil, who live in a skeptical society, under atheistical laws, whose only sanction is the rod and the gallows.”

* The journey from Wuchang to Nanchang was much less eventful than what came before, so Huc spends time recounting many of his thoughts on the Chinese and their customs. One day, they are passed on the road by two government couriers, carrying varnished boxes on the backs containing dispatches for Peking. Huc says China lacks any form of public postal service, but adds:

“The Chinese do not suffer much from this state of things, for having scarcely any domestic affections, they do not feel the need of corresponding with their relations and friends. Looking at every thing only on the positive and material side, they have no idea of the tender relations by which two hearts delight to draw near in intimate correspondence, and communicate their joys and their sorrows. They know nothing of the lively emotions that the mere sight known handwriting can awaken.”

* They travelled on in their palanquins, traversed the Yangtze again to the town of Hukou (Mouth of the Lake), situated at the northern tip of the Poyang Lake where it meets the Yangtze. The Mandarin escorts decided to continue from there to the provincial capital of Nanchang by junk, and a suitable boat was hired.

Huc notes the widespread poverty of Hubei province which they had just left, and comments also on the widespread use of nightsoil as manure:

“When you enter a Chinese hamlet, or approach a farm, you are often struck by a horrible stench that threatens to suffocate you. Not that healthy, though somewhat powerful odor, that escapes from cow-houses and sheep-folds, but an atrocious mixture of all that is disgusting. The Chinese have, indeed, such a passion for human manure of all kinds, and the cuttings of nails, and sell them to farmers to enrich the soil.”

* They were well received at Nanchang and spent five days there preparing for the last stage of their journey to Canton. They were provided with a Mandarin’s river junk and spent fifteen delightful days sailing south up the Gan River. Huc spent the time getting his diary up to date in preparation for the task of writing his memoirs. There was little wind, and on the first day, the captain ordered the sailors to make use of the oars to help the junk make headway against the current. The captain came to see the missionaries to inquire whether they had any complaints.

“We are most comfortable,” said Huc. “Your delightful vessel is a Paradise, but the motion is very great toward the stern, and the sailors make a great deal of noise in rowing.”

“These inconveniences can be removed,” said the captain. “I will go and see to it.”

A while later, the noise of the oars ceased, but the boat continued to move silently upstream as if carried along by magic. On investigation, Huc found a small boat had been launched and was towing the junk along after it.

They reached the headwaters of the Gan River, transferred back to their palanquins for the one-day journey over the mountains dividing Jiangxi province from Guangdong province of which Canton is the capital. Then they boarded another junk at Nanxiong for the faster downstream run to Canton. On the sixth day, they sailed into Canton and saw a sight which moved Huc to tears.

“Among the native vessels of China arose the grand and imposing forms of a steam-ship and several East Indiamen” and amidst the flags of all colors that were waving in the air, we perceived those of the United States, of Portugal, and of England. That of France was not among them, but when one has been long at the other side of the world, on an inhospitable soil, in China, in short, it seems that all the people of the West form one great family. The mere sight of a European flag makes the heart beat, for it awakens all the recollections of our country.”

It was October 1846 and their trip from Lhasa high in the Himalayas had taken six months.

They made contact with an old friend, Mr Van Bazel, the Dutch consul in Canton and begged him to send them some newspapers as they had had no news from Europe for more than three years. Van Bazel sent them an enormous bale of papers along with several bottles of claret.

“We passed the whole night rummaging in this incoherent mass of news that was piled up in the middle of our room, and in one of the very first newspapers that chance threw into our hands, we read an article that we thought rather curious. It was as follows: ‘We have lately received intelligence of the lamentable death of the two fathers of the Mongol Tartar Mission.” After a slight glance at the Tartar countries, the author of the article continues: “A Frecnh Lazarist of the name of Huc, took up his abode about three years ago among some Chinese families established in the valley of Black Waters, about six hundred miles from the Great Wall. Another Lazarist, whose name is not known to us, joined him with the purpose of forming a mission for the conversion of the Mongol Buddhists. They studied the Tartar language with the Lamas of the neighboring monasteries, and it appears that, having been regarded as foreign Lamas, they were treated in a friendly manner, especially by the Buddhists, who are very ignorant, and who took the Latin of their breviaries for Sanscrit, which they do not understand, but for which they have much veneration.

‘When the Missionaries believed themselves sufficiently instructed in the language they proceeded into the interior, with the intention of commencing the work of conversion. After that period very little was heard of them, until in May last information was received that they had been fastened to the tails of wild horses and dragged to death. The immediate cause of this event is not yet known.”

Huc was astonished by this news item, and anticipating a more famous comment by Mark Twain several decades later, he adds. “We thought we had some reason to doubt its perfect accuracy.”

The two missionaries went on from Canton to the Portuguese settlement of Macao at the mouth of the Pearl River. Huc finally departed the Far East in 1852, returning to Paris where he died in 1860.

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