Category Archives: China

Crossing the Pacific for School, 1947

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 189-190, 192-193:

In the first weeks of May 1947, American universities mailed their admissions notices to prospective students for the fall. On May 22, Ho received letters of acceptance from both MIT and the University of Michigan for their doctoral mechanical engineering programs. He was ecstatic to be accepted by his top choices, especially knowing that every engineering graduate in China would have applied to both schools. Ho couldn’t decide which school to choose. The University of Michigan would be the less expensive alternative for his family, but MIT had the big name and reputation. As he prepared the documents to apply for his visa, he suddenly noticed that the letter from MIT had no signature. Ho went to the visa authorities to see if the unsigned letter would be accepted. Their answer was an unequivocal no. The hard decision was made for him—he would go to Michigan, home of the American automobile….

After weeks of waiting, Ho received his passport and exit visa on July 19. With his doctoral program beginning in less than two months, he bought a one-way ticket for third-class passage on the American President Lines, the only company carrying passengers across the Pacific to the United States. The cost was 171 U.S. dollars, a large expense already but only a fraction of what his family would have to spend. Those first postwar passenger crossings from Shanghai to San Francisco were made by two converted World War II troop transport ships, among the thousands built by Rosie the Riveters after Pearl Harbor: the USS General M. C. Meigs and USS General Gordon. Ho would sail on the General Gordon, departing August 24. After the sixteen-day voyage, he planned to take a train to Ann Arbor. He’d make it just in time for the start of school on September 13….

THE AMERICAN SHIP OFFERED Ho a first glimpse into his upcoming life in America. To cool off from the heat of the sticky August day, he took a shower—his first experience with such a contraption. Nearby was the water fountain—another first. After a few cautious sips, he quenched his thirst from this amazing device that dispensed a continuous stream of clean water—no boiling necessary. In the third-class dining room, he waited in a long but orderly line for servings of sausages, potatoes, carrots, rice, bread, fruits, tea—and sugar, a precious commodity in Shanghai. The unlimited quantities stunned him, especially the sugar. That night he jotted down a new American phrase: “All you can eat.”

With Ho, more than three hundred of China’s brightest young minds were heading to the United States to continue their educations. Like him, fifty-two were Jiao Tong University graduates, and thirty-three were headed to the University of Michigan. The students held meetings onboard to prepare for life in America, with topics ranging from transportation to their schools to dealing with American culture and cold Michigan winters. Ho attended all the meetings and volunteered to compile a list of everyone’s names to help them stay in touch once they scattered to their respective destinations.

The ocean voyage exposed Ho to another new concept: leisure. He’d brought along some books to study but barely opened them. Instead, he played bridge, watched movies, and spent time with new acquaintances. Most of the students were male, but several were female—including a lady professor. Ho had never gone to school with girls or women—and he was surprised to learn that they had big dreams for their educations too. At some point, Ho realized that he wasn’t practicing much English, in spite of the many American passengers and crew. “I could pass the entire voyage to America speaking only Chinese!” he wrote, resolving to start using more English. It was for this reason that the father of another Shanghai student, Ming Cho Lee, insisted that his son enroll at Occidental College in California—he feared that if his son went to school in the northeastern United States, he would spend his time mostly with other Chinese.

Ho, ever the engineer, eagerly explored the bowels of the ship to understand its mechanics. He admired the genius of a vessel that could cut through the powerful waves as though gliding on ice. The vast beauty of the ocean, with its different hues of blue, gray, and black, mesmerized him.

When they reached the open sea, sick passengers began skipping meals. Ho, too, grew queasy, but he had paid for the meals and was determined to eat them all. He took careful notes on the Americans’ habits. He wondered why people would want to eat bread at every meal but then realized that the rice was just for the many Chinese passengers—it was the only item familiar to most of them. By week’s end, the students grew bored with the bland American food. One of Ho’s cabinmates groaned, “I miss Chinese food more than I miss my wife.”

One thing disturbed Ho: the vast quantities of wasted food. He thought of the starving beggars in Shanghai. “One would exclaim in astonishment at the amount of leftover food at every meal,” Ho wrote in his journal. “The leftovers are all dumped into the ocean, along with countless boxes and bottles.”

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Filed under China, education, food, migration, travel, U.S.

Gramophone in Shanghai, 1948

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 215-216:

Her father’s spontaneous parties presented her biggest challenge. She disliked having to sit, prim and proper, sometimes forced to speak to adults who had no interest in her or what she might have to say, all under her father’s critical eye. Not only was she afraid that she’d irritate him, but she also couldn’t fathom why some of the women, as educated as her mother, spoke in little-girl voices like her ten-year-old sister’s. Or why so many of the men puffed themselves up as though they had the answers to everything. Annuo envied her sixteen-year-old brother, a boarder at his middle school, who didn’t have to endure these dinners. She couldn’t wait to be dismissed and sent upstairs to bed, where she could retreat with her books to a fantasy world far away.

BUT THANKS TO A STRANGE new contraption, Annuo’s attitude toward the parties shifted. On one visit, her father brought home a gramophone. After the adults had finished eating and talking, someone mentioned having “itchy feet.” The servants pushed the furniture aside in the parlor, rolled up the carpet, and talced the floor. Her father cranked up the gramophone and put on some popular band music. Then everyone danced. As if possessed by spirits, the properly formal men and women jumped up and moved about while touching one another. The first time Annuo saw the adults dance, her jaw dropped. Opposite sexes touching in public? Stunned to see even her parents embrace as they danced, she found this utterly contrary to everything she had been taught about acceptable Chinese behavior. To Annuo’s great surprise, her father decided that she and Li-Ning should learn to dance, since there were never enough female partners for his friends. Soon Annuo was dancing the fox-trot, tango, and swing to popular Shanghai band music. American tunes like “Tennessee Waltz” got everyone onto the dance floor. Annuo began looking forward to her father’s surprise visits, hoping for the music to start up after dinner. Her feet were itchy—and she was happier.

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Reconciling Split Universities, 1946

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 170-173:

At war’s end, two parallel Jiao Tong universities emerged: the returned students from the makeshift Jiao Da in Free China and Ho’s campus in Shanghai.

Over the weeks and months after the surrender, the split grew wider on every campus. Instead of having a joyful reunion, the students who had lived under enemy occupation were now stung by accusations. Ho and the other “fake” students were being called out as puppets and collaborators. Some accusers were embittered returnees seeking targets to blame for their years of misery, while others saw an opportunity to get revenge or to climb over the disgraced.

Ho’s discomfort turned to alarm and dismay as his own academic record was challenged. Living under the Japanese occupation hadn’t been easy. His family, too, had suffered the privations of war. Now, after all his hard work and his family’s sacrifice, everything he had accomplished was diminished, and his loyalty to China was in question. To make matters worse, the students who stayed in Shanghai were academically much stronger than the students from the interior, who had lacked essential tools for a solid education—and it showed.

In 1946, the returned Nationalist authorities imposed a “reconversion” training program on the teachers and students who had remained in Shanghai. They declared that “fake students” like Ho were “corrupted,” just like the collaborators and traitors. They even called Ho and his cohorts “puppet students” who lacked the political understanding of the “real” Jiao Da students. The new Ministry of Education questioned the validity of the academic records of graduates from colleges and middle schools in occupied Shanghai. It created a special program in Nationalist ideology, requiring all such students to take the course. Students and graduates who failed the exam would be considered corrupted, their reputations tarnished and their diplomas and academic credits rendered worthless. Teachers were also to be tested for their loyalty to and knowledge of Nationalist principles.

Ho was horrified—and indignant. Why should he be stigmatized solely because his family hadn’t joined the difficult exodus to the interior? He had been only thirteen in 1937. Neither his elderly grandmother nor his sick brother could have endured the journey. Everyone had personal reasons for the choices they had to make during the long war. How could all of the thousands of students in Shanghai during the eight years of enemy occupation be corrupt puppets? With such accusations of ideological inferiority, Ho worried that his dream was slipping away, falling like a stone into the filthy Huangpu River.

Just as Ho was beginning to lose hope, he saw that some of his fellow students were fighting against the gross unfairness. Campus activists stood on the steps of buildings, arguing that they should not be treated as though they had supported the Japanese enemy. Ho stopped to listen. They hadn’t joined the Wang Jingwei puppets in Nanjing or aided Pan Da’s puppet police at 76, the students asserted. Didn’t the accusers know that many students and teachers in Shanghai had been arrested and executed for their anti-Japanese resistance? Or that students across Shanghai had refused to study the Japanese language?

The protests against the Nationalist sanctions spread like wildfire. Shanghai’s workers, too, called for relief from the years of hardship and repression. The students and workers combined forces in massive citywide demonstrations that seemed to explode with greater ferocity each day as the postwar unrest spread.

Ho found himself pulled into the groundswell. He agreed with the protest organizers. After all, they had been children during the war. It was unfair and outrageous to condemn them as traitors and ruin their lives. It made sense to Ho that he should stand up for his own future and not depend on others to do that for him. When students in his dormitory asked if he would support them, Ho surprised himself by joining the protests in spite of rumors that some of the students were secret Communists. Ho didn’t care. He had to show everyone that he was a student, not a traitor.

A massive mobilization called on all students to gather at the Shanghai North railway station, the major rail terminus in the former International Settlement. Ho fell in step with throngs of Jiao Tong schoolmates as they marched the five-mile distance. He, too, shouted, “Fair treatment for all students and teachers!” and “Punish the real traitors, not the ordinary people!” Along the way, the ranks swelled with men and women from other campuses: Shanghai University, Tongji, St. John’s, Fudan, Aurora, and the many other schools that were an important part of Shanghai’s intellectual life.

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Fates of Foreigners in Shanghai, 1942

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 129-132:

Once Britain and the United States declared war against Japan, life for Shanghailanders—the foreigners—swiftly changed. Immediately after December 8, 1941, all Allied nationals aged fourteen and above had to report to the Hamilton House near the Bund to register with Japanese gendarmes and receive ID numbers, as well as the red armbands they would have to wear at all times when in public.

Worse yet, Japan froze all bank accounts belonging to its enemy nationals. They were allowed to withdraw only two thousand yuan each month—a paltry amount for foreigners accustomed to pampered Shanghai lifestyles, effectively reducing them to the same income level as their Chinese servants. Each day, the Japanese military issued new edicts that further restricted where foreign Allied nationals could go, what they were allowed to do, how they conducted their lives.

Faced with bitter austerity, the Allied nationals were in a bind. Many expatriates worked for American telephone, gas, and electric utilities or the British waterworks, police, port, and customs. Now these entities were controlled by Japan, aiding its war effort. If Allied Shanghailanders quit their enemy-supervised jobs, they’d be stuck in China, destitute. Plenty of British bobbies, former coworkers of Pan Da, stayed on as members of the Shanghai Municipal Police—enforcing the will of Japan to crush all resistance. When their fellow Americans and Britons back home learned of their work for the enemy, they angrily denounced them, accusing them of collaboration, even treason….

At the start of the war in Europe in 1939, after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Denmark had been a neutral country. As a Dane in Shanghai, Kristian Jarldane had expected his Danish passport to shield his family from trouble. Before Pearl Harbor, his household in the French Concession had carried on as if things were normal, in spite of the war outside their home. Bing and Ma watched baby Ole while Elder Sister socialized. Kristian still had his engineering job with the Shanghai Water Conservancy, which paid him in foreign currency—better than gold in the inflationary wartime economy. He joined other Shanghailanders in maintaining the three-hour lunchtime “tiffins,” as well as afternoon high tea. Kristian would return to the apartment promptly at four o’clock for some strong English tea and thick slabs of dark bread from his favorite Russian-Jewish boulangerie, to be served with eel, fish, or some other meat fried in pork fat and onions.

But the expanding world war began to disrupt everything. The first shock hit Elder Sister and her husband on April 9, 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark. The Copenhagen government immediately surrendered to the Third Reich, becoming part of the Axis with Germany, Japan, and Italy. The couple wondered if that would be a plus in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. As a Dane, Kristian wasn’t required to wear an armband, nor was he subject to the mortifying financial restrictions confronting other Shanghailanders. He had plenty of company, for the nationals of other Axis-occupied countries were also exempt, as were the stateless White Russians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Indian Sikhs. But then, one week after all Allied nationals had to register, Kristian received orders from the Danish consular staff. He was required to provide them with the names and contact information of all Danish members of his household. Everyone in occupied Shanghai was to be accounted for….

In early 1943, the Japanese issued the order that Shanghailanders had dreaded: All citizens of Allied countries were to be imprisoned. Kristian and Elder Sister watched helplessly as friends and neighbors were loaded onto trucks and shipped to one of the eight crowded and squalid internment camps on the outskirts of the city. Most of them were British and American men, women, and children. Some were forced to walk for miles and carry their own baggage, like coolies. Because the prominent Sassoons, Hardoons, and Kadoories—wealthy Baghdadi Jewish families who had lived in Shanghai for many years—were British citizens, they, too, were subject to internment. About seventy-six hundred Americans, British, Dutch, and other civilians were imprisoned between January and July 1943 to “prevent fifth-column activities and guarantee stabilized livelihood for the enemy nationals,” according to the pro-Japan Shanghai Times. Ironically, this same rationale was being used by the U.S. government to incarcerate 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in 1942—and duly noted by Japanese propagandists to label critics as hypocrites.

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Inside the Bubble, Shanghai, 1939

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 81-82:

Blinded by their own good fortune and privilege, the children of Shanghai’s elite didn’t notice when their own neighbors couldn’t afford to buy food. Essentials such as rice, cooking oil, medicines, and fuel became scarce at any price. The Japanese military that surrounded Shanghai controlled the flow of goods, seizing whatever it wanted for its war effort or for its comfort. Scarcity drove prices into a dizzying inflationary spiral as hoarders and speculators gorged themselves on the desperation of others—those who couldn’t afford to pay black market prices starved. Without kerosene or coal, the poorest had frozen in the two harsh winters that had come and gone since the start of the war. Bodies of the poor and homeless lay as rotting detritus on the streets and alleys of Shanghai until corpse-removal trucks eventually took them away.

Benny didn’t have to think about the present when his future seemed predetermined and rosy, war or no war. Since he had passed the difficult entrance exam for admission to St. John’s Junior Middle School, his path all the way to its eponymous university was automatic as long as he continued to pass his courses. His parents had no worries for their son when everyone knew that doors opened for St. John’s graduates. They stood out in every crowd, speaking fluent English and carrying themselves as though they were proper English gentlemen and ladies. At both St. John’s and its sister institution, St. Mary’s Hall, classes were taught in English. Thanks to his alumni parents, Benny could already speak English well and would fit right in. So many of China’s most powerful political, business, and intellectual leaders had studied at its schools: T. V. Soong, former finance minister and governor of the Central Bank of China; Wellington Koo, representative to the League of Nations and ambassador to France; Lin Yutang, influential writer and philosopher; and a long list of others. The well-connected were well served. That was the Chinese way.

With his pedigree and school ties, Benny was set. Still, the boy harbored a secret wish for himself. He wanted to chart his own course, the way his father must have when he left accounting to join the police ranks. Benny hoped to pursue medicine when he reached college, for St. John’s had a medical school that was affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in America.

But there were plenty of pitfalls in the sin city for boys like him. Shanghai was notorious for its spoiled firstborn sons who had nothing better to do than become playboys, squandering their families’ wealth on opium, women, and gambling, bringing shame to their families. Benny’s mother and her friends gossiped about the latest scandals about young men from reputable families during their all-night mah-jongg games. “Pay attention in school, and stay away from those bad boys,” she’d admonish her son afterward.

“Yes, Mother,” he’d reply obediently. Benny had already resolved to stay away from opium. He’d known what the narcotic had done to his grandfather.

Benny could easily have pursued a life of pleasure, as other Shanghai scions did. His family appeared to have unlimited resources. His father was thriving in spite of the war. Or as others might say, because of it.

Just as Benny didn’t see the beggars all around him, he had never thought about the ample food and luxurious goods that his police inspector father managed to bring home at a time when rice riots were breaking out in the city. Benny didn’t wonder how his mother could continue her shopping habits that allowed her to dress in the latest foreign fashions, adorned with ever-fancier jewelry. It was unthinkable for proper Chinese children to question their parents. Even when Benny noticed that some of his father’s associates looked rather tough and unsavory, like the kind of men that his mother warned him to avoid when he rode his bicycle, he would have never thought to ask about them. They were just people that a police inspector needed to know, like the assortment of British, Americans, Russians, Japanese, and other foreigners with whom his father dealt.

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Invasion Plans for Japan, 1945

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 248-250:

The brain trust of the American military gathered. Here sat General George Marshall, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, Lieutenant General I. C. Eaker of the army air forces (representing General Arnold, recovering from a heart attack), and the chief of the president’s staff, Fleet Admiral Leahy. Secretary of War Stimson was in the room, as were Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and Secretary of the Navy Forrestal. The president wanted to know from each an opinion on the most efficient means of forcing Japan to surrender unconditionally, and to bring the war to an end.

General Marshall spoke first, reiterating arguments he had already posed but now with more detail. The situation in Japan was “practically identical” to the situation in Europe before the Normandy invasion, Marshall said. He believed that “the only course to pursue” with respect to Japan was the course that had brought the Nazis to their knees: a ground invasion. He had chosen the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan’s mainland for the landing, and he set D-day at November 1—four and a half months’ time.

Marshall listed the reasons for the timing: “Our estimates are that our air action will have smashed practically every industrial target worth hitting in Japan as well as destroying huge areas in Jap cities,” he said. “The Japanese Navy, if any still exists, will be completely powerless. Our sea action and air power will have cut Jap reinforcement capabilities from the mainland to negligible proportions.” Any delay past November 1 could force a further delay of up to six months due to winter weather, he explained.

The general then discussed what could be expected in casualties. The United States had suffered roughly 20,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing) in the invasion of Iwo Jima, against an estimated 25,000 Japanese (killed and taken prisoner, for there was no way to even guess how many were wounded). In Okinawa—the fiercest fought ground battle of the Far East war, and one in which the U.S. forces were on the brink of declaring victory—the Americans had suffered 34,000 army and 7,700 navy casualties, against 81,000 Japanese (the latter number being “not a complete count,” according to the military statisticians). U.S. casualties in the first thirty days of the Normandy invasion had been 42,000. There was no way to estimate the number of casualties expected in the invasion of mainland Japan, but Marshall did say this: “It is a grim fact that there is not an easy, bloodless way to victory in war and it is the thankless task of the leaders to maintain their firm outward front which holds the resolution of their subordinates.”

Marshall was convinced that “every individual moving to the Pacific should be indoctrinated with a firm determination to see [the invasion] through.” He put the number of troops required for the operation at 766,700. The invasion plan was as follows: (1) to have the Russians attack the Japanese occupying Manchuria in China; (2) to “vitalize the Chinese” with air support and supplies so they could handle the Japanese occupying other parts of their country; and (3) all of which would allow the Americans—with British aid—to go after mainland Japan.

Truman went around the room and heard not a single dissent.

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U.S. Grant in China and Japan

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 879-881:

This closing phase of Grant’s journey proved important as he became the first ex-president to undertake personal diplomacy abroad. Meeting with Prince Kung, the Chinese regent and de facto head of state, he touted the benefit of railroads and warned against excessive reliance on foreign debt. Then the prince directed Grant’s attention to the fate of the Loo Choo (Ryukyu) Islands over which Japan and China had sparred for control, a conflict that had brought them to the brink of war. The Japanese had deposed the local sovereign and occupied the islands and Prince Kung wanted Grant’s aid in reversing this. At first Grant begged off as someone out of office. “But we all know how vast your influence must be,” the prince urged, “not only upon your people at home, but upon all nations who know what you have done.” Acknowledging that war between China and Japan would be a grave misfortune, Grant volunteered to serve as mediator between the two nations during his stop in Japan, invoking the Alabama settlement as his model. “An arbitration between nations . . . satisfies the conscience of the world, and must commend itself more and more as a means of adjusting disputes,” he declared.

The Grants steamed toward Japan aboard the Richmond in mid-June and at their first port of call, Nagasaki, received a twenty-one-gun salute—Julia’s gold standard—in the harbor. Emissaries of the emperor escorted them to a fifty-course meal at an ancient temple. The Grants were invited to plant banyan trees at a local park to honor their visit, and Grant minted a beautiful message that would be etched in stone nearby: “I hope that both trees may prosper, grow large, live long, and in their growth, prosperity and long life be emblematic of the future of Japan.” Of all the countries included on his worldwide caravan, none captivated Grant quite like Japan, which he found a model of beauty, balance, and cultivation. He loved the green hills, fertile valleys, and fine streams and found the people “the most kindly & the most cleanly in the world.” The Japanese, he believed, had perfected their school system, educating all classes, male and female, and producing “the superior people of the East.” So smitten was Grant that he wanted the United States to negotiate a commercial treaty with the country.

The Japanese reciprocated his affection. After his arrival in Tokyo on July 3, a high-level reception committee paid homage to Grant’s accomplishments: “How you crushed a rebellion, and afterwards ruled a nation in peace and righteousness, is known over the whole world.” The emperor wanted to receive his illustrious visitor on the Fourth of July, and Grant’s carriage, flanked by cavalry, had to penetrate an enormous crush of people and ride under floral arches before reaching the emperor’s summer palace. The young, slim emperor then did something unprecedented: he strode up to Grant and shook his hand in profound respect, after which Ulysses and Julia Grant exchanged bows with assorted princes. The emperor later said nobody during his reign had impressed him more than “the unassuming bourgeois Civil War hero and president.”

At a subsequent meeting with the emperor, Grant decried colonial exploitation of Asian countries, making an exception for British rule in India. “But since I left India I have seen things that made my blood boil, in the way the European powers attempt to degrade the Asiatic nations.” Grant made good on his pledge to mediate the dispute over the Loo Choo Islands, showing a deft, diplomatic touch. He succeeded in getting negotiations started between the two sides, and the Chinese acceded to Japanese control of the islands. Grant became the first American president to accomplish such a solo feat, and the Chinese and Japanese were deeply grateful, even though talks later foundered. Grant contrasted his selfless diplomacy with the self-interested approach of European powers who “have no interests in Asia . . . that do not involve the humiliation and subjugation of the Asiatic people.” It formed a fitting finale to a trip in which Grant defined a new role for ex-presidents abroad, showing how they could use their prestige to settle intractable foreign conflicts and promote peaceful arbitration.

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Calcutta’s Mix of Migrants

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 1140-1150:

Calcutta was a collection of the whims of the communities who migrated there and became rich – Bengali and British, as well as Armenian, Jewish, Marwari, Bohra Muslim, Haka Chinese, Punjabi, Gujarati, Portuguese, Greek and Dutch. In Phoolbagan, within walking distance from my house, there were graveyards of Jews and Greeks, Chinese and Bohras. Their tombstones told of men and women who had been born in Budapest and Constantinople and died of cholera in Calcutta. Sumitro and I had walked the city’s streets, discovering airy Sephardic synagogues, Armenian churches, and temples to the Jain saint Mahavir. In the old Black Town, we had mingled with the deity-sculptors among the lanes of Kumortuli, communed at the annual chariot festival at the Marble Palace and witnessed clandestine human hook-swinging during the Raas festival.

Off Beadon Street, in Satubabu and Latubabu’s Bazar, so named after the two nineteenth-century Bengali business titans who founded it, metal hooks were dug into the backs of penitent believers and then hung from what looked a great balance scale made of bamboo. Then the hooked swung high in the air around the pivot of the scale, like giant gliding birds. The practice had been banned for nearly two hundred years, but it still took place, surreptitiously, in the heart of Calcutta.

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Missionaries in China after 1860

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 153-154:

In the second treaty settlement [after the 1856–1860 Opium War], prohibitions to inland travel were removed, and Chinese authorities were made responsible for the safety of such travelers. Ten additional treaty ports were opened to trade, including Nanking, Hankow, and two other Yangtze River ports. It was further stipulated that since foreigners might reside in such treaty ports, the powers would have right of gunboat as well as commercial navigation on inland waters. Moreover, the country was opened to missionaries, who were now permitted to travel at will throughout the empire, and to be at all times protected by the Chinese government—a provision often impossible to enforce against popular anti-Christian sentiment. Missionary cases, usually called “outrages” by the foreign community, were enormously troublesome throughout the nineteenth century. The French, presenting themselves in the 1860s as the protectors of Catholicism in China (despite anti-Catholic measures at home) and insisting that the Chinese government not establish direct relations with the Vatican, also demanded that the Chinese government permit the Catholic church to own property and to guarantee the return of all property that had ever belonged to it, referring specifically to those missions that had been established by Matteo Ricci and his successors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Until the second treaty settlement, the Catholic church in China had maintained a tenuous but stubborn toehold as an illegal, underground religion. It had been proscribed in 1724 by the Yung-cheng Emperor, except for a few authorized clerics in imperial service at Peking. At this time there were roughly 300,000 converts in China, declining by the end of the century by perhaps half or two-thirds, served by forty or so foreign clerics and twice that number of Chinese priests. Despite the risks, religious orders continued to smuggle priests into China and to smuggle a few Chinese out for training and ordination. Foreign priests had to be secreted at all times, usually in the homes of believers, going out only at night or in covered sedan chairs or boats. This was a harsh and dangerous business. If discovered, foreign priests might be attacked by hostile mobs or bandits. Official punishment might range from deportation to imprisonment to execution. Chinese Catholics often came in for even severer treatment.

The most active mission arena was the southwest, comprised of Szechwan, Yunnan, and Kweichow provinces, where vicariates apostolic had long existed in Chungking and Chengtu, both under the French Société des Missions Ètrangères. Rough estimates—the only ones available—suggest that in the early nineteenth century, there were perhaps 70,000 Chinese Catholics in these three provinces. This region was far enough removed from Peking so that the prohibitions rested a bit more lightly there than in the eastern provinces; but by the same token, the protections of the second treaty settlement were less well-known and enforced. Although some Chinese Catholics had renounced their faith, as directed by imperial edict, many others remained loyal despite repeated persecution.

Against this background, a few Westerners embarked upon explorations of the Yangtze River, and their books began to appear before a curious public. These explorers were not, of course, the first nineteenth-century Europeans to travel on the Yangtze River. In 1841–1842, and Anglo-French naval force had penetrated far enough to blockade the Grand Canal, thus demonstrating the capacity to strangle the capital by preventing vital grain shipment, and to take Nanking under its guns. There the first of the Unequal Treaties, the Treaty of Nanking, was concluded in 1842. A decade later, during the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion, several Europeans visited the dissident capital at Nanking, and left behind fascinating accounts of their experiences. But these men had little interest in the Yangtze River itself, except as a means of access to the interior. Even more reticent were the Catholic missionaries who began to take advantage of the concessions wrung from the second treaty settlement but tried to remain invisible, like their illegal predecessors, by wearing native dress and going concealed in sedan chairs or boats.

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Lifeboats on the Upper Yangtze

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 118-119:

Two other special purpose boats are worthy of brief mention. The first was the fleet of about fifty post-boats that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried the mail between Chungking and I-ch’ang, making faster and more dependable passage than any other type of craft. And finally there were the lifeboats, the so-called “red boats” of the Three Gorges and the upper Long River. Apparently instituted for the first time in the 1850s by a benevolent merchant who lived near New Rapids (Hsin-t’an), they found favor with a number of high officials (Li Hung-chang and Ting Pao-chen among them), who gave money for their maintenance and stationing at other dangerous points. In the 1880s, the service became a suboffice of the I-ch’ang Circuit Intendant. In 1899, according to Worcester, they saved 1,473 lives from 49 wrecked junks, and the next year 1,235 lives from 37 wrecks, including 33 foreigners and 285 Chinese taken off the first foreign steamer to be sunk in the river, the German-owned Suihsing. These figures, incidentally, suggest how many lives were lost each year prior to the introduction of the red boats. In the early 1900s, there were nearly fifty red boats on station, one or more at each danger point, manned by three or four sailors who “only receive about sixpence a day wages, but are rewarded by 1000 cash for every life saved, and by 800 cash for every corpse—irrespective whether it be male or female—so the lifeboat regulations state.” Not even the most jaundiced traveler had anything but praise for the skill, bravery, and honesty of the red-boat crews. It was even possible to hire a red boat to accompany one’s passage through the Three Gorges, a precaution recommended by Cornell Plant, the most knowledgeable foreign sailor of the upper river.

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