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James Legge, Missionary and Scholar
Chapter XI. A tour up the west river


BEFORE the end of 1864 failing eyes and a failing voice showed that Dr Legge had strained himself well-nigh to the limit of his powers. A holiday was necessary, and, by good fortune, three weeks with three friends on the West River of Canton province gave him, in his own words, 'invigoration and delight.' A short account of the trip will give glimpses of a part of China little known to foreigners, and the circumstances which came under his notice towards the end of it bear a curious resemblance to stories usually connected only with Roman Catholic countries.

The three friends were Dr Kane and Dr Palmer, both medical men, and Mr J. B. Taylor, a much valued friend. With them, too, came Dr Legge's Chinese secretary, whose home lay up the West River.

They engaged a handsome Tsze-tung boat, which contained four compartments. The sofas, chairs, and tables were of ebony, and covered with splendid embroideries; the woodwork was beautifully carved, and twenty lamps hung from the ceiling of the saloon. The crew consisted of the Chinese skipper, his wife, with a son and two daughters; and six men, who did the rowing, pulling, and tracking. The skipper was a man of remarkable taciturnity; the wife, however, had a shrill tongue; her words were fast and furious, and she 'jumped to the screaming stage' on any or no provocation. The four passengers called her 'dragon-mother,' by a prompting which will shortly appear. She was an amusing sight when the wind blew hard against them, or the boat stuck on a shallow or on a sandbank. 'Then she became exceedingly devout, screamed violently, and scattered flaming pieces of joss paper on the waters with a lavish hand.' Her daughter's business was to look after the spirit shrine which stood at one end of the vessel. She lit its candles every night, and on the first and fifteenth of the month supplied it with fresh sand, incense sticks, and gilt paper.

Dr Chalmers, who saw the party off from Canton, reported as follows: 'The vessel started to-day at noon, loaded with provisions both for mind and body, and the four passengers seemed mightily pleased both with their position and prospects. The stout M.D. busied himself in putting up shelves and opening boxes of stores; the witty one overflowed with high spirits; the Doctor Divine piled up a few volumes on one of the shelves bearing on future Prolegomena, to which were added others of a lighter kind; and the fourth passenger looked after windows and fittings with a view to personal comfort.'

To reach the West River—about thirty-five miles from Canton—they moved along cross streams. Out of ' Flower-land,' or ' Garden creek,' they held on to the large town of Fuh-shan. Various pencil pagodas rose up at intervals, called so from their pointed tops. These pencil-pointed pagodas are all dedicated to the Kwei-Sing or North Star, the spirit of which is supposed to be an attendant of the god of literature.

Literary influences, therefore, will descend upon the districts where they are raised. In Fuh-shan the mottoes displayed on the sign-boards of the hongs, or places of business, were sufficiently striking. A coffin-maker called his shop 'The hall of a myriad years' longevity'; a tobacco merchant named his 'The house of eternal virtue.'

Entering a large stream, they passed a large temple, 'the temple where they divide the booty,' called so because 'the robbers of the district resort to it to sanctify their division of the spoils.' Near the city called 'Three Waters' (San Schuy) kingfishers flitted about among the rice-fields and fish-ponds. Soon after they passed into the West River itself, and dropped anchor in full view of the grand mountains which had been looming before their eyes ever more grandly as they approached. Here they landed, having set their hearts on climbing up to the Buddhist monastery called 'Congratulating the Clouds,' and there spending the night. Walking along past banyans and cotton trees, among bright tufts of wild chrysanthemums, they reached the gorge where the stream narrowed beneath overhanging trees. Darkness set in, and swarms of fireflies glittered about them as they climbed the steep and finally knocked at the 'cloud-felicitating gate.'

The monks received them politely but coldly, conducted them to the guest-chamber, and intimated that they must keep to the rules and eat nothing but rice, tea, bean curd and greens. However, having brought food with them, they persuaded the priest to let them open a tin of soup. He allowed them to heat the tin itself, but would let no utensil of the monastery be defiled. They wished to send in their cards to the Abbot, but were assured he was 'not at home.' At nine o'clock the second watch was loudly proclaimed in Pali: 'It is the second watch. Be still, everyone. Banish improper thoughts, and with all your hearts think of Buddha.'

The next morning they were shown the 'Hall of the Three Precious Ones,' of Buddha, past, present, and to come; the Room of Judgment, the Courts, the two refectories, and other chapels and buildings on successive terraces. The urchin deputed to show them over preluded his entrance into every fresh passage by an unearthly yell, 'to give Buddha notice of our coming.' The monastery stood, embowered amid trees, about a thousand feet up the mountain of Ting-hoo 'the mountain with a lake on its top.' Giant peaks rose round as if to guard it. There were apparently about a hundred monks in the establishment and about twenty boys, kept to help in the menial work. As a whole the monks were painful to look upon; many of them seemed verging on idiocy. Such lack-lustre eyes as seemed the rule could not be seen in England outside a refuge for imbeciles. Early in the morning Dr Legge asked for permission to visit the library. After much hesitation the answer was given 'Yes, after breakfast' Breakfast passed, and the request was repeated, but excuse after excuse was made, until a small boy shouted, 'You need not ask about a book-room, no one reads books here.'

The monks' dormitories were squalid; in fact, the only elevating element in their daily life seemed to be the care they bestowed on flowers. Magnificent rows of chrysanthemums and cockscombs stood arranged in high stands in the open court before the 'Hall of the Three Precious Ones.' The treasure of the monastery was a relic of Buddha shut up in a splendidly tinselled pagoda, but what the relic was they either did not know or would not tell. 'If it were looked at or handled' said a monk, 'there would be an explosion as disastrous as an earthquake'.

Once or twice the party encountered a stout, hearty old fellow wearing a rosary of large jade beads. They had a strong suspicion that he was the Abbot who was 'not at home.' Dr Legge asked him, 'Is this monastery subordinate to any other? or does your Abbot acknowledge the existence of any higher dignitary?' 'No' was his reply, 'the law of Buddha is equality.'

Leaving the monastery with much chin-chining, they walked by a lovely path to the 'Abyss of the Flying Water' where a cascade of about 200 feet in height flung itself down over frowning, broken rocks. 'This alone,' said one, 'is worth coming from Hong Kong to see'.

Descending the mountain, they came upon nearly a dozen strapping Chinese girls, who were cutting fuel and grass. They took no notice of the foreigners, and such was their air of sadness that Dr Legge inquired the cause. 'My life is bitter,' said one, 'with this constant toil and its perils. One of us lately slipped and fell down the mountain, receiving bad injuries.'

Embarking again, they passed through the great wonder of the region, the pass or gorge of Shaou-king, six miles long. The river here narrows, and is only about 600 yards wide; bare rocks rise to the height of 1200 feet or more, behind them are seen still loftier peaks. On one green summit a rock rises; the spot is called 'Look out for your husband'. For there, legend says, a lady was wont to sit watching for the return of her husband from war, and there she sat until changed into a rock. The native crew sang as they passed it:—

*High sits the lady by the stream,
A thousand years her hair flies free,
Ten thousand years her robes are blown,
Her husband's face when shall she see?'

Four pagodas on the banks betokened that they were nearing the city of Shaou-king, where they halted. Here occurred the incident, otherwhere noticed, of the Chinaman who bowed to Dr Legge, calling him 'the righteous man' because he had declined the bag of dollars from the Shield King of the Tai-ping rebellion.

About three miles behind the city, among certain remarkable limestone rocks which rose in separate masses to the height of from 150 to 500 feet, were some neglected Buddhist and Taoist temples; one being inside the 'Cave of Seven Stars' a large natural grotto. The solitary priest in attendance possessed a strikingly shrewd face. He had only become a priest, they were told, as an alternative to execution, having been a leader of robbers and a prominent rebel. When the rebellion was suppressed, his life was saved by the interference of the gentry who 'liked him as a good fellow' and undertook that he should shave his head and give no more trouble. Further on, in the 'Rice-yielding Cave' was a shrine to the spirit of a personage named Chow, who has been worshipped for 1200 years. Chow was probably in ancient times a good and kindly inhabitant of the district A large stalagmite beside his shrine somewhat resembles the figure of an old man holding out his hand. From a hole in his hand, tradition says, a quantity of rice used to pour forth. This projection is worn quite smooth by the touch of visitors who come still to stroke it in the hope that it will bestow a few grains of rice upon them. The sight of it reminded Dr Legge of Cicero's account of the statue in the 'Temple of Hercules' at Agrigentum, the mouth of which was worn away by the kisses of its worshippers.

Further up the river, passing magnificent clumps of bamboos, from 40 to 50 feet high, they came to the town of Yue-ch'ing, where is the temple and grave of the great goddess 'Dragon-mother.' More than 2000 years ago, a certain girl, washing crape at the river, found a large egg which she carried home. By-and-by five lizards emerged from the egg and grew up into splendid dragons with glittering scales and horns. By their help the girl, Miss Wan, performed many marvels which, coming to the ears of the emperor, induced him to send for her, intending to make her his wife. She had no ambition to be empress but was forced to set sail. The vessel had gone 300 miles when the dragons appeared and in one night dragged it back. This happened three times, after which the emperor finally desisted from his attempt to wed her. When Miss Wan died, the dragons raised a great storm, scooped up the ground with their tails and buried their 'mother' in a grave which is shown to the present day. From ancient times the Dragon-mother Wan has been worshipped in this part of China. Her temple is called the 'Temple of the Great Patroness of Filial Piety' and contains an elegant figure of the goddess, horned, and wearing a rich robe, the gift of an emperor. Her five dragon children in the form of youths, also horned, are standing round her.

After visiting the 'Cockscomb Rock' a mass of rock about 180 feet high, jagged so as to resemble a cockscomb and extending for 500 feet along the side of the stream, they went on to the 'Pass of the Seven Water-lilies' called so because seven hills here converge together into a form suggestive of a huge lotus flower. They passed the immense 'Rock of the Flowery Mark' crowning a high hill, and shaped, the Chinese say, like a bonze's (priest's) head. Some think it resembles the Sphinx. Our travellers compared it to Prometheus Vinctus.

They finally arrived at Woo-chow which was dilapidated and dirty. It contained several Taoist temples which were full of the grotesque images in which that sect delights. Here they interviewed an old gentleman with a flowing white beard whose finger-nails varied from five to seven inches in length.

On their journey back, an old man came to them with his son who was suffering from a diseased foot, to ask help from the doctors on board. They had spent all their money, they said, on native doctors, whose caustic applications only made matters worse. Dr Palmer fetched an instrument and, quick as thought, snapped out a piece of diseased bone. The man screamed, but shortly after rowed away in great glee.

A day was given to visiting a famous show place, the hill of Se-ts'eaou (hill of the western woodcutters). Here they visited the 'Cave of the White Clouds,' the 'Kingfisher's Grotto' the 'Leafless Well,' and the 'Great Nest Peak.' At 'White Clouds' is a temple and also many shrines, the chief object of worship being a figure of one of the 'Eight Genii' of the Taoists, named Leu, 'ruler of the five thunders and director of the three religions.' The whole establishment stands in a deep cleft of a granite spur, and the artfulness of design in turning every peculiarity of natural position to account is most striking. Some people say the Chinese have no taste; let such visit the cave of the 'White Clouds' and repeat their assertion, if they can. They went round the wonders of the place—waterfall, towers, bridges, rock-grottos, until, to their surprise, in a place of such Taoist sanctity they were shown the mark, about two and half feet long, of 'Buddha's foot,' on a rock. How could Buddha have been allowed near a place so sacred to Taoism? It is Taoist monsters who are often represented with a somewhat similar bird-foot and claws.

Up to the rounded summit called 'Peak of the Great Nest,' 1000 feet high, they walked by a good road paved with granite flags, or in steep places with steps. The most popular idol on the mountain seemed to be the 'Great General Stone-dog,' a stone figure in the shape of a dog. The aspect of the 'Leafless Well' on whose surface many leaves were lying, belied the legend that a genius had given it the power of throwing off floating leaves. The people living in the hamlets of this high ground looked bright and healthy, in great contrast to the sallow, feeble looks of those who dwelt below among malarial swamps, rice-fields and fish-ponds. On the hillside an old, small-footed woman was gathering tea-leaves.

Most curious and interesting circumstances came to their notice towards the end of this walk. As they neared the top of the hill they saw a grand prospect below; an immense plain, the great West River, and scores of hamlets and villages. Crowds of people were hurrying across the country, all in one direction, all moved evidently by some impulse to visit one special village. Dr Legge bought a pamphlet on the way down which told a strange story, which story was corroborated by his secretary Tsang, who had been absent for three days visiting his relations in one of those villages. It appeared that 'in the summer of the year before, at the village of Keang-peen (River side) there had died a girl called Yu Wang Hing, between sixteen and seventeen years old. From her childhood there had been something peculiar about her. She often seemed rapt, and as if invisible beings were talking to her. Her disposition, moreover, was gentle, quiet and benevolent. She was betrothed, but the marriage had not been completed, mainly because of her delicate health. One day, towards the end of summer, she said to her mother, 'Mother, I am about to become an Immortal. Make ready a bath for me, made fragrant with orange and whampei leaves.' Having bathed and changed her clothes, she sat down, drew up her legs under her as in the figure of Kwan-yin sitting on a lotus flower, closed her eyes, while her spirit floated away to join the ranks of the Genii.

Her body was buried at a place called Ta-san-kiang not far off, and before long, the grave was visited by a mandarin from Canton. While in great anxiety on account of the dangerous illness of his mother, he had a dream in which an immortal appeared to him, saying, 'I was a girl, Yu Wang Hing, but I have now been enrolled among the immortals. Go to the village of Keang-peen and get my parents to direct you to my grave. Go there and worship, and I will heal your mother.' The mandarin obeyed the vision, came to Ts'eaou, sacrificed and prayed at the grave; and his mother recovered. The thing got noised abroad, and many votaries came, some to the parent's house and some to the site of the grave, and wonderful cures were effected. The deaf regained their hearing; the blind received their sight; the lame were made to walk. So it was said. Within three months, more than 100,000 visitors had been to worship at the grave. Tsang passed near it on his way to his native village and saw a dozen large sheds erected in the vicinity for the accommodation of pilgrims. He gave Dr Legge a picture of the saint or goddess Yu, with a halo round her head, of which picture tens of thousands were being sold. Thus China is continually adding to the number of its gods and goddesses.

The secretary Tsang's account of the place reminded Dr Legge somewhat of Bethesda, the pool which was by the sheep-gate in Jerusalem. There had sprung up quite a little hamlet, he said, to which thousands came from all parts of the country, to drink of the water and wash and be healed. The girl was described as having been very good and pure, and kind to all living things. Dr Legge was assured by many people in the town at the foot of the hill, that his secretary's report was quite true. Over thirty years afterwards, Dr Legge told a friend that he felt sure that anyone visiting the place now would find a new temple and a famous shrine in which offerings are made to the deceased girl.

A day or two later the travellers found themselves again at Canton, and Dr Legge, greatly invigorated, crossed over to Hong Kong to resume his work with new energy.


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