Reveling in Discomfort

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond: An Account of Journeys in China, Chiefly in the Province of Sze Chuan and among the Man-tze of the Somo Territory

by Mrs. J.F. Bishop (Isabella L. Bird), with an introduction by Dervla Murphy
London: Folio Society, 420 pp., $112.00
Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)
‘Mandarin’s wife and two daughters with bound feet’; from Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond

Ever since the Romans imagined an empire of elysian peace at the eastern limit of the world, China has been the repository of Western fantasy and delusion. More than three centuries ago Leibniz marveled at the country’s rumored enlightenment, and Voltaire cited its secular governance as a desirable model for France. For many decades afterward, the image of a willow-patterned realm enshrined in its own past proved quaintly durable.

But with the decline of the Qing dynasty during the nineteenth century this idealized China wore thin. Western disillusion was fed by hearsay and the reports of traders. In 1821 Byron charged China with “the miserable happiness of a stationary and unwarlike mediocrity,” and Emerson soon quipped that the summit of Chinese philosophy and science was how to make tea. Often the country became an object of Western ridicule, perceived as a land of corrupt and insanitary heathens whose once-admired mandarinate had sunk into pedantry.

Crucial to Western perceptions were the two Opium Wars, fought between 1839 and 1860, in which Britain, by a series of coercive pacts, forced open fifteen “treaty ports” to outside trade and settlement, and established the import of opium. Now the whole of China, weakened by civil wars, fell prey to Western merchants, missionaries, and explorers. The Yangtze valley, in particular, was claimed as a British “sphere of influence” in 1898, a claim that thrust deep into the country’s heart.

The Yangtze is the third-longest river in the world. It divides the country from Tibet in the west to the Pacific in the east, creating an imagined boundary between a martial north and a mercantile south. Then as now, its watershed was home to almost one third of China’s population. It was at once their lifeblood and torment, its lower reaches furnishing the country’s rice granary while unleashing catastrophic floods. There was no other river, wrote Pearl Buck, that could equal it for beauty and cruelty.

During the nineteenth century only a handful of foreign travelers penetrated west through the Yangtze’s stupendous gorges into the uplands beyond. The journey was dangerous both for the remoteness of the terrain and for its hostile inhabitants. Yet almost the first Westerner to travel here was a sixty-four-year-old woman in precarious health whose motives extended beyond visiting mission stations to sheer curiosity and an intense craving for personal freedom.

Isabella Bird’s The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, first published in 1899, was her last travel book. By then she was acclaimed, though not happy, in her native England. Beneath the measured and authoritative calm of her writing persona lay conflicted issues and emotions that her long and taxing journeys could alleviate but not resolve.

Born in 1831, she came from a Victorian milieu in which the…

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