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 status of a single woman—she married only late, and reluctantly—was bleakly low. Her father was a country vicar, a relative of William Wilberforce, the pioneering crusader against the slave trade. It was perhaps the restricted life prescribed by middle-class propriety that caused Bird’s debility. From an active, boyish girl she declined into a semi-invalid afflicted by “nervous exhaustion,” neuralgia, glandular fever, and chronic spinal pain for which her doctor prescribed a steel mesh to support her head when sitting up. She accused herself of becoming stupid and feared premature old age.

Many of her symptoms now suggest psychological causes, and her father took the drastic but perceptive step of giving her £100 to travel and telling her to return only after she had spent it. In her day it was common knowledge that “a change of air” could be beneficial, and at the age of twenty-three Bird set off for North America, where her health miraculously improved. Thereafter, it seems, her health and happiness increased in proportion to the wildness, challenge, and sometimes danger of wherever she was going.

Over the next forty years her journeys took her through the Rockies, Japan, Hawaii, Malaya, the Himalayas, Persia, Tibet, Korea, and at last China. Other foreigners before her had ascended the Yangtze river valley, notably the British explorer Thomas Blakiston in 1861 and the Chinese-speaking businessman Archibald John Little; but apart from missionaries, wrote Little in 1888, such explorers numbered no more than five.

Following their sober narratives, Isabella Bird recorded a journey not only of enormous reach but of vivid and intimate observation. The Yangtze Valley and Beyond is packed with the details characteristic of nineteenth-century explorers bringing back firsthand knowledge, but it is rich too in personal insights and encounters, and it is shadowed by contradictions, some of them typical of Bird’s era, some of them her own.

This ambivalence surfaces the moment she arrives in Shanghai. She describes with unfeigned admiration the buildings of the English settlement, with its banks, shipping offices, and historic firms. Its order and well-being, she writes, show “to the whole East what can be accomplished by an honest and thoroughly efficient British local administration.” Then she slyly supposes that the seasonal humidity must disincline the expatriate residents to any serious reading, and that houseboat picnics, shooting expeditions, pony racing (“the prospects of the stables make great inroads on conversation”), and even childish paper chases are an escape from incipient boredom:


The tremendous energy with which Shanghai amuses itself during seven months of the year is something phenomenal. It is even a fatigue to contemplate it.

She suggests that things might be better, at least for business, if the British men were to give to the learning of Chinese “a little of the time which is lavished on sport and other amusements” and castigates “reliance on that limited and abominable vocabulary known as ‘pidgun.’” As for the indigenous Chinese city that cohabits with the foreign settlements:

To mention native Shanghai in foreign ears polite [sic] seems scarcely seemly; it brands the speaker as an outside barbarian, a person of “odd tendencies.” It is bad form to show any interest in it and worse to visit it. Few of the lady residents in the settlement have seen it, and both men and women may live in Shanghai for years and leave it without making the acquaintance of their nearest neighbour.

The society of British Shanghai was clearly too close a reflection of the confined home life from which Bird was fleeing. The chapter title that she devotes to the city—“The Model Settlement”—is tinged with irony. By now she is longing to enter a more vibrant China. She hires a launch to Hangzhou, a metropolis of ancient refinement, whose thirteen-mile walls (now vanished) enclosed the stone-flagged streets of wealthy silk merchants and overlooked a lake that is still beautiful.

By January 1896 she is sailing toward Ichang at the foot of the five-hundred-mile gorges that are the conduit between lowland China and the rich region of Sichuan, a province then almost as large as France. Here she must relinquish her stern-wheel steamer for a frail houseboat and navigate the river’s long, violent passage to the west. Her craft is a shallow-bottomed relic with a single mast and a range of cramped cabins astern, their beams rotted, their paper-glazed windows splitting. Here the devious skipper, his cringing son, and his virago wife (who beat to death her other son a few months earlier) live in rowdy squalor, while in the bows sixteen rowers heave against the current and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep, and sometimes invade her cabin. It is freezing cold.

The ascent of these magnificent gorges—eased today by the advent of dams and steamers—was cruel and extraordinary, and no better description of it exists than Bird’s. Where perpendicular cliffs constricted the Yangtze into a fearsome torrent, big junks and sampans were hauled upriver by teams of trackers sometimes four hundred strong, threading precipitous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the explosion of firecrackers to intimidate the spirit of the rapids. For hours they labored upward, chanting, half-naked, and hauling on 1,200-foot bamboo cables. Sometimes the cables snapped, the trackers fell on their faces, and the junks careered downriver into splintering wreckage. Meanwhile up to one hundred oarsmen might be straining aboard the larger boats, in peril of drowning.

The steep shores and inlets were littered with ships’ remains, and with human skeletons. The contemporary Chinese Gazetteer noted about one thousand rapids and dangerous boulders along the gorges’ corridor. Every year some five hundred junks went to the bottom, often with their crews.

Bird was a woman of strange, inflexible courage. Once the gorges were behind her, she disembarked at the teeming city of Wanxian and continued overland, carried by sedan chair (the only suitable transport) for hundreds of miles across northern and central Sichuan. A team of porters and bearers with a proud and touchy interpreter escorted her along narrow dykes between paddy fields, down decayed imperial roads and mountain tracks.

It was a journey of pastoral beauty, through a rich, flowering country. This was a region almost unknown to foreigners. With its canopied bridges and watermills and temples rising from bamboo and cedar groves, it intoxicated Bird by its sheer luxuriance, and by its conformity to some childhood expectation (the word “picturesque” recurs), as if she were traveling through a timeless Cathay.

Often she approached a town or village that emanated picturesque charm, but on her entering its gates it would turn out to be squalid and its inhabitants abusive. In local stopping places she slept alongside pigs and, once, a coffin (not empty). Unlike Chinese women, she traveled in a basket-chair where she sat exposed to view, and she inexplicably wore a Japanese-style hat (China had lost a war with Japan a year earlier). She was frequently mobbed and insulted. In one town she almost lost her life to the hostile rabble that invaded her inn; in another she was concussed by a hurled stone whose wound ached for a year afterward.


Much of the world she evoked has disappeared. Deforestation and collective farming have taken their toll on the rural landscape, and city walls and temples were ravaged during the Cultural Revolution. But travel narratives become history, and Bird’s scrupulous descriptions and painstaking photographs have taken on the priceless value of archival records.

Her photographs, in particular, receive full justice in this opulent Folio Society edition. More than a hundred are reproduced in large format. Before leaving England she had received lessons from the Scottish pioneer of travel photography, John Thomson, and had studied how to develop and print from film. Her sixteen-pound tripod camera and a lighter, hand-held camera were the most precious items in her baggage, secreted beneath the seat of her sedan chair. After sunset she would set about developing the glass-plate negatives and toning her prints. Her darkroom was the Chinese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chemical from her negatives in the river and hung the printing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud survives on a few of her prints.

Benjamin Stone/National Portrait Gallery, London

Isabella Bird, July 1899

Photography had become a passion for her. A missionary with whom she stayed, Reverend Walshe, describes her single-mindedly at work: “Even in the face of the largest and noisiest crowds, Mrs Bishop proceeded with her photography and observation as calmly as if she were inspecting some of the Chinese exhibitions in the British Museum.” A grainy photograph shows her standing beside her tripod camera while a crowd of Chinese has assembled to watch. She is staring unsmiling at the viewer: a small, stout woman (she was less than five feet tall) wearing the heavy coat in whose deep pockets she kept a portable oil lamp and a loaded revolver. She looks utterly composed.

Her photographs are chiefly of buildings and landscapes, and rest in the sepia calm of a distant age. And there are others. In one, her Yangtze trackers take their meal in two huddled ranks, surprised by the camera. In another, a trio of mandarin women with bound feet stare doll-like into the lens, as if forbidden public expression. There are hard-faced porters, bizarrely costumed soldiers, missionaries. And sometimes the camera intrudes unbearably. A grim trinity of leper women confronts the viewer with their sorrow, and a skeletal man, another leper, perches on a stool, his mouth gaping in a black, noseless skull. It is hard to believe that he’s alive.

Bird’s fearlessness seems of one essence with this chilling dedication behind the camera. In her writing too there are moments of forensic detachment. While returning down the Yangtze, she records without flinching:

I saw one big junk strike a rock while flying down a rapid and disappear as if she had been blown up, her large crew, at the height of violent effort the moment before, with all its frantic and noisy accompaniments, perishing with her.

In the next sentence she is discussing passenger boats.

With this apparent unfeelingness—the splinter of ice in the writer’s heart identified by Graham Greene—the writing persona seems insulated from the sentient woman. “Indignation stays at home,” wrote Elias Canetti of traveling. “One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travelers are heartless.”

Among the contradictions crowding into Bird’s work on China, her estimate of the Chinese themselves is the most complex. She has witnessed too much for simple conclusions, and is largely free of the crude Social Darwinism of some of her contemporaries. Wherever she travels, she is deeply admiring of Chinese commercial organization, of the stamina, thrift, and resourcefulness of its people. She esteems even her ruffian trackers for their endurance and good humor. This nation, she stresses, is heir to an ancient empire, steeped in its own culture and ethics.

Yet throughout her travels another leitmotif recurs. The Chinese are grossly material and superstitious, she writes, and ignorant, corrupt, and cunning. They are without conscience and enjoy no enlightened public opinion. They are at once conservative and enterprising, clever and benighted. In their religion, Daoist demons and a corrupted Buddhism are fused with the lofty tenets of Confucius.

In the face of such contradictions she holds firm to her advocacy of a saving British Empire. The book is dedicated to the Marquess of Salisbury, the Conservative British prime minister. Perhaps in the aging author a sense of personal grandeur is surfacing. Her book is bolstered with appendices on trade and shipping; it concludes with her thoughts on Protestant missions, pages of prescriptive opinions, and ends finally with the statement—absurd only in hindsight—that the future welfare of China will depend on the influence of Britain.

Here too she describes the enfeebling effect of opium on China (more than 70 percent of the inhabitants of Sichuan were addicted). It was a moral debate that engaged many travelers of her time, although Bird never confronts British culpability in forcing the import of opium. Yet in other passages she gives graphic accounts of how this “foreign smoke” so degrades its users that they may sell off their wives and children to indulge in it. And elsewhere she warns against the colonial rapacity that is destroying a sophisticated culture:

It may be that we go forward with “a light heart,” along with other European empires, not hesitating, for the sake of commercial advantages, to break up in the case of a fourth of the human race the most ancient of earth’s existing civilisations, without giving any equivalent.

A similar ambivalence troubles her attitude toward Christian missions, which had proliferated in the few decades before her journey. Even in remote areas she receives their hospitality. But she was a late and tepid convert to missionary work. She equates the advent of Christianity less with faith than with civilizing Western values and material improvement. Along her way she founds a hospital in memory of her beloved sister, who had died in 1880, just as in Kashmir she had founded one for the man she belatedly married while still draped in mourning black at the altar rail. He died five years later, leaving her unexpectedly bereft.

Now, after establishing her sister’s hospital, she travels swiftly on. The missionaries she portrays are brave but a little pathetic. People laugh at their sermons. Converts are miserably few, and all from the poorer classes: “rice Christians” who may have converted from expediency. Bird considered the Book of Common Prayer a useless tool for conversion, and thought the proselytized Chinese themselves were the best evangelists for their people. Her admiration is reserved for the priests of the China Inland Mission and those of Roman Catholicism who adopted local dress and etiquette and lived embedded among a deeply suspicious people. To the Chinese authorities, Christianity and opium were twin evils to be extirpated. Missionaries were even rumored to kidnap infants and use their eyes and hearts as medicine. For Bird, there was nothing sadder than to witness women ushering their children away when she approached.

Many of Bird’s conflicted thoughts and feelings reflect the misgivings of her day. Above all she ached for the release of travel, yet it was travel that exposed her inner contradictions. She placed her faith in the British Empire and in Victorian mores, yet fled the world that held to them. She paid lip service to Christian missions, while their certainty was not hers. The poverty of Chinese life distressed her, but its setting brought personal exhilaration. Whenever she returned to England, she shrank into nervous quietude and fell ill.

Eight years earlier, oppressed by the orderly town life of Japan, she had traveled instead to remote Hokkaido, where she was drawn to the aboriginal Ainu tribes. “My chief wish on arriving at a foreign settlement or treaty port in the East is to get out of it as soon as possible,” she wrote. And her Chinese journey culminates, predictably, at its remotest reach, as she enters the wild mountains where a Tibetan people inhabit lamaseries and fortress villages above torrential rivers, and where the women are equal to the men, and nobody has heard of England.

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond is Bird’s most important and substantial book. She claimed that the journey started without literary intent, and that the work was cobbled together from notes and journals. But on its publication she was bitterly disappointed at its tepid reception (the Boer War was distracting the nation’s attention), confiding in a letter, “The indifference of my friends to my last book, my youngest child, child of my old age, has grieved me much.”

But the child of this remarkable woman has been handsomely resurrected in the present edition, with an introduction by Dervla Murphy that places it deftly in the setting of Bird’s traveling life. Bird’s writing above all is scrupulous documentation—some of the finest written on China. As for the richness of her writing style, her publisher, the genial John Murray IV, wrote that she “was intentionally the most truthful of people, but she had that endowment…of seeing incidents in the superlative degree”—the high colors that reflected her own intensity.

In the end she placed too much confidence in both the resilience of the failing Qing dynasty and in the influence of the British Empire. But for all the tribulations of her journey, her fascination and respect for the country survived. Her perception of the Chinese, in their unfamiliar complexity, was earned by hard experience. “It is not an effete or decaying people,” she wrote, “which we shall have to meet in serious competition when it shall have learned our sciences.”