A HOUSE BY THE RIVER
‘The foreigners are many, but if we all spit
once they will drown’
Anti-Western leaflet, China, 1900
The river runs for a thousand miles across south China. It rises in the outposts of the Himalayas and struggles for half its length among the rapids and gorges of the foothills. Hundreds of miles from the source it’s still swift and cold where it passes a pebble beach.
Downstream the river escapes the hills. It slows in China’s sub-tropical plains and merges with the ocean in the great estuary which borders Canton and Hong Kong. Here at the beach, though, its brown back is lumpy as rope and foams over upjutting rocks.
In the early years of the twentieth century, two Westerners came to the beach. Later, one of them was shot and sank into the river. He began to drown, but couldn’t move because of his wound. He willed himself up towards the light.
But he saw that the gods of China were stirring. They knew him for one of their own, and rose from the dark like crocodiles.
In the beginning, though, the beach was home to the fisher folk. They came from the lowlands, where the river is warm and shows a man’s reflection, but had spread upstream through the generations until the river grew talkative, then bared its teeth around the rocks of the upland rapids. At last the current was too swift for boats, so the fisher folk came to the pebble beach on foot.
At first they only camped here, sleeping beside their lines for a summer month or two. But the beach lay in a great bend where the river was turned by a mountain, and they saw how the river slowed as it turned, growing wide and shallow. On the far bank, the mountain was undermined and its scree slid into the water. On this side, though, the current slackened and dropped its pebbles.
They brought boats from their settlements downstream, dragging them on bamboo ropes against the current until they came to the quiet waters off the beach. While they fished, an old man stayed on the beach, turning the catch on drying racks, covering it during the thrashing summer storms and chasing away foxes and river birds. He buried their refuse in the gritty soil beside the beach and grew a few vegetables.
The land is limestone, which submits to water, so the valley sides are steep. Above the old man’s garden the slope climbed swiftly to a great ridge, restless with sliding stones, the first arm of the mountains.
Tribespeople watched from this ridge. They were jealous of the boats, made of hardwood from downstream, and decided they were being robbed of fish they couldn’t catch. Each winter they took anything the fisher folk left, even the fertilised earth, which steamed in the cold air and seethed with insects as they dug. One summer they painted their faces and raided the drying racks, stealing half the catch while the old man fled into the shallows and the fisher folk watched in silence from the river.
Next season the fisher folk camped off the far bank, sleeping in their boats tethered to half-submerged boulders, drying their fish on poles wedged into the grey scree, in terror of the rocks which tumbled from above.
The old man took charge and a trade began. The tribes acquired fish in exchange for game or for the crops they raised around their own summer camps, though the barter was made with grunts and mime and much suspicion.
The fisher folk returned to the beach and raised their improbable platforms, twice as tall as a man, which swayed above the shallows on driftwood poles as thin as a wrist. There was a floor of matting, a mat roof, and one mat wall that was moved to face the wind but taken down when the wind grew too strong, lest the whole trembling contraption should founder.
The fisher folk still slept in their boats, which were more precious than any dwelling, but now stayed on the beach through the winter, when snow in the mountains ceased to melt and there was less water to hide the fish. The fangs of half-submerged rocks became more numerous, but the water was so tame that even the tribes took to the shallows in their clumsy rafts, though they disliked the river, which crossed their land like a foreign army and was too cold to touch. The fisher folk, too, had lost their downstream affection for the river, and forgot how to swim.
But the river still took their dead: the old man was launched into the water in a fishskin cap, his wrists and ankles tied, his mouth sewn shut around his one treasure, a silver hook which would pay the fish god for passage to the underworld, or (some said) would convince the god that he was only a dead fish.
The fisher folk houses moved up the beach, acquiring thatched walls and roofs, and crouching on shorter, stronger poles. Women appeared around the houses and were watched by the tribes, who had ceased to resent the fisher folk, only bad-tempered old men recalling that the beach had once been theirs.
The fisher folk had caught all the fish in the shallows behind the headland, dipping their bamboo scoops into the slick water or casting their nets, so they moved into midstream, which was too fast for nets and scoops, except perhaps during the winter drought. Instead they grew adept with hooks and occasionally spears.
The midstream fish were big from fighting the current. A man might catch nothing for days but when he trapped a midstream fish, dragging it to the shallows then leaping into the water to club it to death like a man, he could eat for a week. Downstream, fisher folk honoured the river for its muddy fecundity, because the fish were anonymous and unending. But here the great clean fish had to be beaten one by one, and the fisher folk shouted as each was wrestled ashore, strong as a leg. They grew contemptuous of their cousins downstream, who had to boil their drinking water and could hold a rod in each hand because the fish were small: if they were big, they seemed in recollection to have watery flesh or be diseased.
The fisher folk explored upstream. They took a tribal path along the narrowing gorge, wary of tigers and the poison darts of the tribesmen, launching their fishing lines from tiny beaches, or dropping them into mist from the walls of thunderous ravines, or balancing over slimy boulders to drift them into deep pools at the foot of rapids.
Young men went furthest. A few climbed to the high mountains and saw the river issue from the womb of a grey dragon. But all of them saw the monastery which stood among its graves in a side valley. Some learnt that they were reincarnations of dead monks and stayed there for ever, becoming will-less as water, finding themselves through obedience as water does. But the rest came back to the pebble beach because at last even young men cease to resent their parents.
During China’s troubles the Emperor’s grip loosened on the outposts and the river people almost forgot him, absorbed in their struggles with the river and each other. In times of peace his influence was renewed. Then tax collectors raised their pavilions on the beach, though the proceeds were disappointing: the fisher folk were no trouble, having known the land tax downstream, but the tribes lifted their mat houses and moved to other streams in other valleys.
But taxation meant protection, so the Yi people had talks with the collectors. The region had been too troubled for farming, but assurances were made and an opium plantation appeared in the valley next to the beach.
This valley lay behind the great ridge above the beach. It had its own stream, fed by reliable springs, whose water grew muddy in irrigation channels among the poppies, at last entering the river downstream from the beach. Opium boats came, hauled by gangs of coolies, and it was the highest port on the river. The wealth of the Yi brought traders, who spread their goods on blankets, then on stalls, and the plantation was called Market Village.
The fisher folk sold their fish there, but felt subdued among the strange tribals from the hills, the bright clothes of the plantation slaves, and the wealth of the Yi planters, who had silver necklaces and strong houses, although the houses were on the ground where animals and dirt could come in. On their way to market, the young men of the fisher folk bathed in the icy river to remove the shameful smell of fish, and later sang in the moonlight as they staggered home drunk over the steep ridge, which they called the Hog – an auspicious animal to which it bore no resemblance.
The Yi plantation required a permanent tax collector. Two wooden houses, brought in sections from down-river, appeared on the slope above the fisher folk village. One was reserved for official visitors, and the second, higher up the slope, sheltered generations of collectors from the summer rains, though not from the stink of fish. Next door, Imperial soldiers grumbled in a shed with no windows and an earth floor.
One collector was called Yue Fat. On a warm day in spring, relaxing on his veranda, he opened a package of official mail. He was startled to read that the pebble beach would be home to two white people.
John Gerrard knew nowhere but China. His parents, though, came from Sacramento, where his father had been a bank clerk and lay preacher.
The Chinese of California couldn’t vote, own land, testify in court against a white person, or be buried in white cemeteries. They couldn’t work for the State, nor send their children to public schools. At Marysville their houses were confined to floodland near the Yuba River, so in 1880 they raised a temple to Bok Kai, the god who brings rain yet averts floods. John’s father was aggrieved: he preached nervously in the temple yard, but was grinned at.
He joined a Baptist mission to the poor, treading wooden ghettoes where police and firemen did not go. The Chinese smiled and ate the Christian rice, but were seen later at their temples. Nevertheless he dreamt of a great harvest in the Orient.
‘A fifth of humanity!’ he said, though his wife frowned and turned away. ‘A fifth!’
He approached the Society for the Mission to China and was shown its library. He read of China’s cruelties, its luxury and need, and how this oldest of nations knelt to devils and the dead. He learnt that the Papists were there.
His job at the bank was a treadmill of pettiness, and he saw the glory of bringing China under the bright wings of the Lord. He grew a little red moustache, pale as a soup stain, and booked a passage with his outraged wife.
Off the coast of Alaska he was taken ill. As he rolled in a fever, Mrs Gerrard left the sick-room stench to pick her way among the coolies. How they distrusted each other, crouched like dogs over their unvarying possessions – a fan and umbrella, a straw mat, a red blanket, and a box with a curved lid which held their American savings and was at night their pillow.
The whites avoided her because she was only a missionary’s wife, so she leant on the rail pretending to watch a smoking volcano among the icy mountains. Instead, though, she stored the ugliest images of the heathens, telling her husband how they huddled in a corner to smoke opium and gamble and how they had doubtless supplied the fever which gripped him. He said that they were ignorant of the Lord and therefore innocent: she had seen their sagging loin-cloths, though, and disagreed.
She ceased to argue with him, since her victory seemed assured: he had worsened during a storm in the Japan Sea, which he didn’t notice among his restless fevers, and was committed to the deep two days out from Nagasaki.
On the quay at Hong Kong the new widow said, ‘I want to go home.’ The welcoming party – two ladies of the Mission with a bunch of flowers – was silenced, but marshalled arguments on the ferry to Canton. She was told of the great work to be done in China, the difficulty of booking a ship, and the delays in releasing Mission funds: but she noticed only the locked gates in the stairwells, which guarded against pirates among the passengers.
In the Mission building in Canton, her delicate condition became obvious and the ladies more insistent. Now she raged against China. She stayed indoors to avoid its clamour, but couldn’t escape the flies in her tea and the flying ants in her food. Her boots grew mouldy and moth larvae writhed in her clothes. She ate dinner with her feet in paper bags to keep off biting insects. Towards the end of her term even these horrors were surpassed: she discovered the hell of pregnancy in a Cantonese mid-summer.
She would not accept a native doctor, although the Mission assured her that Dr Mo was the most thoughtful Chinese in the city, and his wife’s sister a Christian, though sadly Romish. Instead John’s birth was attended by the only women at the Mission – the two white wives and a Chinese servant called Song Lan, who was notoriously single. Dosed with opium, Mrs Gerrard felt no pain, although she was torn and therefore confined to bed. She was incensed, and the wives came to dread those lips grown thin on betrayal.
Near the end of her convalescence she took short walks with a guide book but without her infant. She ignored the temple of Kam-fa which, said the book, was ‘of no particular interest, further than its being the temple of the goddess of mothers and children’. Opposite, however, was a large granite well with a curious dragon design: ‘This is worth seeing.’ She returned with a box of dominos and a back-scratcher at 50 cents each, a pillow made of porcelain at 10c, and a fan, also 10c.
Her purchases were suddenly more expensive. The ladies disputed whether they signified an interest in China or preparations for her departure, but agreed that they were unsuitable: an opium pipe for one dollar; an opium set for two smokers, complete, at ten dollars; an executioner’s sword, one dollar. They no longer challenged her intention to go home, though their husbands repeated that China pined for the one God and that many missionaries had need of a life’s companion.
The arguments half worked: Mrs Gerrard disappeared but left her baby, a note pinned to his smock revealing that she was going home under the protection of a ship’s officer, who had thus shown himself to be ‘the truest kind of Christian gentleman’.
John’s substitute mother was Song Lan. She had been part of the Mission for a year, at first sitting silently at the back of the hall during daily prayers. ‘I have stopped believing in idols and spirits,’ she said, and the Mission was charmed by her frankness.
She worked in the kitchens of a rich river trader but came each afternoon to stare at the Chinese Bible, printed in Japan between wooden covers and the size of a suitcase. She wished to be baptised, but was told that she must first learn the Gospel message: she could read only the common shop signs, however, and her studies lagged.
The women of the Mission took the Word to local wives in their homes. Song Lan, becoming anxious, volunteered to help. But she hated the knots of characters in the Chinese Bible and forgot the Gospel story at once. ‘I am forty years old and will soon die,’ she said. ‘Let me do something.’
She would wash and cook and sew, she decided – anything the Mission wished, and again without pay. Her offer was generous: the Chinese knew poverty too well to give away their labour. But still the Mission wavered.
Its president, Mr Burkett, tested her knowledge of the Gospel, but Song Lan began to cry. ‘Will the Mission pray after my death,’ she said, ‘and make offerings for my spirit?’
Now Burkett understood. Song Lan had been sold as a child and had no relations. She had never married and was too poor to buy a son. With no one to light lamps and give offerings, she would be a beggar in the spirit kingdom, wandering in the cold and dark. At last, mad with grief and rage, she would return as a hungry ghost, doing harm in the kingdom of the living.
Song Lan knew how loneliness poisons the heart and had tried to stay good. How could she contemplate an afterlife of evil? And how consoling was Mr Burkett as he recited our Saviour’s promise.
‘In my Father’s house are many mansions,’ he said as Song Lan knelt and wept. ‘I go to prepare a place for you. I will come again and receive you unto myself.’
She became the Mission’s amah, which John’s childish tongue pronounced as ‘mama’. The Mission had many young charges, though it preferred them older than John: babies, after all, needed such a long investment. It scooped abandoned children from the streets or bought them from their indigent parents. It fed the waifs and strays, shamelessly buying souls with rice, preaching as they ate or as they dozed around the coal stove in winter, so that local people said the Christians used children’s eyes to make silver for their mirrors. Why else would they want such creatures?
But the Mission was thinking of the future, when these infants would disarm China’s great objection to the Gospel – that it was the creed of foreign demons. And it was remarkable how cheaply such children could be raised, provided one used native helpers like Song Lan.
In the Mission’s register she was classified as Christian, but owed this distinction to the normal eclecticism of Chinese worship: she was soothed by a worn wooden Buddha, smooth as a thumb in her apron pocket; she whispered to a Cantonese spirit of the ashes when she cooked in the basement kitchen next to the nursery; she bowed secretly to a stone shelf over the oven, where the Kitchen God had presided until expelled by the Jesus-worshippers; and she shuddered at the stories of Christ on the cross, wondering at a Lord of the Dead who let himself be tortured.
At last, learning that Jesus had walked on the lake at Galilee, she remembered him when she took letters on the swaying overloaded ferry to the Mission House in Hong Kong. Given the Mission’s chronic lack of women, this was enough to qualify her as nursemaid for the child.
No one noticed a similar pantheism in young John. He attended the Mission’s austere worship, where there was no ceremony or singing, only declarations that the Bible was all. He learnt his Scriptures and listened respectfully when the white people told him about Heaven and Hell. And at night in the dormitory he stared at the Bible text on the wall above the oil lamp, which said ‘He spoke, and it came to be: He commanded and it stood forth’, which – said Mr Burkett – meant that God had created the world by speaking it, so that the world was a word.
Sometimes, though, this text was very fearsome, because it meant that everything was only a twist of air, and that John too was insubstantial and might be gathered back to heaven like the dew. At such times the oil lamp only multiplied the shadows, which were busy with Chinese spirits that rustled with the roaches in the dry toilet, were couched in glory on the charcoal in the kitchen, and coiled in a whispering nest under his cot, their murmurs growing sinister until Song Lan gave him sugar cane smeared with opium paste, after which their muttering was louder but couldn’t touch him.
He was her safeguard. She disliked the other children, the scrapings of the streets, but the white boy would surely tend her spirit. She listened politely to Mr Burkett’s stories about the spirit world where Jesus awaited her, welcoming all who were Christian, but in the evening she turned to John, who – like the all-knowing Lao Tsze – had been born with the white hair of wisdom. ‘Never forget me,’ she said. ‘Remember to pray for me, and light incense, and save my soul from wandering.’ Like him she had no parents, and called herself tan-min, which was an obscure joke and meant ‘child of the river’.
She spoke in Cantonese, which was John’s mother tongue: he knew English but it didn’t fit his gestures. Like her, he didn’t like reading: he learnt English and Chinese scripts, but the shapes were a fence that he peered through. He was the only white child in class, smirking with his friends when Mr Burkett taught them in a mincing Cantonese, his dentures whistling.
One day he wept because of his pale hair, and Song took him across the river to a modest gate, then through shading banyans and tiny courtyards to the Ocean Banner Monastery and the statues of the Kings of Heaven. One had a green face and controlled the winds; one with a red face controlled the elements of air, fire and water; the dark-faced one, holding a pearl in one hand and a golden dragon in the other, ruled the weather. But it was to the fourth that she dedicated the youngster, because this god – the lord of rain and rivers – also had a white face: John touched his forehead to the ground, next to the point of the god’s handsome umbrella, but wept on the ferry home because his hair wasn’t cured.
He began creeping out with his friends, a blanket over his Western clothes, a cap over his hair, his blonde brows like the shaved brows of the natives. They slipped from the dormitory window, barefoot, dropping from an outhouse roof to a teeming alley, then taking a regular route through the street of the porcelain makers, past the traders in human hair, peering into the shop of Koo Mow, which was hung with birds’ nests from the caves of Borneo, and visiting the pigs which crouched in baskets outside the slaughterhouse, their eyes sewn shut.
A bridge marked the border of the European quarter. Here a watchman fired his cannon at 9pm, and they competed to be furthest from the dull report, swimming in some foul canal or treading an alley in the Chinese city, hurrying home as incense sticks were lit by every door, skipping under shoulder poles, leaping the baskets of the street vendors, pausing at the more fearsome shrines where John bowed with his friends. He pulled their pigtails and they snatched his cap.
Their favourite temple had paintings of the chambers of the Buddhist hell. In one, animals took revenge on meat-eaters, so that chickens boiled human limbs, cows on their hind legs struck off heads, and men were hung by the heels and disembowelled by top-hatted pigs: the vegetarian elect were carried to heaven by the creatures they had spared. They sniggered at the newer chambers of Hell where those who adopted Western ways must dance forever on red-hot boards while cigarettes burned their mouths and female devils proffered drinks of molten copper.
The boys outgrew this tameness, squeezing into the courtroom where prisoners knelt on chains and broken glass, or were hung up by a hand, or had their mouths whipped and their ankles smashed. They followed their favourites to the prison, mingling with visitors and pointing through the wooden bars, and thence to the potter’s field, where they crawled to the front of the crowd to stand on hot jars, fresh from the ovens, and watched their heroes kneel for the headsman. A parricide was tied on a cross for the death of a thousand cuts, and the boys talked about Jesus.
In the classroom John was still mocked for his strange hair and he still dipped pigtails into ink, stuck pencils in pigtails, trapped pigtails in desks, or tied boys together by their pigtails. Then some of his classmates changed to short hair and Western clothes and grew solemn, having given themselves to Christ.
But his best friends vanished for ever into the streets, pigtails flying, where now he couldn’t go. He still wore a cap, but was too tall to merge into crowds and was followed by mutterings of ‘Foreign demon’ and ‘Kill!’ and was once chased by beaten stragglers from the Boxer Rising. Children were shielded from his glittering eyes, cats were afraid and dogs barked. In public toilets where he had flicked the little white maggots at his friends, no one sat next to him.
He was obliged to read. The Mission library was only a shelf in a corridor, since anything but the Bible might mislead, but there was a startling volume, nibbled by beetles, about missionaries who stained themselves with tea to map forbidden provinces – counting their paces with a rosary, measuring altitude with the boiling point of their kettle, their compass in a false-bottomed bag – until they were heroically lost and bamboo grew through their bones.
Often they were murdered. He crouched by a window in the corridor, frowning with effort, moving his finger along the lines of a report by the Catholic Church into the death in Kwangsi province in 1857 of Abbe Chapdeleine, whose heart was torn out of his chest ‘and, still beating, chopped into pieces, fried in a pan with pig’s grease, and eaten’. A fresh newspaper cutting told how the Boxers killed forty-five Christians in the courtyard of the governor’s building in Taiyuan, a witness reporting, ‘Mrs Farthing held the hands of her children, but the soldiers parted them and with one blow beheaded her. The executioner beheaded all the children and did it skilfully, but the soldiers were clumsy. Mrs Lovitt said, “We came to China to bring you the good news of Jesus Christ. We have done you no harm, only good, why do you treat us so?” A soldier took off her spectacles before beheading her. All were surprised at the firmness and quietness of the foreigners, none of whom except two or three of the children made any noise.’
‘With A House By the River, Sid Smith has fully established himself as one of Britain's most challenging and original novelists’ Times Literary Supplement
‘This is a remarkable novel…Reality has altered by the time you finish reading it’ Spectator
‘Well plotted, vivid and original. Sid Smith’s work to date is a triumphant testimony to the power of the imagination, dancing on the grave of the notion that people should begin writing about what they know’ The Times
‘A poetic novel and a serious literary novel, but also an adventure story. The writing is wonderful, absolutely brilliant. There is no Whitbread second novel award, but if there were he would be up for it’ Tom Sutcliffe, Radio 4
‘Once again, Sid Smith uses his cool spare prose and meticulous research to capture the turbulent clash of beliefs and cultures in a book that is absorbing and strikingly informative’ Daily Mail
‘Like Heart of Darkness, although with fewer adjectives’ Guardian
‘A gentle comedy of manners blossoms into a full-blown adventure story, with murders, kidnappings and hair-raising encounters with the elements . . . a touchingly crafted fable about our hunger for the spiritual – and the more prosaic forces that thwart that hunger’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Smith’s powerful new novel vividly conjures up another wild landscape. The novel is a perceptive, often exciting and finally sad study of idealists defeated by their ignorance of an alien world’ Sunday Times
‘A House By the River has ambition, intelligence and, beneath it all, a guiding gentleness’ Daily Telegraph
‘Smith manages the potentially lurid genre of the adventure story with skilled understatement . . . The writing has a purity and an austerity well suited to its missionary subject matter, illuminated by flashes of imagistic brilliance’ Times Literary Supplement