The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze, G.R.G. Worcester

The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze, G.R.G. Worcester

This is one of those books that I’m sorry to have finished reading. Worcester’s topic is much broader than the title of this single volume edition might suggest. There are of course detailed technical descriptions of the vast array of different types of boats in use on the river, and I’m sure these will be of great interest to the boat modeller or sailing enthusiast. However for me the great joys of the book are the descriptions of the river itself and the people who lived along its banks. Each of the chapters includes sizable chapters dedicated entirely to this, tracing the course of each section of the river, the way it had developed, and the way in which the sailors navigated it. However many of the real gems come in the sections on the boats themselves, where Worcester combines the technical description of the boats with stories about the people who lived on them, and accounts of the industries they supported. We thus get to learn about the Chinese wine industry, or the complex salt industry which relied on a mix of naturally occurring brine and natural gas in the same area. We also get snippets of Chinese history, at least when major events took place on the river, and the myths and legends of the river.

Most of the time the subject feels almost timeless, giving us a view of life on the Yangtze as it might have been lived for hundreds of years before it the book was written. However Worcester actually lived in China during some of the most dramatic times in its history, living through the Japanese invasion (and spending some time in a Japanese prison camp), and the pre and post war civil wars. Every so often an element of the modern world intrudes, and it does feel rather jarring – I was especially caught out by the appearance of a car ferry or the use of a particular type of pleasure boat to escape Japanese air raids.

The variety of boats covered is truly remarkable. The more conventional vessels range in size from large cargo vessels to the small sampans used in the major harbours and the tiny boats of the cormorant fishermen. However Worcester covers just about anything that floated on the Yangtze and its tributories. These include an impressive array of rafts, some of which were large enough to have small settlements of huts built on top! I was particularly attracted by the hay transporters, which resembled floating haystacks, but with part of it hollowed out to provide a cosy (if rather flammable) home for the crew.

This book is based on four original books by the author, reorganised somewhat to fit into the four chapters used here. The author spent thirty years working for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, a rather unusual service that had been founded by foreign consuls in Shanghai at the time of the Taiping rebellion, was largely manned at senior level by Europeans, but was always officially part of the Chinese government, and raised a sizable part of the government revenue.  He was actually relieved of his normal duties and for eight years was paid to carry out research into Chinese shipping, a task that took him high up the Yangtze and into its many tributaries. During his time in China he gained a huge level of respect and affection for her ship-builders and their crews, and that frequently comes across here.

This is an utterly compelling account of a way of life on the Yangtze that was fast disappearing as Worcester was researching it, capturing the last glimpses of a world that has almost totally disappeared (in some cases physically so, below the waters of new reservoirs!). A highly recommended book, that does also include enough technical detail to satisfy the boat enthusiast!

1 – The Yangtze River – Its Craft & People
2 – Craft of the Estuary & Shanghai Area
3 – The Lower & Middle River & Tributaries
4 – Craft of the Upper Yangtze & Tributaries

Author: G.R.G. Worcester
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 648
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2020

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