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China Books

George Morrison's An Australian in China


George Morrison became the London Times correspondent in 1897.

Morrison recounts his journey from Shanghai to Burma in An Australian in China, which is now available again from Earnshaw books.

The foreword to the republished edition is written by Earnshaw Books editor Andrew Chubb, and here Chubb introduces the pre-fame and pre-ego Morrison (see Paul French's introduction to Houseboat Days). Following the introduction is an excerpt from the book on banks, gold and telegraphs in Yunnan.

On a side note, Danwei recently excerpted from Linda Jaivin's novel An Immoral Woman, a fictionalized account of of Morrison's romance with the saucy heiress Mae Ruth Perkins.

An Introduction to George Morrison's An Australian in China

by Andrew Chubb

The journey recounted in An Australian in China, from Shanghai to Rangoon in 1894, sits beside those of Edwin Dingle and Isabella Bird as one of the great Old China adventures: up the Yangtze Rapids in a tiny wuban, or 'five-planker' boat to Chongqing, over stony paths across the wilds of Sichuan and Yunnan, through the Shan states to British-ruled Burma. Just under 5,000km in total, completely unarmed and without an interpreter. The point of the journey, the author said, was how easily it could be done by "anyone in the world", but George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920) — best known as the London Times' megalomaniacal Peking correspondent — was one of the most extraordinary Australians who ever lived.

In the summer holidays of 1879-80 a 17-year-old Morrison walked from his home town, Geelong (just outside Melbourne) to Adelaide, South Australia; the following year he canoed the Murray River from Albury to the sea — over 2,500km, once again solo and unaided. Two years later he decided to cross Australia, north to south, on foot. The explorers Burke and Wills had perished two decades earlier on the same journey, but Morrison, not quite 21 years old, went alone and unarmed. Starting in the height of summer from the Gulf of Carpentaria near Normanton, he arrived in Melbourne four months later on April 21, 1883 to a mixture of admiration and disbelief.

In 1884, Morrison was speared while exploring New Guinea and had to be sent to Dr. John Chiene, the surgeon in Scotland to whom this book is dedicated, for complicated surgery to remove a spearhead from his leg. He resumed his studies in Edinburgh and graduated as a surgeon in 1887. He had been working and traveling for most of the past seven years, at times so impoverished he resorted to posing as a missionary, when he arrived for the first time in China and began the journey described in An Australian in China.

Travel writers today often delight in recounting the difficulties of traveling in China. Morrison does the exact opposite. The sub title, Being the Narrative of a Quiet Journey Across China to Burma, is predictable from a man who described walking solo across Australia as "a pleasant excursion". But it would have carried a little more bite in 1895, when a quiet journey would have been contrary to many expectations.

And that title, An Australian in China, is not as dull as it might seem. Morrison was just that at a time when outright racism against Chinese was commonplace in Australia. In fact as gold-diggers, a few of them Chinese, flocked to Morrison's home colony, Victoria (known in Chinese as 'New Gold Mountain' — California being the 'Old'), it became the epicenter of anti-Chinese sentiment. Morrison even professes to have arrived in China with a "strong racial antipathy" towards the Chinese. All the more powerful, then, his 'discovery' that the Chinese were civilized, hospitable and showed him nothing but "the most charming courtesy".

Morrison warded off trouble by quickly learning the rules of the Chinese 'face' game. His basic strategy was to inflate his own importance, which in reality, given he had little money and few connections, was not high. "I could not acknowledge," he wrote, "that any Chinaman traveling in the Middle Kingdom was my equal, let alone my superior." Rather than allowing this assumed superiority to taint his views of the Chinese, however, Morrison reserves his venomous pen of ridicule for the hapless foreign missionaries.

The insight and understanding Morrison showed in An Australian in China — along with a healthy imperial zeal — brought him to the attention of the Times' editors, who in 1897 commissioned him as the newspaper's first Peking correspondent. Morrison never learned Chinese, but this did not prevent him from becoming the East's (if not the world's) most famous and influential foreign correspondent and a genuine player in international relations.

Here's the extract:

Chaper XIV: Gold, Banks, and Telegraphs in Yunnan

by George Morrison

Yunnan City is the great gold emporium of China, for most of the gold found in China comes from the province of which it is the capital. When a rich Chinaman returns from Yunnan to another province, or is summoned on a visit to the Emperor at Peking, he carries his money in gold not silver. Gold leaf sent from Yunnan gilds the gods of Thibet and the temples and pagodas of Indo-China. No caravan returns to Burma from Western China whose spare silver has not been changed into gold leaf. In the Arracan Temple in Mandalay, as in the Shway-dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, you see the gold leaf that Yunnan produces, and in the future will produce in infinitely greater quantities.

Gold comes chiefly from the mines of Talang, eighteen days journey by land S.W. from Yunnan City, on the confines of the district which produces the famous Puerh tea. The yield must be a rich one despite the ineffective appliances that are employed in its extraction. Gold has always been abundant in this province; at the time of Marco Polo's visit it was so abundant that its value in relation to silver was only as one to six.

When gold is worth in Shanghai 35 times its weight in silver, it may be bought in Yunnan City or Talifu for from 25 to 27.5 times its weight in silver, and in quantities up to hundreds of ounces. To remit silver by telegraphic transfer from Shanghai or Hong Kong to Yunnan city costs six per cent., and either of the two leading banks in the city will negotiate the transfer from their agents at the seaports of any amount up to 10,000 ounces of silver in a single transaction. The gold can always be readily sold in Shanghai or Hong Kong, and the only risk is in the carriage of the gold from the inland city to the seaport. So far as I could learn, no gold thus sent has gone astray. It is carried overland by the fastest trade route—that through Mungtze to Laokai—and thence by boat down stream to Hanoi in Tonquin, from which port it is sent by registered post to Saigon and Hong Kong.

Here then is a venture open to all, with excitement sufficient for the most blasé speculator. Ample profits are made by the dealer. For instance, a large quantity of gold was purchased in Yunnan city on the 21st January, 1894, at 23.2, its value in Shanghai on the same date being 30.9; but on the date that the gold arrived in Shanghai its value had risen to 35, at which price it was sold. At the time of my visit gold was 25.5 to 27 in Yunnan, and 35 in Shanghai, and I have since learnt that, while gold has become cheaper in the province, it has become dearer at the seaport.

The gold is brought to the buyer in the form of jewellery of really exquisite workmanship, of rings and bracelets, earrings and head ornaments, of those tiny images worn by rich children in a half circlet over the forehead, and bridal charms that would make covetous the heart of a nun. Ornaments of gold such as these are 98 per cent. fine and are sold, weighed on the same scales, for so many times their weight in silver. They are sold not because of the poverty of their owners, but because their owners make a very large profit on their original cost by so disposing of them. If, however, the purchaser prefer it, gold will be brought him in the leaf 99 per cent. fine, and this is undoubtedly the best form into which to convert your silver. The gold beaters of Yunnan are a recognised class, and are so numerous that they have a powerful guild or trade's union of their own.

Gold-testing is also a recognised profession, but the methods are primitive and require the skill of an expert, consisting, as they do, of a comparison of the rubbing on a stone of the unknown gold, with a similar rubbing of gold whose standard has been accurately determined. One of the best gold-testers in the city has been taught electric gilding by Mr. Jensen and does some skilful work.

The principle of self-protection restrains the Chinaman from the ostentatious exhibition of his wealth—he fears being squeezed by the officials who are apt to regard wealth as an aggravation of crime, to be the more severely punished the better able is the accused to purchase exemption from punishment. I have seen a stranger come into the room where Mr. Jensen and I were sitting, who from his appearance seemed to be worth perhaps a five-dollar bill, and after a preliminary interchange of compliments, I have seen his hand disappear up his long sleeve and produce a package of gold leaf worth perhaps 2000 taels of silver. This he would offer for sale; there was some quiet bargaining; when, should they agree, the gold was weighed, the purchaser handed a cheque on his Chinese banker for the amount in silver, and the transaction was finished as quickly and neatly as if it had taken place in Bond Street, and not in the most inland capital of an "uncivilized country"; whose civilization has nevertheless kept it intact and mighty since the dawn of history, and whose banking methods are the same now as they were in the days of Solomon.

The silver of Yunnan is of the same standard as the silver of Shanghai, namely 98 per cent. pure, and differs to the eye from the absolutely unalloyed silver of Szechuen.

The cash of Yunnan vary in a way that is more than usually bewildering. Let me explain, in a few sentences, the "cash" currency of the Middle Kingdom. The current coin of China as everyone knows is the brass cash, which is perforated so that it may be carried on a string. Now, theoretically, a "string of cash" contains 100 coins, and in the Eastern provinces ten strings are the theoretical equivalent of one Mexican dollar. But there are eighteen provinces in China, and the number of brass cash passing for a string varies in each province from the full 100, which I have never seen, to 83 in Taiyuen, and down to 33 in the Eastern part of the province of Chihli. In Peking I found the system charmingly simple. One thousand cash are there represented by 100 coins, whereas 1000 "old cash" consist of 1000 coins, though 1000 "capital cash" are only 500 coins.

The big cash are marked as 10 capital cash, but count the same as 5 old cash. Nowhere does a Chinaman mean 1000 cash when he speaks of 1000 cash. In Tientsin 1000 cash means 500 cash—that is to say 5 times 100 cash, the 100 there being any number you can pass except 100, though by agreement the 100 is usually estimated at 98. In Nanking I found a different system to prevail. There cash are 1075 the 1000, but of the 10 strings of 100 cash, 7 contain only 98 cash each, and 3 only 95, yet the surplus 75 cash—that is to say the number which for the time being is the Nanking equivalent of 75—are added all the same.

At Lanchow in Chihli on the Imperial Chinese Railway near Shanhai-kwan, 16 old cash count as 100 cash, yet 33 are required to make up 200; in Tientsin from which point the railway starts, 1000 cash are really 500 cash and 98 count there as 100. Now 2000 Chihli cash are represented by 325 coins, and 1000 by 162 coins, and 6000 by 975 coins, which again count as l000 large cash and equal on an average one Mexican Dollar. Therefore to convert Lanchow cash into Tientsin cash you must divide the Lanchow cash by 3, count 975 as 1000, and consider this equal to a certain percentage of a theoretical amount of silver known as a tael, which is always varying of itself as well as by the fluctuations in the market value of silver, and which is not alike in any two places, and may widely vary in different portions of the same place.

Could anything be simpler? And yet there are those who say that the system of money exchange in China is both cumbrous and exasperating. Take as a further instance the cash in Yunnan. Everyone knows that theoretically there are 2000 cash in the tael, each tael containing 20 "strings," and each "string" 100 cash, but in Yunnan 2000 cash are not 2000 cash—they are only 1880 cash. This does not mean that 1880 cash are represented by 1880 coins, not at all; because 62 cash in Yunnan are counted as 100. Eighteen hundred and eighty cash are therefore represented by only 1240 cash coins and all prices must be paid in this proportion. Immediately outside the city, however, a string of cash is a "full string" and contains 100 cash or rather it contains as few cash as possibly can be passed for 100, a fair average number being 98.

Silver is weighed in the City banks and at the wholesale houses on the "capital scale," but in the retail stores on scales that are heavier by 14 per cent. (one mace and 4 candareens in the tael). Outside the city on the road to Tali there is a loss on exchange varying according to your astuteness from 3 to 6 per cent. on the capital scale.

There are two chief banks in Yunnan city. Wong's whose bank, the signboard tells us, is "Beneficent, Rich, United," and Mong's "Bank of the Hundred Streams," which is said to be still richer.

With Mr. Jensen I called one evening upon Wong, and found him with his sons and chief dependents at the evening meal. All rose as we entered and pressed us to take a seat with them, and when we would not, the father and grown-up son showed us into the guest-room and seated us on the opium-dais under the canopy. The opium-lamps were already lit; on a beautiful tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl there were pipes for visitors, and phials of prepared opium. Here we insisted on their leaving us and returning to their supper; they finished speedily and returned to their visitors.

We were given good tea and afterwards a single cigar was handed to each of us. In offering you a cigar it is not the Chinese custom to offer you your choice from the cigar box; the courtesy is too costly, for there are few Chinamen in these circumstances who could refrain from helping themselves to a handful. "When one is eating one's own" says the Chinese proverb, "one does not eat to repletion; when one is eating another's, one eats till the tears run."

Wong is one of the leading citizens of Yunnan, and is held in high honour by his townsmen. His house is a handsome Chinese mansion; it has a dignified entrance and the garden court is richly filled with plants in porcelain vases. It may thus be said of him, as of the Confucian Superior Man, "riches adorn his house and virtue his person, his heart is expanded, and his body is at ease."

A Szechuen man, a native of Chungking, fifty-nine years of age, Wong is a man of immense wealth, his bank being known all over China, and having branches in capital cities so far distant from each other as Peking, Canton, Kweiyang, Shanghai, Hankow, Nanchang, Soochow, Hangchow, and Chungking. I may add that he has smoked opium for many years.

I formed a high opinion of the intelligence of Wong. He questioned me like an insurance doctor as to my family history, and professed himself charmed with the amazing richness in sons of my most honourable family. He had heard of my native country, which he called Hsin Chin Shan, the "New Gold Mountain," to distinguish it from the Lao Chin Shan, the "Old Gold Mountain," as the Chinese term California. I was the more pleased to find that Wong had some knowledge of Australia and its gold, because a few months before I had been pained by an incident bearing on this very subject, which occurred to me in the highly civilised city of Manila, in the Philippine Islands. On an afternoon in August, 1893, I stood in the Augustine Church, in Old Manila,to witness the funeral service of the Padre Provincial of the Augustines. It was the first occasion for one hundred and twenty-three years that the Provincial of the Order had died while in the actual exercise of his office, and it was known that the ceremony would be one of the most imposing ever seen in the Islands.

The fine old church, built by the son of the architect of the Escorial—the only building in Manila left standing by the earthquake of 1645—was crowded with mourners, and almost every notability of the province was said to be present. During the service two young Spaniards, students from the University close by, pushed their way in beside me. Wishing to learn who were the more distinguished of the mourners, I asked the students to kindly point out to me the Governor-General (Blanco), and other prominent officials, and they did so with agreeable courtesy. When the service was finished I thanked them for the trouble they had taken and was coming away, when one of them stopped me.

"Pardon me, Caballero," he said, "but will you do me the favour to tell me where you come from?"

"I am from Australia."

"From Austria! so then you come from Austria?"

"No, sir, from Australia."

"But Australia '—where is it?"

"It is a rich colony of England of immense importance."

"But where is it?" he persisted.

"Dios mio!" I exclaimed aghast, "it is in China."

But his friend interposed. "The gentleman is talking in fun," he said. "Thou knowest, Pepe, where is Australia, where is Seednay, and Melboornay, where all the banks have broken one after the other in a bankruptcy colossal."

"Ya me figuraba donde era," Pepe replied, as I edged uncomfortably away.

During my journey across China it was not often that I was called upon to make use of my profession. But I was pleased to be of some service to this rich banker. He wished to consult me professionally, because he had heard from the truthful lips of rumour of the wonderful powers of divination given to the foreign medical man. What was his probable tenure of life? That was the problem. I gravely examined two of his pulses—every properly organised Chinaman has four hundred—and finding his heart where it should be in the centre of his body, with the other organs ranged round it like the satellites round the sun—every Chinaman is thus constructed—I was glad to be able to assure him that he will certainly live forty years longer—if Heaven permit him.

Wong has a grown-up son of twenty who will succeed to the bank; he is at present the managing proprietor of a small general store purchased for him by his father. The son has been taught photography by Mr. Jensen, and has an excellent camera obtained from Paris. He is quite an enthusiast. In his shop a crowd is always gathered round the counter looking at the work of this Chinese amateur. There are a variety of stores for sale on the shelves, and I was interested to notice the cheerful promiscuity with which bottles of cyanide of potassium and perchloride of mercury were scattered among bottles of carbonate of soda, of alum, of Moet and Chandon (spurious), of pickles, and Howard's quinine. The first time that cyanide of potassium is sold for alum, or corrosive sublimate for bicarbonate of soda there will be an éclat given to the dealings of this shop which will be very gratifying to its owner.

The telegraph in Yunnan is very largely used by the Chinese, especially by the bankers and officials. By telegraph you can remit, as I have said, through the Chinese banks, telegraphic transfers to the value of thousands of taels in single transactions. It is principally the banks and the Government who make use of the telegraph, and their communications are sent by private code. When the Tsungli Yamen in Peking sends a telegram to the Viceroy in Yunnan it is in code that the message comes; and it is by private code also that a Chinese bank in Shanghai telegraphs to its far inland agents. Messages are sent in China by the Morse system. The method of telegraphing Chinese characters, whose discovery enabled the Chinese to make use of the telegraph, was the ingenious invention of a forgotten genius in the Imperial Maritime Customs of China. The method is simplicity itself. The telegraph code consists of ten thousand numbers of four numerals each, and each group so constituted represents a Chinese character. Any operator, however ignorant of Chinese, can thus telegraph or receive a message in Chinese. He receives, for instance, a message containing a series of numbers such as 100 18, 0297, 5396, 8424.

He has before him a series of ten thousand wood blocks on which the number is cut at one end and the corresponding Chinese character at the other; he takes out the number, touches the inkpad with the other end, and stamps opposite each group its Chinese character. The system permits, moreover, of the easy arrangement of indecipherable private codes, because by adding or subtracting a certain number from each group of figures, other characters than those telegraphed can be indicated.

I need hardly add that the system of wood blocks is not in practical use, for the numbers and their characters are now printed in code-books. And here we have an instance of the marvellous faculty of memorising characteristic of the Chinese. A Chinaman's memory is something prodigious. From time immemorial the memory of the Chinese has been developed above all the other faculties. Memory is the secret of success in China, not originality. Among a people taught to associate innovation with impiety, and with whom precedent determines all action, it is inevitable that the faculty of recollection should be the most highly developed of all the mental faculties. Necessity compels the Chinaman to have a good memory. No race has ever been known where the power of memory has been developed even in rare individual cases to the degree that is common to all classes of the Chinese, especially to the literati.

The Chinese telegraph clerk quickly learns all the essential portion of the code-book by heart. The book then lies in the drawer a superfluity. It is claimed for Chiang, the second Chinese clerk in Yunnan, that he knows all the 10,000 numbers and their corresponding characters.

Telegrams from Yunnan to Shanghai cost twenty-two tael cents (at the present value of the tael this is equal to sixpence) for each Chinese character; but each word in any other language is charged double, that is, forty-four cents.

From Yunnan to Talifu is a distance of 307 miles. The native banker in the capital will remit for you by wire to his agent in Tali the sum of 1000 taels, for a charge of eight taels, exclusive of the cost of the telegram, and, as the value of silver in Tali is one per cent. higher than it is in Yunnan, the traveller can send his money by wire with perfect safety, and lose nothing in the remittance, not even the cost of the telegram.

The telegraph offices are separated from the city wall by a small common, which is quite level, and which the Chinaman of the future will convert into a bowling green and lawn-tennis ground. There is a handsome entrance. The large portal is painted with horrific gods armed with monstrous weapons. The Chinese still seem to adhere to the belief that the deadliness of a weapon must be in proportion to the savageness of its aspect. Inside, there are spacious courts and well-furnished guest rooms, roomy apartments, and offices for the mandarin, as well as comfortable quarters for Mr. Jensen and his body of Chinese clerks and operators.

There is a pretty garden all bright and sunny, with a pond of gold fish and ornamental parapet. Wandering freely in the enclosure are peacocks and native companions, while a constant playmate of the children is a little laughing monkey of a kind that is found in the woods beyond Tali. At night a watchman passes round the courts every two hours, striking a dismal gong under the windows, and waking the foreigner from his slumbers; but the noise he makes does not disturb the sleep of the Chinese—indeed, it is open to question if there is any discord known which, as mere noise, could disturb a Chinaman.

The walls that flank the entrance are covered with official posters giving the names of the men of Yunnan City who contributed to the relief of the sufferers by a recent famine in Shansi, together with the amounts of their contributions and the rewards to which their gifts entitled them. The Chinese are firm believers in the doctrine of justification by works, and on these posters one could read the exact return made in this world for an act of merit, apart, of course, from the reward that will be reaped in Heaven. In a case like this it is usually arranged that for "gifts amounting to a certain percentage of the sums ordinarily authorised, subscribers may obtain brevet titles, posthumous titles, decorations, buttons up to the second class, the grade of licentiate, and brevet rank up to the rank of Colonel. Disgraced officials may apply to have their rank restored. Nominal donations of clothes, if the money value of the articles be presented instead, will entitle the givers to similar honours."—The Peking Gazette, August 22, 1892.

In the centre of the green stands the hollow pillar in which Chinese printed waste-paper is reverently burnt. "When letters were invented," the Chinese say, "Heaven rejoiced and Hell trembled." "Reverence the characters," is an injunction of Confucius which no Chinaman neglects to follow. He remembers that "he who uses lettered paper to kindle the fire has ten demerits, and will have itchy sores;" he remembers that "he who tosses lettered paper into dirty water, or burns it in a filthy place, has twenty demerits and will frequently have sore eyes or become blind," whereas "he who goes about and collects, washes, and burns lettered paper, has 5000 merits, adds twelve years to his life, will become honoured and wealthy, and his children and grandchildren will be virtuous and filial." But his reverence has strict limits, and while he reverences the piece of paper upon which a moral precept is written, he often thinks himself absolved from reverencing the moral precept itself, just as a deacon in England need not necessarily be one who never over-reached his neighbours or swindled his creditors.

There are currently 4 Comments for George Morrison's An Australian in China.

Comments on George Morrison's An Australian in China

Those wacky Aussies! Either they're seriously hating Chinese or they're accused of having their heads shoved up Chinese butts and colluding with them to sellout national interests (see article on Rudd and their Defence Minister in today's SCMP online).

Cool, I played George Morrison in a History Channel documentary, it was most enlightening. A must watch if you are reading this book also.

Look for the pics under "Beijing Siege"

Karl: That's very neat. I'll check out the pictures and hope to see you in action as Morrison if I can get my hands on a copy of the production.

Alice: Yeah, with my experiences of acting in China, I thought of writing my own book: A foreign actor in China

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