Transporters of the Southwest in Late Traditional Accounts

In: Mountain Rivers, Mountain Roads: Transport in Southwest China, 1700‐1850
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On the Zhaotong Road and on Porters

Ernest Morrison on the Porters He Engaged for the Zhaotong Road in March–April 1894, with Background of Road Conditions and the Recent Famine (Morrison 1895, Chapters 7–10)

On the First Encounters with Pack Mule Caravans Shortly after Departing Southwards from Yanjin (85f.)

Ponies passed us in long droves; often there were eighty ponies in a single drove. All were heavily laden with copper and lead, were nozzled to keep them off the grass, and picked their way down the rocky path of steps with the agility and sureness of foot of mountain goats. Time was beaten for them on musical gongs, and the echoes rang among the mountains. Many were decorated with red flags and tufts, and with plumes of the Amherst pheasant. These were official pack animals, which were franked through the likin barriers without examination.

On Provisioning and High Food Prices Following the Famine in Northeastern Yunnan of 1893–1894 (87)

Food we had now to bring with us, and only at the larger towns where the stages terminate could we expect to find food for sale. The tea is inferior, and we had to be content with maize meal, bean curds, rice roasted in sugar, and sweet gelatinous cakes made from the waste of maize meal. Rice can only be bought in the large towns. It is not kept in roadside inns ready steaming hot for use, as it is in Szechuen. Rarely there are sweet potatoes; there are eggs, however, in abundance, one hundred for a shilling (500 cash), but the coolies cannot eat them because of their dearness. A large bowl of rice costs four cash, an egg five cash, and the Chinaman strikes a balance in his mind and sees more nourishment in one bowl of rice than in three eggs. Of meat there is pork—pork in plenty, and pork only. […] Sugar can be bought only in the larger towns; salt can be purchased everywhere.

On the Two Porters Engaged from Yibin to Zhaotong (89–90)

My two coolies were capital fellows, full of good humour, cheerful, and untiring. The elder was disposed to be argumentative with his countrymen, but he could not quarrel. Nature had given him an uncontrollable stutter, and, if he tried to speak quickly, spasm seized his tongue, and he had to break into a laugh. Few men in China, I think, could be more curiously constructed than this coolie. He was all neck; his chin was simply an upward prolongation of his neck like a second “Adam’s apple.” Both were very pleasant companions. They were naturally in good humour, for they were well paid, and their loads, as loads are in China, were almost insignificant; I had only asked them to carry sixty-seven pounds each.

On the Ascent from the Daqiaohe to Daguannao (91–92)

We rested by the bridge and refreshed ourselves, for above us was an ascent whose steepness my stuttering coolie indicated to me by fixing my walking stick in the ground, almost perpendicularly, and running his finger up the side. He did not exaggerate. A zigzag path set with stone steps has been cut in the vertical ascent, and up this we toiled for hours. At the base of the escalade my men sublet their loads to spare coolies who were waiting there in numbers for the purpose, and climbed up with me empty-handed. At every few turns there were rest-houses where one could get tea and shelter from the hot sun. The village of Tak-wan-leo [Daguannao 大關垴] is at the summit; it is a village of some little importance and commands a noble view of mountain, valley, and river.

On Chair Carriers on the Road Yanjin-Zhaotong (92–93)

On March 30th I reached Tak-wan-hsien [Daguan], the day’s stage having been seventy li (twenty-three and one-third miles). I was carried all the way by three chair-coolies in a heavy chair in steady rain that made the unpaved track as slippery as ice—and this over the dizzy heights of a mountain pathway of extraordinary irregularity. Never slipping, never making a mistake, the three coolies bore the chair with my thirteen stone, easily and without straining. From time to time they rested a minute or two to take a whiff of tobacco; they were always in good humour, and finished the day as strong and fresh as when they began it. Within an hour of their arrival all these three men were lying on their sides in the room opposite to mine, with their opium-pipes and little wooden vials of opium before them, all three engaged in rolling and heating in their opium-lamps treacly pellets of opium. Then they had their daily smoke of opium. “They were ruining themselves body and soul.” Two of the men were past middle age; the third was a strapping young fellow of twenty-five. They may have only recently acquired the habit, I had no means of asking them; but those who know Western China will tell you that it is almost certain that the two elder men had used the opium-pipe as a stimulant since they were as young as their companion. All three men were physically well-developed, with large frames, showing unusual muscular strength and endurance, and differed, indeed, from those resurrected corpses whose fleshless figures, drawn by imaginative Chinese artists, we have known for years to be typical of our poor lost brothers—the opium-smoking millions of China. For their work to-day, work that few men out of China would be capable of attempting, the three coolies were paid sevenpence each, out of which they found themselves, and had to pay as well one penny each for the hire of the chair.

On the Porters Engaged from Zhaotong to Huize, and Re-engaged to Kunming (117)

In Chaotong [Zhaotong] I engaged three new men to go with me to Tongchuan [Dongchuan, i.e. Huize], a distance of 110 miles, and I rewarded liberally the three excellent fellows who had accompanied me from Suifu. My new men were all active Chinamen. The headman Laohwan was most anxious to come with me. Recognising that he possessed characteristics which his posterity would rejoice to have transmitted to them, he had lately taken to himself a wife and now, a fortnight later, he sought rest. He would come with me to Burma, the further away the better; he wished to prove the truth of the adage about distance and enchantment. The two coolies who were to carry the loads were country lads from the district. My men were to receive 4s. 6d. each for the 110 miles, an excessive wage, but all food was unusually dear, and people were eating maize instead of rice; they were to find themselves on the way, in other words, they were “to eat their own rice,” and, in return for a small reward, they were to endeavour to do the five days’ stages in three days.

On Caravans in Northeastern Yunnan on the Ascent from Jiangdi General Observations (118–19)

Hundreds of pack horses carrying Puerh [Pu’er] tea met us on the road; while all day long we were passing files of coolies toiling patiently along under heavy loads of crockery. They were going in the same direction as ourselves to the confines of the empire, distributing those teacups, saucers, and cuplids, china spoons, and rice-bowls that one sees in every inn in China. Most of the crockery is brought across China from the province of Kiangsi, whose natural resources seems to give it almost the monopoly of this industry. The trade is an immense one. In the neighbourhood of King-teh-chin [Jindezhen], in Kiangsi [Jiangxi], at the outbreak of the Taiping rebellion, more than one million workmen were employed in the porcelain manufactories. Cups and saucers by the time they reach so far distant a part of China as this, carried as they are so many hundreds of miles on the backs of coolies, are sold for three or four times their original cost. Great care is taken of them, and no piece can be so badly broken as not to be mended. Crockery-repairing is a recognised trade, and the workmen are unusually skilful even for Chinese. They rivet the pieces together with minute copper clamps. To have a specimen of their handiwork I purposely in Yunnan broke a cup and saucer into fragments, only to find when I had done so that there was not a mender in the district. Rice bowls and teacups are neatly made, tough, and well finished; even the humblest are not inelegantly coloured, while the high-class china, especially where the imperial yellow is used, often shows the richest beauty of ornamentation.

On the Porters (120)

My men ate the most frugal of suppers. Food was so much in advance of its ordinary price that my men, in common with thousands of other coolies, were doing their hard work on starvation rations.

On High Food Prices in Huize (127–28)

Prices in Tongchuan at the time of my visit were high and food was scarce. It was difficult to realise that men at that moment were dying of starvation in the pretty town. Rice cost 400 cash for the same quantity that in a good season can be bought for 60 cash; maize was 300 cash the sheng, whereas the normal price is only 40 cash. Sugar was 15 cash the cake instead of 6 cash the cake, and so on in all things. Poppy is not grown in the valley to the same extent as hitherto, because poppy displaces wheat and beans, and the people have need of all the land they can spare to grow breadstuffs. In the other half of the year, rice, maize, and tobacco are grown together on the plain, and at the same season potatoes, oats, and buckwheat are grown in the hills.

Part of the plain is permanently under water, but it was the drought in the winter and the rains in the summer of successive years that caused the famine.

On the Porters, Reengaged from Huize to Kunming (128)

From Tongchuan to Yunnan city, the provincial seat of Government and official residence of the Viceroy, whither I was now bound, is a distance of two hundred miles. My two carriers from Chaotong had been engaged to go with me only as far as Tongchuan, but they now re-engaged to go with Laohwan, my third man, as far as the capital. The conditions were that they were to receive 6s. 9d. each (2.25 taels), one tael (3s.) to be paid in advance and the balance on arrival, and they were to do the distance in seven days. The two taels they asked the missionary to remit to their parents in Chaotong, and he promised to receive the money from me and do so. There was no written agreement of any kind—none of the three men could read; they did not even see the money that the missionary was to get for them; but they had absolute confidence in our good faith.

On the Riding Mule Bought for the Journey from Huize to Kunming (135)

I had a mule with me from Tongchuan to Yunnan [Kunming], which saved me many miles of walking, and increased my importance in the eyes of the heathen. I was taking it to the capital for sale. It was a big-boned rough-hewn animal, of superior intelligence, and I was authorised to sell it, together with its saddle and bridle, for four pounds. Like most Chinese mules it had two corns on the forelegs, and thus could see at night. Every Chinaman knows that the corns are adventitious eyes which give the mule this remarkable power.

On the Porters, at Zheji 鷓鷄 Near Daibu, One Stage Out of Huize in the Yilihe Valley, and on the Descent to Gongshan 貢山 (137–38)

My men and I had to sleep in the same room. They were still on short rations. They ate only twice a day, and then sparingly, of maize and vegetables; they took but little rice, and no tea, and only a very small allowance of pork once in two days. Food was very dear, and, though they were receiving nearly double wages to carry half-loads, they must needs be careful. What admirable fellows they were! In all my wanderings 1 have never travelled with more good-natured companions. The attendant Laohwan was a powerful Chinese, solid and determined, but courteous in manner, voluble of speech, but with an amusing stammer; he had a wide experience of travel in Western China. He seemed to enjoy his journey—he never appeared lovesick; but, of course, I had no means of asking if he felt keenly the long separation from his bride.


We went on in single file, my two coolies first with their light loads that swung easily from their shoulders, then myself on the mule, and last my stalwart attendant Laohwan with his superior dress, his huge sun hat, his long pipe, and umbrella. A man of unusual endurance was Laohwan. The day’s journey done—he always arrived the freshest of the party—he had to get ready my supper, make my bed, and look after my mule. He was always the last to bed and the first to rise. Long before daybreak he was about again, attending to the mule and preparing my porridge and eggs for breakfast.

On Famine Conditions in the Gongshan Area (144)

Leaving the valley we ascended the red incline to an open tableland, where the soil is arid, and yields but a reluctant and scanty harvest. Nothing obstructs the view, and you can see long distances over the downs, which are bereft of all timber except an occasional clump of pines that the axe has spared because of the beneficial influence the geomancers declare they exercise over the neighbourhood. The roadway in places is cut deeply into the ground; for the path worn by the attrition of countless feet soon becomes a waterchannel, and the roadway in the rains is often the bed of a rapid stream. At short intervals are vast numbers of grave mounds with tablets and arched gables of well dressed stone. No habitations of the living are within miles of them, a forcible illustration of the devastation that has ravaged the district. This was still the famine district. In the open uncultivated fields women were searching for weeds and herbs to save them from starvation till the ingathering of the winter harvest. Their children it was pitiful to see. It is rare for Australians to see children dying of hunger. These poor creatures, with their pinched faces and fleshless bones, were like the patient with typhoid fever who has long been hovering between life and death. There were no beggars. All the beggars were dead long ago. All through the famine district we were not once solicited for either food or money, but those who were still living were crying for alms with silent voices a hundred times more appealing. When we rested to have tea the poor children gathered round to see us, skeletons dressed in skins and rags, yet meekly independent and friendly. Their parents were covered with ragged garments that hardly held together.

Edwin Dingle on the Zhaotong Road, Spring 1910 (Dingle 1911, 83–85 & 170–71)

On the Section from Yanjin to Zhaotong; Specifically the Short Stage from Yanjin on the Hengjiang over the Lishan to Doushaguan on the Daguanhe, the Following Stage from Doushaguan to Jili, and the Ascent to the Zhaotong Plateau from Daguan, via Chushuidong and Wuzhai

Over a broad, zigzagging, roughly-paved road, said to have no less than ninety-eight curves from bottom to top, we ascend for thirty li, and then descend for the remainder of the journey through a narrow defile along the northern bank of the river, the opposite side being a vertical sheet of rock rising to at least a thousand feet sheer up, very similar to the gorges of the Mekong at the western end of the province, which I crossed in due course.

To Ch’i-li-p’u [Qilipu 七里舖, now Jili 吉利], high up on the mountain banks, the first twenty-five li is by the river. At the half-way place a fearful ascent is experienced, the most notable precipice on the route between Sui-fu and Yün-nan-fu [Kunming], up a broad zigzag path, and as I sat at dinner I could see neither top nor bottom owing to the overhanging masses of rock: this is after having negotiated an ascent quite as steep, but smaller. To Ta-kwan-hsien [大關縣 Daguan] a few natural obstacles occur, although the road is always high up on the hillsides. I crossed a miserable suspension bridge of two spans. The southern span is about thirty feet, the northern span eighty feet; the centre is supported by a buttress of splendid blocks of squared stone, resting on the rock in the bed of the river, one side being considerably worn away by the action of the water. The longer span was hung very slack, the woodwork forming the pathway was not too safe, and the general shaky appearance was particularly uninviting.

From Ta-kwan-hsien to Wuchai [Wuzhai 五寨] is steady pulling. Once in an opening in the hill [Chushuidong 出水洞] we passed along and then ascended an exceedingly steep spur on one side of a narrow and very deep natural amphitheatre, formed by surrounding mountains. We then came to a lagoon, and eventually the brow of the hill was reached. Thus the Wuchai Valley is arrived at, where, owing to a collection of water, the road is often impassable to man and beast. Often during the rainy season there is a lagoon of mud or water formed by the drainage from the mountains, which finds no escape but by percolating through the earth and rock to a valley on the east of, and below, the mountains forming the eastern boundary of the Wuchai Valley. To Chao-t’ong [Zhaotong 昭通]is fairly level going.

Considering the road, it was not unnatural that my men gibbed a little at the eleven-day accomplishment. I had a long parley with them, however, and agreed to reward them to the extent of one thousand cash between the three if they did it. Their pay for the journey, over admittedly some of the worst roads in the Empire, was to be four hundred cash per man as before, with three hundred and thirty-three cash extra if the rain did not prevent them from getting in in eleven days.

On the Highest Section across the Southern Spurs of the Guniuzhai Massif Between Daibu and Xiaolongtan

The journey across these mountains has no perils. One may step aside a few feet with no fear of falling a few thousand, a danger so common in most of the country from Sui-fu downwards. The scenery is magnificent—range after range of mountains in whatever direction you look, nothing but mountains of varying altitudes. And the patches of wooded slopes, alternating with the red earth and more fertile green plots through which streams flow, with rolling waterfalls, picturesque nooks and winding pathways, make pictures to which only the gifted artist’s brush could do justice.

Edwin Dingle on the Work of Porters on the Zhaotong Road, 1910 (Dingle 1911, 97f.)

Referring to the Section along the Daguanhe

Hundreds passed us on their toilsome journey with tea, lamp-oil, skins, hides, copper, lead, coal and white wax from Yün-nan, and with salt, English cotton, Chinese porcelain, fans and so on from Szech’wan. One false step, one slight slip, and they would have been hurled down the ravine, where far below, in the roaring cataract, dwarfed to the size of a toy boat, was a junk being cleverly taken down-stream. And down there also, one false move and the huge junk would have been dashed against the rocks, and banks strewn with the corpses of the crew. As it was, they were mere specks of blue in a background of white foam, their vociferating and yelling being drowned by the roar of the waters.

William Geil on the Zhaotong Road, 1901 (Geil 1904)

On the Section along the Daguanhe and on the Ascent to Daguannao (158, 159)

The views on “Pearl Mountain” [Zhoushan? 周山] rival Switzerland, the invigorating air is not excelled in the Rockies, and the houses of Gini Po are stone, and resemble those in the villages of Shetland. The tea and other boxes of goods going north on long lines of ponies and donkeys were other incidents of a very full day. In the course of the journey that followed from Gini Po [Qili pu, now Jili] to Shin Gai [Xinjie 新街, probably Huangge 黃葛], we passed many villages with square towers. Indeed, the towers were a distinctive feature of the landscape. There are thousands of them in the Prefecture of Chowtung [Zhaotong]. They were built originally as a defence against the dreaded Mantze [Yi] a semi-independent race living across the Yangtze in Szechuen [Sichuan]. […]

It was about ten-thirty AM when we began to ascend the “New Road.” To talk of a new road in China, where the tracks date back thousands of years, is startling. But here it is, built by the Taoists, new and creditably. It consists partly of stone steps. A third of the way up at one turning, a smiling god makes the traveller forget his weariness. Half-way to the top I stepped into a little tea house, and here came upon four Taoist priests, who received me kindly, furnished me with tea, and declined to be remunerated. The Ta Kuan River [Daguanhe] here branches off, and is known as the Ko Kuei [Gekuihe, now Luozehe]. I took a photo at the fork.

On the Safety of Travel in General, on Porterage, and on Ox Carts on the Zaotong and the Songming Plateaus (203, 204)

In all my journey, and I had now come over two thousand miles, there had been no trouble with those I had employed. The contracts were brushed on red paper and the items inserted. The Chinaman will haggle over the making of an agreement, but once it is signed you may safely rely on him to keep his part if you show a disposition to do likewise. […]

The Chinese coolie is able to carry two hundred pounds [90 kg], but his usual load is about ninety pounds [40 kg], and with it he will usually go fifteen or twenty miles a day; but my men were under special arrangements, and went nearly fifty miles in that time. They watched the things while eating, and guarded them under all circumstances. These same coolies might be open to temptation to take from another traveller, but they will protect their master and his property. […]

Just out of the West Gate is a stone bridge which the natives say trembles when walked on, although it seemed firm enough. Here we constantly met droves of horses and hundreds of ox and buffalo carts. The wheels of the carts are not so large as those I noticed around Chowtung [Zhaotong] City.

On the Weining Road and on Mule and Horse Caravans

Emile Rocher on His Caravan from Yongning to Kunming, January 1871 (Rocher 1879, Vol. 1, with Translations by the Author)

The Procedures of Getting a Caravan Ready for Departure at Yongning 永寧, the Departure under Rain in January, and the Caravan on Its Departure from Pushi 普市 on the Second Day on the Road (47–49)

Ce n’est pas un mince affaire de transporter à dos des mulets, à travers les montagnes abruptes du Kuei-chou et du Yün-nan, un matériel de guerre; d’autant plu que, selon la coutume, la charge de chaque bête de somme ne doit pas excéder 100 livres chinois (un peu plus de 60 kilos). Notre convoy ne comprendra pas moins de 120 chevaux et mulets qui porteront les petites caisses, tandis que celles d’un trop fort volume seront confiées à un détachement de vingt coolies.

[…] [O]n procède, en presence du Lao-pan (老板), au pesage des colis; la convention stipule bien un poids extreme de 100 livres et, balance un mains, il est scrupuleusement onservé; mais comment, tous comptes faits, les charges trouvent-elles élevées à 120 livres en moyenne? C’est un problême que ne cherchent pas à resoudre nos Lao-pan, moins versés qu notre personnel dans le système des balances surcharges de 10, 20, 40 et 50% et que les indigènes appelles chia-ch’êng (加秤).

Aussitôt les pesés terminées, les muletiers fixent solidement les caisses aux bâts au moyen de fortes lanières en cuir et les charges sur leurs chevaus qu’ils mènent à leur auberge en attendant le depart. […] Les muletiers chaussent leurs grosses bottes ferries et imperméables; les porteurs attachment aux talons de leurs sandales une sorte de crampon à deux pointes, qui leur permettra d’avancer d’un pied ferme sur des pentes glissantes; on nous amène nos chevaus de selle et des chaises à porteurs.

A sortir de la ville, la grande route dallée suite, pendant quelques kilometres, les berges de la rivières, transformée en un torrent, don’t les eaux transparentes sautent de roche en roche en bouillonant avant de s’engager dans le chenal de la plaine. […] Il pleut depuis le matin, nos chevaux trébuchet sur le granit humide devenu presque impracticable, et la chaussée longe parfois des ravins profonds qui force le convoy à ne s’avancer qu’avec d’extrêmes précautions; […]

It is not a minor enterprise to carry war material through the rugged mountains of Guizhou and Yunnan on muleback, even more, the load of each animal, according to custom, has to be within 100 Chinese pounds (a bit over 60 kg). Our convoy consists of no less than 120 horses and mules that carry small chests, while the too bulky ones are entrusted to a troop of twenty coolies.

[…] Now the weighing of the packed goods is undertaken in the presence of the laoban (老板) [caravan bosses]. Conventionally, the load of each animal must not exceed 100 pounds, and—scales at hand—this is scrupulously observed. Yet how—when all is accounted for—the loads are actually as much as 120? The laoban do not attempt to solve this question, who are less familiar than our staff with the system of scales overweight by 10, 20, 40 and 50%, and which are called jiacheng (加秤) [added scales] by the natives.1

Once the weighing is finished, the muleteers attach the chests firmly to the packsaddles by strong leather straps and the loads on their horses, which then then lead to their hostel to await departure. […] The muleteers put on their great iron-soled and waterproof boots; the porters attach two-pronged crampons to their straw sandals, which allow them to march on steadily on slippery slopes; and our riding horses and carrying chairs are brought for us.


Upon leaving the city, the main road paved with stone slabs follows the banks of the river for some kilometres, which is transformed into a torrent. Its clear foaming waters rush from rock to rock before entering the lowland channel, […] It has been raining since the morning; our horses slip on the wet granite that had become almost impassable, and the road at times follows deep rills, forcing the caravan to proceed with extremely cautiously. […]

On the Porters (49)

Originaires de la partie montagneuse du pays, de plus haute taille et plus vigoureux que leurs compatriots de la plaine, ces porteurs préfèrent au travail sédentaiere la pénible besogne qui leur assure de meilleurs profits et surtout une existence en plain air, nomade et insouciante. On les rencontre dans tout le nord-ouest de Kuei-chou et jusque dans le Yün-nan, où ils apportent la porclaine de la manufacture impériale de Ching-tê-chên (景德鎮) et prennent en retour du thé de Pu-êrh (普洱), si estimé sur les marchés du centre comme drogque pharmaceutique. C’est par leur intermédiare que les districts de Pi-chieh-hsien (畢節縣), de Wei-ning-chou (威寧州) et les villages de l’intérieur reçoivent leurs approvisonnements de sel de Lu-chou et expedient en échange des produits pharmaceutiques ainsi que du plomb, tire des mines de galène argentifière que possèdent ces parages.

Coming from the mountainous parts of the county, taller and stronger than their lowland compatriots, these porters prefer this painful occupation to sedentary work, which provides them with higher profits and above all with an outdoors life, nomadic and carefree. They are met with throughout northwestern Guizhou and into Yunnan, where they deliver porcelain of the imperial workshops of Jingdezhen (景德鎮) to return with Pu’er (普洱) tea, so highly estimated as a pharmaceutical drug in the markets of central China. They are the intermediaries that provide the supplies of salt from Luzhou to the districts of Bijie and Weining, as well as to the villages in the interior in exchange for medical products as well as lead, extracted from mines of argentiferous galena found in these regions.2

The Caravan upon Its Departure from Pushi (51)

A la tête s’avancent nos petits chevaux du Kuei-chou, si vifs et si dociles, par détachements de quinze à vingt; chaque troupe précédée d’un ètalon plus vigoureux, la tête ornée de deux grosses queues de renard pendants, le fronteau rehaussé d’une bande de calico rouge en guise de cocarde et, à chaque oreille, d’une longue plume de faisan qui nodule à chaque pas; un grand collier de grelots de toutes dimensions fixé au bât et descendant jusque sur le potrail complete sa parure. Cette espèce de chef de file, marchant d’un pas relevé, s’anime au tintenment des grelots qu’il agite et règle ainsi l’allure du convoy. Sur les flancs de la colonne se tient le Lao-pan, promenant sans cesse autour de lui l’oeil due maître et gourmandant ses conducteurs; chacun de ceux-ci a cinq chevaux ou mulets sous sa surveillance. […] A l’arrière-garde, les coolies portent aujourd’hui gaillardelent et deux à deux, à la facon ordinaiere, les caisses sous lesquelles ils succombaieent au depart de Yung-ning-hsien.


In tombe une pluie fine, une sorte de brouillard condense. Durant toute l’étape, la route s’élève des plus un plus en traversant une series de collines qui s’étagent en gradins successif dans la direction ouest-sud-ouest; la voie est difficiles et glissante, lons montées sont fréquentes et raides. Le pays environnant est aride et monotone, noyé dans le brouillard et presque desert; à peine rencontre-t-on, à de rares intervalles, quelques cabanes au centre des défrichements restreints où croissant péniblement le mais, le sarrasin, la pomme de terre et, dans les bas-fonds, une espece de riz rouge de qualité inférieure, main d’un assez bon rendement.

Vers le milieu du jour, les Lao-pan choisissent pour lieu de halte les bords d’un cours d’eau où l’herbe est plus abondante et laissent les chevaux, débarrassés de leurs charges, paître en liberté pendant une heure. Tandis qu’un des muletiers prepare le riz, ses camarades inspectent les harnais et réparent les avaries qui s’y sont produites durant la marche. Ces muletiers sont, du reste, infatigables; qu’une de leurs bêtes boîte ou s’abatte, qu’un fer ou que quelques clous se détachent, aussitôt ils décharent l’animal et réparent l’accident avec une dextérité singulière. Ils ont toujours par équipe un cheval de rechange, monté d’ordinaire par le chef, mais toujours prêt à prendre une charge s’il survenait un accident. Leur frugal repas terminé, un des hommes (on choisit d’habitude le meilleur marcheur) prend les devants de facon à avoir le temps de faire preparer les écuries à la station suivante et aussi pour obvier à l’inconvénient d’y trouver tout encombré, ce qui arrive bien souvent. Arriveés au terme de l’étape, le pansement de leurs bêtes les reticent encore debout une partie de la nuit. Il est impossible de trouver des serviteurs plus vigoureux, plus docils et mieux disciplines.

In front march our little Guizhou horses, so lively and docile, in teams of fifteen to twenty. Each group is lead by a more vigorous stallion,3 its head decorated with two large foxtails, the front heightened with a red calico band worn like a cockade, and long pheasant feathers at every ear, which nod with every step. A large collar of bells of every size attached to the packsaddle and extending down to the chest complete the outfit. This team leader, marching at a swift pace, is animated by the dangling bells that it moves and thus sets the pace of the caravan. The laoban has his place alongside the train of pack animals, surveying everything and shouting orders to the muleteers, each of whom oversees five horses or mules. […] Forming the rear, the porters today carry gaily in teams of two, in the ordinary fashion, the loads under which they were crushed on the departure from Yongning.4

A fine rain is falling, a kind of condensating fog. Throughout the stage, the road climbs up and up, passing through a series of hills rising successively in west-south-western direction. The road surface is difficult and slippery, and ascents numerous and steep. The surroundings are dry and monotonous, drowned in fog and almost deserted, rarely one comes across a few huts in small clearings, where corn, buckwheat, potatoes, and in the deepest hollows a kind of red rice of inferior quality but relatively good yields grow meagrely.

Towards mid-day, the laoban choose the halting place on the banks of a stream, where herbs grow more plentiful, and let the horses, liberated from their loads, grass freely for an hour. While on of the muleteers prepares the rice, his comrades inspect the harnesses and repair any damage that occurred during the march. The muleteers are, by the way, tireless. When one of their animals starts limping or falls, when a shoe or some nails come loose, they immediately unload the animal and repair the damage with great dexterity. In each team, they always have one spare horse, which the boss commonly rides, but which is always ready for taking a load in case of accident. When they are done with their frugal meal, one of the men (usually the best walker is chosen) goes ahead so that there is time to prepare the stables at the next overnight stop, and also to avoid the inconvenience of finding it full, which happens frequently. Upon reaching the end of the stage, dressing wounds of their animals keeps the men on their feet for some of the night. One could not find servants more vigorous, docile and disciplined.

On the Muleteers and Their Music (70)

Depuis qu’ils foulent le sol du Yün-nan, ceux de nos muletiers qui en sont originaires, et que les parages froids et pluvieux du Kuei-chou empêcheaient de se livrer à leur gout musical, reprennent leurs mandolins et ne cessent d’en faire resonner les cordes à la cadence des grelotx de leurs chevaux. Sans doute les habitants du Yün-nan ont, comme les Espagnols, une affection particulière peur ce genre de divertissement, car la plupart des muletiers our charretiers, que nous rencontrons, portent en bandoulière cet instrument, qu’ils rejettent sur le dos à le moindre necessité. Passe-temps aussi inoffensive qu’agréable, et surtout peu coûteux, vu qu, pour la modique somme de cinq à sic cents sapèques (le tael ne valant ici que 1,600 grosses sapèques), ils peuvent ainsi charmer les ennuis de la route.

Since they tread the ground of Yunnan, those among our muleteers who come from this province and whom the cold and rain of Guizhou had hindered from indulging their musical tastes, again take to the mandolins and never stop the sound of string to the pace of their horses’ bells. There is no doubt that the inhabitants of Yunnan, like the Spanish, have a particular affinity to this kind of entertainment, because the majority of muleteers and cart drivers that we encounter carry this instrument on a shoulder strap, throwing it over their backs at the slightest necessity. It is an inoffensive and agreeable hobby, and above all not costly, as they can charm the drudgery of the road for the modest sum of 500 to 600 cash (the liang being worth only 1600 large cash here).

On Yi Mobility

Henri d’Ollone on Yi Mobility in the Daliangshan Area, Western Sichuan, Spring 1907 (d’Ollone 1912, 43f. and 53)

A Young Yi Informant of the Huili Area Who Was Well Travelled on the Roads to Zhaotong and Northeastern Yunnan, Reflecting the Existence of Exchange across the Jinshajiang

Happily the young Siu showed himself a resourceful youth. In the host of Lolos who populated the villages he could easily find some who would be willing to earn honest wages. He returned with a tall, determined- looking scoundrel who offered no less than to conduct us to Chao-Tong, the prefecture of Yunnan, whither he often went.

We could scarcely believe our ears. How did he know this city, which lay on the other side of the Blue River, and what would these savage Independents be doing so far from the refuge to which they are supposed to be confined? We pelted him with embarrassing questions which he answered with the greatest ease, describing very precisely the roads, the stages of the journey, and the points of crossing other itineraries which I had already noted. He went to Chao-Tong [Zhaotong] because it was a country full of Lolos of the same race as the Independents and in constant communication with them.

On Yi Riders and Horses

Usually the nobles were in the saddle, mounted on small, agile horses of a race peculiar to the country. Their feet, sure as a goat’s, were not shod; their trappings were coloured red, and ornamented with little round plates of bone, which had a pretty effect. The stirrup merits a special mention; it has the form of a slipper or wooden shoe, with the hinder part cut away, while the fore part is solid, except for a quite small cavity which the toes alone enter, the rest of the foot having no support. This singular device resembles to some extent the stirrup of the old Japanese knights.

On Heavy-Load Porters

Morrison on the Zhaotong Road and Further Information (Morrison 1895, 90–91)

We who live amid the advantages of Western civilization, can hardly realise how enormous the weights borne by those human beasts of burthen, our brothers in China. The common fast-travelling coolie of Szechuen contracts to carry eighty catties (107 lbs.) [48 kg], forty miles a day over difficult country. But the weight-carrying coolie, travelling shorter distances, carries far heavier loads than that. There are porters, says Du Halde, who will carry 160 of our pounds, ten leagues a day. The coolies, engaged in carrying the compressed cakes of Szechuen tea into Thibet, travel over mountain passes 7000 feet above their starting place; yet there are those among them, says Von Richthofen, who carry 324 catties (432 lbs.) [194 kg]. A package of tea is called a “pao” [bao 包] and varies in weight from eleven to eighteen catties [6.6–10.8 kg], yet Baber has often seen coolies carrying eighteen of the eighteen-catty pao (the “Yachou pao”) and on one occasion twenty-two, in other words Baber has often seen coolies with more than 400 lbs on their backs [181 kg].5

Under these enormous loads they travel from six to seven miles a day. The average load of the Thibetan tea-carrier is, says Gill, from 240 lbs. to 264 lbs. Gill constantly saw “little boys carrying 120 lbs.” Bundles of calico weigh fifty-five catties each (73 1/3 lbs.) [33 kg], and three bundles are the average load. Salt is solid, hard, metallic, and of high specific gravity, yet I have seen men ambling along the road, under loads that a strong Englishman could with difficulty raise from the ground. The average load of salt, coal, copper, zinc, and tin is 200 lbs. Gill met coolies carrying logs, 200 lbs. in weight, ten miles a day; and 200 lbs., the Consul in Chungking told me, is the average weight carried by the cloth-porters between Wanhsien [Wanxian] and Chen-tu [Chengdu], the capital.

Mountain coolies, such as the tea-carriers, bear the weight of their burden on their shoulders, carrying it as we do a knapsack, not in the ordinary Chinese way, with a pliant carrying pole. They are all provided with a short staff, which has a transverse handle curved like a boomerang, and with this they ease the weight off the back, while standing at rest.

M. Duclos Enroute on the Road from Yazhou to Dajianlu, Summer 1896 (Chambre de commerce de Lyon, 1898, 165–166)

Une des caravanes rencontrés se composait de près de deux cents individus. Il y a des porteurs de tous âges, chargés différemment et suivant les forces. Le thé est dans de longs ballots cylindriques pesant de 15 à 25 livres chinoises (9 à 15 kilogrammes). J’ai vu deux ou trois de ces porteurs ayant jusqu’à quatorze ballots sur le dos. En général, la charge moyenne est d’environ dix ballots (90 à 150 kilogrammes, ptutôt le premier chiffre). Ces coolies von péniblement faisant de fréquentes pauses en laissant reposer sur une petite béquille leur fardeau disposé sur une sorte de bâti en bois, appliqué contre leur dos un peu comme le cadre que portent nos vitriers. A ce moment, ils soufflent péniblement, on voit leurs poumons se dilater et chercher à aspirer librement un peu d’air. Avec un smeblable charge, les porteurs font en vingt jours le trajet de Ya-tcheou à Ta-tsien-lou (environ 600 lis, 250 kilomètres) escaladant des montagnes de 2 à 3000 mètres, et tout cela pour 2500 à 3000 sapèques les 100 livres, soit environ une dizaine des francs. Un semblable métier est de plus fatigants, aussi la mortalité des porteurs est-elle considérable; il en est beaucoup qui meurent avant même d’avoir terminé le trajet. Comment les enfants qui font ce métier peuvent-ils se d´velopper et devenir des hommes? Malgré leur jeune âge (quelques-uns ont de dix à quinze ans), ils portent une charge que nos meilleurs portefaix de France ne voudraient pas accepter, tout au moins pour une étape si longue; ces gamins ont 1m20 de hauteur tout au plus et portent près de 50 kilogrammes de machandises.

A caravan consists of nearly 200 persons. There are porters of all ages, with loads different according to their strength. Tea is packed in oblong packages that weigh 15 to 25 Chinese pounds (9–15 kg). I have seen two or three of these porters with up to 14 packages on their backs. Generally, the average load is about 10 packages (90–150 kg, closer to the first figure). These coolies walk under great strain, pausing frequently while resting their load on a small crutch, which is attached to a wooden frame that they carry on their backs, somewhat like our glass sellers. At that moment, they breathe painfully, one sees their lungs expanding in the effort of freely breathing in a bit of air. With these loads, the porters make the journey from Yazhou to Dajianlu in twenty days (ca. 600 li, 250 km), climbing mountains of 2 to 3,000 meters, and all this for 2,500 to 3,000 Cash per 100 jin, thus about ten francs. Their profession is the most exhausting, moreover, the mortality among the porters is considerable, many die before even completing the journey. How can the children who work in this profession develop and become men? Despite their young age (some are 10 to 15 years), they carry loads that the best porters of France would not take on, and even less for such long stages; yet these boys who at most are 1.20 m tall carry nearly 50 kg of goods.

Interviews with Men Who Worked as Porters on the Yazhou Road in the Late 1930s and 1940s (China Daily 13 June 2003)

Li Zhongquan, 81, says he started to carry loads to and from Kangding when he was a teenager. At the time, Kangding was capital of the then Xikang Province, which encompassed today’s Garze of Sichuan and Qamdo of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

“It was 180 kilometers one way from Tianquan to Kangding,” Li says. “An able-bodied porter would carry 10 to 12 packs of tea, with each weighing 6 to 9 kilograms. Then you’d carry 7 to 8 kilograms of your own grain and five or six pairs of homemade straw sandals to change on the way. The strongest could carry 15 packs of tea, with a total load of 150 kilograms.” …

Decades later, Li says he can still clearly remember fellow porters who died on the way over the mountain. “One of us was sick and fell dead on the mountain top in winter. We had to leave him there until the snow thawed in spring, when we carried the body down home,” he recalls, choked with emotion.

On their way back, the porters would carry medicinal herbs, musk, wool, horn or other special products from Tibet. For such a trip, Li recalls, a porter was paid one silver dollar or 10 kilograms of rice for every pack of tea carried.

“But from this amount, you had to pay tax at each stop, your food and lodging, and other expenses like the firewood you were supposed to consume,” he says. “So there was not much left when you got back home.”

Li and other porters could not tell when the route and trade started. But Li is certain “my grandpa’s grandpa was a porter as well” and the whole village offered porter service for generations.


As 120 jin was the standard weight of packmule loads, the caravan bosses were clearly not outsmarted but things done according to custom that all were familiar with.


The mines of northwestern Guizhou produced zinc as well as lead, with zinc probably in greater quantities, even in the depressed situation of 1870. As qian 鉛 covered both lead (heiqian 黑鉛) and zinc (baiqian 白鉛 or woqian 倭鉛), Rocher may not have differentiated between the two metals.


Stallions were not used in caravan transport, for obvious reasons. Rocher is probably referring to a larger mule.


Rocher describes that the porters carried the loads on carrying frames on the first day out of Yongning, presumably two men taking turns.


The information on the tea porters refers to the road from Ya’an to Dajianlu, which Morrison himself did not visit. The information is fully confirmed by the reminiscences of the last generation of porters who worked the road in the late 1930s and 1940s.

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