Porters would carry heavy loads and full pails up from the river into the city of Chungking, scaling long flights of steps, as in this photograph taken by Warren Swire: Steps in Taiping Men, Chungking, 1920. See also Sw19-067, below. One can perceive from these images that this was a grindingly hard way to earn a living – but other witness, in the form of words, can add further empathetic understanding.
Hear, for example, The Song of the River, a short story by Somerset Maugham (1922): “You hear it all along the river … the rowers … the trackers … But the most agonising song is the song of the coolies who bring the great bales from the junk up the steep steps to the town wall. Up and down they go, endlessly, and endless as their toil rises their rhythmic cry. ‘He, aw – ah, oh’ … The sweat pours down their faces and their song is a groan of pain. It is a sigh of despair. It is heart-rending … It is the cry of souls in infinite distress, only just musical, and that last note is the ultimate sob of humanity. Life is too hard, too cruel … That is the song of the river.”
Chungking images from HPC collections are being exhibited at Chongqing Tiandi, from 14th to 30th June. The exhibition ‘Picturing China 1870-1950: Photographs from British Collections’ is organised by the Research Councils UK (RCUK), Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the British Consulate-General in Chongqing, and the University of Bristol.