Lucy and Edmund J. Lee IV,
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
As I look back on my years in China, perhaps the most bizarre and unbelievable experience I had came through our acquaintance with the Chinese general who was stationed in Anking in charge of the river police. Your grandfather had come to know him through serving with him on the Provincial Famine Relief Committee.
There were always famines in Anwhei province during our sixteen years there. The river overflowed its banks each year, causing floods, famine, destruction and wandering refugees, and the problem was never really solved during our stay in China. Your grandfather spent many weary hours on committee work in an attempt to relieve the suffering. Due to lack of resources, red tape and corruption, the accomplishments of the Relief Committee were never impressive, but one personal reward for your grandfather was his acquaintance with a great number of officials who came to respect and like him, and whom he, in turn, grew to know and like.
This particular general, whose name I have forgotten, was one of these. The Yangtze River was infested with pirates. They harrassed the boat population who lived along the river banks, the little fishing villages, the passenger launches that traveled up and down, and the freight and passenger barges. There were many pirates and the tales of their cruelty were beyond belief. Our general friend took his duties seriously. He firmly believed that extreme measures were the only way to deal with such men, and he carried out his convictions with ardor.
My personal contact with his family was through one of his concubines who had shown an interest in Christianity and an avid desire to learn whatever we could teach her. I visited her frequently and had become very fond of her. She was slowly dying of tuberculosis. Like so many other girls in her situation, our general had found her in a house of prostitution in Shanghai, and, as was often the case, she was not there through any choice of her own. She had been sold to the house in childhood and brought up to that life. She was an extremely sweet, sensitive and intelligent girl and was also the general’s favorite.
His first wife, the Da Tai Tai, the “great lady,” was head of his household, a woman I learned to know and admire. There were a number of secondary wives and concubines, and her relation to them was rather that of a mother-in-law. She was kind and wise and they, as well as the general, showed great respect for her.
My little friend, because of her ill health and because she was his favorite, did not live in the big Yamen with the rest of the family. He had a house for her across the street and it was there that I would go and see her. Every time I went, after our visit she would take me over to the big Yamen to have tea with the Da Tai Tai. The Yamen was not only the residence of the general and his large family but his office as well, and the front courts were always filled with soldiers and guards. In the rear of the offices were the family quarters, and it was there that the Da Tai Tai and the other wives lived. She was always most cordial to me and usually the general dropped in to join us and often invited us for more tea in his own room.
I want to say a word about him since he was a rather interesting man. In his childhood he had visited the United States on a Chinese gunboat on a “good will” mission, had learned a little English and had a vague memory of the city of New York. This made him anxious to cultivate us. He wanted the chance to use his little English and to learn more. I’m afraid this was one of the secrets of our friendship. I am sure it is why he sought me out so often when I went over to call on his ladies.
At the rear of the Yamen was a stockade where the most recently arrested pirates were kept awaiting execution. It was always a public beheading, after which the heads were exhibited on pikes over the city gates. Our friend firmly believed that this procedure was a deterrent to crime and the only way that the criminal element could be impressed by the law, though it did not seem in any way to be lessening the piracy that was going on.
On every visit he urged me to go with him around to the back and look at the prisoners. This to his surprise I always refused to do. He was always a little puzzled that my interest was so limited.
His own quarters consisted of one bedroom, with a hard wooden Chinese bed, over which on the wall was draped a piece of red silk. I had been told that under this silk hung the beheading sword used for executions, so I found the visits to the room a little grim.
One morning I was told by our servants and a number of other people who came in that there had been a public beheading the day before which had shocked even the hardened onlookers. The beheading sword had apparently become very dull from much use, and it had taken a great many strokes to fulfill its purposes. In one case it took fifteen whacks to sever a head. This was a sickening situation, and I realized that it would continue to go on unless something were done about it. I also heard that the matter had gotten into the Shanghai papers and would probably be repeated in the American press. I felt that such publicity would not give a just impression of Chinese law.
I can’t remember the circumstances in which I did it—whether your grandfather knew, or whether I took off on the impulse of the moment, because I was extremely indignant and angry, but I went at once over to the Yamen and asked for an interview with the general.
This he graciously granted, rather pleased with the outcome of his previous day’s work and eager to discuss it.
Our conversation was the unbelievable part of the story. I told him that I had heard what had happened and was utterly and completely horrified, that the story was in the Shanghai papers and would get into the foreign press, and that, because of my love for China, apart from any other reason, I was humiliated and grieved. I told him that such an execution was not a matter of justice but was an atrocity which should not be allowed to go on. I said that he must do something about that sword before any further executions took place. He replied that there was nothing that he could do, that no sword sharpener in the city of Anking would touch this sword because of a superstition against sharpening a sword of execution. Then I suggested that he get a new one. He said that there was no place he could get one this side of Shanghai and that he couldn’t take the time to send down and get one. I suggested that he telegraph for one and postpone the next execution until it arrived. This he felt was impossible since there were more prisoners on the way and the stockade was filled and he must get it emptied the next day.
I left with a heavy heart, feeling that I had utterly failed and that this terrible thing must continue. Also, my opinion of the general was considerably damaged. I could think of nothing else during the night and the next morning, but later that day I learned that the execution had been postponed and that the general had telegraphed to Shanghai and ordered a new sword, with further executions being held off until its arrival.
It seemed a small victory on my part, and probably none of the poor brutes who died by that new sword knew that their deaths were made perhaps a little more merciful because of the anger of one American woman. It was an experience I will never forget. My friendship with the general and his ladies continued until we left Anking.
Note: The entire text of An American Sojourn in China will be placed on the website of the Lee Family Digital Archive, by permission of the estate of Lucy Chaplin Lee.
Learn more about the Lee Family at the Lee Family Digital Archive.