Norbert Jacques Honeymooning on the Yangtze River in 1912

Chinesischen Fluss
The first edition of Jacques’s Yangtze travelogue

I picked up a beautiful edition of an interesting book at the Alfa Antikvariat closure sale in early February. It’s the Swedish edition of Norbert Jacques’s 1921 travelogue Auf dem Chinesischen Fluss, “On the Chinese River”. The Swedish version is titled På långfärd och fest bland kineser, “Travelling far and feasting among the Chinese”. It has not been translated into English. Chinese, I don’t know.

Jacques (1880-1954) was a prolific writer, screenwriter and journalist from Luxemburg. He’s mainly known today for his creation Dr. Mabuse, the villain of three Fritz Lang movies. His legacy is tainted by propaganda that he wrote for the Nazis around age 65 toward the end of WW2, but he wasn’t sincerely invested in Nazism. In fact, his wife for 26 years was the Austrian Jewess Margerite Samuely, and they had two daughters. Jacques’ 1917 novel Piraths Insel features a love affair between a European man and a Pacific Islander woman. And as we shall see, Jacques appreciated Chinese women too. According to Volker Stotz, he managed to be “inconvenient” first to the Nazis, and then to the Anti-Nazi post-war world.

In 1911 the Chinese Empire came to an end in the Xinhai Revolution. The following year, Norbert and Margerite got married and went on a 16-month honeymoon to China, Peru and Australia. The book I’ve read details their trip up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to Chongqing in the autumn and winter of 1912-13. I don’t know why it took eight years for Jacques to publish his account. Of course WW1 must have played a part, but he did manage to publish eleven other books in the interim, including the first Dr. Mabuse novel!

Jacques’s attitude to the Chinese and their culture is complicated, both patronising and slightly awestruck, and certainly intensely curious. Occasionally he waxes lyrical over some vista or building, but he mainly sticks to describing interesting sites and social situations. Me and my wife laughed and cringed though at Jacques’s extremely exoticising and romantic 2½ page description of a young Chinese woman whom he stalked through the alleyways of an unnamed town on 7 December.

“The secret of the Oriental eyes conjured up the riddle of the Oriental Schoß to my imagination, and I followed the foreign one, bound by magic to this coral of the Sichuan town as if under a spell. … A single wish to see, to feel – and then suffer the pain of her insoluble ties to the land and people of the East – To be a melancholy, chaste knight, seeking the path to the Holy Land, pierced by manhood’s eternal never-satisfied longing. Body and soul crucified on the tree of racial separation.”

Jacques went through the Three Gorges, describing lots of places that are now under water. Identifying exactly where he stopped though is complicated. On the one hand it’s made easy by him travelling by river boat all the way to Chongqing. None of the places he visits is far from the river. But on the other hand the identification is made difficult by language. Jacques doesn’t speak or read much Chinese, and the locals don’t speak the national standard Beijing dialect, putonghua. So the names of villages and towns that he records are in local dialects, transcribed by ear by someone from Luxemburg, according to High German orthography. And in the past century, many of the names have changed. This would all have been impossible for me to understand without the aid of Google Earth and Wikipedia. And since there is no map in the Swedish edition I’m reading, I guess most readers at the time would simply have had no idea where in China the guy was.

For example, early in the book the honeymooners go up the “Jangtse” from “Hankau” (Hankou, a precinct in modern Wuhan) to “Jotschau” (modern Yueyang), where they take off up the major tributary “Siangkiang” (Xiangjiang) for an extended stay in “Tschangscha” (Changsha). Then they return downstream to Yuejang, but this time Jacques refers to it by the name of its harbour area “Tschenlingschi”, Chenglingji. There they turn left and continue up the Yangtze.

Here’s an interactive map of Jacques’s travels. Upstream from Fengxiang Gorge the stops become much more frequent. The book shifts from general description to diary form already at Yichang on 25 November, but only from 3 December, at Fengxiang, does Jacques acquire the habit of asking and recording what most places he visits are named. It’s clear that during final editing several years later in Germany, he can no longer identify small Chinese riverside towns whose names he may have heard only once and didn’t record.

I enjoyed the book, which offers a window into the astonishingly archaic China of 100 years ago. The Last Emperor has just been deposed and republican soldiers at city gates check to see that nobody who enters is still wearing the long braid of the former Manchu overlords. And in Changsha, perhaps Norbert Jacques bumps into a bookish teenager from the Fourth Normal School – a boy named Mao.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

26 thoughts on “Norbert Jacques Honeymooning on the Yangtze River in 1912”

  1. I love reading old travel books. I was recently in Thailand and picked up a circa 1980s book on the Yangtse modeled after Braudel’s works on the Mediterranean. I’m still on the river’s formation. I also picked up White Devil, a mid-20th century Australian newsman’s take on his work in Japan and China. This sounds right up my ally, but I only read English and French. I’ll keep it in mind.
    Years ago I picked up George Cuckor’s old copy of Journey to a War about Isherwood and Auden’s journey to China in the 1930s. Their account of a Chinese banquet was hilarious. I don’t think they liked bean curd. It helps to remember that one has to choose just how to judge people from another era. One cannot expect them to align with our modern attitudes. It makes more sense to judge them on their direction, not their position.

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    1. Yes, history needs to be read in the context of the time; otherwise we would be condemning of just about everything. Dismissing Julius Caesar as a murderous arsehole is not too informative.

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  2. There has to be an appropriate word (or maybe several) for someone who profited financially from writing propaganda for the Nazis when the war was already clearly lost, but my vocabulary is deficient. Maybe some kind of combination of smart (earning money from a lost cause) and dumb (damaging his reputation by getting involved in that lost cause for not enough money to make it worth the risk). Or maybe just dumb because he was oblivious to what was going on, and what the inevitable outcome would be.

    “The secret of the Oriental eyes conjured up the riddle of the Oriental Schoß to my imagination.” If I am interpreting ‘Schoß’ correctly, he seems to have bought into the weird old myth that Chinese women’s reproductive bits differed in orientation to those of European women. That myth was still being perpetrated during WWII and afterwards – my racist mother referred to it at every available opportunity, as if it was a great joke. Not sure what he meant by the ‘secret’ of Oriental eyes either – yeah, shape is different, majority have single eyelids and epicanthic folds (in the absence of totally unnecessary surgery), but these hardly conceal some kind of secret. Or was he referring to myopia, which occurs at very high frequency among Han Chinese?

    Phillip Helbig or someone else equally linguistically gifted, please correct me if I have got the intended meaning of Schoß wrong.

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    1. Schoß really means lap, but obviously a pregnant woman has the baby on her lap, more or less, so it became a word for womb (still used poetically) and, by extension, for all of the female reproductive organs (obsolete today).

      Note that the o is long. Spelled schoss, it is past tense of schießen, i.e. shot. (In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, there is no ß, so the pronunciation has to be guessed from the context).

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      1. It’s not anymore just an orthographic convention. Schoss, like Schloss (as in castle (slot in Swedish) or lock (lås in Swedish)) used to be spelled Schoß and Schloß, and have always been pronounced with the short o. The rule now is that long vowels are followed by ß, short bei ss. So no pronunciation has changed, but some words are written with ss which used to be written with ß. (All of this is independent of the fact that in some fonts, s at the end of a word is written differently, like the two forms of sigma in Greek.)

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      2. The “different forms of S” convention used to exist in English. In documents from the American colonial period, there is often a character which looks like a lower case F without the crossbar. That is the form of S that was used in the middle of a word; the one that looks like a lower case S was only used at the end of the word. That convention aligns with the two forms of sigma: the one we commonly call by that name is used in the middle of a word, while the one at the end of a word looks like a Latin S.

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  3. Schoß certainly means vagina, but it is the sort of word that is used in polite conversation and thus can’t be translated directly with any English word.

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  4. Really odd how he says “I was totally fantasizing about her cooch as I followed her through the streets” and then describes himself as a “chaste knight”. 😀

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    1. That shades things in what I find to be a rather dark direction.

      The current US vice president, Mike Pence, does not allow himself to have one-on-one meetings with women; his wife (to whom he refers as “Mother”) must also be present. It’s an implicit admission that he needs somebody to keep him on the straight and narrow, or he too would be fantasizing about lady parts. The attitude seems to be common among US evangelicals; Pence is merely the most prominent example.

      I know nothing of Mr. Jacques’ religious inclinations, but this passage suggests the possibility that he took his Christianity a little too seriously.

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  5. So, the riddle of the Oriental vagina. For the benefit of readers who don’t know and lack any insight into basic human biology, there is no riddle. In any case, I presume it no longer persists.

    If there is any riddle in that regard, it is with Khoisan women, who have elongated inner labia, which hang down as much as 4″ (10 cm). It is natural (i.e. not artificially induced deformity), and there is no obvious biological reason for it. It’s not something that is discussed in polite conversation, but it was one the reasons why the “Hottentot Venus”, a poor Khoisan woman, and another equally unfortunate Khoisan woman, who were exhibited naked in freak shows throughout Europe during the 19th Century, excited such curiosity. The other reason was that they exhibited steatopygia, a trait that the Khoisan share with Andaman Islanders, and which seemingly serves the logical purpose of fat storage to tide the person over times of food scarcity.

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      1. I just can’t see a situation where a man would get far enough with a woman to inspect her labia, then go “Nope, too short, I ain’t going there.”

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      2. But they didn’t. The women traditionally wore a small apron to conceal their genitals. No knowing how far back that tradition extended, of course. But in any case, human males are pretty infamous for screwing anything with a pulse, so I think Martin’s comment stands. As the painter Paul Gauguin put it: “A woman is a thing with a hole in it.”

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      3. I should have made clear that’s male humans collectively. I certainly don’t view women the way Gauguin did. But then, he was not a wonderful person. On his first visit to Tahiti, he took a 13 year old Tahitian wife, despite already having a wife back in France. On his second visit to Tahiti, by which time he was suffering advanced syphilis, he took a 14 year old Tahitian wife and fathered two children by her. If he was exercising any kind of sexual selection, it’s not hard to guess what it was.

        So I think we can safely conclude that Gauguin was an absolute arsehole. But then history is littered with male arseholes. There have been some notable female arseholes too, e.g. 妲己, but less numerous.

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      4. 妲己 = Daji was the last Queen of the Shang Dynasty. She was so evil and depraved (and such a strong influence on her husband, the King Di Xin, who was infatuated by her) that she is portrayed in mythology and literature as an evil fox spirit (something that has been imported into both Japanese and Korean mythology, which is why you get all that weird stuff about evil fox spirits in Japanese literature). Because they were both so evil and depraved, they lost the Mandate of Heaven. Di Xin was defeated in battle by the succeeding Zhou Dynasty’s army. Di Xin heaped all of his treasures around him in the royal palace and then set fire to it, and then committed suicide. Daji was captured and executed. And that was the end of the Shang Dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty.

        Di Xin was given the derogatory posthumous name of King Zhòu, which means a horse crupper – that’s the part of the saddle that goes under the horse’s tail, close to the horse’s arse, to prevent the saddle from sliding forward, and so of course gets regularly shat on by the horse. That is how he is remembered in Chinese history.

        Don’t tell me the Chinese have no sense of humour.

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  6. Stephen Jay Gould has a good 1982 essay (collected in The Flamingo’s Smile) about the woman you mention, who was named Sara Baartman. Gould was shown her skeleton and her private parts in formaline in the stores of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Baartman’s genitals were on the shelf just above Paul Broca’s brain!

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  7. Gould was an engaging writer. It’s a damned shame that he was so wrong about so much. But then, he was an avowed Jewish Marxist (as is Richard Lewontin of ‘Lewontin’s Fallacy’ infamy), and ideologically driven science is never a good idea, regardless of the ideology.

    Gould has got it all right in this article, though – the Khoisan separated from all other anatomically modern humans pretty early, and earlier than any other known branch of the modern family tree, but that happened *after* humans had evolved into what are now recognized as anatomically modern humans – so they are no more closely or more further separated from whoever came before anatomically modern humans, but by exactly the same distance as everyone else.

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  8. There was a big study of human genomics a few years back where the two sampled individuals that were maximally *dissimilar* were two Khoi-san fellows who lived not too far apart!

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    1. Yes, the Khoisan are…well, they exist as endogamous groups, and don’t even recognize other groups as ‘same people’. So, those who are hunter-gatherers do not identify with those who are cattle herders as ‘same’ and they are indeed very genetically diverse, even though superficially they don’t look very different phenotypically.

      So, those different groups who are lumped together under the label Khoisan (sensibly enough, because they arise from the same root population that separated from other humans ~200,000 years ago, and they look very similar; almost indistinguishable) have been separated from one another and have not interbred for a very long time.

      And they have different names for themselves, e.g. the cattle herders are the Khoi-Khoi (who used to be known as the Hottentots), and the hunter-gatherers are the San (who used to be known as the Bushmen). The terms Hottentots and Bushmen are now both regarded as very derogatory.

      So, two Khoisan whose ancestors began diverging away from one another 200,000 years ago will be more genetically dissimilar than I will be to a Chinese, given our ancestors began diverging away from one another only about 45,000 years ago.

      The other thing driving this diversity among the Khoisan is that for most of modern human prehistory, they had the largest population of any of the then human population groups. They occupied the whole of southern Africa, before the Bantu expansion, which caused them to be marginalised and their populations to be greatly reduced. And then of course the whites arrived to finish the job.

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  9. …will be more genetically dissimilar than I will be to a Chinese, given our ancestors began diverging away from one another only about 45,000 years ago.

    You and I have certainly done our bit to close that particular gap, John! 😀

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    1. At least to prevent it from becoming wider. We two alone have done that, assuming at least one of our daughters reproduces at some point.

      But we are now not a rarity, according to data from the USA – mixed marriages there have increased rapidly over the past few decades, and the most common mixed marriages are between non-Hispanic white males and East Asian females. Or maybe it’s between non-Hispanic white males and evil fox spirits – you can never be sure 😛

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  10. I’ve also read about that. On-line dating apparently drives this, because it puts people into contact with each other outside tribal and subcultural bounds. YuSie and I simply met at a party. (-;

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  11. If you liked that book, you might like this one too:

    An Englishman sails up the river Yangtse and walks through Yunnan to Burma. Doesn’t speak any local languages, gets ill for a few months, etc. Written in 1910. The placenames are strange, and the maps poor, but otherwise an interesting book.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ooops, don’t know what auto-something happened 😦
    The book is “Across China on Foot” by Edwin Dingle.

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