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.