Reconstructing Lost Places in Towns of Old China

Much of old China has been torn down to make way for the new, so creating maps and descriptions as accurate as possible for 1860 became a major effort in Yankee Mandarin. Towns of a certain size were all enclosed by a high wall of rammed earth faced with stone or brick, typically thirty feet high and twenty feet wide, three to thirty miles in circumference, with a wide moat at the foot of the wall from which the dirt for the wall was taken. Studying present day maps, even Google Earth, one can see in place of the walls that once encircled the smaller old towns there often are busy thoroughfares now, typically called Circle-town Road 環城路, and intersections and nearby villages named for the gates in the old wall, such as East Gate 東門 or South Gate 南門. This turned out to be the case for a number of towns that figure in the story. Many of the old gates have been left standing and today loom over automobiles instead of carts and sedan chairs. In Shanghai, Renmin Lu 人民路 and Zhonghua Lu 中華路 are where the massive wall encircling Shanghai in 1860 originally stood, with its guarded gates, drum towers, and old brick facings. That wall made a nearly perfect circle around the native city – Fletcher called it the omphalos of Shanghai, the middle of all things, the navel of the settlements.

The old gazetteers for district towns also had (highly stylized) maps showing the “appointments” of a typical Chinese town, including yamens for several levels of administration, and the principal temples: the city god, fire god, god of war, water-sprite, and so on. As the yamen of the highest-level mandarin in Shanghai in 1860, called a “taotai,” was a key location, I went looking to see what if anything was left. It was supposed to be inside the SE corner of the wall, near the Greater East Gate. Where the wall was in Shanghai there is now a circular thoroughfare, and the name East Gate still identifies the location of the old gate. So, we started walking in the direction of the old yamen, asking folks along the way, and before long came to Taotai Road 巡道街, and a left-turn onto the small street that faced the location of the old yamen. Across the way, was a huge market, which locals concurred was probably where the old Temple of the Fire God stood, judging from is size, and the similarity of its name to “fire god.”

Indirectly related to the topic are “lost places” in the Yangtze River. Today’s maps show “Bush Island” just east of the entrance to the “Whangpoo” river, which flows north from Shanghai into the Yangtze. British charts from the 1850s, however, show Bush Island west of the entrance, upriver maybe a mile or so. In the past 150 years, the river has moved the island downstream a couple of miles! (More detail in photos can be seen at 200% zoom level.)

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4 Responses to Reconstructing Lost Places in Towns of Old China

  1. Pingback: Tulou 土樓 Communities, “Closed Outside, Open Inside” – a Variety of Chinese Courtyard Architecture | Old China Books Book Blog

  2. jdgarner says:

    I am in the midst of reading Yankee Mandarin, Mr. Lande. The maps are very helpful because the geography of the river and the coast has a strong influence on the action of your story. I am impressed by the thoroughness of your knowledge and the information you provide on China during that time period. I’m always reading about skirmishes in the Caribbean, or the Atlantic coast, but never thought of China and how the opium trade would make pirating a must.

    • James Lande says:

      Hello JD,

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying Yankee Mandarin, and pleased that you have paused to drop me a line. The waterways of the Yangtze delta certainly figure prominently in the story, and some readers have mentioned that they thought the Yangtze almost becomes a character with all the description of her. Your praise confirms that my labor over the detail of so many maps was well worth the effort because the reader always knows where the action is taking place.

      Now that you are some distance up the river, let me recommend the video The Lower Reaches on YouTube. The Lower Reaches takes a journey aboard the clipper Essex to China, and the Chinese war-steamer Confucius, up the Yangtze River into the heart of China following the maps in the novel Yankee Mandarin and visits the locations of the story. This video takes a reader to many places in the story all in one presentation. (The Lower Reaches makes reference to the novel Yang Shen, an earlier edition of Yankee Mandarin – the story told is the same in each book.)

      Best regards,
      James Lande

  3. Unc says:

    Always enjoy your maps James, I know how much work you put into them!

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