Province Of Honan
( Originally Published 1910 )
A Great Bridge—K'ai- fung- fu—Yellow Jews
PASSING the border city of Weihwei-fu, we find ourselves arrested by the Hwang Ho—not that we experience any difficulty in reaching the other bank; but we wish to indulge our curiosity in inspecting the means of transit. It is a bridge, and such a bridge as has no parallel on earth. Five miles in length, it is longer than any other bridge built for the passage of a river. It is not, however, as has been said, the longest bridge in the world; the elevated railway of New York is a bridge of much greater length. So are some of the bridges that carry railways across swamp-lands on the Pacific Coast. Bridges of that sort, however, are of comparatively easy construction. They have no rebellious stream or treacherous quicksands to contend with. Cæsar's bridge over the Rhine was an achievement worthy to be recorded among the victories of his Gallic wars; but it was a child's plaything in comparison with the bridge over the Yellow River. Caesar's bridge rested on sesquipedalian beams of solid timber. The Belgian bridge is supported on tubular piles of steel of sesquipedalian diameter driven by steam or screwed down into the sand to a depth of fifty feet.
There have been other bridges near this very spot with which it might be compared. One of them was called Ta-liang, the "Great Bridge," and gave name to a city. Another was Pien-liang, "The Bridge of Pien," one of the names of the present city of K'ai-fung-fu. That bridge has long since disappeared; but the name adheres to the city.
What an unstable foundation on which to erect a seat of empire! Yet the capital has been located in this vicinity more than once or twice within the last twenty-five centuries. The first occasion was during the dynasty of Chou (1100 B. C.), when the king, to be more central, or perhaps dreading the incursions of the Tar-tars, forsook his capital in Shensi and followed the stream down almost to the sea, braving the quicksands and the floods rather than face those terrible foes. Again, in the Sung period, it was the seat of government for a century and a half.
The safest refuge for a fugitive court which, once established there, has no reason to fear attack by sea or river, it is somewhat strange that in 1900 the Empress Dowager did not direct her steps toward K'ai-fung-fu, instead of escaping to Si-ngan. Being, however, herself a Tartar, she might have been expected to act in a way contrary to precedents set by Chinese dynasties. Obviously, she chose the latter as a place of refuge because it lay near the borders of Tartary. It is noteworthy that a loyal governor of Honan at that very time prepared a palace for her accommodation in K'ai-fung-fu, and when the court was invited to return to Peking, he implored her not to risk herself in the northern capital.
Honan is a province rich in agricultural, and probably in mineral, resources, but it has no outlet in the way of trade. What a boon this railway is destined to be, as a channel of communication with neighbouring provinces!
I crossed the Yellow River in 1866, but there was then no bridge of any kind. Two-thirds of a mile in width, with a furious current, the management of the ferry-boat was no easy task. On that occasion an object which presented stronger attractions than this wonderful bridge had drawn me to K'ai-fung-fu—a colony of Jews, a fragment of the Lost Tribes of Israel. As mentioned in a previous chapter, I had come by land over the very track now followed by the railroad, but under conditions in strong contrast with the luxuries of a railway carriage—" Alone, unfriended, solitary, slow," I had made my way painfully, shifting from horse to cart, and sometimes compelled by the narrowness of a path to descend to a wheelbarrow. How I longed for the advent of the iron horse. Now I have with me a jovial company; and we may enjoy the mental stimulus of an uninterrupted session of the Oriental Society, while making more distance in an hour than I then made in a day.
Of the condition of the Jews of K'ai-fung-fu, as I found them, I have given a detailed account elsewhere.* Suffice it to say here that the so-called colony consisted of about four hundred persons, belonging to seven families or clans. Undermined by a flood of the Yellow River, their synagogue had become ruinous, and, being unable to repair it, they had disposed of its timbers to relieve the pressure of their dire poverty.
Nothing remained but the vacant space, marked by a single stone recording the varying fortunes of these forlorn Israelites. It avers that their remoter ancestors arrived in China by way of India in the Han dynasty, before the Christian era, and that the founders of this particular colony found their way to K'ai-fungfu in the T'ang dynasty about 800 A. D. It also gives an outline of their Holy Faith, showing that, in all their wanderings, they had not forsaken the God of their fathers. They still possessed some rolls of the Law, written in Hebrew, on sheepskins, but they no longer had a rabbi to expound them. They had forgot-ten the sacred tongue, and some of them had wandered into the fold of Mohammed, whose creed resembled their own. Some too had embraced the religion of Buddha.
My report was listened to with much interest by the rich Jews of Shanghai, but not one of them put his hand in his pocket to rebuild the ruined synagogue; and without that for a rallying-place the colony must ere long fade away, and be absorbed in the surrounding heathenism, or be led to embrace Christianity.
I now learn that the Jews of Shanghai have manifested enough interest to bring a few of their youth to that port for instruction in the Hebrew language. Also that some of these K'ai-fung-fu Jews are frequent attendants in Christian chapels, which have now been opened in that city. To my view, the resuscitation of that ancient colony would be as much of a miracle as the return from captivity in the days of Cyrus.