In late summer 1868, Mesny travelled down through northern Guizhou to rendezvous with the Sichuan Army at Niuchang town. There are over fifty places called Niuchang (“Bull Market”) in Guizhou; before China adopted Western days of the week, markets rotated from village to village on a twelve day circuit, each day named after Chinese zodiac animals. It took a lot of cross-checking between maps and Mesny’s descriptions to work out which Niuchang he was talking about.
Mesny’s route followed lowland roads to where the Wu River marked the border of Miao-held territory. Here they saw Miao stockades visible up in the hills above – a worrying sight as his escort was poorly armed with bamboo spears and ill-maintained matchlocks. In camp that night one of his men was attacked by a leopard, and they woke to find the ferries had all been set adrift by the Miao. It rained continually – Guizhou is China’s wettest province – and Mesny developed a fever. He wrote that “everybody eats chih-li pepper and garlic to keep their soul and body together; otherwise they would be shaken to pieces by the evil effects of fever and ague”. Mesny couldn’t stand garlic.
Eventually they reached the little market town, and found the Sichuan Army camped on top of a flat “sugar-loaf” hill. Mesny was welcomed by the famously brave Commander-in-Chief, Tang Jiong (唐炯), along with other military officials and former rebels now fighting for the Chinese cause. The Sichuan Army comprised ten main battalions, the An-ting: there were a further eight (the Ko-i) under Liu Heling (刘鹤龄), three under Jian Zihe (the An-chi Ying), and four under Chen Shuiqing (the Ta-tzu Ying). There was also an independent battalion (the Chung-tzu Ying) under He Dawu. Each battalion supposedly comprised 500 soldiers and 150 coolies, though most were under-manned – not that this stopped the generals from drawing pay for a full complement of men, and then pocketing the difference.
Mesny impressed everyone with the shipment of arms he’d brought along from Hankou, and by snuffing out a candle at 50 yards with a rifle. Despite Tang Jiong’s doubts about hiring a foreigner, the two men eventually became good friends. On 21 September 1868, at a wage of 150 silver taels per month, Mesny was commissioned in to the Sichuan Army with the brevet rank of qianzong (usually translated as lieutenant, though Mesny says captain), and appointed armorer and instructor of gunnery and musketry to General Liu Heling.
My own trip to Niuchang was only slightly less fraught than Mesny’s, involving a late-afternoon ride in a shared taxi on what must be one of the worst roads in all China. The country’s largest phosphorous mine is nearby, and the road has been turned to rubble by a continuous stream of overburdened blue trucks busy shipping out the ore. There was no question on driving on the “correct” side of the road: the surface was like a relief map of the moon, the taxi bouncing between intact patches of tarmac and potholes, gouges and slippery gravel strips, dodging similarly erratic oncoming traffic as best it could. The taxi driver was a good-humoured wag but smoked continually, adding to the discomfort.
Meanwhile our fellow-passengers, two local girls heading home for the weekend, were curious to know why a foreigner wanted to visit Niuchang. They made a few phone calls and quickly identified the site of the Sichuan Army camp as Bagua Shan, an unmistakably flat-topped hill which rose to no great height on the town’s outskirts. Dusk was drawing in and our driver, appreciating the need to ascend in daylight, drove us around to the back where he pointed out the path to the top. He promised to deliver the girls and then return to collect us, but we were barely halfway up the slippery granite track before we heard a shout and looked back to see all three making their way up after us, despite the girls’ heroically unsuitable high heels. In fifteen minutes we were all posing for photographs with each other below the untidy cluster of transmitter towers and pylons which crowned Bagua Shan’s grassy summit. Niuchang’s cheap concrete architecture nestled in a bowl of hills below, the town’s lights beginning to come on.
Back at the cab, the girls insisted that we all join them for supper, but the taxi driver wanted to head home. The return ride was even scarier at night.