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The whole of the great province of Kwangsi and the eastern portion of Yunnan is drained by the West River and its hundreds of tributaries. These tributaries for the most part find their sources upon the watershed of the Nan-ling Mountains, which extend from the Tung-ting Lake to the city of Kin-yuen, a distance of over five hundred miles.
Of that great stretch of country little or nothing is known. Thanks to the early Jesuit explorers, we are provided with excellent maps. But a map is no more than a coloured piece of paper which–at the best–is backed with linen. Names in themselves convey nothing. Though you study the map of China for a fortnight you will know less of the Si-kiang, or West River, than the naval lieutenant who ran his gunboat past Wu-chau, and blew the mud huts of a pirate village into a dust-heap with the pound-and-a-half shells of his Maxim-Nordenfeldt. For, if to this day there are wild men anywhere upon the face of the earth, who know neither mercy nor pity nor the laws of God or man, they are to be found in the tract of country that lies between the West River and the Nan-ling Mountains to the north. And thither we are about to journey, into the midst of a land that is by no means a wilderness, but which is populated for the most part by peaceable, hard-working peasants.
There are, however, certain members of the community who are neither peaceable nor industrious, who care no more for the gunboats of His Britannic Majesty upon the wide reaches of the river than they do for the yamen of the Viceroy of Canton, who so terrorise the province that each honest man knows that it is more than his life is worth to give information against them.
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