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William Edgar Geil was a world famous figure in his day, and the reasons he has been lost to history (from his death until now) are as interesting as the underpinnings of his fame. Here is a very brief overview. In a day before anthropology or Chinese (or African or Micronesian) studies had a toehold in world universities, William Edgar Geil traveled the world, took extensive notes, returned to Doylestown, and wrote books. Depending on how you count them, he wrote almost a dozen—many of them thick and substantial in ways that a turn of the (last) century reader would understand, even if many people today would not. He traveled across central Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, spent a year in Australia and New Guinea, and then found an abiding love for the study of China (which is where I "met" him, in a manner of speaking). He traveled the length of the Great Wall, journeyed the Yangzi River from Shanghai into southeast Asia, visited all of China's provincial capitals, and is the only Westerner to have written a book about his travels to all five sacred mountains of China.
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Finally, we conclude with a description of Geil "at work" on the boat as he endeavors to get it all down from dawn to dusk. He was a distinctive personality, and you have probably already guessed just from reading these introductory words that Geil was a character. This reading should convince you.
A Yankee on the Yangtze
William Edgar Geil (1904)
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The gunboat in which I sailed was a one-masted, square-prowed, high-sterned craft about forty feet from end to end, and not about nine feet beam. The mast had only one single shroud on the port side, the other side being more or less supported by the halyard. The solitary mast was forty feet high and stood in a socket, a mechanism by which it could be easily lowered. The top of the mast was a red wooden spearhead supplemented by three little flags on the port side. The gaff was fifteen feet long, made of a short piece of wood, and the boom was of stout bamboo twenty feet long. In between these, arranged at regular intervals, were fourteen bamboos without the support of which the clumsy sail would be blow to rags, as it was made of the thinnest calico. The main sheet was attached by a fan-like arrangement to the ends of these eight bamboos, the entire number of which were brought home to a block at the rudder post, so that the sail was worked with the greatest facility.
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The skipper was an interesting Chinaman. After some effort I got him to talk, and elicited the following facts. He was forty-two years of age, and went to sea at sixteen. Most of the time he had been in the coast Provinces, but his home was in Hunan, and now he lived temporarily in Ichang. He went out after a band of robbers in the fourth Moon, and spent two Moons following them up to catch them. As soon as they heard he was on their track, they turned into good people and offered no resistance when captured! The skipper gave up his cabin over the stern to me, and slept down in the hold where the tiller-man was accustomed to night it. The fine old steersman took to the right of my cabin door. The crew was composed of twelve men all told, including the cook, so that, with the captain, we had teh so-called unlucky number of thirteen. They were all nice, prompt, and intelligent-looking fellows. Translated from English, there were some odd names among them. The captain was Mr. Long Bow; the coxswain, "An-Official-Bound-for-Glory." "The-Ever-Victorious-Colour," "Special-Promise," "Red-Cinnamon-Grove," "Little-Profit," "Great-Treasure-of-a-Drum," "Graceful-Rest," "Keeper-of Truce," and "Crabtree-who takes-hold-of-Benevolence" made up, with the others, a fine lot of young Chinamen...
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By noon we were at the entrance of the Ichang Gorge. Here were perpendicular cliffs eight hundred feet high. Along their base men were hard at work quarrying bluestone for the Ichang Embankment. It looked as if we were sailing through a chain of mountain lakes. Little can one imagine the grand and sublime scenery in China who limits his travel to the Yellow coast. But let him go a thousand miles up the Yangtze, and venture further up through the rapids between Ichang and Wan Hsien, and then the truth will dawn upon him that in all this world there is no finer scenery anywhere. Here were the most colossal cliffs and palisades I had ever seen since leaving the wonderland of New Zealand. Along the summit on those crags and eagle soared to its lofty eyrie. The whole scene was weirdly romantic. The first section of the Ichang Gorge bears the highly poetical name of "Moonshine," and the second is called the "Yellow Cat."
Soon after two in the afternoon, we had passed through the Ichang Gorge and were in the granite country. At this stage I got into conversation with Mr. Yun. I asked him to tell me about the great flood which devastated this valley, and carried away multitudes of people. He said, "Though I saw it with my own eyes, and though it was very terrible, it happened so long ago that I have forgotten all about it." The poor fellow was evidently afraid I was trying to entrap him into admitting some neglect of duty then, and believed, with Horace, Percunctatorem fugito nam garrulus idem est. The skipper came to the rescue and related how, once upon a time, the water became dammed up and could not get away. To relive the overflow the idol, Kang Yeh, met a red heifer and asked her to tell him where they could find an outlet for the water. She assented, and he grabbed the cow by the tail and she led him to the place. Later returns indicate that the heifer was afterwards carried up to heaven, and the small fry gods built a temple on earth for her worship. For we were shown the spot where is located the Red Cow Temple. Tradition says that the moment the idol and the cow entered the valley, the water rushed through and formed a new channel. All sorts of wonderful tales are told
When we had got within a short distance of the first great rapids, we lay to and stood alongside another gunboat. As my interpreter was stepping from one vessel to the other, a boatman, who wanted to help, saluted him as "My Lord Chang." Our little Mandarin whispered, "There is only one lord, that is my Lord Geil." In New Guinea they called me "The Big White Chief," but now I was "My Lord Geil." Whether I shall be able to recognise my humble friends when I reach home remaineth to be seen. When I returned to my cabin, I found a Chinese ten-cash coin which someone had dropped. The character 十, meaning ten, is very prominently stamped on the ordinary piece. I learned something new about the Offence of the Cross. The cross is, for obvious reasons, inseparably connected in the Chinese mind with missionaries, and is consequently despised by all Boxers. A short time before the Boxer outbreak in nineteen hundred, some leading spirits urgently petitioned the Government to change the hateful character. The Government acquiesed, and a special cash of the same value was struck off, but the character ten did not appear in the usual way, but in a complicated form in which the cross was entirely obliterated. The coin I picked up was one of these, and represents the Offence of the Cross.
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"Whenever anything noteworthy strikes his attention, he dictates a description, which I take down immediately on the typewriter, and thus the panorama is recorded as it passes. Nothing of interest escapes his critical eye, so that the click of the machine, though not so constant as the tick of the clock, makes a good substitute for the softer sound of the absent horologe.
"The rearward view is obtained by standing on the ample rudder-post which projects a foot from the deck; and this foot, added to Mr. Geil's seven feet less nine inches, after deducting nearly six feet for the height of the arched roof of the cabin, leaves a substantial credit balance in the right position for observing scenery. When an exceptionally fine view is behind us, Mr. Geil stands on a Chinese basket trunk about two feet high, and holds forth from that exalted station. This goes on from dawn till dark, and as the cabin is not well lighted, the early and late descriptions are written by the aid of a candle at both ends.
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 Even though it should not be necessary for me to point out that some of Geil's language from 108 years ago will jar...I will anyway. I am not one to take either interpretive extreme in these cases. Some consider any language we would not use today to be offensive. On the other extreme would be those who say "everyone talked that way back then." I disagree with both extremes—language changes, yet not everyone did talk "that way back then." I prefer to let all of us develop ever-deeper historical sophistication. History is complicated; Geil is complicated. Period.
 William Edgar Geil, A Yankee on the Yangtze (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1904), 69-75.
 Geil, Yankee, 77-78.
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