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How Much for a Life?


   In 1854, a rich merchant living near Xin Tan, one of the most dangerous of all the rapids in the Three Gorges, raised subscriptions to build three life--boats. Painted red to distinguish them from regular craft, they soon became known as the Red Boats. More money was raised over the years to increase the fleet and in the 1880s the running of the serice was taken over by the govemment,although funds still came from public subscription. By the early 1900s there were almost 50 boats stationed along the river. In 1899 alone they saved l,473lives from 49 wrecked junks.

   A Red Boat would accompany each vessel on the most perilous parts of the journey'--being dragged upstream by the trackers over the different sets of rapids. Downstream voyages were not as dangerous, so a special escort was not deemed necessary. Wh1l a wreck occurred a gun was fired as the summons for all Red Boats to come and help.

   The life-boats were not allowed to salvage cargo from the wrecks. However, there was a reward System for the salvaging of human beings. WE Geil, who travelled along the Yangtze in 1904 on his way to Burma, describe show it worked:

   On life-saving the Chinese have curious notions. While eating cabes cooked in lamp oil in a tea house in Chintan village the shipper of the RedBoat came in and I asked him certain questions about the Pagodas for destitute sou1s. He told me that for the recovery of a dead the body from the water, a reward of eight hundred cash is given by the Emperor. It used to be hundred cash for saving a Iive man and eight hundred for a deed one. But it was soon discovered that this did not Pay, so it was reversed and now our hundred 'ash are given to save a live man and right hundred recover a deed one. This aIIows four hundred cash to bary the man if he dies after being taken out of the water. This interesting fact was further emplained to me by another of the Red Boat mewt6at the dead man involves funeral expense and the live man none! This is good Celestial reasoniny. It would be more potable to drown a man befor pulling him out. I found out aferwards that the reward Of four hundred cash is given provided the rescuer gets his clothes wet, otherwise he gets but two hundred.


WE Geil, A Yankee on the Yangtze, 1904

• ZiGui

• How much for a life?