1636 The China Venture – Snippet 04

Chapter 2

October 1633

Woods Near Town of Grantville, Within the Ring of Fire

“Almost there,” said Jason Cheng.

His wife, Jennie Lee Cheng, nodded.

This stretch of woods was owned by Marshall Kitt, Jason’s partner in Kitt & Cheng Engineering. The Mennonite farmers he had leased some of his land to tended to stay out of the forest, save when they needed to cut firewood, and anyway they knew that the Chengs had permission to go there.

Even though it was well into the morning, it was dark here under the trees. The yellow poplar reached as high as a hundred and fifty feet tall, and the black walnut wasn’t much shorter.

Jason stopped when they came to a small stream, and motioned that his family should head upslope.

“This is looking good,” said Jason. “See, we have some ferns here, and some wild ginger–do you want some, Jennie Lee? And over there I see jack-in-the pulpit.”

“It looks like poison ivy,” said Mike Song, one of their nephews.

“Somewhat,” Jason admitted. “It’s okay to touch it, but don’t eat it, it’s poisonous.”

“Hey, I just found some ginseng!” shouted Jason Junior.

His father and mother bent down to look.

“And so you did,” said Jennie Lee. “It’s just a two pronger, though, so we’ll leave it be this year.”

Jason Senior reached down to feel the soil. He grabbed a sample and squeezed it. It stuck to his skin. “Huh, a little too moist here. Let’s head a little bit away from the stream, and see if we do better.” He chalked an arrow on a tree so they could find their way back.

After a few minutes, they found a substantial patch of ginseng, with a mix of seedlings and one-, two-, three- and four-prongers.

“So, Mike, do you know how to tell the age of a ginseng plant?”

Mike shook his head. “I’m a city boy, remember. When I came to the States, I lived in downtown Raleigh, and then I went to school in Pittsburgh.”

“So did I,” said his older brother Danny, “and I know.”

“Well, you moved out here, to the boonies, after you met Ashley. That gave you a head start.”

Danny shrugged. “Chances are that you’re going to marry a country girl, too, younger brother. Given that we’re now in rural Germany. Anyway, you look at the neck of the plant, and count the stem scars. If the plant has four stem scars, then it’s five years old. That’s the minimum legal age for harvesting ginseng.”

“Under West Virginia law, so who cares now that we’re in Thuringia?” asked Mike.

“Mike’s right!” said Jason Junior.

“I care,” said Jason Senior. “The point is to make sure that there will still be ginseng a few years from now. We take plants that are at least five years old and have at least three prongs.”

“And have red berries,” Jennie Lee added.

“That’s right. And after we dig out the root, we squeeze the seeds out of the berries and plant them nearby.”

“Hey, Mike, you’re a ginseng virgin,” teased Danny. “Do you want me to show you how to spade the plant out?”

“It’s not exactly rocket science,” said Mike, grabbing a needle-nose spade and driving it into the ground a few inches from where the stem emerged.

“Too close,” said Jennie Lee. “About six inches is right.”

Mike corrected his error, and the others started harvesting roots themselves. When they collected what they thought was a fair haul, leaving a few mature plants behind since they were the most efficient seed producers, they retraced their steps. As they did, Jason Senior carefully washed off the chalk arrow.

“That’s wise,” said Ashley. “A few years ago, over in Fairmont, there was a big to-do about ginseng-napping.”

“Is that a word?” asked Danny.

Ashley made a face at him. “I shouldn’t have married a city slicker from Raleigh.”

“Well, it’s just a precaution,” said Jason Senior. “The ginseng seems to have gotten more abundant since the Ring of Fire, so I think there’s been less harvesting, legal or otherwise. We lost the Asian market, so that discouraged harvesting for sale, and the refugees are leery of it.”

Ashley nodded. “I think because it reminds them of mandrake root, which is poisonous. And associated with witchcraft.”

“It’s too bad we have no trade with China,” said Jason Senior. “It’s been scarce there for centuries; I bet it would sell as well there as cloves and nutmeg do in Europe.”

“We’ll dry most of the roots,” said Jennie Lee. “But I’ll use a bit of it fresh, to make herbal tea.” She added in a whisper, “For just the two of us.” Fresh root was considered more potent than the dried form, and one of the traditional Chinese uses of ginseng was as an aphrodisiac.

“An excellent idea,” he whispered back.


As Fathers Athanasius Kircher and Larry Mazzare walked down Clarksburg Street past the Grantville Public Library, on their way back to St. Mary’s, they saw the four Chengs coming out of the library: Jason, Jennie Lee, Diane, and Jason, Junior, all carrying books. They loaded them into the baskets on their bikes and rode off.


Father Kircher stopped and watched them as they edged into the traffic, a confused mélange of pedestrians, horsemen, cyclists and the occasional car or bus. Clarksburg Street was busy these days, with all the down-timers that had come into the boomtown of Grantville, and the public library was itself something of a draw.

‘That Chinese family, I know they aren’t Catholic. They are what, Methodist? Baptist? Church of Christ?”

“I don’t know them well,” said Larry. “But I think they are some kind of Evangelicals. Jason Cheng is in partnership with Marshall Kitt, who’s Presbyterian. They have an engineering firm. At least two of their employees belong to our flock, Bautista Cabrera and Adina Abodeely. So I know the Chengs through them. And I think I have talked about engines with Jason Cheng, he’s a mechanical engineer. But that was a long time ago, and we didn’t talk about religion at all.” He looked at his watch. “We’d best be heading back now.”

Larry Mazzare didn’t need to ask why Father Kircher was interested in the Chengs. As soon as Kircher was assigned to Grantville, Mazzare had read Kircher’s biographies in the up-time encyclopedias; they revealed that he published a book on China in old time line 1667.

The two priests walked passed the middle school and turned down Furbee, quickly arriving at St. Mary’s. The church’s best feature, Father Kircher thought, were the two bell towers that flanked the entrance. The lower stories were of stone constructions; the bell level was white painted wood, and above it there was a verdigris dome, surmounted by a golden ball and cross. The green of the domes contrasted nicely with the red of the roof over the nave.

As they walked up the stairs to the main entrance of the church, Father Kircher confided, “In 1629, I asked to be a missionary in China. But my superiors in the Society of Jesus were of the opinion that my calling lay elsewhere. At the University of Avignon, and then at the Collegio Romano.”

Larry Mazzare grabbed hold of the door ring and gave it a firm pull. As the door swung open, he turned to Kircher and said, “Are you still planning to write a book about China?”

“I am indeed. I have been studying what Grantville has on the subject, and I am trying to combine it with contemporary accounts in the Society files. Still, it is all a secondhand experience. How I wish I could sail to Macao, take the Ambassador’s Road up to Beijing, and join my brethren at the Astronomical Bureau there. To teach the Chinese to see God by understanding his handiwork in the sky above us!”

They entered the church and headed toward the back. “What is this ‘Ambassador’s Road’ you speak of?” asked Larry.

“You go up one of the tributaries of the Pearl River, and then across the Nan Mountains by the Meiguan,” Kircher explained. “The ‘Plum Pass,’ you would say in English.”

Mazzare shook his head. “I know where China is, and its general shape, that’s it. But have an atlas in my office, so you can show me what you’re talking about. Once I find the atlas, that is.”

The office was messy, with books piled on tables and chairs. “One of these days I’ll get this straightened up,” Mazzare muttered. “Now, where is that atlas? It should be there, but it isn’t…. Oh, I know where it is.”

He pulled it out from the middle of a stack, and paged through it until he came to China. “Okay, I see Macao…. There’s an unnamed river whose mouth is just to its west–“

“That’s the Pearl.”

“It divides into two branches, and one branch goes northeast to Qingyuan, Shaoguan, and Nanxiong. That’s right at the border between Guangdong and Jiangxi provinces, and I see ‘Nan Ling’ in bold nearby.”

“The Nan Mountains.”

“On the Jiangxi side, the town nearest Nanxiong is called Dayu.”

“Between them is the Plum Pass.”

“And then I see the headwater for another river not far away–it looks like it’s called the Gan–and that runs north through Gangzhou, Ji’an, and Nanchang into the Yangtze.”

“And then you take the Yangtze past Nanjing to the Grand Canal, and that north to Beijing.”

Mazzare raised his eyebrows. “I don’t understand. The Portuguese have plenty of ships. Why not just sail up the coast to Tianjin, which is just a hundred miles from Beijing? There seems to be a river going in the right direction, too. Or if Tianjin doesn’t have a port, sail to the mouth of the Yangtze and then take the Grand Canal.”

“For more than a century, that coast has been tormented by pirates. The inland route is considered safer. Much safer.”

Mazzare checked the clock. “We have an hour until the 5:30 p.m. Saturday mass, and half an hour until reconciliations begin. I am going to go change now.”

Mazzare entered the sacristy, but left the door open so he and Kircher could continue conversing. The sacristy was a bit cramped and so, except in emergencies, it was used by one priest at a time. Mazzare pulled the alb over his head and worked his arms through the sleeves.

“I can’t help but wonder what will happen to China now,” said Kircher, his voice raised so Mazzare could still hear him. “Will the bandit army of Li Zicheng still take Beijing in 1644? Will the commander of the fort at Sanhaiguan Pass still decide that the Manchu in the north are the lesser evil, and let them across the Great Wall?”

“Bandit army?” asked Mazzare. “That sounds like a contradiction in terms.”

Kircher chuckled. “I understand. You West Virginians hear the word ‘bandits,’ and you think of Jesse James or Billy the Kid–some desperado leading a small group of outlaws. The Chinese also use the term to refer to what amounted to mass uprisings, whose rebels–the ‘bandits’–were a mixture of ordinary outlaws, deserters and mutineers from the army, mistreated bondservants, and starving peasants. The ‘bandit armies’ could be tens or even hundreds of thousands of men in strength, and dynasties could be overthrown by them. Indeed, that’s what happened in the old time line in 1644; Li Zicheng’s bandit army took Beijing, ending the Ming Dynasty. And then, a year later, the Manchu overthrew him.”

Mazzare studied himself in the sacristy mirror, adjusting the stole until the ends hung evenly. “Well, then, in answer to your two questions, I suppose that will in part depend on whether your Jesuit colleagues in Beijing warn the Ming Emperor of the dangers.”

“The decision as to whether to do that is, what’s that American phrase? ‘Above my pay grade.’ But my personal inclination is to be cautious. Whatever their faults–which I don’t doubt are legion–I suspect the Ming are better than any of the alternatives. Or not as bad, at any rate.”

Mazzare donned the chasuble. This was not the twentieth century version, but the kind that had become popular in the early seventeenth century. He emerged from the sacristy, and asked Kircher, “How do I look?”

“Turn slowly, arms out,” Kircher commanded. Mazzare complied.

“I see nothing amiss,” said Kircher. He paused. “I would like to learn Chinese. Do you think the Chengs would teach me? Even though I am a different faith?”

Larry shrugged. “I don’t think that they’d care that you’re Catholic. Whether they would have time is another matter. Adjusting their engineering consulting firm to a seventeenth century basic infrastructure isn’t trivial. But it wouldn’t hurt to ask them.”

“I would have to wait, in any event, until your return from Italy. Until then, I will be too busy.”

“Yes, thank you for agreed to assume my parochial duties while I am away. It will be interesting to see what the Pope makes of all of the up-time books I sent him by way of Mazarini.

“Speaking of China, I wonder what he’ll decide about the Chinese Rites Controversy; it’s mentioned in those books. Do you think he’ll follow the lead of Pius XII? If Clement XI hadn’t decided that paying respect to Confucius and to ancestors was forbidden to Christians, and thus provoked the Chinese to ban Christianity until British gunboats forced them to change their mind, the Chengs might be Catholic rather than Evangelical.”