The Crisis in China
ONE who proposes to discuss Chinese affairs may well begin by acknowledging his liability to error. The Chinaman is still an enigma to the Western observer. His motives, his purposes, his beliefs, and still more the grounds of his beliefs are difficult for us to find. On my arrival in China I conferred with a gentleman who had lived there forty years, and who was said to understand the Chinaman better than almost any foreigner did. In answer to my request that he would tell me what he had found the Chinaman to be, he replied : “ I have studied him carefully for forty years. Often I have flattered myself that I had sounded the depths of his nature and had come to know him thoroughly. But just as I was rejoicing in complacency over my success, suddenly some new mystery in him revealed itself, and I discovered that my work was not done. I cannot yet with confidence tell you what the Chinaman is. He eludes inspection. He does not like to tell you his deepest beliefs. If he does, and you ask him the reasons for them, about the only thing you can be sure of is that the reasons he gives you are not the real reasons.”
A good illustration of the difficulty encountered in studying his beliefs is found in the difference of opinion still existing among missionaries concerning the real nature and import of ancestral worship, which is universally practiced in China.
Among the organizations whose origin, history, and principles it is not easy to gain a thorough knowledge of are the secret societies in China. Our attention is just now directed to the society known to us by the name of the Boxers, which appears to be the chief agency in carrying on hostilities against foreigners and native converts to Christianity. The Tai Ping rebellion was set on foot by an organization in many respects similar to this. The peace of China has often been disturbed by some of these societies, which seem to have aims, sometimes religious, sometimes political, sometimes of a mixed character. Vigorous measures have often been needed to suppress them. Let me give an illustration.
In 1881 the ablest Chinese general, Tso Tsung Tang, who had fought successfully with the Russians in Kuldja, and had put down a formidable Mohammedan rebellion in the province of Kansuh, came to Peking and was appointed a member of the Tsung-li-Yamen. When he heard of the assassination of the Russian Emperor, Alexander II., he asked one of the European diplomats how the event happened. He was told that the Emperor was killed by Nihilists. “ Who are the Nihilists ? ” he inquired. The European minister replied, “ They are a secret society, who aim to kill sovereigns.” “ Secret society ! ” said Tso ; “ they ought to be able to dispose of them in Russia. I had some experience with secret societies once, and soon took care of them. Down in the province of Fuhkien they became widespread. Villages filled with them actually made war on one another. I was sent down to restore order. And in about six weeks I had perfect order and peace down there.” “ Indeed,” said the diplomat, “ how did you succeed so quickly ? ” “ Oh,” calmly replied the general, “ in six weeks I cut off the heads of about fourteen hundred of them, and it was perfectly tranquil after that.” He did not speak boastfully of his achievement, but with no more emotion than one might show in speaking of killing so many flies.
If the Boxers had been treated with the same vigor at the outset by the governor of Shantung, the situation in China might have been far less serious than it is. The scanty information we have received of the nature of their organization indicates that their ruling motive has from the beginning been hostility to foreigners. Like the Tai Ping rebels of 1860 they have certain ceremonies of a more or less religious nature, which they believe render them invulnerable. When in spite of these any of them are killed in battle, they attribute the fatality to some disobedience of the rules prescribed for them. It seems highly probable that the aggressive action of Germany in seizing Kiao Chao and procuring large privileges in Shantung was the initial provocation of their activity. When they began looting the houses of their victims, many lawless men, and also needy peasants who were impoverished by the droughts of the last two years, were easily persuaded to join them. When the governor of the province, who winked at their misdeeds, was, though removed at the urgent demand of foreign Powers, immediately transferred to the governorship of another province, they were naturally encouraged. They moved forward into Chihli, and were soon marshaling their forces in Peking, under the eyes of the imperial authorities. It appears that they were unchecked by the Empress Dowager. With our knowledge at the time of this writing, August 17, we are compelled to believe that she allowed them a free hand.
There can be little doubt that in the palace antipathy to the foreigners has been for some time increasing. The socalled reform movement of 1898 which the Emperor was induced to favor, and which was vigorously suppressed by the energetic Empress Dowager, awakened the fears and aroused the animosity of all the conservative officials near the throne. They caused the execution of some of the friends of the reform, and secured the deposition from power of others. The palace is always a nest of intrigues, of which the outside world can know nothing but the results. Censors and ministers are continually presenting memorials to the throne to procure the overthrow of men in power. They often succeed only to be themselves soon overthrown by the machinations of others. In the indignant reaction against the proposed reform, the posts of influence were largely filled by the extreme conservatives, most of whom would be glad if every foreigner were driven into the Yellow Sea.
Meantime, the attitude of the European Powers was well calculated to increase the alarm of the Empress Dowager and of her advisers. Those Powers had gained possession of considerable tracts of Chinese territory, and in European journals and in European legations threats were made of carving up the empire. It seems probable that, excited by these menaces to the country, the Empress Dowager was not unwilling that the Boxers, and others whose anti-foreign feeling was aroused, should be permitted to proceed to some length in their career of plundering and murdering as a protest and a challenge to foreigners. It is possible that they went farther than she wished, and got beyond control. Nothing could have been more shortsighted or unwise than to permit the attack upon the legations, which under international law was the most stupendous and audacious crime of that kind recorded in history.
It should be remembered that the antipathy of the Chinese to foreigners from the West has several very ancient and very powerful causes, which we may enumerate rather than discuss.
Profound differences of belief and of temperament separate the Asiatics generally by a wide chasm from the Europeans. The golden age of the former, all their ideals, belong to the remote past. Those of the latter belong to the future. Their economic ideas are far apart. Inventions, machinery, division of labor belong to the Europeans, and are repelled by the Asiatics. Their religions touching the deepest springs of life are discordant. The Western man regards his civilization as so far superior to that of the Eastern man that he looks down with a certain contempt on him, a contempt which is cherished to the full by the Turks for “ infidel dogs,” by Brahmins for the conquerors of India, by the Chinese for “ foreign devils.”
But the Chinese have special grievances, the opening of ports and the imposition of obnoxious treaties on them by force, the construction of railways and telegraphs, and the working of mines in such a way as to disturb the graves of ancestors, and to interfere with the feng shui, and thus to bring disaster on the people, and the presence of the unwelcome foreigner not only in the ports, but throughout the interior in the person of the missionary.
Still with all these causes of friction between the Oriental and the man from the West, we were getting on fairly well with the Chinese, and were hopeful that slowly perhaps, but surely, they would adopt Western ideas to such an extent that we could live in friendly intimacy with them. But by refreshing our recollections of the great differences between their civilization and ours, we can understand that it was not difficult to arouse their latent hostility to foreigners, when they thought that their ancient customs and institutions were threatened by an attempt to introduce Western methods of governing, and when the integrity and autonomy of the empire were in their opinion seriously menaced.
But nothing could be more ill judged and atrocious than the methods adopted by the Boxers, and permitted, we are inclined with our present knowledge to believe, if not encouraged, by the Empress Dowager.
Among many questions forced upon the world by the present exigency is the question whether the form of government now existing in China is capable of maintaining itself and of discharging international obligations.
The system of government, it is obvious, has some marked weaknesses. The Emperor is indeed an absolute monarch, whose duty as the Son of Heaven is to care for his subjects. He is assisted by councils and boards, composed of able men drawn from various parts of the empire. They of course really determine the policy of the government under a weak Emperor. He has also a board of censors, whose duty it is to criticise officials of any grade. They frequently evince great frankness and courage, and by their memorials cause the removal of prominent officers from their positions. Sometimes they venture to point out errors of the Emperor himself. Their power is dangerous because great. But even they are sometimes overpowered by their opponents and degraded.
The governor of each province, appointed by the Emperor for a term of three years, has practically almost absolute power over life, liberty, and property in his province. There are grades of subordinate magistracies under him. When the imperial master, absolute monarch as he is, needs money or soldiers, he makes his requisition on his governors. And then a weakness appears similar to that witnessed in our old Confederation when the Continental Congress made requisitions on the states. Under one pretext or another, the governor of a province often pleads inability to comply with the demand from Peking. He prefers to keep the money and the soldiers he has gathered. The provincial capitals are so remote from Peking, and the means of communication are so inadequate, that the power of the central government is rather feebly felt in the distant parts of the empire. Its requisitions cannot be enforced. Furthermore there is much corruption among the officials from the highest to the lowest grade. Their salaries are small. The opportunities for “ squeezing ” are many and are not neglected. The courts are often venal. The people fear rather than respect their decisions.
A very important fact is that the great mass of the people live in villages. Their horizon of interest is bounded by that of their village. They know little of remote parts of the empire and care little for distant provinces. A call for soldiers to defend such provinces does not appeal to them. Their sentiment of patriotism, in our sense of the term, is weak. Although a considerable force of well-armed and well - drilled men have appeared in the north in the recent conflict, the number of such men available is small compared with the total population. Since the Japanese war, the navy has been only partially restored. So whether in respect to the administration of domestic affairs or to the conduct of war, the Chinese government is in many emergencies lacking in strength.
On the other hand, the monarchy is strong, just because it has continued so long. What has come down from ancient days ought, according to Chinese ideas, on that account to continue. Then the docile and obedient spirit of the Chinese subject is itself a bulwark of strength to the monarchy. The Son of Heaven is to be revered and obeyed at all hazards. The subject rarely feels the hand of the imperial government upon him as oppressive. In his village he is under the rather gentle rule of the village elders. He really has a pretty large measure of freedom according to his ideas of freedom. Curiously enough there is a certain democratic element in the Chinese system. Certain manifestations of protest and discontent, rising near to rebellion, are countenanced, or at least permitted, by the imperial government, in case a magistrate or governor unduly provokes or misgoverns his people. If his rule is often protested against by outbreaks, he is removed as one who does not understand his business, and may be officially rebuked in the Peking Gazette, and perhaps degraded and disqualified for further public service.
Under a strong Emperor the government is strong, and is not ill adapted to the needs of the people. Under a weak Emperor the palace is so constantly a centre of intrigue between contending factions, and the imperial power is so little felt in the provinces, that the government is inefficient. Owing to the filial regard which the Emperor must always cherish for his mother, the Empress Dowager, if a strong and ambitious woman, may wield great power. When I was in Peking in 1880 the Emperor was a child, and was under the control of the two Empresses Dowager. It was said that they sat invisible behind a curtain when they conferred with the ministers of state. So the saying was current that China was ruled by a baby and two old women behind a curtain. But it was really ruled by Prince Kung, a very able statesman, assisted by various boards. One of the Empresses Dowager died in 1881. The other, the present energetic woman, had not then made her power felt as it is now.
In illustration of the great respect shown by high officials to the Empresses Dowager I may mention the following incident. In 1880 a commission of which I was a member negotiated two treaties with China. After the terms of the treaties had been agreed on, a day was fixed for signing them. When the three American Commissioners visited the office of the Tsung-li-Yamen on the appointed day, they were surprised by the announcement from the Chinese Commissioners that much to their regret they would not be able to sign on that day. The reason assigned was that it was the birthday of one of the Empresses Dowager, and that in one of the treaties was found a word of unhappy significance. I do not remember what the word was. It might have been “ war.” To sign a treaty containing such a word on the birthday of an Empress might bring misfortune on her and on the land. So another day was appointed. When it arrived the treaties were duly signed.
The reference to Prince Kung suggests a possible precedent for the Western Powers, when they are settling the present trouble. As the allied British and French armies approached Peking in 1860, the Emperor and his counselors, under whose direction Harry Parkes, Mr. Loch, and others had been treacherously seized and tortured, ran away. The Emperor soon died. The allies secured the appointment of Prince Kung as premier with the distinct understanding that he should conduct the government during the minority of the infant Emperor on principles insuring the just treatment of foreigners. For forty years the relations of China and Europe have been maintained without any serious trouble in accordance with the principles then adopted. If it proves that the Empress Dowager and her counselors have instigated the inhuman treatment of the representatives of the Western Powers, these Powers may find some way to clear the palace of her and her company, and to place a second Prince Kung in power under such stipulations as are needed to secure the proper respect for diplomatic representatives and for all foreign subjects and citizens. She and her guilty advisers may flee from Peking on the near approach of our troops, as did the Emperor Hsienfeng in 1860. If a just and worthy government can be installed, it would seem to promise a far better future for China and the world than a partition of the empire between various powers. Such a partition involves the danger of serious friction, perhaps of war, between European nations, and also the danger of prolonged strife in China. The present contest shows that no act would be so likely to arouse all China to war with the Western nations as the attempt to seize upon her domain and reduce her to subjection.
For the atrocious acts committed at Peking there must be a day of reckoning, not in the spirit of vengeance, let us hope, but as a safeguard for the future. Some means must be found for the absolute security and independence of the legations at the capital. Possibly the European Powers may favor some such policy of supervision and partial control as they exercise over Turkey under the Treaty of Paris of 1856 and the Treaty of Berlin of 1878, though it must be admitted by them that the success of the so-called Concert of the Great Powers in respect to the Ottoman Empire has not been very brilliant. Our traditional policy would hold us aloof from any such undertaking.
If the young Emperor, who has shown himself friendly to liberal ideas, can be freed from the control of the Empress Dowager and can be surrounded and guided by men as able and sensible as the Viceroy at Nanking appears to be, and if the European Powers will not be too greedy in appropriating Chinese territory, possibly some solution of the present difficult problems can be found, compatible with the integrity and perpetuity of the empire and with the legitimate rights of foreigners resident on its soil. This should be, and probably is, the desire of the American people.
James B. Angell.