China eText - Chapter VIII - The Decline Op The Mings

Chapter VIII - The Decline Op The Mings

The reign of Wanleh covers the long and important epoch from 1573 to 1620, during which period occurred some very remarkable events in the history of the country, including the first movements of the Manchus with a view to the conquest of the empire. The young prince was only six when he was placed on the throne, but he soon showed that he had been well-trained to play the part of ruler. The best indication of the prosperity of the realm is furnished by the revenue, which steadily increased until it reached the great total, excluding the grain receipts, of seventy-five millions of our money. But a large revenue becomes of diminished value unless it is associated with sound finance. The public expenditure showed a steady increase; the emperor and his advisers were incapable of checking the outlay, and extravagance, combined with improvidence, soon depleted the exchequer. Internal troubles occurred to further embarrass the executive, and the resources of the state were severely strained in coping with more than one serious rebellion, among which the most formidable was the mutiny of a mercenary force under the command of a Turk officer named Popai, who imagined that he was unjustly treated, and that the time was favorable to found an administration of his own. His early successes encouraged him to believe that he would succeed in his object; but when he found that all the disposable forces of the empire were sent against him, he abandoned the field, and shut himself up in the fortress at Ninghia, where he hoped to hold out indefinitely. For many months he succeeded in baffling the attacks of Wanleh's general, and the siege might even have had to be raised if the latter had not conceived the idea of diverting the course of the river Hoangho, so that it might bear upon the walls of the fortress. Popai was unable to resist this form of attack, and when the Chinese stormers made their way through the breach thus caused, he attempted to commit suicide by setting fire to his residence. This satisfaction was denied him, for a Chinese officer dragged him from the flames, slew him, and sent his head to the general Li Jusong, who conducted the siege, and of whom we shall hear a great deal more.

The gratification caused by the overthrow of Popai had scarcely abated when the attention of the Chinese government was drawn away from domestic enemies to a foreign assailant who threatened the most serious danger to China. Reference was made in the last chapter to the relations between the Chinese and the Japanese, and to the aggressions of the latter, increased, no doubt, by Chinese chicane and their own naval superiority and confidence. But nothing serious might have come out of these unneighborly relations if they had not furnished an ambitious ruler with the opportunity of embarking on an enterprise which promised to increase his empire and his glory. The old Japanese ruling family was descended, as already described, from a Chinese exile; but the hero of the sixteenth century could claim no relationship with the royal house, and owed none of his success to the accident of a noble birth. Fashiba, called by some English writers Hideyoshi; by the Chinese Pingsiuki; and by the Japanese, on his elevation to the dignity of Tycoon, Taiko Sama, was originally a slave; and it is said that he first attracted attention by refusing to make the prescribed obeisance to one of the daimios or lords. He was on the point of receiving condign punishment, when he pleaded his case with such ingenuity and courage that the daimio not only forgave him his offense, but gave him a post in his service. Having thus obtained honorable employment, Fashiba devoted all his energy and capacity to promoting the interests of his new master, knowing well that his position and opportunities must increase equally with them. In a short time he made his lord the most powerful daimio in the land, and on his death he stepped, naturally enough, into the position and power of his chief. How long he would have maintained himself thus in ordinary times may be matter of opinion, but he resolved to give stability to his position and a greater luster to his name by undertaking an enterprise which should be popular with the people and profitable to the state. The Japanese had only attempted raids on the coast, and they had never thought of establishing themselves on the mainland. But Fashiba proposed the conquest of China, and he hoped to effect his purpose through the instrumentality of Corea. With this view he wrote the king of that country the following letter: "I will assemble a mighty host, and, invading the country of the Great Ming, I will fill with hoar-frost from my sword the whole sky over the 400 provinces. Should I carry out this purpose, I hope that Corea will be my vanguard. Let her not fail to do so, for my friendship to your honorable country depends solely on your conduct when I lead my army against China."

Fashiba began with an act of aggression at Corea's expense, by seizing the important harbor of Fushan. Having thus secured a foothold on the mainland and a gateway into the kingdom, Fashiba hastened to invade Corea at the head of a large army. The capital was sacked and the tombs of Lipan's ancestors desecrated, while he himself fled to the Chinese court to implore the assistance of Wanleh. An army was hastily assembled and marched to arrest the progress of the Japanese invader, who had by this reached Pingyang, a town 400 miles north of Fushan. An action was fought outside this town. The advantage rested with the Japanese, who succeeded in destroying a Chinese regiment. After this a lull ensued in the campaign, and both sides brought up fresh forces. Fashiba came over from Japan with further supplies and troops to assist his general, Hingchang, while on the Chinese side, Li Jusong, the captor of Ninghia, was placed at the head of the Chinese army. A second battle was fought in the neighborhood of Pingyang, and after some stubborn fighting the Japanese were driven out of that town.

The second campaign was opened by a brilliant feat on the part of Li Jusong, who succeeded in surprising and destroying the granaries and storehouses constructed by the Japanese, near Seoul. The loss of their stores compelled the Japanese to retire on Fushan, but they did not with such boldness and confidence that the Chinese did not venture to attack them. The ultimate result of the struggle was still doubtful when the sudden death of Fashiba completely altered the complexion of the situation. The Japanese army then withdrew, taking with it a vast amount of booty and the ears of 10,000 Coreans. The Chinese troops also retired, leaving the Corean king at liberty to restore his disputed authority, and his kingdom once more sank into its primitive state of exclusion and semi- darkness.

For the first time in Chinese history the relations between the Middle Kingdom and Europeans became of importance during the reign of Wanleh, which would alone give it a special distinction. The Portuguese led the way for European enterprise in China, and it was very unfortunate that they did so, for it was soon written of them that "the Portuguese have no other design than to come under the name of merchants to spy the country, that they may hereafter fall upon it with fire and sword." As early as the year 1560 they had obtained from the local officials the right to found a settlement and to erect sheds for their goods at a place which is now known as Macao. In a few years it became of so much importance that it was the annual restort of five or six hundred Portuguese merchants; and the Portuguese, by paying a yearly rent of 500 taels, secured the practical monopoly of the trade of the Canton River, which was then and long afterward the only vent for the external trade of China. No doubt the Portuguese had to supplement this nominal rent by judicious bribes to the leading mandarins. Next after the Portuguese came the Spaniards, who, instead of establishing themselves on the mainland, made their headquarters in a group of the Philippine Islands.

The promotion of European interests in China owed little or nothing to the forbearance and moderation of either the Spaniards or Portuguese. They tyrannized over the Chinese subject to their sway, and they employed all their resources in driving away other Europeans from what they chose to consider their special commercial preserves. Thus the Dutch were expelled from the south by the Portuguese and compelled to take refuge in Formosa, while the English and French did not make their appearance, except by occasional visits, until a much later period, although it should be recorded that the English Captain Weddell was the first to discover the mouth of the Canton River, and to make his way up to that great city.

One of the principal troubles of the Emperor Wanleh arose from his having no legitimate heir, and his ministers impressed upon him, for many years, the disadvantage of this situation before he would undertake to select one of his children by the inferior members of the harem as his successor. And then he made what may be termed a divided selection. He proclaimed his eldest son heir-apparent, and declared the next brother to be in the direct order of succession, and conferred on him the title of Prince Fou Wang. The latter was his real favorite, and, encouraged by his father's preference, he formed a party to oust his elder brother and to gain the heritage before it was due. The intrigues in which he engaged long disturbed the court and agitated the mind of the emperor. Supported by his mother, Prince Fou Wang threatened the position and even the life of the heir-apparent, Prince Chu Changlo, but the plot was discovered and Fou Wang's rank would not have saved him from the executioner if it had not been for the special intercession of his proposed victim, Chu Changlo. In the midst of these family troubles, as well as those of the state, the Emperor Wanleh died, after a long reign, in 1620. The last years of his life were rendered unhappy and miserable by the reverses experienced at the hands of the new and formidable opponent who had suddenly appeared upon the northern frontier of the empire.

Some detailed account of the Manchu race and of the progress of their arms before the death of Wanleh will form a fitting prelude to the description of the long wars which resulted in the conquest of China and in the placing of the present ruling family on the Dragon Throne.

The first chief of the Manchu clan was a mythical personage named Aisin Gioro, who flourished in the middle of the fourteenth century, while Hongwou, the founder of the Mings, was employed in the task of driving out the Mongols. Aisin Gioro is said to mean Golden Family Stem, and thus the connection with the Kin dynasty finds recognition at an early stage. His birth is described in mythical terms--it is said that a magpie dropped a red fruit into the lap of a maiden of the Niuche, who straightway ate it and conceived a son. The skeptical have interpreted this as meaning that Aisin Gioro was a runaway Mongol, who was granted shelter by the Niuche of Hootooala. At all events he became lord of the valley, and five generations later, in the reign of Wanleh, his descendant, Huen, was head of the Manchus. His grandson, the great Noorhachu, was born in the year 1559, and his birth was attended by several miraculous circumstances. He is said "to have been a thirteen-months' child, to have had the dragon face and the phenix eye, an enormous chest, large ears, and a voice like the tone of the largest bell."

A chief named Haida was the first to stir up the embers of internecine strife among the Niuche clans. To gratify his own ambition or to avenge some blood feuds, he obtained the assistance of one of the principal Chinese officers on the Leaoutung borders, and thus overran the territory of his neighbors. Encouraged by his first successes, Haida proceeded to attack the chief of Goolo, who was married to a cousin of Noorhachu, and who at once appealed to Hootooala for assistance. The whole Manchu clan marched to his rescue, and it was on this occasion that Noorhachu had his first experience of war on a large scale. The Manchus presented such a bold front that there is every reason to believe that Haida and his Chinese allies would have failed to conquer Goolo by force, but they resorted to fraud, which proved only too successful. Haida succeeded in enticing the old chief Huen and his son, the father of Noorhachu, into a conference, when he murdered them and many of their companions. The momentary success gained by this breach of faith was heavily paid for by the incentive it gave Noorhachu to exact revenge for the brutal and cowardly murder of his father and grandfather. Haida constructed a fortified camp at Toolun, but he did not feel secure there against the open attacks of Noorhachu or the private plots he formed to gain possession of his person. Several times Haida fled from Toolun to Chinese territory, where he hoped to enjoy greater safety, until at last the Chinese became tired of giving him shelter and protecting one who could not support his own pretensions. Then, with strange inconstancy, they delivered him over into the hands of Noorhachu, who straightway killed him, thus carrying out the first portion of his vow to avenge the massacre at Goolo.

Then Noorhachu turned all his attention and devoted all his energy to the realization of the project which Haida had conceived, the union of the Niuche clans; but whereas Haida had looked to Chinese support and patronage for the attainment of his object, Noorhachu resolved to achieve success as an enemy of China and by means of his own Manchu followers. His first measure was to carefully select a site for his capital on a plain well supplied with water, and then to fortify it by surrounding it with three walls. He then drew up simple regulations for the government of his people, and military rules imposing a severe discipline on his small army. The Chinese appear to have treated him with indifference, and they continued to pay him the sums of money and the honorary gifts which had been made to Haida. Several of the Niuche clans, won over by the success and reputation of Noorhachu, voluntarily associated themselves with him, and it was not until the year 1591 that the Manchu chief committed his first act of open aggression by invading the district of Yalookiang. That territory was soon overrun and annexed; but it roused such a fear among the other Niuche chiefs, lest their fate should be the same, that seven of them combined, under Boojai, to overthrow the upstart who aspired to play the part of a dictator. They brought into the field a force of 30,000 men, including, besides their own followers, a considerable contingent from the Mongols; and as Noorhachu's army numbered only 4,000 men, it seemed as if he must certainly be overwhelmed. But, small as was his force, it enjoyed the incalculable advantage of discipline; and seldom has the superiority of trained troops over raw levies been more conspicuously illustrated than by this encounter between warriors of the same race. This battle was fought at Goolo Hill, and resulted in the decisive victory of Noorhachu. Boojai and 4,000 of his men were killed, a large number of his followers were taken prisoners and enrolled in the ranks of the victor, and the spoil included many suits of mail and arms of offense which improved the state of Noorhachu's arsenal. Several of the districts which had been subject to these confederated princes passed into the hands of the conqueror, and he carried his authority northward up the Songari River over tribes who had never recognized any southern authority. These successes paved the way to an attack on Yeho, the principality of Boojai, which was reputed to be the most powerful of all the Niuche states; and on this occasion it vindicated its reputation by repelling the attack of Noorhachu. Its success was not entirely due to its own strength, for the Chinese governor of Leaoutung, roused at last to the danger from Noorhachu, sent money and arms to assist the Yeho people in their defense.

The significance of this repulse was diminished by other successes elsewhere, and Noorhachu devoted his main attention to disciplining the larger force he had acquired by his later conquests, and by raising its efficiency to the high point attained by the army with which he had gained his first triumphs. He also meditated a more daring and important enterprise than any struggle with his kinsfolk; for he came to the conclusion that it was essential to destroy the Chinese power in Leaoutung before he should undertake any further enterprise in Manchuria. His army had now been raised to an effective strength of 40,000 men, and the Manchu bowman, with his formidable bow, and the Manchu man-at-arms, in his cotton mail, proof to the arrow or spear, were as formidable warriors as then existed in the world. Confident in his military power, and thinking, no doubt, that a successful foreign enterprise was the best way to rally and confirm the allegiance of his race, Noorhachu invaded Leaoutung, and published a proclamation against the Chinese, which became known as the Seven Hates. Instead of forwarding this document to the Chinese Court he burned it in the presence of his army, so that Heaven itself might judge the justice of the cause between him and the Chinese.

It was in the year 1618 that Noorhachu invaded Leaoutung, and so surprised were the Chinese at his audacity that they offered little or no resistance. The town of Fooshun was captured and made the headquarters of the Manchu prince. From this place he sent a list of his requirements to the governor of Leaoutung, and it is said that he offered, on the Chinese complying with his terms, to withdraw and desist from hostilities. But the Chinese did not appreciate the power of this new enemy. They treated his grievances with indifference and contempt, and they sent an army to drive him out of Leaoutung. The Chinese troops soon had a taste of the quality of the Manchu army. They were defeated in several encounters, and the best Chinese troops fled before the impetuous charge of the Manchu cavalry. Noorhachu then laid siege to the prefectural town of Tsingho, which he captured after a siege of some weeks, and where he massacred nearly 20,000 of the garrison and townspeople. He would have continued the campaign but that his followers demanded to be led back, stating that they feared for the safety of their homes at the hands of Yeho, still hostile and aggressive in their rear. The conquest of Leaoutung was therefore discontinued for the purpose of closing accounts with the last of the Niuche principalities; but enough had been accomplished to whet the appetite of the Manchu leader for more, and to show him how easy it was to vanquish the Chinese. On his return to his capital, Hingking, he prepared to invade Yeho, but his plans were undoubtedly delayed by the necessity of resting his troops and of allowing many of them to return to their homes. This delay, no doubt, induced the Chinese to make a supreme effort to avert the overthrow of Yeho, who had proved so useful an ally, and accordingly the governor of Leaoutung advanced with 100,000 men into Manchuria. He sacrificed the advantage of superior numbers by dividing his army into four divisions, with very inadequate means of inter- communication. Noorhachu could only bring 60,000 men into the field; but, apart from their high training, they represented a compact body subject to the direction of Noorhachu alone. The Manchu leader at once perceived the faulty disposition of the Chinese army, and he resolved to attack and overwhelm each corps in detail before it could receive aid from the others. The strongest Chinese corps was that operating most to the west, and marching from Fooshun on Hingking; and Noorhachu perceived that if he could overthrow it the flank of the rest of the Chinese army would be exposed, and its line of retreat imperiled. The Chinese general in command of this corps was impetuous and anxious to distinguish himself. His courage might on another occasion have helped his country, but under the circumstances his very ardor served the purpose of Noorhachu. Tousong, such was his name, marched more rapidly than any of his comrades, and reached the Hwunho--the Tiber of the Manchus--behind which Noorhachu had, at a little distance, drawn up his army. Without pausing to reconnoiter, or to discover with what force he had to deal, Tousong threw himself across the river, and intrenched himself on Sarhoo Hill. His overconfidence was so extreme and fatuous that he weakened his army by sending a detachment to lay siege to the town of Jiefan. The Manchus had, however, well provided for the defense of that place, and while the Chinese detachment sent against it was being destroyed, Noorhachu attacked Tousong in his position on Sarhoo Hill with the whole of his army. The Chinese were overwhelmed, Tousong was slain, and the majority of those who escaped the fray perished in the waters of the Hwunho, beneath the arrows and javelins of the pursuing Manchus.

Then Noorhachu hastened to attack the second of the Chinese divisions under a capable officer named Malin, who selected a strong position with great care, and wished to stand on the defensive. His wings rested on two hills which he fortified, and he strengthened his center in the intervening valley with a triple line of wagons. If he had only remained in this position he might have succeeded in keeping Noorhachu at bay until he could have been joined by the two remaining Chinese corps; but the impetuosity of his troops, or it may have been the artifice of the Manchu leader, drew him from his intrenchments. At first the Chinese seemed to have the best of the battle, but in a short time victory turned to the side of the Manchus, and Malin fled with the relics of his force back to Chinese territory. After these two successes Noorhachu proceeded to attack the third Chinese corps under Liuyen, who had acquired a cheap reputation by his success over the Miaotze. He had no better fortune than any of his colleagues, and his signal defeat completed the Manchu triumph over the Chinese army of invasion. The defeat of Liuyen was effected by a stratagem as much as by superior force. Noorhachu dressed some of his troops in the Chinese uniforms he had captured, and sent them among the Chinese, who received them as comrades until they discovered their mistake in the crisis of the battle. During this campaign it was computed that the total losses of the Chinese amounted to 310 general officers and 45,000 private soldiers. Among other immediate results of this success were the return of 20,000 Yeho troops to their homes and the defection of 5,000 Coreans, who joined Noorhachu. Like all great commanders, Noorhachu gave his enemies no time to recover from their misfortunes. He pursued Malin to Kaiyuen, which he captured, with so many prisoners that it took three days to count them. He invaded Yeho, which recognized his authority without a blow, and gave him an additional 30,000 fighting men. All the Niuche clans thus became united under his banner, and adopted the name of Manchu. He had succeeded in the great object of his life, the union of his race, and he had well avenged the death of his father and grandfather; but his ambition was not satisfied with this success. It had rather grown with the widening horizon opened by the discomfiture of the Chinese, and with the sense of military superiority.

Amid these national disasters the long reign of Wanleh closed in the year 1620. That unhappy monarch lived long enough to see the establishment on his northern borders of the power which was to destroy his dynasty. The very last act of his reign was, whether by accident or good judgment, the most calculated to prevent the Manchus overrunning the State, and that was the selection of a capable general in the person of Hiung Tingbi. With the death of Wanleh the decadence of Ming power became clearly marked, and the only question that remained was whether it could be arrested before it resulted in absolute ruin.