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China eText - Chapter XII - A Short Reign And The Beginning Of A Long One

Chapter XII - A Short Reign And The Beginning Of A Long One

Immediately after the death of Kanghi, his fourth son, who had long been designated as his heir, was proclaimed emperor, under the style of Yung Ching, which name means "the indissoluble concord or stable peace." The late emperor had always favored this prince, and in his will he publicly proclaimed that he bore much resemblance to himself, and that he was a man of rare and precious character. His first acts indicated considerable vigor and decision of mind. In the edict announcing the death of his father and his own accession he said that on the advice of his ministers he had entered upon the discharge of his imperial duties, without giving up precious time to the indulgence of his natural grief, which would be gratifying to his feelings, but injurious to the public interests. As Yung Ching was of the mature age of forty-five, and as he had enjoyed the confidence of his predecessor, he was fully qualified to carry on the administration. He declared that his main purpose was to continue his father's work, and that he would tread as closely as he could in Kanghi's footsteps. While Yung Ching took these prompt steps to secure himself on the throne, some of his brothers assumed an attitude of menacing hostility toward him, and all his energy and vigilance were required to counteract their designs. A very little time was needed, however, to show that Kanghi had selected his worthiest son as his successor, and that China would have no reason to fear under Yung Ching the loss of any of the benefits conferred on the nation by Kanghi. His fine presence, and frank, open manner, secured for him the sympathy and applause of the public, and in a very short time he also gained their respect and admiration by his wisdom and justice.

The most important and formidable of his brothers was the fourteenth son of Kanghi, by the same mother, however, as that of Yung Ching. He and his son Poki had been regarded with no inconsiderable favor by Kanghi, and at one time it was thought that he would have chosen them as his successors; but these expectations were disappointed. He was sent instead to hold the chief command against the Eleuths on the western borders. Young Ching determined to remove him from this post, in which he might have opportunities of asserting his independence, and for a moment it seemed as if he might disobey. But more prudent counsels prevailed, and he returned to Pekin, where he was placed in honorable confinement, and retained there during the whole of Yung Ching's reign. He and his son owed their release thirteen years later to the greater clemency or self-confidence of Keen Lung. Another brother, named Sessaka, also fell under suspicion, and he was arrested and his estates confiscated. He was then so far forgiven that a small military command was given him in the provinces. Others of more importance were involved in his affairs. Lessihin, son of Prince Sourniama, an elder brother of Kanghi, was denounced as a sympathizer and supporter of Sessaka. The charge seems to have been based on slender evidence, but it sufficed to cause the banishment of this personage and all his family to Sining. It appears as if they were specially punished for having become Christians, and there is no doubt that their conversion imbittered the emperor's mind against the Christian missionaries and their religion. It enabled him to say, or at least induced him to accept the statement, that the Christians meddled and took a side in the internal politics of the country. Yung Ching saw and seized his opportunity. His measures of repression against the recalcitrant party in his own family culminated in the summary exile of Sourniama and all his descendants down to the fourth generation. Sourniama vainly endeavored to establish his innocence, and he sent three of his sons, laden with chains, to the palace, to protest his innocence and devotion. But they were refused audience, and Sourniama and his family sank into oblivion and wretchedness on the outskirts of the empire.

Having thus settled the difficulties within his own family, Yung Ching next turned his attention to humbling the bold band of foreigners who had established themselves in the capital and throughout the country, as much by their own persistency and indifference to slight as by the acquiescence of the Chinese government, and who, after they had reached some of the highest official posts, continued to preach and propagate their gospel of a supreme power and mercy beyond the control of kings, a gospel which was simply destructive of the paternal and sacred claims on which a Chinese emperor based his authority as superior to all earthly interference, and as transmitted to him direct from Heaven, The official classes confirmed the emperor's suspicions, and encouraged him to proceed to extreme lengths. On all sides offenses were freely laid at the doors of the missionaries. It was said of them that "their doctrine sows trouble among the people, and makes them doubt the goodness of our laws." In the province of Fuhkien their eighteen churches were closed, and the priests were summarily ordered to return to Macao. At Pekin itself the Jesuits lost all their influence. Those who had been well-disposed toward them were either banished or cowed into silence. The emperor turned his back on them and refused to see them, and they could only wait with their usual fortitude until the period of imperial displeasure had passed over. When they endeavored to enlist in their support the sympathy and influence of the emperor's brother--the thirteenth prince--who in Kanghi's time had been considered their friend, they met with a rebuff not unnatural or unreasonable when the mishaps to his relations for their Christian proclivities are borne in mind. This prince said, in words which have often been repeated since by Chinese ministers and political writers, "What would you say if our people were to go to Europe and wished to change there the laws and customs established by your ancient sages? The emperor, my brother, wishes to put an end to all this in an effectual manner. I have seen the accusation of the Tsongtou of Fuhkien. It is undoubtedly strong, and your disputes about our customs have greatly injured you. What would you say if we were to transport ourselves to Europe and to act there as you have done here? Would you stand it for a moment? In the course of time I shall master this business, but I declare to you that China will want for nothing when you cease to live in it, and that your absence will not cause it any loss. Here nobody is retained by force, and nobody also will be suffered to break the laws or to make light of our customs."

The influence of Yung Ching on the development of the important foreign question arrested the ambition and sanguine flight of the imagination of the Roman Catholic missionaries, who, rendered overconfident by their success under Kanghi, believed that they held the future of China in their own hands, and that persistency alone was needed to secure the adhesion of that country to the Christian Church. Yung Ching dispelled these illusions, and so far as they were illusions, which nearly two subsequent centuries have proved them to be, it was well that they should be so dispelled. He asserted himself in very unequivocal terms as an emperor of China, and as resolute in maintaining his sovereign position outside the control of any religious potentate or creed. The progress of the Christian religion of the Roman Catholic Church in China was quite incompatible with the supposed celestial origin of the emperor, who was alleged to receive his authority direct from Heaven. It is not surprising that Yung Ching, at the earliest possible moment, decided to blight these hopes, and to assert the natural and inherited prerogative of a Chinese emperor. There is no room to doubt that the Catholic priests had drawn a too hasty and too favorable deduction from the favor of Kanghi. They confounded their practical utility with the intrinsic merit and persuasive force of Christianity. An enlightened ruler had recognized the former, but a skeptical people showed themselves singularly obdurate to the latter. The persecution of the Christians, of which the letters from the missionaries at Pekin at this time are so full, did not go beyond the placing of some restraint on the preaching of their religion. No wholesale executions or sweeping decrees passed against their persons attended its course or marked its development. Yung Ching simply showed by his conduct that they must count no longer on the favor of the emperor in the carrying out of their designs. The difficulties inherent in the task they had undertaken stood for the first time fully revealed, and having been denounced as a source of possible danger to the stability of the empire, they became an object of suspicion even to those who had sympathized with them personally, if not with their creed.

The early years of the reign of Yung Ching were marked by extraordinary public misfortunes. The flooding of the Hoangho entailed a famine, which spread such desolation throughout the northern provinces that it is affirmed, on credible authority, that 40,000 persons were fed at the state expense in Pekin alone for a period of four months. The taxes in some of the most important cities and wealthiest districts had to be greatly reduced, and the resources of the exchequer were severely strained. But the loss and suffering caused by the famine were speedily cast into the shade by a terrible and sudden visitation which carried desolation and destruction throughout the whole of the metropolitan province of Pechihli. The northern districts of China have for many centuries been liable to the frequent recurrence of earthquakes on a terribly vast and disastrous scale, but none of them equaled in its terrific proportions that of the year 1730. It came without warning, but the shocks continued for ten days. Over 100,000 persons were overwhelmed in a moment at Pekin, the suburbs were laid in ruins, the imperial palace was destroyed, the summer residence at Yuen Ming Yuen, on which Yung Ching had lavished his taste and his treasure, suffered in scarcely a less degree. The emperor and the inhabitants fled from the city, and took shelter without the walls, where they encamped. The loss was incalculable, and it has been stated that Yung Ching expended seventy-five million dollars in repairing the damage and allaying the public misfortune. Notwithstanding these national calamities the population increased, and in some provinces threatened to outgrow the production of rice. Various devices were resorted to to check the growth of the population; but they were all of a simple and harmless character, such as the issue of rewards to widows who did not marry again and to bachelors who preserved their state.

The military events of Yung Ching's reign were confined to the side of Central Asia, where Tse Wang Rabdan emulated with more than ordinary success the example of his predecessors, and where he transmitted his power and authority to his son, Galdan Chereng, on his death in 1727. He established his sovereignty over the whole of Kashgaria, which he ruled through a prince named Daniel, and he established relations with the Russians, which at one time promised to attain a cordial character, but which were suddenly converted into hostility by the Russian belief that the Upper Urtish lay in a gold region which they resolved to conquer. Instead of an ally they then found in Tse Wang Rabdan the successful defender of that region. But the wars of Central Asia had no interest for Yung Ching. He was one of the Chinese rulers who thought that he should regard these matters as outside his concern, and the experience of Kanghi's wars had divided Chinese statesmen into two clearly-defined parties: those who held that China should conquer Central Asia up to the Pamir, and those who thought that the Great Wall was the best practical limit for the exercise of Chinese authority. Yung Ching belonged to the latter school, and, instead of dispatching fresh armies into the Gobi region to complete the triumph of his father, he withdrew those that were there, and publicly proclaimed that the aggressive chiefs and turbulent tribes of that region might fight out their own quarrels, and indulge their own petty ambitions as best they felt disposed. The success of this policy would have been incontestable if it had been reflected in the conduct of the Central Asian princelets, who, however, seemed to see in the moderation and inaction of the Chinese ruler only a fresh incentive to aggression and turbulence. Yung Ching himself died too soon to appreciate the shortcomings of his own policy.

In the midst of his labors as a beneficent ruler the life of Yung Ching was cut short. On October 7, 1735, he gave audience to the high officials of his court in accordance with his usual custom; but feeling indisposed he was compelled to break off the interview in a sudden manner. His indisposition at once assumed a grave form, and in a few hours he had ceased to live. The loss of this emperor does not seem to have caused any profound or widespread sentiment of grief among the masses, although the more intelligent recognized in him one of those wise and prudent rulers whose tenure of power makes their people's happiness.

Yung Ching died so suddenly that he had not nominated his heir. He left three sons, and, after brief consideration, the eldest of these--to whom was given the name of Keen Lung--was placed upon the throne. The choice was justified by the result, although the chroniclers declare that it came as a surprise to the recipient of the honor, as he had passed his life in the pursuit of literary studies rather than in practical administrative work. His skill and proficiency in the field of letters had already been proved before his father's death; but of public affairs and the government of a vast empire he knew little or nothing. He was a student of books rather than of men, and he had to undergo a preliminary course of training in the art of government before he felt himself capable of assuming the reigns of power. Moreover, Keen Lung, although the eldest son, was not the offspring of the empress, and the custom of succession in the imperial family was too uncertain to allow any one in his position to feel absolute confidence as to his claims securing the recognition they might seem to warrant. His admission of his being unequal to the duties of his lofty position, notwithstanding that he was twenty-five years of age, was thoroughly characteristic of the man, and augured well for the future of his reign. He appointed four regents, whose special task was to show him how to rule; but in the edict delegating his authority to them he expressly limited its application to the period of mourning, covering a space of four years; and as a measure of precaution against any undue ambition he made the office terminable at his discretion.

Keen Lung began his reign with acts of clemency, which seldom fail to add a special luster to a sovereign's assumption of power. His father had punished with rigor some of the first princes of the court simply because they were his relations, and there is some ground for thinking that he had put forward antipathy to the foreign heresy of the Christians as a cloak to conceal his private animosities and personal apprehensions. Keen Lung at once resolved to reverse the acts of his predecessor, and to offer such reparation as he could to those who had suffered for no sufficient offense. The sons of Kanghi and their children who had fallen under the suspicion of Yung Ching were released from their confinement, and restored to their rank and privileges. They showed their gratitude to their benefactor by sustained loyalty and practical service that contributed to the splendor of his long reign. The impression thus produced on the public mind was also most favorable, and already the people were beginning to declare that they had found a worthy successor to the great Kanghi.

There is nothing surprising to learn that in consequence of the pardon and restitution of the men who had nominally suffered for their Christian proclivities the foreign missionaries began to hope and to agitate for an improvement in their lot and condition. They somewhat hastily assumed that the evil days of persecution wore over, and that Keen Lung would accord them the same honorable positions as they had enjoyed under his grandfather, Kanghi. These expectations were destined to a rude disappointment, as the party hostile to the Christians remained as strong as ever at court, and the regents were not less prejudiced against them than the ministers of Yung Ching had been. The emperor's own opinion does not appear to have been very strong one way or the other, but it seems probable that he was slightly prejudiced against the foreigners. He certainly assented to an order prohibiting the practice of Christianity by any of his subjects, and ordaining the punishment of those who should obstinately adhere to it. At the same time the foreign missionaries were ordered to confine their labors to the secular functions in which they were useful, and to give up all attempts to propagate their creed. Still some slight abatement in practice was procured of these rigid measures through the mediation of the painter Castiglione, who, while taking a portrait of the emperor, pleaded, and not ineffectually, the cause of his countrymen. There was one distinct persecution on a large scale in the province of Fuhkien, where several Spanish missionaries were tortured, their chief native supporters strangled, and Keen Lung himself sent the order to execute the missionaries in retaliation for the massacre of Chinese subjects by the Spaniards in the Philippines. After he had been on the throne fifteen years, Keen Lung began to unbend toward the foreigners, and to avail himself of their services in the same manner as his grandfather had done. The artists Castiglione and Attiret were constantly employed in the palace, painting his portrait and other pictures. Keen Lung is said to have been so pleased with that drawn by Attiret that he wished to make him a mandarin. The French in particular strove to amuse the great monarch, and to enable him to wile away his leisure with ingeniously constructed automatons worked by clockwork machinery. He also learned from them much about the politics and material condition of Europe, and it is not surprising that he became imbued with the idea that France was the greatest and most powerful state in that continent. Almost insensibly Keen Lung entertained a more favorable opinion of the foreigners, and extended to them his protection with other privileges that had long been withheld. But this policy was attributable to practical considerations and not to religious belief.

Very little detailed information is obtainable about the inner working of the government and the annual course of events, owing to the practice of not giving the official history of the dynasty publicity until after it has ceased to reign; so all that can be said with any confidence of the first fifteen years of Keen Lung's reign, is that they were marked by great internal prosperity arising from the tranquillity of the realm and the content of the people. Any misfortunes that befell the realm were of personal importance to the sovereign rather than of national significance, although some of the foreign priests affected to see in them the retribution of Providence for the apathy and tyranny of the Chinese rulers. In 1751 Keen Lung lost both his principal wife, the empress, and his eldest son. His disagreements with his ministers also proved many and serious, and the letters from Pekin note, with more than a gleam of satisfaction, that those who were most prominent as Anti-Christians suffered most heavily. Keen Lung suffered from physical weakness, and a susceptibility to bodily ailments, that detracted during the first few years of his reign from his capacity to discharge all the duties of his position, and more than their usual share of power consequently fell into the hands of the great tribunals of the state. When Keen Lung resolutely devoted himself to the task of supervising the acts of the official world the evils became less perceptible, and gradually the provincial governors found it to be their best and wisest course to obey and faithfully execute the behests of their sovereign. For a brief space Keen Lung seemed likely to prove more indifferent to the duties of his rank than either of his predecessors; but after a few years' practice he hastened to devote himself to his work with an energy which neither Kanghi nor Yung Ching had surpassed.

Keen Lung seems to have passed his time between his palace at Pekin and his hunting-box at Jehol, a small town beyond the Wall. The latter, perhaps, was his favorite residence, because he enjoyed the quiet of the country, and the purer and more invigorating air of the northern region agreed with his constitution. Here he varied the monotony of rural pursuits--for he never became as keen a hunter as Kanghi--with grand ceremonies which he employed the foreigners in painting. It was at Jehol that he planned most of his military campaigns, and those conquests which carried his banners to the Pamir and the Himalaya. If the earlier period of Keen Lung's reign was tranquil and undisturbed by war, the last forty years made up for it by their sustained military excitement and achievement. As soon as Keen Lung grasped the situation and found that the administration of the country was working in perfect order, he resolved to attain a complete settlement of the questions pending in Central Asia, which his father had shirked. Up to this time Keen Lung had been generally set down as a literary student, as a man more of thought than of action. But his reading had taught him one thing, and that was that the danger to China from the side of Central Asia was one that went back to remote ages, that it had never been allayed, save for brief intervals, and then only by establishing Chinese authority on either side of the Tian Shan. His studies showed Keen Lung what ought to be done, and the aggressions of his neighbors soon gave him the opportunity of carrying out the policy that he felt to be the best.