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China eText - Chapter XIV - The Commencement Of European Intercourse

Chapter XIV - The Commencement Of European Intercourse

Keen Lung was the first Manchu prince to receive formal embassies from the sovereigns of Europe. Among these the Portuguese were the first in point of time, although they never attained the advantage derivable from that priority; and indeed the important period of their connection with China may be said to have terminated before the Manchus had established their authority. Still, as the tenants of Macao, the oldest European settlement in China for more than three centuries and a half, their connection with the Chinese government must always possess some features of interest and originality. The Portuguese paid their rent to and carried on all their business with the mandarins at Canton, who lost no opportunity of squeezing large sums out of the foreigners, as they were absolutely in their power. The Portuguese could only pay with good or bad grace the bribes and extra duty demanded as the price of their being allowed to trade at all. The power of China seemed so overwhelming that they never attempted to make any stand against its arbitrary decrees, and the only mode they could think of for getting an alleviation of the hardships inflicted by the Canton authorities was to send costly embassies to the Chinese capital. These, however, failed to produce any tangible result. Their gifts were accepted, and their representatives were accorded a more or less gratifying reception; but there was no mitigation of the severity shown by the local mandarins, and, for all practical purposes, the money expended on these missions was as good as thrown away. The Portuguese succeeded in obtaining an improvement in their lot only by combining their naval forces with those of the Chinese in punishing and checking the raids of the pirates, who infested the estuary of the Canton River known as the Bogue. But they never succeeded in emancipating themselves from that position of inferiority in which the Chinese have always striven to keep all foreigners; and if the battle of European enterprise against Chinese exclusiveness had been carried on and fought by the Portuguese it would have resulted in the discomfiture of Western progress and enlightenment.

The Dutch sent an embassy to Pekin in 1795, but it was treated with such contumely that it does not reflect much credit on those who sent it. The Spaniards never held any relations with the central government, all their business being conducted with the Viceroy of Fuhkien; and the successive massacres of Manila completely excluded them from any good understanding with the Pekin government. With Russia, China's relations have always been different from those with the other powers, and this is explained partly by the fact of neighborship, and partly by Russia seeking only her own ends, and not advantages for the benefit of every other foreign nation.

With France, the relations of China, owing to a great extent to the efforts and influence of the missionaries, had always been marked with considerable sympathy and even cordiality. The French monarchs had from time to time turned their attention to promoting trade with China and the Far East. Henry the Fourth sanctioned a scheme with this object, but it came to nothing; and Colbert only succeeded in obtaining the right for his countrymen to land their goods at Whampoa, the river port of Canton. But French commerce never flourished in China, and a bold but somewhat Quixotic attempt to establish a trade between that country and the French settlements on the Mississippi failed to achieve anything practical. But what the French were unable to attain in the domain of commerce they succeeded in accomplishing in the region of literature. They were the first to devote themselves to the study of the Chinese literature and language, and what we know of the history of China down to the last century is exclusively due to their laborious research and painstaking translations of Chinese histories and annals. They made China known to the polite as well as the political world of Europe. Keen Lung himself appreciated and was flattered by these efforts. His poetry, notably his odes on "Tea," and the "Eulogy of Moukden" as the cradle of his race, was translated by Pere Amiot, and attracted the attention of Voltaire, who addressed to the emperor an epistolary poem on the requirements and difficulties of Chinese versification. The French thus rendered a material service in making China better known to Europe and Europe better known in China, which, although it may be hard to gauge precisely, entitles them still to rank among those who have opened up China to Europeans. The history of China, down to the eighteenth century at least, could not have been written but for the labors of the French, of Mailla, Du Halde, Amiot, and many others.

There remains only to summarize the relations with the English, who, early in the seventeenth century, and before the Manchus had established their supremacy, possessed factories at Amoy and on the island of Chusan. But their trade, hampered by official exactions, and also by the jealousy of the Portuguese and Dutch, proved a slow growth; and at Canton, which they soon discovered to be the best and most convenient outlet for the state, they were more hampered than anywhere else, chiefly through the hostile representations of the Portuguese, who bribed the mandarins to exclude all other foreigners. The English merchants, like the Portuguese, believed that the only way to obtain a remedy for their grievances was by approaching the imperial court and obtaining an audience with the emperor; but they were wise in not attempting to send delegates of their own. They saw that if an impression was to be created at Pekin the embassador must come fully accredited by the British government, and not merely as the representative of a body of merchants who were suppliants for commercial privileges. The war with the Goorkhas had made the Chinese authorities acquainted with the fact that the English, who were only humble suitors for trade on the coast, were a great power in India. The knowledge of this fact undoubtedly created a certain amount of curiosity in the mind of Keen Lung, and when he heard that the King of England contemplated sending an embassy to his court he gave every encouragement to the suggestion, and promised it a welcome and honorable reception. Permission was given it to proceed to Pekin, and thus was a commencement made in the long story of diplomatic relations between England and China, which have at length acquired a cordial character. As great importance was attached to this embassy, every care was bestowed on fitting it out in a worthy manner. Colonel Cathcart was selected as the envoy, but died on the eve of his departure, and a successor was found in the person of Lord Macartney, a nobleman of considerable attainments, who had been Governor of Madras two years before. Sir George Staunton, one of the few English sinologues, was appointed secretary, and several interpreters were sought for and obtained, not without difficulty. The presents were many and valuable, chosen with the double object of gratifying the emperor and impressing him with the wealth and magnificence of the English sovereign. In September, 1792--the same month that witnessed the overthrow of the Goorkhas at Nayakot--the embassy sailed from Portsmouth, but it did not reach the Peiho, on which Pekin is inaccurately said to stand, until the following August.

An honorable and exceedingly gratifying reception awaited it. The embassador and his suite, on landing from the man-of-war, were conducted with all ceremony and courtesy up the Peiho to Tientsin, where they received what was called the unusual honor of a military salute. Visits were exchanged with the Viceroy of Pechihli and some of the other high officials, and news came down from Pekin that "the emperor had shown some marks of great satisfaction at the news of the arrival of the English embassador." Keen Lung happened to be residing at his summer palace at Jehol beyond the Wall, but he sent peremptory instructions that there was to be no delay in sending the English up to Pekin. Up to this point all had gone well, but the anti-foreign party began to raise obstructions, and, headed by Sund Fo, the conqueror of the Goorkhas, to advise the emperor not to receive the embassador, and to reject all his propositions. Whether to strengthen his case, or because he believed it to be the fact, Sund Fo declared that the English had helped "the Goorkha robbers," and that he had found among them "men with hats," i.e., Europeans, as well as "men with turbans." As Sund Fo was the hero of the day, and also the viceroy of the Canton province, his views carried great weight, and they were also of unfavorable omen for the future of foreign relations. But for this occasion the inquisitiveness of the aged emperor prevailed over the views of the majority in his council and also over popular prejudice. When the embassy had been detained some time at Pekin, and after it looked as if a period of vexatious delay was to herald the discomfiture of the mission, such positive orders were sent by Keen Lung for the embassy to proceed to Jehol that no one dared to disobey him. Lord Macartney proceeded to Jehol with his suite and a Chinese guard of honor, and he accomplished the journey, about one hundred miles, in an English carriage. The details of the journey and reception are given in Sir George Staunton's excellent narrative; but here it may be said that the emperor twice received the British embassador in personal audience in a tent specially erected for the ceremony in the gardens of the palace. The embassy then returned to Pekin, and, as the Gulf of Pechihli was frozen, it was escorted by the land route to Canton. On this journey Lord Macartney and his party suffered considerable inconvenience and annoyance from the spite and animosity of the Chinese inferior officials; but nothing serious occurred to mar what was on the whole a successful mission. Keen Lung is said to have wished to go further, but his official utterance was limited to the reciprocation of "the friendly sentiments of His Britannic Majesty." His advanced age and his abdication already contemplated left him neither the inclination nor the power to go very closely into the question of the policy of cultivating closer relations with the foreign people who asserted their supremacy on the sea and who had already subjugated one great Asiatic empire. But it may at least be said that he did nothing to make the ultimate solution of the question more difficult, and his flattering reception of Lord Macartney's embassy was an important and encouraging a precedent for English diplomacy with China.

The events of internal interest in the history of the country during the last twenty years of this reign call for some, brief notice, although they relate to comparatively few matters that can be disentangled from the court chronicles and official gazettes of the period. The great floods of the Hoangho and the destruction caused thereby had been a national calamity from the earliest period. Keen Lung, filled with the desire to crown his reign by overcoming it, intrusted the task of dealing with this difficulty to Count Akoui, whose laurels over the Miaotze had raised him to the highest position in public popularity and his sovereign's confidence. Keen Lung issued his personal instructions on the subject in unequivocal language. He said in his edict, "My intention is that this work should be unceasingly carried on, in order to secure for the people a solid advantage both for the present and in the time to come. Share my views, and in order to accomplish them, forget nothing in the carrying out of your project, which I regard as my own, since I entirely approve of it, and the idea which originated it was mine. For the rest, it is at my own charge, and not at the cost of the province, that I wish all this to be done. Let expenses not be stinted. I take upon myself the consequences, whatever they may be." Akoui threw himself into his great task with energy, and it is said that he succeeded in no small degree in controlling the waters and restricting their ravages. We are ignorant of the details of his work, but it may certainly be said that the Hoangho has done less damage since Akoui carried out his scheme than it had effected before. The question is still unsolved, and probably there is no undertaking in which China would benefit more from the engineering science of Europe than this, if the Chinese government were to seriously devote its attention to a matter that affects many millions of people and some of the most important provinces of the empire.

A great famine about the same period is chiefly remarkable for the persecution it entailed on the Christian missionaries and those among the Chinese themselves professing the foreign religion. The cause of this scarcity was mainly due to the extraordinary growth of the population, which had certainly doubled in fifty years, and which, according to the official censuses, had risen from sixty millions in 1735 to three hundred millions in 1792. Of course the larger part of this increase was due to the expansion of the empire and the consolidation of the Manchu authority. So great was the national suffering that the gratuitous distribution of grain and other supplies at the cost of the state provided but a very partial remedy for the evil, which was aggravated by the peculation of the mandarins, and the evidence of the few European witnesses shows that the horrors of this famine have seldom been surpassed. The famine was laid to the charge of the Christians, and a commission of mandarins drew up a formal indictment of Christianity, which has stood its ground ever since as the text of the argument of the anti-foreign school. It read as follows: "We have examined into the European religion (or the doctrine) of the Lord of Heaven, and although it ought not to be compared with other different sects, which are absolutely wicked, yet, and that is what we lay to its blame, it has had the audacity to introduce itself, to promulgate itself, and to establish itself in secret. No permission has ever been given to the people of this country to embrace it. Nay, the laws have absolutely long forbidden its adoption. And now all these criminals have had the boldness to come, all of a sudden, into our kingdom, to establish their bishops and priests in order to seduce the people! This is why it is necessary to extinguish this religion by degrees and to prevent its multiplying its votaries." The fury of the Chinese, fortunately, soon exhausted itself; and although many Europeans were injured none lost their lives, but several thousand native converts were branded on the face and sent to colonize the Ili valley.

While Lord Macartney was at Pekin it was known that the emperor contemplated abdicating when he had completed the sixtieth year of his reign--the cycle of Chinese chronology--because he did not desire his reign to be of greater length than that of his illustrious grandfather, Kanghi. This date was reached in 1796, when on New Year's day (6th of February) of the Chinese calendar, he publicly abdicated, and assigned the imperial functions to his son, Kiaking. He survived this event three years, and during that period he exercised, like Charles the Fifth of Germany, a controlling influence over his son's administration; and he endeavored to inculcate in him the right principles of sound government. But in China, where those principles have been expressed in the noblest language, their practical application is difficult, because the official classes are underpaid and because the law of self-preservation, as well as custom, compels them to pay themselves at the equal expense of the subjects and the government. Even Keen Lung had been unable to grapple with this difficulty of the Chinese civil service, which is as formidable at the present time as ever. One of the ablest and most honest of Keen Lung's ministers, when questioned on the subject, said that there was no remedy. "It is impossible, the emperor himself cannot do it, the evil is too widespread. He will, no doubt, send to the scene of these disorders mandarins, clothed with all his authority, but they will only commit still greater exactions, and the inferior mandarins, in order to be left undisturbed, will offer them presents. The emperor will be told that all is well, while everything is really wrong, and while the poor people are being oppressed." And so the vicious circle has gone on to the present day, with serious injury to the state and the people. When Keen Lung had the chance of bringing matters under his own personal control he did not hesitate to exercise his right and power, and all capital punishments were carried out at the capital only after he had examined into each case. It is declared that he always tempered justice with mercy, and that none but the worst offenders suffered death. Transportation to Ili, which he wished to develop, was his favorite form of punishment.

To the end of his life Keen Lung retained the active habits which had characterized his youth. Much of his official work was carried on at an early hour of the morning, and it surprised many Europeans to find the aged ruler so keen and eager for business at these early conferences. His vigor was attributed by competent observers to the active life and physical exercises common among the Tartars. It will be proper to give a description of the personal appearance of this great prince. A missionary thus described him: "He is tall and well built. He has a very gracious countenance, but capable at the same time of inspiring respect. If in regard to his subjects he employs a great severity, I believe it is less from the promptings of his character than from the necessity which would otherwise not render him capable of keeping within the bounds or dependence and duty two empires so vast as China and Tartary. Therefore the greatest tremble in his presence. On all the occasions when he has done me the honor to address me it has been with a gracious air that inspired me with the courage to appeal to him in behalf of our religion.... He is a truly great prince, doing and seeing everything for himself." Keen Lung survived his abdication about three years, dying on the 8th of February, 1799--which also happened to be the Chinese New Year's day.

With the death of Keen Lung the vigor of China reached a term, and just as the progress had been consistent and rapid during the space of 150 years, so now will its downward course be not less marked or swift, until, in the very hour of apparent dissolution, the empire will find safety in the valor and probity of an English officer, Charles George Gordon, and in the ability and resolution of the empress-regents and their two great soldier- statesmen, Li Hung Chang and Tso Tsung Tang.