China eText - Chapter XV - The Decline Of The Manchus

Chapter XV - The Decline Of The Manchus

The favorable opinion which his father had held of Kiaking does not seem to have been shared by all his ministers. The most prominent of them all, Hokwan, who held to Keen Lung the relation that Wolsey held to Henry the Eighth, soon fell under the displeasure of the new emperor, and was called upon to account for his charge of the finances. The favor and the age of Keen Lung left Hokwan absolutely without control, and the minister turned his opportunities to such account that he amassed a private fortune of eighty million taels, or more than one hundred and twenty-five million dollars. He was indicted for peculation shortly after the death of Keen Lung, and, without friends, he succumbed to the attack of his many enemies incited to attack him by the greed of Kiaking. But the amount of his peculations amply justified his punishment, and Kiaking in signing his death warrant could not be accused of harshness or injustice. The execution of Hokwan restored some of his ill-gotten wealth to the state, and served as a warning to other officials; but as none could hope to enjoy his opportunities, it did not act as a serious deterrent upon the mass of the Chinese civil service. If arraigned, they might have justified their conduct by the example of their sovereign, who, instead of devoting the millions of Hokwan to the necessities of the state, employed them on his own pleasure, and in a lavish palace expenditure.

The Portuguese were the tenants, as has previously been stated, of Macao, for which they paid an annual rent to the Chinese; but the nature of their tenure was not understood in Europe, where Macao was considered a Portuguese possession. During the progress of the great European struggle, the French, as part of one of their latest schemes for regaining their position in the East, conceived the idea of taking possession of Macao; but while they were contemplating the enterprise, an English squadron had accomplished it, and during the year 1802 Macao was garrisoned by an English force. The Treaty of Amiens provided for its restoration to Portugal, and the incident closed, chiefly because the period of occupation was brief, without the Chinese being drawn into the matter, or without the true nature of the Portuguese hold on Macao being explained. The exigencies of war unfortunately compelled the re-occupation of Macao six years later, when the indignation of the Chinese authorities at the violation of their territory fully revealed itself. Peremptory orders were sent to the Canton authorities from Pekin to expel the foreigners at all costs. The government of India was responsible for what was a distinct blunder in our political relations with China. In 1808, when alarm at Napoleon's schemes was at its height, it sent Admiral Drury and a considerable naval force to occupy Macao. The Chinese at once protested, withheld supplies, refused to hold any intercourse with that commander, and threatened the English merchants at Lintin with the complete suspension of the trade. In his letter of rebuke the chief mandarin at Canton declared that, "as long as there remained a single soldier at Macao," he would not allow any trade to be carried on, and threatened to "block up the entrance to Macao, cut off your provisions, and send an army to surround you, when repentance would be too late." The English merchants were in favor of compliance with the Chinese demands, but Admiral Drury held a very exalted opinion of his own power and a corresponding contempt for the Chinese. He declared that, as "there was nothing in his instructions to prevent his going to war with the Emperor of China," he would bring the Canton officials to reason by force. He accordingly assembled all his available forces, and proceeded up the river at the head of a strong squadron of boats with the avowed intention of forcing his way up to the provincial capital. On their side the Chinese made every preparation to defend the passage, and they blocked the navigation of the river with a double line of junks, while the Bogue forts were manned by all the troops of the province. When Admiral Drury came in sight of these defenses, which must have appeared formidable to him, he hesitated, and instead of delivering his attack he sent a letter requesting an interview with the mandarin, again threatening to force his way up to Canton. But the Chinese had by this time taken the measure of the English commander, and they did not even condescend to send him a reply; when Admiral Drury, submitting to their insult, hastily beat a retreat. On several subsequent occasions he renewed his threats, and even sailed up the Bogue, but always retreated without firing a shot. It is not surprising that the Chinese were inflated with pride and confidence by the pusillanimous conduct of the English officer, or that they should erect a pagoda at Canton in honor of the defeat of the English fleet. After these inglorious incidents Admiral Drury evacuated Macao and sailed for India, leaving the English merchants to extricate themselves as well as they could from the embarrassing situation in which his hasty and blundering action had placed them. If the officials at Canton had not been as anxious for their own selfish ends that the trade should go on as the foreign merchants themselves, there is no doubt that the views of the ultra school at Pekin, who wished all intercourse with foreigners interdicted, would have prevailed. But the Hoppo and his associates were the real friends of the foreigner, and opened the back door to foreign commerce at the very moment that they were signing edicts denouncing it as a national evil and misfortune.

The Macartney mission had attracted what may be called the official attention of the British government to the Chinese question, and the East India Company, anxious to acquire fresh privileges to render that trade more valuable, exercised all its influence to sustain that attention. On its representations a costly present was sent to Sung Tajin, one of the ablest and most enlightened of all the Chinese officials who had shown cordiality to Lord Macartney, but the step was ill-advised and had unfortunate consequences. The present, on reaching Pekin, was returned to Canton with a haughty message that a minister of the emperor dare not even see a present from a foreign ruler. The publicity of the act rather than the offer of a present must be deemed the true cause of this unqualified rejection, but the return of the present was not, unfortunately, the worst part of the matter. The Emperor Kiaking sent a letter couched in lofty language to George the Third, declaring that he had taken such British subjects as were in China under his protection, and that there was "no occasion for the exertions of your Majesty's Government." The advice of the Minister Sung, who was suspected of sympathy with the foreigners, was much discredited, and from a position of power and influence he gradually sank into one of obscurity and impotence. This was especially unfortunate at a moment when several foreign powers were endeavoring to obtain a footing at Pekin. The Russian emperor, wishing no doubt to emulate the English, sent, in 1805, an imposing embassy under Count Goloyken to the Chinese capital. The presents were rich and numerous, for the express purpose of impressing the Chinese ruler with the superior wealth and power of Russia over other European states, and great hopes were entertained that Count Goloyken would establish a secure diplomatic base at Pekin. The embassy reached Kalgan on the Great Wall in safety, but there it was detained until reference had been made to the capital. The instructions came back that the Russian envoy would only be received in audience provided he would perform the kotow, or prostration ceremony, and that if he would not promise to do this he was not to be allowed through the Wall. Count Goloyken firmly refused to give this promise, and among other arguments he cited the exemption accorded to Lord Macartney. The Chinese remained firm in their purpose, Count Goloyken was informed that his visit had been prolonged too far, and the most brilliant of all Russian embassies to China had to retrace its steps without accomplishing any of its objects. This was not the only rebuff Russia experienced at this time. The naval officer Krusenstern conceived the idea that it would be possible to attain all the objects of his sovereign, and to open up a new channel for a profitable trade, by establishing communications by sea with Canton, where the Russian flag had never been seen. The Russian government fitted out two ships for him, and he safely arrived at Canton, where he disposed of their cargoes. When it became known at Pekin that a new race of foreigners had presented themselves at Canton, a special edict was issued ordering that "all vessels belonging to any other nation than those which have been in the habit of visiting this port shall on no account whatever be permitted to trade, but merely suffered to remain in port until every circumstance is reported to us and our pleasure made known." Thus in its first attempt to add to its possession of a land trade, via Kiachta and the Mongol steppe, a share in the sea trade with Canton, Russia experienced a rude and discouraging rebuff.

The unsatisfactory state of our relations with the Chinese government, which was brought home to the British authorities by the difficulty our ships of war experienced in obtaining water and other necessary supplies on the China coast, which had generally to be obtained by force, led to the decision that another embassy should be sent to Pekin, for the purpose of effecting a better understanding.

Lord Amherst, who was specially selected for the mission on account of his diplomatic experience, reached the mouth of the Peiho in August, 1816. When the embassy reached Pekin, the Emperor Kiaking's curiosity to see the foreigners overcame his political resolutions, and with the natural resolve of an irresponsible despot to gratify his wish without regard to the convenience of others, he determined to see them at once, and ordered that Lord Amherst and his companions should be brought forthwith into his presence. This sudden decision was most disconcerting to his own ministers, who had practically decided that no audience should be granted unless Lord Amherst performed the kotow, and especially to his brother-in- law Ho Koong Yay, who, at the emperor's repeated wish to see the English representatives, was compelled to abandon his own schemes and to remove all restrictions to the audience. The firmness of Lord Amherst was unexpected and misunderstood. Ho Koong Yay repeated his invitation several times, and even resorted to entreaty; but when the Chinese found that nothing was to be gained they changed their tone, and the infuriated Kiaking ordered that the embassador and his suite should not be allowed to remain at Pekin, and that they should be sent back to the coast at once. Thus ignominiously ended the Amherst mission, which was summarily dismissed, and hurried back to the coast in a highly-inconvenient and inglorious manner. In a letter to the Prince Regent, Kiaking suggested that it would not be necessary for the British government to send another embassy to China. He took some personal satisfaction out of his disappointment by depriving Ho Koong Yay of all his offices, and mulcting him in five years of his pay as an imperial duke. The cause of his disgrace was expressly stated to be the mismanagement of the relations with the English embassador and the suppression of material facts from the emperor's knowledge. Sung Tajin, who had been specially recalled from his governorship in Ili to take part in the reception of the Europeans, and whose sympathy for them was well known, was also disgraced, and did not recover his position until after the death of Kiaking. The failure of the Amherst mission put an end to all schemes for diplomatic intercourse with Pekin until another generation had passed away; but the facts of the case show that its failure was not altogether due to the hostility of the Chinese emperor. No practical results, in all probability, would have followed; but if Lord Amherst had gone somewhat out of his way to humor the Chinese autocrat, there is no doubt that he would have been received in audience without any humiliating conditions.

Long before the Amherst mission reached China evidence had been afforded that there were many elements of disorder in that country, and that a dangerous feeling of dissatisfaction was seething below the surface. The Manchus, even in their moments of greatest confidence, had always distrusted the loyalty of their Chinese subjects, and there is no dispute that one of their chief reasons for pursuing an excluding policy toward Europeans was the fear that they might tamper with the mass of their countrymen. What had been merely a sentiment under the great rulers of the eighteenth century became an absolute conviction when Kiaking found himself the mark of conspirators and assassins. The first of the plots to which he nearly fell a victim occurred at such an early period of his reign that it could not be attributed to popular discontent at his misgovernment. In 1803, only four years after the death of Keen Lung, Kiaking, while passing through the streets of his capital in his chair, carried by coolie bearers, was attacked by a party of conspirators, members of one of the secret societies, and narrowly escaped with his life. His eunuch attendants showed considerable devotion and courage, and in the struggle several were killed; but they succeeded in driving off the would-be assassins. The incident caused great excitement, and much consternation in the imperial palace, where it was noted that out of the crowds in the streets only six persons came forward to help the sovereign in the moment of danger. After this the emperor gave up his practice of visiting the outer city of Pekin, and confined himself to the imperial city, and still more to the Forbidden palace which is situated within it. But even here he could not enjoy the sense of perfect security, for the discovery was made that this attempted assassination was part of an extensive plot with ramifications into the imperial family itself. Inquisitorial inquiries were made, which resulted in the disgrace and punishment of many of the emperor's relatives, and thus engendered an amount of suspicion and a sense of insecurity that retained unabated force as long as Kiaking filled the throne. That there was ample justification for this apprehension the second attempt on the person of the emperor clearly revealed. Whatever dangers the emperor might be exposed to in the streets of Pekin, where the members of the hated and dreaded secret societies had as free access as himself, it was thought that he could feel safe in the interior of the Forbidden city--a palace-fortress within the Tartar quarter garrisoned by a large force, and to which admission was only permitted to a privileged few. Strict as the regulations were at all times, the attempt on Kiaking and the rumors of sedition led undoubtedly to their being enforced with greater rigor, and it seemed incredible for any attempt to be made on the person of the emperor except by the mutiny of his guards or an open rebellion. Yet it was precisely at this moment that an attack was made on the emperor in his own private apartments which nearly proved successful, and which he himself described as an attack under the elbow. In the year 1813 a band of conspirators, some two hundred in number, made their way into the palace, either by forcing one of the gates, or, more probably, by climbing the walls at an unguarded spot, and, overpowering the few guards they met, some of them forced their way into the presence of the emperor. There is not the least doubt that Kiaking would then have fallen but for the unexpected valor of his son Prince Meenning, afterward the Emperor Taoukwang, who, snatching up a gun, shot two of the intruders. This prince had been set down as a harmless, inoffensive student, but his prompt action on this occasion excited general admiration, and Kiaking, grateful for his life, at once proclaimed him his heir.

Toward the close of his reign, and very soon after the departure of Lord Amherst, Kiaking was brought face to face with a very serious conspiracy, or what he thought to be such, among the princes of the Marichu imperial family. By an ordinance passed by Chuntche all the descendants of that prince's father were declared entitled to wear a yellow girdle and to receive a pension from the state; while, with a view to prevent their becoming a danger to the dynasty, they were excluded from civil or military employment, and assigned to a life of idleness. This imperial colony was, and is still, one of the most peculiar and least understood of the departments of the Tartar government; and although it has served its purpose in preventing dynastic squabbles, there must always remain the doubt as to how far the dynasty has been injured by the loss of the services of so many of its members who might have possessed useful capacity. They purchased the right to an easy and unlaborious existence, with free quarters and a small income guaranteed, at the heavy price of exclusion from the public service. No matter how great their ambition or natural capability, they had no prospect of emancipating themselves from the dull sphere of inaction to which custom relegated them. Toward the close of Kiaking's reign the number of these useless Yellow Girdles had risen to several thousand, and the emperor, alarmed by the previous attacks, or having some reason to fear a fresh plot, adopted strenuous measures against them. Whether the emperor's apprehensions overcame his reason, or whether there were among his kinsmen, some men of more than average ability, it is certain that the princes of the Manchu family were goaded or incited into what amounted to rebellion. The exact particulars remain unknown until the dynastic history sees the light of day; but it is known that many of them were executed, and that many hundreds of them were banished to Manchuria, where they were given employment in taking care of the ancestral tombs of the ruling family.

Special significance was given to these intrigues and palace plots by the remarkable increase in the number and the confidence of the secret societies which, in some form or other, have been a feature of Chinese public life from an early period. Had they not furnished evidence by their increased numbers and daring of the dissatisfaction prevalent among the Chinese masses, whether on account of the hardships of their lot, or from hatred of their Tartar lords, they would scarcely have created so much apprehension in the bosom of the Emperor Kiaking, whose authority met with no open opposition, and whose reign was nominally one of both internal and external peace. These secret societies have always been, in the form of fraternal confederacies and associations, a feature in Chinese life; but during the present century they have acquired an importance they could never previously claim, both in China and among Chinese colonies abroad. The first secret society to become famous was that of the Water-Lily, or Pe-leen-keaou, which association chose as its emblem and title the most popular of all plants in China. Although the most famous of the societies, and the one which is regarded as the parent of all that have come after it, the Water-Lily had, as a distinct organization, a very brief existence. Its organizers seem to have dropped the name, or to have allowed it to sink into disuse in consequence of the strenuous official measures taken against the society by the government for the attempt, in 1803, on Kiaking's life in the streets of Pekin. They merged themselves into the widely-extended confederacy of the Society of Celestial Reason-- the Theen-te-Hwuy--which became better known by the title given to it by Europeans of the Triads, from their advocacy of the union between Heaven, earth, and man. The Water-Lily Society, before it was dissolved, caused serious disturbances in both Shantung and Szchuen, and especially in the latter province, where the disbanded army that had rescued Tibet and punished the Goorkhas furnished the material for sedition. With more or less difficulty, and at a certain expense of life, these risings were suppressed, and Kiaking's authority was rendered secure against these assailants, while for his successors was left the penalty of feeling the full force of the national indignation of which their acts were the expression.

With regard to the organization of these secret societies, which probably remain unchanged to the present day, China had nothing to learn from Europe either as to the objects to be obtained in this way or as to how men are to be bound together by solemn vows for the attainment of illegal ends. By signs known only to themselves, and by pass-words, these sworn conspirators could recognize their members in the crowded streets, and could communicate with each other without exciting suspicion as to their being traitors at heart. In its endeavors to cope with this formidable and widespread organization under different names, Kiaking's government found itself placed at a serious disadvantage. Without an exact knowledge of the intentions or resources of its secret enemies, it failed to grapple with them, and, as its sole remedy, it could only decree that proof of membership carried with it the penalty of death.

During the last years of the reign of Kiaking the secret societies rather threatened future trouble than constituted a positive danger to the state. They were compelled to keep quiet and to confine their attention to increasing their numbers rather than to realizing their programme. The emperor was consequently able to pass the last four years of his life with some degree of personal tranquillity, and in full indulgence of his palace pleasures, which seem at this period to have mainly consisted of a theatrical troupe which accompanied him even when he went to offer sacrifice in the temples. His excessive devotion to pleasure did not add to his reputation with his people, and it is recorded that one of the chief causes of the minister Sung's disgrace and banishment to Ili was his making a protest against the emperor's proceedings. Some time before his death Kiaking drew up his will, and on account of his great virtues he specially selected as his successor his second son, Prince Meenning, who had saved his life from assassins in the attack on the palace. Kiaking died on September 2, 1820, in the sixty-first year of his age, leaving to his successor a diminished authority, an enfeebled power, and a discontented people. Some mitigating circumstance may generally be pleaded against the adverse verdict of history in its estimation of a public character. The difficulties with which the individual had to contend may have been exceptional and unexpected, the measures which he adopted may have had untoward and unnatural results, and the crisis of the hour may have called for genius of a transcendent order. But in the case of Kiaking not one of these extenuating facts can be pleaded. His path had been smoothed for him by his predecessor, his difficulties were raised by his own indifference, and the consequences of his spasmodic and ill-directed energy were scarcely less unfortunate than those of his habitual apathy. So much easier is the work of destruction than the labor of construction, that Kiaking in twenty-five years had done almost as much harm to the constitution of his country and to the fortunes of his dynasty as Keen Lung had conferred solid advantages on the state in his brilliant reign of sixty years.

On the whole it seems as if the material prosperity of the people was never greater than during the reign of Kiaking. The population by the census of 1812 is said to have exceeded 360 millions, and the revenue never showed a more flourishing return on paper. To the external view all was still fair and prosperous when Kiaking died; under his successor, who was in every sense a worthier prince, the canker and decay were to be clearly revealed.