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China eText - Chapter XVI - The Emperor Taoukwang

Chapter XVI - The Emperor Taoukwang

The early years of the new reign were marked by a number of events unconnected with each other but all contributing to the important incidents of the later period which must be described, although they cannot be separated. The name of Taoukwang, which Prince Meenning took on ascending the throne, means Reason's Light, and there were many who thought it was especially appropriate for a prince who was more qualified for a college than a palace. Most of the chroniclers of the period gave an unfavorable picture of the new ruler, who was described as "thin and toothless," and as "lank in figure, low of stature, with a haggard face, a reserved look, and a quiet exterior." He was superior to his external aspect, for it may be truly said that although he had to deal with new conditions he evinced under critical circumstances a dignity of demeanor and a certain royal patience which entitled him to the respect of his opponents.

Taoukwang began his reign in every way in a creditable manner. While professing in his proclamations the greatest admiration for his father, his first acts reversed his policy and aimed at undoing the mischief he had accomplished. He released all the political prisoners who had been consigned to jail by the suspicious fear of Kiaking, and many of the banished Manchu princes were allowed to return to Pekin. He made many public declarations of his intention to govern his people after a model and conscientious fashion and his subsequent acts showed that he was at least sincere in his intentions, if an accumulation of troubles prevented his attaining all the objects he set before himself when he first took the government in hand. Nothing showed his integrity more clearly than his restoration of the minister Sung to the favor and offices of which he had been dispossessed. The vicissitudes of fortune passed through by this official have been previously referred to, and his restoration to power was a practical proof of the new ruler's good resolutions, and meant more than all the virtuous platitudes expressed in vermilion edicts. Sung had gained a popularity that far exceeded that of the emperor, through the lavish way in which he distributed his wealth, consistently refusing to accumulate money for the benefit of himself or his family. But his independent spirit rendered him an unpleasant monitor for princes who were either negligent of their duty or sensitive of criticism, and even Taoukwang appears to have dreaded, in anticipation, the impartial and fearless criticism of the minister whom he restored to favor. Sung was employed in two of the highest possible posts, Viceroy of Pechihli and President of the Board of Censors, and until his death he succeeded in maintaining his position in face of his enemies, and notwithstanding his excessive candor. One of the first reforms instituted by the Emperor Taoukwang was to cut down the enormous palace expenses, which his father had allowed to increase to a high point, and to banish from the imperial city all persons who could not give some valid justification for their being allowed to remain. The troupes of actors and buffoons were expelled, and the harem was reduced to modest dimensions. Taoukwang declared himself to be a monogamist, and proclaimed his one wife empress. He also put a stop to the annual visits to Jehol and to the costly hunting establishment there, which entailed a great waste of public funds. The money thus saved was much wanted for various national requirements, and the sufferings caused by flood and famine were alleviated out of these palace savings. How great the national suffering had become was shown by the marked increase of crime, especially all forms of theft and the coining of false money, for which new and severe penalties were ordained without greatly mitigating the evil. During all these troubles and trials Taoukwang endeavored to play the part of a beneficent and merciful sovereign, tempering the severity of the laws by acts of clemency, and personally superintending every department of the administration. He seems thus to have gained a reputation among his subjects which he never lost, and the blame for any unpopular measures was always assigned to his ministers. But although he endeavored to play the part of an autocrat, there is every ground for saying that he failed to realize the character, and that he was swayed more than most rulers by the advice of his ministers. The four principal officials after Sung, whose death occurred at an early date after Taoukwang's accession, were Hengan, Elepoo, Keying, and Keshen.

The first ten years of Taoukwang's reign have been termed prosperous, because they have left so little to record, but this application of the theory that "the country is happy which has no history," does not seem borne out by such facts as have come to our knowledge. There is no doubt that there was a great amount of public suffering, and that the prosperity of the nation declined from the high point it had reached under Kiaking. Scarcity of food and want of work increased the growing discontent, which did not require even secret societies to give it point and expression, and as far as could be judged it was worse than when the Water-Lily Society inspired Kiaking with most apprehension. Kiaking, as has been observed, escaped the most serious consequences of his own acts. There was much popular discontent, but there was no open rebellion. Taoukwang had not been on the throne many years before he was brought face to face with rebels who openly disputed his authority, and, strangely enough, his troubles began in Central Asia, where peace had been undisturbed for half a century.

The conquest of Central Asia had been among the most brilliant and remarkable of the feats of the great Keen Lung. Peace had been preserved there as much by the extraordinary prestige or reputation of China as by the skill of the administration or the soundness of the policy of the governing power, which left a large share of the work to the subject races. Outside each of the principal towns the Chinese built a fort or gulbagh, in which their garrison resided, and military officers or ambans were appointed to every district. The Mohammedan officials were held responsible for the good conduct of the people and the due collection of the taxes, and as long as the Chinese garrison was maintained in strength and efficiency they discharged their duties with the requisite good faith. The lapse of time and the embarrassment of the government at home led to the neglect of the force in Central Asia, which had once been an efficient army. The Chinese garrison, ill-paid and unrecruited, gradually lost the semblance of a military force, and was not to be distinguished from the rest of the civil population. The difference of religion was the only unequivocal mark of distinction between the rulers and the ruled, and it furnished an ever-present cause of enmity and dislike, although apart from this the Mohammedans accepted the Chinese rule as not bad in itself, and even praised it. The Chinese might have continued to govern Ili and Kashgar indefinitely, notwithstanding the weakness and decay of their garrison, but for the ambition of a neighbor. The Chinese are to blame, however, not merely for having ignored the obvious aggressiveness of that neighbor, but for having provided it with facilities for carrying out its plans. The Khanate of Khokand, the next-door state in Central Asia, had been intimately connected with Kashgar from ancient times, both in politics and trade. The Chinese armies in the eighteenth century had advanced into Khokand, humbled its khan, and reduced him to a state of vassalage. For more than fifty years the khan sent tribute to China, and was the humble neighbor of the Chinese. He gave, however, a place of refuge and a pension to Sarimsak, the last representative of the old Khoja family of Kashgar, and thus retained a hold on the legitimate ruler of that state. Sarimsak had as a child escaped from the pursuit of Fouta and the massacre of his relations by the chief of Badakshan, but he was content to remain a pensioner at Khokand to the end of his days, and he left the assertion of what he considered his rights to his children. His three sons were named, in the order of their age, Yusuf, Barhanuddin, and Jehangir, and each of them attempted at different times to dispossess the Chinese in Kashgar. In the year 1812, when Kiaking's weakness was beginning to be apparent, the Khan of Khokand, a chief of more than usual ability, named Mahomed Ali, refused to send tribute any more to China, and the Viceroy of Ili, having no force at his disposal, acquiesced in the change with good grace, and no hostilities ensued. The first concession was soon followed by others. The khan obtained the right to levy a tax on all Mohammedan merchandise sold in the bazaars of Kashgar and Yarkand, and deputed consuls or aksakals for the purpose of collecting the duties. These aksakals naturally became the center of all the intrigue and disaffection prevailing in the state against the Chinese, and they considered it to be as much their duty to provoke political discontent as to supervise the customs placed under their charge. Before the aksakals appeared on the scene the Chinese ruled a peaceful territory, but after the advent of these foreign officials trouble soon ensued.

Ten years after his refusal to pay tribute the Khan of Khokand decided to support the Khoja pretenders who enjoyed his hospitality, and in 1822 Jehangir was provided with money and arms to make an attempt on the Chinese position in Kashgaria. Although the youngest, Jehangir seems to have been the most energetic of the Khoja princes; and having obtained the alliance of the Kirghiz, he attempted, by a rapid movement, to surprise the Chinese in the town of Kashgar. In this attempt he was disappointed, for the Chinese kept better guard than he expected, and he was compelled to make an ignominious retreat. The Khan of Khokand, disappointed at the result and apprehensive of counter action on the part of the Chinese, repudiated all participation in the matter, and forbade Jehangir to return to his country. That adventurer then fled to Lake Issik Kul, whither the Chinese pursued him; but when his fortunes seemed to have reached their lowest ebb a revulsion suddenly took place, and by the surprise and annihilation of a Chinese force he was again able to pose as an arbiter of affairs in Central Asia. The fortitude of Jehangir confirmed the attachment of his friends, and the Khokandian ruler, encouraged by the defeat of the Chinese, again took up his cause and sent him troops and a general for a fresh descent on Kashgaria. The khan had his own ends in view quite as much as to support the Khoja pretender; but his support encouraged Jehangir to leave his mountain retreat and to cross the Tian Shan into Kashgaria. This happened in the year 1826, and the Chinese garrison of Kashgar very unwisely quitted the shelter of its citadel and went out to meet the invaders. The combat is said to have been fiercely contested, but nothing is known about it except that the Chinese were signally defeated. This overthrow was the signal for a general insurrection throughout the country, and the Chinese garrisons, after more or less resistance, were annihilated. An attempt was then made to restore the old Mohammedan administration, and Jehangir was proclaimed by the style of the Seyyid Jehangir Sultan. One of his first acts was to dismiss the Khokandian contingent, and to inform his ally or patron, Mahomed Ali, that he no longer required his assistance. His confidence received a rude check when he learned a short time afterward that the Chinese were making extraordinary preparations to recover their lost province, and that they had collected an immense army in Ili for the purpose. Then he wished his Khokandian allies back again; but he still resolved to make as good a fight as he could for the throne he had acquired; and when the Chinese general Chang marched on Kashgar, Jehangir took up his position at Yangabad and accepted battle. He was totally defeated; the capture of Kashgar followed, and Jehangir himself fell into the hands of the victors. The Khoja was sent to Pekin, where, after many indignities, he was executed and quartered as a traitor. The Chinese punished all open rebels with death, and as a precaution against the recurrence of rebellion they removed 12,000 Mohammedan families from Kashgar to Ili, where they became known as the Tarantchis, or toilers. They also took the very wise step of prohibiting all intercourse with Khokand, and if they had adhered to this resolution they would have saved themselves much serious trouble. But Mahomed Ali was determined to make an effort to retain so valuable a perquisite as his trade relations with Kashgar, and as soon as the Chinese had withdrawn the main portion of their force he hastened to assail Kashgar at the head of his army, and put forward Yusuf as a successor to Jehangir. Only desultory fighting ensued, but his operations were so far successful that the Chinese agreed to resort to the previous arrangement, and Mahomed Ali promised to restrain the Khojas. Fourteen years of peace and prosperity followed this new convention.

Serious disorders also broke out in the islands of Formosa and Hainan. In the former the rebellion was only put down by a judicious manipulation of the divisions of the insurgent tribes; but the settlement attained must be pronounced so far satisfactory that the peace of the island was assured. In Hainan, an island of extraordinary fertility and natural wealth, which must some day be developed, the aboriginal tribes revolted against Chinese authority, and massacred many of the Chinese settlers, who had begun to encroach on the possessions of the natives. Troops had to be sent from Canton before the disorders were suppressed, and then Hainan reverted to its tranquil state, from which only the threat of a French occupation during the Tonquin war roused it. These disorders in different parts of the empire were matched by troubles of a more domestic character within the palace. In 1831 Taoukwang's only son, a young man of twenty, whose character was not of the best, gave him some cause of offense, and he struck him. The young prince died of the blow, and the emperor was left for the moment without a child. His grief was soon assuaged by the news that two of his favorite concubines had borne him sons, one of whom became long afterward the Emperor Hienfung. At this critical moment Taoukwang was seized with a severe illness, and his elder brother, Hwuy Wang, whose pretensions had threatened the succession, thinking his chance had at last come, took steps to seize the throne. But Taoukwang recovered, and those who had made premature arrangements in filling the throne were severely punished. These minor troubles culminated in the Miaotze Rebellion, the most formidable internal war which the Chinese government had to deal with between that of Wou Sankwei and the Taepings. From an early period the Miaotze had been a source of trouble to the executive, and the relations between them and the officials had been anything but harmonious. The Manchu rulers had only succeeded in keeping them in order by stopping their supply of salt on the smallest provocation; and in the belief that they possessed an absolutely certain mode of coercing them, the Chinese mandarins assumed an arrogant and dictatorial tone toward their rude and unreclaimed neighbors. In 1832 the Miaotze, irritated past endurance, broke out in rebellion, and their principal chief caused himself to be proclaimed emperor. Their main force was assembled at Lienchow, in the northwest corner of the Canton province, and their leader assumed the suggestive title of the Golden Dragon, and called upon the Chinese people to redress their wrongs by joining his standard. But the Chinese, who regarded the Miaotze as an inferior and barbarian race, refused to combine with them against the most extortionate of officials or the most unpopular of governments. Although they could not enlist the support of any section of the Chinese people, the Miaotze, by their valor and the military skill of their leader, made so good a stand against the forces sent against them by the Canton viceroy that the whole episode is redeemed from oblivion, and may be considered a romantic incident in modern Chinese history. The Miaotze gained the first successes of the war, and for a time it seemed as if the Chinese authorities would be able to effect nothing against them. The Canton viceroy fared so badly that Hengan was sent from Pekin to take the command, and the chosen braves of Hoonan were sent to attack the Miaotze in the rear. The latter gained a decisive victory at Pingtseuen, where the Golden Dragon and several thousand of his followers were slain. But, although vanquished in one quarter, the Miaotze continued to show great activity and confidence in another, and when the Canton viceroy made a fresh attack on them they repulsed him with heavy loss. The disgrace of this officer followed, and his fall was hastened by the suppression of the full extent of his losses, which excited the indignation of his own troops, who said, "There is no use in our sacrificing our lives in secret; if our toils are concealed from she emperor neither we nor our posterity will be rewarded." This unlucky commander was banished to Central Asia, and after his supersession Hengan had the satisfaction of bringing the war to a satisfactory end within ten days. Some of the leaders were executed, the others swore to keep the peace, and a glowing account of the pacification of the Miaotze region was sent to Pekin. Some severe critics suggested that the whole arrangement was a farce, and that Hengan's triumph was only on paper; but the lapse of time has shown this skepticism to be unjustified, as the Miaotze have remained tranquil ever since, and the formidable Yaoujin, or Wolfmen, as they are called, have observed the promises given to Hengan, which would not have been the case unless they had been enforced by military success. Should they ever break out again, the government would possess the means, from their command of money and modern arms, of repressing their lawlessness with unprecedented thoroughness, and of absolutely subjecting their hitherto inaccessible districts.

If the first ten or twelve years of the reign of the Emperor Taoukwang were marked by these troubles on a minor scale, an undue importance should not be attached to them, for they did not seriously affect the stability of the government or the authority of the emperor. It is true that they caused a decline in the revenue and an increase in the expenditure, which resulted in the year 1834 in an admitted deficit of fifty million dollars, and no state could be considered in a flourishing condition with the public exchequer in such a condition. But this large deficit must be regarded rather as a floating debt than an annual occurrence.

The Chinese authorities continued to hinder and protest against the foreign trade and intercourse between their subjects and the merchants of Europe as much as ever; but their opposition was mainly confined to edicts and proclamations. When Commissioner Lin resorted to force and violence some years later the auspicious moment for expelling all foreigners had passed away, and the weakness of the government contributed in no small degree to this result. Taoukwang, although his claims as occupant of the Dragon Throne were unabated, could not pretend to the power of a great ruler like Keen Lung, who would have known how to enforce his will. For was it possible after 1834 to continue the policy of uncompromising hostility to all foreign nations whose governments had become directly interested in, and to a certain extent responsible to, their respective peoples, for the opening of the Chinese empire to civilized intercourse and commerce. Up to this point Taoukwang's only experience of the pretensions of the foreign powers had been the Amherst mission, in the time of his father, which had ended so ignominiously, and the Russian mission which arrived at Pekin every ten years to recruit the Russian college there, and to pay the descendants of the garrison of Albazin the sum allotted by the czar for their support. But from these trifling matters Taoukwang's attention was suddenly and completely distracted to the important situation at Canton and on the coast, the settlement of the questions arising out of which filled the remainder of his reign.