In considering the policy pursued by the Empress-mother after her accession to the regency, one cannot but feel that she was fully aware of the fact that she had been the wife of an emperor, and was the mother of the heir, of a decaying house. Of the 218 years that her dynasty had been in power, 120 had been occupied by the reigns of two emperors, and only seven monarchs had sat upon the throne, a smaller number than ever ruled during the same period in all Chinese history. These two Emperors, Kang Hsi and Chien Lung, the second and fourth, had each reigned for sixty years, the most brilliant period of the "Great Pure Dynasty," unless we except the last six years of the Empress Dowager's regency. The other ninety-eight years saw five rulers rise and pass away, each one becoming weaker than his predecessor both in character and in physique, until with the death of her son, Tung Chih, the dynasty was left without a direct heir.
The decay of the imperial house, the encroachments of the foreigner, and the opposition of the native Chinese to the rule of the Manchus, awoke the Empress Dowager to a realization of the fact that a stronger hand than that of her husband must be at the helm if the dynasty of her people were to be preserved. "It may be said with emphasis," says Colonel Denby, who was for thirteen years minister to China, "that the Empress Dowager has been the first of her race to apprehend the problem of the relation of China to the outer world, and to make use of this relation to strengthen her dynasty and to promote material progress." She was fortunate in having Prince Kung associated with her in the regency, a man tall, handsome and dignified, and the greatest statesman that has come from the royal house since the time of Chien Lung.
Here appears one of the chief characteristics of the Empress Dowager as a ruler -- her ability to choose the greatest statesmen, the wisest advisers, the safest leaders, and the best guides, from the great mass of Chinese officials, whether progressive or conservative. Prince Kung was for forty years the leading figure of the Chinese capital outside of the Forbidden City. He appeared first, at the age of twenty-six, as a member of the commission that tried the minister who failed to make good his promise to induce Lord Elgin and his men-of-war to withdraw from Tientsin in 1858. The following year he was made a member of the Colonial Board that controlled the affairs of the "outer Barbarians," and a year later was left in Peking, when the court fled, to arrange a treaty of peace with the victorious British and French after they had taken the capital. "In these trying circumstances," says Professor Giles, "the tact and resource of Prince Kung won the admiration of his opponents," and when the Foreign Office was formed in 1861, it began with the Prince as its first president, a position which he continued to hold for many years.
It was he, as we have seen, who succeeded in outwitting and overthrowing the self-constituted regency on the death of his brother Hsien Feng, and, with the Empress Dowager, seated her infant son upon the throne, with the two Empresses and himself as joint regents. This condition continued for some years, with the senior Empress exercising no authority, and Prince Kung continually growing in power. The arrangement seemed satisfactory to all but one -- the Empress-mother. To her it appeared as though he were fast becoming the government, and she and the Empress were as rapidly receding into the background, while in reality the design had been to make him "joint regent" with them. In all the receptions of the officials by the court, Prince Kung alone could see them face to face, while the ladies were compelled to remain behind a screen, listening to the deliberations but without taking any part therein, other than by such suggestions as they might make.
Being the visible head of the government, and the only avenue to positions of preferment, he would naturally be flattered by the Chinese officials. This led him to assume an air of importance which consciously or unconsciously he carried into the presence of their Majesties, and one morning he awoke to find himself stripped of all his rank and power, and confined and guarded a prisoner in his palace, by a joint decree from the two Empresses accusing him of "lack of respect for their Majesties." The deposed Prince at once begged their forgiveness, whereupon all his honours were restored with their accompanying dignities, but none of his former power as joint regent, and thus the first obstacle to her reestablishment of the dynasty was eliminated by the Empress-mother. To show Prince Kung, however, that they bore him no ill will, the Empresses adopted his daughter as their own, raising her to the rank of an imperial princess, and though the Prince has long since passed away his daughter still lives, and next to the Empress Dowager has been the leading figure in court circles during the past ten years' association with the foreigners.
During her son's minority, after the dismissal of Prince Kung as joint regent, the Empress-mother year by year took a more active part in the affairs of state, while the Empress as gradually sank into the background. She was far-sighted. Having but one son, and knowing the uncertainty of life, she originated a plan to secure the succession to her family. To this end she arranged for the marriage of her younger sister to her husband's younger brother commonly known as the Seventh Prince, in the hope that from this union there might come a son who would be a worthy occupant of the dragon throne in case her own son died without issue. She felt that the country needed a great central figure capable of inspiring confidence and banishing uncertainty, a strong, well-balanced, broad-minded, self-abnegating chief executive, and she proposed to furnish one. Whether she would succeed or not must be left to the future to reveal, but the one great task set by destiny for her to accomplish was to prepare the mind of a worthy successor to meet openly and intelligently the problems which had been too vast, too new and too complicated for her predecessors, if not for herself, to solve.
When her son was seventeen years old he was married to Alute, a young Manchu lady of one of the best families in Peking and was nominally given the reins of power, though as a matter of fact the supreme control of affairs was still in the hands of his more powerful mother. The ministers of the European countries, England, France, Germany, Russia and the United States, now resident at Peking, thought this a good time for bringing up the matter of an audience with the new ruler, and after a long discussion with Prince Kung and the Empress-mother, the matter was arranged without the ceremony of prostration which all previous rulers had demanded.
The married life of this young couple was a short one. Three years after their wedding ceremonies the young monarch contracted smallpox and died without issue, and was followed shortly afterwards by his young wife who heeded literally the instruction of one of their female teachers in her duty to her husband to
Share his joy as well as sorrow, riches, poverty or guilt, And in death be buried with him, as in life you shared his guilt.
That her nearest relatives did not believe, as has often been suggested, that there was any "foul play" in regard to her death, is evident from the fact that her father continued to hold office until the time of the Boxer uprising, at which time he followed the fleeing court as far as Paotingfu, where having heard that the capital was in the hands of the hated foreigners, he sent word back to his family that he would neither eat the foreigners' bread nor drink their water, but would prefer to die by his own hand. When his family received this message they commanded their servants to dig a great pit in their own court in which they all lay and ordered the coolies to bury them. This they at first refused to do, but they were finally prevailed upon, and thus perished all the male members of her father's household except one child that was rescued and carried away by a faithful nurse.
When Tung Chih died there was a formidable party in the palace opposed to the two dowagers, anxious to oust them and their party and place upon the throne a dissolute son of Prince Kung. But it would require a master mind from the outside to learn of the death of her son and select and proclaim a successor quicker than the Empress Dowager herself could do so from the inside. She first sent a secret messenger to Li Hung-chang whom she had appointed viceroy of the metropolitan province at Tientsin eighty miles away, informing him of the illness of her son and urging him to come to Peking with his troops post-haste and be ready to prevent any disturbance in case of his death and the announcement of a successor.
When Li Hung-chang received her orders, he began at once to put them into execution. Taking with him four thousand of his most reliable Anhui men, all well-armed horse, foot and artillery, he made a secret forced march to Peking. The distance of eighty miles was covered in thirty-six hours and he planned to arrive at midnight. Exactly on the hour Li and his picked guard were admitted, and in dead silence they marched into the Forbidden City. Every man had in his mouth a wooden bit to prevent talking, while the metal trappings of the horses were muffled to deaden all sound. When they arrived at the forbidden precincts, the Manchu Bannermen on guard at the various city gates were replaced by Li's Anhui braves, and as the Empress Dowager had sent eunuchs to point out the palace troops which were doubtful or that had openly declared for the conspirators, these were at once disarmed, bound and sent to prison. The artillery were ordered to guard the gates of the Forbidden City, the cavalry to patrol the grounds, and the foot-soldiers to pick up any stray conspirators that could be found. A strong detachment was stationed so as to surround the Empress Dowager and the child whom she had selected as a successor to her son, and when the morning sun rose bright and clear over the Forbidden City the surprise of the conspirators who had slept the night away was complete. Of the disaffected that remained, some were put in prison and others sent into perpetual exile to the Amoor beyond their native borders, and when the Empress Dowager announced the death of her son, she proclaimed the son of her sister, Kuang Hsu, as his successor, with herself and the Empress as regents during his minority. When everything was settled, Li folded his tent like the Arab, and stole away as silently as he had come.
The wisdom and greatness of the Empress Dowager were thus manifested in binding to the throne the greatest men not only in the capital but in the provinces. Li Hung-chang had won his title to greatness during the Tai-ping rebellion, for his part in the final extinction of which he was ennobled as an Earl. From this time onward she placed him in the highest positions of honour and power within sufficient proximity to the capital to have his services within easy reach. For twenty-four years he was kept as viceroy of the metropolitan province of Chihli, with the largest and best drilled army at his command that China had ever had, and yet during all this time he realized that he was watched with the eyes of an eagle lest he manifest any signs of rebellion, while his nephew was kept in the capital as a hostage for his good conduct. Once and again when he had reached the zenith of his power, or had been feted by foreign potentates enough to turn the head of a bronze Buddha, his yellow jacket and peacock feather were kindly but firmly removed to remind him that there was a power in Peking on whom he was dependent.
Li Hung-chang's greatness made him many enemies. Those whom he defeated, those whom he would not or could not help, those whom he punished or put out of office, and those whose enmity was the result of jealousy. When the war with Japan closed and the Chinese government sent Chang Yin-huan to negotiate a treaty of peace, the Japanese refused to accept him, nor were they willing to take up the matter until "Li Hung-chang was appointed envoy, chiefly because of his great influence over the government, and the respect in which he was held by the people." We all know how he went, how he was shot in the face by a Japanese fanatic, the ball lodging under the left eye, where it remained a memento which he carried to the grave. We all know how he recovered from the wound, and how because of his sufferings he was able to negotiate a better treaty than he could otherwise have done. Then he returned home, and only "the friendship of the Empress and his own personal sufferings saved his life," says Colonel Denby, for "the new treaty was urgently denounced in China" by carping critics who would not have been recognized as envoys by their Japanese enemies.
In 1896 he was appointed to attend the coronation of the Czar at Moscow, and thence continued his trip around the world. Never before nor since has a Chinese statesman or even a prince been feted as he was in every country through which he passed. When he was about to start, at his request I had a round fan painted for him, with a map of the Eastern hemisphere on one side and the Western on the other, on which all the steamship lines and railroads over which he was to travel were clearly marked, with all the ports and cities at which he expected to stop. He was photographed with Gladstone, and hailed as the "Bismarck of the East," but when he returned to Peking, for no reason but jealousy, "he was treated as an extinct volcano." The Empress Dowager invited him to the Summer Palace where he was shown about the place by the eunuchs, treated to tea and pipes, and led into pavilions where only Her Majesty was allowed to enter, and then denounced to the Board of Punishments who were against him to a man. And now this Grand Secretary whom kings and courts had honoured, whom emperors and presidents had feted, and our own government had spent thirty thousand dollars in entertaining, was once more stripped of his yellow jacket and peacock feather, and fined the half of a year's salary as a member of the Foreign Office, which was the amusing sum of forty-five taels or about thirty-five dollars gold, and it was said in Peking at the time that only the intercession of the Empress Dowager saved him from imprisonment or further disgrace.
During the whole regency of the Empress Dowager only two men have occupied the position of President of the Grand Council -- Prince Kung and Prince Ching. While the former was degraded many times and had his honours all taken from him, the latter "has kept himself on top of a rolling log for thirty years" without losing any of the honours which were originally conferred upon him. The same is true of Chang Chih-tung, Liu Kun-yi and Wang Wen-shao, three great viceroys and Grand Secretaries whom the Empress Dowager has never allowed to be without an important office, but whom she has never degraded. Need we ask the reason why? The answer is not far to seek. They were the most eminent progressive officials she had in her empire, but none of them were great enough to be a menace to her dynasty, and hence need not be reminded that there was a power above them which by a stroke of her pen could transfer them from stars in the official firmament to dandelions in the grass. Not so with Yuan Shih-kai -- but we will speak of him in another chapter.
All the great officials thus far mentioned have belonged to the progressive rather than the conservative party, all of them the favourites of the Empress Dowager, placed in positions of influence and kept in office by her, all of them working for progress and reform, and yet she has been constantly spoken of by European writers as a reactionary. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as we shall see. Nevertheless she kept some of the great conservative officials in office either as viceroys or Grand Secretaries that she might be able to hear both sides of all important questions.
One of these conservatives was Jung Lu, the father-in-law of the present Regent. When she placed Yuan Shih-kai in charge of the army of north China, she also appointed Jung Lu as Governor-General of the metropolitan province of Chihli. One was a progressive, the other a conservative. Neither could make any important move without the knowledge and consent of the other. Whether the Empress Dowager foresaw the danger that was likely to arise, we do not know, but she provided against it. We refer to the occasion when in 1898 the Emperor ordered Yuan Shih-kai to bring his troops to Peking, guard the Empress Dowager a prisoner in the Summer Palace, and protect him in his efforts at reform. The story belongs in another chapter, but we refer to it here to show how the Empress Dowager played one official against another, and one party against another, to prevent any such calamity or surprise. It would have been impossible for Yuan Shih-kai to have taken his troops to Peking for any purpose without first informing his superior officer Jung Lu unless he put him to death, much less to have gone on such a mission as that of imprisoning as important a personage as the Empress Dowager, to whom they were both indebted for their office.
Another instance of the way in which the Empress Dowager played one party against another was the appointment of Prince Tuan as a member of the Foreign Office. After his son had been selected as the heir-apparent it seemed to the Empress Dowager that for his own education and development he should be made to come in contact with the foreigners. Most of the foreigners considered the appointment objectionable on account of the "Prince's anti- foreign tendencies. But to my mind," says Sir Robert Hart, "it was a good one; the Empress Dowager had probably said to the Prince, 'You and your party pull one way, Prince Ching and his another -- what am I to do between you? You, however, are the father of the future Emperor, and have your son's interests to take care of; you are also head of the Boxers and chief of the Peking Field Force, and ought therefore to know what can and what cannot be done. I therefore appoint you to the yamen; do what you consider most expedient, and take care that the throne of your ancestors descends untarnished to your son, and their empire undiminished! yours is the power, -- yours the responsibility -- and yours the chief interests!' I can imagine the Empress Dowager taking this line with the Prince, and, inasmuch as various ministers who had been very anti-foreign before entering the yamen had turned round and behaved very sensibly afterwards, I felt sure that responsibility and actual personal dealings with foreigners would be a good experience and a useful education for this Prince, and that he would eventually be one of the sturdiest supporters of progress and good relations."