One day while the head eunuch from the palace of one of the leading princes in Peking was sitting in my study he said:
"It is drawing near to the New Year. Do you celebrate the New Year in your honourable country?"
"Yes," I replied, "though not quite the same as you do here."
"Do you fire off crackers?"
"Yes, in the matter of firecrackers, we celebrate very much the same as you do."
"And do you settle up all your debts as we do here?"
"I am afraid we do not. That is not a part of our New Year celebration."
"Our Prince is going to take on two more concubines this New Year," he volunteered.
"Ah, indeed, I thought he had three concubines already."
"So he does, but he is entitled to five."
"I should think it would make trouble in a family for one man to have so many women," I ventured.
He waved his hand in that peculiar way the Chinese have of saying, don't mention it, as he answered:
"That is a difficult matter to discuss. Naturally if this woman sees the Prince talking to that one, this one is going to eat vinegar," which gives us a glimpse of some of the domestic difficulties in Chinese high life. However it is a fact worth remembering that the Manchu prince does not receive his full stipend from the government until he has five concubines, each of whom is the mother of a son.
The leading princes of the new regime are Ching, Su, and Pu-lun. Prince Ching has been the leader of the Manchus ever since the downfall of Prince Kung. He has held almost every office it was in the power of the Empress Dowager to give, "though disliked by the Emperor." He was made president of the Tsung-li Yamen in 1884, and from that time until the present has never been degraded, or in any way lost the imperial favour. He is small in stature, has none of the elements of the great man that characterized Li Hung-chang and Chang Chih-tung, or Prince Kung, but he has always been characterized by that diplomacy which has kept him one of the most useful officials in close connection with the Empress Dowager. It is to his credit moreover that the legations were preserved from the Boxers in the siege of 1900.
Prince Su is the only one of the eight hereditary princes who holds any office that brings him into intimate contact with the foreigners. During the Boxer siege he gave his palace for the use of the native Christians, and at the close was made collector of the customs duties (octoroi) at the city gates. Never had there been any one in charge of this post who turned in as large proportion of the total collections as he. This excited the jealousy of the other officials, and they said to each other: "If Prince Su is allowed to hold this position for any length of time there will never be anything in it for any one else." They therefore sought for a ground of accusation, and they found it, in the eyes of the conservatives, in the fact that he rode in a foreign carriage, built himself a house after the foreign style of architecture, furnished it with foreign furniture, employed an Englishman to teach his boys, and as we have seen opened a school for the women and girls of his family. He therefore lost his position, but it is to the credit of Prince Chun, the new Regent, and his progressive policy, that Prince Su has been made chief of the naval department, of which Prince Ching is only an adviser.
The most important person among either princes or officials that has been connected with the new regime is Yuan Shih-kai. He was born in the province of Honan, that province south of the Yellow River which is almost annually flooded by that great muddy stream which is called "China's Sorrow." As a boy he was a diligent student of the Chinese classics and of such foreign books as had been translated into the Chinese language, but he has never studied a foreign tongue nor visited a foreign country. Here then rests the first element of his greatness -- that without any knowledge of foreign language, foreign law, foreign literature, science of government, or the history of progress and of civilization, he has occupied the highest and most responsible positions in the gift of the empire, has steered the ship of state on a straight course between the shoals of conservatism on the one hand and radical reform on the other until he has brought her near to the harbour of a safe progressive policy.
He has always been what the Chinese call the tu-ti or pupil of Li Hung-chang, and it may be that it was from him he learned his statecraft. Certain it is that he always basked in the favour of the great Viceroy, and it may be that he had more or less influence with him in his earlier appointments, for he rose rapidly and in spite of all other officials.
On his return from Korea he was made a judge. He was then put in charge of the army of the metropolitan province, and with the assistance of German officers he succeeded in drilling 12,500 troops after the European fashion.
It was about this time that the Emperor conceived the plan of instituting and carrying out one of the most stupendous reforms that has ever been undertaken in human government -- that of transforming four thousand years of conservatism of four hundred millions of people in the short space of a few months.
Given: A people who cannot make a nail, to build a railroad.
Given: A people who dare not plow a deep furrow for fear of disturbing the spirits of the place, to open gold, silver, iron and coal mines.
Given: A people who in 4,000 years did not have the genius to develop a decent high school, to open a university in the capital of every province.
These are three of the score or more of equally difficult problems that the Emperor undertook to solve in twice as many days. In order to the solution of these problems there was organized in Peking a Reform Party of hot-headed, radical young scholars not one of whom has ever turned out to be a statesman. They were brilliant young men, many of them, but they so lost their heads in their enthusiasm for reform that they forgot that their government was in the hands of the same old conservative leaders under whom it had been for forty centuries.
They introduced into the palace as the private adviser of the Emperor, Kang Yu-wei, as we have already shown, to whom was thus offered one of the greatest opportunities that was ever given to a human being -- that of being the leader in this great reform. He was hailed as a young Confucius, but his popularity was short-lived, for he so lacked all statesmanship as to allow the young Emperor to issue twenty-seven edicts, disposing of twenty-seven difficult problems such as I have given above in about twice that many days, and it is this hot-headed and unstatesman-like young "Confucius" who now calls Yuan Shih-kai an opportunist and a traitor because he did not enter into the following plot.
After the Emperor had dismissed two conservative vice-presidents of a Board, two governors of provinces, and a half dozen other useless conservative leaders, they plotted to overthrow him by appealing to the ambition of the Empress Dowager and induce her to dethrone him and again assume the reins of government. They argued that "he was her adopted son, it was she who had placed him on the throne, and she was therefore responsible for his mistakes." They complimented her on "the wisdom which she had manifested, and the statesmanship she had exhibited" during the thirty years and more of her regency. To all which she listened with a greedy ear, but still she made no move.
During this time were the Emperor and his young "Confucius" idle? By no means. They had hatched a counterplot, and had decided that what they could not do by moral suasion and statesmanship they would do by force, and so they sent an order to Yuan Shih-kai, who as we have said had drilled and was in charge of 12,500 of the best troops in the empire, urging him to "hasten to the capital at once, place the Empress Dowager under guard in the Summer Palace so that she may not be allowed to interfere in the affairs of the government, and protect him in his reform measures."
The Emperor knew that nothing could be done without the command of the army which was largely in the hands of a great conservative friend of the Empress Dowager (Jung Lu) the father-in-law of the present Regent. Yuan was in charge of an army corps of 12,500 troops, but for him to have taken them even at the command of the Emperor, without informing his superior officer, would have meant the loss of his head at once. The first thing then for him to do was to take this order to Jung Lu. Yuan was in favour of reform, though he may not have approved of the Emperor's methods. Jung Lu hastened to Prince Ching and they two sped to the Empress Dowager in the Summer Palace where they laid the whole matter before her. She hurried to Peking, boldly faced and denounced the Emperor, took from him his seal of state, and confined him a prisoner in the Winter Palace. Kang Yu-wei, the young "Confucius," fled, but the Empress Dowager seized his brother and five other patriotic young reformers, and ordered them beheaded on the public execution grounds in Peking.
Naturally the Empress Dowager approved of the "wise and statesmanlike methods" of Yuan in thus protecting instead of imprisoning her, and thus placing the reins of government once more in her hands, and she appointed him Junior Vice-President of the Board of Works, and when she was compelled to remove the Governor of Shantung who had organized the Boxer Society, she appointed Yuan Acting Governor in his stead. "Yuan," says Arthur H. Smith, was "a man of a wholly different stripe" from the one removed, and "if left to himself he would speedily have exterminated the whole Boxer brood, but being hampered by 'confidential instructions' from the palace, he could do little but issue poetical proclamations, and revile his subordinates for failure to do their duty."
When Yuan was made Governor of Shantung a number of the Boxer leaders called upon him expecting to find in him a sympathizer worthy of his predecessor. They told him of their great powers and possibilities, and of how they were proof against the spears, swords and bullets of their enemies. Yuan listened to them with patience and interest, and invited them to dine with him and other official friends in the near future.
During the dinner the Governor directed the conversation towards the Boxer leaders and their prowess, and led them once more to relate to all his friends their powers of resistance. He fed them well, and after the dinner was over he suggested that they give an exhibition of their wonderful powers to the friends whom he had invited. This they could not well refuse to do after the braggadocio way in which they had talked, and so the Governor lined them up, called forth a number of his best marksmen, and proceeded with the exhibition, and it is unnecessary to add that if the Empress Dowager had invited Yuan to the meeting with the princes when they discussed the advisability of joining the Boxers on account of a belief in their supernatural powers, she might have been spared the humiliation of 1900.
We shall soon see that Yuan cared no more for the "confidential instructions" of the Empress Dowager, when his statesmanship was involved, than for the orders of the Emperor. His business was to govern and protect the people of his province, and thanks to his wise statesmanship and strong character "there was not only no foreigner killed during the troubled season of anxiety and flight" of 1900, and "comparatively little of the suffering elsewhere so common."
And now we come to another plot which indicates the character of Yuan and two other great viceroys, Chang Chih-tung, now Grand Secretary, and Liu Kun-yi, Viceroy of the Yangtse-kiang provinces. It is a well-known fact that during the Boxer rebellion the Empress Dowager was so influenced by the promises of the Boxers to drive out all the foreigners that she sent out some very unwise edicts that they should be massacred in the provinces. Yuan and his two confreres secretly stipulated that if the foreign men of war would keep away from the ports of their provinces they would maintain peace and protect the foreigners no matter what orders came from the throne. So that when these confidential instructions came from the palace to massacre the foreigners, in order to gain time they pretended to believe that no such orders could have come from the throne. They must be forgeries of the Boxers. They therefore refused to believe them until they had sent their own special messenger all the way to Peking to get the edict from the hands of Her Majesty and bring it to them in their provinces. This messenger was also secretly instructed to find out what the contents of the edict were, and if it was contrary to the desires of the Governor, he was to dilly-dally on the way home until the Boxer trouble was ended or until the foreigners had all been removed from the territory. And it was such conduct as this on the part of three Chinese and one Manchu viceroys that saved China from being divided up among the Powers in 1900, a fact which the Empress Dowager was not slow to understand and reward.
In 1900 Yuan was made Governor of the Shantung province, and the court was compelled to flee to Hsian. It was while the court was thus in hiding that an incident occurred which indicates the fertility of the Empress Dowager and the elasticity of all Chinese social customs. Governor Yuan's mother died. In a case of this kind customs dictate, and the rules of filial affection demand, that a man shall resign all his official positions and go into mourning for a period of three years. Yuan therefore sent his resignation to the Empress Dowager, while "weeping tears of blood."
The country was of course in desperate straits and could ill afford to lose, for three years, for a mere sentiment, the services of one of her greatest and most powerful statesmen. However much he may have regretted to give up such a brilliant career which was just well begun, Yuan no doubt expected to do so. What was his surprise therefore to receive from Her Majesty a message of condolence in which she praised his mother in the highest terms for having given the world such a brilliant and able son. Under the circumstances, however, it would be impossible to accept his resignation as his services to the country just at this juncture were indispensable. She would, however, appoint a substitute to go into mourning for him, and this with the knowledge that she had borne a son whose services were so necessary to the safety of the government and the country, would be a sufficient comfort to the spirit of his departed mother, and Yuan was forced to continue in his official position as Governor of the province without the intermission of a single day of mourning. Such is the elasticity and adaptability of the unchanging laws and customs of the Oriental when in the hands of a master -- or a mistress -- like Her Majesty the Empress Dowager.
One can imagine that in proportion as the Empress Dowager was pleased with the statesmanship manifested by Yuan Shih-kai in unintentionally reseating her upon the throne, in a like proportion the Emperor would be dissatisfied with it as being the cause of his dethronement. This was not, however, against Yuan alone but against the father-in-law of the present Regent and even Prince Ching as well. During the whole ten years, from 1898 until his death, while he was a prisoner "his heart boiled with wrath" against those who had been the cause of his downfall.
It was not until the Boxer troubles of 1900 were over, and Yuan, by the masterly way in which he had disregarded the imperial edicts, had protected and preserved the lives of all the foreigners in his province, keeping peace the while, that honours began to be heaped upon him. And this not without reason as we shall proceed to show.
In 1901 he was made Governor-General of the metropolitan province, and Junior Guardian of the Heir Apparent. In 1902 he was decorated with the Yellow Jacket, placed in charge of the affairs of the Northern Railway, and consulting minister to counsel the government. Wherever he was he gave as much attention to the city government as to that of the province or the nation, and in spite of his having no foreign education himself, he began building up a system of public schools in his province like which there is nothing else in the whole of China. Let us remember also that during ail this time there was suspended over his head, from the palace, a sword of Damocles which was liable to fall at any time. But we will explain that further on as it is the last act of the drama.
When Yuan went to Tientsin as Viceroy of the metropolitan province he found there Dr. C. D. Tenny, the president of the Tientsin University which had been begun by Li Hung-chang some ten or a dozen years before. It had a good course of study and was turning out a large number of young graduates for whom there ought to be a better future than that of interpreters in the various business houses of that and other cities. He therefore called Dr. Tenny to him and inquired particularly about the system of public school education throughout the United States.
"What is to prevent our putting into operation such a system throughout this province?" asked the Viceroy.
"Nothing," answered Dr. Tenny, "except to be willing to submit to the conditions."
"And what are those conditions?" asked His Excellency.
"They are that you open schools in every important town, place in them well-educated, competent teachers, whom you are willing to pay a salary equal to what they may reasonably expect to get if they enter business."
"May I ask if you would be willing to undertake the development of such a system?" he asked further.
"On one condition," answered Dr. Tenny.
"And what is that?"
"That you allow me to open a school wherever I think there should be one, call my teachers from whatsoever source I please to call them, pay them whatever salary I think they deserve, sending all the bills to Your Excellency, and you pay them without question."
The Viceroy had known Dr. Tenny for years, had always had the most implicit confidence both in his ability and his honesty, and so, lightening up his duties in the Tientsin and Paotingfu Uni- versities, he commissioned him to establish what may be termed the first public school system of education on modern lines in the whole empire. This one act, if he had done no other, was reason enough for a wise regent to have continued him in office even though he "had rheumatism of the leg." But it may be that there are extenuating circumstances in this act of the Regent as we shall point out later.
There is one phase of the Boxer uprising that I have never yet seen properly represented in any book or magazine. We all know how the ministers of the various European governments with their wives and children, the customs officials, missionaries, business men, and tourists who happened to be in Peking at the time, with all the Chinese Christians, were confined in the British legation and Prince Su's palace. We know how they barricaded their defense. We know how they were fired upon day and night for six weeks by the Boxer leaders and the army of the conservatives under the leadership of their general, Tung Fu-hsiang. But the thing which we do not know, or at least which has not been adequately told, is the most interesting secret plot of the liberal progressives, under the leadership of "Prince Ching and others," to thwart the Empress Dowager and the Boxer leaders, the conservatives and their army, and protect the most noted company of prisoners that have ever been confined in a legation quarter. The plot was this:
When Prince Ching and his progressive associates in Peking discovered that they could not vote down the Boxer princes, they dared not openly oppose them, but they secretly decided that the representatives of the Powers must not be massacred else the doom of China was sealed. When they discovered that Yuan Shih-kai and the other great viceroys had decided by stratagem to foil the Boxers even though they must set all the imperial edicts at naught, they decided, for the sake of the protection of the legations and the preservation of the empire, that they would do the same. They secretly sent supplies of food to the besieged, which the latter feared to use lest they be poisoned. But more than that they kept their own armies in Peking as a guard and as a final resort in case there was danger of the legation being overcome, and as a matter of fact there were regular pitched battles between the troops of Prince Ching and his associates and those of the Boxer leader, Tung Fu-hsiang. Had the Boxers finally succeeded, Yuan Shih-kai and Prince Ching and their associates would have lost their heads, but as the Boxers failed it was they who went to their graves by the short process of the executioner's knife.
So Yuan was between two fires. He had disobeyed the commands of the Emperor in not coming to Peking and had therefore incurred his displeasure and caused his downfall. He had disobeyed the Empress Dowager in not putting to death the foreigners in his province, and if the Boxers were successful he would surely lose his head on that account. The Boxers, however, were not successful and as his disobedience had helped to save the empire, Yuan, so long as the Dowager remained in power, was safe.
But a day of reckoning must inevitably come. The Empress Dowager was an old woman, the Emperor was a young man. In all human probabilities she would be the first to die, while his only hope was in her outliving the Emperor, who had sworn vengeance on all those who had been instrumental in his imprisonment.
I have a friend in Peking who is also a friend of one of the greatest Chinese officials. This official has gone into the palace daily for a dozen years past and knows every plot and counterplot that has been hatched in that nest of seclusion during all that time, though he has been implicated in none of them. He has held the highest positions in the gift of the empire without ever once having been degraded. One day when he was in the palace the Emperor unburdened his heart to him, thinking that what he said would never reach the ears of his enemies.
"You have no idea," said the Emperor, "what I suffer here."
"Indeed?" was the only reply of the official.
"Yes," continued the Emperor, "I am not allowed to speak to any one from outside. I am without power, without companions, and even the eunuchs act as though they are under no obligations to respect me. The position of the lowest servant in the palace is more desirable than mine." Then lowering his voice he continued, "But there is a day of reckoning to come. The Empress Dowager cannot live forever, and if ever I get my throne again I will see to it that those who put me here will suffer as I have done."
It is not unlikely that this conversation of the Emperor reached the ears of Yuan Shih-kai. Walls have ears in China. Everything has ears, and every part of nature has a tongue. If so, here was the occasion for the last plot in the drama of the Emperor's life, and next to the last in the official life of Yuan Shih-kai.
The problem is to so manipulate the laws of nature as to prevent the Emperor outliving the Empress Dowager, and not allow the world to know that you have been trifling with occult forces. He must die a natural death, a death which is above suspicion. He must not die one day after the Empress Dowager as that would create talk. And he ought to die some time before her. The death fuse is one which often burns very much longer than we expect -- was it not one of the English kings who said "I fear I am a very long time a-dying, gentlemen" -- and sometimes it burns out sooner than is intended. There were two imperial death fuses burning at the same time in that Forbidden City of Peking. The Empress Dowager had "had a stroke." Hers was undoubtedly nature's own work. But the enemies of Yuan Shih-kai tell us that the Emperor had "had a Chinese doctor," to whom the great Viceroy paid $33,000 for his services. We are told that the Empress Dowager in reality died first and then the Emperor, though the Emperor's death was first announced, and the next day that of the Dowager.
What then are we to infer? That the Emperor was poisoned? Let it be so. That is what the Japanese believed at the time. But who did it? Most assuredly no one man. One might have employed a Chinese physician for him, but the last man whose physician the Emperor would have accepted would have been Yuan Shih-kai's. Had you or I been ill would we have allowed the man who was the cause of our fall to select our physician? But granted that Yuan Shih-kai did employ his physician, and that his death was the result of slow poisoning, could Yuan Shih-kai have so manipulated Prince Ching, the Regent (who is the late Emperor's brother), the ladies of the court, and all those thousands of eunuchs, to remain silent as to the death of the Empress Dowager until he had completed the slow process on His Majesty? No! If the Emperor was poisoned -- and the world believes he was -- there are a number of others whose skirts are as badly stained as those of the great Viceroy, or long ere this his body would have been sent home a headless corpse instead of with "rheumatism of the leg."
What then is the explanation? It may be this, that the court, and the officials as a whole, felt that the Emperor was an unsafe person to resume the throne, and that it were better that one man should perish than that the whole regime should be upset. They even refused to allow a foreign physician to go in to see him, saying that of his own free will he had turned again to the Chinese, all of which indicates that it was not the plot of any one man.
Why then should Yuan Shih-kai have been made the scapegoat of the court and the officials, and branded as a murderer in the face of the whole world? That may be another plot. The radical reformers, followers of Kang Yu-wei, have been making such a hubbub about the matter ever since the death of the Emperor and the Empress Dowager that somebody had to be punished. They said that Yuan had been a traitor to the cause of reform, that he had not only betrayed his sovereign in 1898, but that now he had encompassed his death.
Now to satisfy these enemies, the Prince Regent may have decided that the best thing to do was to dismiss Yuan for a time. I think that the trivial excuse he gives for doing so favours my theory -- with "rheumatism of the leg," to which is added, "Thus our clemency is manifest" -- a sentence which may be severe or may mean nothing, and when the storm has blown over and the sky is clear again, Yuan may be once more brought to the front as Li Hung-chang and others have been in the past. Which is a consummation, I think, devoutly to be wished.