The Empress Dowager -- As a Reactionist

The most interesting personage in China during the past thirty years has been and still is without doubt the lady whom we style the Empress Dowager. The character of the Empress's rule can only be judged by what it was during the regency, when she was at the head of every movement that partook of the character of reform. Foreign diplomacy has failed, for want of a definite centre of volition and sensation to act upon. It had no fulcrum for its lever. Hence only force has ever succeeded in China. With a woman like the Empress might it not be possible really to transact business?
-- Blackwood's Magazine.

It was between November 1, 1897, and April 16, 1898, that Germany, Russia, France and England wrested from the weak hands of the Emperor Kuang Hsu the four best ports in the Chinese empire, leaving China without a place to rendezvous a fleet. The whole empire was aroused to indignation, and even in our Christian schools, every essay, oration, dialogue or debate was a discussion of some phase of the subject, "How to reform and strengthen China." The students all thought, the young reformers all thought, and the foreigners all thought that Kuang Hsu had struck the right track. The great Chinese officials, however, were in doubt, and it was because of their doubt -- progressives as well as conservatives -- that the Empress Dowager was again called to the throne.

Now may I request the enemies of the Empress Dowager to ask themselves what they would have done if they had been placed at the head of their own government when it was thus being filched from them? You say she was anti-foreign -- would you have been very much in love with Germany, Russia, France and England under those circumstances? That she acted unwisely in placing herself in the hands of the conservatives and allying herself with the superstitious Boxers, we must all frankly admit. But what would you have done? Might you not -- I do not say you would with your intelligence -- but might you not have been induced to have clutched at as great a log as the patriotic Boxers seemed to present, if you had been as near drowning as she was?

"It is generally supposed," says one of her critics, "that Kang Yu-wei suggested to the Emperor, that if he would render his own position secure, he must retire the Empress Dowager, and decapitate Jung Lu." If that be true, and I think it very reasonable, the condition must have been desperate, when the reformers had to begin killing the greatest of their opponents, and imprisoning those who had given them their power, though neither of these at that time had raised a hand against them. Have you noticed how ready we are to forgive those on our side for doing that for which we would bitterly condemn our opponents? The same people who condemn the Empress Dowager for beheading the six young reformers stand ready to forgive Kuang Hsu for ordering the decapitation of Jung Lu, and the imprisonment of his foster-mother.

There were two powerful factions in Peking, the progressives, headed by Prince Ching; and the conservatives, headed by Jung Lu. Now the Empress Dowager may have reasoned thus: "The progressives and reformers have had their day. They have tried their plans and they have failed. The only result they have secured is peace -- but peace always at the expense of territory. Now I propose to try another plan. I will part with no more ports, and I will resist to the death every encroachment." She therefore took up Li Ping-heng, who had been deposed from the governorship of Shantung at the time of the murder of the German missionaries, and appointed him Generalissimo of the forces of the Yangtse, where he no doubt promised to resist to the last all encroachments of the foreigners in that part of the empire while Jung Lu was retained in Peking as head of all the forces of the province of Chihli and the Northern Squadron. She then appointed Kang Yi, another conservative, equally as anti-foreign as Li Ping-heng, to inspect the fortifications and garrisons of the empire, and to raise an immense sum of money for the depleted treasury. In his visits to the southern provinces, Kang Yi at this time raised not less than two million taels, which was no doubt spent in the purchase of guns and ammunition and other preparations for war. Yu Hsien, another equally conservative Manchu, she appointed Governor of Shantung to succeed Li Ping-heng, and it is to him the whole Boxer uprising is due. Moreover when he, at the repeated requests of the foreigners, was removed from Shantung, she received him in audience at Peking, conferred upon him additional honours and appointed him Governor of the adjoining province of Shansi, where, and under whose jurisdiction, almost all the massacres were committed. Indeed Yu Hsien may be considered the whole Boxer movement, for this seems to have been his plan for getting rid of the foreigners.

But while thus allying herself with the conservatives, the Empress Dowager did not cut herself off from the progressives. Li Hung-chang was appointed Viceroy of Kuangtung, Yuan Shih-kai Governor of Shantung and Tuan Fang of Shensi while Liu Kun-yi, Chang Chih-tung, and Kuei Chun were kept at their posts, so that she had all the greatest men of both parties once more in her service. Then she began sending out edicts, retracting those issued by Kuang Hsu, and what could be more considerate of the feelings of the Emperor, or more diplomatic as a state paper than the following, issued in the name of Kuang Hsu, September 26, 1898.

"Our real desire was to make away with superfluous posts for the sake of economy: whereas, on the contrary, we find rumours flying abroad that we intended to change wholesale the customs of the empire, and, in consequence, innumerable impossible suggestions of reform have been presented to us. If we allowed this to go on, none of us would know to what pass matters would come. Hence, unless we hasten to put our present wishes clearly before all, we greatly fear that the petty yamen officials and their underlings will put their own construction on what commands have gone before, and create a ferment in the midst of the usual calm of the people. This will indeed be contrary to our desire, and put our reforms for strengthening and enriching our empire to naught.

"We therefore hereby command that the Supervisorate of Instruction and other five minor Courts and Boards, which were recently abolished by us and their duties amalgamated with other Boards for the sake of economy, etc., be forthwith restored to their original state and duties, because we have learned that the process of amalgamation contains many difficulties and will require too much labour. We think, therefore, it is best that these offices be not abolished at all, there being no actual necessity for doing this. As for the provincial bureaus and official posts ordered to be abolished, the work in this connection can go on as usual, and the viceroys and governors are exhorted to work earnestly and diligently in the above duty. Again as to the edict ordering the establishment of an official newspaper, the Chinese Progress, and the privilege granted to all scholars and commoners to memorialize us on reforms, etc., this was issued in order that a way might be opened by which we could come into touch with our subjects, high and low. But as we have also given extra liberty to our censors and high officers to report to us on all matters pertaining to the people and their government, any reforms necessary, suggested by these officers, will be attended to at once by us. Hence we consider that our former edict allowing all persons to report to us is, for obvious reasons, superfluous, with the present legitimate machinery at hand. And we now command that the privilege be withdrawn, and only the proper officers be permitted to report to us as to what is going on in our empire. As for the newspaper Chinese Progress, it is really of no use to the government, while, on the other hand, it will excite the masses to evil; hence we command the said paper to be suppressed.

"With regard to the proposed Peking University and the middle schools in the provincial capitals, they may go on as usual, as they are a nursery for the perfection of true ability and talents. But with reference to the lower schools in the sub-prefectures and districts there need be no compulsion, full liberty being given to the people thereof to do what they please in this connection. As for the unofficial Buddhist, Taoist, and memorial temples which were ordered to be turned into district schools, etc., so long as these institutions have not broken the laws by any improper conduct of the inmates, or the deities worshipped in them are not of the seditious kind, they are hereby excused from the edict above noted. At the present moment, when the country is undergoing a crisis of danger and difficulty, we must be careful of what may be done, or what may not, and select only such measures as may be really of benefit to the empire."

I submit the above edict to the reader requesting him to study it, and, if necessary to its understanding, to copy it, and see if the Empress Dowager has not preserved the best there is in it, viz., "the Peking University, and the middle schools in the provincial capitals," "full liberty being given to the people with reference to the lower schools in the sub-prefectures and districts to do as they please." How much oil would be cast on how many troubled waters can only be realized by the unfortunate priests and dismissed officials and people upon whom "there need be no compulsion"!

Three days after the foregoing, on September 29th, she issued another edict purporting to come from the Emperor, ordering the punishment of Kang Yu-wei and others of his confreres. Now, if it is true that Kang Yu-wei advised the Emperor to behead Jung Lu and imprison the Empress Dowager, for no cause whatsoever, how would you have been inclined to treat him supposing you had been in her place? The decree says:

"All know that we try to rule this empire by our filial piety towards the Empress Dowager; but Kang Yu-wei's doctrines have always been opposed to the ancient Confucian tenets. Owing, however, to the ability shown by the said Kang Yu-wei in modern and practical matters, we sought to take advantage of it by appointing him a secretary of the Foreign Office, and subsequently ordered him to Shanghai to direct the management of the official newspaper there. Instead of this, however, he dared to remain in Peking pursuing his nefarious designs against the dynasty, and had it not been for the protection given by the spirits of our ancestors he certainly would have succeeded. Kang Yu-wei is therefore the arch conspirator, and his chief assistant is Liang Chi-tsao, M. A., and they are both to be immediately arrested and punished for the crime of rebellion. The other principal conspirators, namely, the Censor Yang Shen-hsin, Kang Kuang-jen -- the brother of Kang Yu-wei -- and the four secretaries of the Tsungli Yamen, Tan Sze-tung, Liu Hsin, Yang Jui, and Liu Kuang-ti, we immediately ordered to be arrested and imprisoned by the Board of Punishments: but fearing that if any delay ensued in sentencing them they would endeavour to entangle a number of others, we accordingly commanded yesterday (September 28th) their immediate execution, so as to close the matter entirely and prevent further troubles."

This with the execution of one or two other officials is the greatest crime that can be laid at the door of the Empress Dowager -- great enough in all conscience -- yet not to be compared to those of "good Queen Bess."

We now come to what is said to have been a secret edict issued by the Empress Dowager to her viceroys, governors, Tartar generals and the commanders-in-chief of the provinces, dated November 21, 1899. And this I regard as one of the greatest and most daring things that great woman ever undertook.

After the Empress Dowager had taken the throne, Italy, following the example set by the other powers, demanded the cession of Sanmen Bay in the province of Chekiang. But she found a different ruler on the throne, and to her great surprise, as well as that of every one else, China returned a stubborn refusal. Moreover, she began to prepare to resist the demand, and it soon became evident that to obtain it, Italy must go to war. This she had not the stomach for and so the demand was withdrawn. This explanation will go far towards helping us to understand the following secret edict of November 21st, to which I have already referred.

"Our empire is now labouring under great difficulties which are becoming daily more and more serious. The various Powers cast upon us looks of tiger-like voracity, hustling each other in their endeavours to be the first to seize upon our innermost territories. They think that China, having neither money nor troops, would never venture to go to war with them. They fail to understand, however, that there are certain things that this empire can never consent to, and that, if hardly pressed upon, we have no alternative but to rely upon the justice of our cause, the knowledge of which in our breasts strengthens our resolves and steels us to present a united front against our aggressors. No one can guarantee, under such circumstances, who will be the victor and who the vanquished in the end. But there is an evil habit which has become almost a custom among our viceroys and governors which, however, must be eradicated at all costs. For instance, whenever these high officials have had on their hands cases of international dispute, all their actions seem to be guided by the belief in their breasts that such cases would eventually be 'amicably arranged.' These words seem never to be out of their thoughts: hence, when matters do come to a crisis, they, of course, find themselves utterly unprepared to resist any hostile aggressions on the part of the foreigner. We, indeed, consider this the most serious failure in the duty which the highest provincial authorities owe to the throne, and we now find it incumbent upon ourselves to censure such conduct in the most severe terms.

"It is our special command, therefore, that should any high official find himself so hard pressed by circumstances that nothing short of war would settle matters, he is expected to set himself resolutely to work out his duty to this end. Or, perhaps, it would be that war has already actually been declared; under such circumstances there is no possible chance of the imperial government consenting to an immediate conference for the restoration of peace. It behooves, therefore, that our viceroys, governors, and commanders-in-chief throughout the whole empire unite forces and act together without distinction or particularizing of jurisdictions so as to present a combined front to the enemy, exhorting and encouraging their officers and soldiers in person to fight for the preservation of their homes and native soil from the encroaching footsteps of the foreign aggressor. Never should the word 'Peace' fall from the mouths of our high officials, nor should they even allow it to rest for a moment within their breasts. With such a country as ours, with her vast area, stretching out several tens of thousands of li, her immense natural resources, and her hundreds of millions of inhabitants, if only each and all of you would prove his loyalty to his Emperor and love of country, what, indeed, is there to fear from any invader? Let no one think of making peace, but let each strive to preserve from destruction and spoliation his ancestral home and graves from the ruthless hands of the invader."

One of her critics, referring to the last sentence of the above edict, asks: "Do not these words throw down the gauntlet?" And we answer, yes. Did not the thirteen colonies throw down the gauntlet to England for less cause? Did not Japan throw down the gauntlet to Russia for less cause than the Empress Dowager had for desiring that "each strive TO PRESERVE FROM DESTRUCTION AND SPOLIATION HIS ANCESTRAL HOME AND GRAVES"? It was not for conquest but for self-preservation the Empress Dowager was ready to go to war; not for glory but for home; not against a taunting neighbour, but against a "ruthless invader." Her unwisdom did not consist in her being ready to go to war, but in allowing herself to be allied to, and depend upon, the superstitious rabble of Boxers, and to believe that her "hundreds of millions" of undisciplined "inhabitants" could withstand the thousands or tens of thousands of well-drilled, well-led, intelligent soldiers from the West.

That she was ready to go to war rather than weakly yield to the demands for territory from the European powers is further evidenced by the following edict issued by the Tsungli Yamen to the viceroys and governors:

"This yamen has received the special commands of her Imperial Majesty the Empress Dowager, and his Imperial Majesty the Emperor, to grant you full power and liberty to resist by force of arms all aggressions upon your several jurisdictions, proclaiming a state of war, if necessary, without first asking instructions from Peking; for this loss of time may be fatal to your security, and enable the enemy to make good his footing against your forces."

In order to strengthen her position she appointed two commissioners whom she sent to Japan in the hope of forming a secret defensive alliance with that nation against the White Peril from the West. For once, however, she made a mistake in the selection of her men, for these commissioners, unlike what we usually find the yellow man, revealed too much of the important mission on which they were bent, and were recalled in disgrace, and the treaty came to naught.

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