In 1875 the Emperor T`ung Chih died of smallpox, and with his death the malign influence of his mother comes more freely into play. The young Empress was about to become a mother; and had she borne a son, her position as mother of the baby Emperor would have been of paramount importance, while the grandmother, the older Empress Dowager, would have been relegated to a subordinate status. Consequently,--it may now be said, having regard to subsequent happenings,--the death of the Empress followed that of her husband at an indecently short interval, for no particular reason of health; and the old Empress Dowager became supreme. In order to ensure her supremacy, she had previously, on the very day of the Emperor's death, caused the succession to be allotted, in utter violation of established custom, to a first cousin, making him heir to the Emperor Hsien Feng, instead of naming one of a lower generation who, as heir to T`ung Chih, would have been qualified to sacrifice to the spirit of his adopted father. Thus, the late Emperor was left without a son, and his spirit without a ministrant at ancestral worship, the only consolation being that when a son should be born to the new Emperor (aged four), that child was to become son by adoption to his late Majesty, T`ung Chih. Remonstrances, even from Manchus, were soon heard on all sides; but to these the Empress Dowager paid no attention until four years afterwards (1879), on the occasion of the deferred funeral of the late Emperor, when a censor, named Wu K`o-tu, committed suicide at the mausoleum, leaving behind him a memorial in which he strongly condemned the action of the two Empresses Dowager, still regarded officially as joint regents, and called for a re-arrangement of the succession, under which the late Emperor would be duly provided with an heir. Nothing, however, came of this sacrifice, except promises, until 1900. A son of Prince Tuan, within a few months to espouse the Boxer cause, was then made heir to his late Majesty, as required; but at the beginning of 1901, this appointment was cancelled and the spirit of the Emperor T`ung Chih was left once more unprovided for in the ancestral temple. The first cousin in question, who reigned as Kuang Hsu (= brilliant succession), was not even the next heir in his own generation; but he was a child of four, and that suited the plans of the Empress Dowager, who, having appointed herself Regent, now entered openly upon the career for which she will be remembered in history. What she would have done if the Empress had escaped and given birth to a son, can only be a matter of conjecture.
In 1876 the first resident Envoy ever sent by China to Great Britain, or to any other nation, was accredited to the Court of St James's. Kuo Sung-tao, who was chosen for the post, was a fine scholar; he made several attempts on the score of health to avoid what then seemed to all Chinese officials--no Manchu would have been sent--to be a dangerous and unpleasant duty, but was ultimately obliged to succeed. It was he who, on his departure in 1879, said to Lord Salisbury that he liked everything about the English very much, except their shocking immorality.
The question of railways for China had long been simmering in the minds of enterprising foreigners; but it was out of the question to think that the Government would allow land to be sold for such a purpose; therefore there would be no sellers. In 1876 a private company succeeded in obtaining the necessary land by buying up connecting strips between Shanghai and Woosung at the mouth of the river, about eight miles in all. The company then proceeded to lay down a miniature railway, which was an object of much interest to the native, whose amusement soon took the form of a trip there and back. Political influence was then brought to bear, and the whole thing was purchased by the Government; the rails were torn up and sent to Formosa, where they were left to rot upon the sea-beach.
The suppression of rebellion in Turkestan and Yunnan has already been mentioned; also the retrocession of Kuldja, which brings us down to the year 1881, when the Eastern Empress died. Death must have been more or less a relief to this colourless personage, who had been entirely superseded on a stage on which by rights she should have played the leading part, and who had been terrorized during her last years by her more masterful colleague.
In 1882 there were difficulties with France over Tongking; these, however, were adjusted, and in 1884 a convention was signed by Captain Fournier and Li Hung-chang. A further dispute then arose as to a breach of the convention by the Chinese, and an etat de represailles followed, during which the French destroyed the Chinese fleet. After the peace which was arranged in 1885, a few years of comparative tranquillity ensued; the Emperor was married (1889), and relieved his aunt of her duties as Regent.
Japan, in earlier centuries contemptuously styled the Dwarf-nation, and always despised as a mere imitator and brain-picker of Chinese wisdom, now swims definitively into the ken of the Manchu court. The Formosan imbroglio had been forgotten as soon as it was over, and the recent rapid progress of Japan on Western lines towards national strength had been ignored by all Manchu statesmen, each of whom lived in hope that the deluge would not come in his own time. So far back as 1885, in consequence of serious troubles involving much bloodshed, the two countries had agreed that neither should send troops to Korea without due notification to the other. Now, in 1894, China violated this contract by dispatching troops, at the request of the king of Korea, whose throne was threatened by a serious rebellion, without sufficient warning to Japan, and further, by keeping a body of these troops at the Korean capital even when the rebellion was at an end. A disastrous war ensued. The Japanese were victorious on land and sea; the Chinese fleet was destroyed; Port Arthur was taken; and finally, after surrendering Wei-hai-wei (1895), to which he had retired with the remnant of his fleet, Admiral Ting, well known as "a gallant sailor and true gentleman," committed suicide together with four of his captains. Li Hung-chang was then sent to Japan to sue for peace, and while there he was shot in the cheek by a fanatical member of the Soshi class. This act brought him much sympathy--he was then seventy- two years old; and in the treaty of Shimonoseki, which he negotiated, better terms perhaps were obtained than would otherwise have been the case. The terms granted included the independence of Korea, for centuries a tribute-paying vassal of China, and the cession of the island of Formosa. Japan had occupied the peninsula on which stands the impregnable fortress of Port Arthur, and had captured the latter in a few hours; but she was not to be allowed to keep them. A coalition of European powers, Russia, Germany, and France--England refused to join--decided that it would never do to let Japan possess Port Arthur, and forced her to accept a money payment instead. So it was restored to China--for the moment; and at the same time a republic was declared in Formosa; but of this the Japanese made short work.
The following year was marked by an unusual display of initiative on the part of the Emperor, who now ordered the introduction of railways; but in 1897 complications with foreign powers rather gave a check to these aspirations. Two German Catholic priests were murdered, and as a punitive measure Germany seized Kiaochow in Shantung; while in 1898 Russia "leased" Port Arthur, and as a counterblast, England thought it advisable to "lease" Wei-hai-wai. So soon as the Manchu court had recovered from the shock of these events, and had resumed its normal state of torpor, it was rudely shaken from within by a series of edicts which peremptorily commanded certain reforms of a most far- reaching description. For instance, the great public examinations, which had been conducted on much the same system for seven or eight centuries past, were to be modified by the introduction of subjects suggested by recent intercourse with Western nations. There was to be a university in Peking, and the temples, which cover the empire in all directions, were to be closed to religious services and opened for educational purposes. The Manchus, indeed, have never shown any signs of a religious temperament. There had not been, under the dynasty in question, any such wave of devotional fervour as was experienced under more than one previous dynasty. Neither the dreams of Buddhism, nor the promises of immortality held out by the Taoists, seem to have influenced in a religious, as opposed to a superstitious sense, the rather Boeotian mind of the Manchu. The learned emperors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries accepted Confucianism as sufficient for every-day humanity, and did all in their power to preserve it as a quasi-State religion. Thus, Buddhism was not favoured at the expense of Taoism, nor vice versa; Mahometanism was tolerated so long as there was no suspicion of disloyalty; Christianity, on the other hand, was bitterly opposed, being genuinely regarded for a long time as a cloak for territorial aggression.
To return to the reforms. Young Manchus of noble family were to be sent abroad for an education on wider lines than it was possible to obtain at home. This last was in every way a desirable measure. No Manchu had ever visited the West; all the officials previously sent to foreign countries had been Chinese. But other proposed changes were not of equal value.
At the back of this reform movement was a small band of earnest men who suffered from too much zeal, which led to premature action. A plot was conceived, under which the Empress Dowager was to be arrested and imprisoned; but this was betrayed by Yuan Shih-k`ai, and she turned the tables by suddenly arresting and imprisoning the Emperor, and promptly decapitating all the conspirators, with the exception of K`ang Yu-wei, who succeeded in escaping. He had been the moving spirit of the abortive revolution; he was a fine scholar, and had completely gained the ear of the Emperor. The latter became henceforth to the end of his life a person of no importance, while China, for the third time in history, passed under the dominion of a woman. There was no secret about it; the Empress Dowager, popularly known as the Old Buddha, had succeeded in terrorizing every one who came in contact with her, and her word was law. It was said of one of the Imperial princes that he was "horribly afraid of her Majesty, and that when she spoke to him he was on tenter-hooks, as though thorns pricked him, and the sweat ran down his face."
All promise of reform now disappeared from the Imperial programme, and the recent edicts, which had raised premature hope in this direction, were annulled; the old regime was to prevail once more. The weakness of this policy was emphasized in the following year (1899), when England removed from Japan the stigma of extra-territorial jurisdiction, by which act British defendants, in civil and criminal cases alike, now became amenable to Japanese tribunals. Japan had set herself to work to frame a code, and had trained lawyers for the administration of justice; China had done nothing, content that on her own territory foreigners and their lawsuits, as above, should be tried by foreign Consuls. One curious edict of this date had for its object the conferment of duly graded civil rank, the right to salutes at official visits, and similar ceremonial privileges, upon Roman Catholic archbishops, bishops, and priests of the missionary body in China. The Catholic view was that the missionaries would gain in the eyes of the people if treated with more deference than the majority of Chinese officials cared to display towards what was to them an objectionable class; in practice, however, the system was found to be unworkable, and was ultimately given up.
The autumn of this year witnessed the beginning of the so-called Boxer troubles. There was great unrest, especially in Shantung, due, it was said, to ill-feeling between the people at large and converts to Christianity, and at any rate aggravated by recent foreign acquisitions of Chinese territory. It was thus that what was originally one of the periodical anti-dynastic risings, with the usual scion of the Ming dynasty as figure-head, lost sight of its objective and became a bloodthirsty anti-foreign outbreak. The story of the siege of the Legations has been written from many points of view; and most people know all they want to know of the two summer months in 1900, the merciless bombardment of a thousand foreigners, with their women and children, cooped up in a narrow space, and also of the awful butchery of missionaries, men, women, and children alike, which took place at the capital of Shansi. Whatever may have been the origin of the movement, there can be little doubt that it was taken over by the Manchus, with the complicity of the Empress Dowager, as a means of getting rid of all the foreigners in China. Considering the extraordinary position the Empress Dowager had created for herself, it is impossible to believe that she would not have been able to put an end to the siege by a word, or even by a mere gesture. She did not do so; and on the relief of the Legations, for a second time in her life --she had accompanied Hsien Feng to Jehol in 1860--she sought safety in an ignominious flight. Meanwhile, in response to a memorial from the Governor of Shansi, she had sent him a secret decree, saying, "Slay all foreigners wheresoever you find them; even though they be prepared to leave your province, yet they must be slain." A second and more urgent decree said, "I command that all foreigners, men, women, and children, be summarily executed. Let not one escape, so that my empire may be purged of this noisome source of corruption, and that peace may be restored to my loyal subjects." The first of these decrees had been circulated to all the high provincial officials, and the result might well have been an indiscriminate slaughter of foreigners all over China, but for the action of two Chinese officials, who had already incurred the displeasure of the Empress Dowager by memorializing against the Boxer policy. These men secretly changed the word "slay" into "protect," and this is the sense in which the decree was acted upon by provincial officials generally, with the exception of the Governor of Shansi, who sent a second memorial, eliciting the second decree as above. It is impossible to say how many foreigners owe their lives to this alteration of a word, and the Empress Dowager herself would scarcely have escaped so easily as she did, had her cruel order been more fully executed. The trick was soon discovered, and the two heroes, Yuan Ch`ang and Hsu Ching-ch`eng, were both summarily beheaded, even though it was to the former that the Empress Dowager was indebted for information which enabled her to frustrate the plot against her life in 1898.
Now, at the very moment of departure, she perpetrated a most brutal crime. A favourite concubine of the Emperor's, who had previously given cause for offence, urged that his Majesty should not take part in the flight, but should remain in Peking. For this suggestion the Empress Dowager caused the miserable girl to be thrown down a well, in spite of the supplications of the Emperor on her behalf. Then she fled, ultimately to Hsi-an Fu, the capital of Shensi, and for a year and a half Peking was rid of her presence. In 1902, she came back with the Emperor, whose prerogative she still managed to usurp. She declared at once for reform, and took up the cause with much show of enthusiasm; but those who knew the Manchu best, decided to "wait and see." She began by suggesting intermarriage between Manchus and Chinese, which had so far been prohibited, and advised Chinese women to give up the practice of footbinding, a custom which the ruling race had never adopted. It was henceforth to be lawful for Manchus, even of the Imperial family, to send their sons abroad to be educated,--a step which no Manchu would be likely to take unless forcibly coerced into doing so. Any spirit of enterprise which might have been possessed by the founders of the dynasty had long since evaporated, and all that Manchu nobles asked was to be allowed to batten in peace upon the Chinese people.
The direct issue of the emperors of the present dynasty and of their descendants in the male line, dating from 1616, are popularly known as Yellow Girdles, from a sash of that colour which they habitually wear. Each generation becomes a degree lower in rank, until they are mere members of the family with no rank whatever, although they still wear the girdle and receive a trifling allowance from the government. Thus, beggars and even thieves are occasionally seen with this badge of relationship to the throne. Members of the collateral branches of the Imperial family wear a red girdle, and are known as Gioros, Gioro being part of the surname--Aisin Gioro = Golden Race--of an early progenitor of the Manchu emperors.
As a next step in reform, the examination system was to be remodelled, but not in the one sense in which it would have appealed most to the Chinese people. Examinations for Manchus have always been held separately, and the standard attained has always been very far below that reached by Chinese candidates, so that the scholarship of the Manchu became long ago a by-word and a joke. Now, in 1904, it was settled that entry to an official career should be obtainable only through the modern educational colleges; but this again applied only to Chinese and not to Manchus. The Manchus have always had wisdom enough to employ the best abilities they could discover by process of examination among the Chinese, many of whom have risen from the lowest estate to the highest positions in the empire, and have proved themselves valuable servants and staunch upholders of the dynasty. Still, in addition to numerous other posts, it may be said that all the fat sinecures have always been the portion of Manchus. For instance, the office of Hoppo, or superintendent of customs at Canton (abolished 1904), was a position which was allowed to generate into a mere opportunity for piling a large fortune in the shortest possible time, no particular ability being required from the holder of the post, who was always a Manchu.
Then followed a mission to Europe, at the head of which we now find a Manchu of high rank, an Imperial Duke, sent to study the mysteries of constitutional government, which was henceforth promised to the people, so soon as its introduction might be practicable. In the midst of these attractive promises (1904-5) came the Russo-Japanese war, with all its surprises. Among other causes to which the Manchu court ascribed the success of the Japanese, freedom from the opium vice took high rank, and this led to really serious enactments against the growth and consumption of opium in China. Continuous and strenuous efforts of philanthropists during the preceding half century had not produced any results at all; but now it seemed as though this weakness had been all along the chief reason for China's failures in her struggles with the barbarian, and it was to be incontinently stamped out. Ten years' grace was allowed, at the end of which period there was to be no more opium-smoking in the empire. One awkward feature was that the Empress Dowager herself was an opium-smoker; the difficulty, however, was got over by excluding from the application of the edict of 1906 persons over sixty years of age. Whatever may be thought of the wisdom of this policy, which so far has chiefly resulted in the substitution of morphia, cocaine, and alcohol, the thoroughness and rapidity with which it has been carried out, can only command the admiration of all; of those most who know China best.