Kuang Hsu -- His Self-Development

The Emperor Kuang Hsu is slight and delicate, almost childish in appearance, of pale olive complexion, and with great, melancholy eyes. There is a gentleness in his expression that speaks rather of dreaming than of the power to turn dreams into acts. It is strange to find a personality so etherial among the descendants of the Mongol hordes; yet the Emperor Kuaug Hsu might sit as a model for some Oriental saint on the threshold of the highest beatitude.
-- Charles Johnston in "The Crisis in China."

On the night that the son of the Empress Dowager "ascended upon the dragon to be a guest on high," two sedan chairs were borne out of the west gate of the Forbidden City, through the Imperial City, and into the western part of the Tartar City, in one of which sat the senior Empress and in the other the Empress-mother. The streets were dimly lighted, but the chairs, each carried by four bearers, were preceded and followed by outriders bearing large silk lanterns in which were tallow-candles, while a heavy cart with relays of bearers brought up the rear. The errand upon which they were bent was an important one -- the making of an emperor -- for by the death of Tung Chih, the throne, for the first time in the history of the dynasty, was left without an heir. Their destination was the home of the Seventh Prince, the younger brother of their husband, to whom as we have already said the Empress Dowager had succeeded in marrying her younger sister, who was at that time the happy mother of two sons.

She took the elder of these, a not very sturdy boy of three years and more, from his comfortable bed to make him emperor, and one can imagine they hear him whining with a half-sleepy yawn: "I don't want to be emperor. I want to sleep." But she bundled little Tsai Tien up in comfortable wraps, took him out of a happy home, from a loving father and mother, and a jolly little baby brother, -- out of a big beautiful world, where he would have freedom to go and come at will, toys to play with, children to contend with him in games, and everything in a home of wealth that is dear to the heart of a child. And for what? She folded him in her arms, adopted him as her own son, and carried him into the Forbidden -- and no doubt to him forbidding -- City, where his world was one mile square, without freedom, without another child within its great bare walls, where he was the one lone, solitary man among thousands of eunuchs and women. The next morning when the imperial clan assembled to condole with her on the death of her son, she bore little Tsai Tien into their midst declaring: "Here is your emperor."

At that time there were situated on Legation Street, in Peking, two foreign stores that had been opened without the consent of the Chinese government, for in those days the capital had not been opened to foreign trade. As the stores were small, and in such close proximity to the various legations, the most of whose supplies they furnished, they seem to have been too unimportant to attract official attention, though they were destined to have a mighty influence on the future of China. One of them was kept by a Dane, who sold foreign toys, notions, dry-goods and groceries such as might please the Chinese or be of use to the scanty European population of the great capital. By chance some of the eunuchs from the imperial palace, wandering about the city in search of something to please little Tsai Tien, dropped into this store on Legation Street and bought some of these foreign toys for his infant Majesty.

They had already ransacked the city for Chinese toys. They had gone to every fair, visited every toy-shop, called upon every private dealer, and paid high prices for samples of their best work made especially for the royal child. There were crowing cocks and cackling hens; barking dogs and crying infants; music balls and music carts; horns, drums, diabolos and tops; there were gingham dogs and calico cats; camels, elephants and fierce tigers; and a thousand other toys, if only he had had other children to share them with him. But none of them pleased him. They lacked that subtile something which was necessary to minister to the peculiar genius of the child.

Among the foreign toys there were some in which there was concealed a secret spring which seemed to impart life to the otherwise dead plaything. Wind them up and they would move of their own energy. This was what the boy needed, -- something to appeal to that machine-loving disposition which nature had given him, and Budge and Toddy were never more curious to know "what made the wheels go round" than was little Tsai Tien. He played with them as toys until overcome by curiosity, when, like many another child, he tore them apart and discovered the secret spring. This was as much of a revelation to the eunuchs as to the child, and they went and bought other toys of a more curious pattern, and a more intricate design, and it was not long until, at the instigation of the enterprising Dane, the toy-shops of Europe were manufacturing playthings specially designed to please the almond-eyed baby Emperor in the yellow-tiled palace in Peking.

As the child grew the business of the Dane shopkeeper increased. His stock became larger and more varied, and Tsai Tien continued to be a profitable customer. There were music boxes and music carts -- real music carts, not like those from the Chinese shops, -- trains of cars, wheeled boats, striking clocks and Swiss watches which, when the stem was pulled, would strike the hour or half or quarter, and all these were bought in turn by the eunuchs and taken into the palace. As the Emperor grew to boyhood the Danish shopkeeper supplied toys suitable to his years from his inexhaustible shelves, until all the most intricate and wonderful toys of Europe, suitable for a boy, had passed through the hands of Kuang Hsu, -- "continued brilliancy," as his name implied -- and he seemed to be making good the meaning of his name.

We would not lead any one to believe that Kuang Hsu was an ideal child. He was not. If we may credit the reports that came from the palace in those days, he had a temper of his own. If he were denied anything he wanted, he would lie down on his baby back on the dirty ground and kick and scream and literally "raise the dust" until he got it. My wife tells me that not infrequently when she called at the Chinese homes, and they set before her a dish of which she was especially fond, and she had eaten of it as much as she thought she ought, the ladies would ask in a good-natured way in reply to some of her remarks about her voracious appetite, "Shall we get down and knock our heads on the floor, and beg you not to eat too much, and make yourself sick, like the eunuchs do to the Emperor?" There is nothing to wonder at that Kuang Hsu, without parental restraint, and fawned upon by cringing eunuchs and serving maids, should have been a spoiled child; the wonder is that he was not worse than he was.

One day in 1901 while the court was absent at Hsian, and the front gate of the Forbidden City was guarded by our "boys in blue," I obtained a pass and visited the imperial palace. The apartments of the Emperor consisted of a series of one-story Chinese buildings, with paper windows around a large central pane of glass, tile roof and brick floor. The east part of the building appeared to be the living-room, about twenty by twenty-five feet. The window on the south side extended the entire length of the room, and was filled with clocks from end to end. There were clocks of every description from the finest French cloisonne to the most intricate cuckoo clocks from which a bird hopped forth to announce the hour, and each ticking its own time regardless of every other. Tables were placed in various parts of the room, on each of which were one, two or three clocks. Swiss watches of the most curious and unique designs hung about the walls. Two sofas sat back to back in the centre of the room, and a beautiful little gilt desk on which was the most wonderful of all his clocks, with several large foreign chairs upholstered in plush and velvet, completed the furniture. I sat down in one of these chairs to rest, for it was a hot summer day, and immediately there proceeded from beneath me sweet strains of music from a box concealed beneath the cushion. It was not only a surprise, it was soothing and restful; and I was prepared to see an electric fan pop out of somewhere and fan me to sleep. It was really an Oriental fairy tale of an apartment.

As Kuang Hsu grew to boyhood he heard that out in this great wonderful world, which he had never seen except with the eyes of a child, there was a method of sending messages to distant cities and provinces with the rapidity of a flash of lightning. For centuries he and his ancestors had been sending their edicts, and their Peking Gazette or court newspaper -- the oldest journal in the world -- by runner, or relays of post horses, and the possibility of sending them by a lightning flash appealed to him. He believed in doing things, and, as we shall see later, he wanted to do them as rapidly as they could be done. He therefore ordered that a telegraph outfit be secured for him, which he "played with" as he had done with his most ingenious toys, and the telegraph was soon established for court use throughout the empire.

One day a number of officials came to us at the Peking University and in the course of a conversation they said:

"The Emperor has heard that the foreigners have invented a talk box. Is that true?"

"Quite true," we replied, "and as we have one in the physical laboratory of the college we will let you see it."

We had one of the old Edison phonographs which worked with a pedal, and looked very much like a sewing-machine, and we took them to the laboratory, allowed one of them to talk into it, and then set the machine to repeating what had been told it. The officials were delighted and it was not long until they again appeared and insisted on buying it as a present for the Emperor, for in this way better than any other they might hope to obtain official recognition and position.

The Emperor then heard that the foreigners had invented a "fire-wheel cart," but whether he had ever been informed that they had built a small railroad at Wu-Sung near Shanghai, and that the Chinese had bought it, and then torn it up and thrown it into the river we cannot say. There are many things the officials and people do which never reach the imperial ears. However that may be, when Kuang Hsu heard of the railroad and the carts that were run by fire, he wanted one, and he would not be satisfied until they had built a narrow gauge railroad along the west shore of the lotus lake in the Forbidden City, and the factories of Europe had made two small cars and an engine on which he could take the court ladies for a ride on this unusual merry-go-round. The road and the cars and the engine were still there when I visited the Forbidden City in 1901, but they were carried away to Europe by some of the allies as precious bits of loot, before the court returned.

Not long after he had heard of the railroads, he was told that the foreigners also had "fire-wheel boats." Of course he wanted some, and as I crossed the beautiful marble bridge that spans the lotus lake, I saw anchored near by three small steam launches which had evidently been used a good deal. I saw similar launches in the lake at the Summer Palace, and was told that in the play days of his boyhood, Kuang Hsu would have these launches hitched to the imperial barges and take the ladies of the court for pleasure trips about the lake in the cool of the summer evenings, as the Empress Dowager did her foreign visitors in later times.

The Emperor in those days was on the lookout for everything foreign that was of a mechanical nature. Indeed every invention interested him. In this respect he was diametrically opposite to the genius of the whole Chinese people. Their faces had ever been turned backward, and their highest hopes were that they might approximate the golden ages of the past, and be equal in virtue to their ancestors. This feeling was so strong that a hundred years before he mounted the throne, his forefather, Chien Lung, when he had completed his cycle of sixty years as a ruler, vacated in favour of his son lest he should reign longer than his grandfather. Kuang Hsu was therefore the first occupant of the dragon throne whose face was turned to the future, and whose chief aim was to possess and to master every method that had enabled the peoples of the West to humiliate his people.

When he heard that the foreigners had a method of talking to a distance of ten, twenty, fifty or five hundred miles, he did not say like the old farmer is reported to have said, -- "It caint be trew, because my son John kin holler as loud as any man in all this country, an' he caint be heerd mor'n two miles." Kuang Hsu believed it, and at once ordered that a telephone be secured for him.

In 1894 the Christian women of China decided to present a New Testament to the Empress Dowager on her sixtieth birthday which occurred the following year. New type was prepared, the finest foreign paper secured, and the book was made after the best style of the printer's art, with gilt borders, gilt edges, and bound in silver of an embossed bamboo pattern and encased in a silver box. It was then enclosed in a red plush box, -- red being the colour indicating happiness, -- which was in turn encased in a beautifully carved teak-wood box, and this was enclosed in an ordinary box and taken by the English and American ministers to the Foreign Office to be sent in to Her Majesty

The next day the Emperor sent to the American Bible Society for copies of the Old and New Testaments, such as were being sold to his people. A few days thereafter a Chinese friend -- a horticulturist and gardener who went daily to the palace with flowers and vegetables -- came to me in confidence as though bearing an important secret, and said:

"Something of unusual importance is taking place in the palace."

"Indeed?" said I; "what makes you think so?"

"Heretofore when I have gone into the palace," said he, "the eunuchs have treated me with indifference. Yesterday they sat down and talked in a most familiar and friendly way, asking me all about Christianity. I told them what I could and they continued their conversation until long after noon. I finally became so hungry that I arose to come home. They urged me to stay, bringing in a feast, and inviting me to dine with them, and they kept me there till evening. One of them told me that the Emperor is studying the Gospel of Luke."

"How does he know that?" I inquired.

"That is what I asked him," he answered, "and he told me that he is one of the Emperor's private servants, and that His Majesty has a part of the Gospel copied in large characters on a sheet of paper each day, which he spreads out on the table before him, and this eunuch, standing behind his chair, can read what he is studying."

On further inquiry I discovered that there was no other way that the eunuch could have learned about the Gospel, except in the way indicated. This man was invited to dine with the eunuchs day after day until he had told them all he knew about Christianity, after which they requested him to bring in the pastor of the church of which he was a member, and who was one of my former pupils, to dine with them and tell them more about the Gospel. The pastor hesitated to accept the invitation, but as it was repeated day after day, he finally accompanied the horticulturist.

When offered wine at dinner the pastor refused it, at which the eunuch remarked: "Oh, yes, I have heard that you Christians do not drink wine," and like a polite host, the wine was put aside and none was drunk at the dinner. During the afternoon they took their guests to visit some of the imperial buildings, advanced the sum of three hundred dollars to the horticulturist to enlarge his plant, and gave various presents to the pastor.

It must not be inferred from this that the Emperor was becoming a Christian. Very far from it, though the interest he took in the Christian doctrine set the people to studying about it, not only in Peking but throughout many of the provinces, as was indicated at the time by the number of Christian books sold. As early as 1891 he issued a strong edict ordering the protection of the missionaries in which he made the following statement: "The religions of the West have for their object the inculcation of virtue, and, though our people become converted, they continue to be Chinese subjects. There is no reason why there should not be harmony between the people and the adherents of foreign religions." The Chinese reported that he sometimes examined the eunuchs, lining them up in classes and catechising them from the books read.

One day three of the eunuchs called on me with this same horticulturist, for the purpose no doubt of seeing a foreigner, and to get a glimpse of the home in which he lived. One of them was younger than the other two and above the average intelligence of his class. A few days later the horticulturist told me a story which illustrates a phase of the Emperor's character which we have already hinted at -- his impulsive nature and ungovernable temper. He had ordered a number of the eunuchs to appear before him, all of whom except this young man were unable to come, because engaged in other duties. When the eunuch got down on his hands and knees to kotow or knock his head to His Majesty, the latter kicked him in the mouth, cutting his lip and otherwise injuring him, and my informant added:

"What kind of a man is that to govern a country, a man who punishes those who obey his orders?" Indeed there was a good deal of feeling among the Chinese at that time that the Empress Dowager ought to punish the Emperor as a good mother does a bad child, though in the light of all the other things he did, he was to be pitied more than blamed for a disposition thus inherited and developed.

It was about this time he began the study of English. He ordered that two teachers be appointed, and contrary to all former customs he allowed them to sit rather than kneel while they taught him. At the time they were selected I was exchanging lessons in English for Chinese with the grandson of one of these teachers, and learned a good deal about the progress the young man was making. He was in such a hurry to begin that he could not wait to send to England or America for books, and so the officials visited the various schools and missions in search of proper primers for a beginner. When they visited us we made a thorough search and finally Dr. Marcus L. Taft discovered an attractively illustrated primer which he had taken to China with him for his little daughter Frances, and this was sent to Kuang Hsu.

One day a eunuch called on me saying that the Emperor had learned that the various institutions of learning, educational associations, tract and other societies had published a number of books in Chinese which they had translated from the European languages. I was at that time the custodian of two or three of these societies and had a great variety of Chinese books in my possession. I therefore sent him copies of our astronomy, geology, zoology, physiology and various other scientific books which I was at that time teaching in the university.

The next day he called again, accompanied by a coolie who brought me a present of a ham cooked at the imperial kitchen, together with boxes of fruit and cakes, which, not being a man of large appetite, I thanked him for, tipped the coolie, and after he had gone, turned them over to our servants, who assured me that imperial meat was very palatable. Day after day for six weeks this eunuch visited me, and would never leave until I had found some new book for His Majesty. They might be literary, scientific or religious works, and he made no distinction between the books of any sect or society, institution or body, but with an equal zeal he sought them all. I was sometimes reduced to a sheet tract, and finally I was forced to take my wife's Chinese medical books out of her private library and send them in to the Emperor. I learned that other eunuchs were visiting other persons in charge of other books, and that at this time Kuang Hsu bought every book that had been translated from any European language and published in the Chinese.

One day the eunuch saw my wife's bicycle standing on the veranda and said:

"What kind of a cart is that?"

"That is a self-moving cart," I answered.

"How do you ride it?" he inquired.

I took the bicycle off the veranda, rode about the court a time or two, while he gazed at me with open mouth, and when I stopped he ejaculated:

"That's queer; why doesn't it fall down?"

"When a thing's moving," I answered, "it can't fall down," which might apply to other things than bicycles.

The next day when he called he said:

"The Emperor would like that bicycle," and my wife allowed him to take it in to Kuang Hsu, and it was not long thereafter until it was reported that the Emperor had been trying to ride the bicycle, that his queue had become entangled in the rear wheel, and that he had had a not very royal tumble, and had given it up, -- as many another one has done.

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