« AnteriorContinua »
( 209 )
THE DECLINE OF THE TANGS.
It must not be supposed that, because the decline of the Tangs is dated from the accession of Hientsong, the son and successor of Chuntsong, he was in any degree worse than the princes who had immediately preceded him. The fact is that when he came to the throne the shortcomings of the race were commencing to bear fruit in a general complication of difficulties, and the public mind was beginning to grasp the notion that it might be necessary to replace the Tangs with another line of rulers. The reign of Hientsong offers, therefore, an appropriate starting-point in the description of the rapid decline and fall of the great family which had united China and restored its ancient splendour.
The state of the administration had been reduced to such a low pass by the irregularities of the eunuchs that the new Emperor found himself compelled to adopt a more circumspect line of conduct than was either politic or in accordance with his own wishes. The one element of strength in his government consisted in the attention which his chief general Weikiao paid to the interests of the army. The pay and the pensions to the widows and children of those who had fallen in the service of the country were always forthcoming, no matter to what straits the exchequer might be reduced ; and this prudent conduct ensured a stability to the Emperor's authority far in excess of its actual hold on either the affection or the respect of the people. The very first year of his reign witnessed an opportunity for showing how invaluable still was the possession of the strongest military force in the country. Lieoupi, a refractory governor in the province of Szchuen, had exceeded the limits of the license necessarily accorded to the viceroys during a period when the Emperor felt very uncertain about the security of his own position. At first Hientsong had striven to keep him within the bounds of good humour by overlooking certain acts in his conduct which he might fairly have condemned, but the condescension of the Emperor only increased the arrogance of the rebellious subject. An army was then sent into Szchuen, and Lieoupi's ambition was summarily cut short. The wisdom of the general sent against him produced a great impression in that province, which again became firmly attached to the Empire. Several insurrections on a small scale occurred to attract the attention and excite the anxiety of the government; but none of these, with the exception of that of Lissetao, were of sufficient importance to call for comment. This chief set up the standard of revolt in Shantung, where he maintained the semblance of independent authority for some time. Against him in due time an army was sent, and such was its reputation that Lissetao's followers refused to oppose it. Lissetao was taken from his palace to the public square, where he and his two sons were executed as rebels. Successful over the domestic enemy, the Imperialists were not less fortunate against the foreign foes they had to encounter in the Tibetans. The successful defence of the city of Yenchow against a numerous host of those persistent enemies of the Chinese is celebrated in the annals of the period, and their withdrawal, after a relieving force had made a demonstration on their line of retreat, crowned the results of the campaign. Hientsong may be considered to have been a well-meaning prince of moderate abilities. His partiality for Buddhism was his predominant fault, and in the eunuchs he was too much disposed to see an injured caste. These latter obtained a strong hold over his conduct, and although often warned against these insidious advisers he never profited by the remonstrances frequently addressed to him. On several occasions he even interfered to protect them. Hientsong was also addicted to the superstitious practices then in vogue, and believed in the possibility of extending life to an WINE OF IMMORTALITY.
exceptional degree by drinking the elixirs prepared by the quack doctors of the age. On one occasion he suffered from having taken an overdose of the “wine of immortality," and in his exasperation he ordered many of the eunuchs to be executed. He spared a sufficient number, however, to leave avengers for their slaughtered comrades, and, persisting in his potations of the elixir, he found the only immortality in the poison which had been introduced into his draught by the eunuch Chin Hongtsi. This event took place in A.D. 820, when Hientsong had occupied the throne during fifteen years.
His son Moutsong succeeded him, but his indifference to the duties of his post was not concealed from the first day of his assumption of power. The neglect which he showed in taking steps for the detection and punishment of his father's murderers augured ill for the character of his reign ; and his heedless manner, when remonstrated with, created a still more unfavourable impression. The etiquette of the court ordained that, for a deceased ruler, there should be mourning during three years, a regulation which was no doubt only religiously carried out in the case of some prince who had peculiarly distinguished himself. But within a few weeks of his father's murder Moutsong gave a fête on a large scale-an outrage on the ordinary decencies of life. His subjects could without difficulty infer from this conduct the character of their new ruler, and his later acts did not cause them to change their original opinion.
The only event of any importance of the reign was the conclusion of a "sworn peace” with Tibet in the year A.D. 821. The Sanpou of that day sent a special envoy to Singan to propose that by each country "weapons shall be put by." A treaty of peace was concluded on this basis, and proclaimed with every formality, and although small incursions continued to take place, now on one side, now on the other, for some years afterwards, the long struggle between the Tibetans and the Chinese then virtually reached its close. There was a feeling of respect on both sides; and when the intercourse was resumed at a later period, the government of Tibet remembered only the ties which bound it to China, and not the long and sanguinary wars of these two centuries.
In itself this was an event of sufficient importance to redeem Moutsong's memory from complete forgetfulness.
Moutsong was another believer in the virtues of the elixir of immortality, and in A.D. 824 he also paid the penalty of his credulity with his life.
His son Kingtsong, the next Emperor, was the exact counterpart of his father. Equally indifferent and good tempered, he followed his own inclinations, and treated all the remonstrances of his ministers with the lenience of one too well satisfied with himself to be angry. His ministers thought to bring him back to a sense of duty by presenting him with a very handsome screen of six wings, on each of which moral precepts peculiarly applicable to himself were inscribed. He is reported to have examined the gift with great care, to have read the sentences with attention, and to have observed that it was a very pretty ornament. He neither profited by the advice nor expressed any indignation at its being given. He was supremely indifferent to everything. His occupation of the throne was of only two years' duration, and when he absented himself from his council he lost the support of the thoughtful among his ministers. He also incurred the hostility of the eunuchs, who murdered him after a debauch. These attempted to set up a ruler of their own choice, but they failed in their attempt. They had to accept Kingtsong's brother, Prince Lihan, who was proclaimed his successor, and began his reign in A.D. 826 under the style of Wentsong.
Wentsong proved himself to be a man of considerable force of character. He owed his elevation to the support of the eunuchs, but he regarded them personally with ill-concealed aversion. It became the object of his life to shake off the authority which they claimed over him, and to drive them from the powerful position which they had quietly appropriated. He carried out several beneficent reforms, and his attention to public business was praiseworthy; but his whole energy was devoted to the struggle with the eunuchs. Not safe in the precincts of his own palace, he had to dissimulate his aversion to them, and his ministers were unfortunately destitute of the resolution required to grapple EUNUCHS TRIUMPHANT.
with and dispel, once and for all, the danger to the welfare of the state. The officials in the country were more zealous than those in the town, and had less hesitation in naming the national enemies ; but then they were remote from the scene, and were spectators rather than actors in the crisis. In A.D. 829 an edict was passed compelling the eunuchs to confine themselves to the palace and its surroundings; but this they viewed with indifference, as it was restricting them to the sphere of their ordinary duties.
Six years after the passing of this regulation, Wentsong entered into a plot with several of the principal of his ministers to get rid of the eunuchs. There were many who wished to have the credit of performing this patriotic work, and there were others glad to do the bidding of their prince. The secret was well kept, and up to the last the eunuchs had no idea of the impending danger. At the critical moment, however, the leaders lost their nerve, and the eunuchs, hastily collecting their followers, made good their position against their assailants. They had lost ten or twelve of their number, but it was now their turn to strike, and their blow went home. Sixteen hundred mandarins and one thousand of their supporters among the people fell in one day before the vengeance of these infuriated persons. Not content with slaughtering their opponents, they executed their relations in order to appease their revengeful instincts. Discouraged by the failure of this scheme, and unable to renew the attempt, Wentsong became a mere puppet in their hands. His later years were rendered miserable by the remembrance of this overthrow, and it was a happy release when, broken down in health, his life closed in A.D. 840, after a reign of fourteen years. He had measured himself against the power of the eunuchs, and he had been ignominiously beaten. After so severe a defeat, morally and physically, he had no alternative but to die.
Wentsong wished that one of his sons should succeed him, and, perhaps for no other reason than that he wished it, the eunuchs would accept neither. They chose Wentsong's brother, who took the name of Voutsong. Voutsong showed no scruple in forcing his way into power, like another