« AnteriorContinua »
A BLEAK REGION. 457
manner. This period was one also of almost incessant warfare, not only on the extreme frontiers, but also in some of the more inaccessible districts of the interior. Yet no campaign on a large scale, signalized either by some great triumph, or by some equally decisive reverse, was fought to redeem the memory of these small wars from oblivion. When it has been stated that there were insurrections in Hupeh and Szchuen, seditious movements in Leaoutung and Yunnan, that there were disturbances among the fierce Miaotse, and the tribes of the Tibetan border, enough has been said to illustrate the condition of the country, and to show the vicissitudes of empire. None of these wars attained serious dimensions, and in all the encounters necessary to vindicate the authority of the Government, the arms of Hientsong were crowned with victory.
One contest, and one alone, threatened to assume a larger aspect, and may fairly claim brief description in this place. In the bleak region round the sources of the Hoangho, where scattered tribes have found it difficult, from the remotest ages, to gain a sustenance for themselves and their flocks, the chief Patan had gathered into his hands some of the power of -.upremc authority. His town or permanent camp, with its mud rampart, appeared in the eyes of his simple race as good a symbol of kingly power as the more pretentious buildings of the greater capitals seemed to a people of higher culture. The first ruler of Chechen, as this district was called, was quite satisfied to recognize the supremacy of the Chinese Emperor. Patan had been the faithful ally and dependent of the later princes of the Yuen dynasty, and when they were displaced and vanished from the scene he transferred his allegiance without hesitation to the new ruler Hongwou.
Time went on, and the arrangement, which had seemed natural and prudent to Patan and his son, assumed an irksome character in the eyes of the ambitious Mansu, the grandson of the former chief. The Chinese declared that he availed himself of his favourable position to make his town the refuge-place for all the evil-doers on the western borders, and certainly he adopted the attitude of a man who conceived that he had some more profitable and distinguished work to do than to guide the fortunes and sway the councils of a pastoral tribe. His first collision with the Chinese authorities was caused by a dispute over the collection of the small tribute for which he was liable, and the removal of this difficulty was not facilitated by the existence of a sanctuary controversy. A small body of troops received directions to march against him, but Mansu was on his guard. He succeeded in taking them by surprise, and overwhelmed this detachment in the narrow approaches to his capital. This victory invested his party with a more formidable character than had yet been attached to it, but it also entailed the grave peril of marking him out as an irreclaimable foe of China. Fresh troops were sent against him; his followers, dismayed by the sight of the extensive military preparations brought to bear on them, deserted him, and at last Mansu himself fell into the hands of his enemy. His fate was intended to act as a warning to any who might aspire to imitate him, and on his arrival at the capital he was forthwith executed as a rebel.
Two measures of domestic policy carried out by the Emperor Hientsong attracted considerable notice, and both excited almost universal condemnation. The first of these was the creation of a Council of Eunuchs, into whose hands were placed all matters of life and death. At first it seemed as if this creation of a new administrative body aimed only at humouring a whim of the ruler, and it was not seriously anticipated that this tribunal would exercise much influence over practical affairs. It soon became clear, however, that its functions were more than honorary, and, as a body of troops was specially set apart for the execution of its behests, the new council rapidly became an engine of tyranny. The part taken by its members in the work of administration was most important, and the character of its charter also absolved it from responsibility. No one knew what decrees it passed, but none could escape the malice of a private enemy who happened to be a member of this Chinese Star Chamber. During five years this palace conclave was the terror of the land, but at last the public outcry against it became so loud that Hientsong had to suspend its functions, although he still FEUDALISM. 459
hesitated to destroy the work of his own hands. The nation was little satisfied with this inadequate reparation, and after its members had been formally denounced as enemies of the state, several of the principal of them were sentenced to death. Hientsong's popularity thereupon revived, and his subjects charitably attributed to weakness and amiability his having so long condoned the criminal and tyrannical proceedings of this section of his most intimate courtiers.
In the second measure, of which the consequences did not become immediately perceptible, will be found one of the chief causes that operated towards effecting the early overthrow and destruction of the Mings. The members of the reigning House, and all who had contributed to its elevation, naturally expected some reward for their position or their services; and it became their first ambition to obtain territorial grants from the Sovereign, and to found an estate which could be handed down as a patrimony to their descendants. The feudal practices and system had died out in China many centuries before, and it was not to be supposed that a people, like the Chinese, strongly imbued with the principles of equality, and only recognizing as a superior class the representatives of officialdom and letters, would look with much favour on any attempt to revive an order of territorial magnates with whom they had no sympathy. Hientsong himself felt no strong interest in the matter. He knew the people's mind on this subject, and he was aware that the authority of the King is rather diminished than enhanced by the presence of a powerful and warlike nobility, who have always been prone to see in the ruler the highest member of their order rather than the "divinely elected" guide of a people. On the other hand, he was not sufficiently cold to resist the importunities of his friends. In the matter, therefore, of making territorial grants to the more prominent of his supporters he vacillated from one side to the other. The representations of one of the censors led him to pass an edict against any territorial concessions, but within a very few weeks of this firm and wise decision he was so far influenced by his relatives that he conferred several grants of land on members of his family. The rule once broken was seldom afterwards rigidly enforced, and gradually the scions of the Ming family became territorial magnates to the great discontent of the people. It was in the eyes of the latter a flagrant interference with the laws of providence to "assign to one man a district which could supply the wants of a hundred families."
While this cause for discontent not only existed but was acquiring fresh force throughout the country, the extravagance of the court had resulted in grave pecuniary embarrassment, and, as some possible means of supplying urgent wants, orders were given to resume the working of all the gold mines in Central China upon which operations had been long discontinued. More than half a million of persons were employed, but the result was next to nothing. Many lives were lost from fever, and the total sum which the Emperor derived from this desperate expedient and experiment amounted to no more than thirty ounces. The search for gold was then abandoned in despair, but we are not told whether the Emperor sought the true remedy of his embarrassment in retrenchment and economy.
On the other hand, several undertakings of great public utility must be placed to the credit of Hientsong, and among these not the least important was the cutting of a canal from Pekin to the Peiho, sufficiently deep to admit of large junks laden with grain proceeding to the capital both from the Yuho and from the Gulf of Pechihli. The transport of grain from the central provinces, in order to supply the wants of the capital and of the northern districts, where a large garrison was permanently stationed, was always very extensive, and a regular organization was required to maintain it in an efficient state. At first it had been placed in the hands of the civil authorities, but eventually it was transferred to those of the military, by whom the work was performed with remarkable success. In this measure may be seen the germ of an efficient military field transport, although it must be remembered that here the great difficulty of all was much simplified by the existence of a convenient water-way throughout the entire route.
Another enterprise of a dissimilar but not less useful character was accomplished in the repairing of the great wall THE GREAT WALL. 461
of Tsin Chi Hwangti. In 1474 it was reported in a memorial to the throne that this structure was in a state of great disrepair, and that the flourishing condition of the Empire afforded a favourable opportunity for restoring it. The necessary sanction having been obtained from the Emperor, the work was prosecuted with energy. The local garrison supplied the labour, and in a few months the wall had been renovated throughout a great portion of its length by the efforts of 50,000 soldiers. A large extent of territory within this wall was then parcelled out among military settlers, and while there was increased security from without, greater prosperity prevailed within.
The closing years of Hientsong's reign witnessed the achievement of several brilliant successes over the Tartars. The town of Hami was taken by one of his lieutenants, and again subjected to Chinese authority. But on the northern frontier near Taitong the Imperialists suffered a reverse, which the unlucky commanders represented in their official bulletins as a success. The latter misadventure was exceptional, and the capture of Hami more truly represented the condition of the Empire, when Hientsong's death left the throne vacant . (a.d. 1487.)
His son and successor, Hiaotsong, was a youth of eighteen when he was called upon to assume the grave responsibility of governing the Empire, but his youth does not appear to have led him into any greater indiscretion than to show a marked partiality for the doctrines of Buddhism. In China, although such a tendency has long been common, and although Buddhism now holds an important part in the religious ceremonies and belief of the court, a leaning towards Buddhism has always been denounced as a kind of infidelity. The moralists of the palace and the petitioners of the throne have ever seized the opportunity thus afforded them to dilate upon the virtues of the great men of a primitive era, and to protest against the immorality of these later days. So it was in the case of Hiaotsong; but whatever his errors of opinion, his acts as ruler appear to have been founded in wisdom, and marked by generosity towards those who disagreed with him.