The Boxer Rising
We know so much of those two remarkable women, Queen Elizabeth and Catherine the Great, that we may have forgotten another clever woman despot who was the directing figure of a tragedy of midsummer madness with which our present Twentieth Century opened. Her admirers and her enemies declared that she had at least as much courage and more intelligence than a man. Most of her high officials stood in dread of her. Yet, two of them dared to change her order to "slay all foreigners" to "protect all foreigners," but there was none in the whole Celestial Empire who could protect them from her fury once their interference was discovered.
This masterful woman, who had a cynical disregard for anything but her own safety and authority, did many astounding things. Apart from the supercession of one or two Emperors, she ordered her "Boxer Rebel-Patriots" to make war upon the World Powers, with the result that the Powers occupied and looted her capital.
She appointed a Chinese "Nero," whose hands were red with the blood of the saints, to take over another of her provinces after the Powers had made her discharge him from the governorship of Shantung; and she commanded him and the other governors to continue their massacres of missionaries and all other foreigners, including their women and children. But in the end, at the behest of the hated foreigner, she slew these high officials for having obeyed her orders.
The Son of Heaven had died in 1850, and another Emperor, Hsien Feng, reigned in his stead. Having mourned for his father for the prescribed period, the new Emperor commanded all the beautiful maidens among the Manchus to present themselves and their charms at the office of the Imperial Household when the widow of the late monarch would make a selection from their number for her son's harem.
The twenty-eight chosen maidens were divided into four grades, and one of them, Yehonala, was considered to be only worthy of second-grade honours among the inmates of the Forbidden City. At first she was known as Concubine Yi; later she became Empress, then the alternately loved and dreaded Empress - Dowager or Old Buddha.
But the Concubine Yi did not achieve her sceptre or retain it without considerable effort. She had great personal charm and intense vitality and these contributed largely to making her career such an amazing success. She devoted much time all through her long life to her toilet. Though she took opium sparingly, she enjoyed her pipe; but this did not deter her from soon establishing herself in the good graces of the new Emperor, a weak degenerate, incapable of wise rule, and of his widowed mother. And when she presented her husband with an heir to the throne, she was well on the way to becoming the real ruler of the Empire. But enemies were busy. In the whole history of Princes there are few more absorbing stories than that of the way in which the astute Yehonala outwitted the three plotters who induced the Emperor to decree that at his death they should become co-Regenus with full powers, whilst this wife, reported by the three to have been unfaithful, was expressly forbidden to exercise control even over the Heir Apparent.
The Empress, suspecting trouble, especially from that wild blade, the avaricious Su Shun, provided herself with an effective trump card. Though the Young Emperor died at the right moment the conspirators now discovered that his decree was not "lawfully transmitted authority" because it had not been sealed with the special seal, the reason being that the Empress had taken it in her charge.
That royal funeral procession from the Provinces back to the capital was drama indeed. Though in China the dead take precedence to the living, it was permissible for the Empress to hurry ahead, which she did in order to seize authority; but the three co-Regents had, by custom, to remain with the procession. Yet they had planned that the Empress, when passing at night through a narrow gorge, should be conveniently murdered.
But they reckoned without Jung Lu who was to become the Empress' chief counsellor, especially in the matter of the Boxers and the Foreign Legations. He hastened after her and escorted her safely through the ambush, a piece of diplomatic gallantry which brought him great reward.
When the funeral procession of the dead Emperor arrived in the City, the Empress received the co-Regents in audience, informed them curtly that she did not recognise their Regency for it had not been properly "sealed," and when they protested, ordered her waiting guards to arrest them. At this juncture the infuriated Su Shun turned on the other two conspirators and shouted, " Had you but taken my advice and slain the woman we should not have been in this plight to-day."
The Empress now dutifully followed her dead husband to the tombs of his ancestors. Upon her return she decreed her royal displeasure at the pretensions of the three co-Regents and, because his wife had insulted her, publicly declared that "our hair stands on end with horror at Su Shun's abominable treason." So she confiscated all Su Shun's possessions, amounting to some millions of pounds. Then she said that because the house-law of her dynasty permitted leniency, she would not decree death by slicing, as he deserved, but that he must immediately repair to the Empty Chamber for decapitation. She was also pleased to be still more lenient with the other two Regents to whom she now gave permission to commit suicide!
This was the monarch who swayed the destinies of China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Yet she was not a bloodthirsty Empress except when she was intrigued against, thwarted or insulted. When her ends were served her attitude was that of watchful leniency; she believed that a few victims were better than many, for it made her fewer enemies and more friends. She would have nothing to do with private feuds or revenges, and there were impulses of true affection and kindliness in her composite nature. Yet she could be revengful when her wishes were opposed, as when she learned that her late co-Empress had caused her favourite eunuch to be beheaded; she had the other eunuchs questioned by torture, and when his betrayer was discovered, she caused this man to be flogged to death in her palace.
In the early days of her power she leaned to the advice of her counsellors, but as her experience grew so did her autocratic instincts, and she showed an increasing impatience of advice. She saw to it that her high officers of state did not take advantage of their position; she made them all kneel when they were in audience; and when one of them rose unbidden she had him arrested and degraded. A doctor, called in to attend the Emperor when he was ill, could only diagnose his patient's troubles by listening to his symptoms as described by the Empress. "It is difficult," he said afterwards, "to look at a patient's tongue when his exalted rank compels you to keep your eyes fixed rigidly on the floor."
In the matter of the "foreign devils," as Europeans were called, the Empress was for a long time cautious and wily. She sympathised with her people in their desire to rid China completely of foreigners; but when the patriotic movement calling themselves the "Religious Fists," or Boxers, broke out in 28 villages of the Kuan District of Shantung, she did not hasten to give them her support. A successful rebellion against foreigners might end in a successful revolution against the Dynasty of the Son of Heaven!
But she was at one with her people in attributing the blame for the religious uprising to the offensiveness of the "foreign devils." And when she had watched that "grand sight," the firing of the French Church in Peking, and of hundreds of Christian converts, men, women and children, at which the stench of burning flesh was so great that her generals had to hold their noses," she was amazed at the Boxers' courage, and began to contemplate ordering a general attack on all "foreign devils." But she contented herself for the time with moving to another residence, appropriately named the Palace of Peaceful Longevity, because "all these alarms disturb my sleep."
The pride of the Empress and of her Empire had been shocked by the treatment received from the foreigners, who had been incapable of understanding the proud Chinese. China had her own "unrevealed" religion; it was the cult of a filial piety and a reverence for seniority intestifying with each generation. It had a strong sense of what was right and equitable and, according to its own reasoning, it practised the right, the good and the true. Innocently believing herself and her ancient Empire to be supreme, the Empress-Dowager was infuriated at being compelled by barbarian invaders, possessing the force to support their demands, to open her country to their goods and their missionaries.
The Empress and her advisers considered that it was an insult for the foreigner to send them missionaries to teach their ancient civilisation to prepare for another world when the behaviour of the invaders showed clearly that they themselves had no understanding of right conduct. For the Europeans said, in effect, that because there was money to be made in Chinese trade, they had a perfect right to a share in that trade. Instead of withdrawing their unwanted nationals from the Chinese provinces, the foreigners merely withdrew them from the jurisdiction of the Chinese courts. Because the Chinese sense of what was right was offended at this wrong, the Europeans introduced their missionaries to change their views of right and wrong conduct.
Moreover, treaties were forced upon them on the understanding that if they were violated the Chinese would be made to pay dearly for it.
Yet some of the Chinese admitted that the missionaries did much good, though they were sometimes a cause of trouble. Against this the Europeans argued that the native customs were barbarous, the Chinese jails hells, judges were corrupt, there was much injustice, torture was practised and that the punishments ordered were diabolical.
Nevertheless, China, so proud of herself, so confident in her own supremacy, was wounded to the core by this subjection to barbarian dictation which had been continuing for half a century. Consequently any new patriotic movement would be assured of a popular following when the cry was raised, "Kill the Foreign Devils."
These Boxers were the rowdiest fanatical recruits enlisted by the train-bands or militia brought into existence to enable China to protect herself against foreign aggression. They practised various mysterious rites which they believed made them immune from bullets, and victorious in war. Many of them were boys of thirteen and fourteen who would go through various antics; they would fall down foaming at the mouth, then rise and gasp wildly making uncouth noises at any one near them. Their leaders would declare that these signs of magic art were heralds of victory; the missionaries said they were devil-possessed.
The Boxers carried into battle a small piece of yellow paper which was their talisman. Painted in vermilion on this talisman paper was a figure composite of a man, a saint and a devil. It had a head with four haloes but no feet. On its body were the characters for Buddha, the Tiger and the Dragon. On one corner was an invocation to the Guardian of Heaven and on the opposite corner, another to the black gods of pestilence. These and other incantations scrolled on the paper were learned by heart by the Empress Dowager and repeated by her seventy times daily. At the conclusion of each repetition her Chief Eunuch shouted: "There goes one more foreign devil!"
When an enemy had been captured the Boxers asked the spirits to decide whether he should live or die. They obtained their answer by rolling a ball of paper and setting it alight: if the ash blew away the captive was freed; if the ash fell to the ground he died. But it was always possible to ensure that the ash fell by using heavier paper.
What must have surprised these fanatics was the martyr-spirit of the despised Christian converts, or "secondary devils," as they were called. After fifty missionaries had been slaughtered in a wild saturnalia of blood-lust the one surviving Christian convert went every day to the scene and, as a protesting prophet, preached Christianity to everybody, including the murderers.
Rumours reached one village that the Boxers were coming and that trouble would follow and the missionaries asked what their converts proposed to do? One boy, the eldest of a Christian family, rose and said that he intended to die for Christ; his little brother of fourteen said that he would do the same. A few weeks later the Boxers arrived, decked with ribbons, carrying swords, and began their rites. The order was given to kill, and the orgy of blood-lust began. The two brothers, who had pledged themselves to die for the hated religion, were among the first to be butchered. Whilst many Christian converts fled into the hills one Chinese widow named Meng stayed on. One morning, as she sat at her loom, a band of murderers thundered at her door. She met them bravely begging only permission to make ready. She changed her dress, prayed, and in a moment or two was back calmly offering her head for decapitation. Her friends said of her that she went to the Celestial Gate by the nearest road.
Whole families were ruthlessly wiped out. At Hsin Chou the Boxer chieftain refused to sit in judgment on a husband of thirty, his mother of fifty-seven, his sister of thirty-six and his wife of nineteen. Their captors might do with them as they liked. They were taken to a lonely spot by the roadside and ordered to recant. Previously they had been singing the hymn "He leadeth me." The man, having refused to deny his religion, was beheaded with a huge knife used for cutting straw, while the others looked bravely on. The Boxers turned to the mother who said, "You've killed my son, now kill me," and she too was a victim to the great knife. The sister followed and then the young wife said that since her relatives were gone, she had nothing left to live for, they could kill her too.
An old man declined to betray the whereabouts of the hidden converts; he was ordered to be stripped and beaten with a bamboo. After receiving over 1,000 strokes he was put into prison with his feet in wooden stocks. Happily he died four days later. Another old man, who refused to turn informer, was put into a cage with his head only protruding - a cruel torture - and afterwards executed. One woman was buried alive. Yet another, who was offered his liberty if he would defile a cross made on the ground, stolidly refused, and was executed. Others were terribly mutilated before execution. Women were first outraged, then murdered. One torture was to drive a stick, lengthwise through the body.
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