Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

China's Long Sleep

"Thro' the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day:

Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay."

— Tennyson

W HILE the great continent of Africa was slowly accepting European civilisation, let us see how the continent of Asia was awakening. China—the "Celestial Empire"—the Cathay of the poets and Marco Polo—a country larger than the whole of Europe, and inhabited by no less than four hundred million human beings,—is one of the oldest nations on the earth. Before Abraham had made his journey from Chaldea to Egypt, this "black-haired" race of Chinese had their Emperor; while Greece was rising on the shores of the Great Sea, Confucius, the Chinese sage and teacher, was writing the history of his country.

"Behold," said the prophet Isaiah, speaking about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, "these shall come from afar . . . from the land of Sinim," which is China.

Even in these old days of long ago, as to-day, the government of China was very oppressive. Here is a story of Confucius. Seeing a woman crying by a tomb, as if she had suffered from "sorrow upon sorrow," Confucius spoke with her, and found that her father-in-law, her husband, and her son had all been killed on that spot by a tiger.

"Why, then, do you not move from this place?" asked the great teacher.

"Because," she replied, "here there is no oppressive government."

"My children," said Confucius, calling his disciples together, "remember this: oppressive government is fiercer than a tiger."

Such is the reverence to-day for Confucius, that the little Chinese boys with their shaved heads and black tufts of hair, have to bow to the tablet of the ancient sage, as they enter their school of a morning.

Great and clever were the Chinese in the days of old. Before the birth of Christ, they had built the first suspension-bridge in the world, and engineered their famous "Great Wall" of China, sections of which may be seen to-day. This colossal wall stretched in an unbroken line over mountain and plain, it was carried across rivers and over the tops of hills, till its battlements and towers seemed lost in space. 1500 miles long, its paved top formed a roadway, which for long centuries had been daily traversed by long caravans of camels, engaged in traffic between Mongolia, Siberia, and China.

They invented the mariner's compass; they discovered how to make silk; they manufactured the famous porcelain known by their name to-day; their literature was celebrated and printed five centuries before Europe discovered the art of printing; they invented copper coinage, and first used carrier-pigeons to bring home news from their ships.

But, as the centuries rolled on, and other nations absorbed new ideas, the Chinese remained stationary. Emperor succeeded emperor, and dynasty followed dynasty. Then came a day, when the first European penetrated into China, and Marco Polo brought back accounts of the Great Khan or Emperor, who ruled the vast Empire.

In the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders arrived on the coast. One of them made his way to the sacred capital of Peking, where he was instantly beheaded by the Emperor's orders. The Dutch followed, and were more successful, as they obtained leave to come "once every eight years" for purposes of trade. They were followed by English traders. Tea was now introduced into Europe, for the first time.

"I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink), of which I had never drunk before," says an Englishman in 1660.

With English supremacy in India, the British traders brought opium, from the poppy-fields of the Ganges into China, where it soon became very popular. More and more eagerly the natives of China thronged to meet the British opium-ships, till the Chinese Government forbade them to smoke it in any quantities.

War broke out between the British and Chinese in 1840, and the first Opium War ended in a treaty, which ceded the rocky island of Hong-Kong to England.

But the opium trade continued, and Chinese feeling grew bitter against the "foreign devils," as the Europeans were called. Wars and treaties followed. The English and French together took the Taku forts, at the mouth of the Peiho, which flows through Tientsin, and marched to the sacred capital. Here at Peking, within the walls of the Forbidden City, dwelt the Emperor—the Son of Heaven, as he was called, the ruler of the Celestial Empire. By his orders several Europeans had been imprisoned, and the allies now sought their release. This they obtained, and to impress the Chinese, the troops destroyed the wonderful Summer Palace at Peking.

Meanwhile the Chinese were torn by an internal rebellion, which now assumed very threatening proportions. A village schoolmaster, who thought himself inspired, announced that he was the Heavenly King, and rightful heir to the throne. He collected a band of followers, known as the Taipings; and ever-gathering hosts marched through China, plundering and seizing town after town. The Chinese were terror-struck at the sight of this fierce barbaric band with their tawdry dresses and long, lank, black hair. But there was no regular Chinese army to send against them. So Li Hung Chang, the most famous soldier and statesman of modern times, turned in his distress to an English officer at Shanghai. And in 1863 Major Gordon came to the rescue. With a quaintly-mixed army of Chinese and Europeans, in green turbans, of some 3000 men, he succeeded in quelling the Tai-ping rebellion. He captured city after city, until gradually the rebels—though three times the number of the "ever-victorious army"—melted away before his brilliant achievements.

It would take too long to tell how this Gordon went into the thickest battle, armed only with a small cane, called by the Chinese his "magic wand of victory"; how the oriental treachery of Li Hung Chang caused him to resign his command; and how he flogged from the room, with his magic wand, the treasure-bearers, who entered his presence with bowls of wealth from the Imperial treasury.

"Chinese Gordon" returned home from this rich country with a yellow jacket, a peacock's feather to be worn in his cap, and four suits of uniform proper to his rank of Ti-Tu, the highest in the Chinese army. It is reward enough for some men to have done their duty.

The years passed on, and China slowly opened door after door to European traders, though still little enough was known of the interior. When the idea of a railway was put before one of the Chinese princes, he answered: "I quite understand that in Europe you should employ iron rails to transport you from one end of your country to another. Here we use waggons. We may not travel so fast, but then we are never in a hurry."

Perhaps it was somewhat natural that China should be behind other countries to adopt railways. She possessed one of the largest rivers in the whole world—the Yangtze or Great River, which was navigable for 1000 miles inland. Hence it was not till 1894 that the first railway was opened from Tientsin to Peking, and this was due to European enterprise.

Gradually, however, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, Germany, and France, obtained rights and concessions, and each country sent a representative to live at Peking. Contact with the West seemed to be working for good, when suddenly in 1900 news flashed over the civilised world that riots had taken place at Peking; that bands of rebels, known as Boxers, who hated foreigners, had laid siege to the Legations; that the German ambassador had been murdered in the street, while numbers of missionaries with their wives and children had been massacred or burnt. Those who knew China well, felt there was little hope for the Europeans shut up in Peking. But after a gallant defence, they were relieved at last from their desperate position. It was all a bitter disappointment to those who had watched with satisfaction the awakening of China.

With her magnificent opportunities, her sea-coast, her excellent harbours, her forests of timber and rich mineral resources, with her thick population of energetic, industrious, and resourceful people, China may yet rise in the strength of a splendid past, to take her part in the history of the modern world.

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