The Land of Morning Calm suffered so much from her chronic disease of insurrection, caused by the rapacity of her nobles and the weakness of her central government, that it became a menace to the peace of the East. The palace and capital were under the control of the women of the harem, the eunuchs, and the sorcerers rather than of statesmen. The court and the government were not separated. The little kingdom was liable at any time to become a prey to the cupidity of foreign nations, especially since the old-fashioned European doctrine of "the balance of power" had been extended even to the Far East. When Russia made a move on the northern frontier, Great Britain, in order to keep equilibrium, seized Port Hamilton. Both these powers ignored the wishes of the weakling, for the pigmy kingdom was not able even to play the balance-beam on the see-saw.
In China, under Li Hung Chang's directions, Port Arthur and Wei-hai-wei, the sea gateways to the capital, were fortified by German engineers, and an army was drilled by German officers. There was talk of Bismarck's buying Formosa, where German marines first used the needle gun.
In the Land of the Rising Sun the evolution of a public school army, in which every man could read and write, and assembled on modern lines of organization, proceeded rapidly. Sooner or later collision with the Chinese claim of universal sovereignty was inevitable. In Russia's contempt for the Japanese as an inferior race, as "yellow monkeys," and her determination to control eastern Asia by land and sea, Japan saw another imminent danger. Meanwhile the islanders were very skeptical of China's ability, in case of war, either to defend herself or to enforce neutrality.
Neither Russia nor Great Britain was alone in readiness of aggression against weak China. France also was full of the spirit of conquest. Her agents had shown this by interfering in Japanese affairs in 1868, offering to aid the reactionary party, and also by invading Korea in 1870, as we have seen.
It was clear that, sooner or later, the claim of France to stand as the protector in Asia of the Roman Catholic Christians would bring her into collision with China, the church nation. Under all dynasties, the Peking government clings to the Confucian ritual as of divine origin. France having gained so great a point in diplomacy in shielding native Chinese Christians, it remained now to find some vulnerable point in China's "face." This the French did in Annam, just as the Germans did later in Shantung in 1897.
France had failed to colonize America, but as early as 1715 the Roman form of Christianity was introduced by French missionaries in Annam. With success came difficulties between the converts and other natives. Some French priests were murdered. France interfered, and a treaty was made. When in 1858 the King of Annam would not fulfill the promised terms, a French fleet destroyed some forts at Hue, the capital, and took Saigon. In 1864 Cochin China was ceded to France, becoming a French colony.
After the Franco-Prussian War France entered upon a commercial crusade, hoping by this means to recoup the losses by war in Europe. Something like the spirit of filibustering that disturbed the United States in the days of Presidents Fillmore and Pierce, when Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua were invaded by private bands of adventurers from the United States, broke out in France. The great prize in view was the possession of the trade routes to Yunnan, which the British also were expecting to gain through Burma. Hanoi, the capital of Tong King, was the point of attack. The French hoped to gain this province and build railways into China proper. Langson, a town eighty miles distant and near the frontier of Yunnan, was to be the prize of French strategy.
The King of Annam appealed to the Chinese Emperor for protection, but ten years of negotiation failed to yield satisfaction either to Peking or to Paris. Meanwhile the Annamese king hired Chinese volunteers, or irregular troops, called the Black Flags. When the French threatened an attack upon them, Marquis Tseng in Paris gave notice that this would mean war. As neither China nor France wanted this, a conference was held at Tien Tsin. Yet while tortoise-slow China, then the land without nerves or telegraphs, crawled, not having learned the value of time, the French leaped like a greyhound. The Peking authorities forgot or neglected to notify their troops either as to the time of their withdrawal, or of the proposed French occupation of Langson. In this era of telegrams, orders from Europe were received over night. When in 1884 the French moved to occupy the places named, they were repulsed. Paris at once charged Peking with treachery, but the Chinese claimed that the French, no date having been specified, were in too much of a hurry, and were equally breakers of good faith.
Admiral Courbet, to whom a monument was unveiled in Formosa in 1910, was a stalwart up-holder of French interests. He bombarded Keelung in Formosa, and then appeared before Foo Chow on the mainland. Before the Chinese suspected his purpose, it being a time of peace, he was inside the Min or Pearl River and in the rear of the Chinese forts and fleet. Receiving orders by telegram from Paris, he summoned both to surrender and was refused. The French, then the best artillerists in the world, opened fire and in a few minutes destroyed both forts and fleet. Courbet returned to Formosa, took Keelung, and occupied it. In Tong King, however, the Black Flags were more than a match for their enemies, and the French had to retreat from Langson.
Such a war had in it neither glory nor profit to either party. To France it was frightfully costly. By the treaty of June 9, 1885, matters were left very much as before, except that China was again called on to pay an indemnity of ten million taels. After other experiences, as with Japan in 1894-95, and with the powers in 1900, China found it cheaper, as Japan had already done, to arm and fight, than to trust to the honor of nations, whether Christian or pagan. It was plain that the sons of Han could face their foes, white or brown, if they could be properly armed and led.
The humiliating experiences of the Chinese still further opened their eyes. Men must go down into a well if they would see the reality of stars during daylight hours. As in every other case of China's collision with Western powers, reforms followed, and in 1886 a navy was formed. The northern squadron of modern steel battleships and cruisers, built in England and Germany, was in use by 1890. China was not yet enough of a nation, or sufficiently unified, to have all the national ships under one head. The southern squadron was put under local officials in the south, with headquarters at Foo Chow, Captain Lang of the British fleet in command; but the inevitable misunderstanding, or quarrel, concerning the relative rank and authority of foreigner and native came in due time.
The Peking government felt the necessity of learning the news of the world quickly, and the short telegraph line between Tung Chow and Yunnan was extended to Peking. China's nervous system was thus improved. Of old she had been compared to an alligator, the head of which, if a pin was stuck into its tail, would only after some minutes know what had happened. Nothing of the celerity of the dragon, which she bore on her yellow flag, marked her movements. The actual creature in diplomacy seemed too long in trying to swallow the sun.
From being a boneless, nerveless giant, China was becoming more like a normal man, with a prospect of being something of an athelete, and instantly responsive. In old days, a war in one province was of so little concern to another, that thousands of men might be slaughtered by foreigners at one end of the empire without arousing much feeling in other provinces. It did not occur to Chinese in the interior that things done at the seashore concerned them also. Race pride did not mean patriotism. Without newspapers, telegraphs, railways, and public schools, the Chinese could not become a body politic, sensitive in every part of its frame. The mollusk must become vertebrated.
This evolution, into a type of political structure with a backbone, was rapidly promoted by events. The customs service, organized all over the empire under the supervision of Sir Robert Hart, helped greatly the cause of national unity; yet without representation of the people in the central government, there was little hope of rapid progress. So long as merit or blame rested wholly with the emperor or his servants the people felt no responsibility. Some attempt was made to create a national consciousness and also to improve and revise the civil service examinations. Mathematics were introduced, but the old-fashioned scholars opposed the innovation and nullified the expected benefit.
The woes of a land whose prince was a child seemed to have surcease for a while, when, in 1887, the boy emperor came of age. In 1889 he married, and to the joy of an army of menials and contractors, who fatten on the tax-paying people, over $5,000,000 were lavished on the wedding ceremonies. The dowager empress now retired, and in 1891 the young emperor gave audience to the foreign ministers. Yet though many rejoiced at this, the coming of the new kingdom, which foreigners waited for, still tarried. Evidences of the literary bigotry yet to be overcome were seen in the opposition of the men of letters in the Yangtse valley to the proposed reforms in the examinations. The anti-foreign spirit of the soldiers was also pronounced, Honan being the centre of opposition. The most horribly blasphemous pictures and tracts against the Christian religion, and the old story of kidnapping children and using their eyes for chemicals—easily believed in a country where science was not taught—were widely circulated.
In many places riots broke out, Christian churches were wrecked, and two foreigners were killed. The Peking government, too weak to ferret out the culprits, evaded the task and paid money, which the foreigners too readily received. The emperor issued an edict, saying some good things about the religion of the missionaries and their motives and aims. The local magistrates were to protect the property and lives of foreigners. There was as yet, however, no real religious freedom granted, and the seed of troubles still remained.
While China's chronic diseases, corruption in the government, favoritism of the mandarins, and love of falsehood, still persisted, there was little hope of genuine reform. No machinery of iron, wood, or stone has ever been devised that can make men virtuous. Because the Chinese government spent plenty of money in buying ships, weapons, and ammunition from foreigners, it was supposed by them that China was "awakening," and Li Hung Chang was liberal-minded. Such a showy policy pleased all lovers of material progress, for arsenals were built and young men trained in the navy and army.
At Yokohama, in 1873, I met Dr. Yung Wing, who, brought to Massachusetts by Dr. S. R. Brown in 1847, won prizes and graduated from Yale College. He had orders from Peking to take six-score youths to America to be educated. They came to New England and were making excellent progress. The conservatives in Peking, however, feared that these lads might become too American, human, and modern, and the boys were all recalled after a few months. Those who hope for reform, even if they begin in their boyhood, must expect to count a good many gray hairs on their heads, and probably lose even these, before China is fully modernized. We must expect reaction from time to time, for the course from old disease to perfect health is never a straight one.
Again the Central Empire's ancient claim of exclusive sovereignty proved her undoing and humiliation, when unreformed China came into collision with new Japan. By piercing the elephant-like crust of conservatism, the logic of events hastened the day of reconstruction. In Korea, the weak spot of the Far East, one of the chronic southern insurrections broke out early in 1894, this time led by the bead of the Tong Haks, who were followers of Oriental culture as opposed to Western ideas. Unable to repress the uprising, the pro-Chinese party in Seoul applied for help. The Peking government, violating the Li-Ito treaty, sent into Korea a force of two thousand soldiers first, and then gave notice to Tokyo, saying that Korea was "Our vassal state." At once the Mikado's government sent a larger force to Korea under strict discipline, and notified Peking that any further despatch of Chinese troops would be an act of war.
Despite this warning, China chartered the British transport Kow Shing, and put on board eleven hundred men. Escorted by two Chinese men-of-war, she was met by Captain (afterwards Admiral) Togo, in the steel cruiser Naniwa. Knowing the treaty had been violated, Togo signaled to the Kow Shing to surrender or to go to a Japanese port as a prize of war. The Chinese soldiers would neither yield nor let the foreign officers off the ship. Togo kept his signals flying four hours. He then ran up the red flag, and sunk the transport with a broadside. He was justified by the verdict of international law.
War was now declared from both Tokyo and Peking, the document of the Mikado being in the temperate language of civilized nations, while that from Peking was violent, abusive, and boastful, echoing the ancient notions of Chinese statecraft.
The real kernel of the whole matter was that China, despite her solemn treaties, had not yet, either in regard to Riu Kin, Formosa, or Korea, sincerely accepted international law, and in now flaunting her doctrine of universal sovereignty, gave the first provocation. The Tong Hak insurrection and all the incidents following it, including the murder of the Korean reformer, Kim Ok Kiun, in Shanghai, and the transportation of the corpse in a Chinese warship to be delivered to the Seoul government for savage mutilation, were mere matters of occasion, but were not causes. There was no hope for Japan, or for peace, so long as China held to a doctrine that nullified all her treaty promises.
Two Asiatic nations now confronted each other in war, one having but a tenth part of the population, area, and resources of the other; the discrepancy and contrast being so great as to recall the conflict of David and Goliath. One was inclosed in obsolete panoply, the other wielded expertly its weapons. Japan had an army educated in the public schools, inflamed with patriotism, led by officers filled with the noblest ideals of loyalty, masters of modern science, and backed by helpful women fully as intelligent as the men. Moreover, Japan went to war with a creditable hospital corps, including ships and hundreds of trained nurses.
China's real army consisted of about thirty thousand troops drilled in modern style, her northern forts were modern and strong, and her steel navy large, including battleships, while the Japanese had only cruisers. There existed no regular provision for the treatment of the Chinese sick and wounded, and the war equipment of most of the new soldiers called out was medieval.
Those who knew the situation predicted, with only ordinary foresight, what would happen, or, as the writer declared, when the news of the war's outbreak was first received: "There will be one great battle—at Ping Yang. The regular forces of the Chinese will be beaten. After that the Japanese will go through China as a knife goes through cheese."
The Mikado's soldiers gained their first victory over the Chinese at Asan and won the battle at Ping Yang. The Japanese sailors, with only cruisers and no battleships, crippled the Chinese fleet near the Yalu River mouth, five vessels under the dragon flag being sunk, and the rest, seven in number, put to flight. Korea was swept clean of Chinese troops, and Marshal Yamagata occupied southern Manchuria. After taking two cities, he assaulted Port Arthur November 21, capturing the stronghold which had been considered impregnable. General Oyama landed another army and took the forts at Wei-hai-wei.
The Peking government sent two separate missions to Japan to treat for peace, but without giving the envoys full power. After this incredible piece of conceit, the war went on. The Japanese blew up the Chinese battleships, turning the guns of the forts against the former garrison. Admiral Tang committed suicide.
The court had disgraced Li Hung Chang, but called him again to honor and sent him as peace commissioner to Shimonoseki, where he was shot at and wounded by one of those assassins so numerous in Japan's history. On the 17th of April, 1895, a treaty was signed which declared the independence of Korea, ceded the Liao Tung peninsula, including Port Arthur, to Japan, opened five new ports to trade, and required China to pay to Japan within seven years an indemnity of two hundred million taels.
This humiliating treaty was doubtless agreed to by China in the hope that Russia or the European powers, by whose mutual jealousy and the playing off of one against the other Peking had long profited, would interfere. They did.
On the 9th of May, when in a little steam-tug the two Japanese peace commissioners, not knowing how far the Chinese would keep faith, approached Chifu, where the ratifications were to take place, the sight of the mighty allied fleet of the three powers as against the little steam-tug was ludicrous. It was like that of roaring wild beasts about a dove.
Not alone Russia's big fleet, but all of the available German and French war vessels in Asiatic waters, had assembled in Chifu harbor, and their gunners were firing blank cartridges, filling the air and heavens with smoke to overawe two men in a little tug. Uniting against Japan in her exhausted condition, the three great powers forced her to give up her foothold on the continent and accept, instead, Formosa and the Pescadores, with a bonus of thirty million taels. Unable at once, without a great navy, to fight the three combined nations, the Japanese accepted the situation, and a supplementary treaty was signed at Peking, November 7, 1895. Japan immediately invested the extra money in building the best battleships afloat, and at once began preparations to fight Russia, whose motives and purposes had been already foreseen in Tokyo.