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William E. Griffis

The Ming Emperors

The Chinese have more patriotism than the foreigner is apt to suppose. In 1368 all true-born Chinese rejoiced in the advent of a native dynasty. Happily the new ruler showed the traits of a good priest and a true shepherd of the flock, as well as those of a firm general. While his captains restrained the Tartars in the north, he gave himself to the work of reducing taxes, cutting down the public expenses, and opening friendly relations with Korea and Japan. In every way he showed himself a wise ruler. Yet the empire was not free from usurpations and rebellions, and the Tartars were still making inroads at various points on the northern frontier, which was too extended to be easily protected. In one raid they captured the Chinese Emperor, who had to be ransomed.


Memorial avenue, Ming tombs (elephants)

Literature was not forgotten. The great encyclopedia, completed in 1407, in 22,877 volumes, is a unique literary monument of the Ming era. Another enterprise was the collecting, editing, revising, and publication of the classical canon of scripture and the works of the schoolmen of the Sung era. The barbarous custom of putting slaves and concubines to death when an emperor died was abolished forever in China. Before 1465, even the most loved wives were buried alive in the imperial coffin. A via sacra, or glorious avenue of colossal stone sculpture-figures of mighty men, camels, horses, animals used in sacrifice, with pillars, obelisks, monoliths, marble bridges, and monumental gateways, was reared near Peking. Enshrined in solemn beauty in the bosom of the hills are the Thirteen Tombs, as the Chinese call them, encircled with cypress trees. The Ming memorial arch is the finest in the empire. The entrance is named "Rest the Spirit." All manner of beautiful woods, marbles, and tiles are used in the ancestral hall and shrines. One tablet is inscribed "The Tomb of the Perfect Ancestor and Literary Emperor." The procession of these stone figures and the tombs and shrines form one of the most beautiful places in all China. Japan quickly followed the good examples set her by China during the Ming era, in memorial architecture. This was the age of the tiled pagoda. When first built in China, these tall structures were heavy and stumpy, like the India tope or dagoba. The Chinese developed them into slender, graceful, and lofty structures, on the model of the ever beautiful bamboo, famous for its delicacy and strength, often hanging wind-bells at the end of their curves, making music in the air.

The canal between Peking and the Peiho River was so enlarged and deepened that ships could reach the capital from the Yang-tse River by way of the Grand Canal. The Great Wall was repaired and business encouraged, so that the nation became very prosperous. It is believed that the population of China proper rose to sixty millions.

The glory of the dynasty culminated at the opening of the sixteenth century, when public works on a colossal scale were carried out. Nanking, the capital, became so famous that in distant lands a Chinese was known as a "Nanking-man." I was so called by the children of interior Japan, in 1871. Strangers were supposed to be either Chinese, that is, "Eastern men" (to-jin), or Nankingmen. Or they were called Holland men, or Outlanders.

One important event was a war with Japan, though the battlefield was Korea. Between the Japanese and Chinese no love has ever been lost. The earliest men in Nippon knew nothing about China, but the medieval Japanese had a great feeling of reverence and gratitude for this Treasure Land of the West from which they received writing, literature, costume, etiquette, medicine, and science, and a "book religion,"—Buddhism. It was by China's aid that they were able to rise from barbarism to be a civilized nation. Yet the Mikado's subjects could never brook the idea of the Chinese looking down upon them. They called their emperor also the "Son of Heaven," and theirs the "Country governed by a Heaven-descended line of rulers." They used exactly the same words and phrases about their Mikado as the Chinese did about their Emperor, speaking of the Dragon's Face, the Dragon's Seat, the Dragon's Chariot, and of their nobles as the Clouds (of Heaven), etc. Just as in Europe our medieval barbarian fathers imitated the Roman Empire and emperor, and their kings and emperors called themselves Caesar, Kaiser, Czar; or in republics used the letters S.P.Q. (Senate and People), and later founded the Holy Roman Empire, inheriting Roman law, custom, and rhetorical expressions, so the Japanese imitated China in a thousand ways.

But between China and Japan, and Rome and the northern nations, there was this difference. The Roman Empire was dead, but the Chinese Empire was very much alive; and the Chinese considered the Japanese vassals or at least pupils, which the latter never acknowledged and ever bitterly scouted and resisted. As there could not be two suns in the same sky, Japan considered China as bigoted and conceited. China returned the compliment by looking on Japan as an impudent upstart. The Chinese often used, even as late as 1894, the ancient term of contempt, Wojin, or dwarfs, which is very insulting; as in the proclamation of the Empress of China when she called on her soldiers "to root the Wojin out of their lairs."

The invasion of Kublai Khan, in which the Chinese and Koreans assisted, incensed the Japanese, who, when refused trading privileges, began a career of piracy and privateering. They captured towns and cities and carried off slaves, prisoners, and spoils. They were fully as cruel as our Norman ancestors. The Chinese along the coast besought their gods to deliver them from the wrath of the murderous Japanese, even as our forefathers prayed in their litanies, "from the fury of the Northmen" (that is, the ancestors of the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes of to-day), "good Lord, deliver us."

Chinese armies were sent to defend the coast, and the pirates from Nippon became less troublesome. Hideyoshi, the regent, having at home a large military force consisting of the retainers of the daimios, whom he had subdued in the name of the Mikado, thus unifying Japan, but whose blades were restless in their scabbards, planned to conquer Korea first and then invade China. He claimed that the Ming Emperor had insulted him by offering to make him King of Japan, on condition of Japan's becoming a confessed vassal to China. Having been defied by the Koreans, he sent two divisions of his army to invade their country, one under Konishi the Christian and the other under Kato the Buddhist. In eighteen days from landing, the rival divisions entered at opposite gates of Seoul.

Hideyoshi's reinforcements were checked by a large Chinese army marching into northern Korea. A great battle was fought at Ping Yang, exactly where, in 1904, the soldiers of the two nations met in conflict again. The Japanese were beaten, and with "hearts cold in their bosoms" they retreated. In the southwestern waters, the Japanese plans were utterly ruined by the Korean Admiral Yu, with his famous iron-clad, or turtle ship, which rammed, fired, sunk, or scattered the Japanese ships.

There were many battles and sieges in Korea at places where now are cities, railway stations, or telegraph offices. At length, in 1598, on the death of Hideyoshi, who meanwhile had become the Taiko, or ex-regent, peace was arranged and the armies were called home. A trading-station at Fusan, across the sea from Nagasaki, was kept by the Japanese.

The Chinese change their dynasty every two or three centuries, and the Mings, like most of those who have ruled China, were not destined to a long career. One of the longest reigns was that of Wan Li, who ruled from 1573 to 1620, during which great events in connection with Japan and Europe took place.

The reason for these short-lived dynasties in the long-lived empire is very plain. In the long Chinese story, the people are the real hero. The nation is the tree, the dynasties are but the leaves. The latter, unless China's constitution is radically reformed, are bound to fall. The duration of a ruling house is brief, the life of the people is eternal. National government and responsibility must be shared with the people, if the empire is to live.

A cloud of destiny, at first no bigger than a man's hand, rose in the northeast. A Tartar clan named the Manchu, or Pure, dwelling in the district about thirty miles east of Mukden, united the other clans with them into a confederacy. The Chinese Emperor championed the cause of a chieftain hostile to the Manchus. It was a mistake. Forty thousand Manchus invaded Liao-tung and their leader read before the whole army a declaration of war against China. The paper was solemnly burnt and the smoke arose as a prayer to Heaven. The Chinese made their second mistake in dividing their army into four divisions, each of which was defeated in succession by the Manchus.

As soon as men or nations have become great or famous, they want a genealogy or family history showing illustrious origins. Fashion requires it and it impresses the vulgar. If facts or proof fail, literary men make up, with the aid of fables or mythology, that story of their ancestors which suits the taste of the age. The Japanese and Koreans borrowed this habit from the Chinese. As nothing is exactly known of the origin of the Manchus in the desert, where there was no writing, a pretty fairy-tale—far more delicious to the palate of imagination—is told in place of history. It is this.

Ages ago, under the northern shadow of the Ever White Mountains that divide Korea from Manchuria, three virgins from Heaven descended to the shore of a lake, which reflected on its bosom the azure of the skies and the majestic forms of the snowy peaks. By day they enjoyed the rose tints of the morn on the ripples raised by breezes, and at noon they rejoiced in the golden sunlight. They found rapture in the glories of the sunset and clapped their hands with delight when they saw the mirror of the lake spangled with star jewels. Thus they lived on earth's fairest portion, nor ever longed for their home in the skies.

One day the three sisters were bathing in the crystal waters, having left their robes on the pebbly beach, when they saw a magpie flying in the air. Pausing for a moment over the youngest of the virgins, the bird dropped a blood-red fruit. As the magpie was sacred in their eyes, this was a happy omen. The maiden at once ate the fruit as a message from Heaven.

By this divine token, the virgin conceived and in due time bore a son whom she called the Golden Family Stem. This name, in Manchu, Ai-sin-Coro, is the family name of the emperors of China. Both the Chinese and Manchu words for the dynasty, meaning bright or clear, have reference to the splendor of water on which the sun shines. The mother told her son that he was Heaven-born. She taught him that his destiny was to heal quarrels among men and bring peace and prosperity to the nations.

The boy grew up under the mountain shadow and by the lakeside. In due time his mother entered the icy caves of the dead. Then the lad started out into the world on his own career. In a little boat he paddled down the river Hurka (near Ninguta), which flows into the Sungari, reaching a place where dwelt three clans then at war with one another. Impressed by his appearance, they hailed him as their chief, and, uniting their fortunes, they made a settlement at Otoli, and he ruled over them. In one of the later wars, he and all his sons were slain except one who escaped. The murderers chased Fancha, as he was called, but when a magpie alighted on his head, the youth stood still as a post, and turned his back on his pursuers as they rushed through the forest; they took him for a piece of dried wood, and passing him, gave up the hunt. The magpie has ever been a sacred bird with the Manchus.

The mark of nationality among these north-eastern Tartars was the queue. They shaved the whole front part of the scalp and then let their hair grow behind into a long tail. A young Manchu warrior was as proud of his tail of hair as a Mohawk or Pawnee Indian was of his scalp-lock.

Before this time, the Chinese wore their hair as the Koreans do, that is, done up in a sort of knot or chignon at the back of the head. Thus it happens that Chinese, on first coming to Korea, are amused at seeing the fashion of topknots prevalent, just as it was among their ancestors of the Ming period. If short by nature, the queue was lengthened out, by means of black silk or false hair, so as to reach below the knees. In China this queue became the solemn mark of loyalty to the Manchu sovereign. Millions of natives were slaughtered before they would submit their heads to the razor. Although Chinese males wash their own clothes, being laundry-men by habit, they do not shave themselves, but pay for their tonsure. To the Manchus the barbers of China are very grateful.

Until our twentieth century, in China, not to wear the queue, or to cut it off, was a sign of disloyalty to the emperor. Some of the anti-dynastic secret societies showed their enmity to the Peking rulers by secretly snipping off the queues of prominent citizens, or men high in office, thus bringing disgrace and shame upon them.

Nevertheless the Chinese are not peculiar in priding themselves on their hair tails, for it was the fashion with Europeans and Americans in the eighteenth century to wear them. Most of the Continental soldiers and sailors in the Revolution had pigtails which they larded, powdered, or wore in eelskins, looking just as funny as do the Chinese. In every country in the world there is a language of hair. The fashions of hair and head-gear serve as signs of nationality, sex, marital promise or condition. The Japanese, however, cut off their top-knots in 1870, the Koreans two decades later, and the Chinese are now slowly following the example of the world at large. In China, whether with or without hair tails, the men follow a uniform fashion, but there is an amazing variety among the women in arranging their tresses.

When the Manchus appeared before the oft-besieged and many times captured city of Liao-yang, the people submitted to their new masters, giving signs of their sincerity by shaving the front part of their scalps and waiting for their queues to grow.

The Manchus tried to take the city of Ning Yuan, north of the Great Wall, but now they had to face gunpowder and cannon-balls. The Jesuit Europeans, being men of science, had taught the Ming men how to cast cannon, and the Chinese had also bought artillery from the Portuguese at Macao. Under the training of the missionaries, they made and served their heavy guns so effectively that the Manchus had to withdraw. They established their capital at Mukden, where are to-day the imposing mausoleums of the Manchu dynasty. In 1629 they marched into Korea, and securing the king's submission, advanced into China at the head of a hundred thousand men to besiege Peking. The Chinese were reinforced and the Manchus retreated, so the empire was still safe for a while.

The torment of China is the frequency of insurrections. One of these broke out in the central region, which was so successful that after capturing many cities, Li, the chief rebel, declared himself emperor and moved on to Peking. The Chinese sovereign, taken by surprise, went up on Coal Hill, north of the imperial palace, and seeing the great rebel host, ended his life by suicide. Yet Li's triumph was short. The Chinese commander in the north made an alliance with the Manchus, and a great battle was fought near the eastern end of the Great Wall, in which the allies won and the army of the rebels was scattered. The Manchu chief Durgan entered Peking and placed his nephew, a child eight years of age, on the throne. Thus in 1644, amid rebellion and blood-shed, the Ming dynasty came to an end.

The Great Wall was now no longer needed, for the Tartars were inside China proper to stay—and to become Chinese. In spite of the romantic attempt of Koxinga to hold Formosa for the Mings, the dynasty was defunct beyond all hope of resurrection. For us the Mings survive ever in memory, chiefly through the exquisite porcelain and other art works of their brilliant era.