The Chinese are the most practical and the least imaginative of the peoples of the earth. During their whole four thousand years and more of historical existence the idea of military glory seems never to have dawned upon their souls. They have had wars, abundance of them, but these have nearly all been fought for the purpose of bolding on to old possessions, or of widening the borders of the empire by taking in neighboring lands. No Alexander, Cæsar, or Napoleon has ever been born on Chinese soil; no army has ever been led abroad in search of the will-of-the-wisp called glory; the wild fancy of becoming lords of the world has always been out of touch with their practical minds.
If we consider closely the wars of China the truth of what is here said will appear. The great bulk of them have been fought within the limits of the empire, for the purposes of defence against invasion, the suppression of revolt, the overthrow of the power of feudal lords, or in consequence of the ambition of successful generals who coveted the throne. The wars of external conquest have been singularly few, consisting principally in the invasion of the domain of the Tartars, to which the Chinese were driven by the incessant raids of the desert hordes. In addition, there have been invasions of Corea and Indo-China, but merely as passing incidents in the long era of Chinese history, not as inaugurating a career of conquest. The great invasion of Japan in the thirteenth century, the only pure war of conquest of China, was made by Kublai Khan, a Tartar emperor, and largely with Tartar troops. In brief, the Chinese have shown themselves in disposition one of the most peaceful of nations, only asking to be let alone, and are very unlikely to begin the war of conquest which some modern military writers fear.
Yet there is one instance in Chinese history which seems to contradict what has here been said, that of the career of a great conqueror who carried the arms of China over the whole width of Asia, and who seemed actuated by that thirst for military glory which has inspired most of the great wars of the world and brought untold misery upon mankind. This was the great leader Panchow, who lived under three emperors of the Han dynasty, and whose career is full of interest and event.
Panchow first appears in the reign of the emperor Mingti, who came to the throne in 57 a.d. His victories were won in the west, in the region of Kokonor, where he brought to an end the invasions of the Tartar tribes. Under Changti, the succeeding emperor, Panchow continued his work in the west, carrying on the war at his own expense, with an army recruited from pardoned criminals.
Changti died, and Hoti came to the throne, a child ten years of age. It was under his reign that the events to be described took place. During the preceding reigns Panchow had made the power of China felt in regions far west of that realm, bringing several small kingdoms and many tribes under subjection, conquering the city of Kashgar, and extending the western borders of China as far into the interior of Asia as the great upland region of the Pamir. The power of his arms had added Eastern Turkestan to the Chinese empire, a region which it continues to hold to-day.
But these conquests were not enough to satisfy the ambition of the veteran general. Under the boy emperor Hoti he was free to carry out his designs on a much larger scale. With a powerful army he set out on the only campaign of ambitious warfare in which China ever indulged. His previous victories had carried the terror of his name far over the kingdoms of the west, and be now led his army to conquest after conquest in the great oases of Western Turkestan, subduing kingdom after kingdom until no less than fifteen had submitted to the power of his arms, and his victorious army stood on the far-distant shores of the Caspian Sea,—the Northern Sea, as it is named in Chinese annals.
To cross this sea would have brought him into Europe, which continent had never dreamed of invasion from the mysterious land of Cathay, on the eastern horizon of the world. Panchow's ambition was not yet satiated. There came to his mind the idea of crossing this seeming great barrier to his victorious career. He had, with his army, overcome innumerable difficulties of waterless deserts, lofty mountain ranges, great rivers, and valiant enemies. Thus far his progress had been irresistible, and should a mere expanse of water put an end to his westward march?
He was checked by dread of perils in the unknown land beyond. The people on the borders of the Caspian represented that salt sea as being far more formidable than it really was. They dilated on its width, the vast mountains which lay beyond, the fierce tribes who would render a landing difficult and dangerous, and the desert regions beyond the mountains, until Panchow reluctantly gave up his scheme. He had already been for several years warring with savage nature and barbarous man, and had extended the dominions of his emperor much farther than any Chinese general had ever dreamed of before. It was time to call a halt, and not expose his valiant followers to the unknown perils beyond the great inland sea.
The army remained long encamped on the Caspian, coming into communication through its envoys with the Roman empire, whose eastern borders lay not far away, and forming relations of commerce with this rich and powerful realm. This done, Panchow led his ever-victorious warriors back to their native land, to tell the story of the marvels they had seen and the surprising adventures they had encountered.
That Panchow was moved by the mere thirst for military fame may well be doubted in view of what we know of the character of the Chinese. His purpose was perhaps the more practical one of opening by force of arms new channels of trade, and overcoming the obstacles placed by the Parthians and other nations of Asia in the way of freedom of commerce. On his return to China he found himself the idol of the people, the trusted friend of the emperor, and the most revered and powerful subject of the empire. He died in his eightieth year, enjoying a fame such as no general of his race had ever before attained.