The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Tartar Invasion of China by Meha

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B.C. 341


(The first Chinese are supposed to have been a nomad tribe in the provinces of Shensi, which lies in the northwest of China, and among them at last appeared a ruler, Fohi, whose name at least has been preserved. His deeds and his person are mythical, but he is credited with having given his country its first regular institutions.

The annalists of the Chinese chronicles placed the date of the Creation at a point of time two millions of years before Confucius; this interval they filled up with lines of dynasties. Preceding the Chow dynasty the chronicles give ten epochs—prior to the eighth of these there is no authentic history. Yew-chow She [the "Nest-having"] taught the people to build huts of the boughs of trees. Fire was discovered by Say-jin She [the "Fire producer"]. Fuh-he [B.C. 2862] was the discoverer of iron. With Yaou [B.C. 2356] is the period whence Confucius begins his story. He says of that epoch: "The house door could safely be left open." Yaou greatly extended and strengthened the empire and established fairs and marts over the land.

One of China's most notable rulers was Tsin Chi Hwangti, who was studious in providing for the security of his empire, and with this object began the construction of a fortified wall across the northern frontier to serve as a defence against the troublesome Hiongnou tribes, who are identified with the Huns of Attila. This wall, which he began in the first years of his reign—about the close of the third century B.C.—was finished before his death. It still exists, known as the Great Wall of China, and has long been considered one of the wonders of the world. Every third man of the whole empire was employed on this work. It is said that five hundred thousand of them died of starvation. The contents of the Great Wall would be enough to build two walls six feet high and two feet thick around the equator. It is the largest artificial structure in the world; carried for fourteen hundred miles over height and hollow, reaching in one place the level of five thousand feet—nearly one mile—above the sea. Earth, gravel, brick, and stone were used in its construction.

The weak successors of Hwangti finally gave way to the usurper, Kaotsou, who had been originally the ruler of a small town, and had borne the name of Lieou Pang.

The reign of Kaotsou was distinguished by the consolidation of the empire; the connection of Western with Eastern China by high walls and bridges, some of which are still in perfect condition, and the institution of an elaborate code of court etiquette. His attention to these things was, however, rudely interrupted by an irruption of the Hiongnou Tartars.)

The death of Tsin Chi Hwangti proved the signal for the outbreak of disturbances throughout the realm. Within a few months five princes had founded as many kingdoms, each hoping, if not to become supreme, at least to remain independent. Moungtien, beloved by the army, and at the head, as he tells us in his own words, of three hundred thousand soldiers, might have been the arbiter of the empire; but a weak feeling of respect for the imperial authority induced him to obey an order, sent by Eulchi, Hwangti's son and successor, commanding him "to drink the waters of eternal life." Eulchi's brief reign of three years was a succession of misfortunes. The reins of office were held by the eunuch Chow-kow, who first murdered the minister Lissep and then Eulchi himself.

Ing Wang, a grandson of Hwangti, was the next and last of the Tsin emperors. On coming to power, he at once caused Chow-kow, whose crimes had been discovered, to be arrested and executed. This vigorous commencement proved very transitory, for when he had enjoyed nominal authority during six weeks, Ing Wang's troops, after a reverse in the field, went over in a body to Lieou Pang, the leader of a rebel force. Ing Wang put an end to his existence, thus terminating, in a manner not less ignominious than any of its predecessors, the dynasty of the Tsins, which Hwangti had hoped to place permanently on the throne of China, and to which his genius gave a lustre far surpassing that of many other families who had enjoyed the same privilege during a much longer period.

The crisis in the history of the country had afforded one of those great men who rise periodically from the ranks of the people to give law to nations the opportunity for advancing his personal interests at the same time that he made them appear to be identical with the public weal. Of such geniuses, if the test applied be the work accomplished, there have been few with higher claims to respectful and admiring consideration than Lieou Pang, who after the fall of the Tsins became the founder of the Han dynasty under the style of Kaotsou. Originally the governor of a small town, he had, soon after the death of Hwangti, gathered round him the nucleus of a formidable army, and while nominally serving under one of the greater princes, he scarcely affected to conceal that he was fighting for his own interest. On the other hand, he was no mere soldier of fortune, and the moderation which he showed after victory enhanced his reputation as a general. The path to the throne being thus cleared, the successful general became emperor.

His first act was to proclaim an amnesty to all those who had borne arms against him. In a public proclamation he expressed his regret at the suffering of the people "from the evils which follow in the train of war." During the earlier years of his reign he chose the city of Loyang as his capital—now the flourishing and populous town of Honan—but at a later period he removed it to Singanfoo, in the western province of Shensi. His dynasty became known by the name of the small state where he was born, and which had fallen early in his career into his hands.

Kaotsou sanctioned or personally undertook various important public works, which in many places still exist to testify to the greatness of his character. Prominent among those must be placed the bridges constructed along the great roads of Western China. Some of them are still believed to be in perfect condition. No act of Kaotsou's reign places him higher in the scale of sovereigns than the improvement of the roads and the construction of those remarkable bridges. Kaotsou loved splendor and sought to make his receptions and banquets imposing by their brilliance. He drew up a special ceremonial which must have proved a trying ordeal for his courtiers, and dire was the offence if it were infringed in the smallest particular. He kept up festivities at Singanfoo for several weeks, and on one of these occasions he exclaimed: "To-day I feel I am emperor and perceive all the difference between a subject and his master."

Kaotsou's attention was rudely summoned away from these trivialities by the outbreak of revolts against his authority and by inroads on the part of the Tartars. The latter were the more serious. The disturbances that followed Hwangti's death were a fresh inducement to these clans to again gather round a common head and prey upon the weakness of China, for Kaotsou's authority was not yet recognized in many of the tributary states which had been fain to admit the supremacy of the great Tsin emperor. About this time the Hiongnou[1] Tartars were governed by two chiefs in particular, one named Tonghou, the other Meha or Mehe. Of these the former appears to have been instigated by a reckless ambition or an overweening arrogance, and at first it seemed that the forbearance of Meha would allow his pretensions[2] to pass unchallenged.

Meha's successes followed rapidly upon each other. Issuing from the desert, and marching in the direction of China, he wrested many fertile districts from the feeble hands of those who held them; and while establishing his personal authority on the banks of the Hoangho, his lieutenants returned laden with plunder from expeditions into the rich provinces of Shensi and Szchuen. He won back all the territory lost by his ancestors to Hwangti and Moungtien, and he paved the way to greater success by the siege and capture of the city of Maye, thus obtaining possession of the key of the road to Tsinyang. Several of the border chiefs and of the Emperor's lieutenants, dreading the punishment allotted in China to want of success, went over to the Tartars, and took service under Meha.

The Emperor, fully aroused to the gravity of the danger, assembled his army, and placing himself at its head marched against the Tartars. Encouraged by the result of several preliminary encounters, the Emperor was eager to engage Meha's main army, and after some weeks' searching and manoeuvring, the two forces halted in front of each other. Kaotsou, imagining that victory was within his grasp, and believing the stories brought to him by spies of the weakness of the Tartar army, resolved on an immediate attack. He turned a deaf ear to the cautious advice of one of his generals, who warned him that "in war we should never despise an enemy," and marched in person at the head of his advance guard to find the Tartars. Meha, who had been at all these pains to throw dust in the Emperor's eyes and to conceal his true strength, no sooner saw how well his stratagem had succeeded, and that Kaotsou was rushing into the trap so elaborately laid for him, than by a skilful movement he cut off his communications with the main body of his army, and, surrounding him with an overwhelming force, compelled him to take refuge in the city of Pingching in Shensi.

With a very short supply of provisions, and hopelessly outnumbered, it looked as if the Chinese Emperor could not possibly escape the grasp of the desert chief. In this strait one of his officers suggested as a last chance that the most beautiful virgin in the town should be discovered, and sent as a present to mollify the conqueror. Kaotsou seized at this suggestion, as the drowning man will catch at a straw, and the story is preserved, though her name has passed into oblivion, of how the young Chinese girl entered into the plan and devoted all her wits to charming the Tartar conqueror. She succeeded as much as their fondest hopes could have led them to believe; and Meha permitted Kaotsou, after signing an ignominious treaty, to leave his place of confinement and rejoin his army, glad to welcome the return of the Emperor, yet without him helpless to stir a hand to effect his release. Meha retired to his own territory, well satisfied with the material results of the war and the rich booty which had been obtained in the sack of Chinese cities, while Kaotsou, like the ordinary type of an oriental ruler, vented his discomfiture on his subordinates.

The closing acts of the war were the lavishing of rewards on the head of the general to whose warnings he had paid no heed, and the execution of the scouts who had been misled by the wiles of Meha.

The success which had attended this incursion and the spoil of war were potent inducements to the Tartars to repeat the invasion. While Kaotsou was meditating over the possibility of revenge, and considering schemes for the better protection of his frontier, the Tartars, disregarding the truce that had been concluded, retraced their steps, and pillaged the border districts with impunity. In this year (B.C. 199) they were carrying everything before them, and the Emperor, either unnerved by recent disaster or appalled at the apparently irresistible energy of the followers of Meha, remained apathetic in his palace. The representations of his ministers and generals failed to rouse him from his stupor, and the weapon to which he resorted was the abuse of his opponent, and not his prompt chastisement. Meha was "a wicked and faithless man, who had risen to power by the murder of his father, and one with whom oaths and treaties carried no weight." In the mean while the Tartars were continuing their victorious career. The capital itself could not be pronounced safe from their assaults, or from the insult of their presence.

In this crisis counsels of craft and dissimulation alone found favor in the Emperor's cabinet. No voice was raised in support of the bold and only true course of going forth to meet the national enemy. The capitulation of Pingching had for the time destroyed the manhood of the race, and Kaotsou held in esteem the advice of men widely different to those who had placed him on the throne. Kaotsou opened fresh negotiations with Meha, who concluded a treaty on condition of the Emperor's daughter being given to him in marriage, and on the assumption that he was an independent ruler. With these terms Kaotsou felt obliged to comply, and thus for the first time this never-ceasing collision between the tribes of the desert and the agriculturists of the plains of China closed with the admitted triumph of the former. The contest was soon to be renewed with different results, but the triumph of Meha was beyond question.[3]

The weakness thus shown against a foreign foe brought its own punishment in domestic troubles. The palace became the scene of broils, plots, and counterplots, and so badly did Kaotsou manage his affairs at this epoch that one of his favorite generals raised the standard of revolt against him through apparently a mere misunderstanding. In this instance Kaotsou easily put down the rising, but others followed which, if not pregnant with danger, were at the least extremely troublesome. The murder of Hansin, to whose aid Kaotsou owed his elevation to the throne as much as to any other, by order of the empress, during a reception at the palace, shook confidence still more in the ruler, and many of his followers were forced into open rebellion through dread of personal danger. What wonder that, as he has said, "the very name of revolt inspired Kaotsou with apprehension."

In B.C. 195 we find Kaotsou going out of his way to visit the tomb of Confucius. Shortly after this event it became evident that he was approaching his end. His eldest son Hiaohoei was proclaimed heir apparent. Kaotsou died in the fifty-third year of his age, having reigned as emperor during eight years. The close of his reign did not bear out all the promise of its commencement; and the extent of his authority was greatly curtailed by the disastrous effects of the war with the Tartars and the subsequent revolts among his generals.

Despite these reverses there remains much in favor of his character. He had performed his part in the consolidation of the Hans; it remained for those who came after him to complete what he left half finished.

Under Hoeiti, the Tartar King Meha sent an envoy to the capital, but either the form or the substance of his message enraged the empress-mother, who ordered his execution. The two peoples were thus again brought to the brink of war, but eventually the difference was sunk for the time, and the Chinese chroniclers have represented that the satisfactory turn in the question was due to Meha seeing the error of his ways.[4] Not long afterward the Tartar King died, and was succeeded by his son Lao Chang.


  1. Probably the same race as the Huns.
  2. Meha had become chief of his clan by murdering his father, Teou-man, who was on the point of ordering his son's assassination when thus forestalled in his intention. Tonghou sent to demand from him a favorite horse, which Meha sent him. His kinsmen advised him to refuse compliance; but he replied: "What! Would you quarrel with your neighbors for a horse?" Shortly afterward Tonghou sent to ask for one of the wives of the former chief. This also Meha granted, saying: "Why should we undertake a war for the sake of a woman?" It was only when Tonghou menaced his possessions that Meha took up arms.
  3. One historian had the courage to declare that "Never was so great a shame inflicted on the Middle Kingdom, which then lost its dignity and honor."
  4. Meha's letter of excuse is thus given: "In the barbarous country which I govern both virtue and the decencies of life are unknown. I have been unable to free myself from them, and, therefore, I blush. China has her wise men; that is a happiness which I envy. They would have prevented my being wanting in the respect due to your rank."