Korea & Her Neighbours/Chapter XIII

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HAVING heard nothing at all of public events during my long inland journey, and only a few rumors of unlocal-ized collisions between the Tong-haks (rebels) and the Royal troops, the atmosphere of canards at Won-san was somewhat stimulating, though I had already been long enough in Korea not to attach much importance to the stories with which the air was thick. One day it was said that the Tong-haks had gained great successes and had taken Gatling guns from the Royal army, another that they had been crushed and their mysterious and ubiquitous leader beheaded, while the latest rumor before my departure was that they were marching in great force on Fusan. Judging from the proclamation which they circulated, and which, while stating that they rose against corrupt officials and traitorous advisers, professed unswerving loyalty to the throne, it seemed credible that, if there were a throb of patriotism anywhere in Korea, it was in the breasts of these peasants. Their risings appeared to be free from ex-cesses and useless bloodshed, and they confined themselves to the attempt to carry out their programme of reform. Some foreign sympathy was bestowed upon them, because it was thought that the iniquities of misrule could go no further, and that the time was ripe for an armed protest on a larger scale than the ordinary peasant risings against intolerable exactions.

But at the very moment when these matters were being dis- cussed in Won-san with not more than a languid interest, a formidable menace to the established order of things was tak-ing shape, destined in a few days to cast the Tong-haks into the shade, and concentrate the attention of the world on this insignificant peninsula.

Leaving Won-san by steamer on 17th June, and arriving at Fusan on the 19th, I was not surprised to find a Japanese gun-boat in the harbor, and that 220 Japanese soldiers had been landed from the Higo Maru that morning and were quartered in the Buddhist temples on the hill, and that the rebels had cut the telegraph wires between Fusan and Seoul. Among the few Europeans at Fusan there was no uneasiness. The Japanese, with their large mercantile colony there, have considerable interests to safeguard, and nothing seemed more natural than the course they took. A rumor that Japanese troops had been landed at Chemulpo was quite disregarded.

On arriving at Chemulpo, however, early on the morning of the 21st, a very exciting state of matters revealed itself. A large fleet, six Japanese ships of war, the American flag ship, two French, one Russian, and two Chinese, were lying in the outer harbor. The limited accommodation of the inner har-bor was taxed to its utmost capacity. Japanese transports were landing troops, horses, and war material in steam launches, junks were discharging rice and other stores for the commis-sariat department, coolies were stacking it on the beach, and the movement by sea and land was ceaseless. Visitors from the shore, excited and agitated, brought a budget of astound-ing rumors, but confessed to being mainly in the dark.

On landing, I found the deadly dull port transformed : the streets resounded to the tread of Japanese troops in heavy marching order, trains of mat and forage carts blocked the road. Every house in the main street of the Japanese settle- ment was turned into a barrack and crowded with troops, rifles and accoutrements gleamed in the balconies, crowds of Koreans, limp and dazed, lounged in the streets or sat on the knolls, gazing vacantly at the transformation of their port into a foreign camp. Only two hours had passed since the first of the troops landed, and when I visited the camp with a young Russian officer there were 1,200 men under canvas in well-ventilated bell tents, holding 20 each, with matted floors and drainage trenches, and dinner was being served in lacquer boxes. Stables had been run up, and the cavalry and mountain guns were in the centre. The horses of the mountain battery train, serviceable animals, fourteen hands high, were in ex-cellent condition, and were equipped with pack saddles of the latest Indian pattern. They were removing shot and shell for Seoul from the Japanese Consulate with 200 men and 100 horses, and it was done almost soundlessly. The camp, with its neat streets, was orderly, trim, and quiet. In the town sentries challenged passers-by. Every man looked as if he knew his duty and meant to do it. There was no swagger. The manikins, well armed and serviceably dressed, were obviously in Korea for a purpose which they meant to ac-complish.

What that purpose was, was well concealed under color of giving efficient protection to Japanese subjects in Korea, who were said to be imperilled by the successes of the Tong-haks. The rebellion in southern Korea was exciting much alarm in the capital. Such movements, though on a smaller scale, are annual spring events in the peninsula, when in one or other of the provinces the peasantry, driven to exasperation by official extortions, rise, and, with more or less violence (oc-casionally, fatal), drive out the offending mandarin. Punish-ment rarely ensues. The King sends a new official, who squeezes and extorts in his turn with more or less vigor, until, if he also passes bearable limits, he is forcibly expelled, and things settle down once more. This Tong-hak (Oriental “ or National“) movement, though lost sight of in presence of more important issues, was of greater moment, as being organized on a broader basis, so as to include a great number of adherents in Seoul and the other cities, and with such definite and reasonable objects that at first I was inclined to call its leaders “armed reformers” rather than “rebels.” At that time there was no question as to the Royal authority.

The Tong-hak proclamation began by declaring in respect-ful language loyal allegiance to the King, and went on to state the grievances in very moderate terms. The Tong-haks asserted, and with undoubted truth, that officials in Korea, for their own purposes, closed the eyes and ears of the King to all news and reports of the wrongs inflicted on his people. That ministers of State, governors, and magistrates were all indiffer-ent to the welfare of their country, and were bent only on enriching themselves, and that there were no checks on their rapacity. That examinations (the only avenues to official life) were nothing more than scenes of bribery, barter, and sale, and were no longer tests of fitness for civil appointment. That officials cared not for the debt into which the country was fast sinking. That “they were proud, vainglorious, adulterous, avaricious.” That many officials receiving ap-pointments in the country lived in Seoul. That “they flatter and fawn in peace, and desert and betray in times of trouble.”

The necessity for reform was strongly urged. There were no expressions of hostility to foreigners, and the manifesto did not appear to take any account of them. The leader, whose individuality was never definitely ascertained, was credited with ubiquity and supernatural powers by the common people, as well as with the ability to speak both Japanese and Chinese, and it was evident from his measures, forethought, the dispo-sition of his forces, and some touches of Western strategic skill, that he had some acquaintance with the modern art of war. His followers, armed at first with only old swords and halberds, had come to possess rifles, taken from the official armories and the defeated Royal troops. For in the midst of the thousand wild rumors which were afloat, it appeared certain that the King sent several hundred soldiers against the Tong-haks under a general who, on his way to attack their camp, raised and armed 300 levies, who, in the engagement which followed, joined the “rebels” and turned upon the King's troops, that 300 of the latter were killed, and that the general was missing. This, following other successes, the deposition of several important officials, and the rumored march on Seoul, had created great alarm, and the King was supposed to be pre-pared for flight.

But the events of the two or three days before I landed at Chemulpo threw the local disturbance into the shade, and it is only with the object of showing with what an excellent pretext for interference the Tong-haks had furnished the Jap-anese, that I recall this petty chapter of what is now ancient history.

The questions vital to Korea and of paramount diplomatic importance were, “What is the object of Japan? Is this an invasion? Is she here as an enemy or a friend?” Six thou-sand troops provisioned for three months had been landed. Fifteen of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha’s steamers had been with-drawn from their routes to act as transports, the Japanese had occupied the Gap, a pass on the Seoul road, and Ma-pu, the river port of the capital, and with guns, and in considerable force, had established themselves on Nam Han, a wooded hill above Seoul, from which position they commanded both the palace and capital. All these movements were carried out with a suddenness, celerity, and freedom from hitch which in their military aspects were worthy of the highest praise.

To any student of Far Eastern politics it must have been ap-parent that this skilful and extraordinary move on the part of Japan was not made for the protection of her colonies in Chemulpo and Seoul, nor yet against Korea. It has been said in various quarters, and believed, that the Japanese ministry was shaky, and had to choose between its own downfall and a foreign war. This is a complete sophism. There can be no question that Japan had been planning such a movement for years. She had made accurate maps of Korea, and had secured reports of forage and provisions, measurements of the width of rivers and the depth of fords, and had been buying up rice in Korea for three months previously, while even as far as the Tibetan frontier, Japanese officers in disguise had gauged the strength and weakness of China, reporting on her armies on paper and, in fact, on her dummy guns, and antique, honeycombed carronades, and knew better than the Chinese themselves how many men each province could put into the field, how drilled and how armed, and they were acquainted with the infinite corruption and dishonesty, com-bined with a total lack of patriotism, which nullified even such commissariat arrangements as existed on paper, and rendered it absolutely impossible for China to send an army efficiently into the field, far less sustain it during a campaign.

To all appearance Japan had completely outwitted China in Korea, and a panic prevailed among the Chinese. Thirty ladies of the households of the Chinese Resident and Consul embarked for China on the appearance of the Japanese in Seoul, and 800 Chinamen left Chemulpo the day I arrived, the consternation in the Chinese colony being so great that even the market gardeners, who have a monopoly of a most thriving trade, fled.

I never before saw the Chinaman otherwise than aggra-vatingly cool, collected, and master of the situation, but on that June day he lost his head, and, frenzied by race hatred and pecuniary loss, was transformed into a shouting barbarian, not knowing what he would be at. The Chinese inn where I spent the day was one centre of the excitement, and each time that I came in from a walk or received a European visitor, a number of the employes, usually most quiet and reticent, hud-dled into my room with faces distorted by anxiety, asking what I had heard, what was going to be, whether the Chinese army would be there that night, whether the British fleet was coming to help them, etc., and even my Chinese servant, a most excellent fellow, was beside himself, muttering in English through clenched teeth, “I must kill, kill, kill !”

Meanwhile the dwarf battalions, a miracle of rigid disci- pline and good behavior, were steadily tramping to Seoul, where matters then and for some time afterwards stood thus. The King was in his secluded palace, and that which still posed as a Government had really collapsed. Mr. Hillier, the English Consul-General, was in England on leave, and the acting Consul-General, Mr. Gardner, C.M.G., had only been in Korea for three months. The American Minister was a newer man still. The French and German Consuls need hardly be taken into account, as they had few, if any, inter-ests to safeguard. Mr. Waeber, the able and cautious diplo- matist who had represented Russia for nine years, and had the confidence of the whole foreign community, had been ap-pointed charge d'affaires at Peking, and had left Seoul in the previous week. There remained, therefore, facing each other, Otori San, the Japanese ambassador to Peking, who was in Korea on a temporary mission, and Yuan, a military mandarin who had been for some years Chinese Resident in Seoul, a man entrusted by the Chinese Emperor with large powers, who was credited by foreigners with great force, tact, and ability, and who was generally regarded as “the power behind the throne.”

I had frequently seen Otori San in the early months of the year, a Japanese of average height, speaking English well, wearing European dress as though born to it, and sporting white “shoulder-of-mutton” whiskers. He lounged in draw-ing-rooms, making trivial remarks to ladies, and was remark-able only for his insignificance. I believe he made the same impression, or want of impression, at Peking. But circum-stances or stringent orders from Tokyo had transformed Mr. Otori. Whether he had worn a mask previously I know not, but he showed himself rough, vigorous, capable, a man of action, unscrupulous, and not only clever enough to outwit Yuan in a difficult and hazardous game, but everybody else. In the afternoon of that memorable day at Chemulpo the Vice-Consul called on me and warned me that I must leave Korea that night, and the urgency and seriousness of his manner left me no doubt that he was acting on information which he was not at liberty to divulge. I had left my travel-ling gear at Won san in readiness for an autumn journey, and was going to Seoul that night for a week to get my money and civilized luggage before going for the summer to Japan. It was a serious blow. Other Europeans advised me not to be “deported,” but it is one of my travelling rules never to be a source of embarrassment to British officials, and sup-posing the crisis to be an acute one, I reluctantly yielded, and that night, with two English fellow-sufferers, left Che-mulpo in the Japanese steamer Higo Maru, bound for ports in the Gulf of Pechili, which cul-de-sac would have proved a veritable “lion's mouth” to her had hostilities been as imminent as the Vice-Consul believed them to be. I had nothing but the clothing I wore, a heavy tweed suit, and the mercury was 80°, and after paying my passage to Chefoo, the first port of call, I had only four cents left. It was four months before I obtained either my clothes or my money !