My life in China and America/22 The Coup d'Etat of 1898

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The coup d'état of September, 1898, was an event memorable in the annals of the Manchu Dynasty. In it, the late Emperor Kwang Su was arbitrarily deposed; treasonably made a prisoner of state; and had his prerogatives and rights as Emperor of the Chinese Empire wrested from him and usurped by the late Dowager Empress Chi Hsi.

Kwang Su, though crowned Emperor when he was five years of age, had all along held the sceptre only nominally. It was Chi Hsi who held the helm of the government all the time.

As soon as Kwang Su had attained his majority, and began to exercise his authority as emperor, the lynx eye of Chi Hsi was never lifted away from him. His acts and movements were watched with the closest scrutiny, and were looked upon in any light but the right one, because her own stand in the government had never been the legitimate and straight one since 1864, when her first regency over her own son, Tung Chi, woke in her an ambition to dominate and rule, which grew to be a passion too morbid and strong to be curbed.

In the assertion of his true manhood, and the exercise of his sovereign power, his determination to reform the government made him at once the cynosure of Peking, inside and outside of the Palace. In the eyes of the Dowager Empress Chi Hsi, whose retina was darkened by deeds perpetrated in the interest of usurpation and blinded by jealousy, Kwang Su appeared in no other hght than as a dement, or to use a milder expression, an imbecile, fit only to be tagged round by an apron string, cared for and watched. But to the disinterested spectator and unprejudiced judge, Kwan Su was no imbecile, much less a dement. Impartial history and posterity will pronounce him not only a patriot emperor, but also a patriot reformer — as mentally sound and sane as any emperor who ever sat on the throne of China. He may be looked upon as a most remarkable historical character of the Manchu Dynasty from the fact that he was singled out by an all-wise Providence to be the pioneer of the great reform movement in China at the threshold of the twentieth century.

Just at this juncture of the political condition of China, the tide of reform had reached Peking. Emperor Kwang Su, under some mysterious influence, to the astonishment of the world, stood forth as the exponent of this reform movement. I determined to remain in the city to watch its progress. My headquarters became the rendezvous of the leading reformers of 1898. It was in the fall of that memorable year that the coup d'état took place, in which the young Emperor Kwang Su was deposed by the Dowager Empress, and some of the leading reformers arrested and summarily decapitated.

Being implicated by harboring the reformers, and in deep sympathy with them, I had to flee for my own life and succeeded in escaping from Peking. I took up quarters in the foreign settlement of Shanghai. While there, I organized the “Deliberative Association of China,” of which I was chosen the first president. The object of the association was to discuss the leading question of the day, especially those of reform.

In 1899, I was advised for my own personal safety, to change my residence. I went to Hong Kong and placed myself under the protection of the British government.

I was in Hong Kong from 1900 till 1902, when I returned to the United States to see my younger son, Bartlett G. Yung, graduate from Yale University.

In the spring of 1901, I visited the Island of Formosa, and in that visit I called upon Viscount Gentaro Kodama, governor of the island, who, in the Russo-Japan War of 1904-5 was the chief of staff to Marshal Oyama in Manchuria. In the interview our conversation had to be carried on through his interpreter, as he, Kodama, could not speak English nor could I speak Japanese.

He said he was glad to see me, as he had heard a great deal of me, but never had the pleasure of meeting me. Now that he had the opportunity, he said he might as well tell me that he had most unpleasant if not painful information to give me. Being somewhat surprised at such an announcement, I asked what the information was. He said he had received from the viceroy of Fuhkein and Chehkiang an official despatch requesting him to have me arrested, if found in Formosa, and sent over to the mainland to be delivered over to the Chinese authorities. Kodama while giving this information showed neither perturbation of thought nor feeling, but his whole countenance was wreathed with a calm and even playful smile.

I was not disturbed by this unexpected news, nor was I at all excited. I met it calmly and squarely, and said in reply that I was entirely in his power, that he could deliver me over to my enemies whenever he wished; I was ready to die for China at any time, provided that the death was an honorable one.

“Well, Mr. Yung,” said he, “I am not going to play the part of a constable for China, so you may rest at ease on this point. I shall not deliver you over to China. But I have another matter to call to your attention.” I asked what it was. He immediately held up a Chinese newspaper before me, and asked who was the author of the proposition. Without the least hesitation. I told him I was the author of it. At the same time, to give emphasis to this open declaration, I put my opened right palm on my chest two or three times, which attracted the attention of everyone in the room, and caused a slight excitement among the Japanese officials present.

I then said, “With Your Excellency's permission, I must beg to make one correction in the amount stated; instead of $800,000,000, the sum stated in my proposition was only $400,000,000.” At this frank and open declaration and the corrected sum, Kodama was evidently pleased and visibly showed his pleasure by smiling at me.

The Chinese newspaper Kodama showed me contained a proposition I drew up for Viceroy Chang Chi Tung to memorialize the Peking government for adoption in 1894-5, about six months before the signing of the Treaty of Shemonashiki by Viceroy Li Hung Chang. The proposal was to have the Island of Formosa mortgaged to a European Treaty power for a period of ninety-nine years for the sum of $400,000,000 in gold. With this sum China was to carry on the war with Japan by raising a new army and a new navy. This proposition was never carried through, but was made public in the Chinese newspapers, and a copy of it found its way to Kodama's office, where, strange to say, I was confronted with it, and I had the moral courage not only to avow its authorship but also a correction of the amount the island was to be mortgaged for.

To bring the interview to a climax, I said, should like circumstances ever arise, nothing would deter me from repeating the same proposition in order to fight Japan.

This interview with the Japanese governor of Formosa was one of the most memorable ones in my life. I thought at first that at the request of the Chinese viceroy I was going to be surrendered, and that my fate was sealed; but no sooner had the twinkling smile of Kodama lighted his countenance than my assurance of life and safety came back with redoubled strength, and I was emboldened to talk war on Japan with perfect impunity. The bold and open stand I took on that occasion won the admiration of the governor who then invited me to accompany him to Japan where he expected to go soon to be promoted. He said he would introduce me to the Japanese emperor and other leading men of the nation. I thanked him heartily for his kindness and invitation and said I would accept such a generous invitation and consider it a great honor to accompany him on his contemplated journey, but my health would not allow me to take advantage of it. I had the asthma badly at the time.

Then, before parting, he said that my life was in danger, and that while I was in Formosa under his jurisdiction he would see that I was well protected and said that he would furnish me with a bodyguard to prevent all possibilities of assassination. So the next day he sent me four Japanese guards to watch over me at night in my quarters; and in the daytime whenever I went out, two guards would go in advance of me and two behind my jinrickisha to see that I was safe. This protection was continued for the few days I spent in Formosa till I embarked for Hong Kong. I went in person to thank the governor and to express my great obligation and gratitude to him for the deep interest he had manifested towards me.