Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (October 27, 1860)

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Most English readers must have been painfully affected on reading the account, just forwarded home by the “Times” correspondent, of what took place at the little Chinese town of Peh-Tang, when the combined forces of England and France were compelled, by the necessities of warfare and of self-preservation, to take possession of it. There really seems to have been no alternative, for the mouth of the Peiho was staked, and the coast at other points was inaccessible. Our only consolation must be that the English leaders seem to have done all that was in their power to check the outrages upon the inhabitants whose expulsion from their homes may have been a necessity, but who were not therefore to be plundered and tortured, in addition, and without reason. The wretched creatures had not either, at the end of last July, when the disembarkation occurred, or during the operations on the Peiho, in 1859, in any way incurred the vengeance of the European forces. Their misfortune was that they lay in the way of the expedition. They had houses. The English and French troops required houses, and so they drove these poor Peh-Tangites from their homes. Had the matter stopped here there would have been the less to say about it, for if war is to be it can scarcely be carried on without the infliction of much misery even upon non-combatants. It would, however, have been more creditable to the apostles of our boasted European civilisation, now actually under arms in northern China, if the French leaders had sternly forbidden plunder and pillage, and if the allied commanders had directed their provost-marshals to give the camp-followers and coolies a few practical hints that they were not to deal with Peh-Tang, as with a town taken by storm. It is not pleasant to read of homes which were visited three or four times by French soldiers, and still more frequently by coolies, for the sake of plunder; of torture inflicted upon the owners that they might discover where their money was to be found; of women poisoned by their relations and friends, lest they might fall into the hands of the barbarians. We are told that Sir Hope Grant, who was a reluctant witness of such scenes as these, has come to the resolution that he will not permit the troops again to occupy any Chinese town, which may lie upon his path, without giving such ample notice to the inhabitants as may enable them to remove their families and portable goods to a place of safety. Happily the distance from Peh-Tang to Pekin is very short, and unless all anticipations are baffled, there is no probability that scenes similar to those which occurred on the first landing of the allied forces will be renewed. It was stated in the Paris papers, at the end of last week, that Mr. Bruce had received a despatch, announcing that the Emperor of China would be ready to conclude peace on the capture of the Peiho forts, and so spare the allied forces the necessity of a promenade militaire to Pekin. This, however, would seem to be a matter of dubious policy on one side, for we have already had experience of how the Pekin mandarins are accustomed to handle a difficulty as soon as the immediate pressure is withdrawn. We can scarcely afford to be sending, year after year, to the other side of the globe, armed commentators upon the value of treaties and the expediency of good faith.

The Chinese question is one which must receive a satisfactory solution, even at the expense of a certain amount of present misery. It is not to be endured either on one side or the other that a semi-barbarous clique of politicians at Pekin should keep asunder any longer the European and the Chinese continent. The continent of Europe contains about 300,000,000 inhabitants. The population of China is estimated at 400,000,000. With the products of our own European countries—with what the various nations can accomplish in manufacture and the arts of civilised life—we are reasonably familiar. We know, too, enough of Asiatics in general, and of the Chinese in particular, to feel secure that much of what we know, and much of what we possess, would be to them of inestimable benefit. True, for many centuries they have lived without assistance from the Western world, and there must have been considerable value in the laws and customs by which such an enormous mass of human beings could have been held together for so long a period. The “system,” however, is confessedly breaking up. More than our Manchester piece-goods—more than our latest discoveries in the mechanical sciences—the Chinese require at the present moment to come into contact—not into collision—with a stronger form of civilisation than their own. On the other hand, China teems with products which have become to us absolutely necessary. Chinese tea, and Chinese silk, we must have, and there is every reason to suppose that if the country be thoroughly opened, other articles will be added to those great staples. As yet, we have but traded with four out of the eighteen provinces of which China is composed, and even with these four only since the year 1842. For three centuries before that date our commerce was restricted to a single port, in a remote province of the empire, and carried on under conditions which were calculated in every way to check its extension. The result of our dealing with four provinces instead of with a single province has been that our trade under the head of tea alone has tripled in amount.

Now, this Chinese matter should be considered thus:—Are 400,000,000 and 300,000,000 of human beings, who wish to come together, to be kept asunder because the old mandarins at Pekin choose to adhere to their traditional maxim of government with the tenacity of so many Sibthorps or Newdegates? and because it suits the interests of the native firms which direct or control the internal transport of the country, that the stranger should be excluded? Nor must it be forgotten that, according to certain articles in the treaty of Tien-tsin, we are now contending for rights which have been formally acknowledged. We have by the treaty full right “to travel for pleasure, or for purposes of trade, to all parts of the interior of China.” Again: “No opposition shall be offered to the traveller or merchant in the hiring of persons or vessels for the carriage of their baggage or merchandise.” British merchants are to trade upon the Yang-tze at their pleasure, and as soon as there is an end of the rebellion of the Tae-Pings. This, to be sure, is a somewhat remote contingency, but no doubt Lord Elgin in the further negotiations with the Imperial Court, now imminent, will take care that the condition is removed, and that the trade of the Yang-tze is opened to our merchants at once. Of course, by this time everything is conceded, as the allied expedition, which got ashore at Peh-Tang on the 1st of August last, must long since have received satisfaction, or be billeted within the walls of Pekin.

John Chinaman, as we have had experience of him from the days of Sir Henry Pottinger downwards, is not a man of half-measures. He either concedes everything, or nothing. But when every method of physical defence which Chinese ingenuity can suggest has been exhausted; when every wily trick with which the traditions of his craft are stuffed has been tried by the Chinese negotiator, and tried in vain; and everything has been yielded in appearance, it must not be supposed that the Chinaman has given up his game. He accepts his defeat as a fresh starting-point. Relax the grasp upon his throat but by a hair’s breadth, and you will find that no signatures are so evanescent as those which have been signed with the vermilion pencil. The most valuable concession ever made by China to Europe was the possession of the island of Chusan, not that in many respects the position of the island was the one which we would have chosen upon commercial grounds; but because it was a material guarantee, a palpable and undeniable proof of victory upon our side, and defeat on the other. As long as the British held Chusan it was clear that the Chinese Emperor was occupying a somewhat humiliating position in the presence of the outside barbarians; it was clear to all his subjects, and the Tae-Ping rebellion was the result.

On the whole this opening up of China is perhaps the greatest event of our time. What was the discovery of two comparatively uninhabited continents—the two Americas—by the side of the discovery of a continent inhabited by a third, probably by more than a third, of the human beings now existing upon the surface of the planet? It seems impossible to suppose that the representatives of a society which has existed for as long a period, probably for a longer period than our own, can be nothing better than the grotesque figures which we see on the willow-pattern plates, or the sweepings of Canton and Hong-Kong. Within this Flowery Land, as it is called, there are more people than we are in Europe, who have not drawn their religion from Galilee, their philosophy from Athens, their laws from Rome. Yet have they increased and multiplied in abundant measure, and all that we have heard of the interior of their country is to the effect that they have enjoyed a great share of material prosperity.

If we were to inquire very nicely into what the condition of China was a few centuries ago, a Chinese inquirer might with perfect propriety turn round upon us, and ask how it fared with Europe at the close of the thirty years’ war, or of the seven years’ war, or of Napoleon’s great wars? True, their philosophy, their taoli of which Mr. Wingrove Cooke has told us so much, is unintelligible and ridiculous enough to us—but what would an intelligent Chinaman think of Bishop Berkeley’s theory, that a fat mandarin existed only in the imagination of the spectator? What would he say to Kant, and Hegel, and a hundred other blowers of metaphysical soap-bubbles? Nay, what do we say to them ourselves? It is clear enough that there are certain points upon which the Chinese are deficient enough. They are not nearly so well instructed as we are in the various methods of slaughtering their fellow-creatures. They have, indeed, a very pretty taste in executions, and would be perfectly willing to avail themselves of the facilities offered by our minie rifles, and Armstrong guns, if they were so fortunate as to possess them. In medical science, they are far behind the Europeans of their own day, probably pretty much where Harvey found us. So in the physical and mathematical sciences, and in all matters of engineering, their ignorance would appear very gross to a well-educated English schoolboy. On the other hand, they are excellent agriculturists. They can weave their own silk into fabrics of great beauty and durability. They understand how to cut and embank canals. They are most shrewd and intelligent merchants, even upon the admissions of Liverpool and Ker York men, who have tried conclusions with them, and the men of Liverpool and New York are not very easily beaten in commercial matters. They have solved the problem of living together for centuries with a decent regard for family ties, and probably to the full in as peaceable a manner as the ancestors of the Europeans who write books about them. They are physically brave, and let sentimental and poetical gentlemen say what they will, physical courage lies at the bottom of all the manly virtues. Our own ancestors yielded readily enough, but yet not without a struggle, to the discipline and military virtue of the Romans. Only conceive what must be the effect upon the mind of a half-civilised man—that is, upon the mind of a man who is only accustomed to kill his fellow-creatures with bows and arrows, or a smooth bore—of the Enfield rifle, or the Armstrong gun?

Of China, as it really is, we really know very little. Mr. Fortune, Mr. Wingrove Cooke, and Captain Sherard Osborn, are our three great modern English authorities in the matter. Before their time there was a mist or a halo—which shall we call it?—around China and Chinese things. Sir John Davis was perhaps the most practical writer about the Chinese before their day; but even he dealt with them rather as an hierophant, than as that gentleman will do to whom Mr. Murray is about to entrust the task of writing a Chinese Handbook. Their customs, we were told, were not our customs; nor their ways, our ways. As soon might we expect to establish relations with the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter—if any such there be—as with the denizens of the flowery land. They would just permit us to stand at the back-door of the empire, and fling us occasionally, and contemptuously, a Pound of Tea, in return for which we were to pay largely, and swallow as much dirt as the Canton mandarins might please to appoint. Beyond this we know little or nothing—not a tithe as much as any one might know of the two classical nations of antiquity from the now obsolete pages of Potter and Adams. There was a list of Chinese emperors, with a chronology more absurd than ever flashed across a Welshman’s brain when getting up his family pedigree. There was a little information, possibly accurate, about the reigning Tartar dynasty—a cut and dry account of Confucius and Confucianism—a chapter upon Bouddhism, as unintelligible as might be, and somewhat about “manners and customs” gleaned by some person or persons unknown, from where you will; for certainly European residents in China, upon their own showing, had few facilities of observation beyond the river suburb of a provincial town at the southern extremity of the empire. To be sure, we had the accounts of old ambassadorial progresses to Pekin, when the representatives of British majesty were carried about like monkeys in cages, or old ladies in sedan-chairs at Bath, in the olden time. Beyond these there was the amusing Gil Blas-like account of the two French missionaries, MM. Huc and Gabet, which gave us the story of their journey from Pekin to Lla-Sah in Thibet, which possessed every literary quality except that of inspiring confidence in the “general reader.” If the “Friend of China,” one or two French works, and the contributions of Mr. Meadows to our knowledge of the subject be added to the list, we have cited well nigh all the sources from which trustworthy information upon China can be drawn. This, however, is different in kind to what the three writers first named, and especially Mr. W. Cooke and Captain Osborn, have accomplished; we feel in reading their accounts of China and the Chinese, that we have at last got hold of men who are determined to consider John Chinaman as a responsible and intelligible being—inferior in many respects to the European, but still a human creature,—not the mere nodding and grotesque mandarin of our porcelain cabinets.

We are told that the Chinese diplomatists are sadly given to deception and treachery. The definition of an ambassador, as a man sent abroad by his government to lie for the good of his country, was not conceived for the diplomatists of China. We are told again, that the Chinese, as a nation, have no regard for truth. How much will you find amongst the southern Europeans? The Chinaman, when he goes into mourning, arrays himself in white—the European in sable: it is a matter of custom. What we should call the sentimental element is wanting in the Chinese character. At the same time it is difficult to believe that amongst 400,000,000 of human beings, the play of human feeling is not much the same as it is amongst ourselves. All writers upon Chinese matters agree in saying that the relations between children and their parents are drawn unusually close in China. There is such an uniformity of testimony upon this point that error is scarcely possible. If then the reverence of children for their parents is one of the great pivots of Chinese society, it would seem to follow that in the long run the parents must deserve the reverence they obtain. Upon what sounder basis than that of “the family” could any society of human beings repose? If a son regards his mother with affection and respect, and the father his daughter, it seems scarcely probable that the relations between brother and sister, husband and wife, can be much amiss. In the wretched story which was sent to us from Peh-Tang the other day, we are told that the women of a family voluntarily poisoned themselves, rather than fall into the hands of the barbarians. What more could an Englishwoman have done during the Indian mutiny? On the whole, it is difficult to believe that such an enormous population could have been held together—or rather that a population should have grown up to so enormous a number—in steady violation of all the instincts we find implanted in our own breasts.

Vague reports have reached us of the splendour and magnificence in which the rich men of the great cities of the interior are accustomed to live. If their notions of the fine arts are not as delicate or refined as those of the Florentine Medici, at least they rival them in their pomp and state. Nor, from what we hear, are the lower classes in so abject a condition as the enervated ryot of our own Indian possessions. John Chinaman is ready and eager to work steadily for his living, and to do stern battle with the world in which he finds himself cast. An Asiatic out of China, if he is worth anything at all, is a fighting man. The Chinaman is no coward, but to all appearance he had rather till the ground, or grow tea, or look after his silkworms, than engage in the great throat-cutting business. Englishmen are not likely to blame them for this, the more so when we have it upon the testimony of our own officers who saw them in action, more especially up in the North, that the Chinese would fight readily enough if they knew how. Men with spears and bows and arrows can scarcely be expected to stand up against our field-batteries, and rockets, and serried lines of bayonets, and screw steamers, and gun-boats. If a hundred thousand Chinamen of the proper age, and of sound bodily condition, were handed over to the officers of our ci-devant Bengal army—trained by them in military exercises, and armed with the latest invented muskets, &c., &c.—one may be pardoned for believing that they would soon give excellent account of any Asiatic force which could be brought against them—and perhaps hold their own well enough in presence even of European troops. If the Chinaman is not fired and inspirited to action by lofty sentiments, at least he possesses a fund of obstinacy in his character and a contempt for death.

As a rule they are a temperate people. Mr. W. Cooke tells us, “It is very wrong of John Chinaman to smoke opium to the extent of sixpence per head per annum. But what is he to do? He detests beer and wine. You may leave an open brandy-bottle in his custody for weeks, and it will not evaporate. His strong samshoo is, so far as I can discover, almost a myth, except as an article to sell to foreign sailors.” Of course there must be something wrong or imperfect in the Chinese mind, or, having done so much well, they would have done better. One would rather expect to find a Newton than a Shakspere amongst such a people. The only development of the Chinese mind with which we are as yet acquainted is in the direction of agriculture and commerce. They are keen enough in these pursuits—as merchants, especially, they are distinguished for good faith in their operations. It must be remembered, too, that of the Chinese we have as yet seen little more than the jealousy of the government has permitted us to see—and that is not much. All we know is that when the governing clique at Pekin have permitted Europeans to knock at the doors of the Chinese husbandmen for any commodity within the limits of their productive powers the demand has been duly honoured. Take, for example, the article of silk. In the year 1844 not a bale was sent home. Stocks failed in Europe, and orders were at once sent out to China for supplies. The opening of the ports was in 1842. Now, in 1845, there were sent home 10,727 bales; in 1855, 50,489 bales; in 1856, double that quantity; in 1857, double that quantity again, so that in that year Mr. Cooke, who was at Shanghai, records that if the Chinamen succeeded in establishing their prices, and in disposing of their stocks, they would take 10,000,000l. for silk at that port alone. We have not the latest returns for teas at hand, but we find that for the years 1856—57 there was exported from China to England and her colonies 87,741,000 lbs. of tea.

Surely these calculations, referring only to two articles—no doubt, staples—give one an enormous idea of the industry, ingenuity, and perseverance of this remarkable people, with whom, as it should seem, we are about to come into far closer contact than heretofore. As it is a great thing in approaching a new subject to understand the length and breadth of it, and not to lose oneself in vague and shadowy conjectures, we would add that any one who turns his attention to China would do well to establish before his own mind a correct notion of what China really is. A few years back we were in the habit of crediting Russia with all her steppes and frozen deserts, not considering that the wretched nomad tribes who manage to pick up a precarious subsistence in the wilderness do not add to the strength or power of a nation. Since the Crimean war we have learnt to consider Russia from a more rational point of view. We know that the compact provinces which lie together, and abut upon Germany and the Baltic on their eastern and northern sides, constitute the real force of the empire, and that the Siberian deserts, even up to the Frozen Sea, count for nothing. Just so with regard to China. Eighteen provinces lying together, and covering as much ground as would be covered by seven Frances, are the only China with which we are concerned.

Thibet and Chinese Tartary, and their “deserts idle,” may be removed from view altogether. Mr. Cooke, after a most careful investigation of this matter upon the spot, sets the population of these eighteen provinces at 360,279,897. He adds “if England and Wales were as large as China, England and Wales would contain within one-ninth of the same amount of population. If Lombardy were as large as China, Lombardy would contain 360,000,000 also. If Belgium were as large as China, Belgium would contain 400,000,000 inhabitants.” These eighteen provinces form very nearly a square, and are by measurement about 1500 miles either way. Take the average railway-speed of the North-Western Manchester express, and you might traverse China from north to south, or from east to west, in about thirty-seven hours. There is surely nothing here which should make the imagination very giddy. One can understand a drive over an Eastern Lombardy for a day, a night, and a day. The population, however, does not lie in a uniform way; it is thickest on the eastern sea-board, thinnest towards the south. There appears to be very ready access by the great rivers to the more important and fertile district of the empire.

It was upon the 1st of August, now last past, that an English brigadier divested himself of his nether integuments, and leaping waist-high into the slush opposite Peh-Tang, led on 200 men of the 2nd Queen’s in the same airy costume to strike the final blow at the great Chinese mystery. This time, as the phrase runs, there is to be no mistake about it. We were befooled after Sir Henry Pottinger’s negotiations, and foiled after those which were more recently conducted under Lord Elgin’s auspices; but now the work is to be done in such a manner that it may stand. The wretched and treacherous attack upon the British last year on the Peiho river has filled up the measure of the iniquity of the Pekin protectionists, and ere long their place will know them no more. The final negotiations, it is to be hoped, will be concluded at Pekin, and not elsewhere, and in a manner which may convince the more bigotted politicians of that most conservative capital that of the Chinese mystery there is an end. By the next mail we shall probably hear that attempts have been made to induce the allied negotiators to sign the treaty of peace without making any display of armed force immediately before the capital. Here is what Sir John Barrow, as quoted by Captain Osborn, tells us about that city. The walls are from 20 to 30 feet high; square bastions project from them at every 70 yards; and upon each bastion there is a guardhouse. The city is an oblong square, the walls being fourteen English miles in extent. “In the south wall there are three gates—in the other sides, only two. The centre gate on the south side communicates directly with the Imperial palaces, or portion of the capital reserved for the Emperor and his family. Between the other two gates, and corresponding ones on the north side, run two streets, perfectly straight, about four miles long, and 120 feet wide. One street of a similar width runs from one of the eastern to one of the western gates of Pekin. The other streets of Pekin are merely narrow lanes, branching from and connecting these four great streets. At the four angles of the city walls, four-storied pagodas were observed, and similar buildings at the points of intersection of the four great streets. None of the streets were in any way paved; the narrow lanes appeared to be watered, but the great ones were covered with sand and dust.”

Such is Pekin—the key of China!