Mr. Denby to Mr. Bayard.
Peking, January 11, 1889. (Received March 12.)
Sir: The coming 4th of March will witness an event in China similar to the important administrative change which will occur in the United States. On that day the young Emperor of China, with his bride beside him, will assume the reigns of government.[Page 94]
Speculation is rife as to the consequences which will follow this event. In a country like this, where the imperial court lives in the most complete seclusion, attended by eunuchs and hidden from every other eye, prognostics as to future events must be largely speculative. Still there are among foreigners many inquiring minds who regard China as in some sense their home and their inheritance, and conjectures based on long residence and intimate acquaintance with the people and Government are entitled to some consideration.
The Emperor is now seventeen years old. He is about to take to himself a bride and two secondary wives. The adroitness of the Empress Dowager is illustrated in the selection of these wives. The principal wife is the daughter of Deputy Lieutenant-General Kuei Hsiang, who lives in Peking. She is the cousin of the Emperor. The two others are sisters whose father is dead. His name was Chang Hsii and he was formerly vice-president of a board. Thus complete control of the imperial household is preserved without any risk of factional opposition.
The Emperor has been carefully educated after the Chinese fashion, and books from abroad have been translated for his instruction. The chief instructor of the emperor is Weng Tung Ho, a Chinaman, not a Manchu, who is now president of the board of civil office. It is supposed that this official will have great influence in the Government. I am informed that this man is decidedly antagonistic to foreigners.
The Emperor is the son of Prince Chun, the seventh prince, who is the brother of the former emperor, Hien-fung. There are still living in Peking two other brothers of Hien-fung, who are uncles of the Emperor. One is the celebrated Prince Kung, commonly called the sixth prince, and the other, Prince Tun, commonly called the fifth prince.
Prince Chun’s health has lately been very bad. He is the chief of the Peking field force and the head of the admiralty. These employments do not bring him into actual contact with the Emperor. In accordance with Chinese etiquette he must retire from active employment when his son becomes the actual and sole ruler of the Government. Filial respect, which lies at the foundation of Chinese polity, does not permit from the father the abject observances to the son which custom demands from officials.
Prince Kung was at the head of the foreign office from the death of Hien-fung, in 1861, down to 1884, with an intermission of a few days. He is a man of great ability and is thoroughly conversant with affairs. I had an interesting interview with him in the country more than a year ago. Etiquette does not permit him to visit foreigners in the city, but at the hills visits were interchanged between him and his family and me and mine. He is apparently still young and vigorous. It is quite probable that he may come to the front again.
Prince Tun is poor and popular. He is eccentric and benevolent, but it is not supposed that he will ever take an active part in affairs.
Tung Chi, the immediate predecessor of his Imperial Majesty, Kuang Hsü, died at the age of nineteen after being thirteen years on the throne. Naturally his untimely fate excites some comparative remarks between him and the present Emperor.
As far as can be known here the Empress Dowager is still the autocrat of China. Her nephew is devoted to her. She is the great central figure in the Empire, universally esteemed and revered, and is justly regarded as being one of the greatest characters in history. As long as she lives she will be the power behind the throne. Under her rule for a quarter of a century China has made immense material progress. The people have been and are contented and happy. Foreign [Page 95]affairs have been in the main happily conducted. She has shown herself to be benevolent and economical. Her private character has been spotless, and in her public acts she has seemed to consult supremely the welfare of her people.
I do not anticipate that the nominal retirement of the Empress and the accession of the Emperor to the actual control of the Government will make any great change in the conduct of affairs touching foreigners or their interests. To my mind there is no possibility that China will ever succeed in throwing off foreign domination, at least not until she shall adopt the Japanese method of approximating her court procedures to western practices. This would involve a revolution in her domestic institutions, and can not be anticipated for many years.
It must always be remembered in looking at China that she is ruled by an alien race—the Mantchus. The main struggle of the governing race is to keep power. Intermarriage between the Chinese and the Mantchus does not exist. Side by side with the Chinese official all over China stands the Mantchu. The Tartar-general ranks with the viceroy. He represents the throne. While numerically the Chinese immeasurably surpass the Mantchus, a system of jealousy and disunion among the Chinese is so adroitly fostered that the supreme power remains with the Mantchus. The preservation of this race domination is the one important thing with the Government. At all hazards the people must be appeased and kept in good humor. Nowhere in the world are their wishes more consulted in mass than in China. The main object of the Government being to maintain itself in power, it will avoid war, commotion, disturbance, innovation, all things that might tend to unsettle its rule.
The problem of the treatment of China by western powers is not in its conception difficult, but in practice may become so owing to international jealousies and rivalries. Perfect reciprocity between China and western countries is impossible. Where two men ride a horse one must ride behind. It is the world against China, and for many years to come the western world will dominate her policy.
Nevertheless, the reign of the young Emperor, which is about to commence, will be the most memorable epoch in Chinese history. Railroads, the electric light, physical science, a new navy, an improved army, a general banking system, a mint, all in the bud now, will soon be in full flower. Such progress, by whomsoever promoted, goes to aggrandize the commerce of the whole world.
I have, etc.,