Mr. Denby to Mr. Blaine.
Peking, October 2, 1889. (Received November 13, 1889.)
Sir: I have the honor to inclose a copy of the imperial decree referring to the burning of the “Temple of Heaven.” It will be seen that the officers of sacrificial worship, who were in charge of the temple, have been delivered to the board of punishments for the determination of a penalty. Why these officials should be held responsible criminally for an accident caused by lightning can only be understood by some reference to Chinese polity.
The Chinese Government offers the simplest specimen now extant of a theocratic state. The Emperor is the father of his people, and owes allegiance only to Heaven. Everything that happens is ascribed to supernatural influences. Praying, fasting, humbling one’s self before the Deity are common official acts in China. The Emperor no less than [Page 112] all the officials acknowledges his responsibility to Heaven, and at stated times returns thanks for favors accorded, and fasts and prays to avert calamity and to propitiate the Supreme Being.
At the winter solstice, and at various other times, the Emperor, attended by the great officials of state, repairs to the great altar in Peking, and as the great high priest of his race prostrates himself before the Most High God. The origin of this rite is lost in antiquity.
The direct governance of Heaven remains to-day as well recognized in the daily life of the Chinese as it was three thousand years ago; and so when calamities occur Heaven is in anger. Somebody has sinned and the sin is to be expiated by punishment and suffering. If the heart of man were right Heaven would not punish him by misfortunes. Therefore he deserves human punishments. The Emperor, being the vice-regent of God, may jointly punish those who have sinned against God. He may do so in an absolutely arbitrary manner, because he is executing the will of Heaven. Thus the theocratic principle of the government becomes of vast practical utility.
Another phase of this theocratic principle is found in the execution of insane persons who have committed crime. Heaven has caused them to be insane because they or their families or their ancestors committed sin, and therefore to subject them to the slicing process is simply to carry out the will of Heaven.
It does not appear from the decree that the accident of the burning of the temple has been ascribed as yet to the proposal to build railroads. The Emperor takes the event “as a solemn warning, and his mind is filled with awe.” What “proper precautions” the officials failed to take to guard against the stroke of lightning are not stated, nor is it necessary to state them. The untoward event proves that somebody has sinned against Heaven and punishment must be assessed against some one. The part of the altar which was struck by lightning was called the chi-nien-tien or palace of prayers. Its construction dates back to the reign of Yung Lo, of the Ming dynasty, who ascended the throne A. D. 1403. The principal walls were of marble or white jade and the timber used was a species of valuable sandal-wood. It will be difficult to secure like costly materials for its reconstruction, I inclose herewith an account of the temple, written by Dr. Happer.
I have, etc.,