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- The Fight For The Republic In China - 2/86 -


before the 18th Century had closed and were therefore pure ceremonial and symbolic, all the fighting being done by special Chinese corps which were raised as neccessity arose.]

The history of the Nineteenth Century is thus logically enough the history of successive collapses. Not only did overseas foreigners openly thunder at the gateways of the empire and force an ingress, but native rebellions were constant and common. Leaving minor disturbances out of account, there were during this period two huge Mahommedan rebellions, besides the cataclysmic Taiping rising which lasted ten years and is supposed to have destroyed the unbelievable total of one hundred million persons. The empire, torn by internecine warfare, surrendered many of its essential prerogatives to foreigners, and by accepting the principle of extraterritoriality prepared the road to ultimate collapse.

How in such circumstances was it possible to keep alive absolutism? The answer is so curious that we must be explicit and exhaustive.

The simple truth is that save during the period of vigour immediately following each foreign conquest (such as the Mongol conquest in the Thirteenth Century and the Manchu in the Seventeenth) not only has there never been any absolutism properly so-called in China, but that apart from the most meagre and inefficient tax-collecting and some rough-and-ready policing in and around the cities there has never been any true governing at all save what the people did for themselves or what they demanded of the officials as a protection against one another. Any one who doubts these statements has no inkling of those facts which are the crown as well as the foundation of the Chinese group-system, and which must be patiently studied in the village-life of the country to be fitly appreciated. To be quite frank, absolutism is a myth coming down from the days of Kublai Khan when he so proudly built his Khan-baligh (the Cambaluc of Marco Polo and the forebear of modern Peking) and filled it with his troops who so soon vanished like the snows of winter. An elaborate pretence, a deliberate policy of make-believe, ever since those days invested Imperial Edicts with a majesty which they have never really possessed, the effacement of the sovereign during the Nineteenth Century contributing to the legend that there existed in the capital a Grand and Fearful Panjandrum for whom no miracle was too great and to whom people and officials owed trembling obedience.

In reality, the office of emperor was never more than a politico- religious concept, translated for the benefit of the masses into socio-economic ordinances. These pronouncements, cast in the form of periodic homilies called Edicts, were the ritual of government; their purpose was instructional rather than mandatory; they were designed to teach and keep alive the State-theory that the Emperor was the High Priest of the Nation and that obedience to the morality of the Golden Age, which had been inculcated by all the philosophers since Confucius and Mencius flourished twenty-five centuries ago, would not only secure universal happiness but contribute to national greatness.

The office of Emperor was thus heavenly rather than terrestrial, and suasion, not arms, was the most potent argument used in everyday life. The amazing reply (i.e., amazing to foreigners) made by the great Emperor K'ang-hsi in the tremendous Eighteenth Century controversy between the Jesuit and the Dominican missionaries, which ruined the prospects of China's ever becoming Roman Catholic and which the Pope refused to accept--that the custom of ancestor-worship was political and not religious--was absolutely correct, POLITICS IN CHINA UNDER THE EMPIRE BEING ONLY A SYSTEM OF NATIONAL CONTROL EXERCISED BY INCULCATING OBEDIENCE TO FOREBEARS. The great efforts which the Manchus made from the end of the Sixteenth Century (when they were still a small Manchurian Principality striving for the succession to the Dragon Throne and launching desperate attacks on the Great Wall of China) to receive from the Dalai Lama, as well as from the lesser Pontiffs of Tibet and Mongolia, high-sounding religious titles, prove conclusively that dignities other than mere possession of the Throne were held necessary to give solidity to a reign which began in militarism and which would collapse as the Mongol rule had collapsed by a mere Palace revolution unless an effective MORAL title were somehow won.

Nor was the Manchu military Conquest, even after they had entered Peking, so complete as has been represented by historians. The Manchus were too small a handful, even with their Mongol and Chinese auxiliaries, to do more than defeat the Ming armies and obtain the submission of the chief cities of China. It is well- known to students of their administrative methods, that whilst they reigned over China they RULED only in company with the Chinese, the system in force being a dual control which, beginning on the Grand Council and in the various great Boards and Departments in the capital, proceeded as far as the provincial chief cities, but stopped short there so completely and absolutely that the huge chains of villages and burgs had their historic autonomy virtually untouched and lived on as they had always lived. The elaborate system of examinations, with the splendid official honours reserved for successful students which was adopted by the Dynasty, not only conciliated Chinese society but provided a vast body of men whose interest lay in maintaining the new conquest; and thus Literature, which had always been the door to preferment, became not only one of the instruments of government, but actually the advocate of an alien rule. With their persons and properties safe, and their women-folk protected by an elaborate set of capitulations from being requisitioned for the harems of the invaders, small wonder if the mass of Chinese welcomed a firm administration after the frightful disorders which had torn the country during the last days of the Mings. [Footnote: This most interesting point--the immunity of Chinese women from forced marriage with Manchus--has been far too little noticed by historians though it throws a flood of light on the sociological aspects of the Manchu conquest. Had that conquest been absolute it would have been impossible for the Chinese people to have protected their womenfolk in such a significant way.]

It was the foreigner, arriving in force in China after the capture of Peking and the ratification of the Tientsin Treaties in 1860, who so greatly contributed to making the false idea of Manchu absolutism current throughout the world; and in this work it was the foreign diplomat, coming to the capital saturated with the tradition of European absolutism, who played a not unimportant part. Investing the Emperors with an authority with which they were never really clothed save for ceremonial purposes (principally perhaps because the Court was entirely withdrawn from view and very insolent in its foreign intercourse) a conception of High Mightiness was spread abroad reminiscent of the awe in which Eighteenth Century nabobs spoke of the Great Mogul of India. Chinese officials, quickly discovering that their easiest means of defence against an irresistible pressure was to take refuge behind the august name of the sovereign, played their role so successfully that until 1900 it was generally believed by Europeans that no other form of government than a despotism sans phrase could be dreamed of. Finding that on the surface an Imperial Decree enjoyed the majesty of an Ukaze of the Czar, Europeans were ready enough to interpret as best suited their enterprises something which they entirely failed to construe in terms expressive of the negative nature of Chinese civilization; and so it happened that though the government of China had become no government at all from the moment that extraterritoriality destroyed the theory of Imperial inviolability and infallibility, the miracle of turning state negativism into an active governing element continued to work after a fashion because of the disguise which the immense distances afforded.

Adequately to explain the philosophy of distance in China, and what it has meant historically, would require a whole volume to itself; but it is sufficient for our purpose to indicate here certain prime essentials. The old Chinese were so entrenched in their vastnesses that without the play of forces which were supernatural to them, i.e., the steam-engine, the telegraph, the armoured war-vessel, etc., their daily lives could not be affected. Left to themselves, and assisted by their own methods, they knew that blows struck across the immense roadless spaces were so diminished in strength, by the time they reached the spot aimed at, that they became a mere mockery of force; and, just because they were so valueless, paved the way to effective compromises. Being adepts in the art which modern surgeons have adopted, of leaving wounds as far as possible to heal themselves, they trusted to time and to nature to solve political differences which western countries boldly attacked on very different principles. Nor were they wrong in their view. From the capital to the Yangtsze Valley (which is the heart of the country), is 800 miles, that is far more than the mileage between Paris and Berlin. From Peking to Canton is 1,400 miles along a hard and difficult route; the journey to Yunnan by the Yangtsze river is upwards of 2,000 miles, a distance greater than the greatest march ever undertaken by Napoleon. And when one speaks of the Outer Dominions--Mongolia, Tibet, Turkestan--for these hundreds of miles it is necessary to substitute thousands, and add there to difficulties of terrain which would have disheartened even Roman Generals.

Now the old Chinese, accepting distance as the supreme thing, had made it the starting-point as well as the end of their government. In the perfected viceregal system which grew up under the Ming Dynasty, and which was taken over by the Manchus as a sound and admirable governing principle, though they superimposed their own military system of Tartar Generals, we have the plan that nullified the great obstacle. Authority of every kind was delegated by the Throne to various distant governing centuries in a most complete and sweeping manner, each group of provinces, united under a viceroy, being in everything but name so many independent linked commonwealths, called upon for matricular contributions in money and grain but otherwise left severely alone. [Footnote: A very interesting proof--and one that has never been properly exposed--of the astoundingly rationalistic principles on which the Chinese polity is founded is to be seen in the position of priesthoods in China. Unlike every other civilization in the world, at no stage of the development of the State has it been necessary for religion in China to intervene between the rulers and the ruled, saving the people from oppression. In Europe without the supernatural barrier of the Church, the position of the common people in the Middle Ages would have been intolerable, and life, and virtue totally unprotected. Buckle, in his "History of Civilization," like other extreme radicals, has failed to understand that established religions have paradoxically been most valuable because of their vast secular powers, exercised under the mask of spiritual authority. Without this ghostly restraint rulers would have been so oppressive as to have destroyed their peoples. The two greatest monuments to Chinese civilization, then consist of these twin facts; first, that the Chinese have never had the need for such supernatural restraints exercised by a privileged body, and secondly, that they are absolutely without any feeling of class or caste--prince and pauper meeting on terms of frank and humorous equality--the race


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