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A Residence Among The Chinese
Arrival at Shanghae —
Kindness of Mr. Beale — An earthquake — Chinese superstitions — Hairs
come out of the ground — An examination and the result — Reports of a
village — Preparations to visit it — Contradictory statements — The
last — The Chinese rebellion — Its rise and progress — Taking of
Alarm at Shanghae — Means taken for protection — Taoutai's request for
aid — Sir George Bonham proceeds to Nanking — Arrogance of the
War-vessels of America and France visit them — The religion of the
— An extraordinary official statement — Future prospects as regards
ON the 14th of March, 1853, the Peninsular and Oriental steam-ship "Ganges," in which I was a passenger, sailed from Hong-kong for the port of Shanghae — the most northerly of the five at which foreigners are permitted to trade. The wind for the most part of the way was "right a-head," and sometimes it blew almost a gale; but the good ship, being powerful for her size, and well found in everything, ploughed the ocean "like a thing of life," and notwithstanding head winds and heavy seas we anchored in the Shanghae river four days after leaving Hong-kong, having run in that time somewhere about nine hundred miles.
As on former occasions, I determined to make this port my head-quarters during my travels in the interior owing to the facilities it afforded for the despatch of my collections to India or to England. I was lucky enough to find my friend Mr. Beale, to whom I was so much indebted during my former "journey to the tea districts," still in Shanghae, and as kind and hospitable as ever. He again invited me to make his house my home whenever I should visit this port, an invitation of which I availed myself frequently during the three years I have been in the country. His large and interesting garden I found of the greatest value, as in it I could store my various collections until an opportunity occurred of having them shipped for their destination.
During the few days of my stay in Shanghae I experienced for the first time in my life the shock of an earthquake, a phenomenon which is not unusual in this part of the world. It was about eleven o'clock at night, one of those beautiful nights which one finds only in the sunny lands of the East. The stars were shining brightly in the sky, but a slight haze seemed to spread itself over the ground and the river; and the atmosphere, although perfectly calm, was warmer than is usual at this early period of the spring. I had been dining out, and had just returned home, and was sitting with Mr. Beale at the drawing-room fire.
In an instant I experienced an extraordinary and unaccountable sensation, which was perfectly new, and which I could neither understand nor explain. At the same moment the pheasants in the aviary began to scream, and the chandelier which hung from the ceiling swung slowly from side to side. "It is an earthquake," said Mr. Beale; "let us go out on the lawn in front of the house." I confess I did not require a second bidding, but rushed out of the house forthwith. Mr. Beale, who seemed to have become accustomed to such things, quietly went to look for his hat in the lobby and then followed me. In the mean time his Excellency Sir George Bonham, her Majesty's Plenipotentiary and Governor of Hong-kong, who was staying at this time with Mr. Beale, came down stairs, and all the other gentlemen in the house made their appearance also, most of them in their night-dresses, as they had retired to rest before the occurrence took place. All this happened in much less time than I take to write it. When we reached the lawn the ground seemed moving and swaying to and fro under our feet, and I experienced a slight sickening sensation not unlike sea-sickness. At the same time the whole scene was rendered more striking by the ringing of bells in the adjoining houses, the screams of birds, and the crash of a falling house as we thought, but which turned out afterwards to be a slimly-built wall. The first shock lasted for a few minutes only, but several were felt afterwards, although less severe than the first.
When daylight dawned on the following morning it was found that the damage done was not very great. The wall I have already noticed had fallen, some beams in one of the houses had come through the ceiling, and a quantity of goods had tumbled down in one of the godowns. Most of the clocks had stopped, and some few lamps and glasses were broken, but upon the whole the damage done was very inconsiderable. Groups of Chinese were seen in the gardens, road-sides, and fields, engaged in gathering hairs which are said to make their appearance on the surface of the ground after an earthquake takes place. This proceeding attracted a great deal of attention from some of the foreign residents in Shanghae, and the Chinese were closely examined upon the subject. Most of them fully believed that these hairs made their appearance only after an earthquake had occurred, but could give no satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, while some more wise than their neighbours did not hesitate to affirm that they belonged to some huge subterraneous animal whose slightest shake was sufficient to move the world.
I must confess, at the risk of being laughed at, that I was one of those who took an interest in this curious subject, and that I joined several groups who were searching for these hairs. In the course of my travels I have ever found it unwise to laugh at what I conceived to be the prejudices of a people simply because I could not understand them. In this instance, however, I must confess the results were not worth the trouble I took. The hairs, such as I picked up, and such as were shown me by the Chinese, had certainly been produced above the earth and not below it. In some instances they might readily be traced to horses, dogs, and cats, while in others they were evidently of vegetable origin. The north-eastern part of China produces a very valuable tree known by the name of the hemp-palm, from the quantity of fibrous bracts it produces on the stem just under its blossoms. Many of these fibres were shown to me by the Chinese as a portion of the hairs in question; and when I pointed out the source from which such had come, and which it was impossible to dispute, my friends laughed, and with true Chinese politeness acknowledged I was right, and yet I have no doubt they still held their former opinions concerning the origin of such hairs. The whole matter simply resolves itself into this, — if the hairs pointed out to me were the true ones, then such things may be gathered not only after earthquakes but at any other time. But if, after all, these were not the real things, and if some vegetable (I shall not say animal) production was formed, owing to the peculiar condition of the atmosphere and from other causes, I can only say that such production did not come under my observation.1
A day or two after the earthquake took place a report was current amongst the natives that a large tract of ground, on which a populous village stood, had sunk down into the bowels of the earth, carrying with it the whole of the people, and that the spot was now marked by a large pool of water. This report was repeated to me in the country at a considerable distance from Shanghae, and seemed to be generally believed by the inhabitants. An old nursery-gardener, from whom I was in the habit of purchasing plants, informed me the village in question had been full of bad people, and that this was no doubt a judgment from heaven on account of their sins. I hinted that there might be some danger to his own property and to the city of Shanghae; but the old man told me my fears were groundless.
Being anxious to verify the reports of the Chinese by a personal examination of the place, I determined to pay it a visit. Mr. Forbes, American Consul at Canton, and Mr. Shortrede, editor of the 'China Mail,' agreed to accompany me. I had been told the spot was distant from Shanghae some thirty miles up the river, and in a south-westerly direction, but the more minute my inquiries were the greater difficulty I had in finding out the exact locality. In the mean time all our arrangements had been made except the hiring of boats, and we had agreed to start on the following morning. I had an excellent servant, a man who had travelled with me for several years, and whose duty it was to engage the boats we required for the journey. Before he left me for this purpose I desired him to take care the boatman knew the road, as it would never do to find out after we had started that no one knew which way to go. He left me on this mission, and was absent about two hours. When he returned he informed me that he had made the requisite inquiries about the sunken village, that such an occurrence had taken place, but instead of the spot being up the river we must go down in an opposite direction in order to find it. At the same time he told me candidly he did not think the boatman knew anything about the matter, and said I had better not go until something more satisfactory could be ascertained concerning it. I was reluctantly compelled to admit that his advice was good, and wrote to the others saying we had better put off the journey. And now it is worth while to mark the result of all this in order to get an idea of the extraordinary character of the people of China. A few days afterwards we were told with the greatest coolness, by the same parties who had formerly given the information about the sunken village, that "it was quite true such an occurrence had taken place, but that it had happened about two hundred years ago!"
While these events were going forward the rebellion in the interior of the country was causing the greatest excitement, not only amongst the natives, but also amongst foreign residents. The rebels were known as the Kwang-si men, as they belonged to the province of that name, which had been for several years in a state of great disorder. In 1850, three years before the time of which I write, a memorial, presented to the government by a number of gentlemen in the province, shows that fully two-thirds of it was overrun by robbers, who committed great violence upon the inhabitants. "At the time the petition was written hundreds and thousands of fields were lying uncultivated; the communications were in the hands of the outlaws, so that the supplies of government could not travel." About the close of 1850 the well-known Commissioner Lin was summoned from his retirement in Fokien in order to put down the insurgents, but he died on the way. Sundry other high officers, civil and military, were sent against them, but apparently with but little success. In August, 1851, Hung-sew-tseuen, subsequently known as Tai-ping-wang, seized Yung-ngan, a city of a sub-prefecture in the east of the province, and held it until April, 1852. The insurgent force, of which he was the chief, advancing slowly at first, then commenced its northern march by moving upon the provincial capital Kwei-lin. The rebels soon left this city behind them, and, after seizing and abandoning various places in the south of Hoo-nan, in the middle of December took Yohchau, a city on the river Yang-tse-kiang. Before the end of the month they had crossed this river, and stormed Wu-chang, the capital of Hu-peh; then descending the stream, they captured every city of note on or near its banks, both in Kiang-si and Ngan-hwui, until they arrived at Nanking, the ancient southern capital, in Kiang-su, which they stormed in March, 1853.2
When the news of the success of the rebels at Nanking and Chinkiang reached Shanghae, the alarm amongst all classes of the community was very great. Some persons were of opinion that the insurgents would march straight upon Shang-has, attracted thither by the reported wealth of the foreign merchants; and while the better informed did not apprehend much danger from this source, nearly all agreed in the propriety of taking some precautionary measures for the protection of the settlement. Meetings were held at the British Consulate, parties of sailors and marines were landed from our men-of-war, some rude fortifications were hastily thrown up, and every precaution was taken to prevent a surprise. It turned out afterwards that, however prudent these measures were at the time, they were quite uncalled for, as it does not seem to have been the intention of the insurgents to molest foreigners in any way whatever.
The Taoutai of Shanghae — a native of the Canton province, and a man of reputed wealth — had been making great exertions in order to put down the rebellion. He had chartered a number of Portuguese lorchas and other vessels, and sent them up to Nanking to arrest the progress of the now victorious and successful insurgents. In addition to this, he applied to Mr. Alcock, her Majesty's Consul at the port, to request Captain Saunderson, of H. M. brig "Lily," to proceed with that vessel to Nanking, and exterminate the rebels. Captain Saunderson very properly refused to comply with this modest request, stating at the same time that a small sailing-vessel like the "Lily" would be useless in a river where the tides were rapid.
Her Majesty's Plenipotentiary, Sir George Bonham, having in the mean time arrived at Shanghae in the "Hermes," accompanied by the "Salamander," both war-steamers, the Taoutai renewed his application. After giving an account of the progress of the rebels received from the governor of Kiangsoo, which concluded by stating that, "if they are not speedily cut off, commerce will be interrupted, and the business of Chinese and foreign merchants will be totally ruined," he goes on as follows:—
"I have to request that you will, in the first place, despatch the vessels of war which may have already arrived at Shanghae, together with that stationed there, to Nanking, that they may, with the lorchas under their command, make a combined attack, solemnly binding themselves to extirpate the rebels, in order to gratify the public mind and open the path of commerce. I have also to request that you will urge by letter the speedy advance of the vessels which have not yet arrived, and their successive departure for Nanking, in order to sweep away every remnant of rebellion, and give tranquillity to the country, to the great happiness of myself, the Chinese officials, and people. For this I earnestly pray and earnestly entreat."
A polite answer was sent to this "earnest" communication; but as Sir George Bonham had made up his mind to remain strictly neutral in the affair, the poor Taoutai's request for foreign aid was not complied with, and Nanking, with Chingkiang-foo, soon fell into the hands of the insurgents.
About this time the United States steam-frigate "Susquehanna," with his Excellency Colonel Marshall on board, made an attempt to reach Nanking by the Yang-tse-kiang, but, finding some difficulty, owing, it was said, to the shallowness of the river and the numerous sandbanks, returned to Shanghae without having accomplished the end in view. Afterwards this vessel was more successful.
Meanwhile the excitement amongst all classes of the community at Shanghae daily increased, and all sorts of exaggerated reports were promulgated. At one time it was reported that the insurgents were within thirty miles of us, and might be upon us at any moment. In addition to the means we had taken for the protection of the foreign settlement, the Taoutai, after his own manner, was most indefatigable in taking measures for the safety of the city. He purchased large supplies of gunpowder and guns from foreigners, enlisted soldiers, and called out the militia. But evidently being rather doubtful of the results, and perhaps not having much confidence in the bravery of his troops, he removed his treasure from the Imperial treasury in the city, and placed it on board of H.M. brig "Lily."
Captain Fishbourne, in his 'Impressions of China,' gives us an anecdote which shows plainly that the old man was in a great state of alarm: "About this time I asked him how it was that, with such large and well-appointed armies as the Imperialists investing Nanking were said to be, they did not recapture it? He answered, these thieves were not men, they were devils; that they had undermined all the ground inside the walls; that the Imperialists had effected a breach in the walls, but, anticipating an ambuscade, they had driven a large number of buffaloes in through the breach, and that these had all disappeared into a dreadful gulf which the insurgents had made."
Things were in this state when Mr. Meadows, Interpreter to the Consulate, volunteered to try and reach the insurgent camp, and obtain some definite information with regard to their position, their numbers, and particularly their views with regard to Shanghae. He left Shanghae on the 9th of April in his own boat, with a picked crew, and, having a fair southerly wind, reached Soochow on the following day. On the 13th he passed the city of Chang-chow, and on the 14th he arrived at a place called Tan-yang. At this place his boatmen and servants seem to have objected to proceed, and, meeting a man whom he had previously despatched to procure information, he returned to Shanghae in order to communicate to Sir George Bonham the information he had been enabled to gather during his journey connected with the movements of the insurgents.
Mr. Meadows was led to believe that the army of the insurgents numbered from thirty to forty thousand of "trusted and voluntary adherents," and in addition they had from eighty to one hundred thousand of pressed men and other adherents. "The strangest," says Mr. Meadows, "and what will probably prove by far the most important fact connected with them, is, that they have got a sacred book, which the chiefs and the older members of the army not only peruse and repeat diligently themselves, but earnestly admonish all new comers to learn."
The information communicated by Mr. Meadows, and the well-known fact that the Chinese authorities in Shanghae had been endeavouring, by every means in their power, to make the insurgents believe that foreigners were to take the part of the Imperialists in the quarrel, induced Sir George Bonham to proceed himself to Nanking in the "Hermes."
From a careful perusal of the published account of this expedition it appears to have been useful in setting the insurgents right as to our determination to remain strictly neutral, and at the same time, if their statements were to be relied upon, it was ascertained that they had no intention of molesting us in any way at Shanghae. But the officials amongst the insurgents appear to have been full to the brim with Canton ideas of their superiority over all the nations of the earth, which augurs ill for our future connection should they be successful in upsetting the present dynasty and establishing one of their own. Listen to the modesty of the "Northern Prince:" — "The Lord of China is the lord of the whole world; he is the second son of God, and all the people in the whole world must obey and follow him.….The true Lord is not merely the Lord of China; he is not only our lord, but he is your lord also."
In order to show their views more fully, I must quote from another extraordinary document received by Her Majesty's Plenipotentiary at the time: — "But now that you distant English have not deemed myriads of miles too far to come and acknowledge our sovereignty, not only are the soldiers and officers of our celestial dynasty delighted and gratified thereby, but even in high heaven itself our Celestial Father and Elder Brother will also admire this manifestation of your fidelity and truth…. We therefore promulgate this new decree" [permitting us to carry on commercial relations as usual, &c.] "of Tai-ping for the information of you English, so that all the human race may learn to worship our Heavenly Father and Celestial Elder Brother, and that all may know that, wherever our Royal Master is, there men unite in congratulating him on having obtained the decree to rule." Sir George Bonham says in his despatch, — "To this extraordinary document I returned the accompanying reply, which I deemed, under all circumstances, necessary, as, the sooner the minds of these men are disabused in regard to their universal supremacy, the better for all parties:— 'I have received your communication, part of which I am unable to understand,' [no wonder] 'and especially that portion which implies that the English are subordinate to your sovereign.' ". . .
In the month of December, 1853, the French war-steamer "Cassini" paid a short visit to the insurgents at Nanking; in May, 1854, the American Minister, Mr. McLane, visited them in the "Susquehanna," and a short time afterwards H.M. steamers "Rattler" and "Styx" renewed the visit on the part of the English. These interviews with the leaders of the insurgents do not seem to have led to any results of importance, if we can judge from the statements which have been published from time to time in the newspapers. While the Chinese have treated the western officials with a certain amount of studied politeness, they have not failed, on all occasions, to assert their own superiority and to demand that we should acknowledge their universal supremacy. It therefore appears that these visits from officials and ships of war belonging to western nations have not only done no good, but have had a tendency to foster that pride and self-conceit of which the Chinese as a nation have rather more than their fair share.
The religious character of the movement has attracted, as might be expected, much notice from the Christian nations of the West. At one time, during our early acquaintance with the insurgents, it was believed by the more sanguine amongst us that nothing short of a miracle had been performed by the Almighty, and that the millions of China, for ages sunk in idolatry, were now "stretching out their hand to God." But our information on this point was always crude and indefinite. There was, however, no doubt of one thing, namely, that they were busily employed in printing and distributing copies of the Scriptures, that they appeared to be worshipping the same God whom we worship, that they were keeping holy one day in seven, and that their moral code was strict and severe. And it was not to be wondered at if, in many instances, they were induced to put a literal interpretation to certain passages of the sacred writings which they had no one to explain.
But notwithstanding all this, there were many persons amongst the foreign residents in China, and I must confess myself as one of the number, who viewed the religious character of the movement with considerable doubt. This is not the age of miracles, and certainly nothing less than a miracle could account for many thousands of the Chinese being all at once converted to Christianity.
Mr. W. H. Medhurst, Chinese Secretary to the English Government at Hong-kong, who visited Nanking with the "Rattler" and "Styx," put us in possession of an official statement professing to be a few of the tenets of the so-called Chinese Christians. The document in question is certainly an extraordinary one. If we understand it aright, and if it really be what it professes, and an exposition of the religious belief of the insurgents, we must conclude their Christianity to be a sham, and their leaders fanatics or knaves.
In this document, one of the leaders of the insurgents, styled the Eastern Prince, professes to have direct communication with the Supreme Being. He pretends to fall into a trance in the presence of the females of the court, and in that state assumes that he is the Heavenly Father, and gives instructions to be communicated to himself, and also summons the Northern Prince to his presence. The instructions given to himself are afterwards communicated to him by the females, and are to this effect: he is desired to go to court, and reprove the Celestial King, Hung-sew-tseuen, the leader of the insurgents, for harshness to the females of his court and for over-indulgence to his son. When the Northern Prince arrives, the
Heavenly Father has ascended again to heaven, that is, the Eastern Prince is no longer under divine influence, and the whole party get into their sedan-chairs to communicate the divine commands to the Celestial King, Hung-sew-tseuen. Before they start, however, the Heavenly Father descends a second time, and the Eastern Prince falls again into a trance. The Heavenly Father now issues his commands by the lips of the Eastern Prince to the Northern Prince, who kneels reverently in the street to receive them. These are to the effect that He, the Heavenly Father, is to be conveyed to the Hall of Audience in the Celestial King's palace. When they arrive there, the Celestial King is summoned; he with the Northern Prince kneels before the Heavenly Father (the Eastern Prince) to hear his commands. The Heavenly Father now reproved the King in the following words: — "Sew-tseuen, you are very much in fault; are you aware of it?" Sew-tseuen, with the other officers of his court, kneels down before the Heavenly Father and says, "Your unworthy son knows he is in fault, and begs the Heavenly Father graciously to forgive him." The Heavenly Father then said with a loud voice, "Since you acknowledge your fault, you must be beaten with forty blows." When this judgment is pronounced, the Northern Prince and all the officers of the court prostrate themselves on the ground, and, weeping, implore the Heavenly Father to remit the punishment which their master had deserved, and offer at the same time to receive the blows in his stead. But the Celestial King will not hear of this, and insists on receiving the blows on his own person, prostrating himself for the purpose. The Heavenly Father now relents, and says, "Since you have obeyed the requisition, I shall not inflict the blows." The Heavenly Father then returns again to heaven, and the Eastern Prince is himself once more.
And now it becomes the duty of the Northern Prince to report to the Eastern Prince what the Heavenly Father had communicated, the latter pretending to be profoundly ignorant on the matter. "My fourth Elder Brother," said he, "the Heavenly Father has again troubled himself to come down into the world." The Eastern Prince appeared much pleased and said, "Has he indeed taken the trouble to come down again? Truly he gives himself a great deal of trouble on our account."
The Eastern Prince, having been thus informed of the nature of the divine commands, hastens to communicate them to the Celestial King — a portion of them, however, appear to have been communicated before, during the interview at the palace. The Celestial King receives the heavenly commands with respect and gratitude, and then gives expression to an idea which, if we understand aright, is nothing else than blasphemy. And be it remembered that this is uttered by Hung-sew-tseuen, the leader of this so-called Christian rebellion, and pupil of our Christian missionaries. The Celestial King then said, "When our Celestial Elder Brother Jesus, in obedience to the commands of our Heavenly Father, came down into the world, in the country of Judea, he addressed his disciples saying, 'At some future day the Comforter will come into the world.' Now I, your second Elder Brother, considering what you, Brother Tsing, have reported to me, and observing what you have done, must conclude that the Comforter, even the Holy Ghost, spoken of by our Celestial Elder Brother, is none other than yourself." "Brother Tsing" readily agrees with Hung-sewtseuen, and now assumes the title of the Comforter or Holy Ghost, and has his name included in the hymn of praise which is chanted morning and evening by the so-called Christian army.
Another of these worthies, styled the Western Prince, pretends to personate our Saviour, "the Heavenly Elder Brother," and utters his exhortations and commands as if they came direct from heaven.
It must be confessed that such professions amongst the leaders of this movement incline us to pause before we can bring our minds to admit them to be Christians. Those who are desirous of obtaining a further account of these men may consult with advantage Captain Fishbourne's 'Impressions of China,' and Mr. Meadows's 'Chinese and their Rebellions.' Foreigners, however, have had no opportunity of making themselves fully acquainted with this strange people, and I for one am content to suspend my judgment until we have the means of seeing and judging for ourselves. Any change, however, from Buddhism, Taouism, and the apathy with which the Chinese people have shrouded themselves for ages past in so far as religion is concerned, would seem to be desirable. And surely the thousands of copies of the Sacred Scriptures which are not only printed and circulated, but read by the insurgents, will bear fruit at last, although it is much to be feared the precious seed is still sown on stony ground.
Having these views, I fully
agree with the following
remarks made by a writer in 'The Times' upon this subject: — "It cannot
said at present that the Chinese have learnt the Gospel: but they have
rate been taught to abandon a system of idolatry, to profess themselves
believers in something better, and to appeal to this new law for the
of social evils. . . . It will, probably, be long before this
revolution is consummated, but we do not see that the hopes entertained
eventual conversion of China need be despondingly abandoned."
1 During a recent visit to the north-west provinces of India, where earthquakes are not unfrequent, I could find no traditions such as that I have alluded to.
2 T. F. Wade, in . China Mail,' Sept. 12, 1856.