Liberal Barbarism: The Primary Source Archive

12. DESCRIPTION OF PEKIN

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The word Pekin, or Pehchin, as the inhabitants pronounce it, carries with it so much that we in Europe have always been in the habit of associating with the wonderful, that it deserves a separate chapter to itself. Unfortunately our explorations about its neighbourhood were necessarily Umited, as it was not considered safe to wander alone very far from our outposts, and when our cavalry patrols went out, it was not deemed advisable to proceed far down along the west of the city, there being a number of Chinese camps there, all entrenched. As collision with their soldiers was to be avoided if possible, visits to their locahty were very few. It was always difficult to calculate upon the line of conduct which such semi-barbarous troops, ignorant of the usages of war, would adopt. Frequent reconnaissances were made, however, in all other directions by the officers of our Quartermaster-General’s department. During our halt at Pekin the country in the neighbourhood of Hai-teen was much disturbed by banditti, who had no doubt assembled there in hopes of sharing in the plunder of the Eoyal residences. Frequent encounters took place between them and the native mihtary authorities, who injflicted most summary [302] punishment upon those taken flagrante delicto. As many of the villagers near the summer palaces had carried off quantities of silks, &c., whilst they were being destroyed, the Mandarins were anxious to apprehend all such persons, their offence being unpardonable according to Chinese law. As I had frequent occasion to visit the neighbourhood of the summer palaces, after the departure of our allies from thence, I had fair opportunities of witnessing the disorder into which their neighbourhood had fallen. The large village known as Hai-teen, through which the road to Yuen-ming-yuen passes, was infested with robbers, who were apparently helping themselves to the property of those who had fled from their homes upon our approach. A few of the more stout-hearted proprietors had remained to guard their chattels, between whom and the plundering rabble there seemed to be a never-ending stand-up fight. Lynch law was the order of the day. I saw the remains of several murdered men in the streets; and upon one occasion, when turning round the angle of a house, having been attracted there by the noise, I found two or three men standing over one upon the ground, whom they were in the act of killing, by beating in his head with a hammer, from wliich fate my party had some difficulty in saving him. Every night the report of musketry and field guns was heard by our guards in camp, and upon the night of the 31st October to such an extent that our allies turned out tliinking that we had been attacked. I beheve that most of such firing was occasioned by the Chinese watchmen and police, who make a practice of firing at night, so as to show aU thieves that they are [p. 303] not only awake, but well armed and ready for them. To the south of the city none of our patrols had ever penetrated, as the distance was so great from our camp that it would have been impossible to reconnoitre there with a suitable force and return in the same day. Of the country in that direction we learnt from native sources that a very large inland lake lay due south of the city, in the numerous islands of which leopards, wild cats, and deer, are said to be very numerous. Operations had been prolonged to such a late period of the year, that when peace was at last signed there was no time for organising expeditions to explore that part of the country. In all other directions, however, the localities were closely examined, and maps made of them imder the superintendence of Colonel Mackenzie. All the information which could be obtained was collected, so that in the event of any fixture operations being required in those regions our work will be much simphfied. The land is everywhere most carefully cultivated, and yields two abundant crops yearly, millet, Indian com, beans, sweet potatoes, and a sort of cabbage being the principal produce. The total absence of pasture land strikes the eye of all who are accustomed to Enghsh farming as very pecuhar. In all parts of China Proper, milk, butter, or cheese, are unappreciated dainties; and the Tartar soldiers, when serving out of their own native provinces, feel the loss of such commodities greatly, as, in the wild plains of Thibet, milk, sour curds, and a sort of clotted cream constitute their principal diet. Between Pekin and the hills the country is thickly CHINESE VILLAGES. 305 dotted over with trees, which, with the numerous tombs and wide-spreading network of hollow roads, makes it difficult for the traveller to find his way about. There being few fences which a horse cannot get over, the best method to adopt in making a journey is to steer by a compass, straight over the fields, avoiding the hollow cart-tracks as much as possible, as fi^om them all view of the country is difficult. Although the ground over which we passed in our fight of the 21st September was, as I have described, closely intersected with banks and wide ditches, there are but very few north of the Yu-liang-ho. The small villages in the neighbourhood of Pekin are mostly surrounded by a wattle and daub fence. The numerous farmhouses were similarly enclosed, the straw-yards, corn-stacks, and threshingfloors being all ‘within the enclosures. Cattle-sheds, and good stabhng for mules or ponies, were invariably attached to even the most unpretending of cottages, in which the animals are housed during winter, and fed upon the millet straw, chopped small and steeped before use in warm water : upon this food they thrive well. As a rule, I think all in our army were disappointed with Pekin. For a considerable time previous to our arrival there every one had been drawing imaginary pictures in their minds as to what it was like. Those who had been for any number of years residing in ” the flowery land,” had been accustomed to hear Chinamen everlastingly referring to their capital in terms of the highest praise, describing it as little short of paradise, combining within its walls all that was lovely and magnificent. With the exception of some X 806 THE WAR WITH CHINA. Mandarins, few of those belonging to the southern provmces had ever visited the great northern capital; from earUest youth, however, every Chinaman is taught to beheve it the greatest of all cities. Its importance is as much a part of his faith, as the worship which all offer to their ancestors. The story told about the first appearance of one of our steamers at Canton gives a fair example of the extent to which this feehng is carried. An English merchant pointing out the steamer to a Chinaman, said, rather exultingly, ” Well, you have not got any vessels like that;” — to which answer was immediately made, “Ah, Canton no got, Pekin side plenty got, all same Kke.” I have no doubt he really believed such to be the case, considering Pekin to be so immeasurably superior to all other places, that it was impossible any nation could possess anything not known there. Before we had encamped close to the city our expectations were sustained by the reports brought in daily by our reconnoitring parties, who talked of having seen the roofs of lofty palaces and curiously-shaped pagodas rising high above the walls. When our army had taken up a position close to the place, the massiveness of its defences, well kept and regularly built, served to keep up the illusion regarding the wonders within. No vagary of fancy was ever more rudely dispelled than ours was when, upon the surrender of the An-ting gate, we gazed from thence over the streets and houses beneath. The dull monotony of colouring pervading all objects, and the sameness everywhere about, made all pronounce its appearance to be most unjustly praised. [p. 30] Leading from the gate in a due southerly direction, was the wide street along which our procession marched upon the 24th October. It was about a hundred feet in width, and was well paved for the first couple of hundred yards, after which it was simply earth. In this respect the streets of the capital differ from those of most other Chinese cities, where they are generally narrow, and paved over with granite blocks. In Pekin only the spaces near the gates were so paved. Coal cinders are used in quantities upon the streets, each householder emptying out the ashes of his stove upon the space immediately before his dwelling. Without some such arrangement the mud in wet weather would be ankle deep. As soon as our troops had taken up their position in the An-ting gate, the crowds of people that swarmed in from all quarters of the city to gaze at us exceeded anything that I had ever previously witnessed : a perfect sea of heads stretched away up the broad street as far as we could see. The moving to and fro of these people caused such clouds of dust to arise, that, in some directions, the city was so enveloped by it that nothing was to be seen. The Chinese guard, aided by a number of city pohce, had much difficulty in keeping back the dense masses which, swaying to and fro, kept pressing down towards the gate. Active httle French sentries kept jumping about, now here, now there, cursing, swearing, and laughing by tutns, in their endeavours to keep the space clear near their guard. A rope was stretched across the street beyond which none were allowed to pass. The whole of that day the street remained choked up by people eager to gaze upon their ” bar- [p. 307] barian ” conquerors. No ill-feeling was evinced by any, and all seemed to take the sharp blows from their own policemen’s whips, and the numerous pokes in the ribs from our sentries, in the very best humour. The streets are mostly laid out with mathematical exactness, all running due north and south, or east and west, as were also the city walls. Pekin is, in reality, two cities, only separated by the southern wall of the Tartar quarter. The southern one is the old Chinese town. It is four sided, the northern and southern faces being nearly five miles long, the eastern and western about two miles. The northern, or Tartar city, is nearly a square of four miles east and west, and three miles north and south. The north-western angle is, however, shghtly rounded off. The rampart walls average from thirty-five to forty feet high, above which the parapet wall rises seven feet everywhere around. Upon the inside they are mostly some five or six feet higher, owing, I imagine, to the ground excavated from the ditches having been thrown up, upon the outside, against the walls. Their average thickness, at top, is sixty feet, the masonry having a slope of about one in eight. The parapet walls (there being one upon both sides of the rampart) are three feet thick and castellated at top, the soles of the embrasures being four feet abovQ the terreplein of the rampart. In the centre of what would be with us the merlon, there is a small, square loophole, only about six inches above the foot of the parapet, from which the uncouth iron wall pieces, so common in all Chinese cities, are fired from carriages without any wheels, and unprovided with any means of depression or elevation. The terreplein of the ram- [p. 308] parts sloped gently inwards, so as to carry off the rain. It was neatly paved over its entire length with square tiles of considerable thickness; beneath them was a stratum of very hard concrete, three feet thick, — all below it, as far as we could ascertain, being wellrammed earth and rubble. With the very limited number of our guns and ammunition I do not believe we should have succeeded in making a practicable breach through the walls. No doubt we should have brought down a sufficient quantity of the outer revetment to have enabled oiumen to scramble up with ladders, but to have made a breach up which a body of men could march, with the hmited means at oiu* disposal, I think was very problematical. In the event of its being ever necessary hereafter to assault Pekin, I am sure that most of those who examined the walls will agree with me in thinking that mining is the best method of opening out a road through its ponderous defences. At each gateway and comer angle there is a high three-storeyed tower, thickly pierced with embrasures, but unprovided with guns. These towers are used as barracks, and, in order to keep out the cold air, the embrasures are closed up by wooden doors, upon the centre of each of which the representation of a cannon’s muzzle has been painted, giving the building an imposing aspect when seen at some little distance. These lofty towers, with their many embrasures, are well calculated to inspire all Chinamen with exaggerated ideas of their strength and importance. The reputation which Pekin had acquired throughout the empire for greatness and impregnability is, in a great [p. 309] measure, attributable to the imposing features of its fortifications. To a people ignorant of our modem appKances of war, such works would naturally appear capable of resisting for ever any efforts of a besieging force. They would have been similarly estimated by our ancestors of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For hundreds of years the same weapons have been in use in China. Whilst western nations have been improving annually in all the appliances of offence and defence, the Chinese, carefully guarded in by an impenetrable barrier of self-conceit, have kept themselves aloof from all contact with other nations. To such a bigoted exclusiveness her downfal and humiliation is greatly attributable. In front of each gate there is a space of about a hundred yards square, enclosed by walls of similar dimensions to those of the enceinte. Through one of the side faces of it, the road is carried under a massive archway, so that every entrance to the city is protected by two lines of defence. Upon the inside a broad •road runs round the city at the foot of the rampart. The ditch has been a fine one in its day; but the arrangements for supplying it with water have been allowed to fall into decay, hke almost every other pubhc work in China, so that at present it is fordable at most points, and in some places is only a few inches deep. Within the Tartar city, and covering about a fourth of its entire space, is the ” Imperial ” or ” Inner City,” within which again is the palace, surrounded by a high and massive wall, with ditch, &c. &c. None of us were [p. 310] allowed to enter the innermost enclosure; but from all we could learn from the natives, I believe that his Majesty’s city residence is in a very faded condition, all the money available for such purposes having been for many years past expended upon the summer palace of Yuen-ming-yuen. The space between the palace walls and those around the ” Inner City,” is covered with the houses of those about the court, and with barracks. Scattered here and there were spots which had once been pleasure-grounds, or ponds of water, now completely neglected. An air of desolation was stamped upon everything, from the bell-shaped pagoda, which, standing upon a mound, marked the final resting-place of many sovereigns, to the smallest guard-room with its dilapidated chevaux-de-frise and arm-stands. There were numerous bridges, over what had once been wellkept canals, but which now were simply unsightly excavations, used as receptacles for filth and rubbish. In former times, when the pubhc works were well attended to, Pekin was plentifully supplied with water by means of these canals, which were fed from the lakes at Hai-teen. Numbers of temples, official residences belonging to the Princes, and pubhc buildings, are situated in difierent parts of the Tartar city. They are mostly upon a larger scale than those I have seen in the southern provinces, but possess no other local peculiarity. All have a faded, uncared-for appearance. The ordinary houses of the city are only one-storeyed, and built without any regard to uniformity. Those situated in the principal thoroughfares are of brick, with tiled roofs, whilst those in the remote quarters resemble the farmhouses of the surrounding country, [p. 311] having mud walk and thatched roofe, all well plastered over with a coating of mud and chopped straw. At some conspicuous places in the main streets, there were tumble-down looking archways, if such an Irishism is admissible in describing high-raised gateways, in whose design was no s^ment of a circle nor any curve, except what time had given to the widespanning beams wliich, in most instances, bend slightly downwards with their superincumbent weight of wood and stone. These had been originally constructed in memory of great men, or in commemoration of proud triumphs in days of Tartar renown. They seem to have changed with the times, serving now as emblems of national decay and public dishonour. One might almost fancy that they feel their altered destiny, and care no longer to rear erect the once straight and noble timbers of which they are constructed, but now lean in aU directions, scared and bent, as if in shame for the descendants of those who raised them. Barely two thirds of the space enclosed within the walls of the Chinese city is covered with houses, the remaining third being nearly all taken up by the gardens around the temples of ” Heaven,” and that in honour of the deities who preside over agriculture. The enclosed space around the former is a square mile in extent, which is tastefully laid out in gardens and shrubberies. Both of these buildings are situated close by the Yun-ting gate, which is the centre one of the three in the southern face. They stand upon either side of the wide roadway running north and south through the Chinese city, dividing it into two equal portions. [p. 312] Immediately within the southern face the ground has been but Kttle built upon, and there are several large pieces of water there. The victorious Tartars, in adding on their city to the old Chinese town, took care that theirs should domineer over the latter, as they built their walls some ten feet higher, thus giving it the character of a keep. The Yu-Kang-ho touches Pekin at the junction of the two cities, where it communicates with the ditch. From the point where it meets the city to the Che-ho gate, in the eastern face, a row of granaries extend underneath the walls between them and the ditch. In these the annual grain tribute was stored upon arrival by the canal. These buildings are now in a ruined state. A considerable exodus of the inhabitants had taken place diuing the first two or three days of our occupation of the An-ting gate, but almost aU had returned before our final departure, finding how strictly order was maintained amongst our troops. Before we retired from Pekin, all the shops which were at first closed, had reopened, and business was resumed in the usual manner. The numerous fiir and curio shops were daily crowded by our oflGicers, all anxious to obtain strange presents for their friends at home. The manner in which the Chinese tradesmen picked up words of ” pidgeon Enghsh” was quite astonishing. In a very few days, even the little boys in the street came up offering articles for sale, and asking ” how muchee.” The attempts to make ourselves understood by signs were most amusing. Those who could draw found their art most useful in illustrating upon paper what they required, as the shopmen were most apt at com [p. 313] prehending even the roughest dehneation of what was wanted. Upon entering a shop you had only to hold up your thumb with the other fingers closed, to indicate that you wished to see the first class things. All those with whom we had any dealings were civil and obhging, enjoying a joke, even when at their own expense, as well as any people I have ever met with. Of course, like all Easterns, they invariably asked for every article about twice as much as they were prepared to take for it. Of the female portion of the inhabitants we saw but few, none but the old and ugly showing themselves in the streets. Occasionally, however, during my rides through the city, I saw a woman’s head peering through a window, or over a wall, at the ” barbarian ” as he passed. In appearance they resembled those I had seen elsewhere in the northern districts of the empire. The Tartar women never cripple their feet like their Chinese sisters, and wear shoes like the men. They are very fond of painting their faces, and powdering their necks and foreheads over with some stufl* Uke flour. The people five almost exclusively upon vegetable diet, their usual food being flour ground firom millet or Indian com, sweet potatoes, and a coarse sort of cabbage. Tea is their ordinary beverage : but Chinamen very seldom drink water. There is also a large consumption of a fiery sort of spirit made fi^om millet; it is commonly known by the name of sam-shoo, and is sold for about threepence a pint. Pekin is much the cleanest Chinese city I have ever been in, and the air [p. 314] is not loaded with those sickening stenches so general in most other places. The streets being wide, there is ever a free circulation of air around the houses. The poUce seemed very numerous in the dty, but there were few of those street barriers which abound in Canton and most of the important towns. Of the military force within Pekin we saw but httle during our stay there, as all soldiers studiously avoided being seen in uniform. There were not many guns moimted upon the walls, and the few which were, were massed along the eastern face, upon which they had all along expected us to attack. Immediately opposite to where we had constructed our breaching batteries, they had lately mounted three very large guns. They were made of brass and were handsomely ornamented with carved mouldings. The fact of their having been placed in position opposite our point of attack, proves how very undecided the authorities must have been even up to the very day of their surrendering a gate to us. They had vacillated up to the last moment, between their dread of opposing us, and their fears of bringing down upon their heads the Imperial displeasure if they should surrender without making some show of resistance. These fine guns were mounted upon such rotten carriages, that a few rounds must have rendered them unserviceable, and one was so bad that the wheels had broken down in placing it in position upon the walls. From the walls of Pekin a good view is to be had over the surrounding countiy. It is a strange phenomenon that everywhere the people seem well to do and prosperous, the land [p. 315] being well tilled, and yet the ruling powers are always in financial difficulties. Camels are used in large numbers for the carriage of produce and merchandise. Most of the coal used in Pekin is brought there upon camels. All the coal I saw was of a hard, anthracite description, requiring a considerable draught to bum well. It is mostly brought from some mines at about thirty miles distance from the city. It is used in great quantities during the winter, and is sold at a cheap rate. When beaten into dust and mixed with clay, it is made up into small balls for use in the stoves, and gives out great heat. Charcoal is dear, and consequently only used by the richer classes. There are some very large bells in the city and temples near it, all well toned, and some beautifully ornamented. The largest is in a small joss-house, about half a mile from the north-west angle of the old ruined earthen entrenchment, lying to the north of the city, which I have already described. This beU is fifteen feet high, ten and a half feet in diameter, with a thickness of eight inches in the metal at its mouth. It is covered with inscriptions in the Chinese characters, and richly embossed at top, where it is fastened to the massive wooden stand made for it. Like all the very large bells elsewhere in China, it is sounded by means of a beam of wood, suspended horizontally by cords from the roof of the bidlding. This beam is swung against the beU after the manner of a battering ram, striking it upon the outside near its mouth. Its tone was excellent, making the buUding itself, and everything in it, tremble from the reverberation for several minutes after the bell had been struck. [p. 316] There is a striking contrast between the Chinese and Tartar portions of Pekin. The whole appearance of the latter indicates the presence of the dominant race, now devoid even of that courage and warlike prowess which characterised them in former times, whilst their lethargy, indolence, and dirty habits have increased, causing them to be still as distinct from the conquered Chinese as they were of yore. They still leave the commerce and trade of the country to the thrifty Chinamen, and have only just enough shops within their city as are sufficient for supplying their ordinary wants. The streets, although thronged with people, lacked the air of bustle and life for which Cliinese cities are famous. The very beggars and ragamuffins had a hstless appearance, and merely stood gaping at the passing foreigners. No dirty httle boys made rude and facetious remarks to us as we strolled through the streets. The manufacture of dirt pies seemed to be the summit of their genius. The nomadic disposition of the race was indicated by the nmnbers of tents pitched about in odd parts of the city; in some places along the wide streets, a space was left between them and the houses for foot passengers, and a roadway in the centre for carts and horses. Indeed, in all the principal thoroughfares there were rows of booths or tents along each side of the carriage-way, which was thus divided from the footpaths. But if such is the aspect of the city in which the rulers of the country dwell, far otherwise is the appearance presented on passing through any of the three gates which lead from the Tartar into the Chinese quarter. The principal streets through the latter are also wide, [p. 317] but leading off from them are narrow roadways, thickly lined with rich shops, and crowded with active, busy people, all intent upon business matters. The hum of voices bargaining and disputing about prices, the hissing, buzzing noise of lathes at work, and the din of liammers, indicate a Uvehness of trade and manufacture which at once stamps the place as essentially Chinese. [p. 318]