Story of China - R. Van Bergen

How a Poor Boy Made a Name

In 1842 a fourteen-year-old boy arrived at Macao from England. His name was Harry Parkes, and he was an orphan. He had taken the long journey from England to China in order to join his sister, who was living there as the wife of a missionary, the Reverend Mr. Lockhart.

After he had arrived, his brother-in-law gave him an opportunity to study Chinese. Harry studied hard, so hard that when the first war with England broke out, he was engaged to go with the fleet and help in the buying of provisions. By that time Harry knew enough Chinese to make himself understood by the country people.

Of course, Harry thought it fun to see the fighting, and was only sorry sometimes that he could not carry a gun. He was permitted to be present when Sir Henry Pottinger met the Chinese to agree upon terms of peace; and he was also present when the treaty was signed.

When Hongkong was opened to the British, Harry was sent there as interpreter in the service of the government. He kept up his studies, and did so well that he very soon understood the Chinese characters.

After Harry had learned Chinese well, he was appointed consul. He then secured leave of absence, and visited England, where he married. When he returned to China with his wife he stopped at Siam, and there made a treaty with the king on behalf of England.

When Harry came to Canton as consul he found things in a bad condition. The Chinese government would not carry out the terms of the treaty. Foreigners were not allowed to enter the city, and were treated as "outside barbarians" and slaves. Parkes was not the man to submit to such treatment. He wrote a strong letter to the governor, and when he received an insolent reply, he placed the matter in the hands of the British admiral.

The admiral, Sir Michael Seymour, made his way to the Yamen of Governor Yeh, but did not succeed in seeing the governor. In the year 1856 another difficulty arose. The Chinese seized a "lorcha," or schooner, flying the British flag, and this was made a pretext to begin a second war.

The English fleet under Admiral Seymour had taken some of the forts on the river at Canton, and on the 29th of December, 1857, had bombarded and captured that city. The Chinese officers fled, and Harry Parkes immediately took measures to maintain law and order. For two years Canton had a just and reasonable government, which the Chinese people of that city appreciated.

Lord Elgin was appointed by the English government to go to China, and try to arrange terms for a peace that would be lasting. The British understood how hard it was for the Son of Heaven at Peking to give up the idea that he was the ruler of the whole world, and to receive the ambassadors of other nations as his equals. But the British felt that if trade with China was to continue, it would be necessary to transact business at Peking, and not at one of the provincial capitals.

There was an alliance at this time between England and France, and the two countries decided to act together in forcing China to respect the treaties.

Taku Forts


The combined fleets of England and France sailed north to the Pei-ho River. Two Chinese officers were sent to meet the British and French ambassadors, but when their papers were examined it was found that they had no power to make treaties. A letter was sent to the Emperor that, if no higher officers were sent, the Taku forts at the entrance of the river would be taken. When no answer came to this letter, the forts were attacked and taken, after two hours hard fighting, in August, 1860. The British and French troops then moved rapidly upon Tientsin, which they captured. In spite of the protests of the Emperor, a land force of the allies now advanced on Peking.

What was our friend Harry Parkes doing all this time? He had his hands full at Canton. But when the British government determined to send an army inland, a man was needed who understood China and the Chinese, and Harry Parkes was ordered to go with Lord Elgin as interpreter.

An immense army under Seng-ko-ling-sing lay between Tientsin and the capital. The British and French advanced, driving the Chinese before them, and when they were nearly half-way, a flag of truce was sent by the Chinese, who asked for a meeting to arrange terms of peace. Harry Parkes and some Sepoys were sent forward to find quarters for the ambassadors. After making all arrangements, Harry saw that it was too late to return to camp that night. The following day he and his companions, among whom was the correspondent of the London Times, were riding back to their camp, when Harry noticed a band of Chinese horsemen galloping toward them. Before they could do anything, they were surrounded and taken prisoners. They were dragged before a Chinese officer, probably Seng-koling-sing himself, and ordered to kow-tow. Harry refused to do so, and said that he was there under a flag of truce, and that the British would punish them severely. After the Chinese officers had consulted together, the prisoners were placed into covered carts and taken to Peking. At last the carts stopped, and, stiff and sore, they were ordered to get out. They did so, and Harry almost gave up hope when he read: "Board of Punishment" upon the building where the carts had stopped. They were taken in and put into a filthy room, occupied by criminals and lepers. After being kept in this place for some days, Harry was brought before some Chinese officers. He offended these officers deeply when, referring to England's Queen, he gave her the title which the Chinese thought belonged only to their Emperor. They used threats to make him confess that his Queen was of a lower rank, but Harry held his ground. He was taken back to prison, and loaded with chains.

After being brought several times before the officers, and maintaining the same brave attitude, he was asked if he would write a letter to Lord Elgin, asking him to stop the advance upon Peking. He replied that he could not do so. He was threatened with death if he refused, and he answered that if he was put to death, the British would surely avenge him. At last, after one of these examinations, he was taken to better quarters, and his chains were removed.

Lord Elgin had, of course, missed his interpreter, and, suspecting treachery, had broken off the negotiations, and notified the Chinese government that, if anything happened to Harry Parkes, he would hold that government responsible. The British and French defeated Seng-ko-ling-sing, and marched upon Peking. Hsien-Feng, the emperor, fled, and once more Harry was called before the officers.

When they saw that they could not persuade him to do anything but his duty, they told him that they would send him out of Peking, but Harry refused to go without his companions. A few days later a covered cart was brought to the door. He and the others were put in, and carried away. After a long ride, they were ordered out, and found that they were in sight of the British camp.

Harry learned soon afterwards that he owed his escape to Prince Kung, who had managed to send him out of Peking fifteen minutes before the time when orders would arrive from the Emperor to put him and his companions to death.

With their guns trained upon the walls of Peking, and one of the gates of the capital in their possession, the ambassadors demanded and obtained the right to reside at Peking and to be received by the Emperor without kow-towing. Other concessions were made: new ports were to be opened to foreigners,—Chefoo and Tientsin in the north, New-chwang in Manchuria, Swatow on the south coast of China, and two in the Island of Formosa. Missionaries were to have the right to live in any part of the eighteen provinces, and all foreigners were to be free to travel through China with a passport. In addition to this, China was to pay the cost of the war.

To punish the Chinese for their treachery, the Summer Palace was burned down before the treaty was signed, as a sign that they had been defeated. A good many people thought that this was wrong. A Russian writer says: "The opinion that during the last Anglo-French war with China the Europeans, and not the Chinese, were defeated, is universal throughout the whole of Inner Asia, wherever we traveled. Certainly, to the Asiatic mind, an enemy who appears beneath the walls of a hostile city and does not destroy it, is no victor, but rather the defeated party. The Chinese government took advantage of this circumstance to spread the report among their faithful subjects of their victory over the Europeans. Yet they can scarcely have suppressed the knowledge of the destruction of the Emperor's summer palace, and that just act of the English chiefs, which caused such an unreasonable indignation, finds a new justification in the circumstances here stated."

Queen Victoria admired Harry Parkes' loyalty and courage. He was knighted, and in 1863 was sent to Japan as Minister of Great Britain. No man ever did more for Japan as well as for England than Sir Harry during the eighteen years of his residence in Tokyo. He was then made Minister to Peking, where he died. His body was taken to England, and buried in Westminster Abbey. A statue of him was erected at Shanghai.

Several years after Parkes' death a foreigner was traveling in the interior of China in a hired boat. He was surprised to notice that, wherever he stopped, mandarins came and kow-towed before him, and sent presents. At last he asked the owner of the boat the reason for this. The man pointed to a dirty little flag with some Chinese characters on it, that was hung out on the boat, and said that it was a first-class flag. He had painted on the flag the characters by which Sir Harry Parkes was known in China, and, although he had been dead for some time, his name still inspired deep respect in the Chinese.