Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

From the Shoemaker's Bench to the Throne

At the beginning of the fifth century of the Christian era China had fallen into a state of decrepitude. The second dynasty of the Tsins was near its end. For a century and a half it had held the imperial power, but now it had fallen a prey to luxury, one of its latest emperors dying from prolonged drunkenness, another being smothered in bed by his wife, whom he had insulted while intoxicated.

The empire which the founder of the dynasty had built up showed signs of falling to pieces. In the south the daring pirate Sunghen was making the great rivers the scenes of his merciless activity, spreading terror along their banks, and extending his desolating raids far over the surrounding provinces. In the north had arisen a new enemy, the Geougen Tartars, whose career had begun in the outbreak of a hundred rebels, but who had now become so powerful that their chief assumed in the year 402 the proud title of Kagan, or Great Lord. Falling upon the northern boundaries of the empire, these dangerous foes made daring inroads into the realm. As for the provinces of the empire, many of them were in a rebellious mood.

At this critical period in Chinese history a child of the people came forward as the savior of his country. This was a poor boy for whom his parents had done little more than give him his name of Lieouyu, having been forced by poverty to desert him to the cold comfort of charity. He was cared for by a kind woman, as poor as they, and as he grew older learned the humble trade of shoemaking, which he followed for some time as an occupation, though he chafed in spirit at its wearisome monotony. The boy had in him the seeds of better things, showing in his early years a remarkable quickness in learning, and an energy that was not likely to remain content with a humble position.

Seeing that his only chance of advancement lay in the military career, and burning with spirit and courage, the ambitious boy soon deserted the shoe-maker's bench for the army's ranks. Here he showed such valor and ability that he rapidly rose to the command of a company, and was in time intrusted with a small independent body of troops. It was against the pirate Sunghen that the young soldier was pitted, and during three years he vigorously opposed that leader in his devastating raids. In this field of duty he was repeatedly victorious, breaking the reputation of the corsair, and so weakening him that his overthrow became easy. This was performed by another leader, the defeat of Sunghen being so signal that, despairing of escape, he leaped overboard and was drowned.

Lieouyu, having abundantly proved his ability, was now rapidly promoted, rising in rank until he found himself in command of an army, which he handled with the greatest skill and success. His final victory in this position was against a formidable rebel, whom he fought both on land and on water with a much smaller force, completely defeating him. The emperor showed his sense of gratitude for this valuable service by raising the shoemaker's boy to the rank of commander-in-chief of all the armies of the empire.

In this exalted position Lieouyu displayed the same energy and ability that he had shown in humbler commands. Marching from province to province and from victory to victory, he put down the rebels whom the weakness of the government had permitted to rise on every side. He had not only rebellious bands, but disloyal princes of the empire, to contend with. In one of his marches it was necessary to cross the great province of Wei, north of the Hoang-ho, a movement to which Topa, prince of the province, refused permission. Lieouyu, indignant at this disloyalty, forced the passage of the stream, routed the army of the prince, and pursued his march without further opposition, sending one of his generals, named Wangchinon, against the city of Changnan, the capital of the prince of Chin, who had hoisted the flag of rebellion against the emperor.

Lieouyu had chosen his substitute well. Conveying his army by water as far as possible, Wangchinon, on leaving his ships, ordered them to be cast adrift. To the soldiers he made the following Napoleonic oration:

"We have neither supplies nor provisions, and the swift waters of the Weiho bear from us the ships in which we came. Soldiers of the empire, only two things lie before us. Let us beat the enemy, and we will regain a hundredfold all we have lost, besides covering ourselves with glory. If the enemy beat us, there is no escape; death will be the lot of us all. To conquer or to die,—that is our destiny. You have heard; prepare to march against the enemy."

With so resolute a commander victory was almost assured. Changnan, vigorously assailed, quickly surrendered, and the captive prince of Chin was executed as a rebel taken in arms. Lieouyu, who had been winning victories elsewhere, now arrived, having marched in all haste to the aid of his valorous lieutenant. Praising Wangchinon for the brilliancy of his achievement, the commander was about putting his forces on the march for new victorious deeds, when peremptory orders recalled him to the capital, and his career of conquest was for the time checked. The absence of the strong hand was quickly felt. The rebels rose again in force, Changnan was lost and with it all the conquests Lieouyu had made, and the forces of the empire were everywhere driven back in defeat.

Meanwhile Lieouyu, at the capital, found himself in the midst of political complications that called for decisive measures. The weakness of the emperor troubled him, while he felt a deep resentment at what he considered ill treatment on the part of the throne. He had, as Prince of Song, been raised to the third rank among the princes of the realm, but he thought his deeds entitled him to rank among the first; while the success of the rebels in the absence of his master had redoubled his reputation among the people.

Ganti, the emperor, was destined to experience the dangerous consequences of raising a subject to such a height and yet leaving him below the rank to which he aspired. Lieouyu, now all-powerful in military circles, and virtually master of the realm, caused the emperor to be strangled, and named his brother Kongti as successor to the throne. But the ambition of the shoemaker's boy had not reached its summit. This was but a provisional step, and the throne itself lay before him as an alluring prize. Having skilfully laid his plans, Lieouyu, at the end of two years, gave the weak Kongti to understand that his reign was at an end, and that he must step down from the throne which a stronger than he proposed to ascend.

Kongti made no resistance to this arbitrary demand. He knew that resistance would be useless, and resigned his imperial dignity in favor of the peasant who by his sword had carved his way to the throne. The ceremony was an interesting one. A broad scaffold was erected in a field adjoining the capital, and on it was placed a gorgeously decorated imperial throne, which Kongti occupied, while Lieouyu, attired in royal garb, stood below. In the presence of the assembled thousands of Kienkang, the capital, Kongti descended from the seat which he had so feebly filled, while his strong successor seated himself on the throne amid the plaudits of the approving multitude. In the presence of the great officials of the realm Kongti paid homage to Lieouyu, thus completing a ceremony which was without parallel in the history of the Chinese empire. With this act the dynasty of the Tsins came to an end, and was replaced by that of the Songs, of which Lieouyu was the first and worthiest representative.

Of the ceremony of investiture the principal feature was the assumption of the imperial cap or crown, which has long been the chief mark of royalty worn by the Chinese emperor. This is a cap of peculiar shape, round in front and straight behind, and ornamented with one hundred and forty-four precious stones. From it hang twelve pendants consisting of strings of pearls, of which four are so arranged as to hang over the emperor's eyes. This is done, it is said, in order that the emperor may not see the accused who are brought before him for trial.

It was in the year 420 A.D. that Lieouyu ascended the throne, assuming with the imperial dignity the name of a former emperor of renown, Kaotsou, and naming his dynasty the Song, from his princely title.

As for the deposed emperor, the new monarch had no thought of leaving any such dangerous element in his path, and Kongti was called upon "to drink the waters of eternal life," the Chinese euphuism for swallowing poison. Kongti, a devoted Buddhist, declined the fatal draught, on the ground that self-murder was in opposition to his religious sentiments. This is the only instance in Chinese history in which a deposed ruler refused to accept the inevitable fate of the unfortunate. To quaff the poisoned cup is the time-honored way of getting rid of an inconvenient ex-monarch. This refusal of the deposed emperor led to sterner measures, and he was murdered by the guard which had been placed over him in his palace.

Lieouyu was not destined long to occupy the throne which he had thus secured. He was already growing old, and a short reign of three years ended his career. As a monarch and a man alike he displayed sterling and admirable qualities. His courage on the field of battle, his frugality and earnest devotion to duty in every position which he reached, won him the widest commendation, while he was still more esteemed by his subjects for his kindness and devotion to the foster-mother who had nourished him when deserted by his own parents, and who had the remarkable fortune of seeing the poor child who had been abandoned to her charitable care seated on the imperial throne of the realm.

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