Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Career of a Desert Chief

In looking upon a modern map of the empire of China, it will be seen to cover a vast area in Asia, including not only China proper but the wide plains of Mongolia and the rock-bound region of Thibet. Yet no such map could properly have been drawn two hundred years ago. Thibet, while a tributary realm, was not then a portion of China, while the Mongolian herdsmen were still the independent warriors and the persistent enemies of China that they had been from time immemorial. It is to the Manchu emperors that the subjection of these countries and their incorporation in the Chinese empire are due. To-day the far-reaching territory of the steppes, the native home of those terrible horsemen who for ages made Europe and Asia tremble, is divided between the two empires of China and Russia, and its restless hordes are held in check by firm and powerful hands, their period of conquest at an end.

It was to two of the Manchu monarchs, Kanghi and Keen Lung,—whose combined reigns covered more than a hundred and twenty years,—that the subjection of these long turbulent regions was due, enabling China to enter the nineteenth century with the broad territorial expanse now marked on our maps. The story of how the subjection of the nomads came about is a long one, much too long for the space at our command, yet a brief synopsis of its leading events will prove of interest and importance to all who desire to follow the successive steps of Chinese history.

Kanghi, the second Manchu emperor, and one of the greatest of the rulers of China, having completed the conquest of the Chinese themselves, turned his attention to the nomadic hordes who threatened the tranquillity of his reign. He was one of their own race, a man of Tartar blood, and many of the desert tribes were ready to acknowledge his supremacy, among them the Khalkas, who prided themselves on direct descent from Ghengis and his warriors, but had lost all desire to rule the earth and were content to hold their own among the surrounding tribes. They dwelt on those streams which had watered the birthplace of the Mongol tribe, and their adhesion to the Manchu cause kept all the Mongols quiet.

But west of these dwelt another nomad race, the Calmucks, divided into four hordes, of which the Eleuths were by no means content to yield to Chinese or Manchu control. Their independence of spirit might have been of little importance but that it was sustained by an able and ambitious leader, who not only denied Kanghi's supremacy but disputed with him the empire of the steppes.

Galdan was the younger son of the most powerful chief of his tribe. Full of ambition, and chafing at the subordinate position due to his birth, he quarrelled with some of his brothers and killed one of them. Being forced to flee, he made his way to Thibet, where he sought to obtain admission to the ranks of the Buddhist clergy, but was refused by the Dalai Lama on account of his deed of blood. But on his return to the tents of his tribe he found himself in a new position. His crime was forgotten or condoned, and the fact that he had dwelt in the palace and under the holy influence of the Dalai Lama, the supreme religious power in Buddhist Asia, gave him a high standing among his fellow-tribesmen. The influence thus gained and his boldness and ruthlessness completed the work he had in mind. The ruling khan was deposed, all members of his family whose hostility was feared by Galdan were slain, and he found himself at the head of the tribe, whose members were terrified into submission.

His thirst for power now showed itself in encroachments upon the lands of neighboring clans. The Manchus were at that time embarrassed by the rebellion of Wou Sankwei, and the opportunity seemed excellent for an invasion of the district of the Khalkas, firm friends of the Manchu power. He also sent troops towards the Chinese frontier, fear of whom forced many of the tribesmen to cross the border and seek the emperor's aid. Kanghi could then only give them lands within his realm, being too much occupied at home to be able to do more than send spies into the steppes. From these he learned that Galdan had built up a formidable power and that he evidently had in view the subjection of all the tribes.

Kanghi, anxious to settle these difficulties amicably, spent a number of years in negotiations, but his rival showed as much ability in diplomacy as in the field, and succeeded in masking his designs while he was strengthening his position and preparing for open hostilities. Finally, with an army of thirty thousand men, he invaded the country of the Khalkas, and in 1690 took his first open step of hostility against China, by arresting the envoys who had been sent to his camp. This insult put an end to all Kanghi's efforts to maintain peace. The diplomatic movements were followed by a display of military energy and activity, and the whole northern army, consisting of the eight Manchu Banners, the forty-nine Mongol Banners, and a large force of Chinese auxiliaries, was set in motion across the steppes.

Meanwhile Galdan, alarmed by the hostility he had provoked, sought to make an alliance with the Russians, an effort which brought him hollow promises but no assistance. Without waiting for the coming of all his foes, he made a vigorous attack on the Chinese advance force and drove it back in defeat, remaining master of the field. Yet, recognizing that the enemy was far too strong for him, he sent an envoy to Peking, offering concessions and asking for peace. The emperor listened, but the army pushed on, and an attack in force was made upon the Eleuth camp, which was located at the foot of a mountain, between a wood and a stream. The post was a strong one, and the Eleuths fought stubbornly, but they were too greatly outnumbered, and in the end were put to flight, after having inflicted severe loss on their foes, an uncle of the emperor being among the slain. Galdan now, finding that the war was going against him, offered fealty and obedience to the emperor, which Kanghi, glad to withdraw his army from its difficult position in the desert, accepted, sending the chieftain a letter of forgiveness. Thus ended the campaign of 1690.

It was a truce, not a peace. Galdan's ambition remained unsatisfied, and Kanghi put little confidence in his promises. He was right: the desert chief occupied himself in sowing the seeds of dissension among the hordes, and in 1693, finding the Dalai Lama his opponent, took the step of professing himself a Mohammedan, in the hope of gaining the assistance of the Mussulman Tartars and Chinese. Yet he kept up negotiations with the Dalai Lama, with the purpose of retaining the Buddhist support. Meanwhile conflicts between the tribes went on, and in 1695 Kanghi, incensed at the constant encroachments of the ambitious chief, which failed to sustain his peaceful professions, resolved to put an end to the trouble by his complete and irretrievable overthrow.

The despatch of a large army into the recesses of Central Asia was a difficult and hazardous enterprise, yet it seemed the only means of ending the strained situation, and by 1696 a large force was got ready for a protracted desert war, the principal command being given to a frontier soldier named Feyanku, who in the preceding troubles had shown marked ability.

On the eve of the great national holiday of China, the Feast of Lanterns, the imperial court reviewed a section of the army, drawn up in military array along the principal street of Peking. The emperor, surrounded by the principal functionaries of the government, occupied a throne on a raised platform from which the whole scene could be surveyed, while strains of martial music filled the air. The culminating scene in the ceremony took place when Feyanku approached the throne, received on his knees from the emperor's hand a cup of wine, and retired down the steps, at whose foot he quaffed the wine amid the shouts of thousands of spectators. This ceremony was repeated with each of the subordinate generals, and then with the lower officers of the army, ten at a time. Success being thus drunk to the army, Feyanku left the capital to assume the active command in the field, while Kanghi, bent on complete success, set to work to recruit in all haste a second army, which he proposed to command himself.

The whole force raised was an immense one, considering the character of the country to be traversed and the limited resources of the enemy. It marched in four divisions, of which that under Feyanku numbered about thirty-five thousand men. Despite the great distance to be traversed, the desert-like condition of much of the country, and the fact that deficiency of resources cost thousands of lives and forced many detachments to retreat, a powerful force at length reached the borders of Galdan's territory. After a march of more than three months' duration Feyanku pitched his camp near the sources of the Tula, his army being reduced to twelve thousand available men. These were placed in a fortified position within the Mongol camping-ground of Chowmodo.

Meanwhile how was Galdan engaged? He had sought, but in vain, to win the alliance of a powerful Mongol tribe, and had conducted fruitless negotiations with the Russians of Siberia. His only remaining hope lay in the desert barrier which lay between him and his great enemy, and this vanished when the Chinese army made its appearance in his territories, though its success had been gained at a frightful loss of life. The situation of the desert chief had become desperate, his only hope lying in an attack on the advance body of the Chinese before it could be joined by the other detachments, and while exhausted by its long march across the desert of Gobi. He therefore made a rapid march and vigorously assailed the Chinese intrenchments at Chowmodo.

In the interval the Chinese commanders had found themselves in a perilous position. Their supplies had run low, they could not be replenished in that situation, farther advance had become impossible, and it seemed equally impossible to maintain their position. Retreat seemed their only means of extricating themselves from their dilemma, and the question of doing so was under discussion when the sudden assault of Galdan happily relieved Feyanku from a situation which threatened the loss of his military renown. Of the battle that followed we know only that Feyanku remained on the defensive and sustained Galdan's attacks for three hours, when he gave the signal for a charge. The wearied Eleuths soon broke before the determined onset, a disordered flight began, and Galdan, seeing that the day was lost, fled with a small body of followers, leaving his camp and baggage to the victors and two thousand of his men dead on the field.

This victory ended the war. Kanghi, on hearing of it, returned to Peking, having sent word to Feyanku to pursue Galdan with unrelenting vigor, there being no security while he remained at large. The recent powerful chief was now at the end of his resources. He fled for safety from camp to camp. He sent an envoy to Peking with an abject offer to surrender. He made new overtures to the Russians, and sought in a dozen ways to escape from his implacable enemies. But Feyanku kept up the pursuit, ceasing only when word came to him that the fugitive was dead. Anxiety, hardships, chagrin, or, as some say, the act of his own hand, had carried off the desert chief, and relieved the emperor of China from the peril and annoyance which had so long troubled him.

In Galdan died a man who, under more fortunate circumstances, might have emulated some of the famous Tartar chiefs, a warrior of the greatest skill, courage, and daring, a formidable enemy" to the Chinese empire, and one who, had the government of that empire been as weak as it proved strong, might have gathered all the nomads under arms and overthrown the dynasty.

A few words must suffice to end the story of the Eleuths. The death of Galdan did not bring them to submission, and years afterwards we find them hostile to Chinese rule, and even so daring as to invade Thibet, which Kanghi had added to his empire, they taking its central city of Lhassa, and carrying to the steppes a vast wealth in spoil. Eventually they were subjected to Chinese rule, but before this took place an event of much interest occurred. The Tourguts, an adjoining Kalmuck tribe, were so imperilled by the enmity of the Eleuths that they took the important resolution of migrating to Russia, marching across the Kirghiz steppes and becoming faithful subjects of the czar, who gave them a new abiding-place on the banks of the Volga. Many years afterwards, in 1770, this tribe, inspired by a strong desire to return to their own home, left the Volga and crossed Asia, despite all efforts to check their flight, until they reached again their native soil. For the interesting story of this adventurous flight see Volume VIII.