Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

Kaotsou and the Dynasty of the Hans

After the death of the great Hoangti, two of his generals fought for the throne of China,—Lieou Pang, who represents, in the Chinese annals, intellect, and Pa Wang, representing brute force, uninspired by thought. Destiny, if we can credit the following tale, had chosen the former for the throne. "A noted physiognomist once met him on the high-road, and, throwing himself down before him, said, I see by the expression of your features that you are destined to be emperor, and I offer you in anticipation the tribute of respect that a subject owes his sovereign. I have a daughter, the fairest and wisest in the empire; take her as your wife. So confident am I that my prediction will be realized that I gladly offer her to you.'"

However that be, the weak descendants of Hoangti soon vanished from the scene, Pa Wang was overcome in battle, and the successful general seized the imperial throne. He chose, as emperor, the title of Kaotsou, and named his dynasty, from his native province, the Han. It was destined to continue for centuries in power.

The new emperor showed himself a worthy successor of the builder of the Great Wall, while he made every effort to restore to the nation its books, encouraging men of letters and seeking to recover such literature as had survived the great burning. In this way be provided for his future fame at the hands of the grateful literati of China. Amnesty to all who had opposed him was proclaimed, and regret expressed at the sufferings of the people "from the evils which follow in the train of war."

The merit of Kaotsou lay largely in the great public works with which he emulated the policy of his energetic predecessor. The "Lofty and August Emperor" (Kao Hoangti), as he entitled himself, did not propose to be thrown into the shade by any who had gone before. On taking the throne he chose as his capital the city of Loyang (now Honan), but subsequently selected the city of Singanfoo, in the western province of Shensi. This city lay in a nest of mountains, which made it very difficult of approach. It was not without advantages from its situation as the capital of the empire, but could not be reached from the south without long detours. Possibly this difficulty may have had something to do with its choice by the emperor, that he might display his genius in overcoming obstacles.

To construct roads across and to cut avenues through the mountains an army of workmen, one hundred thousand in number, became necessary. The deep intervening valleys were filled up to the necessary level by the spoils rent from the lofty adjoining mountains, and where this could not be done, great bridges, supported on strong and high pillars, were thrown across from side to side. Elsewhere suspension bridges—"flying bridges," as the Chinese call them—were thrown across deep and rugged ravines, wide enough for four horsemen to travel abreast, their sides being protected by high balustrades. One of these, one hundred and fifty yards long, and thrown over a valley more than five hundred feet deep, is said to be still in perfect condition. These suspension bridges were built nearly two thousand years before a work of this character was attempted in Europe. In truth, the period in question, including several centuries before Christ, was the culminating age of Chinese civilization, in which appeared its great religious reformers, philosophers, and authors, its most daring engineers, and its monarchs of highest public spirit and broadest powers of conception and execution. It was the age of the Great Wall, the imperial system of highways, the system of canals (though the Great Canal was of later date), and other important works of public utility.

By the strenuous labors described Kaotsou rendered his new capital easy of access from all quarters of the kingdom, while at frequent intervals along the great high-roads of the empire there were built post-houses, caravansaries, and other conveniences, so as to make travelling rather a pleasure than the severe task it formerly had been.

The capital itself was made as attractive as the means of reaching it were made easy. Siaho, at once an able war minister and a great builder, planned for the emperor a palace so magnificent that Kaotsou hesitated in ordering its erection. Siaho removed his doubts with the following argument: "You should look upon all the empire as your family; and if the grandeur of your palace does not correspond with that of your family, what idea will it give of its power and greatness?"

This argument sufficed: the palace was built, and Kaotsou celebrated its completion with festivities continued for several weeks. On one occasion during this period, uplifted with a full sense of the dignity to which he had attained, his pride found vent in the grandiloquent remark, "To-day I feel that I am indeed emperor, and perceive all the difference between a subject and his master."

His fondness for splendor was indicated by magnificent banquets and receptions, and his sense of dignity by a court ceremonial which must have proved a wearisome ordeal for his courtiers, though none dared infringe it for fear of dire consequences. Those who had aided him in his accession to power were abundantly rewarded, with one exception, that of his father, who seems to have been overlooked in the distribution of favors. The old man, not relishing thus being left at the foot of the ladder, took prompt occasion to remind his son of his claims. Dressing himself in his costliest garments, he presented himself at the foot of the throne, where, in a speech of deep humility, he designated himself as the least yet the most obedient subject of the realm. Kaotsou, thus admonished, at once called a council of ministers and had the old man proclaimed "the lesser emperor." Taking him by the hand, he led him to a chair at the foot of the throne as his future seat. This act of the emperor won him the highest commendation from his subjects, the Chinese looking upon respect to and veneration of parents as the duty surpassing all others and the highest evidence of virtue.

Siaho, the palace-builder and war minister, had been specially favored in this giving of rewards, much to the discontent of the leading generals, who claimed all the credit for the successes in war, and were disposed to look with contempt on this mere cabinet warrior. Hearing of their complaints, Kaotsou summoned them to his presence, and thus plainly expressed his opinion of their claims:

"You find, I am told, reason to complain that I have rewarded Siaho above yourselves. Tell me, who are they at the chase who pursue and capture the prey? The dogs.—But who direct and urge on the dogs? Are they not the hunters?—You have all worked hard for me; you have pursued your prey with vigor, and at last captured and overthrown it. In this you deserve the credit which one gives to the dogs in the chase. But the merit of Siaho is that of the hunter. It is he who has conducted the whole of the war, who regulated everything, ordered you to attack the enemy at the opportune moment, and by his tactics made you master of the cities and provinces you have conquered. On this account he deserves the credit of the hunter, who is more worthy of reward than are the dogs whom he sets loose upon the prey."

One further anecdote is told of this emperor, which is worth repeating, as its point was aptly illustrated in a subsequent event. Though he had won the empire by the sword, he was not looked upon as a great general, and on one occasion asked Hansin, his ablest officer, how many men he thought he (the emperor) could lead with credit in the field.

"Sire," said the plain-spoken general, "you can lead an army of a hundred thousand men very well. But that is all."

"And how many can you lead?"

"The more I have the better I shall lead them," was the self-confident answer.

The event in which the justice of this criticism was indicated arose during a subsequent war with the Tartars, who had resumed their inroads into the empire. The Heung-nou were at this period governed by two leading chiefs, Mehe and Tonghou, the latter arrogant and ambitious, the former well able to bide his time. The story goes that Tonghou sent to Mehe a demand for a favorite horse. His kinsmen advised him to refuse, but Mehe sent the horse, saying, "Would you quarrel with your neighbor for a horse?" Tonghou soon after sent to demand of Mehe one of his wives. Mehe again complied, saying to his friends, "Would you have me undertake a war for the sake of a woman?" Tonghou, encouraged by these results of his insolence, next invaded Mehe's dominions. The patient chief, now fully prepared, took the field, and in a brief time had dispersed Tonghou's army, captured and executed him, and made himself the principal chief of the clans.

This able leader, having punished his insolent desert foe, soon led his warlike followers into China, 12 took possession of many fertile districts, extended his authority to the banks of the Hoang-ho, and sent plundering expeditions into the rich provinces beyond. In the war that followed the emperor himself took command of his troops, and, too readily believing the stories of the weakness of the Tartar army told by his scouts, resolved on an immediate attack. One of his generals warned him that "in war we should never despise an enemy," but the emperor refused to listen, and marched confidently on, at the head of his advance guard, to find the enemy.

He found him to his sorrow. Mehe had skilfully concealed his real strength for the purpose of drawing the emperor into a trap, and now, by a well-directed movement, cut off the rash leader from his main army and forced him to take refuge in the city of Pingching. Here, vastly outnumbered and short of provisions, the emperor found himself in a desperate strait, from which he could not escape by force of arms.

In this dilemma one of his officers suggested a possible method of release. This was that, as a last chance, the most beautiful virgin in the city should be sent as a peace-offering to the desert chief. Kaotsou accepted the plan,—nothing else presenting itself,—and the maiden was chosen and sent. She went willingly, it is said, and used her utmost arts to captivate the Tartar chief. She succeeded, and Mehe, after forcing Kaotsou to sign an ignominious treaty, suffered his prize to escape, and retired to the desert, well satisfied with the rich spoils he had won. Kaotsou was just enough to reward the general to whose warning be had refused to listen, but the scouts who had misled him paid dearly for their false reports.

This event seems to have inspired Kaotsou with an unconquerable fear of his desert foe, who was soon back again, pillaging the borders with impunity and making such daring inroads that the capital itself was not safe from their assaults. Instead of trusting to his army, the emperor now bought off his enemy in a more discreditable method than before, concluding a treaty in which he acknowledged Mehe as an independent ruler and gave him his daughter in marriage.

This weakness led to revolts in the empire, Kaotsou being forced again to take the field against his foes. But, worn out with anxiety and misfortune, his end soon approached, his death-bed being disturbed by palace intrigues concerning the succession, in which one of his favorite wives sought to have her son selected as the heir. Kaotsou, not heeding her petition, chose his eldest son as the heir-apparent, and soon after died. The tragic results of these intrigues for the crown will be seen in the following tale.

Cobbler, Canton