Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris
While the descendants of Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, still held the reins of power in China, there was born in humble life in that empire a boy upon whose shoulders fortune had laid the task of driving the foreigners from the soil and restoring to the Chinese their own again. Tradition says that at his birth the room was several times filled with a bright light. However that be, the boy proved to be gifted by nature with a fine presence, lofty views, and an elevated soul, qualities sure to tell in the troubled times that were at hand. When he was seventeen years of age the deaths of his father and mother left him a penniless orphan, so destitute of means that he felt obliged to take the vows of a priest and enter the monastery of Hoangkiose. But the country was now in disorder, rebels were in the field against the Mongol rule, and the patriotic and active-minded boy could not long endure the passive life of a bonze. Leaving the monastery, he entered the service of one of the rebel leaders as a private soldier, and quickly showed such enterprise and daring that his chief not only made him an officer in his force but gave him his daughter in marriage.
The time was ripe for soldiers of fortune. The mantle of Kublai had not fallen on the shoulders of any of his successors, who proved weak and degenerate monarchs, losing the firm hold which the great conqueror had kept upon the realm. It was in the year 1345 that Choo Yuen Chang, to give the young soldier his full name, joined the rebel band. Chunti, one of the weakest of the Mongol monarchs, was now upon the throne, and on every side it was evident that the empire of Kublai was in danger of falling to pieces under this incapable ruler. Fortune had brought its protégé into the field at a critical time.
Choo was not long in proving himself "every inch a soldier." Wherever he fought he was victorious. In a year's time he had under him seven hundred men of his own enlistment, and was appointed the lieutenant of his chief. Soon after the latter died, and Choo took his place at the head of the rebel band. In it enlisted another young man, Suta by name, who was before many years to become China's greatest general and the bulwark of a new dynasty.
Choo was now able to prove his powers on a larger scale. One of his first exploits was the capture of the town of Hoyan, where he manifested a high order of courage and political wisdom in saving the inhabitants from rapine by his ill-paid and hungry soldiers. Here was a degree of self-restraint and power of command which none of the Chinese leaders had shown, and which seemed to point out Choo as the man destined to win in the coming struggle for a rejuvenated China.
Meanwhile a rival came into the field who for a time threw Choo's fortunes into the shade. This was a young man who was offered to the people as a descendant of the dynasty of the Sungs, the emperors whom the Mongol invaders had dethroned. His very name proved a centre of attraction for the people, whose affection for the old royal house was not dead, and they gathered in multitudes beneath his banner. But his claim also aroused the fear of the Mongols, and a severe and stubborn struggle set in, which ended in the overthrow of the youthful Sung and the seeming restoration of the Mongol authority. Yet in reality the war had only cleared the way for a far more dangerous adversary than the defeated claimant of the throne.
Masked by this war, the strength and influence of Choo had steadily grown, and in 1356 he made a daring and masterly move in the capture of the city of Nanking, which gave him control of some of the wealthiest provinces of the land. Here he showed the same moderation as before, preserving the citizens from plunder and outrage, and proving that his only purpose was to restore to China her old native government. With remarkable prudence, skill, and energy he strengthened his position. "The time has now come to drive the foreigners out of China," he said, in a proclamation that was scattered far and wide and brought hosts of the young and daring to his ranks. Elsewhere the so-called Chinese patriots were no better than brigands, all the horrors of war descending upon the districts they occupied and the cities which fell into their hands, But where Choo ruled discipline and security prevailed, and as far as his power reached a firm and orderly government existed.
Meanwhile the Mongols had a host of evils with which to contend. Rebel leaders had risen in various quarters, some of them making more progress than Choo, but winning the execration rather than the love of the people by their rapine and violence. On the contrary, his power grew slowly but surely, various minor leaders joining him, among them the pirate Fangkue Chin, whose exploits had made him a hero to the people of the valley of the Kiang. The events of the war that followed were too many to be here detailed. Suffice it to say that the difficulties of the Mongol emperor gradually increased. He was obliged to meet in battle a Mongol pretender to his throne; Corea rose in arms and destroyed an army sent to subdue it; and Chahan Timour, Chunti's ablest general, fell victim to an assassin. Troubles were growing thick around his throne.
In the year 1366, Choo, after vanquishing some leaders who threatened his position, among them his late pirate ally Fangkue Chin, saw that the time had arrived for a vigorous effort to expel the foreign rulers, and set out at the head of his army for a general campaign, at the same time proclaiming to the people that the period was at hand for throwing off the Mongol yoke, which for nearly a century had weighed heavily upon their necks. Three armies left Nanking, two of them being sent to subdue three of the provinces of the south, a result which was achieved without a blow, the people everywhere rising and the Mongol garrisons vanishing from sight,—whether by death or by flight history fails to relate. The third army, under Suta, Choo's favorite general, marched towards Peking, the Mongol garrisons, discouraged by their late reverses, retreating as it advanced.
At length the great Mongol capital was reached. Within its walls reigned confusion and alarm. Chunti, panic-stricken at the rapid march of his enemies, could not be induced to fight for his last hold upon the empire of China, but fled on the night before the assault was made. Suta at once ordered the city to be taken by storm, and though the Mongol garrison made a desperate defence, they were cut down to a man, and the victorious troops entered the Tartar stronghold in triumph. But Suta, counselled by Choo to moderation, held his army firmly in hand, no outrages were permitted, and the lives of all the Mongols who submitted were spared.
The capture of Peking and the flight of Chunti marked the end of the empire of the Mongols in China. War with them still went on, but the country at large was freed from their yoke, after nearly a century of submission to Tartar rule. Elsewhere the vast empire of Genghis still held firm. Russia lay under the vassalage of the khans. Central and Southern Asia trembled at the Mongol name. And at the very time that the Chinese were rising against and expelling their invaders, Timour, or Tamerlane, the second great conqueror of his race, was setting out from Central Asia on that mighty career of victory that emulated the deeds of the founder of the Mongol empire. Years afterwards Timour, after having drowned Southern Asia in a sea of blood, returned to Samarcand, where, in 1415, he ordered the collection of a great army for the invasion of China, with which he proposed to revenge the wrongs of his compatriots. The army was gathered; it began its march; the mountains of Khokand were reached and passed; threats of the coming danger reached and frightened China; but on the march the grim old conqueror died, and his great expedition came to an end. All that reached China to represent the mighty Timour was his old war-horse, which was sent as a present four years afterwards when an embassy from Central Asia reached Peking.
With the fall of the Mongols in China the native rule was restored, but not with it the old dynasty. Choo, the conqueror, and a man whose ability and nobleness of mind had been remarkably displayed, was everywhere looked upon as the Heaven-chosen successor to the throne, the boy who had begun his career as a penniless orphan having risen through pure power of intellect and loftiness of soul to the highest position in the realm. He was crowned emperor under the title of Hongwou, and instituted the Ming dynasty, which held the throne of China until three centuries afterwards, when another strange turn in the tide of affairs again overthrew Chinese rule and brought a new dynasty of Tartar emperors to the throne.
As regards the reign of Hongwou, it may here be said that he proved one of the ablest monarchs China ever knew, ruling his people with a just and strong hand, and, by the aid of his able general Suta, baffling every effort of the Mongols to regain their lost dominion. Luxury in the imperial administration was brought to an end, the public money was used for its legitimate purpose, and even some of the costly palaces which the Mongol emperors had built were destroyed, that the people might learn that he proposed to devote himself to their good and not to his own pleasure. Steps were taken for the encouragement of learning, the literary class was elevated in position, the celebrated Hanlin College was restored, and the great book of laws was revised. Schools were opened everywhere, orphanages and hospitals were instituted, and all that could be was done for the relief of the sick and the poor.
All this was performed in the midst of bitter and unceasing wars, which for nearly twenty years kept Suta almost constantly in the field. The Mongols were still strong in the northwest, Chungti continued to claim imperial power, and the army was kept steadily employed, marching from victory to victory under the able leadership of Suta, who in his whole career scarcely learned the meaning of defeat. His very appearance on the field on more than one occasion changed the situation from doubt to victory. In time the Mongols were driven beyond the Great Wall, the ex-emperor died, and the steppes were invaded by a great army, though not a successful one, Suta meeting here his first and only reverse. The war ended with giving the Chinese full control of all the cultivated country, while the Tartars held their own in the desert. This done, Suta returned to enjoy in peace the honors he had won, and soon after died, at the age of fifty-four years, thirty of which had been spent in war.
The death of the great general did not leave China free from warlike commotion. There were rebellious risings both in the south and in the north, but they all fell under the power of Hongwou's victorious arms, the last success being the dispersal of a final Mongol raid. The closing eight years of the emperor's reign were spent in peace, and in 1397 he died, after an administration of thirty years, in which he had freed China from the last dregs of the Mongol power, and spread peace and prosperity throughout the realm.