Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

Corea and Its Neighbors

We have thus far followed the course of two distinct streams of history, that of Japan and that of China, flowing near each other, yet touching at very few points in their course. Near the end of the nineteenth century these two streams flowed together, and the histories of the two countries became one, in the war in which their difference in military skill was so strikingly displayed. Japan made use of the lessons which it had well learned in its forty years of intercourse with Europe. China fought in the obsolete fashion of a past age. As a result, the cumbersome mediŠval giant went down before the alert modern dwarf, and the people of Eastern Asia were taught a new and astounding lesson in the art of war.

Between China and Japan lies the kingdom of Corea, separated by a river from the former, by a strait of the ocean from the latter, claimed as a vassal state by both, yet preserving its individuality as a state against the pair. It has often been invaded by China, but never conquered. It has twice been invaded by Japan, as described in preceding tales, and made tributary, but not conquered. Thus it remained until the end of the nineteenth century, when it was to become the cause of a war between the two rival empires.

During the long history of China and Japan these countries very rarely came into conflict with each other. Only once has China invaded Japan, when Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor, attempted its conquest with a great fleet, the fate of which we have already told. This effort had its influence upon Japan, for during the succeeding three centuries pirates from the island empire boldly raided the coast of China, devastating the maritime provinces and causing immense loss and suffering. They often built forts on the shore, from which they sallied forth to plunder and burn, keeping their ships at hand ready to fly if defeated. Thus they went on, plundering and destroying, their raids reaching a ruinous stage in 1553 and the succeeding years. They defeated the Chinese troops in several battles, ravaged the whole surrounding country, carried off immense quantities of spoil, sold multitudes of prisoners into slavery, and in seven or eight years slaughtered over one hundred thousand soldiers and citizens of China. The raids resembled those made at an earlier date by the Normans on the coast of France and the Danes on that of England, the sea-rovers pouncing down at unexpected times and places and plundering and burning at will.

These forays of the pirates, in which the government took no part, were followed in 1592 by an invasion in force of the kingdom of Corea. In this the invaders rapidly swept all before them, quickly overrunning the southern half of the kingdom and threatening China. The Chinese then came to the aid of their helpless neighbors, and for six years the war went on, the Japanese being usually successful in the field, but gradually forced back from want of supplies, as the country was devastated and their own land distant. In the end Hideyoshi, the shogun, died, and the army was withdrawn, Japan holding the port of Fusan as the sole result of its costly effort. This Corean port it still retains.

And now three hundred years passed away in which Corea remained free and isolated from the world. It wanted no more intercourse with foreigners. Once a year a fair was held in the neutral zone between China and Corea, but any Chinaman found on Corean soil after the fair ended was liable to be put to death. The Japanese were kept out by laws as severe. In fact, the doors of the kingdom were closed against all of foreign birth, the coasts carefully patrolled, and beacon-fires kindled on the hill-tops to warn the capital whenever any strange vessel came within sight. All foreigners wrecked on the coast were to be held as prisoners until death. Such was the threatened fate of some Dutch sailors wrecked there during the seventeenth century, who escaped after fourteen years' confinement. Dread of China and Japan induced the king to send envoys with tribute to Peking and Yedo, but the tribute was small, and the isolation was maintained, Corea winning for itself the names of the Hermit Nation and the Forbidden Land.

It was not until within recent years that this policy of isolation was overthrown and Corea opened to the world. How this was done may be briefly told. In spite of the Corean watchfulness, some French missionaries long ago penetrated into the land and made many converts, who were afterwards severely persecuted. French fleets were sent there in 1866 and later, and a fight took place in which the French were repulsed. In consequence the persecution of the Christians grew more severe. War-ships were sent by different nations to try to open trade, but in vain, and finally an American trading vessel was destroyed and its crew massacred.

This affair brought a fleet from the United States to the coast of Corea in 1871, which, being fired on from the shore, attacked and captured five Corean forts. The opening of Corea was finally due to Japan. In 1876 the Japanese did what Commodore Perry had done to themselves twenty-two years before. A fleet was sent which sailed up within sight of Seoul, the capital, and by a display of men and guns forced the government to sign a treaty opening the country to trade through the port of Fusan. In 1880 Chemulpo was also made an open port. Two years afterwards a United States fleet obtained similar concessions, and within a short time most of the countries of Europe were admitted to trade, and the long isolation of the Hermit Kingdom was at an end.

These events were followed by a rivalry between China and Japan, in which the latter country showed itself much the more active and alert. Imposing Japanese consulates were built in Seoul, flourishing settlements were laid out, and energetic steps taken to make Japan the paramount power in Corea. As a result, the Coreans became divided into two factions, a progressive one which favored the Japanese, and a conservative one which was more in touch with the backwardness of China and whose members hated the stirring islanders.

In 1882 a plot was formed by the Min faction, the active element in the conservative party, to drive the Japanese out of Seoul. The intruders were attacked, a number of them were murdered, and the minister and others had to fight their way to the sea-shore, where they escaped on a junk. Two years afterwards a similar outbreak took place, and the Japanese were once more forced to fight for their lives from Seoul to the sea. On this occasion Chinese soldiers aided the Coreans, an act which threatened to involve Japan and China in war. The dispute was settled in 1885 by a treaty, in which both countries agreed to withdraw their troops from Corea and to send no officers to drill the Corean troops, if at any future time disturbances should call for the sending of troops to Corea, each country must notify the other before doing so. And thus, for nine years, the rivalry of the foreign powers ceased.

Meanwhile internal discontent was rife in the Corean realm. The people were oppressed by heavy taxes and the other evils of tyranny and misgovernment, excited by the political questions described, and stirred to great feeling by the labors of the Christian missionaries and the persecution of their converts. One outcome of this was a new religious sect. At the same time that the Tai-ping rebels were spreading their new doctrines in China, a prophet, Choi-Chei-Ou by name, arose in Corea, who taught a doctrine made up of dogmas of the three religions of China, with some Christian ideas thrown in. This prophet was seized as a Roman Catholic in 1865 and executed, but his followers, known as the Tong-Haks, held firm to their faith. In 1893 some of them appeared with complaints of ill usage at the king's palace, and in March, 1894, they broke out in open revolt, and increased in numbers so rapidly that by May they were said to be twenty thousand strong.

The government troops drove them back into a mountain region, but here the pursuers were cunningly led into an ambuscade and routed with severe loss. This victory of the rebels filled the government with consternation, which became greater when the insurgents, on June 1, took the capital of the province of Ch÷lla. It was now feared that they would soon be at the gates of Seoul.

This insurrection of the Tong-Haks was the inciting cause of the war between China and Japan. The Min faction, then at the head of affairs, was so alarmed that aid from China was implored, and a force of about two thousand Chinese troops was sent to the port of Asan. Some Chinese men-of-war were also despatched. This action of China was quickly followed by similar action on the part of Japan, which was jealous of any Chinese movement in Corea. The Japanese minister, who had been absent, returned to Seoul with four hundred marines. Other troops quickly followed, and in a short time there were several thousand Japanese soldiers stationed around the Corean capital.

The sending of troops to Corea was succeeded by disputes between the two foreign powers. China claimed to be suzerain of Corea, a claim which Japan sternly denied. On the other hand, the Japanese government declared that the Tong-Hak movement was a natural result of the prevailing misgovernment, and could not be overcome unless radical reforms were carried out. China was asked to take part in instituting a series of reforms, but declined.

The situation quickly grew serious. The Mins, who controlled the government, declared that the Japanese troops must be withdrawn before the reforms could be instituted. The Japanese refused. Neither China nor Japan would yield, but the latter held the capital and had the controlling position.

It was not long before a crisis came. On July 20, Otori, the Japanese minister, made certain demands on the Corean government, and stated that the presence of the Chinese soldiers was a threat to the independence of the country, their general having proclaimed that Corea was a vassal state. On the 22nd the officials answered that the Chinese had come at their request and would stay until asked to leave. The next step of the Japanese was a warlike one. On the early morning of the 23rd two battalions marched from their camp, stating that they were going to attack the Chinese at Asan. But they quickly changed the direction of their march, advanced upon the palace, drove out the Corean guard, and took possession both of the palace and of the king. They declared they had come to deliver him from an obnoxious faction and restore his freedom of action.

The Min party was at once driven out and replaced by new officials chosen from the progressive faction. With a feeble resistance, in which only two men were killed and a few wounded, a revolution had been accomplished and a government which favored Japan established. The new authorities at once declared the Chinese at Asan to be intruders instead of defenders, and requested the aid of the Japanese to drive them out. War between China and Japan was at hand.

Hostilities were precipitated by a startling event. On July 25 three Japanese men-of-war, cruising in the Yellow Sea, sighted two ships of the Chinese navy convoying a transport which had on board about twelve hundred troops. They were a portion of a large force which was being sent to Corea with the purpose of reinforcing the troops at Asan and expelling the Japanese.

The Chinese ships were cleared for action, and, though the Japanese were ignorant of the late event at Seoul, they at once accepted the wager of battle, and attacked the ships of the enemy with such effect that they were quickly crippled and put to flight. The Naniwa, the Japanese flagship, now approached the transport, a chartered British vessel named the Kowshing and flying the British flag. A boat was sent from the Japanese cruiser to the steamer, her papers were examined, and orders given that she should follow the Naniwa. This the Chinese generals refused to do, excitedly declaring that they would perish rather than be taken prisoners. Their excitement was shared by the troops, who ran wildly about the deck, threatening the officers and the Europeans on board with death if they attempted to obey the order of the enemy.

They trusted to the protection of the British flag, but it proved of no avail, for the captain of the Naniwa, finding his orders defied, opened fire on the transport, with such effect that in half an hour it went to the bottom, carrying down with it over one thousand souls. The officers, the Europeans, and many of the Chinese sprang overboard, but numbers of these were shot in the water by the frantic soldiers on board. In all only about one hundred and seventy escaped.

This terrible act of war at sea was accompanied by a warlike movement on land, the Japanese forces leaving Seoul on the same day to march on Asan and expel the Chinese. On the 29th they attacked the enemy in their works and quickly drove them out, little resistance being made. These events preceded the declaration of war, which was made by both countries on August 1, 1894.

The story of the war that followed was one of unceasing victory for the Japanese, their enemy making scarcely an effort at resistance, and fleeing from powerful strongholds on which they had expended months of hard labor with scarcely a blow in their defence. Such was the case with Port Arthur, which in other hands might have proved a Gibraltar to assailing troops. The war continued until April 17, 1895, when a treaty of peace was signed, which remarkably changed the relative positions of the two powers before the world, China having met with utter and irretrievable defeat. The war yielded but a single event of novel interest, the famous naval battle of Hai-yang, which we shall describe more at length.