Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Death-Struggle of China

Never in its history has China shown such unyielding courage as it did in its resistance to the invasion under Kublai Khan. The city of Sianyang alone held back the tide of Mongol success for full five years. After its fall there were other strongholds to be taken, other armies to be fought, and for a number of years the Chinese fought desperately for their native land. But one by one their fortified cities fell, one by one their armies were driven back by the impetuous foe, and gradually the conquest of Southern China was added to that of the north.

Finally the hopes of China were centred upon a single man, Chang Chikie, a general of unflinching zeal and courage, who recaptured several towns, and, gathering a great fleet, said to have numbered no fewer than two thousand war junks, sailed up the Yung-tse-Kiang with the purpose of attacking the Mongol positions below Nanking. The fleet of the Mongols lay at that point where the Imperial Canal enters the Kiang on both sides. Here the stream is wide and ample, and presents a magnificent field for a naval battle.

The attack of the Chinese was made with resolution and energy, but the Mongol admiral had prepared for them by sending in advance his largest vessels, manned with bowmen instructed to attach lighted pitch to their arrows. The Mongol assault was made before the Chinese fleet had emerged from the narrow part of the river, in which comparatively few of the host of vessels could be brought into play. The flaming arrows set on fire a number of the junks, and, though the Chinese in advance fought bravely, these burning vessels carried confusion and alarm to the thronging vessels in the rear. Here the crews, unable to take part in the fight and their crowded vessels threatened with the flames, were seized with a fear that soon became an uncontrollable panic. The result was disastrous. Of the great fleet no less than seven hundred vessels were captured by the Mongols, while a still greater number were burnt or sunk, hardly a fourth of the vast armament escaping from that fatal field.

The next events which we have to record take us forward to the year 1278, when the city of Canton had been captured by the Mongol troops, and scarcely a fragment of the once great empire remained in the hands of the Chinese ruler.

The incompetent Chinese emperor had died, and the incapable minister to whose feebleness the fall of Sianyang was due had been dismissed by his master and murdered by his enemies. The succeeding emperor had been captured by the Mongols on the fall of the capital. Another had been proclaimed and had died, and the last emperor of the Sung dynasty, a young prince named Tiping, was now with Chang Chikie, whose small army constituted his only hope, and the remains of the fleet his only empire.

The able leader on whom the last hopes of the Chinese dynasty now rested selected a natural stronghold on an island named Tai, in a natural harbor which could be entered only with a favorable tide. This position he made the most strenuous efforts to fortify, building strong works on the heights above the bay, and gathering troops until he had an army of nearly two hundred thousand men.

So rapidly did he work that his fortifications were completed before the Mongol admiral discovered his locality. On learning what had been done, the Mongols at once hurried forward reinforcements and prepared for an immediate and vigorous assault on this final stronghold of the empire of China. The attack was made with the impetuous courage for which the Mongols had become noted, but the works were bravely held, and for two days the struggle was maintained without advantage to the assailants. On the third day the Mongol admiral resumed his attack, and a fiercely contested battle took place, ending in the Chinese fleet being thrown into confusion. The result would have been utterly disastrous had not a heavy mist fallen at this opportune moment, under cover of which Chang Chikie, followed by sixteen vessels of his fleet, made his way out to sea.

The vessel which held the young emperor was less fortunate. Caught in the press of the battle, its capture was inevitable, and with it that of the last emperor of the Sung dynasty. In this desperate emergency, a faithful minister of the empire, resolved to save the honor of his master even at the sacrifice of his life, took him in his arms and leaped with him into the sea. This act of desperation was emulated by many of the officers of the vessel, and in this dramatic way the great dynasty of the Sung came to an end.

But the last blow for the empire had not been struck so long as Chang Chikie survived. With him had escaped the mother of the drowned prince, and on learning of his loss the valiant leader requested her to name some member of the Sung family to succeed him. But the mother, overwhelmed with grief at the death of her son, was in no mood to listen to anything not connected with her loss, and at length, hopeless and inconsolable, she put an end to her own existence by leaping overboard from the vessel's side.

Chang Chikie was left alone, with the destinies of the empire dependent solely upon him. Yet his high courage sustained him still; he was not ready to acknowledge final defeat, and he sailed southward in the double hope of escaping Mongol pursuit and of obtaining means for the renewal of the struggle. The states of Indo-China were then tributary to the empire, and his small fleet put in to a port of Tonquin, whose ruler not only welcomed him, but aided him to refit his fleet, collect stores, and enlist fresh troops.

Thus strengthened, the intrepid admiral resolved to renew the war without delay, his project being to assault Canton, which he hoped to take by a sudden attack. This enterprise seemed desperate to his followers, who sought to dissuade him from what might prove a fatal course; but, spurred on by his own courage and a hope of retrieving the cause of the Sungs, he persisted in his purpose, and the fleet once more returned to the seas.

It was now 1279, a year after Tiping's death. The Mongols lay in fancied security, not dreaming that there was in all China the resolution to strike another blow, and probably unsuspicious that a fleet was bearing down upon one of their captured ports. What would have been the result had Chang Chikie been able to deliver his attack it is impossible to say. He might have taken Canton by surprise and captured it from the enemy, but in any event he could not have gained more than a temporary success.

As it was, he gained none. Fate had destined the fall of China, and the elements came to the assistance of its foes. A sudden and violent tempest fell upon the fleet while near the southern headland of the Kwantung coast, hurling nearly or quite all the vessels on the shore or sinking them beneath the waves. The bold leader had been counselled to seek shelter from the storm under the lee of the shore, but he refused, and kept on despite the storm, daring death in his singleness of purpose.

"I have done everything I could," he said, "to sustain the Sung dynasty on the throne. When one prince died I had another proclaimed. He also has perished, and I still live. Should I be acting against thy decrees, O Heaven, if I sought to place a new prince on the throne?"

It appeared so, for the winds and the waves gave answer, and the last defender of China sank to death beneath the sea. The conquest of China was thus at length completed after seventy years of resistance against the most valorous soldiers of the world, led by such generals as Genghis, Kublai, and other warlike Mongol princes. In view of the fact that Genghis had overrun Southern Asia in a few years, this long and obstinate resistance of China, despite the incompetence of its princes and ministers, places in a striking light the great military strength of the empire at that period of its history.