Managing the Barbarians in Time of Crisis

In 1858 China was in the midst of civil war with the Taiping rebels as well as embroiled with Britain and France in the Second Opium war. After defeating the Chinese and occupying Canton in Dec. 1857, the British and French naval forces proceeded northward to Tientsin in order to exert further pressure on the Imperial court. They arrived there in mid-April, 1858 to exact additional trade and other concessions by treaty. It was a foregone conclusion that they would also insist on establishing a diplomatic residence at the capital Peking that would preclude the hitherto arduous and unsatisfactory negotiation with provincial officials who lacked plenipotentiary powers. The dilemma for the emperor’s negotiators, Ho Kuei-ch’ing and Kuei-liang was how to keep the ‘foreign devils’ out of Peking (thus pleasing the emperor and saving their own heads!) and yet prevent any further outbreak of hostilities from the truculent and frustrated foreigners. In the following Memorial to the emperor, written while the foreign fleets lay at Tientsin awaiting the signing of the treaties, Ho Kuei-ch’ing paints a discomforting picture of the military strength of China’s enemies and dares to counsel moderation--"employ soft to manage hard." It may be noted that the official who conducted the negotiations leading to the first batch of ‘unequal’ treaties in 1842-4, Ch’-ying was eventually degraded and disgraced and forced to commit suicide.

Ho Kuei-ch'ing and others further memorialize. It is humbly recalled that . . .newly appointed Governor General of Liang-kuang Huang Tsung-han passed through Soochow and Ch'ang-chou and Your officials discussed barbarian affairs with him. He said that he was afraid he would have to fight first and conciliate afterwards, and as Kiangsu and Chekiang [provinces] formed Kwangtung's [Canton] rear line, in the future his troops and supplies would have to be borrowed from there.

Your officials think that fighting first and conciliating afterward is no easy matter. At present in eleven provinces, Hunan, Hupeh, and Fukien being only recently tranquillized and the spirit of rebellion not far off, mobilization and deployment are frequent [in order to fight the Taiping rebels], and besides, there is always the fear of reoccurrence. Although Chekiang is considered completely restored, soldiers are mobilized and braves assembled to defend against Kiangsi and Fukien on the southwest, and Kiangsu and Anhwei on the northwest. On the east is the broad ocean and the trading port of Ningpo, where the local bandits are always itching to be on the move, so with (de)fending without and pacifying within it is almost like the provinces which are fighting. . . . In the event of another coastal conflict, interior banditry and external grief will both be upon us and how will we handle them? So much for the state of the empire.

Turning to the state of barbarian affairs, although Your officials are not thoroughly versed, the past can be studied. In the Tao-kuang period[1840s], when Lin (Tse- hsu) and Hsu (Kuang-chin) held the office of governor general, their ability and energy were enough to control the barbarians. As there was no outlet for barbarian schemes, they used their chicanery to oppose us at Ting-hai and from then on their actions were unpredictable; they were in arms several years; no place along the rivers or coasts but felt their violence and Kiangsu suffered especially. Not until after the five ports were opened to trade [following the treaty of Nanking in 1842] was it terminated.

Now the barbarians have repudiated treaties, occupied our ( provincial) capital city [i.e., Canton], abducted our high official and every red-blooded man is gnashing his teeth in bitter anger, wanting to eat their flesh and use their hide for blankets. The Cantonese are naturally quick tempered and mercenary. At the beginning of the occupation, before the barbarians had strengthened their position, popular fury was such that if anyone bared his arm and gave one whoop, followers would certainly have taken up the echo and, wiping out their ugly kind, recovered the city as easy as a twist of the wrist. Now that it has been put off for three months, it is reported that the barbarians have rebuilt the forts within and without the city and have a strangle hold on strategic positions. The Tartar(i.e., Manchu) General and governor under duress issued notices to dissipate popular feeling and opened the mart to trade, so while public spirit is starved, public greed is gratified. Even if a public-spirited gentry and a law-abiding people were to arouse popular indignation all day long, there is no one competent to do the fighting. It is greatly feared that the good people of Canton now are not to be relied on as they were a few months ago.

Someone has said that if we seize their Hong Kong[British territory since 1842] lair, we would not have to worry about their restoring the provincial capital, so Your officials made a careful inquiry. Hong Kong is suspended in the open sea and the barbarians' patrol and defense are rigorous. If our troops go with rifles and cannon, they will intercept them with steamers and warships and certainly prevent their landing; and if they go empty-handed, how are they to meet rifles and cannon? So much for the state of public morale in Canton.

. . . . . Even if Kwangtung[Canton] took up arms we could hardly be sure of success, and if we remained deadlocked or even suffered some losses, the barbarians' situation would be even better and a reversal even harder. The bandits in various parts are also about to swarm. Even if Shanghai is fortunate enough to escape trouble, the source of supplies will be cut off, then with the fate of our great Nanking force sealed, how dare we ask about the empire? So much for Kiangsu and Chekiang's inability to furnish Kwangtung with troops and supplies.

Given these three conditions, the present policy for the management of barbarian affairs is self-evident: employ soft to manage hard; devise means to manage in accord with Imperial Edict; and not talk promiscuously about going to war.

Now the English, American, French, and Russian barbarians have joined masts and come to Shanghai, and their prowess is very great. If we had not agreed with Wu Chien- chang to use the plan of pulling the fire from under the pot, diminishing somewhat their arrogance, Your official could not even bear to think of (the outcome) . Under the circumstances their going to Tientsin can hardly be prevented, but kowtowing at the gate and asking for Imperial Edicts is the common practice of outside barbarians begging mercy. It is humbly requested that Your Majesty's Heavenly Favor condescend, as His officials have requested, to appoint an Imperial Commissioner to meet them, flatter them a little so that they will have no quarrel to pick, settle general conditions by negotiation to get them to cease hostilities and restore the (provincial) capital, and then tell them to return to Canton and discuss treaty provisions separately, in order to relieve the immediate crisis. When internal banditry is somewhat settled and provisions are abundant, after sleeping on firewood and sipping gall [ so as not to forget vengeance], and selecting and training naval forces, then will be the time to seize an opportunity to overcome our country's enemies and mete out Heavenly punishment. . . . . .It is noted that the Russian barbarians' previous presentation of a communication to the Grand Council was enclosed in American barbarian papers and not in the English barbarian papers. This is clear evidence that the English and Americans cannot get along and that the Russians have left the English and approached the Americans [Note that both the Russians and Americans steered clear of any involvement in the Second Opium war then continuing]. As dogs and sheep are naturally inconstant, it should not be hard to separate them and, using barbarians to control barbarians, sow mutual disaffection and gradually weaken them.

If we used only this means of controlling them, the fall of one would mean the certain ascendancy of another, so this is not a good policy. What the barbarians rely on are strong ships and efficient cannon. Our government ships can hardly meet them in battle. We have only to seize what they rely on and turn it to our advantage, to be able to determine their life or death. Since these barbarians care only for profits, even their strongest and most effective things should not be hard to buy for a heavy price. If, when our innate vigor is adequate, we use the plan of playing one against another and buying their ships and cannon, supporting the weak ones so that they will help us, weeding out the strong so that they will not dare run wild, then barbarian troubles will be quieted and frontier strife suppressed.

From the present viewpoint, this seems to be the situation but if subsequently the situation is changed, we cannot speak dogmatically. So it is up to the Imperial Commissioner in charge of barbarian affairs in the five ports to consider the general situation comprehensively, moving as occasion demands, and not be concerned merely with the one province of Kwangtung. Then however clever these barbarians are, they will accomplish nothing.

(Ref.: Earl Swisher, China’s Management of the American Barbarians, pp. 410-12. Copyright Hippocrene Books. Quoted with permission of the publisher.