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1. The Dynastic Revolution

SIR ROBERT HART went home — nominally on leave; but we knew we had seen the last of our great chief. Mr. Bredon, the Deputy I.G., was passed over for succession; and so was Mr. A. E. Hippisley, an expected appointee; and in 1910 Mr. F. A. Aglen got the acting post and was afterwards confirmed. I happened to be in Peking a few days after his appointment, and he secured at once my loyalty by his modesty and earnestness about it.

It was shortly after this that the Shanghai conservancy affair occurred, and my diary shows that a year later I visited Peking and found — to quote it — ' Conservancy matters have been referred to I.G. very opportunely, for he has made arrangements for me to see Alfred Sze (an official of the Foreign Office) and has given me a free hand.' I must have given the Government people satisfaction in this affair, for when I left by train for Hankow I found a private car — with cooks and servants and food and wine — had been placed at my disposal; and there was another and rather embarrassing attention that was accorded me. In those days the Peking-Hankow train did not run at night, and, when we arrived at the stoppage, I found a deputation of French engineers it was a French-built line — on the platform, and I was told that they had been instructed to entertain me; so would I come at once to dinner. And when I went I found the engineers had wives — young and charming — but none of the party could speak a word of English, and I, though half French, knew very little of the language.(1)
1 — To counteract the supposed disadvantage of our mother being French, she was not allowed to teach us her language. It was supposed it would make us frenchified. But it was not only on our side that this national prejudice existed. When my sister was to be married to an English General my mother's brother, a French General, was invited to the ceremony. He replied quite seriously: 'What, come to la perfide Albion? Never, unless it is to conquer ! ' I am glad that later we became great friends, and that he visited our country peaceably.

So there was an awkward situation. From their point of view I must be a very important person to have been given a private car and to have entertainment ordered for me; so they were stiff, formal and watchful — the latter very disconcerting to one not accustomed to be important — and there was not a smile upon their lips. Positively something had to be done to relieve the situation, so as best I could I told them of my mother, of my regrets that I could not speak her lovely language, and how all that I had learnt from her were terms of endearment. I paused; and then from one of those young wives, Monsieur, s'il vous plait, ne voulez-vous pas commencer? ' I had just enough of them to go the round; it broke the ice, and in our struggle at mutual understanding we became a very merry party.

A few weeks later I was called to Peking again. The Waichiaopu — the Foreign Office — wished to consult me further about conservancy affairs. I was in the middle of most interesting conversations — Waichiaopu, Sir John Jordan, and the Inspector-General — and I was the leader in them, when I got a cable from my wife, who had gone home some weeks before, that our son — he was four years old and a sturdy boy — had died.

I dropped everything and started home next day across Siberia; and the coming into effect of my conservancy scheme of 1901 was delayed for another year or two. Before I left, Sir John Jordan wished me to tell him the results to date of my discussions with the Waichiaopu; but I had given my word that they would not be so repeated. My wish to break my word was very strong, not only on account of the British Minister's desire but for the benefit of the situation.(2) Right or wrong, I stuck to it against the general interest. I was not backward in unscrupulousness of another kind when circumstances called for it. When I was an apprentice in a sailing ship I stole — at a very real risk — a quantity of stores in the interests of justice and once — as will be told later — I misappropriated a very large sum of money for the general good; but one's word is an affair which touches one's honour more closely than any other.
2 — Here is a charming letter that Sir John sent me the day before I left: — 'Pray do not forget to let me have a copy of that paper before you leave, as otherwise I shall be lost. I cannot thank you sufficiently for your goodness and self-denial in giving us the benefit of your assistance in such trying circumstances, and I regret keenly that we are no longer to have your knowledge and great experience to guide us.'

I was only a month in England, but I took advantage of it to study chart production; and when I returned I arranged with a Chinese publisher to install a camera for the purpose.

It had to have a special building; it ran on rails; it took a plate of about four foot six by three; and its lens alone cost £400. It was one of two or three of the best outfits for the purpose in the world; and so we started chart work, of course with the Inspectorate's permission.

I returned to China just as the revolution against the dynasty had begun. That was in October 1911. It was not an organized affair. Sun Yat-sen, the protagonist — from a distance — of revolution, had nothing to do with it. It was just an accidental mutiny which developed into revolution because every one was ripe for it. The general discontent had spread and grown. The Empress Dowager got scared and in 1906 promised constitutional government, and then in 1908 she died, having first proclaimed a three-year-old successor and a Regent and having presumably arranged for the killing of Kwanghsii, the imprisoned Emperor. Under the Regency things went from bad to worse. It ordered Yuan Shih-kai — the one strong man — to resign his offices and did everything it should not.

A sidelight on the situation is contained in a letter which I wrote in 1907 to Lady Lugard — her husband was then Governor of Hongkong: — ` I believe the question occupying the minds of the high Chinese officials is that of declaring an heir to the throne. The Empress Dowager is almost beyond work, and the ease with which she is swayed one way or the other is the cause of the present unstable condition of affairs. If a suitable descendant of one of the Chinese dynasties could be found, a strong effort would be made to nominate him. Such descendants can be found but only among peasants and small farmers — so any move in that direction is now considered unlikely. I think that almost certainly a young Manchu will be selected — a mere child — and then a Regency of Chinese and Manchus appointed. . . . There is a fairly strong opinion among diplomatic people that there must be a revolution — that blood must be shed — before a thorough change in China's government methods be effected. All history, I suppose, points to the likelihood of this; but the history from which that is learnt is not Chinese history. For myself I believe in the greater likelihood of a bloodless revolution.'

With the outbreak of the revolution the Regency recalled Yuan Shih-kai and placed the matter of suppressing it on him.

So he took his armies South and beat the rebels, and having done so joined them and became their leader, persuaded the Manchus to abdicate, and became the first President of the so-called Republic. Had the old Buddha been alive, he would have been loyal to her; but he owed nothing to the Regency. Like others, he knew that the country was ripe for revolution, and he learnt that Western sympathy was with it — a quite important factor. It is improbable he held that view when he took the commission from the Regency but it grew, I think, as affairs developed. For many years he had been a leader, and he knew that there was none other in the field worthy of that name; but he must have seen that to lead on behalf of that rotten Regency offered no chances of success, so he made a volte-face and said to the rebels, I myself will be your leader.'

Sun Yat-sen came from America before Yuan had declared himself; they made him Provisional President, and doubtless he thought it was he who had engineered the revolution. A curious character: hopelessly impractical in all he did; unintelligible in what he wrote and said; earnest and patriotic beyond a doubt; he can be credited with honesty; and he served, and in memory still serves, as the ikon of republicanism in China. It is appropriate that this is so, for republicanism is impracticable in China for some generations to come; there will continue a government that is called republican, but that is a different matter; the name alone — apart from realities — is a very potent thing, so potent that a reversion to a monarchy can be considered quite impossible.

Here and elsewhere in this book I give in brief my version of events, not of course as a contribution to history but merely as background features for my story. But there is one little bit of real unrecorded history that I can tell. I got it from a Chinese friend who was present at the first meeting between Yuan and Sun. The latter said: I am an agitator. I have been that all my life, and it is all I am fit for. I am no administrator; and so I gladly pass things on to you.' If that is not apocryphal, Sun for once said something that was quite intelligible.

So the revolution was accomplished — the most civilized and bloodless revolution of its magnitude which the world has ever seen; and Yuan Shih-kai became established at Peking in the palace of former Emperors. In deference to democratic views, the old insignia of rank — the embroidered robes, the coloured buttons, the Peacock and other feathers, the Orders of the Double Dragon — were thrown into the limbo of the past; and in their place appeared Western military uniforms, frock-coats, full evening dress in the middle of the day and a batch of brand new Orders — the Excellent Crop, the Striped Tiger, and others of similarly curious names.