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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1710/A Chinese Statesman

From The Pall Mall Gazette.


A recent mail from China brought an account of the funeral in Manchuria of a statesman who for the last sixteen years has taken a leading part in the administration of foreign affairs at Peking. Wǎn Seang, as his name testifies, was a Manchoo by birth. At an early age he gained literary honors at the Chinese examinations, and shortly afterwards accepted office under the government. His promotion was as rapid as his abilities were great, and in 1860 we find him a vice-president of the board of revenue and a trusted adviser of Prince Kung. Though a man of a liberal turn of mind, he was a thorough Chinaman, and at the outset was not free from some of the prejudices of his adopted countrymen against foreigners, nor from the contempt for them which the history of their early commercial intercourse with China was perhaps sufficient to justify, and which was at all events universally shared in by the official classes. One of the first questions of international interest on which, on the approach of the allies to Pekin, he was called upon to advise was the fate of the prisoners taken at Tung Chow. "Shall we behead them or send them back?" was the question discussed between himself and Prince Kung. Fortunately the latter course was finally adopted, and months afterwards Wǎn Seang had many long conversations with one of those whose life he at this time helped to prolong.

After the conclusion of the treaties, Wǎn Seang was appointed one of the commissioners of foreign affairs at the Tsung-le-Yamun, and in his intercourse with the foreign ambassadors he gained their esteem by his, invariable courtesy and by the comprehensive grasp of his intellect. In all matters relating to foreign trade he displayed a remarkable clearness of perception, and was never tired of studying the systems of political economy practised in Europe; but he by no means accepted without question the statements laid before him. He fully recognized the advantages to be derived trom such innovations as railways, telegraphs, etc., but he held that their introduction would have then been surrounded with insurmountable difficulties. At a later period of his career he still maintained this opinion, and in a conversation with Sir Rutherford Alcock on the revision of the treaty in 1869 he said, in reply to a proposal that the coal mines should be worked by foreign capital and machinery, "You want us to move too fast. We have had some bitter experience already of what comes of it. We were urged — I don't care to say how or by whom, for the thing is done, and I wish to blame no one — to engage in large works for an arsenal and docks at Foochow, and we have only burned our fingers. Nor is this the first or only lesson we have had of the same kind." (" And here it is impossible not to see he had the Lay-Osborn fleet in his mind," adds Sir Rutherford Alcock.) "It would be the same," he continued, "with railroads and mines and all the rest. We are not ready yet for such great innovations — or improvements, if you will. We are not prepared, and cannot handle with safety all the conditions. Nothing but loss and humiliations and danger could cope of our attempts. The time for these things may come no doubt, as you desire; but not yet. We cannot move as fast as you would have us, nor at all in some directions, without manifest loss and danger." These are the words of one of the ablest and most enlightened Chinese statesmen of modern times, of one who was thoroughly acquainted with the condition of the country and who was free from all ignorant bias against foreigners. They are words also of sound practical common sense, and may be studied with advantage by those foreigners who are ever trying to goad China into rash enterprises.

To return to the year 1861. On the death of the emperor Heenfung, Wǎn Seang took a prominent part in the coup d'état which wrested the government of the country out of the hands of the dissolute advisers of the deceased emperor and vested it in the dowager-empress and Prince Kung. This event secured to him his post at the Tsung-le Yamun, and in that position he consistently used his influence to promote cordiality between his government and those of foreign countries. As an instance of his sense of the value of international courtesy, it may be mentioned that on receiving the announcement of the death of the prince consort he at once went dressed in mourning and, as is usual on the death of an imperial personage, without his button and peacock's feather, to offer his condolences to Sir Frederick Bruce, who was at that time the English minister at Peking. His sympathies probably went out less towards Russia than to any foreign country. "Russia," he once observed in conversation with Mr. Hart, the inspector-general of customs, "is a large country, but it is not large enough for them. They came last year (1860) and took that," pointing on a map to the Amoor territory, "from us."

In all the later "burning questions" which have since agitated foreign politics in China he took an active part, and while never separating himself from his colleagues he always threw his weight into the scale of reason and moderation. Failing health compelled him to absent himself more and more frequently from the deliberations consequent on the murder of Mr. Margary, and his last recorded opinion was his dissent from the pronounced pro-foreign opinions of Kwo Sung-taou, the ambassador who has just arrived in London. This fact gives rise to an interesting question. If Wǎn Seang, who was a leading member of the liberal party in the cabinet, disapproved of Kwo's advanced views, whom may the ambassador be said to represent? Certainly not the government, certainly not the literati, nor, as far as we know, the people. Wǎn Seang did not live to see the Chefoo Convention signed, but died full of years on the 26th of May last. On his death posthumous honors were heaped upon him by the emperor, and imperial orders were issued that the arrangement of his funeral should be such as befitted that of so old and faithful a servant of the crown. These instructions we now learn have been carried out, and the funeral procession as it recently arrived at Moukden is described as having been surrounded with every insignia of official pomp. Following the custom of his countrymen, his bones will be laid by those of his forefathers in Manchuria, far from the scenes of his official duties and political triumphs.