Littell's Living Age/Volume 137/Issue 1770/The Chinese Reconquest of Eastern Turkestan

From The Spectator.


The campaign which commenced with the sieges of Urumtsi and Manas in the autumn of 1876, and which was brought to a close with the fall of Kashgar in December last, is beyond doubt the most remarkable military enterprise which has been attempted by any Asiatic nation within the present century. If we simply consider the enormous distances over which large bodies of men have been transported, the feat must be admitted to have been no ordinary one, but when we have added thereto such difficulties as those caused by the barrenness of the region in which the war was to be carried on, the reputed strength of Kashgar, the hostility of the Mahommedan population, and the scarcely concealed distrust of Russia, we find that the task which a Chinese general and a Chinese army have accomplished is one that deserves to rank with many of the most celebrated of European campaigns. But during its progress we have remained in the most profound ignorance of its exact details. No adventurous correspondent accompanied the army either of the conqueror or of the conquered, and the public, which received no thrilling description of the sack of Manas or the fight at Turfan, refused to believe that Chinese valor in central Asia was more real than the myth-land in which it was being demonstrated. At last, however, we have an authentic official account of one portion of this little-understood campaign, in the "memorial" report of the governor-general of Kansuh, and by supplementing that document with the more recent information received through Tashkent and Semiretchinsk, wre are able to arrive at a tolerably clear idea of the whole campaign. We propose, therefore, to describe as a connected whole that war of which the Pekin Gazette published in detail on January 4th the narrative of one portion.

In the year 1875, the Chinese government resolved to chastise the rebel powers which had broken away from its control in the country lying beyond the province of Kansuh. The chief of these were the Tungan rulers of Urumtsi and Manas, and Yakoob Beg, the ameer of Kashgar. At Lanchefu, the capital of Kansuh, troops were accordingly collected in large numbers, and the necessary stores and supplies of cannon and ammunition were forwarded with as little delay as possible to the same place. Chinese movements are proverbially slow, and it was not until the year 1875 had closed that the army, under the nominal command of General Kin Shun — now Liu Kin Tang — but really controlled by Tso Tsung Tang, the governor-general of Kansuh, advanced westwards. Its headquarters were, some months later, established at Guchen, and from this place the sieges both of Urumtsi and of Manas were conducted. Of these, Urumtsi was the first to fall, and in November, 1876, after having held out for more than two months, Manas shared the same fate. Several of the leading men of the Tungan movement perished in the course of the latter siege, or in the massacre that ensued upon the surrender of Manas. Before the close of the year 1876, therefore, the first of the rebel powers had been overthrown, and Chinese influence and prestige restored in what, for want of a better term, may be called the region of Ultra-Kansuh. It now only remained for the Chinese army to deal with the second and more formidable power. At this period of the campaign, we may easily imagine that among the Chinese themselves there prevailed considerable doubt as to the prudence of risking their success by more arduous and far more complicated operations in the country south of the Tian Shan. The hesitation, if any such there was, of the more cautious was overruled by the military confidence and zeal of the commanders, and the winter was spent in bringing up every available man and every serviceable gun to the camp round Manas. In the mean while the ruler of Kashgar was straining every nerve in organizing a sufficient defence for his realm, and with his characteristic impetuosity had advanced to the town of Turfan, nine hundred miles east of his capital, for the purpose of defending his extreme frontier against the Chinese assault. The imprudence of this wrongheaded determination cannot be overstated, and his little army, outflanked by the more numerous invader, was driven in confusion from its positions in the defiles of the Tian Shan during the month of March, 1877. A general engagement ensued at Turfan, to be fought out again at Toksoun, and in both the Chinese were completely victorious. The fall of Manas had given the Chinese complete control of the country north of the Tian Shan, as far west as the Russian frontier in Kuldja; the capture of Turfan now gave them a base whence war could be carried on with great advantage south of that mountain range.

When these reverses became known, disorders broke out in all directions in Kashgaria. Yakoob Beg was assassinated at Korla, and his eldest son, Beg Kuli Beg, murdered his own brother, Hacc Kuli Beg, soon afterwards. Aali, or Hakim, Khan broke off from his allegiance to the new ameer, and set up an independent authority in Kucha. Other pretenders appeared in the southern portion of the state, and the Badakshis began to encroach in the district of Sirikul. All thought of opposing the Chinese seems to have died out in the breasts of a people who were distracted by civil war and disturbance in their very midst. The invading army was left to do exactly as it pleased in that portion of the country which it had occupied, and the Kashgari abandoned everything east of Kucha. This very important town is situated at the junction of a northern and of a southern road leading into western Kashgar, and between it and Turfan four hundred miles of country, desolated by the retreating army, intervened. Many weeks elapsed before the Chinese generals had made the necessary arrangements for an advance through this region, and it is of this portion of the campaign that Tso Tsung Tang gives a description in the Pekin Gazette of January 4th last.

The advance force of some fifteen hundred men set out from Toksoun early in September, along the high-road towards Korla and Kucha. Their chief object was to make that road practicable for the main body, and also the necessary excavations for water at fixed halting-places. The mass of the army did not follow this advanced guard until the end of the month, but its advance was extremely rapid. On October 7th, Karasher was occupied, and in the few skirmishes that ensued the Chinese were uniformly successful. Two days afterwards the Chinese entered Korla, which they found a desolate solitude. Here, for the first time, the Chinese intendance gave signs of being deficient. The advance of the army had indeed been so rapid that the troops had left their supplies far in the rear, and for some time it appeared that they would be compelled to abandon Korla through sheer want of food. At this crisis fortune intervened, and "the soldiers being set to work to dig in search of buried stores, several tens of thousand catties' weight were discovered." No long delay after this retarded the forward movement of the Chinese, and on the 18th October a decisive battle was fought underneath the walls of Kucha. Kin Tang was again victorious, and Kucha, the chief bulwark of eastern Kashgar, fell into the hands of the invader. In the short space of twenty-one days the Chinese had, therefore, marched close on four hundred miles, captured three cities, and won one pitched encounter. The very next day after this striking achievement Kin Tang set out on the northern road towards Aksu, and from Hoser, his first stage in this later advance, is dated the very graphic account of which we have made mention. He was then preparing to attack Bai, or more correctly, Kutchabai, a small town on the Aksu road. We have to derive our information on this latest phase in the campaign from a different source, but with the fall of Kucha, of which, strange to say, we heard nothing at all at the time, it was evident that the whole Kashgarian defence had collapsed. The advance of the Chinese army was now slackened, for the purpose of allowing the reinforcements under General Chang Yao to come up from Karashar, and also to permit Tso Tsung Tang to execute that flanking movement across the Tian Shan which sealed the fate of Aksu. The division with which Kin Tang had executed his brilliant feat of arms was not, it should be remembered, the only Chinese army operating in the field. There was another and a larger force north of the Tian Shan, with its base at Manas, which was under the immediate command of Tso Tsung Tang, and it was the sudden appearance of this army north of Aksu which paralyzed all the preparations Kuli Beg had for three months been making. Early in November, Aksu surrendered, through the treachery of its governor, — that is to say, he thought a timely discretion the better part of valor; and later on in the same month, Ush Turfan (New Turfan), eighty miles nearer to the capital, fell also into the hands of the Chinese. The joint armies of Tso Tsung and Kin Tang pressed on against Kashgar itself, and after winning a battle underneath its walls, in which Kuli Beg was wounded, the capital of the dominions of the late Athalik Ghazi once more was,entered by a conquering army from far distant China. Since then Yarkand and Khoten — in the telegrams misspelt "Khokand" — have either been occupied by, or have voluntarily acknowledged, the Chinese, and may by such timely allegiance have diverted from themselves some of that wrath which has been so manifested towards the other cities.

Such, briefly narrated, is the story of the Chinese reconquest of eastern Turkestan, and we think that no one will dispute the fact that, both in strategy among their generals and in endurance and courage among their men, this Chinese army has done much to revindicate the old and long lost prestige which attached to the soldiers of Kanghi and Keen Lung. We will say nothing here of the future, although there is the prospect of a war in this region between Russia and China for the possession of Kuldja, or of an arrangement between those powers of the difficulty, by a further advance of the Russian dominions in Manchooria, in exchange for the retrocession of Kuldja. Whichever be the solution of what at present appears to be no slight danger, the result must be interesting to us; but in order to comprehend the future ramifications of this intricate business, it is very necessary that the campaign just ended should be first mastered. With that object in view, we have placed the preceding description of it before our readers.