Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/October 1900/Modern Mongols


By F. L. OSWALD, M.D., A.M.

THE political supremacy of the Caucasian race was supposed to have been decided by the fall of Carthage, more than two thousand years ago, but was thrice afterwards imperiled by an encounter with a rival of long-unsuspected resources.

The Scythians of Strabo were probably not Tartars, but Slavs ('Sarmatians'), or, like their allies, the Getæ, Slavs, mingled with Teutons. Parthia, too, had a semi-Aryan population; but the campaign of Attila gave the champions of Europe a chance to measure their strength with that of a new foe, as shifty as the Semites, and of far greater staying power. His Huns were undoubtedly Mongols, and came so near overpowering the inheritors of Roman strategy that at one time the fate of western civilization hung upon the issue of a single battle. The western coalition triumphed, yet its victory on the plains of Chalons (October, 451), was due to the numerical inferiority of their enemies as much as to the predominance of their own skill or valor. The very retreat of the vanquished chief established his claim to the prestige of a superlative tactician.

Again, in 1402, only the accidental quarrel of two Mongol conquerors saved Europe from the fate of its ravaged borders. Sultan Bajazet had vanquished all his western foes, and the union of his forces with those of Tamerlane would undoubtedly have sealed the doom of the Mediterranean coast lands, if not all of Christendom.

A hundred years later the generals of Solyman II. came very near retrieving the neglected chance. They vanquished Austrian, Hungarian and Italian armies, and in 1560 defeated the combined armadas of the Christian sea-power at Port Jerbeh—so completely, indeed, that the allies were eager to make peace by betraying each other.

And it would be a great mistake to ascribe these victories to a mere triumph of brute strength. That same Solyman, with all his fanaticism, was a patron of every secular science, and at a time when western princes had to sign their names by proxy, Mohammed Baber Khan, the conqueror of India, wrote essays in four different languages and published memoirs abounding with shrewd comments on social and ethical questions and problems of political economy. He was a poet, too, and liberal enough to compose a dirge in memory of a prince whom he had slain in single combat.

Ethnologically, there is, therefore, nothing abnormal in the burst of intellectual vigor that has lifted Japan to the front rank of civilized nations. It is merely a revival, analogous to the dambreak of pent-up energies that followed the collapse of mediæval despotism. Instead of having to work out their salvation by tentative efforts, the Japanese, it is true, had the advantage of ready-made patterns, but that difference has perhaps been more than offset by achievements affecting the reforms of four centuries in as many decades, and by modifications which, in more than one instance, have improved upon Caucasian models.

"The organization of the Japanese transport system," says a press dispatch from Taku, "was a revelation to western staff officers; bodies of troops, with their equipments of stores and camping outfit, were landed without a hitch, in quick succession, and moved to the front without a moment's loss of time. No delay, no confusion, no blockades of wharf-boats and baggage carts; everything worked in smooth grooves and in evident conformity with a prearranged and oft-rehearsed plan."

And in 1897, after the affront of the Russian intervention, the victorious islanders, compelled to forfeit half the rewards of their valor, proceeded to make the very best of the other half, and their provoked diplomats managed to preserve their dignity, as well as their complete presence of mind. The Japanese police enforces law and order without waging Blue-Law wars against harmless amusements; there are no associations for the prosecution of bathing youngsters, no anti-concert crusades, no suppression of outdoor sports on the day when ninety-nine of a hundred wage-earners find their only chance for leisure.

The 'Yankees of the Orient' have a code of honor without duellos, trade syndicates without 'trusts', giant cities and ghetto suburbs without anarchists. Their labor riots are settled by a dispassionate court of appeal. Their schools, Professor Arnold informs us, are hampered by 'fads' and experiment committees, but not by boards of bigot trustees. In spite of Buddhist conventicles, the emergence of the educated classes from the shadows of religious feudalism is a complete emancipation. The Japanese 'Council of Finance' has adopted American custom-house methods and Belgian systems of graded taxation. There is, indeed, a good deal of eclecticism in the supposed surrender of indigenous institutions; foreign methods have been adopted only on the evidence of their efficiency, and always with a view to making them subservient to national purposes. The key to the distinctive characteristics of the North Mongols can be found in Sir Edwin Randall's definition of 'perseverance combined with shiftiness.' The Asiatic Yankees can turn, dodge and deviate while keeping a pre-determined aim steadily in view, and it is by no means improbable that Mongol influences have impressed similar peculiarities on the character of the northeastern Slavs. Muscovy was a Tartar Khanate for a number of centuries, and Russian diplomats, since the days of Czarina Katherine, have accommodated themselves to emerging circumstances by crawling or strutting, without ever losing sight of the road to Constantinople.

In the shaggy Ainos of Yesso (probably the original home of our 'Shetland' ponies), that perseverance takes the form of mulish stubbornness. They strenuously object to foreign imports and stick to their sheepskin cloaks like Scotch Highlanders to their kilts, but in stress of famine seem now to take an interest in the harpoon-guns of their Russian neighbors, and now and then sell specimens of their poodle-faced youngsters to the agents of a transpacific museum.

Japan still produces athletes, as well as unrivaled acrobats, partly, no doubt, on account of bracing climatic influences, but partly, also, of a vice-resisting worship of physical prowess. About sixty years ago the slums of the large seaport towns were expurgated by a national revolt against the spread of the opium habit, and the consequent reform movement appears to have kept step with the Swedish crusade against the spread of the alcohol curse.

China may be forced into the arena of regeneration, but thus far seems to view the collapse of her ring-wall only as a blessing in a rather effective disguise. The policy of non-intercourse, indeed, had the sanction of a physical necessity in the opinion of as shrewd a statesman as the vizier of the great Kooblai Khan, who conquered rebels from Mantchooria to Siam, but recognized the hopelessness of ordinary measures for protecting the peaceful toilers of the eastern provinces against the predatory hordes of the northwest. A standard army of home-guards, he argued, would have to be composed either of natives who could not fight, or of foreign auxiliaries who might revolt; so, all things considered, it was deemed best to bar a foe that could not be beaten. Strategically, the plan succeeded, stone walls being then so inexpugnable to spear-armed besiegers that the proprietors of a stone-built robber castle could defy the wrath of the public for a series of generations. The Tartar marauders were kept at bay, but so were trading caravans and traveling philosophers; the disadvantages of all obstacles to free competition began to assert themselves. The nation, as it were, sickened in a marasmus of intellectual inbreeding. Protected incompetence propagated its species; monopolies flourished. The survival of the fittest no longer favored the brave; cowards and weaklings could find refuge under the telamonian shield of the big wall.

Within the last hundred years that process of degeneration has been hastened by two incidental afflictions—spring floods and summer droughts. The rapid increase of population has driven home-seekers into the highlands of the far west, and the destruction of land-protecting forests avenged itself in the usual manner. Every heavy snowfall in the mountains became a menace to the settlers of the lowlands; a sudden thaw was always apt to turn brooks into rivers and rivers into raging seas. The summers, at the same time, became warmer and drier. Famines, such as only India had seen before, crowded the cities with refugees. Charitable institutions were managed by agents of a paternal government, and paupers were rarely suffered to perish in wayside ditches, but hundreds of thousands were huddled together in parish suburbs and fed on minimum rations of the cheapest available food.

It was then that the masses were forced to apostatize from the dietetic tenets of Buddhism; abstinence from animal food became impossible; sanitary scruples had to be disregarded; whole settlements of famine victims were compelled to subsist exclusively on offal.

Millions of mechanics had to fight to struggle for existence by reducing their wants. The prices of food had doubled, and in order to pay the cost of one daily meal all luxuries had to be relinquished. Sleep and oblivion of misery became the only alternatives of hopeless toil, and those who could save a few taels yielded to the temptation of supplementing those blessings by means of chemical anodynes. Opium-smoking became a national vice.

The 'opium war' did not rivet the yoke of that curse. It merely clinched the grip of a British trading company. The Chinese government had attempted to cancel their franchise, but only with a view to diverting its profits into the pockets of their own speculators. The total suppression of the traffic would have been not only difficult, but practically impossible. We might as well try to prohibit tobacco in North America.

Yet the results of these cooperating factors of degeneracy have stopped short of the extremes that might have been expected in a land of earth-despisers. Buddhism in its orthodox Chinese form is radically pessimistic. It inculcates a belief in the worthlessness of all terrestrial blessings, and considers life a disease, with no cure but death. And not death by suicide, either; the victims of misery must drain life's cup to the dregs, to cure the very love of existence, and thus prevent the risk of re-birth.

The value of health and wealth is thus depreciated in a manner that might tend to aggravate the recklessness of life-weariness; yet the South Mongol is conservative, even in his vices. An inalienable instinct of thrift makes him shrink from senseless excesses. Tavern brawls are less frequent in Canton than in Edinburgh; the topers of the Flowery Kingdom get less efflorescent than ours, their love-crazed swains less extravagant. Absolute imbecility, as a consequence of poison habits, is a rare phenomenon in Mongoldom; nine out of ten sots remain self-supporting; the heritage of industrial habits is hardly ever lost altogether.

Nor should we forget to distinguish the primitive rustics of the inland provinces from the vice-worn population of the coast plains. Degeneration has not left its marks far above tide-water, and has hardly begun to affect the natives of the highlands, the Yunan hunting tribes, for instance, who, though South Mongols, have renounced the tenets of Buddha and adopted those of militant Mohammed.

Their chieftains welcomed war for its own sake, while the lowland conscripts were in the predicament of desert dwellers, caught in the flood of a sudden cloudburst. Thousands at first succumbed almost without a struggle; the levies drilled to oppose the Japanese invasion stood to be slaughtered like sheep, being, moreover, morally handicapped by a misgiving that the war with the champions of the north had been wantonly provoked.

Discipline has begun to break the spell of that apathy, but the desperate valor that surprised the veterans of the allies at Taku and Yangtsun had a very different significance. Fury supplied the defects of military training; the listless life-renouncers had at last been goaded into a frenzy of nationalistic resentment. It was the same delirium of retributive wrath that rallied a million Frenchmen around the standards of the invaded Republic, and hurled a horde of Russian volunteers into the bullet-storm of Borodino.

'A united nation of fifteen millions is not vincible', wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau, in reply to an appeal of the Polish patriots. South Mongols were supposed to be hardly worth an expedition of Caucasian regulars, but even a world coalition might find use for intrenchments if the vendetta rage of a war for national existence should arouse a land of 385,000,000 inhabitants.

Whether that storm will purify the social atmosphere of the vast empire or subside into the calm of exhaustion, is a different question. It would even be premature to accept the appearance of a few able leaders as a propitious omen of regeneration. In a land ten times the size of France the crisis of a fearful peril will always evolve a Carnot, a Danton and a Dumouriez, if not a storm-compelling Bonaparte.

The days of the West Mongol Empire, the dominion of the turbaned Turk, are undoubtedly numbered, but not as a result of national decrepitude. The successor of Sultan Bajazet will succumb, not as a 'sick man', but as a cripple; an invalid worn out in a fight against hopeless odds. Within the last hundred years the stadtholders of the Prophet had to defend their throne against Russian, Austrian, Greek, French and British attacks, and more than once against a West-European alliance, backed by African and Asiatic insurgents. Within that period 3,000,000 Mongol Mussulmans have perished on the battlefield, a million for every generation of an impoverished and not specially reproductive race. Their empire will collapse, but its defenders are still the hardiest soldiers of Europe, the most unconquerable by hardships, wounds and hunger. The burden-carriers of Constantinople are still the stoutest men of our latter-day world. We might as well impeach the degeneracy of the Circassian highlanders, who resisted the power of the Russian monarchy for sixty-five years, and in their last stronghold stood at bay with drawn hunting knives—after blunting their sabres and exhausting a stock of ammunition purchased by the sacrifice of their herds and harvests. For these heroic mountaineers, too, were Mongols, kinsmen of the martial Turkomans and chivalrous Magyars. The Turanian race—a synonym of the Pan-Mongolians—comprises as many different types as the Aryans and Semites taken together.

In 1863 some twenty clans of the vanquished highlanders left the Caucasus en masse to settle in the mountains of the Turkish province of Adrianople. They will share the fate of their protectors, and may soon be obliged to follow their flight across the Hellespont.

But the final expulsion of the West Mongols will, after all, mean only that the Caucasians have recovered lost ground, and freed at least Europe from an intrusive tribe of their most persistent and most formidable rivals.