Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

in 1861. After that Chief was captured by an Imperialist colonel in 1863, he was executed by order of the Governor-General of Szechuen, and a portion of his whilom followers are rumoured to have escaped into the province of Kansuh, and to have been amalgamated with the Mohammedan Rebels in the extreme north of China.

CHAPTER XVII.

NIEN-FEI AND MOHAMMEDAN REBELS.

MEANING OF THE NAME NIEN-FEI — ORIGIN OF THESE REBELS

THEIR CHARACTER AND TACTICS—WEAKNESS OF THE CENTRAL GOVERNMENT IN CHINA---POLITICAL PARTIES-SANKOLINSIN AND TSENG KWO-FAN--DEATH OF SAXKOLINSIN-VARYING FORTUNE OF THE NIEN-FEI-LI HUNG-CHANG APPOINTED TO THE COMMAND AGAINST THEM-HIS SUPPRESSION OF THEM_RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN CHINA AND MOHAMMEDANISM-THE MOHAMMEDAN REBELS IN SHENSI --THEIR RETREAT INTO KANSUH-THE PROVINCE OF ILI AND ITS RELATION TO CHINA-THE MIAOUTSZ AND HAKKAS.

DURING the last two years a great deal has been heard about the Nien-fei Rebels, and in some quarters it has been supposed that these constitute a political party in China. Some wiseacres have also told us of Tu-fei, and of other Fei, all which the ingenuous British reader is asked to believe betoken the dissolution of the Chinese Empire. Now the fact is, that words of this kind are used to designate thieves and banditti in general; and to use them with a political signification, or even as denoting separate varieties of marauders, is about as sensible as to talk of England being convulsed by Thieves and Prigs. The term Nien-fei is merely a local name for marauders prevalent among the inhabitants of the southern part of the province Chili, the western part

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

of Shantung, and the northern part of Honan. Through this district flows the great Ho-ang Ho, or Yellow River, which the Chinese, from the earliest historical times, have had great difficulty in keeping within its embankments. In many places the bed of the river is considerably higher than the surrounding country, and it is only by constant and careful labour on the embankments that it is prevented from overflowing these districts. Of course, whenever the works on this river are much neglected, as sometimes happens when the Government is greatly out of funds, the water breaks through, and floods immense tracts of land. Now, one of the results of the Tai-ping Rebellion has been to diminish the funds at the disposal of the Chinese Government to such an extent, that for many years the embankments of the Yellow River have been so neglected, that the people in considerable stretches of country have been deprived of the means of subsistence. Moreover, the march of the Tai-pings towards Peking in 1853 tbrough these very districts caused an amount of destitution from which they have scarcely yet recovered. Hence, in the three provinces just mentioned there has been for some time a good deal of brigandage—the usual Chinese way of levying a benevolent fund for the relief of washed-out agriculturists, who are not very particular when collecting the tax in person. The number of these Nien-fei must not be judged by the extent of country over which they

Mr Gibson, lately H.M. Acting Consul at Tientsin, who came into rather unpleasant contact with them in 1863, estimated their numbers as under 10,000, exclusive of women and children. They move about in large parties, covering a track as large as two or three English parishes. The women and the carts usually follow the public roads, while the men scatter about over

roam.

CHARACTER OF THE NIEN-FEI.

345

the country, but retreat to their waggons when danger appears. They are all pretty well mounted on good ponies, and can move when necessary at the rate of sixty miles a-day. Captain Coney, of H.M. 67th Regiment, who went out against them from Tien-tsin with some disciplined Chinese in 1863, never saw Nien-fei till the Nienfei concentrated and attacked him; and when they found that they were getting the worst of it, they were out of range again in a few minutes. Extremely ill armed, with spears, rusty swords, gingalls, and a few cannon, they are very bad shots. They take good care, however, to send patrols out before them, and are chary of going in directions where they are likely to meet with serious resistance. Almost anything in the way of plunder they can carry or consume is acceptable to them. They loot young women, boys, gold, silver, silk, cotton, rice, wheat, and clothes of all kinds, but seldom wantonly destroy life. The necessity which knows no law before that of self-preservation, has created these robber-bands, but of course they have attracted to them many idle and disreputable fellows, inclined for all kinds of mischief, and such bands necessarily grow by what they feed on. The well-to-do people whose houses they plunder become themselves Nien-fei, in order to avoid starvation; and so a band increases rapidly, until it attains such dimensions that Imperialist troops are directed against it.

The theory of the Chinese Government, that each village, district, department, province, and viceroyship, should harmonise itself or settle its own affairs, is consonant to the genius of the people, and acts admirably in ordinary circumstances, but it is quite inadequate as a basis for preserving order during the great convulsions to which nations are sometimes exposed, and when large districts of country are suffering from the want of means of subsistence. In such circumstances the weakness of the central government, and its dependence upon moral force, are disastrously felt; for on the one hand, it is not till the very existence of the Government is threatened that it will rouse itself to check rebellion effectually; and on the other, sufficient efforts are not made to prevent famine in afflicted districts by throwing into them supplies of food from the rest of the Empire. The state of local disorganisation which thus arises is greatly aggravated by the difficulties of transit in China as regards the conveyance both of troops and of provisions. Occupied by its foreign war and the great Tai-ping Rebellion, the Chinese Government allowed the Nien-fei, or the marauders of the North-eastern provinces of China, to continue their depredations, until they became rather formidable bands, threatening at times to advance on Tientsin, and cut the communication between Peking and the sea. Parties of them also pushed to the south, and appeared in the Yangtsze valley, cooperating with the Tai-pings in the end of 1860, but in the following year were soon disposed of by the Imperialist forces. In the North-east they gave much more trouble, and extended their ravages beyond their usual limits into the provinces of Shantung on the one side, and Hoopeh on the other. In the year 1865 their numbers had increased to a formidable extent, but by that time the Imperial Government was able to deal with them more effectually than it had hitherto done, having been released from the incubus of the Tai-ping insurrection. Operations were directed against them, not only by Prince Sankolinsin from the North, but also by Tseng Kwo-fan from the South.

These two great Chinese officers bad never met, and were very jealous

« PreviousContinue »