Chapter 8

Since the Secretarial Bureau was set up, many decisions had been made by the secretaries instead of the prime ministers and ministers, who formed the Cabinet, and all the orders or statements must be issued through the Cabinet. The Secretarial Bureau acted only as the emperor’s private consulting office and it was not part of the central government. The emperor gave power to the Secretarial Bureau, not to the Cabinet. But a secretary could be simultaneously a prime minister, a minister or even one ranking lower in the official position than a minister. Now only four secretaries followed the emperor to the Summer Palace.
But the emperor still needed to read all the reports sent in by the courtiers in Peking or the governors in all the provinces, twenty-three in all at that time. He must make decisions and gave written orders when required. As his health deteriorated due to tuberculosis, he coughed blood and easily got tired. He let Concubine Yan read the reports for him, and for minor things even let her make the decisions. Concubine Yan was a woman of talent and ambition, aspiring after power. This supplied her with an excellent opportunity to get familiar with the procedures how to handle the state affairs – a useful practice to prepare her for her political career later.
The ancestors of Qing Dynasty had had instructions written to forbid women to interfere in politics. But Emperor Xianfeng had developed a headache whenever he had to read those sad reports. He had to have someone to help him read them and Concubine Yan seemed to be the most suitable person to do it at the time. When he felt a little better, he would sit up on the bed with stack of pillows behind his back and head, watching Concubine Yan reading. In that peaceful moment, he would munch some pieces of fruit cut for him by Concubine Li. If not for his bad health, if not for the rebellion in the southern provinces, if not for the foreigners who had driven him out of his palace in the capital, he would enjoy life better, with one beauty taking over his tedious daily task of reading the reports and with another beauty serving his food. After a while the emperor began to notice that Concubine Yan showed great interest and zeal in political affairs. She sometimes even suggested some solutions, which might be good, but was not appropriate from a woman. He became aware that she was not a mediocre woman like the queen. He suspected that she might seize power after his death as an empress dowager, because her son would succeed to the throne. (The rule in Qing Dynasty was that when the son became the emperor, the natural mother must be the empress dowager, no matter who she was or what status she was in.) At first he wanted to execute her for the safety of the empire, but he thought of his son, who was only six then. Such a small child should have a mother to look after him. Besides, he knew by then that the younger brother Sushun was also a man of ambition and might do something evil to his son when he died. He himself could control Sushun, but his son was too young to stand up against him if Sushun wanted to usurp the throne. He would let Concubine Yan contend with him and defend their son. Only he should think of a way to restrain Concubine Yan. And he got one now. He was really pleased with himself for coming up with such a good strategy.


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Except for the emperor, the younger brother became the most powerful man in the empire, even before the Second Opium War, because the emperor always listened to him, and what the emperor did was really what he wanted to do. He wanted to establish his “authority”, wanted other courtiers to be afraid of him. By what? By killing.
Sushun handed in a report, saying that Qinying must be executed immediately. In 1856, the joint foreign armies occupied the Bay of Dagukou and commenced to attack Tianjin City. The emperor sent Qinying to negotiate with the foreigners. But he came back to the capital without fulfilling the task, not even asking for the emperor’s approval to return. The emperor was really angry. Prince Yixin, his brother, proposed to hang Qinying next autumn. (Qing Dynasty often executed prisoners in autumn.) But Sushun insisted that Qinying should be executed at once to set an example for other courtiers so that no one dared to do such things later. So the emperor commanded Qinying to die by his own hand. (Generally by hanging or drinking poison, which was deemed better than being beheaded publicly.)
Next was another courtier, Paijun, who had offended Sushun before. In 1858, Paijun was appointed the chief examiner in charge of the government exam. Since Tang Dynasty, every subsequent dynasty had held government exams to select future officials. This was a very important event. It happened that an actor passed the exam, ranking the seventh place. The regulations then inhibited actors to take such exams, because they were considered among the lowest caste in social status. The emperor got furious and ordered Sushun to investigate. Now he got a chance to revenge. The result of the investigation revealed that many officials handling this examination had accepted briberies, though no evidence showed that Paijun did it. But the actor got his wish through a servant to his concubine, who persuaded Paijun to let the actor pass the exam. Therefore, Paijun was guilty of breaking the rules. Everyone of the officials got certain punishment according to the degree of his offense. Paijun, as the head examiner, was executed at the insistence of Sushun. Many such things occurred. So Sushun made a lot of enemies.


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The sons of the emperor were habitually called Brother. If the emperor had quite a few sons, they would be called by seniority as First Brother, Second Brother, etc. If one of them was made the successor to the throne, he would be called Big Brother. It didn’t matter if he was the oldest one or not. Now Emperor Xianfeng had only one son. The son would definitely be the successor. So he was called Big Brother. Six years old was the right age to start learning. If the emperor had more than one son, all the sons would form a class to study. But as now Big Brother had no brothers, he himself was the sole pupil in the class. It was very significant to choose suitable tutors for the future emperor, particularly to choose the head tutor, who would greatly influence the young son. He must be a great scholar with a known great character, and no blemishes whatsoever on it. Generally the head tutor was selected from among Zhuangyuans, the winners of all the former tests. At length, the emperor decided on Li Hongzao, who met all the requirements. When the emperor received Li Hongzao, he assigned him with the honorable task. After he left, the emperor wanted to give him some gifts as the tradition demanded. The emperor took up a brush and spread out a piece of paper. As he was about to write down the items, Sushun, standing at the emperor’s side at that time, dictated, “Two scrolls of silk, ten brushes, . . .” as if he were the emperor and the emperor were his secretary. When the emperor finished writing, Sushun took the list and went to get the things for Head Tutor Li. But as they were now in the Summer Palace, there were not many courtiers who could be chosen as proper tutors. So for now the boy had only one tutor. When he got back in the Forbidden City, he would have more tutors with Tutor Li as the head tutor.
Then the emperor sent for his son and told him to study hard and some such things. The boy of six just nodded and blinked. It seemed as if his father’s instructions were quite beyond his head. When the boy went to see the queen, she told him simply, “Don’t be naughty. Respect and listen to your tutor.” The boy replied, “Okay.” Early next morning, the eunuch, Zhang Wenliang, who was assigned to look after the boy, woke him up and dressed him formally. He took the boy first to see the emperor, then to see the queen, to let them see if everything about the boy was all right. (Everyone, including the emperor and the queen, went to bed early and rose early by habit.) Then Jingshou, the emperor’s brother-in-law, came and took the boy by hand to the study, followed by the eunuch Zhang.
When they arrived, Tutor Li was already there, standing before the door of the study. As they got in, first, Tutor Li kowtowed to the boy, the future emperor. Then Jingshou told the boy to kowtow to the tutor. (It’s the traditional ritual.) But Tutor Li refused to accept it, saying, “A prince can’t kowtow to a courtier.” (The emperor’s son was of course a prince by birth.) At that, Jingshou told the boy to make a bow instead. So the boy bowed to Tutor Li and Tutor Li accepted it. There were two desks in the room, one for the boy and the other for the tutor. Jingshou sat on a chair at one side of the room and several assistant tutors stood in a row at the other side.
Both taking the seat, Tutor Li said to the boy, “I’ve made a schedule for you. If you finish it early, you can leave early. Is that all right to you?” The boy said, “Okay.” Tutor Li said, “Good. You must come early in the morning, beginning with learning how to use a bow and arrows, then for some Mandarin language. Finally we’ll read a book and practice writing Chinese characters.” He turned to the assistant tutors, “Now take him to learn what you’ll teach him.”
The assistant tutors were from the Mandarin Clan. They would teach the boy the archery and the Mandarin language. Though the Mandarin Clan was in a ruling position, they found that if they wanted to rule the big country, the large population of the Han Clan, efficiently, they must learn the Han language—the Chinese language, which was the basic lesson for the children of the Mandarin Clan. The emperor’s brother-in-law was in charge of the boy’s education as a whole and would watch over every step of the progress. So he went with the boy to see how he would practice the bow and arrows, both of which were particularly made for his small size. After the archery lesson, they came back into the study. Today the brother-in-law wanted to teach the boy the Mandarin language himself. Then Tutor Li took over and began the main course. In the old time, they always taught a book by Confucius. They didn’t even care whether the pupils understood or not. They just made the pupils read the text, learn it by heart and recite it next time when they came. They simply thought that the pupils would understand when they grew up.
The books, either hand-copied or printed, were difficult to read, because there were no punctuations. The pupils didn’t know where to stop for a sentence. The tutor must read to them first to show them where to stop. Then he let the pupils read the texts themselves. It got to be a while to mark the full stops of the sentences. So at first the learning process was slow. On the first day, Tutor Li only taught the boy how to read a couple of sentences and how to write a couple of Chinese characters with a brush. The handling of a brush was also not easy. A pupil must sit straight and hold the brush upright at a distance of a foot and a half right before his nose. He must copy the examples on the tablets written by famous ancient calligraphers. If he aimed to be an excellent calligrapher, he must practice the brush moves with a small cup with water in it put between the thumb and the forefinger of the hand holding the brush. When he moved the brush, the water in the small cup was not allowed to spill. It sounded like an acrobatic. But the son of the emperor was just taught the basic skills, given that he wouldn’t be a calligrapher.