CHAPTER II. THE FIRST NATIONAL DYNASTY

As the Chinese are still proud to call themselves the sons of Han, it will be understood that the period covered by the Han rulers must be an important epoch in their history, and in more than one respect they were the first national dynasty, When the successors of Tsin Chi Hwangti proved unable to keep the throne, the victorious general who profited by their discomfiture was named Liu Pang. He had been a trusted official of the Emperor Hwangti, but on finding that his descendants could not bear the burden of government, he resolved to take his own measures, and he lost no time in collecting troops and in making a bid for popularity by endeavoring to save all the books that had not been burned. His career bears some resemblance to that of Macbeth, for a soothsayer meeting him on the road predicted, "by the expression of his features, that he was destined to become emperor." He began his struggle for the throne by defeating another general named Pawang, who was also disposed to make a bid for supreme power. After this success Liu Pang was proclaimed emperor as Kao Hwangti, meaning Lofty and August Emperor, which has been shortened into Kaotsou. He named his dynasty the Han, after the small state in which he was born.

Kaotsou began his reign by a public proclamation in favor of peace, and deploring the evils which follow in the train of war. He called upon his subjects to aid his efforts for their welfare by assisting in the execution of many works of public utility, among which roads and bridges occupied the foremost place. He removed his capital from Loyang in Honan to Singanfoo in Shensi, and as Singan was difficult of access in those days, he constructed a great highroad from the center of China to this somewhat remote spot on the western frontier. This road still exists, and has been described by several travelers in our time. It was constructed by the labor of one hundred thousand men through the most difficult country, crossing great mountain chains and broad rivers. The Chinese engineers employed on the making of this road, which has excited the admiration of all who have traversed it, first discovered and carried into execution the suspension bridge, which in Europe is quite a modern invention. One of these "flying bridges," as the Chinese called them, is one hundred and fifty yards across a valley five hundred feet below, and is still in use. At regular intervals along this road Kaotsou constructed rest-houses for travelers, and postal-stations for his couriers. No Chinese ruler has done anything more useful or remarkable than this admirable road from Loyang to Singanfoo. He embellished his new capital with many fine buildings, among which was a large palace, the grandeur of which was intended to correspond with the extent of his power.

The reign of Kaotsou was, however, far from being one of uncheckered prosperity. Among his own subjects his popularity was great because he promoted commerce and improved the administration of justice. He also encouraged literature, and was the first ruler to recognize the claims of Confucius, at whose tomb he performed an elaborate ceremony. He thus acquired a reputation which induced the King of Nanhai - a state composed of the southern provinces of China, with its capital at or near the modern Canton - to tender his allegiance. But he was destined to receive many slights and injuries at the hands of a foreign enemy, who at this time began a course of active aggression that entailed serious consequences for both China and Europe.

Reference has been made to the Hiongnou or Hun tribes, against whom Tsin Hwangti built the Great Wall. In the interval between the death of that ruler and the consolidation of the power of Kaotsou, a remarkable chief named Meha, or Meta, had established his supremacy among the disunited clans of the Mongolian Desert, and had succeeded in combining for purposes of war the whole fighting force of what had been a disjointed and barbarous confederacy. The Chinese rulers had succeeded in keeping back this threatening torrent from overflowing the fertile plains of their country, as much by sowing dissension among these clans and by bribing one chief to fight another, as by superior arms. But Meha's success rendered this system of defense no longer possible, and the desert chieftain, realizing the opportunity of spoil and conquest, determined to make his position secure by invading China. If the enterprise had failed, there would have been an end to the paramounce of Meha, but his rapid success convinced the Huns that their proper and most profitable policy was to carry on implacable war with their weak and wealthy neighbors. Meha's success was so great that in a single campaign he recovered all the districts taken from the Tartars by the general Moungtien. He turned the western angle of the Great Wall, and brought down his frontier to the river Hoangho. His light cavalry raided past the Chinese capital into the province of Szchuen, and returned laden with the spoil of countless cities. These successes were crowned by a signal victory over the emperor in person. Kaotsou was drawn into an ambuscade in which his troops had no chance with their more active adversaries, and, to save himself from capture, Kaotsou had no alternative but to take refuge in the town of Pingching, where he was closely beleaguered. It was impossible to defend the town for any length of time, and the capture of Kaotsou seemed inevitable, when recourse was had to a stratagem. The most beautiful Chinese maiden was sent as a present to propitiate the conqueror, and Meha, either mollified by the compliment, or deeming that nothing was to be gained by driving the Chinese to desperation, acquiesced in a convention which, while it sealed the ignominious defeat of the Chinese, rescued their sovereign from his predicament.