CHAPTER VIII. THE DECLINE OF THE MINGS

The reign of Wanleh covers the long and important epoch from 1573 to 1620, during which period occurred some very remarkable events in the history of the country, including the first movements of the Manchus with a view to the conquest of the empire. The young prince was only six when he was placed on the throne, but he soon showed that he had been well-trained to play the part of ruler. The best indication of the prosperity of the realm is furnished by the revenue, which steadily increased until it reached the great total, excluding the grain receipts, of seventy-five millions of our money. But a large revenue becomes of diminished value unless it is associated with sound finance. The public expenditure showed a steady increase; the emperor and his advisers were incapable of checking the outlay, and extravagance, combined with improvidence, soon depleted the exchequer. Internal troubles occurred to further embarrass the executive, and the resources of the state were severely strained in coping with more than one serious rebellion, among which the most formidable was the mutiny of a mercenary force under the command of a Turk officer named Popai, who imagined that he was unjustly treated, and that the time was favorable to found an administration of his own. His early successes encouraged him to believe that he would succeed in his object; but when he found that all the disposable forces of the empire were sent against him, he abandoned the field, and shut himself up in the fortress at Ninghia, where he hoped to hold out indefinitely. For many months he succeeded in baffling the attacks of Wanleh's general, and the siege might even have had to be raised if the latter had not conceived the idea of diverting the course of the river Hoangho, so that it might bear upon the walls of the fortress. Popai was unable to resist this form of attack, and when the Chinese stormers made their way through the breach thus caused, he attempted to commit suicide by setting fire to his residence. This satisfaction was denied him, for a Chinese officer dragged him from the flames, slew him, and sent his head to the general Li Jusong, who conducted the siege, and of whom we shall hear a great deal more.

The gratification caused by the overthrow of Popai had scarcely abated when the attention of the Chinese government was drawn away from domestic enemies to a foreign assailant who threatened the most serious danger to China. Reference was made in the last chapter to the relations between the Chinese and the Japanese, and to the aggressions of the latter, increased, no doubt, by Chinese chicane and their own naval superiority and confidence. But nothing serious might have come out of these unneighborly relations if they had not furnished an ambitious ruler with the opportunity of embarking on an enterprise which promised to increase his empire and his glory. The old Japanese ruling family was descended, as already described, from a Chinese exile; but the hero of the sixteenth century could claim no relationship with the royal house, and owed none of his success to the accident of a noble birth. Fashiba, called by some English writers Hideyoshi; by the Chinese Pingsiuki; and by the Japanese, on his elevation to the dignity of Tycoon, Taiko Sama, was originally a slave; and it is said that he first attracted attention by refusing to make the prescribed obeisance to one of the daimios or lords. He was on the point of receiving condign punishment, when he pleaded his case with such ingenuity and courage that the daimio not only forgave him his offense, but gave him a post in his service. Having thus obtained honorable employment, Fashiba devoted all his energy and capacity to promoting the interests of his new master, knowing well that his position and opportunities must increase equally with them. In a short time he made his lord the most powerful daimio in the land, and on his death he stepped, naturally enough, into the position and power of his chief. How long he would have maintained himself thus in ordinary times may be matter of opinion, but he resolved to give stability to his position and a greater luster to his name by undertaking an enterprise which should be popular with the people and profitable to the state. The Japanese had only attempted raids on the coast, and they had never thought of establishing themselves on the mainland. But Fashiba proposed the conquest of China, and he hoped to effect his purpose through the instrumentality of Corea. With this view he wrote the king of that country the following letter: "I will assemble a mighty host, and, invading the country of the Great Ming, I will fill with hoar-frost from my sword the whole sky over the 400 provinces. Should I carry out this purpose, I hope that Corea will be my vanguard. Let her not fail to do so, for my friendship to your honorable country depends solely on your conduct when I lead my army against China."