CHAPTER XXI. THE REGENCY
In all countries governed by an absolute sovereign it is as interesting as it is difficult to obtain some accurate knowledge of the character of the autocrat. A most important change had been effected in the government of China, yet it is impossible to discover what its precise significance was, or to say how far it influenced the fortunes of the country. The empresses had retired into private life, and for a time their regency came to an end. Prince Kung was only the minister of a young prince who had it in his power to guide affairs exactly as he might feel personally disposed. Prince Kung might be either the real governor of the state or only the courtier of his nephew. It depended solely on that prince's character. There were not wanting signs that Tungche had the consciousness, if not the capacity, of supreme power, and that he wished his will to be paramount. Such evidence as was obtainable agreed in stating that he was impatient of restraint, and that the prudent reflections of his uncle were not overmuch to his fancy. On September 10 the young ruler took the world into his confidence by announcing in a Vermilion Edict that he had degraded Prince Kung and his son in their hereditary rank as princes of the empire, for using "language in very many respects unbecoming." Whether Tungche took this very decided step in a moment of pique or because he perceived that there was a plan among his chief relatives to keep him in leading-strings, must remain a matter of opinion. At the least he must have refused to personally retract what he had done, for on the very following day (September 11) a decree appeared from the two empresses reinstating Prince Kung and his son in their hereditary rank and dignity, and thus reasserting the power of the ex-regents.
Not long after this disturbance in the interior of the palace, of which only the ripple reached the surface of publicity, there were rumors that the emperor's health was in a precarious state, and in the month of December it became known that Tungche was seriously ill with an attack of smallpox. The disease seemed to be making satisfactory progress, for the doctors were rewarded; but on December 18 an edict appeared ordering or requesting the empresses dowager to assume the personal charge of the administration. Six days later another edict appeared which strengthened the impression that the emperor was making good progress toward recovery. But appearances were deceptive, for, after several weeks' uncertainty, it became known that the emperor's death was inevitable. On January 12, 1875, Tungche "ascended upon the Dragon, to be a guest on high," without leaving any offspring to succeed him. There were rumors that his illness was only a plausible excuse, and that he was really the victim of foul play; but it is not likely that the truth on that point will ever be revealed. Whether he was the victim of an intrigue similar to that which had marked his accession to power, or whether he only died from the neglect or incompetence of his medical attendants, the consequences were equally favorable to the personal views of the two empresses and Prince Kung. They resumed the exercise of that supreme authority which they had resigned little more than twelve months. The most suspicious circumstance in connection with this event was the treatment of the young Empress Ahluta, who, it was well known, was pregnant at the time of her husband's death. Instead of waiting to decide as to the succession until it was known whether Tungche's posthumous child would prove to be a son or a daughter, the empresses dowager hastened to make another selection and to place the young widow of the deceased sovereign in a state of honorable confinement. Their motive was plain. Had Ahluta's child happened to be a son, he would have been the legal emperor, as well as the heir by direct descent, and she herself could not have been excluded from a prominent share in the government. To the empresses dowager one child on the throne mattered no more than another; but it was a question of the first importance that Ahluta should be set on one side. In such an atmosphere there is often grievous peril to the lives of inconvenient personages. Ahluta sickened and died. Her child was never born. The charitable gave her credit for having refused food through grief for her husband, Tungche. The skeptical listened to the details of her illness with scorn for the vain efforts to obscure the dark deeds of ambition. In their extreme anxiety to realize their own designs, and at the same time not to injure the constitution, the two empresses had been obliged to resort to a plan that could only have been suggested by desperation. For the first time since the Manchu dynasty occupied the throne it was necessary to depart from the due line of succession, and to make the election of the sovereign a matter of individual fancy or favor instead of one of inheritance. The range of choice was limited; for the son of Prince Kung himself, who seemed to enjoy the prior right to the throne, was a young man of sufficient age to govern for himself; and moreover his promotion would mean the compulsory retirement from public life of Prince Kung, for it was not possible in China for a father to serve under his son, until Prince Chun, the father of the present reigning emperor, established quite recently a precedent to the contrary. The name of Prince Kung's son, if mentioned at all, was only mentioned to be dismissed. The choice of the empresses fell upon Tsai Tien, the son of Prince Chun or the Seventh Prince, who on January 13 was proclaimed emperor. As he was of too tender an age to rule for himself, his nomination served the purposes of the two empresses and their ally, Prince Kung, who thus entered upon a second lease of undisputed power.