Engels in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

Persia — China

Written: by Engels on May 20, 1857;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

London, May 22, 1857

THE English have just concluded an Asiatic war, and are entering upon another. The resistance offered by the Persians, and that which the Chinese have so far opposed to British invasion, form a contrast worth our attention. In Persia, the European system of military organization has been engrafted upon Asiatic barbarity; in China, the rotting semicivilization of the oldest State in the world meets the Europeans with its own resources. Persia has been signally defeated, while distracted, half-dissolved China has hit upon a system of resistance which, if followed up, will render impossible a repetition of the triumphal marches of the first Anglo-Chinese war.

Persia was in a state similar to that of Turkey during the war of 1828-9 against Russia. English, French, Russian officers had in turns tried their hands at the organization of the Persian army. One system had succeeded another, and each in its turn had been thwarted by thejealousy, the intrigues, the ignorance, the cupidity and corruption of the Orientals whom it was to form into European officers and soldiers. The new regular army had never had an opportunity of trying its organization and strength in the field. Its only exploits had been confined to a few campaigns against Kurds, Turcomans and Afghans, where it served as a sort of nucleus or reserve to the numerous irregular cavalry of Persia. The latter did most of the actual fighting; the regulars had generally but to impose upon the enemy by the demonstrative effect of their seemingly formidable arrays. At last, the war with England broke out.

The English attacked Bushire, and met with a gallant though ineffective resistance. But the men who fought at Bushire were not regulars; they were composed of the irregular levies of the Persian and Arab inhabitants of the coast. The regulars were only concentrating, some sixty miles off, in the hills. At last they advanced. The Anglo-Indian army met them half way; and, though the Persians used their artillery with credit to themselves, and formed their squares on the most approved principles, a single charge of one single Indian cavalry regiment swept the whole Persian army, guards and line, from the field. And to know what these Indian regular cavalry are considered to be worth in their own service, we have only to refer to Capt. Nolan's book on the subject. They are, among Anglo-Indian officers, considered worse than useless, and far inferior to the irregular Anglo-Indian cavalry. Not a single action can Capt. Nolan find where they were creditably engaged. And yet, these were the men, six hundred of whom drove ten thousand Persians before them! Such was the terror spread among the Persian regulars that never since have they made a stand anywhere-the artillery alone excepted. At Moharnmerah, they kept out of harm's way, leaving the artillery to defend the batteries, and retired as soon as these were silenced; and when, on a reconnaissance, the British landed three hundred riflemen and fifty irregular horse, the whole of the Persian host marched off, leaving baggage, stores and guns in the possession of the — victors you cannot call them — the invaders.

All this, however, neither brands the Persians as a nation of cowards, nor condemns the introduction of European tactics among Orientals. The Russo-Turkish wars of 1809-12 and 1828-9 offer plenty of such examples. The principal resistance offered to the Russians was made by the irregular levies both from the fortified towns and from the mountain provinces. The regulars, wherever they showed themselves in the open field, were at once upset by the Russians, and very often ran away at the first shot; while a single company of Arnaut irregulars, in a ravine at Varna, successfully opposed the Russian siege operations for weeks together. Yet, during the late war the Turkish regular army have defeated the Russians in every single engagement from Oltenitza and Citate to Kars and to Ingur.

The fact is that the introduction of European military organization with barbaric nations is far from being completed when the new anny has been subdivided, equipped and drilled after the European fashion. That is merely the first step towards it. Nor will the enactment of some European military code suffice; it will no more ensure European discipline than a European set of drill-regulations will produce, by itself, European tactics and strategy. The main point, and at the same time the main difficulty, is the creation of a body of officers and sergeants, educated on the modern European system, totally freed from the old national prejudices and reminiscences in military matters, and fit to inspire life into the new formation. This requires a long time, and is sure to meet with the most obstinate opposition from Oriental ignorance, impatience, prejudice, and the vicissitudes of fortune and favour inherent to Eastern courts. A Sultan or Shah is but too apt to consider his army equal to anything as soon as the men can defile in parade, wheel, deploy and form column without getting into hopeless disorder. And as to military schools, their fruits are so slow in ripening that under the instabilities of Eastern Governments they can scarcely ever be expected to show any. Even in Turkey, the supply of educated officers is but scanty, and the Turkish army could not have done at all, during the late war, without the great number of renegades and the European officers in its ranks.

The only arm which everywhere forms an exception is the artillery. Here the Orientals are so much at fault and so helpless that they have to leave the whole management to their European instructors. The consequence is that, as in Turkey so in Persia, the artillery was far ahead of the infantry and cavalry.

That under these circumstances the Anglo-Indian army, the oldest of all Eastern armies organized on the European system, the only one that is subject not to an Eastern, but an exclusively European government, and officered almost entirely by Europeans-that this army, supported by a strong reserve of British troops and a powerful navy, should easily disperse the Persian regulars, is but a matter of course. The reverse will do the Persians the more good the more signal it was. They will now see, as the Turks have seen before, that European dress and parade-drill is no talisman in itself, and, maybe, twenty years hence, the Persians will turn out as respectable as the Turks did in their late victories.

The troops which conquered Bushire and Mohammerah will, it is understood, be at once sent to China. There they will find a different enemy. No attempts at European evolutions, but the irregular array of Asiatic masses, will oppose them there. Of these they no doubt will easily dispose; but what if the Chinese wage against them a national war, and if barbarism be unscrupulous enough to use the only weapons which it knows how to wield?

There is evidently a different spirit among the Chinese now to what they showed in the war of 1840 to '42. Then, the people were quiet; they left the Emperor's soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after a defeat with Eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy. But now, at least in the southern provinces, to which the contest has so far been confined, the mass of the people take an active, nay, a fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hong Kong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation. (A few loaves have been sent to Liebig for examination. He found large quantities of arsenic pervading all parts of them, showing that it had already been worked into the dough. The dose, however, was so strong that it must have acted as an emetic, and thereby counteracted the effects of the poison). They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat.

They kidnap and kill every foreigner within their reach. The very coolies emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists, the most submissive and meek of subjects hitherto, conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection, as at Sarawak; or, as at Singapore, are held down by main force and vigilance only. The piratical policy of the British Government has caused this universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners, and marked it as a war of extermination.

What is an army to do against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy's country, how to maintain itself there? Civilizationmongers who throw hot shells on a defenceless city and add rape to murder, may call the system cowardly, barbarous, atrocious; but what matters it to the Chinese if it be only successful? Since the British treat them as barbarians, they cannot deny to them the full benefit of their barbarism. If their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres are what we call cowardly, the civilization-mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare.

In short, instead of moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese, as the chivalrous English press does, we had better recognize that this is a war pro aris et focis, a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war. And in a popular war the means used by the insurgent nation cannot be measured by the commonly recognized rules of regular warfare, nor by any other abstract standard, but by the degree of civilization only attained by that insurgent nation.

The English are this time placed in a difficult position. Thus far, the national Chinese fanaticism seems to extend no farther than over those southern provinces which have not adhered to the great rebellion. @1) Is the war to be confined to these? Then it would certainly lead to no result, no vital point of the empire being menaced. At the same time, it would be a very dangerous war for the English if the fanaticism extends to the people of the interior. Canton may be totally destroyed and the coasts nibbled at in all possible points, but all the forces the British could bring together would not suffice to conquer and hold the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwang-si. What, then, can they do further? The country north of Canton, as far as Shanghai and Nanking, is in the hands of the Chinese insurgents, whom it would be bad policy to offend; and north of Nanking the only point of attack on which might lead to a decisive result is Peking. But where is the army to form a fortified and garrisoned base of operations on the shore, to overcome every obstacle on the road, to leave detachments to secure the communications with the shore, and to appear in anything like formidable strength before the walls of a town the size of London, a hundred miles from its landing place? On the other side, a successful demonstration against the capital would shake to its ground — works the very existence of the Chinese Empire — accelerate the upsetting of the Manchu dynasty and pave the way, not for British, but for Russian progress.

The new Anglo-Chinese war presents so many complications that it is utterly impossible to guess the turn it may take. For some months the want of troops, and for a still longer time the want of decision, will keep the British pretty inactive except, perhaps, on some unimportant point, to which under actual circumstances Canton too may be said to belong.

One thing is certain, that the death-hour of Old China is rapidly drawing nigh. Civil war has already divided the South from the North of the Empire, and the RebelKing seems to be as secure from the Imperialists (if not from the intrigues of his own followers) at Nanking, as the Heavenly Emperor from the rebels at Peking. Canton carries on, so far, a sort of independent war with the English, and all foreigners in general; and while British and French fleets and troops flock to Hong Kong, slowly but steadily the Siberian-line Cossacks advance their stanitzas from the Daurian mountains to the banks of the Amur, and the Russian marines close in by fortifications the splendid harbours of Manchuria. The very fanaticism of the southern Chinese in their struggle against foreigners seems to mark a consciousness of the supreme danger in which Old China is placed; and before many years pass away we shall have to witness the death struggles of the oldest empire in the world, and the opening day of a new era for all Asia.