A Yankee Among The War Lords

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The Peking government was declared illegal by the Kuomintang regime re-established by Sun Yat-sen in Canton. He had returned in 1917, summoned the remnant of the original Kuomintang parliament to Canton, and declared it to be the only constitutional government of China. Though his party had been born of Western ideas and offered the only promise, if not the capability, of a new political order for China, it attracted no foreign support. From political inertia and natural preference the powers continued to deal with whatever tuchun group held the titles to office in Peking, because this required no unsettling break in the succession. It is not in the nature of established governments to opt for change, even in their own interest. Sun Yat-sen maintained virtually a separate state dependent for military support on uneasy alliance with southern war lords. For the next decade, one of the most ruinous in China’s history, fragmentation proceeded, puppets and war lords held sway, and the mandate of heaven held itself hidden. …


On September 18 the army transport bearing the Stilwells and the family of another language officer, Lloyd P. Horsfall, rounded the Shantung promontory just at dusk, when the jagged coastline and the brown batwing sails of Chinese junks were outlined against a rose-colored sunset. Two days later the ship came into Chinwangtao, a treaty port at the northern frontier of China proper near where the Great Wall comes down to the sea and the mournful chant of fishermen hauling in their nets rises twice a day. A 250-mile railroad trip southward via Tientsin brought the travellers to their destination, the famed city in the plain, Peking.

Stilwell spent the next ten days looking for a house and exploring one of the great capitals of the world. Here the old mandarin class mingled with venal adventurers, the new China throbbed with plans and hopes of reform, foreigners lived a charmed, hedonistic existence, and the silent Altar of Heaven lay in eternal marble perfection open to the sky. Within moats was the Forbidden City, with enamelled tiled,roofs of imperial yellow and three artificial lakes dotted with islands. On the islands were pagodas and painted pavilions and the palace where the last emperor had been imprisoned by his aunt. Gnarled willows and cypress grew along the shores, and miniature hills with rocks and caves simulated the mountain scenery beloved by Chinese painters.

Upper-class residences were hidden behind walled streets. Each had its courtyard garden with lotus pool and tea house, peonies in flowerpots, honeycombed rocks carved by hundreds of years of trickling water, and a moon window in a wall. Springless covered Peking carts bumped over the cobblestones, camels from the northwest moved with the haughty dignity of the desert, Buddhist priests, in saffron robes stood among the red columns of the Lama temple, dust storms blowing off the plains periodically tortured the capital and its residents. Outside the walls the plain stretched away to the Summer Palace and the Western Hills, where the Monastery of the Azure Cloud and other temples were sheltered by ancient pines. …

Within the Legation Quarter were the foreign residences and hotels, the polo grounds, the stately American Legation at the top of the street, dignified banks and business offices, but none of the roaring commerce of Shanghai. Peking was not like the treaty ports; foreigners here even held intercourse with educated Chinese. Peking was the center of intellectual as well as official life.

Besides diplomatic corps and journalists, educators and missionaries, the capital attracted art collectors and Sinologues, travellers who came through and never left, and retired foreigners who settled here from choice because life was gracious and placid and money went far. With abundant servants, a summer home in the Western Hills, the Golf Club and Race Club for the legation set, picnics in summer and pheasant hunting in fall, Peking for the foreigner represented, in the phrase of a nostalgic resident, “the years that were fat.”

The Stilwells and Horsfalls together took a Chinese-style house outside the Legation Quarter at No. 3 Pei Tsung Pu Hutung near the east wall. Like all Chinese houses it was built on one floor in a series of connected quadrilaterals, each around a courtyard, and had paper in the windows instead of glass. A house with four bedrooms, dining and living rooms, kitchen, library, office, and servants’ quarters cost at this time fifteen American dollars a month with cost of servants in proportion. The usual officer’s family employed five or six servants at a cost of about thirty-five dollars in American money plus “squeeze,” the commission on every transaction that is the heart of Chinese life.

Language officers studied at the North China Union Language School, founded in 1910 originally to teach missionaries and later expanded to include the many foreign advisers in the Chinese service as well as businessmen and any others who wanted to learn. At the end of the first year the student was supposed to know seven hundred characters and converse without pain. He also attended seminars and lectures on Chinese history, religion, economics, and current affairs. The language officer after his first year added study of technical and military terms. Travel, both for his further acquaintance with the country and for fact-finding missions in the service of the military attaché, was part of his duty.