Maria's Diary 33
What happened to Yeh after the war
Both Man and Time have power
O'er suffering, dying men;
But Death arrives, and in that hour
The soul is freed again.
Papa’s opposite number in Canton was called Commissioner Yeh. When the second Opium War was finally over, he was captured, and first put on a prison boat before he was sent into India for the rest of his life. I have gone back to look up the newspaper articles about him, as I think it is important to consider what Papa’s time in Hong Kong meant for him.
First of all, I want to say my main correspondent for this is our good friend Challoner Alabaster. He was one of the translators who went to China at the same time as we did, and we saw a lot of him. He volunteered to accompany Yeh in his imprisonment in order to learn more about the Chinese mind. He met us all way back in the mid 1820’s when we were still living in London Fields and his father and family came to see us. And then he became good friends with my brothers at London University. These quotes are taken from the newspapers at the time.
“Yeh has been questioned and he replies with nothing or he does not know. Suddenly his apathy has given way - he converses with fresh interest. He denies all knowledge of poisonings. He tries to explain away his proclaiming for English heads. He expresses contempt for the East India Company and their activities. The change has been brought about by the journal of the British House of Commons.
“With the desperate hope of arousing his fellow prisoner, Mr. Alabaster translated for him some of the phrases from the debate on the Indian Bill.
“He gets up early - he is restless until the Calcutta Englishman arrives. He is miserable if it does not contain its usual modicum of Parliament eloquence. His particular delight is in the speeches which are most vehement against the East India Co. When it came to the bit in the Palmerston’s speech when he said generations have suffered much by ill considered changes, he was very excited and said, GOOD, GOOD, GOOD. When the translation went on, “but they have suffered much more by obstinate resistance to necessary reforms”, he threw himself back and grunted. He was delighted to hear Palmerston was chucked out, and chuckled all through his great body when he heard Lord Derbyshire’s declaration that he hoped for a speedy peace with China.
“ I am afraid I will weary your excellency” Mr. Alabaster said after two hours. Translation was. “No, go on. I understand it all now. It is much better than what I used to get from Hong Kong. I could never understand then.”
“So you did get a translation at Canton?”
“Yes, of course, from your teachers. “
Yeh received the edict which degraded him with great equanimity. Sir John Bowring had forwarded a copy in the original Chinese. “I expected this. May I keep it for some time to consider it?”
“As long as your excellency pleases.”
“Then I will keep it for a week.”
Yeh has been tenderly dealt with.
November 12, 1858 from Times Special.
Yeh’s personal appearance. Very stout but rather tall man 5’11”. Long thin Chinese mustache and beard, receding forehead, very thin covering of hair.
His face is heavy - more chin, more jowl and jaw. Shows his strong will and obstinacy. Nose long and flat. Eyes expressive feature - when he was captured, his eye balls turned with terror and fury. Large protruding mouth, thick lips very black teeth. “It has never been the custom of my family to use tooth brush.”
Not long nails - too busy, hands small and well shaped.
Gives feeling of repulsion. Face of dull heavy stolid impossible cruelly, but not courage. Frightened when he was captured by Captain Kay. On board inflexible, violent.
Early he inquired if he was going to be put to death - “not our custom”, relaxed somewhat. Arrogance never forsook him.
Refused his autograph to Sir John Bowring when he asked for it, “Impossible to write an indifferent sentence in Chinese. “ At first treated Mr. Alabaster with rudeness and contempt and called him a spy.
“Not a spy but a public servant,” he replied, and showed him a copy of the Times.
Lord Elgin, the new Plenipotentiary, took no notice of him except for messages asking after his personal comfort.
When he found out he was not going to be forced into signing a treaty, and he could sit where he wanted and wear what he wanted - no forcing to enter dialogue if he didn’t wish it - he relaxed.
His daily ration - 6 lbs of fresh pork, stock of oranges, full supply of Chinese tobacco, Chinese cook arrived with great stores of Chinese comestibles.
Mr. Alabaster showed him photos of ladies in ballroom dresses. “Yeh was scandalized. “That they should be painted in their bed gowns was atrocious.”
When left alone, he would climb up to the port holes and look at Hong Kong.
He smoked no opium, his ordinary drink was warm tea. He had only one wife who was sent to his native valley. He had a concubine, but no son, so he adopted a nephew aged 24 who is studying at Pekin.
He eats twice a day; 4-5 succulent dishes with rice and drinks.
Devotion - he sits like an idol - legs crossed facing East for 10 minutes, only once a day was sufficient. If praying he turned to west - the direction of Budha. East is the principle of life, west, of death.
He spits, he smokes, blows nose with fingers and eructates. (burps)
Daily ablutions - slightly rubbing face with towel and hot water. Horror of fresh air, never willingly went on deck. He wanted port holes closed and skylights down.
He wears padded stockings, a long blue sleeved jacket, grey pantaloons tied at the ankle and a coat worn for 10 years - stiff with grease. When very hot, takes the coat off, sits in long yellow grass cloth shirt - wet and discoloured, most disgusting.
After six weeks said he wanted a bath - was told there was a very good one on deck but not what he wanted, but small pan of boiling water - afterwards he was still wearing the same smelly clothes.
He had a cook, barber, two servants and a military attendant.
He sleeps in a recess in the Captain's cabin and is in bed at 8 with unbroken slumber.
He has lost face with his countrymen because he didn’t commit harakiri and kill himself before he was captured. He doesn't want to be used as an exhibition to Chinese rabble. Asked if he wanted to go to the races he said, “not a custom in my family.”
Sir John Bowring interviewed him but got very little out of it. Didn’t reciprocate when asked about his age. Sir John asked if he could do anything for him. He said, “Mr. Alabaster would do.” He was cordial to the Admiral. The Bishop of Victoria visited - but Yeh was not told of his title as he had a contempt for the priesthood.
The ship Etna, has steamed out en route to India. Sounds like strains and groans - bad stomach, nothing helps, cabin in awful state for three days. 4th day he had a pipe, had breakfast.
Mr. Alabaster is a unique instance of a youth who has learned to converse very well in Mandarin after two years of study. Yeh talked freely of his uprising, never spared the guilty. No European was ever brought to him. They were buried in Malfacators cemetery outside the Eastern gate. He has a genius for lying.
The Bishop of Victoria sent him a bible and he said he had read it long ago, and it was a good book, but he didn’t want to read it now. Yeh’s father sent Buddist tracts on board for him. He didn’t want to read them either, and put them in a drawer. He continued to eat his rotten oranges.
He never reads, seldom inquires, shows his stock of medication to Mr. Cotton, the ship's surgeon. He wouldn’t approve of the study of anatomy, nor would it be appropriate.
He asks the distance to the place they are going.
When asked about the differences between English and Chinese he answered, “English are ready and able to do anything which is a good quality. The Chinese must have teaching, a precedent which is not a bad quality."
Mr. Alabaster read with him the history of British India. Asked if Yeh would read with him the four sacred books of China - no.
He said, “ The opening of ports in China by English was bad, as it increased competition, disarranged all things.”
He is determined to say nothing that might be remembered against him. He expresses disbelief by a grunt.
He proclaimed there should be a duty on opium. Not so, they showed him a copy of the proclamation.
He is 52 years old, son of a public officer now 80, who was secretary of the Board of War when he was 14, but now retired.
Yeh has four degrees, seven examinations, three on national government and he was second on the list of candidates at imperial exams. They were quizzes only on four sacred books on the first day, five classics on 2nd, and Chinese history on 3rd. The exam was held at Pekin and lasted 9 days. He shows great proficiency in paper writing - as seen by Harry Parkes and Sir John Bowring.
When the ship was going to do exercises with the great guns they woke him and told him there would be noise, 68 lbs guns firing blazing away. Broadsides of the ship were shaking but he went to sleep and stayed asleep. While the men exercised upon deck, Yeh sat in a bamboo chair at sundown, the coolest part of the day with two attendants. 9th day can see Calcutta. 2 pilot brigs came to meet them, first sign of red sands of India.
Next day they steamed up a muddy hooghly, with low green banks.
Major Herbert came on board as he would be in charge of Yeh. He was dressed in the costume of red vested Hindoos. They had three days to disembark.
Before he left the ship, Yeh gave the captain a written certificate of his presence and gratitude for his treatment on board.
We were told the Calcutta people have contempt for him, so he won’t attract much notice.