From Governor in Guangzhou to Prisoner in India, Ye Mingchen was probably the unluckiest official as Governer-General of Guangdong and Guangxi.
A little over two years ago, I began this column with a post on how imperial officials back in the days of the Qing Dynasty wanted to be anywhere other than the Pearl River Delta. It was an unlucky posting for some of the emperor’s brightest stars. It only fits that I end this column with the story of the unluckiest official of them all. Ye Mingchen began the year 1858 as the Governor-General of Guangdong and Guangxi. He finished that year as a prisoner being shipped off by British forces to Calcutta. It was an ignominious end to one of the Delta’s staunchest defenders.
After a brief sojourn in Yunnan and an even shorter time at a post out in Gansu, Ye Mingchen arrived in Guangdong in 1847, aged 40, serving first as finance commissioner and then governor of the province beginning a year later. It was a tricky time in Guangdong. Hong Xiuquan, the self-styled younger brother of Jesus Christ, and his band of Taiping rebels, who would within a few years challenge the dynasty in a bloody Civil War that would kill millions, were beginning their crusades against Confucian temples and state offices. Other rebellious groups–triads, discontented hill folk, and gangs of maritime pirates–were stout tests for the recently installed governor.
In China today, and especially in Guangdong, Ye is celebrated for his resolute defiance against the foreign powers.
Ye’s greatest challenge would come from across the ocean. Guangdong in Ye’s time was still feeling the effects of the Opium War of 1840-1842. The former governor-general Lin Zexu had at first been praised by the court for his stern enforcement of the emperor’s ban on opium shipments only to have the emperor turn around and exile him for having provoked the British into battle. The war ended with a series of humiliating treaties which opened new ports to trade and insisted that foreigners–long restricted to a narrow bank outside the city gates–had the right to enter the provincial capital at Guangzhou.
Ye was aware of the fate of Lin Zexu, but he was unwilling to give the foreigners anything he didn’t absolutely have to. Treaties or no treaties, Ye set about preserving order in the Pearl River Delta. Ye’s role as governor-general of Guangdong and Guangxi also came with the title of Imperial Commissioner of Trade, which meant that part of his job–the part he liked the least–was listening to foreign representatives as they complained about expanding on the treaty rights granted to them after the war.
For their part, the foreign powers found Ye to be the very epitome of a Qing official: stubborn, intransigent, and evasive. British Consul Harry Parkes, still in his twenties, particularly loathed Ye. When in 1858, Ye’s men seized a vessel, the Arrow, off the coast of Guangzhou, Parkes accused Ye of violating British sovereignty. The resulting war went badly for Ye and for the Qing Empire. In 1860, British and French troops stormed the capital at Peking, burning down the emperor’s lavish imperial gardens. Ye’s government office in Guangzhou was ransacked and destroyed when the British finally took Guangzhou by force.
(The French would a few years later build a cathedral on the ruins of Ye’s office. That cathedral stands to this day.)
As British troops poured through the city gates, Harry Parkes led a squadron who went in search of Ye. They found him, struggling to escape over the wall of his courtyard, a pitiful sight given that Ye was no longer a young man and had put on a great deal of weight during his time in Guangdong.
Internationally, Ye had become something of an unwilling celebrity. As the British press tried to drum up support for Parke’s “Arrow War,” they portrayed Ye as the ultimate Chinese devil.
Ye’s story ends with the once mighty governor-general being hauled off to a villa on “Captives Row” in Calcutta, where his closest neighbors included the King of Oudh and Nawab Wajid Ali-Shah. He was not mistreated on his journey to India, although he suffered from extreme seasickness. To ease the transition from official to prisoner, Ye took his assistant, two servants, a cook, and even a barber with him to India. But Ye never adjusted to life in Calcutta and died a year later in 1859.
In China today, and especially in Guangdong, Ye is celebrated for his resolute defiance against the foreign powers, to the point where his principles led him into a head-on collision with the British that Ye could not possibly win. It was a sad end to perhaps the Delta’s unluckiest governor.
In closing, I’d like to add a personal note. It’s been a great privilege to share these stories from Way Back When with you for the last two years. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed researching and writing them, but it’s time to let other writers tell their stories. While this is my last regular contribution to the Way Back When column, I’ll still be contributing to HERE! Dongguan and am already looking forward to my next trip through the delta. Keep exploring the past; it’s closer than you think.