The Perilous Journey Begins – Chapter 3

The Perilous Journey Begins Chapter 3

Nanjing, China
July 1864

Tseng Longwei—born of peasant farmers in 1819 in the mountainous region of Guangxi in southern China; educated in math, science, English, and the ways of Jesus by Baptist missionaries as a youth; hardened in the coal mines of Guangxi as a young man; swept away by the peasant revolt of Hong Xiuquan against the corrupt Manchu Dynasty in 1850; wounded by sword and arrow during the victorious advance of the Taiping Heavenly Army into the Yangtze Valley through the years 1851 to 1853; elevated to the rank of colonel and granted command of a full regiment during the disastrous and bloody Taiping march on Shanghai in 1861—walked. Tseng Longwei, his mind filled with worry, his stomach twitching from hunger, his joints stiff from too little rest, walked along the wide path atop the ancient and lofty stone walls near the east gate of the city of Nanjing. He slowed his pace at intervals to inspect the remnants of his shattered regiment, depleted to fewer than 300 men by fanatical defense of Nanjing and the privations of a two-month siege. He peered through a slotted opening in the stone battlement to gauge the more than 80,000 troops of the Imperial Army now besieging the city and threatening the very existence of the rebellion. And he tarried near the battlement above the east gate and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword to consider the meaning of the untimely death of Hong Xiuquan—spiritual and moral leader of the Taiping Rebellion—and the presently uncertain future of the Taiping Rebellion and the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace.

Unsettling rumors shrouded Hong’s death and flourished among his men. One said he had heard from a trustworthy source (someone close to one of the concubines) that the Heavenly King had deliberately poisoned himself to avoid the inevitable collapse of Nanjing and consequent shame from loss to the encroaching forces of the contemptible Manchu Dynasty. Another had heard from a general’s assistant, who had overheard the whispers of Hong Xiuquan’s own son in a darkened corridor, that Hong had died of a simple illness—nothing more, nothing less—although the specific symptoms of the allegedly simple illness were not described in any great detail. One of the more believable rumors proposed that the Heavenly King had suffered a horrible death from food poisoning after eating putrid wild vegetables collected from a foul swamp near the wall protecting the city, but no one could remember who had told this story nor had anyone actually witnessed the harvesting of the vegetables. One of Tseng’s own captains—and only two of five remained in the regiment—declared on a daily basis that the Heavenly King had risen to Heaven to directly seek the protection of Nanjing from God himself, and that he would soon return with an army of angels, but only the most fanatical believed this outlandish claim.

Tseng Longwei had decided that insufficient information existed to sustain belief in any specific rumor, but he had not witnessed a public appearance by Heavenly King Hong Xiuquan for at least a month, and leadership of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and its capital, Nanjing, had appeared to transfer to Hong Tiangui Fu, Hong’s eldest son, during this time. But only 16 years beyond the womb and unproven as a leader of any sort, Hong Tiangui Fu did not engender much confidence in Tseng Longwei’s regiment of battle-hardened veterans. Tseng Longwei had significant doubts as well, and with the Emperor’s Imperial Army surrounding the last stronghold of the Taiping Rebellion and choking off any possibility of escape or relief, a creeping splinter of cynicism encroached upon his thoughts and dampened optimism with increasing regularity.

Tseng Longwei found his senior captain—the one who had repeated, to anyone who would listen, the rumor of Hong’s travels to Heaven to muster an army of angels—crouched against the stone parapet directly above the massive arch keystone of the east gate. The captain had nearly finished restringing his favorite Tarter bow, in his hands a more accurate and deadly weapon than the clumsy flintlock muskets preferred by some of the men in the regiment. Tseng Longwei addressed the captain with much respect: “Have you seen any movement, or do the men of the Imperial Army continue to sit in their tents and do nothing?”

The captain tugged at his new bowstring to test its strength and grunted. “I have not observed anything to suggest alarm, but they do not sit in their tents and do nothing. Today they have become herders of cattle instead of warriors, and are moving many cows along the banks of the Yangtze River to the north. You can see the long trail of dust for yourself.”

Tseng Longwei leaned against the rampart to view the Imperial warriors who had become herders of cows. He pressed his hand against one of the gigantic bricks of the serpentine wall and his fingers chafed along the Han characters embossed on the face of the brick. Instead of searching for cows, he studied the writing on the brick. “I have been told, by someone whose name I do not recall, that nearly every brick in this wall is identified with the location and name of its maker.”

The captain snorted his disbelief. “Why would anyone go to such trouble for a brick?”

“I have been told, by the same person whose name still eludes me, that should the brick fail the maker could be found by the Emperor’s civil servants and then tortured or put to death for incompetence.” The dust cloud began veering away from the river and commenced a gentle southerly turn.

The captain continued his air of disbelief. “A steep penalty for the profit of a brick.”

Tseng Longwei attempted a smile, but, when he surveyed the dust cloud, his lips refused to curl. “For one brick, yes. But for millions of bricks, possibly worth the risk.”

“And what is the name of the unfortunate individual who may have profited greatly from the making of millions of bricks or may have been tortured or put to death by the Emperor’s civil servants for the failure of a single brick?” The captain stood and pulled a fresh arrow from its quiver and tested the nock in the new bowstring, aiming defiantly in the direction of the herders of cattle.

Tseng Longwei bent closer to the giant brick and read the Hon characters: “The man who made the brick is one Yuan Zhuang of Shanghai, but he made the brick 500 years ago. I think he has probably outlived the risk of its failure.”

Satisfied with the fit of the nock on the bowstring, the captain relaxed the Tartar bow and returned the arrow to the quiver. “This may be true, but the Emperor’s civil servants could have put him to death in the most horrifying manner imaginable for the failure of another brick we do not know about.”

“What you say is most plausible, or the Emperor’s civil servants may have tortured Yuan Zhuang or put him to death for something unrelated to the manufacture of large bricks. There are many possibilities.” Tseng Longwei removed a small telescope from a pouch he always carried slung over his back. He extended the brass tubes of the scope and examined the dust cloud through the tiny aperture of the eyepiece. He swung the telescope left and right across the lengthening cloud, lingering at intervals to study some aspect of the moving dust more thoughtfully. He focused on the rear of the dust cloud with great curiosity. Satisfied with his observations, he lowered the telescope and collapsed the tubes and slid it into the pouch. “The Imperial Army is driving the cows onward to uncover the many traps we have set in the fields before this gate. There are several wagons loaded with barrels traveling behind the cows. It is likely the barrels are filled with gunpowder.”

The captain shrugged. “Do the Emperor’s cow herders think a wall built from bricks made by the legendary Yuan Zhuang of Shanghai (who may or may not have been tortured or put to death in the most horrifying manner by the Emperor’s civil servants for the failure of one brick), and which has stood for centuries can be breached by a herd of cows and few barrels of gunpowder?”

Tseng Longwei adjusted the brim of his bamboo hat until the shadow fell below his eyes. The cloud of dust had moved close enough to allow discernment of individual cows. “I fear the wagons carry more than a few barrels. I believe there may be hundreds.” He again removed the telescope from its pouch and nervously clicked the tubes to full extension before bringing the aperture to his eye. “The cows at the front of the cloud are approaching the initial array of traps.” A flash of early afternoon sun glinted off the polished scope’s objective lens as he watched the first unfortunate cows break through the thin mat of earth and light supporting structure and tumble into the shallow pit of sharpened bamboo spikes. The following cows and herders and wagons loaded with barrels of gunpowder and Imperial Infantry quickly separated and flowed around the exposed trap. “They have found the first trap at the cost of five or six cows, and maybe a cow herder or two, but it is difficult to see through the dust.” Tseng Longwei swung the front of the telescope across the line of dust and watched as cows tumbled into other traps. This pattern repeated until dozens of traps lay exposed. Tseng Longwei collapsed the telescope and set it on the stone parapet. “The Emperor’s Imperial Army and its militia of cows have breached the defensive line of traps, and are now converging on this gate.”

The captain offered the possibility of some optimism. “I assume at the loss of many soldiers and wagons loaded with barrels filled with gunpowder?”

Tseng Longwei did not look away from the advancing army. “I fear the traps have only killed a few innocent cows and peasants. The wagons and infantry have apparently passed through the field of traps unharmed. Ready the archers and musketeers to defend the gate.”

The captain saluted. “I will give the order. We will not allow the Emperor’s men to breach the gate.”

Colonel Tseng Longwei spoke without sentiment or change of expression. “Although it pains my heart to say so, take particular aim on the innocent cows and peasants. It may be possible to slow the assault by creating a mound of dead animals. Then we can redirect our bows and muskets to the men who crawl over the mound. If we succeed in stopping the wagons, I believe we can survive this assault.”

After the captain had departed to marshal the regiment, Tseng Longwei watched the cows and peasants and infantry and wagons loaded with barrels of gunpowder plod relentlessly toward the east gate. He stood erect and stoic as the archers and musketeers of his regiment, and those of two equally depleted regiments the captain had commandeered, lined the battlements above the gate and awaited the command to fire. He stood without flinching when the captain shouted orders up and down the line and hundreds of arrows and musket balls rained down on the unfortunate cows and peasants, creating the mound of corpses he had hoped for. He watched as the men of the Imperial Army broke through the mound and pushed ten wagons loaded with barrels toward the ancient east gate. He glanced to his left and right without blinking as dozens of his men slumped against the stone parapet or crumpled to the stone path, victims of the Emperor’s own arrows and muskets unleashed from below. He glanced up at the western sun and lost sight of the wagons when the peasants and Imperial Infantry pushed them against the gate.

The captain ran up to Tseng Longwei and spoke with great urgency. “It is my unfortunate duty, Colonel Tseng, to report to you that we have failed to stop the wagons. Do you think the gate will hold?”

Tseng Longwei drew his sword, anointed with the blood of more than 100 adversaries of the glorious Taiping Rebellion, from its leather scabbard and examined the chipped but still elegant blade. “Order the men to move off the wall and fall back, but do not allow them near the gate until after the explosion. We will defend the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace from the ground.”

Tseng Longwei’s shattered regiment, and the two equally-depleted regiments commandeered by his senior captain, raced down wide stone steps from the top of the east gate to the ground before deploying along the ancient stone wall to both sides of the gate. An explosion of nearly 40,000 pounds of gunpowder shook the ground and disrupted the tranquility of the warm afternoon. The concussive wave of the explosion ruptured one of Tseng Longwei’s eardrums. Blood trickling from his damaged ear, he fell against the engraved bricks of the wall and sank to the ground. He watched in puzzled silence as hundreds of men of the Emperor’s Imperial Army stormed through the cleaved gate—followed by several bewildered cows.
♦ ♦ ♦
Tseng Longwei, his ears still buzzing wildly from the explosion at the east gate, buttoned the collar of his recently-procured Imperial Army uniform and watched the new moon float peacefully above the fallen city of Nanjing. He stretched his shoulders and shook each leg in turn to lengthen the fit of jacket and pantaloons, but to no avail. He glanced down at the man stretched out naked and motionless at his feet. He considered the idea of killing another Imperial soldier a few inches taller, but decided against it. Although the dark streets and alleys of the capital of the Heavenly Kingdom of Peace now swarmed with thousands of soldiers of the despised Manchu Dynasty, many who likely wore uniforms that might fit Tseng Longwei perfectly, the frenzy of killing also swarming the ancient streets rendered the search for longer sleeves needlessly dangerous. Tseng Longwei dressed the bleeding corpse in his uniform, and, although it pained him to do it, strapped his beloved sword around the dead man’s waist. He did not much care for the weight and balance of his new sword, but did not imagine he would have a need to use it if he traversed the city, now littered with the mutilated bodies of his comrades, with the appropriate bravado of an officer of the Imperial Army.

During the gory retreat of his men from the east gate to the very walls of the Heavenly King’s palace near the foot of Zhongshan Mountain, Tseng Longwei had fought courageously until the last man of his regiment, the senior captain who still waited for an army of angels, held off a horde of Imperial soldiers long enough to allow his escape down a narrow alley. Just after midnight, as the final defense of the Taiping Palace collapsed and the buildings of the palace were set ablaze, Tseng Longwei had found temporary refuge beneath a pile of executed Taiping men. But now disguised as one of the Emperor’s officers, he strolled jauntily down the center of a large street to the west of the palace, hoping to find escape through one of the gates closer to the Yangtze River. He entered a large, open plaza southwest of the blazing palace grounds, and the sight of three Taiping women standing closely together invited his curiosity. He turned from his course and approached the women. A rectangular slab of wood with three neatly-aligned holes, the two sections of the slab secured together by heavy iron hinges, bars, and clasps, bound the unfortunate women together at the neck and weighed painfully down on their shoulders. The first two women wore the baggy sleeves, pants, and skirts of Taiping peasants. The third stood naked and shivered from exposure to the night air.

Tseng Longwei spoke cautiously to the naked woman, averting his eyes from her nakedness. “Who has taken your clothes, and for what purpose have they done so?”

The woman tried to step back from the Imperial officer who now spoke to her, but the heavy wood slab fixed her in place. “Your own men tore my clothes and violated me. When they had finished their work they did not have the decency to cover my nakedness.”

Tseng Longwei did not deny her accusation. He walked away from the three women. He searched among the hundreds of bodies littering the plaza until he located a dead woman slumped over a stone lion near a well. He judged the corpse about the same height and shape, and then stripped her including cap and shoes. He returned to the three and began dressing the naked woman.

She spoke with utter surprise. “You are a soldier of the Imperial Army. Why are you dressing me?”

Without saying a word, Tseng Longwei pulled the pants and then the skirt up to the woman’s slender waist and tied them off. He slit the front of the jacket open with his new sword and draped it around her shoulders. A platoon of Imperial soldiers stomped arrogantly across the plaza in neat ranks and files. The man leading the platoon glanced at Tseng Longwei briefly, but after noting his lofty rank resumed his march. Although Tseng Longwei had averted his eyes when he first spoke to the woman, he could not avoid noticing her loveliness when he dressed her naked body. “I do not have time to explain. Lift your foot so I can slip the shoe on. Now the other.” Tseng Longwei’s hand trembled when it touched the sole of her foot. He completed his work by setting the cap on the woman’s head and twisting it into place. When he had finished, he abruptly turned to walk across the plaza.

The woman clasped the front of the jacket tightly in the shivering fingers of her calloused hand and waved with the other, the tips of her fingers scraping across the rough underside of the heavy wood planks. “Thank you. Your kindness will be rewarded in heaven.” And then, impulsively, she said, “My name is Li Hua.”

Tseng Longwei trudged away from the three bound women without speaking. He did not imagine the new morning would find them alive. When he reached an intersection of three roads at the far end of the plaza, brightly illuminated by the flames of a burning structure, he veered westerly. He worked his way across the chaotic center of Nanjing and then turned onto a narrow street aligned northwest. Although the key to his escape remained the masquerade of the Imperial uniform complemented by an aggressive display of arrogance, he still preferred the less-travelled roads to minimize the chance of confrontation and subsequent discovery. After following alleyways, small roads, and major streets for half the night, he reached the ancient perimeter wall and one of the western gates, less than a kilometer from the Yangtze River. He noted a subtle glow in the eastern sky and judged that an hour or less remained before sunrise. He shifted his attention to the gate. A dozen men guarded the route of his chosen escape. Without slowing his pace or modifying the swing of his arms—except to pull on the sleeves of his jacket to temporarily increase the length—Tseng Longwei marched defiantly up to the soldier who appeared in charge. He planted his feet widely apart, rested fisted hands below the belt of his sword, mustered his confidence, and spoke with appropriate conceit:

“Move out of my way, underling. I have important business beyond the gate, and I am already late to my task.”

The guard, a sergeant from Beijing, grimaced quizzically. “No one is allowed to pass through this gate tonight, not even someone with important business. I have specific orders from the captain.”

Tseng Longwei did not know the rank of the officer he had killed, but feigned great indignation nonetheless. “Do you not recognize my rank!?”

“Yes, you are a major in the Ever Victorious Imperial Army.”

A stroke of luck. Tseng Longwei had unknowingly slaughtered a senior officer serving with the elite Ever Victorious Army. “Yes. You are very observant. And what will happen when the general finds out that you, a lowly gatekeeper, have prevented one of his senior officers from passing through this gate to deliver a message critical to the final destruction of the despised Taiping Army? Do you imagine his pleasure will be multiplied by your incredible stupidity?”

“What is so important about the message?”

Tseng Longwei sputtered and stomped his foot. “Such incomprehensible insolence! It is no business of yours what the message contains or does not contain and whether it is important or not. I have no time for this lunacy. There is no more to argue. I shall return within the hour with an escort and have you put to death on the spot.”

The sergeant fidgeted. He thought of asking his men for advice, but decided otherwise. “I will yield to your command. But only because you have assured me of the importance of your mission. You may pass through the gate to deliver the message.”

Tseng Longwei shoved the sergeant aside. “When I return from my mission, I may still have you put to death for your insolence.” He passed through the gate and marched beyond the ancient wall of engraved bricks and stone. Still maintaining the dashing stride that had brought him this far, he followed the path west and then north to the Yangtze River.

He walked along the river. When the morning sun broke over the eastern horizon and sparkled on the water, he encountered a fisherman and his family mending nets next to a small but well-maintained junk. After convincing the family that he did not belong to the Imperial Army—a task which required more effort than convincing the sergeant to allow him to walk through the western gate—he boarded the junk with the fisherman, his sun-leathered wife, and three sons. The fisherman and his wife raised the sail on the unstayed mast and pushed the vessel away from the shore. The junk drifted to the center of the river and, as a gust of wind billowed the sail to life, set a course downriver toward Shanghai.

Rich Ritter discovered a passion for writing during his tumultuous high school years. This zeal was consumed by technical writing during his lifelong profession as an architect until the age of 49, when he began work on his first novel. Ritter was born in Iowa, raised in the social cauldron of Southern California, completed his architecture degree (Cal Poly SLO) in Denmark, and is a 40-year Alaska resident.