The Tzs-Cheng Yuan

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 26, 1910

The fact that the new Chinese Senate, or Tzs-Cheng Yuan, which held its first session so recently as October 3, is already in open conflict with the Council of the Empire over a matter of legislative prerogative gives convincing evidence that Western ideas have at last taken firm root in China and upon fertile soil, and that representative government there is no longer a mere vision of the future, but an imminent reality. It is out of just such conflicts that true democracy emerges. It is by just such denials and invasions of its right to make laws, without first consulting those whose persons and property they affect, that autocracy is crippled and overthrown.

The Senate’s Constitution.

The Tzs-cheng Yuan, at least in intent, is far from a democratic assemblage. Of its 91 members no less than 32 represent the higher nobility and 32 the official oligarchy. Of the remaining 27 half a score are learned pundits from the great schools at Peking, which leaves but 17 actual delegates from the provinces. No doubt this rudimentary upper house was thus constituted with malice aforethought. Prince Ch’un and his advisers wanted to make sure of a chamber thoroughly loyal to the throne and free from all radicalism and demagogy—one that might stand forever between the Council of the Empire and the assaults of the proposed popular chamber, or House of Commons, which is to meet for the first time, according to the recently revised plan, in 1913.

But, as an English critic has pointed out, Ch’un and his crowd, in thus scheming to keep a firm grip upon the Tzs-cheng Yuan, overlooked two facts which in Europe and America have been long familiar. One is the fact that the gift of high office has a tendency to increase every man’s feeling of responsibility, his patriotism, his self-respect, however servile and dishonest he may have been before. The other is the fact that a representative assembly, however discordant its elements and restricted its functions, tends to develop a collective consciousness, a corporate pride, an esprit de corps. Both phenomena have made themselves visible in the Tzs-cheng Yuan. Far from following slavishly a set program, the new senators have proceeded to the free discussion of public affairs. And far from attaching a merely formal value to the rights accorded to them in the imperial edict summoning them to Peking, they have announced a firm determination to secure and enjoy those rights, one and all.

The Council Under Fire.

The present row with the Council of the Empire is over the arrangements for the recent railway loan. Under Section 7 of the edict creating the Tzs-cheng Yuan it was given a voice in the management of the nation’s finances, and though there was no specific statement of the extent of its participation, the inference was plain that it should have more than a merely critical function. Therefore, when the Council concluded the negotiations for the loan without consulting the senators the latter promptly passed a resolution of protest and demanded an explanation of this violation of their constitutional prerogative. The Council failing to explain satisfactorily, the senators ordered that the councilors appear before them in person and make apology and amends.

Thus the matter stands at present with the Council somewhat flustered and alarmed and the Tzs-cheng Yuan with its back up. The important thing is not the immediate cause of the quarrel, for the senators, in all probability, would have approved the railway loan had it come before them, but the fact that they have already come to take their public duties seriously and to insist upon exercising their guaranteed power and autonomy. The dispute, in brief, is purely constitutional, and upon its issue hang things of far-reaching consequence. If the Council prevails, representative government in China will receive a severe setback. But if the senators prevail, as seems likely, representative government will become at once a living reality.

The Provincial Legislatures

The Tzs-cheng Yuan is one of the fruits of the famous imperial edict of October 19, 1907, whereby provincial legislatures were established in each of the 18 provinces of China, and the organization of a bicameral national assembly was promised for the near future. This was during the reign of the late Emperor Kuang-hsu. On August 27, 1908, when the emperor was on his deathbed, the edict of October 19 was formally reaffirmed, and on December 3, 1908, after his death, it was reaffirmed once more, this time in the name of his infant successor, Hsuan-t’ung. During the spring of 1909 elections for the provincial legislatures were held in the 18 provinces, and on October 14 of that year all of them met for business. In addition representative assemblies met in each of the three provinces of Manchuria, which is a crown colony rather than an integral part of the Chinese Empire. Elections were also ordered in Chinese Turkestan, but on account of the difficulties of communication in that vast territory it was impossible to choose delegates in time.

Meanwhile, edicts had been issued promising that the proposed national assembly would be launched within nine years from October 19, 1907. This somewhat lengthy interval was provided for in order to give the people a chance to gain legislative experience from their provincial assemblies. But the latter, on meeting in the fall of 1909, at once showed much capacity for public business that it was decided to proceed with the organization of the national assembly without further delay. Accordingly, on May 9 of the present year, the 91 members of the Tzs-cheng Yuan were nominated, and that body was ordered to meet for organization on October 3. Exactly one month later the infant Hsuan-t’ung, by his guardian and father, Prince Ch’un, issued an edict advancing the date for the election of the lower chamber from 1916 to 1913. In the three years, then, China will be upon a firm constitutional basis, with a parliament modeled upon that of England, and provincial legislatures in each of the home and Manchurian provinces and in the remote colony of Turkestan.

Functions Of The Senate

The Tzs-cheng Yuan, as has been explained, is a House of Lords rather than a Senate, though but 14 of its members—the royal dukes—have a purely hereditary right to seats. The rest of the membership consists of six representatives of the imperial clans, 12 representatives of the nobility, 32 delegates chosen by the higher provincial officials, 17 representatives of the people and 10 eminent scholars. The name Tzs-cheng Yuan, according to those who profess to understand official Chinese, means “court for supplying the government with ideas.”

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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