The first Foreign Tax officer in JiuQuan History

by He Duan Zhong

translate from Chinese to English by Anne Splingaerd-Megowan and Neng Jiang

A treaty signed in 1882 in St. Petersburg between China and Russia stipulated that a customs office was to be established at Jiayuguan. Since Jiayuguan was under Suzhou jurisdiction, the customs yamen was set up just outside the northern city gate of Suzhou.
Viceroy Li Hongzhang, the Qing dynasty's first Foreign Affairs minister, chose a Belgian to fill the post of the first customs inspector of Jiayuguan. This man was Paul Splingaerd, whose Chinese names include "Lin Fuchen", "Lin Balu" and "Lin Bao Luo". Born in Brussels in 1842 to a family who could not afford to provide him with higher education, his nobility of character, intelligence, quick wit and commitment to duty won him the affection and respect of many.
At age 23, in 1865, he arrived in China with four Catholic missionaries. He worked as a handyman at their missionary headquarters at Xiwanzi in Inner Mongolia (presently under Hebei Province jurisdiction). His many duties included the maintenance of the mission, purchasing goods, helping the missionaries set up new mission posts in various parts of Mongolia. His many social contacts with the local community members, in combination with his unusual aptitude for languages, allowed him to speak the language well before the priests did, and within a few months he was translating the priests' sermons for the congregation during services.
In 1868, after 3 years immersion into Chinese lifestyle, he left Xiwanzi for Beijing, and found employment as a constable at the German delegation. Through the delegation he was referred to German geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen when the scientist needed a guide and interpreter for explorations of China at the request of the foreign-run Shanghai Chamber of Commerce. With the principal goal of locating coal deposits, the two traveled through 11 of the then 18 provinces of China. Paul's understanding not just of the language but of Chinese customs and social conventions proved very valuable to Richthofen, who praised Splingaerd in his books and letters and credits his ability to get along with people with the success of his mission. The term "Silk Road" is said to have originated with Richthofen.
At age 30, Paul and Richthofen part company, and Paul establishes a trade business in Zhangjiakou (Kalgan), at the border of China and Inner Mongolia..
Richthofen liked him very much, and recommended him to a European firm [Jardine Matheson & Co.]. In 1872 he went from Shanghai to Zhanjiakou (Kalgan) to purchase wool, camel hair, sheepskin, etc., which he sold to the British firm, Jardine-Matheson, and brought back tea, sugar, flour and cotton fabric to sell in Zhangjiakou. Splingaerd purchased goods in Inner Mongolia, and sold them in cities in northern China for many years. He became very experienced as a trader, and gained prestige for his fairness, and good faith.
In January of 1873, at nearly 31, Splingaerd married a Catholic Chinese girl. They lived together for 33 years, and had 3 sons and 9 daughters. Because business was going well, in 1875 he opened the second fur store in Huhhot. The family moved to Huhhot from Zhangjiakou. With profits dwindling over 7 years, he was ready to close the business.
In 1882 the treaty of St. Petersburg with Russia returned the Ili (Xinjiang) territory to China, and stipulated a Chinese customs office be posted at Jiayuguan (Suzhou). The Foreign Affairs Minister at that time, Mr. Li Hongzhang appointed the Belgian Splingaerd (his Chinese name, Lin Fuchen, means “auxiliary feudal official”) to be the first tax affairs official of Suzhou. The reason Li Hongzhang assigned Splingaerd to the post was because he knew the Belgian had prospected with the German geologist Richthofen. Li had read Richthofen’s articles in "The North China Herald," from which he learned of Splingaerd’s experience and ability. Li was very interested in having Splingaerd explore mineral resource in Gansu as the German geologist did not go there.
Splingaerd lived in Suzhou for 14 years, from 1882 to 1896. His customs yamen was located in the Suzhou Beicheng entrance. As an official of the imperial government, he enjoyed official privileges. Not only was he provided with a spacious and comfortable yamen, he also represented the government in judicial and civic affairs, education, sanitation and public works. He was authorized to judge cases in Suzhou involving ethnic Han, Mongolian and Turkic citizens. Because of the fairness with which he settled cases, and his objectivity, he gained a good reputation among the citizens of Suzhou.
Another significant contribution of Splingaerd was the management of the Smallpox Vaccination clinic at a time that smallpox was devastating China. Splingaerd’s introduction of the western vaccination process earned him high prestige in the city. Splingaerd also ran another health clinic in his yamen, where his wife and daughters helped him treat patients. Those receiving medical care from them ranged from the local officials and their families, soldiers, peasants and merchants.
Another story associated with Splingaerd is that during a heavy storm, the waters of the Bei Da River rose precipitously, and left two people stranded on an island in the river. When Paul was called, he mounted his horse, and rode across to the island twice, returning with one of the men each time. As he approached the bank with the second man, he was cheered by the crowd that had gathered.
Splingaerd is regarded by the citizens of Suzhou as a benevolent, industrious civil representative of the government. During his tenure in that city, the inhabitants bestowed on a tribute parasol laden with silks and satin ribbons on which are inscribed tributes. They also presented him with a cloisonné table stand inscribed with complimentary tributes. His descendants in America treasure the stand and the picture of the family surrounded by tributary banners and the parasol.
With his children being born in China, they speak only Chinese, with little knowledge of their father’s native French or Flemish. His children are simply the pure Suzhou kids, not at all realizing they had roots in a foreign country.
Suzhou is located inside the Great Wall, and is the westernmost large city in Gansu Province, so goods coming in from Xinjiang and Central Asia are subject to taxes to be collected in Suzhou. As Customs inspector, it was Splingaerd’s job to run the Tax Office. The Viceroy in charge of Gansu Province thinks extremely highly of Splingaerd’s sense of duty and the honest and public-spirited manner with which he discharges his official duties. He is able to handle difficult tax issues, and the bureau brings in massive revenue. This is why Mr. Splingaerd held his post of duty in this remote city for such a long time at that time when Chinese officials usually held similar positions for only three to five years.
Liu Hsing-yi wrote in The Republic of China Jiuquan County Annals : “In 1892 the Jiuquan Christian church was founded by the Belgian Lin. This is undoubtedly Splingaerd.”
Because Suzhou is situated at a strategic point on the Silk Road, many European explorers and missionaries passing through were received warmly by the hospitable Splingaerd.
Russian explorers Obroutchev and the Brothers Grzhmailo are among those who stayed at Splingaerd’s home. He took them to visit the drum tower, the school, the prison, as well as new buildings, etc. He naturally entertained his visitors with Chinese banquets, and sometimes took them to visit scenic and historical sites, like the fortress at Jiayuguan.
In the spring of 1894 Li Hongzhang gave Paul an assignment in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, and later to the Kaiping coal mines near Tangshan. At around this period, Belgian king Leopold II (reigned 1865 1909) wanted to open Gansu’s door to Belgian investment. He was unhappy with some of the terms of the contract signed with the Qing Dynasty for construction Jian-Han (Beiing-Hankou) Railway, and counted on Paul’s assistance for re-negotiations after a failed attempt by Belgian engineers. On June 28, 1898, with Paul’s intervention, amendments to the contract were signed.
In 1905, the 63-year-old Splingaerd (斯普林格尔德) was returning from a Boxer-related assignment in Xinjiang, and passed through Lanzhou. There the viceroy of Gansu, Shaanxi and Gansu asked him to revive the textile factory established by General Zuo Zontang in 1878, but closed since 1883. At the same time, Lin Fu-chen proposed to the Shaanxi and Gansu viceroy the establishment of new agricultural and industrial enterprises in the area. These included growing sugar beets, wine grapes, drilling for oil in Yumen, and mining. He wanted to establish a sugar processing plant, soap, oil and candle factories, a winery, manufacturing, and a technical school. The Gansu authorities approved the establishment of the companies and appointed Lin Fu-chen as the director of the projects. His first step was to return to Belgium to hire technicians and buy machinery. At this time he was already suffering from severe diabetes, and after rushing about Belgium for four months, on his way back to Gansu, consulted a doctor in Shanghai, who considered his condition serious enough to require hospitalization. Determined to bring his three Belgian engineers to Gansu, Paul continued on his journey. Unfortunately, he did not make it to Gansu, but died at a Catholic hospital in Xi'an.
Lin Fu-chen's eldest son, Alphonse (Lin Ah De), inherited his father's assignment, and he personally delivered the machinery and the three Belgians to Lanzhou. These men were chemical engineer Geerts (He Erci), textile engineer Muller (Mu Dalai), and mechanical engineer Tysbaert (Dai Shi Bo). Lin Ah De then moved his family from Beijing to Lanzhou, and is joined later by mining engineers, and other experts who use western technology and imported machinery to open copper and gold mines, revive the weaving and dying factory, open soap and candle factories, establish the Gansu official Ironworks, and a technical school that also taught languages. Paul’s sons and daughters, remained in China to participate in activities of the foreign and local communities.
At the beginning of October 2005, three of Lin Fuchen’s great-grandchildren traveled to Lanzhou and Jiuquan. They were the American Anne Megowan, grand-daughter of Paul’s second son Remy, and Lin Ah De’s grandchildren, Angela Elliott of Canada, and Frank Keet of Australia. (Paul’s numerous descendants can also be found in South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.) The purpose of the trip was for Anne to find for archived material about her ancestor, for her book about Lin Fuchen’s life. Municipal leaders received them hospitably, and invited them to the Provincial Archives. There they were presented with documents that mentioned Lin Fuchen and Lin Ah De; in return, Angela and Anne gave the archivists information and pictures relatin about Paul, and picture. When Provincial Bureau Chief Liu gave Anne a copy of a 1905 document that mentioned Lin Ah De and Viceroy Peng Yingjia, with relation to a Belgian copper mine machine contract, Anne excitedly said: "This is excellent material. Thank you very much, I am thrilled to have these precious documents from a hundred years ago.” She added that said that the material would be used in her book. She is currently investigating prospects of developing Lin Fuchen’s life into a film or a television series. His story would let the world know about the friendly and mutually beneficial relationship between the peoples of China and Belgium.

(He Duan Zhong teaches history in Jiuquan, Gansu Province, and was guide to Paul Splingaerd’s great grandchildren when they visited the city in 2005. He is a well-known author of many books about Western China. He was also responsible for the decision to erect a statue to Paul in Jiuquan in 2008.
Anne’s book, The Belgian Mandarin, was published in 2008, and is currently being translated into Chinese. A French version is already available.)

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Christian Goens - La Louvière - Belgium - mai 2009 - decembre 2009 - tous droits réservés