In front of Vladivostok’s City Museum, next to a couple of cannons and opposite the Triumphal Arch of Nicholas II, are two stelae with Russian and Chinese inscriptions. Both are much-eroded and the text is illegible in most places. Although they are in a popular tourist spot, few passers-by pay attention to them and, like the guardian lions in front of the former Oriental Institute on Pushkinskaia Street, they are an understated relic of the city’s Chinese links.
I was first told of these stelae by Prof Niccolo Pianciola. Having since come to Vladivostok, I was determined to see them for myself. The stelae were easy enough to locate: They flank the museum’s main entrance, with the Russian text facing outwards. The left-hand stele comprises a single stone slab, while the one on the right (pictured above) is topped by a decorative carving, probably not from the same source.
It was impossible to read the Russian text, especially on the more heavily-weathered left slab. Nevertheless, the right-hand slab provides the first important clue, that the stelae were dedicated to Lieutenant-General M.N. Chichagov, who became Military Governor of Primorskaia oblast’ in 1899.
The Chinese text, however, makes it clear that both slabs were originally one stele, with the right-hand one on top of the left. Armed with what I could read of the text, I found a full version in Travel Notes from 1903 (癸卯旅行記) by Qian-Dan Shili – one of the first travelogues written by a Chinese woman.
When armoured troops are on the rampage, to be able to set one’s heart on prohibiting any killing; when one’s dread might has triumphed, to be able to act with clemency and conciliation, that the people may labour in peace and the city may be pacified – it is not unheard of for such a person to be found in China, but to find him in another country is rare indeed. But now we have him: Great Russia’s governor of the Maritime Province, Lord Chichagov. This great man is an illustrious official of the Russian borderlands, a seasoned minister of the coastal frontier.
In the summer of this year, Boxer bandits suddenly ran riot, provoking the hostility of our neighbour. But this great man gathered the troops under his command, their weapons in gleaming array, and mustered a legion of fierce warriors [pixiu, a mythical, lion-like animal serving as a metaphor for soldiers], his cavalry at full gallop. Already by the beginning of August, they had occupied Ningguta. Then one could see the beacons blazing in the mountains and city, the roads choked with people fleeing with their possessions on their backs; one could hear the crack of guns and the sound of weeping everywhere. It was thought that the enemy had arrived and would kill all regardless of their guilt. Even more since they did not speak the same language, could the Chinese people escape unscathed? How could one dare to hope that they would not engage in wanton slaughter, and that the city might return to its former calm? Yet the great man had no love for killing, but wished to aid the masses.
To begin with his troops were formidable, like roaring thunder; but in the end there were rivers of joy as abundant as rain and dew. Robbers were arrested to secure the people’s livelihoods, and hundreds of enterprises flourished. Granaries were opened to rescue the people from hunger, and ten thousand families tasted this virtue. He would establish clinics to tend to the people’s illnesses; build free schools to foster the people’s education. In bestowing his favours, he showed every consideration; and of those who experienced his kindness, his praise is heard on every tongue. We were fortunate to receive his magnanimity and yield to his brilliance. Just as the hearty old man’s achievements [a metaphor for the Eastern Han general Ma Yuan] are enshrined on Hutou Mountain, the commander in his benevolence could not object to a memorial stele, as on Xianshou [a reference to the memorial to Yang Hu]. Happily, the swords have now been put away and all the world has entered the realm of peace. In the hope that, in future, harmony will be cultivated and our generation will share the blessings of peace. Thus is this account written.
Erected on the orders of Ningguta deputy brigade-general Ne Yin’s office, by subordinate officials and merchants, on an auspicious day in December, Guangxu 26 .
This stele is therefore a paean to Chichagov and his administration of Ningguta during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and subsequent Russian occupation of Manchuria. Ningguta (today Ning’an) was then the headquarters of a Manchu garrison. Confronted by the advancing Russians, who were personally commanded by Chichagov, the garrison commander fled; Ne Yin had the unenviable position of substituting for him, hence the word “deputy” in the stele. Rather than engage in a bloody and possibly unfruitful battle, Ne Yin chose to yield to Chichagov. This seems to have been a good decision: According to N.G. Volodchenko, who also participated in the campaign, Chichagov forbade all looting or destruction of property.
Of particular interest is how the stele describes Chichagov in terms reminiscent of the Chinese hagiographic tradition. Famine relief, suppression of banditry, medical care and free education are all mentioned, although I am not sure if he did engage quite as extensively in welfare projects. Similarly, he is placed in the same category as such historic heroes as Ma Yuan and Yang Hu. Qian-Dan noted that words were not Ne Yin’s strong suit; some other pen must have drafted such an “elegant” memorial.
If the stele was indeed dedicated to Chichagov, how did it end up in front of the museum and in two halves? Volodchenko recalled that stele was originally erected in Ningguta as an expression of gratitude and then transported to Vladivostok “with great solemnity”. Qian-Dan’s account also noted that the stele had been transported to Vladivostok from Ningguta “across a thousand mountains”. Her travelogue placed the stele in the same location that the slabs are today. The tsar, she explained, had disapproved of Chichagov accepting the stele. It was therefore left behind when he changed posts. His successor wished to break up the stele but could not, and so deposited it in front of the museum.
Qian-Dan also remarked that the stele attracted its share of controversy. Although she praised Ne Yin’s loyalty, she wrote that Li Lanzhou (the style name of Li Jiaao), trade representative in Vladivostok, thought that the stele was a “great shame” to the people and had written about it to the Beijing government, although no reply was received. The stelae are in fact absent in this photo taken of the museum that allegedly dates from 1925-1927.
It seems that the stele was broken and removed sometime between 1903 and 1925, but subsequently restored. Was it the result of revolution and civil war, and was the Chinese community involved in its disappearing act? A rummage through the correspondence of the Chinese consulate in Vladivostok may yield the answer but, until then, this is another mystery.