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China eText - Chapter I - The Early Ages

Chapter I - The Early Ages

The Chinese are unquestionably the oldest nation in the world, and their history goes back to a period to which no prudent historian will attempt to give a precise date. They speak the language and observe the same social and political customs that they did several thousand years before the Christian era, and they are the only living representatives to-day of a people and government which were contemporary with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Jews. So far as our knowledge enables us to speak, the Chinese of the present age are in all essential points identical with those of the time of Confucius, and there is no reason to doubt that before his time the Chinese national character had been thoroughly formed in its present mold. The limits of the empire have varied from time to time under circumstances of triumph or disunion, but the Middle Kingdom, or China Proper, of the eighteen provinces has always possessed more or less of its existing proportions. Another striking and peculiar feature about China is the small amount of influence that the rest of the world has exercised upon it. In fact, it is only during the present century that that influence can be said to have existed at all. Up to that point China had pursued a course of her own, carrying on her own struggles within a definite limit, and completely indifferent to, and ignorant of, the ceaseless competition and contests of mankind outside her orbit, which make up the history of the rest of the Old World. The long struggles for supremacy in Western Asia between Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian, the triumphs of the Greek, followed by the absorption of what remained of the Macedonian conquests in the Empire of Rome, even the appearance of Islam and the Mohammedan conquerors, who changed the face of Southern Asia from the Ganges to the Levant, and long threatened to overrun Europe, had no significance for the people of China, and reacted as little on their destiny as if they had happened in another planet. Whatever advantages the Chinese may have derived from this isolation, it has entailed the penalty that the early history of their country is devoid of interest for the lest of the world, and it is only when the long independent courses of China and Europe are brought into proximity by the Mongol conquests, the efforts of the medieval travelers, the development of commerce, and the wars carried on for the purpose of obtaining a secure position for foreigners in China--four distinct phases covering the last seven centuries--that any confidence can be felt in successfully attracting notice to the affairs of China. Yet, as a curiosity in human existence, the earlier history of that country may justly receive some notice. Even though the details are not recited, the recollection of the antiquity of China's institutions must be ever present with the student, as affording an indispensable clew to the character of the Chinese people and the composition of their government.

The first Chinese are supposed to have been a nomad tribe in the province of Shensi, which lies in the northwest of China, and among them at last appeared a ruler, Fohi, whose name at least has been preserved. His deeds and his person are mythical, but he is credited with having given his country its first regular institutions. One of his successors was Hwangti (which means Heavenly Emperor), who was the first to employ the imperial style of Emperor, the earlier rulers having been content with the inferior title of Wang, or prince. He adopted the convenient decimal division in his administration as well as his coinage. His dominions were divided into ten provinces, each of these into ten departments, these again into ten districts, each of which held ten towns. He regulated the calendar, originating the Chinese cycle of sixty years, and he encouraged commerce. He seems to have been a wise prince and to have been the first of the great emperors. His grandson, who was also emperor, continued his good work and earned the reputation of being "the restorer or even founder of true astronomy."

But the most famous of Hwangti's successors was his great-grandson Yao who is still one of the most revered of all Chinese rulers. He was "diligent, enlightened, polished and prudent," and if his words reflected his actions he must have been most solicitous of the welfare of his people. He is specially remarkable for his anxiety to discover the best man to succeed him in the government, and during the last twenty-eight years of his reign he associated the minister Chun with him for that purpose. On his death he left the crown to him, and Chun, after some hesitation, accepted the charge; but he in turn hastened to secure the co-operation of another minister named Yu in the work of administration, just as he had been associated with Yao. The period covered by the rule of this triumvirate is considered one of the most brilliant and perfect in Chinese history, and it bears a resemblance to the age of the Antonines. These rulers seem to have passed their leisure from practical work in framing moral axioms, and in carrying out a model scheme of government based on the purest ethics. They considered that "a prince intrusted with the charge of a State has a heavy task. The happiness of his subjects absolutely depends upon him. To provide for everything is his duty; his ministers are only put in office to assist him," and also that "a prince who wishes to fulfill his obligations, and to long preserve his people in the ways of peace, ought to watch without ceasing that the laws are observed with exactitude." They were stanch upholders of temperance, and they banished the unlucky discoverer of the fact that an intoxicating drink could be obtained from rice. They also held fast to the theory that all government must be based on the popular will. In fact, the reigns of Yao, Chun and Yu are the ideal period of Chinese history, when all questions were decided by moral right and justice, and even now Chinese philosophers are said to test their maxims of morality by the degree of agreement they may have with the conduct of those rulers.

With them passed away the practice of letting the most capable and experienced minister rule the State. Such an impartial and reasonable mode of selecting the head of a community can never be perpetuated. The rulers themselves may see its advantages and may endeavor as honestly as these three Chinese princes to carry out the arrangement, but the day must come when the family of the able ruler will assert its rights to the succession, and take advantage of its opportunities from its close connection with the government to carry out its ends. The Emperor Yu, true to the practice of his predecessors, nominated the president of the council as his successor, but his son Tiki seized the throne, and became the founder of the first Chinese dynasty, which was called the Hia, from the name of the province first ruled by his father. This event is supposed to have taken place in the year 2197 B.C., and the Hia dynasty, of which there were seventeen emperors, ruled down to the year 1776 B.C. These Hia princes present no features of interest, and the last of them, named Kia, was deposed by one of his principal nobles, Ching Tang, Prince of Chang.

This prince was the founder of the second dynasty, known as Chang, which held possession of the throne for 654 years, or down to 1122 B.C. With the exception of the founder, who seems to have been an able man, this dynasty of twenty-eight emperors did nothing very noteworthy. The public morality deteriorated very much under this family, and it is said that when one of the emperors wanted an honest man as minister he could only find one in the person of a common laborer. At last, in the twelfth century before our era, the enormities of the Chang rulers reached a climax in the person of Chousin, who was deposed by a popular rising headed by Wou Wang, Prince of Chow.

This successful soldier, whose name signifies the Warrior King, founded the third Chinese dynasty of Chow, which governed the empire for the long space of 867 years down to 266 B.C. During that protracted period there were necessarily good and bad emperors, and the Chow dynasty was rendered specially illustrious by the appearance of the great social and religious reformers, Laoutse, Confucius and Mencius, during the existence of its power. The founder of the dynasty instituted the necessary reforms to prove that he was a national benefactor, and one of his successors, known as the Magnificent King, extended the authority of his family over some of the States of Turkestan. But, on the whole, the rulers of the Chow dynasty were not particularly distinguished, and one of them in the eighth century B.C. was weak enough to resign a portion of his sovereign rights to a powerful vassal, Siangkong, the Prince of Tsin, in consideration of his undertaking the defense of the frontier against the Tartars. At this period the authority of the central government passed under a cloud. The emperor's prerogative became the shadow of a name, and the last three centuries of the rule of this family would not call for notice but for the genius of Laoutse and Confucius, who were both great moral teachers and religious reformers.

Laoutse, the founder of Taouism, was the first in point of time, and in some respects he was the greatest of these reformers. He found his countrymen sunk in a low state of moral indifference and religious infidelity which corresponded with the corruption of the times and the disunion in the kingdom. He at once set himself to work with energy and devotion to repair the evils of his day, and to raise before his countrymen a higher ideal of duty. He has been called the Chinese Pythagoras, the most erudite of sinologues have pronounced his text obscure, and the mysterious Taouism which he founded holds the smallest or the least assignable part in what passes for the religion of the Chinese. As a philosopher and minister Laoutse will always attract attention and excite speculation, but as a practical reformer and politician he was far surpassed by his younger and less theoretical contemporary Confucius.

Confucius was an official in the service of one of the great princes who divided the governing power of China among themselves during the whole of the seventh century before our era, which beheld the appearance of both of these religious teachers and leaders. He was a trained administrator with long experience when he urged upon his prince the necessity of reform, and advocated a policy of union throughout the States. His exhortations were in vain, and so far ill-timed that he was obliged to resign the service of one prince after another. In his day the authority of the Chow emperor had been reduced to the lowest point. Each prince was unto himself the supreme authority. Yet one cardinal point of the policy of Confucius was submission to the emperor, as implicit obedience to the head of the State throughout the country as was paid to the father of every Chinese household. Although he failed to find a prince after his own heart, his example and precepts were not thrown away, for in a later generation his reforms were executed, and down to the present day the best points in Chinese government are based on his recommendations. If "no intelligent monarch arose" in his time, the greatest emperors have since sought to conform with his usages and to rule after the ideal of the great philosopher. His name and his teachings were perpetuated by a band of devoted disciples, and the book which contained the moral and philosophical axioms of Confucius passed into the classic literature of the country and stood in the place of a Bible for the Chinese. The list of the great Chinese reformers is completed by the name of Mencius, who, coming two centuries later, carried on with better opportunities the reforming work of Confucius, and left behind him in his Sheking the most popular book of Chinese poetry and a crowning tribute to the great Master.

From teachers we must again pass to the chronicle of kings, although few of the later Chow emperors deserve their names to be rescued from oblivion. One emperor suffered a severe defeat while attempting to establish his authority over the troublesome tribes beyond the frontier; of another it was written that "his good qualities merited a happier day," and the general character of the age may be inferred from its being designated by the native chroniclers "The warlike period." At last, after what seemed an interminable old age, marked by weakness and vice, the Chow dynasty came to an end in the person of Nan Wang, who, although he reigned for nearly sixty years, was deposed in ignominious fashion by one of his great vassals, and reduced to a humble position. His conqueror became the founder of the fourth Chinese dynasty.

During the period of internal strife which marked the last four centuries of the Chow dynasty, one family had steadily waxed stronger and stronger among the princes of China: the princes of Tsin, by a combination of prudence and daring, gradually made themselves supreme among their fellows. It was said of one of them that "like a wolf or a tiger he wished to draw all the other princes into his claws, so that he might devour them." Several of the later Tsin princes, and particularly one named Chow Siang Wang, showed great capacity, and carried out a systematic policy for their own aggrandizement. When Nan Wang was approaching the end of his career, the Tsin princes had obtained everything of the supreme power short of the name and the right to wear the imperial yellow robes. Ching Wang, or, to give him his later name as emperor, Tsin Chi Hwangti, was the reputed great-grandson of Chow Siang Wang, and under him the fame and power of the Tsins reached their culminating point. This prince also proved himself one of the greatest rulers who ever sat on the Dragon throne of China.

The country had been so long distracted by internal strife, and the authority of the emperor had been reduced to such a shadow, that peace was welcomed under any ruler, and the hope was indulged that the Tsin princes, who had succeeded in making themselves the most powerful feudatories of the empire, might be able to restore to the central government something of its ancient power and splendor. Nor was the expectation unreasonable or ungratified. The Tsins had fairly earned by their ability the confidence of the Chinese nation, and their principal representative showed no diminution of energy on attaining the throne, and exhibited in a higher post, and on a wider field, the martial and statesmanlike qualities his ancestors had displayed when building up the fabric of their power as princes of the empire. Their supremacy was not acquiesced in by the other great feudatories without a struggle, and more than one campaign was fought before all rivals were removed from their path, and their authority passed unchallenged as occupants of the Imperial office.

It was in the middle of this final struggle, and when the result might still be held doubtful, that Tsin Chi Hwangti began his eventful reign. When he began to rule he was only thirteen years of age, but he quickly showed that he possessed the instinct of a statesman, and the courage of a born commander of armies. On the one hand he sowed dissension between the most formidable of his opponents, and brought about by a stratagem the disgrace of the ablest general in their service, and on the other he increased his army in numbers and efficiency, until it became unquestionably the most formidable fighting force in China. While he endeavored thus to attain internal peace, he was also studious in providing for the general security of the empire, and with this object he began the construction of a fortified wall across the northern frontier to serve as a defense against the troublesome Hiongnou tribes, who are identified with the Huns of Attila. This wall, which he began in the first years of his reign, was finished before his death, and still exists as the Great Wall of China, which has been considered one of the wonders of the world. He was careful in his many wars with the tribes of Mongolia not to allow himself to be drawn far from his own border, and at the close of a campaign he always withdrew his troops behind the Great Wall. Toward Central Asia he was more enterprising, and one of his best generals, Moungtien, crossed what is now the Gobi Desert, and made Hami the frontier fortress of the empire.

In his civil administration Hwangti was aided by the minister Lisseh, who seems to have been a man of rare ability, and to have entered heartily into all his master's schemes for uniting the empire. While Hwangti sat on the throne with a naked sword in his hand, as the emblem of his authority, dispensing justice, arranging the details of his many campaigns, and superintending the innumerable affairs of his government, his minister was equally active in reorganizing the administration and in supporting his sovereign in his bitter struggle with the literary classes who advocated archaic principles, and whose animosity to the ruler was inflamed by the contempt, not unmixed with ferocity, with which he treated them. The empire was divided into thirty-six provinces, and he impressed upon the governors the importance of improving communications within their jurisdiction. Not content with this general precept, he issued a special decree ordering that "roads shall be made in all directions throughout the empire," and the origin of the main routes in China may be found with as much certainty in his reign as that of the roads of Europe in the days of Imperial Rome. When advised to assign some portion of his power to his relatives and high officials in the provinces he refused to repeat the blunders of his predecessors, and laid down the permanent truth that "good government is impossible under a multiplicity of masters." He centralized the power in his own hands, and he drew up an organization for the civil service of the State which virtually exists at the present day. The two salient features in that organization are the indisputable supremacy of the emperor and the non-employment of the officials in their native provinces, and the experience of two thousand years has proved their practical value.

When he conquered his internal enemies he resolved to complete the pacification of his country by effecting a general disarmament, and he ordered that all weapons should be sent in to his capital at Hienyang. This "skillful disarming of the provinces added daily to the wealth and prosperity of the capital," which he proceeded to embellish. He built one palace within the walls, and the Hall of Audience was ornamented with twelve statues, each of which weighed twelve thousand pounds. But his principal residence named the Palace of Delight, was without the walls, and there he laid out magnificent gardens, and added building to building. In one of the courts of this latter palace, it is said he could have drawn up 10,000 soldiers. This eye to military requirements in even the building of his residence showed the temper of his mind, and, in his efforts to form a regular army, he had recourse to "those classes in the community who were without any fixed profession, and who were possessed of exceptional physical strength." He was thus the earliest possessor in China of what might be called a regular standing army. With this force he succeeded in establishing his power on a firm basis, and he may have hoped also to insure permanence for his dynasty; but, alas! for the fallacy of human expectations, the structure he erected fell with him.

Great as an administrator, and successful as a soldier, Hwangti was unfortunate in one struggle that he provoked. At an early period of his career, when success seemed uncertain, he found that his bitterest opponents were men of letters, and that the literary class as a body was hostile to his interests and person. Instead of ignoring this opposition or seeking to overcome it by the same agency, Hwangti expressed his hatred and contempt, not only of the literary class, but of literature itself, and resorted to extreme measures of coercion. The writers took up the gage of battle thrown down by the emperor, and Hwangti became the object of the wit and abuse of every literate who could use a pencil. His birth was aspersed. It was said that he was not a Tsin at all, that his origin was of the humblest, and that he was a substituted child foisted on the last of the Tsin princes. These personal attacks were accompanied by unfavorable criticism of all his measures, and by censure where he felt that he deserved praise. It would have been more prudent if he had shown greater indifference and patience, for although he had the satisfaction of triumphing by brute force over those who jeered at him, the triumph was accomplished by an act of Vandalism, with which his name will be quite as closely associated in history as any of the wise measures or great works that he carried out. His vanquished opponents left behind them a legacy of hostility and revenge of the whole literary class of China, which has found expression in all the national histories.

The struggle, which had been in progress for some years, reached its culminating point in the year 213 B.C., when a Grand Council of the empire was summoned at Hienyang. At this council were present not only the emperor's chief military and civil officers from the different provinces, but also the large literary class, composed of aspirants to office and the members of the academies and College of Censors. The opposing forces in China were thus drawn up face to face, and it would have been surprising if a collision had not occurred. On the one side were the supporters of the man who had made China again an empire, believers in his person and sharers in his glory; on the other were those who had no admiration for this ruler, who detested his works, proclaimed his successes dangerous innovations, and questioned his right to bear the royal name. The purpose of the emperor may be detected when he called upon speakers in this assembly of his friends and foes to express their opinions of his administration, and when a member of his household rose to extol his work and to declare that he had "surpassed the very greatest of his predecessors." This courtier-like declaration, which would have been excusable even if it had had a less basis of truth than it unquestionably possessed in the case of Hwangti, was received with murmurs and marks of dissent by the literati. One of them rose and denounced the speaker as "a vile flatterer," and proceeded to expatiate on the superior merit of several of the earlier rulers. Not content with this unseasonable eulogy, he advocated the restoration of the empire to its old form of principalities, and the consequent undoing of all that Hwangti had accomplished. Hwangti interrupted this speaker and called upon his favorite minister Lisseh to reply to him and explain his policy. Lisseh began by stating what has often been said since, and in other countries, that "men of letters are, as a rule, very little acquainted with what concerns the government of a country, not that government of pure speculation which is nothing more than a phantom, vanishing the nearer we approached to it, but the practical government which consists in keeping men within the sphere of their proper duties." He then proceeded to denounce the literary class as being hostile to the State, and to recommend the destruction of their works, declaring that "now is the time or never to close the mouths of these secret enemies and to place a curb on their audacity." The emperor at once from his throne ratified the policy and ordered that no time should be lost in executing the necessary measures. All books were proscribed, and orders were issued to burn every work except those relating to medicine, agriculture, and such science as then existed. The destruction of the national literature was carried out with terrible completeness, and such works as were preserved are not free from the suspicion of being garbled or incomplete versions of their original text. The burning of the books was accompanied by the execution of five hundred of the literati, and by the banishment of many thousands. By this sweeping measure, to which no parallel is to be found in the history of other countries, Hwangti silenced during the last few years of his life the criticisms of his chief enemies, but in revenge his memory has had to bear for two thousand years the sully of an inexcusable act of tyranny and narrow-mindedness. The price will be pronounced too heavy for what was a momentary gratification.

The reign of Hwangti was not prolonged many years after the burning of the books. In 210 B.C. he was seized with a serious illness, to which he succumbed, partly because he took no precautions, and partly, no doubt, through the incompetence of his physicians. His funeral was magnificent, and, like the Huns, his grave was dug in the bed of a river, and with him were buried his wives and his treasure. This great ruler left behind him an example of vigor such as is seldom found in the list of Chinese kings of effete physique and apathetic life. He is the only Chinese emperor of whom it is said that his favorite exercise was walking, and his vigor was apparent in every department of State. On one occasion when he placed a large army of, it is said, 600,000 men at the disposal of one of his generals, the commander expressed some fear as to how this huge force was to be fed. Hwangti at once replied, "Leave it to me. I will provide for everything. There shall be want rather in my palace than in your camp." He does not seem to have been a great general himself, but he knew how to select the best commanders, and he was also so quick in discovering the merits of the generals opposed to him, that some of his most notable victories were obtained by his skill in detaching them from their service or by ruining their reputation by some intrigue more astute than honorable. Yet, all deductions made, Tsin Chi Hwangti stands forth as a great ruler and remarkable man.

The Tsin dynasty only survived its founder a few years. Hwangti's son Eulchi became emperor, but he reigned no more than three years. He was foolish enough to get rid of the general Moungtien, who might have been the buttress of his throne; and the minister Lisseh was poisoned, either with or without his connivance. Eulchi himself shared the same fate, and his successor, Ing Wang, reigned only six weeks, committing suicide after losing a battle, and with him the Tsin dynasty came to an end. Its chief, nay its only claim to distinction, arises from its having produced the great ruler Hwangti, and its destiny was Napoleonic in its brilliance and evanescence.

Looking back at the long period which connects the mythical age with what may be considered the distinctly historical epoch of the Tsins, we find that by the close of the third century before the Christian era China possessed settled institutions, the most remarkable portion of its still existing literature, and mighty rulers. It is hardly open to doubt that the Chinese annalist finds in these remote ages as much interest and instruction as we should in the record of more recent times, and proof of this may be discovered in the fact that the history of the first four dynasties, which we must dismiss in these few pages, occupies as much space in the national history as the chronicle of events from Tsin Chi Hwangti to the end of the Ming dynasty in 1644, at which date the official history of China stops, because the history of the Manchu dynasty, which has occupied the throne ever since, will only be given to the world after it has ceased to rule. We must not be surprised at this discursiveness, because the teachings of human experience are as clearly marked in those early times as they have been since, and Chinese historians aim as much at establishing moral and philosophical truths as at giving a complete record of events. The consequences of human folly and incompetence are as patent and conspicuous in those days as they are now. The ruling power is lost by one family and transferred to another because the prince neglects his business, gives himself over to the indulgence of pleasure, or fails to see the signs of the times. Cowardice and corruption receive their due and inevitable punishment. The founders of the dynasties are all brave and successful warriors, who are superior to the cant of a hypercivilized state of society, which covers declining vigor and marks the first phase of effeteness, and who see that as long as there are human passions they may be molded by genius to make the many serve the few and to build up an autocracy. Nor are the lessons to be learned from history applicable only to individuals. The faults of an emperor are felt in every household of the community, and injure the State. Indifference and obtuseness at the capital entailed weakness on the frontier and in the provincial capitals. The barbarians grew defiant and aggressive, and defeated the imperial forces. The provincial governors asserted their independence, and founded ruling families. The empire became attenuated by external attack and internal division. But, to use tho phrase of the Chinese historians, "after long abiding disunion, union revived." The strong and capable man always appears in one form or another, and the Chinese people, impressed with a belief in both the divine mission of their emperor and also in the value of union, welcome with acclaim the advent of the prince who will restore their favorite and ideal system of one-man government. The time is still hidden in a far-distant and undiscoverable future when it will be otherwise, and when the Chinese will be drawn away from their consistent and ancient practice to pursue the ignis fatuus of European politics that seeks to combine human equality with good practical government and national security. The Chinese have another and more attainable ideal, nor is there any likelihood of their changing it. The fall of dynasties may, needs must, continue in the ordinary course of nature, but in China it will not pave the way to a republic. The imperial authority will rise triumphant after every struggle above the storm.