Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XVII - Education and Literary
There is singularly little mention of writing or education in ancient times, and it seems likely that written records were at first confined to castings or engravings upon metal, and carvings upon stone. In the days when the written character was cumbrous, there would be no great encouragement to use it for daily household purposes. It is a striking fact, not only that writings upon soft clay, afterwards baked, were not only non-existent in China, but have never once been mentioned or conceived of as being a possibility. This fact effectually disposes of the allegation that Persian and Babylonian literary civilization made its way to China, for it is unreasonable to suppose that an invention so well suited to the clayey soil (of loess mud with cementing properties) in which the Chinese princes dwelt could have been ignored by them, if ever the slightest inkling of it had been obtained.
In 770 B.C., when the Emperor, having moved his capital to the east, ceded his ancestral lands in the west to Ts’in on condition that Ts’in should recover them permanently from the Tartars, the document of cession was engraved upon a metal vase. Fifteen hundred years before this, the Nine Tripods of the founder of the Hia dynasty, representing tributes of metal brought to the Emperor by outlying tribes, were inscribed with records of the various productions of China: these tripods were ever afterwards regarded as an attribute of imperial authority; and even Ts’u, when it began to presume upon the Chou Emperor’s weakness, put in a claim (probably based upon his ancestors’ own ancient Chinese descent, as explained in Chapter IV.) to possess them.
In distributing the fiefs amongst relatives and friends, the first Chou emperors “composed orders” conferring rights upon their new vassals; but it is not stated what written form these orders took. Written prayers for the recovery of the first Emperor’s health are mentioned, but here again we are ignorant of the material on which the prayers were written by the precentor. Four hundred years later, in 65, when Ts’in had assisted to the throne his neighbour the Marquess of Tsin, the latter gave a promise in writing to Ts’in that he would cede to her all the territory lying to the west of the Yellow River. The next ruler of Tsin, the celebrated wanderer who afterwards became the second Protector, is distinctly stated to have had an adviser who taught him to read; it is added that the same marquess also consulted this adviser about a suitable teacher for his son and heir. About the same time one of the Marquess’s friends, objecting to take office, took to flight: his friends, as a protest, hung up “a writing” at the palace gate. In 584 a Ts’u refugee in Tsin sends a writing to the leading general of Ts’u, threatening to be a thorn in his side. It is presumed that in all these cases the writing was on wood. The text of a declaration of war against Ts’u by Ts’in in 313 B.C., at a time when these two powers had ceased to be allies, and were competing for empire, refers to an agreement made three centuries earlier between the King of Ts’u and the Earl of Ts’in; this declaration was carved upon several stone tablets; but it does not appear upon what material the older agreement was carved. In 538, at a durbar held by Ts’u, Hiang Suh, the learned man of Sung, who has already been mentioned in Chapter XV. as the inventor of Peace Conferences in 546, and as one of the Confucian group of friends, remarked: “What I know of the diplomatic forms to be observed is only obtained from books.” A few years later, when the population of one of the small orthodox Chinese states was moved for political convenience by Ts’u away to another district, they were allowed to take with them “their maps, cadastral survey, and census records.”
There is an interesting statement in the Kwoh Yue, an ancillary history of these times, but touching more upon personal matters, usually considered to have been written by the same man that first expanded Confucius’ annals, to the effect that in 489 B.C. (when Confucius was wandering about on his travels, a disappointed and disgusted man) the King of Wu inflicted a crushing defeat upon Ts’i at a spot not far from the Lu frontier, and that he captured “the national books, 800 leather chariots, and 3000 cuirasses and shields.” If this translation be perfectly accurate, it is interesting as showing that Ts’i did possess Kwoh-shu, or “a State library,” or archives. But unfortunately two other histories mention the capture of a Ts’i general named Kwoh Hia, alias Kwoh Hwei-tsz, so that there seems to be a doubt whether, in transcribing ancient texts, one character (shu) may not have been substituted for the other (hia). Two years later the barbarian king in question entered Lu, and made a treaty with that state upon equal terms.
Shortly after this date, the Chinese adviser who brought about the conquest of Wu by the equally barbarous Yiieh, had occasion to send a “closed letter” to a man living in Ts’u. When we come to later times, subsequent to the death of Confucius, we find written communications more commonly spoken of. Thus, in 313, Ts’i, enraged at the supposed faithlessness of Ts’u, “broke in two the Ts’u tally” and attached herself to Ts’in instead. This can only refer to a wooden “indenture” of which each party preserved a copy, each fitting ’in, “dog’s teeth like,” as the Chinese still say, closely to the other. A few years later we find letters from Ts’i to Ts’u, holding forth the tempting project of a joint attack upon Ts’in; and also a letter from Ts’in to Ts’u, alluding to the escape of a hostage and the cause of a war. In the year 227, when Ts’in was rapidly conquering the whole empire, the northernmost state of Yen (Peking plain), dreading annexation, conceived the plan of assassinating the King of Ts’in; and, in order to give the assassin a plausible ground for gaining admittance to the tyrant’s presence, sent a map of Yen, so that the roads available for troops might be explained to the ambitious conqueror, who would fall into the trap. He barely escaped.
All these matters put together point to the clear conclusion that such states as Ts’in, Tsin, Ts’i, Yen, and Ts’u (none of which belonged, so far as the bulk of their population was concerned, to the purely Chinese group concentrated in the limited area described in the first Chapter) were able to communicate by letter freely with each other: a fortiori, therefore, must the orthodox states, whose civilization they had all borrowed or shared, have been able to communicate with them, and with each other. Besides, there is the question of the innumerable treaties made at the durbars, and evidently equally legible by all the dozen or so of representatives present; and the written prayers, already instanced, which were probably offered to the gods at most sacrifices. A special Chapter will be devoted to treaties.
In the year 523 the following passage occurs, or rather it occurs in one of the expanded Confucian histories having retrospective reference to matters of 523 B.C:–"It is the father’s fault if, at the binding up of the hair (eight years of age), boys do not go to the teacher, though it may be the mother’s fault if, before that age, they do not escape the dangers of fire and water: it is their own fault if, having gone to the teacher, they make no progress: it is their friends’ fault if they make progress but get no repute for it: it is the executive’s fault if they obtain repute but no recommendation to office: it is the prince’s fault if they are recommended for office but not appointed.” Here we have in effect the nucleus at least of the examination system as it was until a year or two ago, together with an inferential statement that education was only meant for the governing classes.
It is rather remarkable that the invention of the “greater seal" character in 827 B.C. practically coincides with the first signs of imperial decadence; this is only another piece of evidence in favour of the proposition that enlightenment and patriarchal rule could not exist comfortably together. When Ts’in conquered the whole of modern China 600 years later, unified weights and measures, the breadth of axles, and written script, and remedied other irregularities that had hitherto prevailed in the rival states, it is evident that the need of a more intelligible script was then found quite as urgent as the need of roads suitable for all carts, and of measures by which those carts could bring definite quantities of metal and grain tribute to the capital. Accordingly the First August Emperor’s prime minister did at once set to work to invent the “lesser seal” character, in which (so late as A.D. 200) the first Chinese dictionary was written; this “lesser seal” is still fairly readable after a little practice, but for daily use it has long been and is impracticable and obsolete. If we reflect how difficult it is for us to decipher the old engrossed charters and written letters of the English kings, we may all the more easily imagine how even a slight change in the form of “letters,” or strokes, will make easy reading of Chinese impossible. It is a mistake to suppose that the Chinese have to “spell their way” laboriously through the written character so familiar to them: it is just as easy to “skim over” a Chinese newspaper in a few minutes as it is to “take in” the leading features of the Times in the same limited time; and volumes of Chinese history or literature in general can be “gutted” quite easily, owing to the facility with which the so-called pictographs, once familiar, lend themselves to “skipping.”
The Bamboo Books, dug up in A.D. 281, the copies of the classics concealed in the walls of Confucius’ house, the copy of Lao-tsz’s philosophical work recorded to have been in the possession of a Chinese empress in 150 B.C.–all these were written in the “greater seal,” and the painstaking industry of Chinese specialists was already necessary when the Christian era began, in order to reduce the ancient characters to more modern forms. Since then the written character has been much clarified and simplified, and it is just as easy to express sentiments in written Chinese as in any other language; but, of course, when totally new ideas are introduced, totally new characters must be invented; and inventions, both of individual characters and of expressions, are going on now.