Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter I - Opening Scenes
The year 842 B.C. may be considered the first accurate date in Chinese history, and in this year the Emperor had to flee from his capital on account of popular dissatisfaction with his tyrannical ways: he betook himself northward to an outlying settlement on the Tartar frontier, and the charge of imperial affairs was taken over by a regency or duumvirate.
At this time the confederation of cultured princes called China– or, to use their own term, the Central Kingdom–was a very different region from the huge mass of territory familiar to us under those names at the present day. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that civilized China, even at that comparatively advanced period, consisted of little more than the modern province of Ho Nan. All outside this flat and comparatively riverless region inhabited by the “orthodox” was more or less barbaric, and such civilization as it possessed was entirely the work of Chinese colonists, adventurers, or grantees of fiefs in partibus infidelium (so to speak). Into matters of still earlier ancient history we may enter more deeply in another Chapter, but for the present we simply take China as it was when definite chronology begins.
The third of the great dynasties which had ruled over this limited China had, in 842 B.C., already been on the imperial throne for practically three hundred years, and, following the custom of its predecessors, it had parcelled out all the land under its sway to vassal princes who were, subject to the general imperial law and custom, or ritual, together with the homage and tribute duty prescribed thereunder, all practically absolute in their own domains. Roughly speaking, those smaller fiefs may be said to have corresponded in size with the walled-city and surrounding district of our own times, so well known under the name of hien. About a dozen of the larger fiefs had been originally granted to the blood relations of the dynastic founder in or after 1122 B.C.; but not exclusively so, for it seems to have been a point of honour, or of religious scruple, not to “cut off the sacrifices" from ruined or disgraced reigning families, unless the attendant circumstances were very gross; and so it came to pass that successive dynasties would strain a point in order to keep up the spiritual memory of decayed or rival houses.
Thus, at the time of which we speak (842 B.C.), about ten of the dozen or so of larger vassal princes were either of the same clan as the Emperor himself, or were descended from remoter branches of that clan before it secured the imperial throne; or, again, were descended from ministers and statesmen who had assisted the founder to obtain empire; whilst the two or three remaining great vassals were lineal representatives of previous dynasties, or of their great ministers, keeping up the honour and the sacrifices of bygone historical personages. As for the minor fiefs, numbering somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred, these play no part in political history, except as this or that one of them may have been thrust prominently forward for a moment as a pawn in the game of ambition played by the greater vassals. Nominally the Emperor was direct suzerain lord of all vassals, great or small; but in practice the greater vassal princes seem to have been what in the Norman feudal system were called “mesne lords"; that is, each one was surrounded by his own group of minor ruling lords, who, in turn, naturally clung for protection to that powerful magnate who was most immediately accessible in case of need; thus vassal rulers might be indefinitely multiplied, and there is some vagueness as to their numbers.
Just as the oldest civilizations of the West concentrated themselves along the banks of the Euphrates and the Nile, so the most ancient Chinese civilization is found concentrated along the south bank of the Yellow River. The configuration of the land as shown on a modern map assists us to understand how the industrious cultivators and weavers, finding the flat and so-called loess territory too confined for their ever-increasing numbers, threw out colonies wherever attraction offered, and wherever the riverine systems gave them easy access; whether by boat and raft; or whether–as seems more probable, owing to the scanty mention of boat-travel–by simply following the low levels sought by the streams, and tilling on their way such pasturages as they found by the river-sides. When it is said that the earliest Chinese we know of clung to the Yellow River bed, it must be remembered that “the River” (as they call it simply) turned sharp to the north at a point in Ho Nan province very far to the west of its present northerly course, near a city marked in the modern maps as Jung-t&h, in lat. 35 degrees N., long, 114 degrees E., or thereabouts; moreover, its course further north lay considerably to the westward of the present Grand Canal, taking possession now of the bed of the Wei River, now of that of the Chang River, according to whether we regard it before or after the year 602 B.C.; but always entering the Gulf near modern Tientsin. Hence we need not be surprised to find that the Conqueror or Assertor of the dynasty had conferred upon a staunch adviser, of alien origin, and upon two of his most trusty relatives, the three distant fiefs which commanded both sides of the Yellow River mouth, at that time near the modern Tientsin. There was no Canal in those days, and the river which runs past Confucius’ birth-place, and now goes towards feeding the Grand Canal, had then a free course south-east towards the lakes in Kiang Su province to the north of Nanking. It will be noticed that quite a network of tributary rivers take their rise in Ho Nan province, and trend in an easterly direction towards the intricate Hwai River system. The River Hwai, which has a great history in the course of Chinese development, was in quite recent times taken possession of by the Yellow River for some years, and since then the Grand Canal and the lakes between them have so impeded its natural course that it may be said to have no natural delta at all; to be dissipated in a dedalus of salt flats, irrigation channels, and marshes: hence it is not so obvious to us now why the whole coast-line was at the period we are now describing, when there was no Grand Canal, quite beyond the reach of Chinese colonization from the Yellow River valley: this was only possible in two directions–firstly to the south, by way of the numerous ramifications of the Han River, which now, as then, joins the Yang-tsz Kiang at Hankow; and secondly to the south- east, by way of the equally numerous ramifications of the Hwai River, which entered the sea in lat. 34o N. No easy emigration to the westward or south-westward was possible in those comparatively roadless days, for not a single river pointed out the obvious way to would-be colonists.
Accustomed as we now are to regard China as one vast homogeneous whole, approachable to us easily from the sea, it is not easy for us to understand the historical lines of expansion without these preliminary explanations. Corea and Japan were totally unknown even by name, and even Liao Tung, or “East of the River Liao," which was then inhabited by Corean tribes, was, if known by tradition at all, certainly only in communication with the remote Chinese colony, or vassal state, in possession of the Peking plain: on the other hand, this vassal state itself (if it had records of its own at all), for the three centuries previous to 842 B.C., had no political relations with the federated Chinese princes, and nothing is known of its internal doings, or of its immediate relations (if any) with Manchus and Coreans. The whole coast-line of Shan Tung was in the hands of various tribes of “Eastern Barbarians.” True, a number of Chinese vassal rulers held petty fiefs to the south and the east of the two highly civilized principalities already described as being in possession of the Lower Yellow River; but the originally orthodox rulers of these petty colonies are distinctly stated to have partly followed barbarian usage, even despite their own imperial clan origin, and to have paid court to these two greater vassals as mesne lords, instead of direct to the Emperor. South of these, again, came the Hwai group of Eastern barbarians in possession of the Lower Hwai valley, and the various quite unknown tribes of Eastern barbarians occupying the marshy salt flats and shore accretions on the Kiang Su coast right down to the River Yang-tsz mouth.
As we shall see, a century or two later than 842 B.C. powerful semi-Chinese states began to assert themselves against the federated orthodox Chinese princes lying to their north; but, when dated history first opens, Central China knew nothing whatever of any part of the vast region lying to the south of the Yang-tsz; nothing whatever of what we now call Yiin Nan and Sz Ch’wan, not to say of the Indian and Tibetan dominions lying beyond them; fortiori nothing of Formosa, Hainan, Cochin-China, Tonquin, Burma, Siam, or the various Hindoo trading colonies advancing from the South Sea Islands northwards along the Indo-Chinese coasts; nothing whatever of Tsaidam, the Tarim Valley, the Desert, the Persian civilization, Turkestan, Kashgaria, Tartary, or Siberia.
It is, and will here be made, quite clear that the whole of the left bank of the Yellow River was in possession of various Turkish and Tartar-Tibetan tribes. The only exception is that the south- west corner of Shan Si province, notably the territory enclosed between the Yellow River and the River F&n (which, running from the north, bisects Shan Si province and enters the Yellow River about lat. 35” 30’ N., long. 110 degrees 30’ E.) was colonized by a branch of the imperial family quite capable of holding its own against the Tartars; in fact, the valley of this river as far north as P’ing-yang Fu had been in semi-mythical times (2300 B.C.) the imperial residence. It will be noticed that the River Wei joins the Yellow River on its right bank, just opposite the point where this latter, flowing from the north, bends eastwards, the Wei itself flowing from the west. This Wei Valley (including the sub- valleys of its north-bank tributaries) was also in 842 B.C. colonized by an ancient Chinese family–not of imperial extraction so far as the reigning house was concerned–which, by adopting Tartar, or perhaps Tartar–Tibetan, manners, had for many generations succeeded in acquiring a predominant influence in that region. Assuming that–which is not at all improbable–the nomad horsemen in unchallenged possession of the whole desert and Tartar expanse had at any time, as a consequence of their raids in directions away from China westward, brought to China any new ideas, new commercial objects, or new religious notions, these novelties must almost necessarily have filtered through this semi- Chinese half-barbarous state in possession of the Wei Valley, or through other of their Tartar kinsmen periodically engaged in raiding the settled Chinese cultivators farther east, along the line of what is now the Great Wall, and the northern parts of Shan Si and Chih Li provinces.
We shall allude in a more convenient place and Chapter to specific traditions touching the supposed journeys about 990 B.C. of a Chinese Emperor to Turkestan; the alleged missions from Tonquin to a still earlier Chinese Emperor or Regent; and the pretended colonization of Corea by an aggrieved Chinese noble-all three events some centuries earlier than the opening period of dated history of which we now specially speak. For the present we ignore them, as, even if true, these events have had, and have now, no specific or definite influence whatever on the question of Chinese political development as expounded here. It seems certain that for many centuries previous to 842 B.C. the ruling and the literary Chinese had known of the existence of at least the Lower Yang-tsz and its three mouths (the Shanghai mouth and the Hangchow mouth have ceased long ago to exist at all): they also seem to have heard in a vague way of “moving sands” beyond the great northerly bend of the Yellow River in Tartarland. It is not even impossible that the persistent traditions of two of their very ancient Emperors having been buried south of the Yang-tsz–one near the modern coast treaty-port of Ningpo, the other near the modern riverine treaty-port of Ch’ang-sha–may be true; for nothing is more likely than that they both met their death whilst exploring the tributaries of the mysterious Yang-tsz Kiang lying to their south; because the father of the adventurous Emperor who is supposed to have explored Tartary in ggo B.C. certainly lost his life in attempting to explore the region of Hankow, as will be explained in due course.
All this, however, is matter of side issue. The main point we wish to insist upon, by way of introduction, in endeavouring to give our readers an intelligible notion of early Chinese development, is that Chinese beginnings were like any other great nation’s beginnings–like, for instance, the Greek beginnings; these were centred at first round an extremely petty area, which, gradually expanding, threw out its tentacles and branches, and led to the final inclusion of the mysterious Danube, the gloomy Russian plain, the Tin Islands, Ultima Thule, and the Atlantic coasts into one fairly harmonious Graeco-Roman civilization. Or it may be compared to the development of the petty Anglo-Saxon settlements and kingdoms and sub-kingdoms, and their gradual political absorption of the surrounding Celts. In any case it may be said that there is nothing startlingly new about it; it followed a normal course.