Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XIX - Confucius and Literature
Let us return for a moment to the history of China’s development. Confucius was born in the autumn of 551, B.C., and he died in 479. If we survey the condition of the empire during these seventy years, we may begin to understand better the secret of his teachings, and of his influence in later times. When he was a boy of seven or eight years, the presence in Lu of Ki-chah, the learned and virtuous brother of the barbarian King of Wu, must have opened his eyes widely to the ominous rise, of a democratic and mixed China. Lu, like Tsin, was now beginning to suffer from the “powerful family” plague; in other words, the story of King John and his barons was being rehearsed in China. Tsin and Ts’u had patched up ancient enmities at the Peace Conference; Tsin during the next twenty years administered snub after snub to the obsequious ruler of Lu, who was always turned back at the Yellow River whenever he started west to pay his respects. Lu, on the other hand, declined to attend the Ts’u durbar of 538, held by Ts’u alone only after the approval of Tsin had been obtained. In 522 the philosopher Yen-tsz, of Ts’i, accompanied his own marquess to Lu in order to study the rites there: this fact alone proves that Ts’i, though orthodox and advanced, had not the same lofty spiritual status that was the pride of Lu. In 517 the Marquess of Lu was driven from his throne, and Ts’i took the opportunity to invade Lu under pretext of assisting him; however, the fugitive preferred Tsin as a refuge, and for many years was quartered at a town near the common frontier. But the powerful families (all branches of the same family as the duke himself) proved too strong for him; they bribed the Tsin statesmen, and the Lu ruler died in exile in the year 510. In the year 500 Confucius became chief counsellor to the new marquess, and by his energetic action drove into exile in Tsin a very formidable agitator belonging to one of the powerful family cliques. In 488 the King of Wu, after marching on Ts’i, summoned Lu to furnish “one hundred sets of victims” as a mark of compliancy; the king and the marquess had an interview; the next year the king came in person, and a treaty was made with him under the very walls of K’ueh-fu, the Lu capital (this shameful fact is concealed by Confucius, who simply says: “Wu made war on us”). In 486 Lu somewhat basely joined Wu in an attack upon orthodox Ts’i. In 484-483 Confucius, who had meanwhile been travelling abroad for some years in disgust, was urgently sent for; four years later he died, a broken and disappointed man.
Now, it is one thing to be told in general terms that Confucius represented conservative forces, disapproved of the quarrelsome wars of his day, and wished in theory to restore the good old “rules of propriety"; but quite another thing to understand in a human, matter-of-fact sort of way what he really did in definite sets of circumstances, and what practical objects he had in view. The average European reader, not having specific facts and places under his eye, can only conceive from this rough generalization, and from the usual anecdotal tit-bits told about him, that Confucius was an exceedingly timid, prudent, benevolent, and obsequious old gentleman who, as indeed his rival Lao-tsz hinted to him, was something like a superior dancing-master or court usher, But when the disjointed apothegms of his “Analects” (put together, not by himself, but by his disciples) are placed alongside the real human actions baldly touched upon in his own “Springs and Autumns,” and as expanded by his three commentators, one of them, at least, being a contemporary of his own, things assume quite a different complexion, Moreover, this last-mentioned or earliest in date of the expanders (see p. 91) also composed a chatty, anecdotal, and intimately descriptive account of Lu, Ts’i, Tsin, CHENG, Ts’u, Wu, and Yiieh (of no other states except quite incidentally); and we have also the Bamboo Books dug up in 281 A.D., being the Annals of Tsin and a sketch of general history down to 299 B.C. Finally, the “father of history,” in about go B.C., published, or issued ready for publication, a resume of all the above (except what was in the Bamboo Books, which were then, of course, unknown to him); so that we are able to compare dates, errors, misprints, concealments, and so on; not to mention the advantage of reading all that the successive generations of commentators have had to say.
The matter may be compendiously stated as follows. Without attempting to go backward beyond the conquest by the Chou principality and the founding of a Chou dynasty in 122 B.C. (though there is really no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of the vague “history” of patriarchal times, at least so far back beyond that as to cover the 1000 years or more of the two previous dynasties’ reigns), we may state that, whilst in general the principles and ritual of the two previous dynasties were maintained, a good many new ideas were introduced at this Chou conquest, and amongst other things, a compendious and all- pervading practical ritual government, which not only marked off the distinctions between classes, and laid down ceremonious rules for ancestral sacrifice, social deportment, family duties, cultivation, finance, punishment, and so on, but endeavoured to bring all human actions whatsoever into practical harmony with supposed natural laws; that is to say, to make them as regular, as comprehensible, as beneficent, and as workable, as the perfectly manifest but totally unexplained celestial movements were; as were the rotation of seasons, the balancing of forces, the growth and waning of matter, male and female reproduction, light and darkness; and, in short, to make human actions as harmonious as were all the forces of nature, which never fail or go wrong except under (presumed) provocation, human or other. The Emperor, as Vicar of God, was the ultimate judge of what was tao, or the “right way.”
Now this simple faith, when the whole of the Chinese Empire consisted of about 50,000 square miles of level plain, inhabited probably by not more than 2,000,000 or 3,000,000 homogeneous people, was admirably suited for the patriarchal rule of a central chief (the King or Emperor), receiving simple tribute of metals, hemp, cattle, sacrificial supplies, etc.; entertaining his relatives and princely friends when they came to do annual homage and to share in periodical sacrifice; declaring the penal laws (there were no other laws) for all his vassals; compassionating and conciliating the border tribes living beyond those vassals. But this peaceful bucolic life, in the course of time and nature, naturally produced a gradual increase in the population; the Chinese cultivators spread themselves over the expanse of loess formed by the Yellow River and Desert deposits and by aeons of decayed vegetation in the low-lying lands; no other nation or tribe within their ken having the faintest notion of written character, there was consequently no political cohesion of any sort amongst the non-Chinese tribes; the position was akin to that of the European powers grafting themselves for centuries upon the still primitive African tribes, comparatively few of which have seen fit to turn the art of writing to the practical purpose of keeping records and cementing their own power. Wherever a Chinese adventurer went, there he became founder of a state; to this day we see enterprising Chinamen founding petty “dynasties" in the Siamese Malay Peninsula; or, for instance, an Englishman like Rajah Brooke founding a private dynasty in Borneo.
Some of these frontier tribes, notably the Tartars, were of altogether too tough a material to be assimilated. They even endeavoured to check the Chinese advance beyond the Yellow River, and carried fire and sword themselves into the federal conclave. Where resistance was nil or slight, as, for instance, among some of the barbarians to the east, there the Chinese adventurers, either adopting native ways, or persuading the autochthones to adopt their ways, by levelling up or levelling down, developed strong cohesive power; besides (owing to the difficulties of inter-communication) creating a feeling of independence and a disinclination to obey the central power. The emperors who used in the good old days to summon the vassals–a matter of a week or two in that small area–to chastise the wicked tribes on their frontiers, gradually found themselves unable to cope with the more distant Tartar hordes, the eastern barbarians of the coast, the Annamese, Shans, and other unidentified tribes south of the Yang- tsz, as they had so easily done with nearer tribes when the Chinese had not pushed out so far. Moreover, new-Chinese, Chinese- veneered, and half-Chinese states, recognizing their own responsibilities, now interposed themselves as “buffers” or barriers between the Emperor and the unadulterated barbarians; these hybrid states themselves were quite as formidable to the imperial power as the displaced barbarians had formerly been. Hence, as we have seen, the pitiful flight from his metropolis of one Emperor after the other; the rise of great and wealthy persons outside the former limited sacred circle; the pretence of protecting the Emperor, advanced by these rising powers, partly in order to gain prestige by using his imperial name in support of their local ambitions, and partly because–as during the Middle Ages in the case of the Papacy–no one cared to brave the moral odium of annihilating a venerable spiritual power, even though gradually shorn of its temporal rights and influence.
Lu was almost on a par with the imperial capital in all that concerns learning, ritual, music, sacrifice, deportment, and spiritual prestige. Confucius, in his zeal for the recovery of imperial rights, was really no more of a stickler for mere form than were Tsz-ch’an of Cheng, Ki-chah of Wu, Hiang Suh of Sung, Shuh Hiang of Tsin, and others already enumerated; the only distinguishing feature in his case was that he was not a high or influential official in his earlier days; besides, he was a Sung man by descent, and all the great families were of the Lu princely caste. Thus, for want of better means to assert his own views, he took to teaching and reading, to collecting historical facts, to pointing morals and adorning tales. As a youth he was so clever, that one of the Lu grandees, on his death-bed, foretold his greatness. It was a great bitterness for him to see his successive princely masters first the humble servants of Ts’i, then buffeted between Tsin and Ts’u, finally invaded and humiliated by barbarian Wu, only to receive the final touches of charity at the hands of savage Yiieh. His first act, when he at last obtained high office, was to checkmate Ts’i, the man behind the ruler of which jealous state feared that Lu might, under Confucius’ able rule, succeed in obtaining the Protectorate, and thus defeat his own insidious design to dethrone the legitimate Ts’i house. The wily Marquess of Ts’i thereupon–of course at the instigation of the intriguing “great families"–tried another tack, and succeeded at last in corrupting the vacillating Lu prince with presents of horses, racing chariots, and dancing women. Then it was (497) that Confucius set out disheartened on his travels. Recalled thirteen years later, he soon afterwards began to devote his remaining powers to the Annals so frequently referred to above, and it was whilst engaged in finishing this task that he had presentiments of his coming end; he does not appear to have been able to exercise much political or advisory power after his return to Lu.
During his thirteen years of travel (a more detailed account of which will be given in a subsequent Chapter), he found time to revise and edit the books which appear to have formed the common stock-in-trade for all China; one of his ideas was to eliminate from these all sentiments of an anti-imperial nature. They were not then called “classics,” but simply “The Book” (of History), “The Poems” (still known by heart all over China), “The Rites” (as improved by the Chou family), “The Changes” (a sort of cosmogony combined with soothsaying), and “Music.”