Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXII - Cities and Towns
There are singularly few descriptions of cities in ancient Chinese history, but here again we may safely assume that most of them were in principle, if only on a small scale, very much what they are now, mere inartistic, badly built collections of hovels. Soul, the quaint capital of Corea, as it appeared in its virgin condition to its European discoverers twenty-five years ago, probably then closely resembled an ancient vassal Chinese prince’s capital of the very best kind. Modern trade is responsible for the wealthy commercial streets now to be found in all large Chinese cities; but a small hien city in the interior–and it must be remembered that a hien circuit or district corresponds to an old marquisate or feudal principality of the vassal unit type–is often a poor, dusty, dirty, depressing, ramshackle agglomeration of villages or hamlets, surrounded by a disproportionately pretentious wall, the cubic contents of which wall alone would more than suffice to build in superior style the whole mud city within; for half the area of the interior is apt to be waste land or stagnant puddles: it was so even in Peking forty years ago, and possibly is so still except in the “Legation quarter.”
In 745 B.C., when the Tsin marquess foolishly divided his patrimony with a collateral branch, the capital town of this subdivided state is stated to have been a greater place than the old capital. They are both of them still in existence as insignificant towns, situated quite close together on the same branch of the River Fen (the only navigable river) in South Shan Si; marked with their old names, too; that is to say, K’iih-wuh and Yih-CH’ENg. It was only after the younger branch annexed the elder in 679 that Tsin became powerful and began to expand; and it was only when a policy of “home rule” and disintegration set in, involving the splitting up of Tsin’s orthodox power into three royal states of doubtful orthodoxy, that China fell a prey to Ts’in ambition. Absit omen to us.
In 560, when the deformed philosopher Yen-tsz visited Ts’u, and entertained that semi-barbarous court with his witticisms, he took the opportunity boastfully to enlarge upon the magnificence of Lin-tsz (still so marked), the capital of Ts’i. “It is,” said he, “surrounded by a hundred villages; the parasols of the walkers obscure the sky, whose perspiration runs in such streams as to cause rain; their shoulders and heels touch together, so closely are they packed.” The assembled Ts’u court, with mouths open, but inclined for sport at the cost of their visitor, said: “If it is such a grand place, why do they select you?” Yen-tsz played a trump card when he replied: “Because I am such a mean-looking fellow,"–meaning, as explained in Chapter IX., that “any pitiful rascal is good enough to send to Ts’u.” Exaggerations apart, however, there is every reason to believe that the statesman- philosopher Kwan-tsz, a century before that date, had really organized a magnificent city. A full description of how he reconstructed the economic life of both city and people is given in the Kwoh-yue (see Chapter XVII.), the authenticity of which work, though not free from question, is, after all, only subject to the same class of criticism as Renan lavishes upon one or two of the Gospels, the general tenor of which, be says, must none the less be accepted, with all faults, as the bonafide attempt of some one, more or less contemporary, to represent what was then generally supposed to be the truth.
Ts’u itself must have had something considerable to show in the way of public buildings, for in the year 542 B.C. after paying a visit to that country in accordance with the provisions of the Peace Conference of 546, the ruler of Lu built himself a palace in imitation of one he saw there. The original capital of Wu (see Chapter VII.) was a poor place, and is described as having consisted of low houses in narrow streets, with a vulgar palace; this was in 523. In 513 a new king moved to the site now occupied by Soochow, and he seems to have made of it the magnificent city it has remained ever since–the place, of course it will be remembered, where General Gordon and Li Hung-chang had their celebrated quarrel about decapitating surrendered rebels. There were eight gates, besides eight water-gates for boats; it was eight English miles in circuit, and contained the palace, several towers (pagodas, being Buddhist, were then naturally unknown), kiosks, ponds, and duck preserves. The extensive arsenal and ship- yard was quite separate from the main town. No city in the orthodox part of China is so closely described as this one, nor is it likely that there were many of them so vast in extent.
Judging by the frequency with which Ts’in moved its capitals (but always within a limited area in the Wei valley, between that river and its tributary the K’ien), they cannot have been very important or substantial places; in fact, there are no descriptions of early Ts’in economic life at all; and, for all we know to the contrary, the headquarters of Duke Muh, when he entered upon his reforms in the seventh century B.C., may have resembled a Tartar encampment. The Kwoh-yue has no Chapter devoted to Ts’in, which (as indeed stated) for 500 years lived a quite isolated life of its own. In later times, especially after the reforms introduced by the celebrated Chinese princely adventurer, Wei Yang, during the period 360–340, the land administration was reconstituted, the capital was finally moved to Hien-yang, and every effort was made to develop all the resources of the country. Ts’in then possessed 41 hien, those with a population of under 10,000 having a governor with a lower title than the governors of the larger towns, Probably the total population of Ts’in by this time reached 3,000,000. A century later, when the First August Emperor was conquering China, armies of half a million men on each side were not at all uncommon. When his conquests were complete, he set about building palaces on both banks of the Wei in most lavish style, as narrated in the last Chapter. It is said of him that, “as he conquered each vassal prince, he had a sketch made of his palace buildings,” and, with these before him as models, he lined the river with rows of beautiful edifices,–evidently, from the description given, much resembling those lying along the Golden Horn at Constantinople; if not in quality, at least in general spectacular arrangement.
As to the minor orthodox states grouped along the Yellow River, they seem to have shifted their capitals on very slight provocation; scarcely one of them remained from first to last in the same place. To take one as an instance, the state of Hu, an orthodox state belonging to the same clan name as Ts’i. The history of this petty principality or barony is only exactly known from the time when Confucius’ history begins, and it was continually being oppressed by Cheng and Ts’u, its more powerful neighbours; in 576, 533, 524 and onwards from that, there were incessant removals, so that even the native commentators say: “it was just like shifting a village, so superficial an affair was it.” The accepted belles lettres style (see p. 78) of saying “my country” is still the ancient pi-yih or “unworthy village”: the Empress of China once (about 190 B.C.) used this expression, even after the whole of China had been united, in order to reject politely the offer of marriage conveyed to her by a powerful Tartar king. The expression is particularly interesting, inasmuch as it recalls, as we have already pointed out, a time when the “country” of each feudal chief was simply his mud village and the few square miles of fields around it, which were naturally divided off from the next chief’s territory by hills and streams. On the Burmo-Chinese frontier there are at this moment many Kakhyen “kings” of this kind, each of them ruling over his mountain or valley, and supreme in his own domain.
That there were walled cities in China (apart from the Emperor’s, which, of course, would be “the city” par excellence) is plain from the language used at durbars, which were always held “outside the walls.” In the loess plains there could not have been any stone whatever for building purposes, and there is little, if any, specific mention of brick. Probably the walls were of adobe, i.e. of mud, beaten down between two rigid planks, removed higher as the wall dries below. This is the way most of the houses are still built in modern Peking, and perhaps also in most parts of China, at least where stone (or brick) is not cheaper; the “barbarian” parts of China are still the best built; for instance, CH’ENg-tu in Sz Ch’wan, Canton in the south. Hankow (Ts’u) is a comparatively poor place; Peking the dingiest of all. Chinkiang is a purely loess country.
At the time of the unification of China, during the middle of the third century B.C., the Ts’in armies found it necessary to flood Ta-liang or “Great Liang,” the capital of Ngwei (otherwise called Liang), corresponding to the modern K’ai-feng Fu, the Jewish centre in Ho Nan province: the waters of the Yellow River were allowed to flood the country (this was again done by the Tai-p’ing rebels fifty years ago, when the Jews suffered like other people, and lost their synagogue), the walls of which collapsed. It is evident that the ancient city walls could not have been such solid, brick-faced walls as we now see round Peking and Nanking, but simply mud ramparts.