Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker

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Chapter XXV - Vassals and Emperor

The relations which existed between Emperor and feudal princes are best seen and understood from specific cases involving mutual relations. The Chou dynasty had about 1800 nominal vassals in all, of whom 400 were already waiting at the ford of the Yellow River for the rendezvous appointed by the conquering “Warrior King"; thus the great majority must already have existed as such before the Chou family took power; in other words, they were the vassals of the Shang dynasty, and perhaps, of the distant Hia dynasty too. The new Emperor enfeoffed fifteen “brother” states, and forty more having the same clan-name as himself: these fifty-five were presumably all new states, enjoying mesne-lord or semi-suzerain privileges over the host of insignificant principalities; and it might as well be mentioned here that this imperial clan name of Ki was that of all the ultra-ancient emperors, from 2700 B.C. down to the beginning of the Hia dynasty in 2205 B.C. Fiefs were conferred by the Chou conqueror upon all deserving ministers and advisers as well as upon kinsmen. The more distant princes they enfeoffed possessed, in addition to their distant satrapies, a village in the neighbourhood of the imperial court, where they resided, as at an hotel or town house, during court functions; more especially in the spring, when, if the world was at peace, they were supposed to pay their formal respects to the Emperor. The tribute brought by the different feudal states was, perhaps euphemistically, associated with offerings due to the gods, apparently on the same ground that the Emperor was vaguely associated with God. The Protectors, when the Emperors degenerated, made a great show always of chastising or threatening the other vassals on account of their neglect to honour the Emperor. Thus in 656 the First Protector (Ts’i) made war upon Ts’u for not sending the usual tribute of sedge to the Emperor, for use in clarifying the sacrificial wine. Previously, in 663, after assisting the state of Yen against the Tartars, Ts’i had requested Yen “to go on paying tribute, as was done during the reigns of the two first Chou Emperors, and to continue the wise government of the Duke of Shao.” In 581, when Wu’s pretensions were rising in a menacing degree, the King of Wu said: “The Emperor complains to me that not a single Ki (i.e. not a single closely-related state) will come to his assistance or send him tribute, and thus his Majesty has nothing to offer to the Emperor Above, or to the Ghosts and Spirits.”

Land thus received in vassalage from the Emperor could not, or ought not to, be alienated without imperial sanction. Thus in 711 B.C. two states (both of the Ki surname, and thus both such as ought to have known better) effected an exchange of territory; one giving away his accommodation village, or hotel, at the capital; and the other giving in exchange a place where the Emperor used to stop on his way to Ts’i when he visited Mount T’ai-shan, then, as now, the sacred resort of pilgrims in Shan Tung. Even the Emperor could not give away a fief in joke. This, indeed, was how the second Chou Emperor conferred the (extinct or forfeited) fief of Tsin upon a relative. But just as

Une reine d’Espagne ne regarde pas par la fenetre,

so an Emperor of China cannot jest in vain. An attentive scribe standing by said: “When the Son of Heaven speaks, the clerk takes down his words in writing; they are sung to music, and the rites are fulfilled.” When, in 665 B.C., Ts’i had driven back the Tartars on behalf of Yen, the Prince of Yen accompanied the Prince of Ts’i back into Ts’i territory. The Prince of Ts’i at once ceded to Yen the territory trodden by the Prince of Yen, on the ground that “only the Emperor can, when accompanying a ruling prince, advance beyond the limits of his own domain.” This rule probably refers only to war, for feudal princes frequently visited each other. The rule was that “the Emperor can never go out,” i.e. he can never leave or quit any part of China, for all China belongs to him. It is like our “the King can do no wrong.”

The Emperor could thus neither leave nor enter his own particular territory, as all his vassals’ territory is equally his. Hence his “mere motion” or pleasure makes an Empress, who needs no formal reception into his separate appanage by him. If the Emperor gives a daughter or a sister in marriage, he deputes a ruling prince of the Ki surname to “manage” the affair; hence to this day the only name for an imperial princess is “a publicly managed one.” A feudal prince must go and welcome his wife, but the Emperor simply deputes one of his appanage dukes to do it for him. In the same way, these dukes are sent on mission to convey the Emperor’s pleasure to vassals. Thus, in 651 B.C., a duke was sent by the Emperor to assist Ts’in and Ts’i in setting one of the four Tartar-begotten brethren on the Tsin throne (see Chapter X.). In 649 two dukes (one being the hereditary Duke of Shao, supposed to be descended from the same ancestor as the Earl reigning in the distant state of Yen) were sent to confer the formal patent and sceptre of investiture on Tsin. The rule was that imperial envoys passing through the vassal territory should be welcomed on the frontier, fed, and housed; but in 716 the fact that Wei attacked an imperial envoy on his way to Lu proves how low the imperial power had already sunk.

The greater powers undoubtedly had, nearly all of them, clusters of vassals and clients, and it is presumed that the total of 1800, belonging, at least nominally, to the Emperor, covered all these indirect vassals. Possibly, before the dawn of truly historical times, they all went in person to the imperial court; but after the debacle of 771 B.C., the Emperor seems to have been left severely alone by all the vassals who dared do so. So early as 704 B.C. a reunion of princelets vassal to Ts’u is mentioned; and in the year 622 Ts’u annexed a region styled “the six states," admittedly descended from the most ancient ministerial stock, because they had presumed to ally themselves with the eastern barbarians; this was when Ts’u was working her way eastwards, down from the southernmost headwaters of the Hwai River, in the extreme south of Ho Nan. It was in 684 that Ts’u first began to annex the petty orthodox states in (modern) Hu Peh province, and very soon nearly all those lying between the River Han and the River Yang- tsz were swallowed up by the semi-barbarian power. Ts’u’s relation to China was very much like that of Macedon to Greece. Both of the latter were more or less equally descended from the ancient and somewhat nebulous Pelasgi; but Macedon, though imbued with a portion of Greek civilization, was more rude and warlike, with a strong barbarian strain in addition. Ts’u was never in any way “subject” to the Chou dynasty, except in so far as it may have suited her to be so for some interested purpose of her own. In the year 595 Ts’u even treated Sung and Cheng (two federal states of the highest possible orthodox imperial rank) as her own vassals, by marching armies through without asking their permission. As an illustration of what was the correct course to follow may be taken the case of Tsin in 632, when a Tsin army was marching on a punitory expedition against the imperial clan state of Ts’ao; the most direct way ran through Wei, but this latter state declined to allow the Tsin army to pass; it was therefore obliged to cross the Yellow River at a point south of Wei-hwei Fu (as marked on modern maps), near the capital of Wei, past which the Yellow River then ran.

Lu, though itself a small state, had, in 697, and again in 615, quite a large number of vassals of its own; several are plainly styled “subordinate countries,” with viscounts and even earls to rule them. Some of these sub-vassals to the feudal states seem from the first never to have had the right of direct communication with the Emperor at all; in such cases they were called fu-yung, or “adjunct-functions,” like the client colonies attached to the colonial municipia of the Romans. A fu-yung was only about fifteen English miles in extent (according to Mencius); and from 850 B.C. to 771 BC. even the great future state of Ts’in had only been a fu-yung,–it is not said to what mesne lord. Sung is distinctly stated to have had a number of these fu-yung. CH’EN is also credited with suzerainty over at least two sub- vassal states. In 661 Tsin annexed a number of orthodox petty states, evidently with the view of ultimately seizing that part of the Emperor’s appanage which lay north of the Yellow River (west Ho Nan); it was afterwards obtained by “voluntary cession.” The word “viscount,” besides being applied complimentarily to barbarian “kings” when they showed themselves in China, had another special use. When an orthodox successor was in mourning, he was not entitled forthwith to use the hereditary rank allotted to his state; thus, until the funeral obsequies of their predecessors were over, the new rulers of Ch’en and Ts’ai were called “the viscount,” or “son” (same word).

The Emperor used to call himself “I, the one Man,” like the Spanish “Yo, el Rey.” Feudal princes styled themselves to each other, or to the ministers of each other, “The Scanty Man." Ministers, speaking (to foreign ministers or princes) of their own prince said, “The Scanty Prince"; of the prince’s wife, “The Scanty Lesser Prince"; of their own ministers, “The Scanty Minister.” It was polite to avoid the second person in addressing a foreign prince, who was consequently often styled “your government” by foreign envoys particularly anxious not to offend. The diplomatic forms were all obsequiously polite; but the stock phrases, such as, “our vile village” (our country), “your condescending to instruct” (your words), “I dare not obey your commands” (we will not do what you ask), probably involved nothing more in the way of humility than the terms of our own gingerly worded diplomatic notes, each term of which may, nevertheless, offend if it be coarsely or carelessly expressed.

In some cases a petty vassal was neither a sub-kingdom nor an adjunct-function to another greater vassal, but was simply a political hanger-on; like, for instance, Hawaii was to the United States, or Cuba now is; or like Monaco is to France, Nepaul to India. Thus Lu, through assiduously cultivating the good graces of Ts’i, became in 591 a sort of henchman to Ts’i; and, as we have seen, at the Peace Conference of 546, the henchmen of the two rival Protectors agreed to pay “cross respects” to each other’s Protector. It seems to have been the rule that the offerings of feudal states to the Emperor should be voluntary, at least in form: for instance, in the year 697, the Emperor or his agents begged a gift of chariots from Lu, and in 618 again applied for some supplies of gold; both these cases are censured by the historians as being undignified. On the other hand, the Emperor’s complimentary presents to the vassals were highly valued. Thus in the year 530, when Ts’u began to realize its own capacity for empire, a claim was put in for the Nine Tripods, and for a share of the same honorific gifts that were bestowed by the founders upon Ts’i, Tsin, Lu, and Wei at the beginning of the Chou dynasty. In the year 606 Ts’u had already “inquired” at the imperial court about these same Tripods, and 300 years later (281 B.C.), when struggling with Ts’in for the mastery of China, Ts’u endeavoured to get the state of Han to support her demand for the Tripods, which eventually fell to Ts’in; it will be remembered that the Duke of Chou had taken them to the branch capital laid out by him, but which was not really occupied by the Emperor until 771 B.C.

In 632, after the great Tsin victory over Ts’u, the Emperor “accepted some Ts’u prisoners,” conferred upon Tsin the Protectorate, ceded to Tsin that part of the imperial territory referred to on page 53, and presented to the Tsin ruler a chariot, a red bow with 1000 arrows, a black bow with 1000 arrows, a jar of scented wine, a jade cup with handle, and 300 “tiger” body-guards. In 679, when Old Tsin had been amalgamated by New Tsin (both of them then tiny principalities), the Emperor had already accepted valuable loot from the capture of Old Tsin. In a word, the Emperor nearly always sided with the strongest, accepted faits accomplis, and took what he could get. This has also been China’s usual policy in later times.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Opening Scenes  •  Chapter II - Shifting Scenes  •  Chapter III - The Northern Powers  •  Chapter IV - The Southern Power  •  Chapter V - Evidence of Eclipses  •  Chapter VI - The Army  •  Chapter VII - The Coast States  •  Chapter VIII - First Protector of China  •  Chapter IX - Position of Envoys  •  Chapter X - The Second Protector  •  Chapter XI - Religion  •  Chapter XII - Ancestral Worship  •  Chapter XIII - Ancient Documents Found  •  Chapter XIV - More on Protectors  •  Chapter XV - State Intercourse  •  Chapter XVI - Land and People  •  Chapter XVII - Education and Literary  •  Chapter XVIII - Treaties and Vows  •  Chapter XIX - Confucius and Literature  •  Chapter XX - Law  •  Chapter XXI - Public Works  •  Chapter XXII - Cities and Towns  •  Chapter XXIII - Break-Up of China  •  Chapter XXIV - Kings and Nobles  •  Chapter XXV - Vassals and Emperor  •  Chapter XXVI - Fighting State Period  •  Chapter XXVII - Foreign Blood  •  Chapter XXVIII - Barbarians  •  Chapter XXIX - Curious Customs  •  Chapter XXX - Literary Relations  •  Chapter XXXI - Origin of the Chinese  •  Chapter XXXII - The Calendar  •  Chapter XXXIII - Names  •  Chapter XXXIV - Eunuchs, Human Sacrifices, Food  •  Chapter XXXV - Knowledge of the West  •  Chapter XXXVI - Ancient Japan  •  Chapter XXXVII - Ethics  •  Chapter XXXVIII - Women and Morals  •  Chapter XXXIX - Geographical Knowledge  •  Chapter XL - Tombs and Remains  •  Chapter XLI - The Tartars  •  Chapter XLII - Music  •  Chapter XLIII - Wealth, Sports, Etc.  •  Chapter XLIV - Confucius  •  Chapter XLV - Confucius and Lao-Tsz  •  Chapter XLVI - Oracles and Omens  •  Chapter XLVII - Rulers and People  •  Ancient Chinese Law

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Ancient China Simplified (1908)
By Edward Harper Parker
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