Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXXI - Origin of the Chinese
Having now derived some definite notions of how the Chinese advanced from the patriarchal to the feudal, from the submissive and monarchical to the emulous and democratic, finally to collapse under the overpowering grasp of a single Dictator or Despot, whose centralized system in the main, still survives; having also seen how the nucleus of China proper was encompassed on three sides by Tibetans, Tartars, Tunguses, Coreans, and by various ill-defined tribes to the south; let us see if there is any evidence whatever to show, or even to suggest to us, whence the orthodox Chinese originally came, and who they were.
First and foremost, it seems primarily unnecessary to suggest at all that they came from anywhere; for, if the position be once assumed as an axiom that all people must have immigrated from some place to the place in which we first find them, or hear of them, then the double question arises: “Why should the persons we find in A., and who, we think, may have come from B., not have migrated from A. to B. before they migrated back from B. to A.?” Or: “If the people we find at A. must have come from B., whence did the people at B. come, before they went to A.?” To put it in another way: given the existence 4000 or 5000 years ago of Chinese in China, Egyptians in Egypt, and Babylonians in Babylonia–why should one group be assumed to be older than the other? The only ground for suggesting that these groups had not each a separate evolution, is the assumption that man was “created” once for all, and created summarily; in which case it follows with mathematical precision that the ultimate ancestry of every man living extends back to exactly the same date. That is to say, the highest and the lowest, the blackest and the whitest, only differ in this, that some men began to keep records earlier than others; for the man who keeps no records loses track of his ancestors, and that is all. Not to mention other races, some of our own noblest English families trace back their ancestry to a favoured or successful person, who was of no hereditary distinction before he distinguished himself; whilst on the other hand the tramp and the street-walker may have as “royal” blood in their veins as any lineal princely personage. It is records, therefore, that differentiate “civilized” from uncivilized people, blue blood from plebeian; and as we see millions of people living without records to-day in various parts of the world, notwithstanding that for centuries, or even for millenniums, they have been surrounded by or in immediate contact with neighbours possessing records, it seems to follow that a nation’s greatness may begin at any time, independently of the blueness of its blood, the robustness of its warriors, the beauty of its women; that is, whenever it chooses to keep records, and thus to cultivate itself: for records are nothing more than the means of keeping experiences in stock, instead of having to repeat them every day; they are thus accumulations of national wealth. It by no means follows that because records can be traced back farther in the case of one nation than in the case of another, that the first nation is older than the other; for instance, although in the West our various alphabets appear to refer themselves back to one same source, or to a few sources which probably all hark back ultimately to one and the same, there seems no reason to believe that the Chinese did not independently invent, develop, and perfect their own scheme of written records: the mere fact that we learnt how to write is some evidence in support of the proposition that they also, being men like ourselves, learnt how to write.
There is no documentary evidence for the barest existence of ancient China, or of any part of it, which is not to be found in the Chinese records, and in them alone; no nation anywhere near China has any record or tradition of either its own or of China’s existence at a period earlier than the Chinese records indicate. Those records do not contain the faintest allusion to Egypt, Babylonia, India, or any other foreign country or place whatever outside the extremely limited area of the Central Nucleus, and the larger area occupied by the semi-Chinese colonial powers surrounding it. Nor is there the faintest evidence that the Biblical “land of Sinim” had any reference to China, which seems to have been as absolutely unknown to the West previous to, say, 250 B.C., as America was unknown to Europe, or Europe to America previous to 1400 A.D. If any ideas were derived from China by the West, or from the West by China, the records of both China and the West alike point, however, to one obvious connecting link, and that is, the horse-riding nomads of the north, who are now, it is true, in some parts a little more settled than they used to be, and who have been tamed in various degrees by dogmatic religions unknown to them in ancient times, but who remain in many respects now very much what they were 3000 years ago. Of course pedlars, hawkers, and even long-course caravans travelled, whenever the routes were free, from place to place in ancient times as they do now; but it is exceedingly improbable that there would be any through-travellers from Europe to China, except one or two occasional waifs or adventurers buffeted through by chance. If 600 years ago, Marco Polo’s through-route adventures were regarded in Europe as almost incredible, notwithstanding the then recent and well-trodden war-path of the Mongol armies, what chances are there of through-travel 2000 years before that? And, even if a rare case occasionally occurred, what chances are there of any one recording it?
The probability is, so far as sane experience takes us, that the Chinese had been exactly where we first find them for many thousand years, or even for myriads of years, before their own traditions begin. With the exception of the discovery of America, which brought a flood of strangers into a strange land, and speedily exterminated the aborigines, there do not appear to be any authenticated instances in history of extensive and robust populations being entirely displaced like flocks of sheep by others. Any one who travels widely in China can see for himself that, wherever unassimilated tribes live in complete or partial independence, and, a fortiori, where the assimilation has been carried out, all those tribes possess at least this point in common with the original Chinese or the assimilated speakers of Chinese–that their language is monosyllabic, uninflected, not agglutinative, and tonic; i.e. that each word is “sung” in a particular way, besides being pronounced in a particular way. Probably those tribes before they were absorbed, or, despite their not having yet been absorbed by the Chinese, had been there as long as the Chinese had been in the contiguous Chinese parts. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Chinese would absorb their own race-classes more readily than they would absorb Tartars, Japanese, and Coreans, all of whom belong to the same dissyllabic, long-worded, agglutinative family. And so it is: the Chinese followed the lines of least resistance (after themselves becoming cultured) and worked their way down the rivers and other watercourses towards what we call South China. From the very first, their passage northwards across the Yellow River was contested by the Tartars, whom they have since partly driven back, and partly (with great effort) absorbed. They have never been able to assimilate the Coreans, not to say the Japanese, though both peoples took very kindly to Chinese civilization after our Christian era, when first friendly missions began to be interchanged. Indo-China contains many more of the monosyllabic and tonic tribes than of others; if, indeed, there are any at all of the dissyllabic and non-tonal classes; and the Chinese have no difficulty in merging themselves with Annamese, Tonquinese, Cambodgians, Siamese, Shans, Thos, Laos, Mons, and such like peoples: but their own administrative base is too far north; the conditions of food and climate in Indo-China are not quite favourable for the marching of armies, especially when it is remembered that the best troops used have always been Tartars, used to warm clothes and heating food. There have, besides, always been rival Indian religion, rival Indian colonization, rival Indian language, and rival Indian trade influence to contend with. No absorption of Indian races has ever been anywhere effected by China. Tibetans never came into question in ancient times; if they were known, it could only have been to Shuh (Sz Ch’wan) and Ts’in or early Chou (Shen Si).
If it had not been the Chinese of Ho Nan who first used records, it is just as probable that the tonic and monosyllabic absorption which, as things were and are, moved from north to south, might have moved from south to north. During the Chou dynasty (1122 B.C.-222 B.C.), when the extension of the Chinese race took place (which had probably already for long gone on) in the clear light of history, it will be noticed that the rulers of all the great colony nations of the south–Ts’u, Wu, and Yueeh–had, in turn, to remind the Emperor of China of their perfect equality with him in spiritual claim and ancient descent; of their connection with dynasties precedent to his; of times when his ancestor was a mere vassal like themselves. No Tartars of those times ever put forth claims like these, though, it is true, in much later times some of the (non-Turkish) Tartar rulers of North China traced their ancestors back to the mythical Chinese emperors who reigned in Shan Tung. Again, the founder of the Hia dynasty (2205 B.C.) is repeatedly said to have been buried at modern Shao-hing (between Hangchow and Ningpo), and the King of Yueeh even sacrificed to him there. So the Emperor Shun, the predecessor and patron of the same founder, was traditionally buried near Ch’ang-sha in modern Hu Nan province. The First August Emperor included both these “lions” in his pleasure tours among the great sights of China. No sound historical deduction, of course, can be drawn from these traditions, however persistent: if false, they were, at any rate, open to the criticism of a revolutionary and all-powerful Emperor over 2000 years ago, and to a second, almost equally powerful, who visited both places a century later; the suggestion inevitably follows from the existence of these traditions in the south that either the cultured Chinese whom we first find in Ho Nan had moved northwards from Hu Nan, Kiang Si, and the lake districts generally, before they spread themselves backwards; or that the uncultured Chinese had moved north before the cultured Chinese moved south; or that both north and south Chinese were at first equally cultured, until within historical times the north Chinese (i.e. in Ho Nan, along the Yellow River) so perfected their system of records that they carried all before them. After all there is no strain on the imagination in suggesting this, for early Western civilization grew up in the same way.
There is not the smallest hint of any immigration of Chinese from the Tarim Valley, from any part of Tartary, from India, Tibet, Burma, the Sea, or the South Sea Islands: in fact, there is no hint of immigration from anywhere even in China itself, except as above hypothetically described. There the Chinese are, and there they were; and there is an end to the question, so far as documentary evidence goes. Of course, the persistent Tarim Valley scheme proposed is only a means to get in the thin end of the wedge, in order to drive home the thick end in the shape of a definite start from the Tower of Babel, and an ultimate reference to the Garden of Eden. If there are still people who believe it their duty on Scriptural principle to accept this naive Western origin of the Chinese, there is no reason why religious belief or imagination should not be perfectly respected, and even find a working compromise with the principle of strict adherence to human evidence. If supernatural agencies be once admitted (as the limited human intellect understands Nature), there seems to be no more reason for accepting the creation of a complete whale (already a hundred years old, according to the growth period of later whales), than for accepting the creation of complete men with 1000 years’ history behind them instead of 100; or that of the earth with 20,000, or even 20,000,000 years’ history behind it, and even before it; for as the first whale, or pair of whales, must set the standard of natural history for all future whales, so the man created with history behind him may equally well have history created in front of him. “Nature,” according to the imperfect human understanding, is no more outraged in one case than in the other, nor can mere time or size count as anything towards increasing our wonder when we tell ourselves what supernatural things unseen powers superior to ourselves may have done. This amounts to the same thing as saying that dogmatic belief, personal religious conviction, agnosticism, superstition, and imagination are all on equal terms, and are equally respectable factors when confronted with human historical evidence, so long as they are kept rigidly apart from the latter, As an eminent Catholic has recently said: “The Church has no more reason to be afraid of modern science than it was of ancient science.” In other words, however pious and religious a man may be (as we understand the words in Europe), there is no reason why, as a recreation apart from his faith, he should not rigidly adhere to the human evidence of history so far as it goes. On the other hand, however sceptical and discriminating a man may be, from the point of view of imperfect human knowledge, in the admittance of humanly proved fact, there is no reason why, from the emotional and imaginative side of his existence, he should not rigidly subscribe to dogma or personal conviction, whether the abstract idea of virtue, the concrete idea of love for some cherished human being, or the yearning for some supernatural state of sinlessness be concerned. A distinguished financier, for instance, may regale his imagination with socialistic dreams of a perfect Utopia; but, when the weekly household bills are presented to him, he deals with overcharges in pence like any other practical individual.
From one point of view, the Chinese, already provided with their tonic language at the Confusion of Tongues, marched to the Yellow River, where we find them. From the other, there is no evidence whatever to connect the Chinese with any people other than those we find near them now, and which have from the earliest times been near them; no evidence that their language, their civilization, their manners, ever received anything from, or gave anything to, India, Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, or Greece, except so far as has been suggested above, or will be suggested below.