Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXXV - Knowledge of the West
The question of the expedition of the Emperor Muh to the West in the year 984 B.C., or during that year and the two following, is worthy of further consideration for many reasons; and after all that has been said about the rise of the Chou dynasty, the decay of the patriarchal system, the emulous ambitions of the vassals, the destruction of the feudal Empire, and the substitution of a centralized administration under a new dynasty of numbered August Emperors, it will now be comparatively easier to understand.
We have seen that, if any local annals besides those of Lu have been in part preserved, those of Ts’in at least were deliberately intended by the First August Emperor to be wholly preserved, and must therefore hold first rank among all the restored vassal annals published by Sz-ma Ts’ien in or about 90 B.C.; and it must be remembered that the original Lu annals have perished equally with those of Ts’i, Sung, and other important states; it is only Confucius’ “Springs and Autumns,"–evidently composed from the Lu archives,–that have survived. Well, the Ts’in Annals, as given by Sz-ma Ts’ien, record that one of the early Ts’in ancestors “was in favour with the Emperor Muh on account of his admirable skill in manipulating horses” [names of four particularly fine horses given]. The Emperor “went west to examine his fiefs"; he was so “charmed with his experiences that he forgot the administrative duties which should have called him back.” Meanwhile, a revolt broke out in East (uncivilized) China, and the manipulator of horses was sent by the Emperor back to China at express speed, in order to stave off trouble till the Emperor could get back himself. It is also stated of him that, in spite of remonstrances, he made extensive war upon the Tartars, and that, in consequence, his uncivilized vassals ceased to present themselves at court. No other mention is made of this expedition by Sz-ma Ts’ien in the imperial annals, and, so (apart from the fictitious importance afterwards given to the expedition, and especially by European investigators in quite recent times), there is really no reason to attach any more political weight to it than to the other innumerable exploring expeditions of emperors into the almost unknown regions surrounding the nucleus of orthodox China so often defined in these Chapters. We have already (page 184) cited the case in which the father and predecessor of King Muh had ventured on a tour of inspection as far as modern Hankow on the Yang-tsz River, or, as some say, as far as some place on the River Han, where he was murdered; in 656 the First Protector raked up this affair against Ts’u, whose capital was very near King-thou Fu, above Hankow. Finally, scant though Sz-ma Ts’ien’s two references to this affair may be, they at least agree with each other, i.e. the Emperor did actually go to Tartar regions, and a revolt of non-Chinese tribes did actually break out in the immediate sequel.
But in A.D. 281 a certain tomb at a place once belonging to Wei, but later attached to the kingdom of Ngwei formerly part of Tsin, was desecrated by thieves, and, amongst other books written in ancient characters found therein (unfortunately all more or less injured by the rummaging thieves), were two of paramount interest. One was an account of, and was entirely devoted to, the Emperor Muh’s voyage to the West; the other was the Annals of Ngwei (i.e. of that third part of old Tsin which in 403 B.C. was formally recognized by the Emperor as the separate state of Ngwei), including those of old Tsin, and also what may be termed the general history of China, narrated incidentally. These Annals of Tsin or Ngwei are usually styled the Bamboo Books, because they were written in ink on bamboo tablets strung together at one end like a fan or a narrow Venetian blind. They also speak shortly of the Emperor Muh’s expedition, and thus they also are useful for comparing hiatuses, names, faults, and dates; both in general history, and in the account of King Muh’s expedition. Since the discovery of these old documents (which had been buried for well- nigh 600 years, and of which no other record whatever had been preserved either in writing or by tradition), Chinese literary wonder-mongers have exercised their wits upon the task of identifying the unheard-of places mentioned; the more so in that one place, and one king bearing the same foreign name as the place–Siwangmu–was so written phonetically that it might mean “Western-King-Mother.” They endeavoured to show how this and other places might have lain in relation to the genuine places discovered by Chinese generals after these ancient documents were buried, seven centuries after the events recorded therein. Then came the foreigner with his Jewish Creation, Confusion of Tongues, Accadian and Babylonian origin of all science, etc., etc. Of course Marco Polo’s adventures at once suggested to the European, thus biased, that 3000 years ago the Emperor Muh might have found his way to Persia, and might have been this or that Babylonian, Egyptian, or Persian hero; in fact, Professor Forke of Berlin even takes his Chinese majesty as far as Africa, and introduces him to the Queen of Sheba (= Western-King-Mother).
The distinguished Professor Edouard Chavannes of Paris has recently attempted to show, not only that the Emperor Muh never got beyond the Tarim (which, indeed, is absolutely certain from the text itself), but that it was not the Emperor Muh at all who went, but the semi-Turkish Duke Muh of Ts’in, in the seventh century B.C., who made the expedition.
To begin with, let us see what the expedition purports to be. In the first place, the thieves used as torches, or otherwise destroyed, the first few pages of the bamboo sheaf book, and we do not know, consequently, whence the Emperor started: there is much indirect evidence, however, to show that he started from some place on the headwaters of the Han River, in what must then have been his own territory (South Shen Si); especially as his three expeditions all ended there. It is certain, however, that he had not travelled many days on his first journey before he reached a tribe of Tartars very frequently mentioned in all histories, and bearing the same name as the Tartars whom Sz-ma Ts’ien says the Emperor Muh did conquer. He crossed the Yellow River on the 169th day, came to two rivers, the Redwater (222nd day), and the Blackwater (248th day), which rivers in after ages have been frequently mentioned in connection with Tibetan, Turkish, and Ouigour wars, and are apparently in the Si-ning and Kan-chou Fu, or possibly Kwa Chou regions (cf. p. 68); but first he passed, after the 170th day, a place called “Piled Stones,” a name which has never been lost to history, and which corresponds to Nien-po, between Lan-thou Fu and Si-ning, as marked on modern maps. In other words, he went by the only high-road there was in existence, and ever since then has continued in existence (just traversed by Bruce), leading to the Lob Nor region; whence again he branched off, presumably to Turfan, or to Harashar; thence to Urumtsi, and possibly Kuche, as they are respectively now called; but on the whole it is not likely that he got beyond Harashar and Urumtsi. Even 800 years later, when the Chinese had thoroughly explored all the west up to the Hindu Kush, their expeditions had all to proceed from Lob Nor to Khoten, or from Lob Nor (or near it) via Harashar and Kuche along the Tarim Valley: it was not for long after the discovery of these routes that the later Chinese discovered the northerly Hami route, and the possibility of avoiding Lob Nor altogether. His charioteer is said in this account to have been a man (named) whose name is exactly the name, written in exactly the same way, as the name of the ancestor of Ts’in, who, Sz-ma Ts’ien tells us, actually was the charioteer of the Emperor when he marched forth against the Tartars, and who hurried back to China when the revolts broke out owing to the Emperor’s absence. As the Emperor received, from various princes, presents of wine, silk, and rice, it is almost certain that he must have avoided bleak, out-of-the-way places, and have made for the productive regions of Harashar, Turfan, and possibly Kuche, any or all three of these. With a little more care and patience we may yet succeed in identifying, and by the same names, several more of the places mentioned by the old chronicler. In about ten months (286 days from the first day already mentioned, and 17 days out from “Piled Stones”) he reached Siwangmu. This is not at all unlikely to be Urumtsi, or a place near it, possibly Ku- CH’ENg or Gutchen, because Siwangmu (also the name of the king of that place), gave him a feast on a certain lake, which lake, written in exactly the same way, became the name of a quite new district in 653 A.D., when it was abolished; and that district was at or near Urumtsi; the presumption being that, in the seventh century A.D., it was so named on account of old traditions, then well known. Roughly speaking, it took the Emperor 300 days to go, and a second 300 to get back; stoppages, feasts, functions, all included. The total distance travelled, as specified from chief station to chief station, is 13,300 li (say 4000 miles) to Siwangmu and to the hunting grounds near but beyond it. When 200 days out he came to the place where his feet were washed with kumiss; this place is frequently mentioned in history; even Confucius names it, as one of the northernmost conquests of the Chou dynasty. The only doubt is whether it is near Lan-thou Fu in Kan Suh province, or near the northern bend of the Yellow River. The journey back was hurried and shorter (as we might well suppose from Sz-ma Ts’ien’s accounts above given), that is to say, only 10,000 li. But the total for the whole double journey of 660 days in all, including all by-trips, excursions, and hunts, was 38,000 li, or about 12,000 miles–say 20 miles a day. I have myself travelled several thousand miles in China and Tartary, always at the maximum rate of 30 miles a day; more usually 20, allowing for delays, bad roads, and accidents. In Dr. Legge’s translation of the “Book of Odes,” p. 281, there is a song about a great expedition against the Tartars in 827 B.C., one line of which is precisely, as translated by Dr. Legge: “and we marched thirty li every day,"-which means only ten miles.
This is the chief journey; and whether the Chou Emperor in 984 B.C., or the Ts’in Duke in 650 B.C., made it, there are really no difficulties, no contradictions. Four important places at least are named which are known by exactly the same names, and are frequently mentioned, in very much later history. The Emperor had hundreds of carts or chariots with him, and we have seen that these were a special feature of orthodox China. He came across a huge moulting-ground of birds in the desert regions, and the later Chinese very frequently speak of it in Tartar-land. Being caught in the waterless desert, he had to cut the throats of some of his best horses and drink their warm blood: two friends of my own, travelling through Siberia and Mongolia, were only too glad, when nearly starving from cold, to cut a sheep’s throat and drink its warm blood from the newly-gashed throat itself. Fattening up horses for food is mentioned, and washing the feet with kumiss– both incidents purely Tartar. “Cattle,” distinct from horses and oxen, are alluded to–probably camels, for which no Chinese word existed until about the time of our era.
The second and third journeys, which occupied another 600 days between them, both ended at, and therefore it is assumed began at, the same place as the first journey’s terminus; that is, at a place marked on modern maps as Pao-CH’ENg, on the Upper Han River. In later times it belonged to the semi-Chinese kingdoms of Shuh and Ts’u in turn. One of these narratives is taken up with a description of the Emperor’s infatuation for a clever wizard from a far country, and of his liaison with a girl bearing his own clan-name, who died about two months before he reached home, and was buried on the road with great pomp. These two later journeys have no geographical value at all; but as the Emperor in each case again crossed the Yellow River, it is plain that he was amusing himself somewhere along the main Tartar roads, as in the first case.
It may be added that the Taoist author Lieh-tsz, in his third Chapter, repeats the story of the magician, who, he says, came from the “Extreme West Country.” He also explains that it was through listening to this man’s wonderful tales that the Emperor “neglected state affairs, and abandoned himself to the delights of travel,"–thus anticipating by three centuries the language of Sz- ma Ts’ien in 90 B.C. The story of the particular tribe of Tartars (named with the same sounds, but not with the same characters) who washed the Emperor’s feet with kumiss is also told by Lieh-tsz. The position of the Redwater River is defined, to which textual remarks the commentators add more about the River Blackwater. Curiously enough, in himself commenting upon the Emperor Muh’s conversations with the chieftain of Siwangmu, Lieh-tsz mentions the traditional departure, west, of the philosopher Lao-tsz, his own master.
Now, although there is considerable doubt as to the authorship, date, and genuineness of Lieh-tsz’s book, which at any rate was well known to Chinese bibliophiles long before our era, the fact that it mentions and repeats even part of the Emperor Muh’s travels 600 years before the ancient book describing those travels was found, proves that the manipulators of the ancient book thus found did not invent the whole story after our era. It also seems to prove that in Lieh-tsz’s time (i.e. immediately after Confucius) the story was already known (and probably the book of travels too), Confucius himself having mentioned one of the tribes visited by the Emperor. The Bamboo Books bring history down to 299 B.C., and were found, together with the travels of the Emperor Muh, in A.D. 281. The Bamboo Books not only support part of the story of the Emperor Muh’s travels, but their accuracy in dates has been shown by Professor Chavannes to strengthen the credibility of Confucius’ own history: a reference to Chapter XXXII. on the Calendar will explain what is meant by “accuracy in dates.” Finally, we have Sz-ma Ts’ien’s history of go B.C., citing the Chou Annals and the Ts’in Annals, or what survived of them after incessant wars between 400 and 200 B.C., and after the destruction of literature in 213 B.C.
This point settled, the next thing is to consider Professor Chavannes’ reasons for supposing that Duke Muh of Ts’in (650 B.C.) and not the Emperor Muh of Chou (984 B.C.) was the real traveller:–
1. He shows that the ruling princes of Ts’in and Chao hailed from the same ancestors, were contiguous states, and, besides being largely Tartar themselves, ruled all the Tartars along the (present) Great Wall line: also that the naming of individual horses and other features of the Emperor’s travels recalls features equally prominent in later Turkish history. This is all undoubtedly true: compare page 206.
2. He shows that the Duke Muh’s chief claim to glory was his successes against the Tartars of the West. This is also quite certain. 3. He thinks that in 984 B.C. the literary capacity of China was not equal to the composition of such a sustained work as the Travels.
4. He also thinks that the real Chinese found in Ts’in the traditions relating to Duke Muh, and then, for the glory of China, appropriated them to the Emperor Muh, and foisted them upon orthodox history.
There is a great deal to be said for this view, which has, besides, many other minor points of detail in its favour. But it may be answered:–
1. Chou itself was in the eyes of China proper, once a “barbarian" tribe of the west, as the founder of the Chou dynasty in 1122 B.C. himself showed when he addressed his neighbours and allies, the eight other states of the west, and exhorted them, as equals, to assist him in the conquest of China. It was only in 771 B.C. that the original Chou appanage (since 1122 the western half of the imperial appanage) had been ceded to Ts’in, which in 984 was a petty state, still of the “adjunct-function” (cf. page 144) type, and not “sovereign.” In 984 there was no intermediate sovereign “power” between the Emperor and the Tartars, with whom, in fact, he had been directly engaged in war independently of Ts’in. He was as much under Tartar social influences as was Ts’in: in fact, the Chou principality, under the Shang dynasty, was a sort of first edition of Ts’in principality under the Chou dynasty. Just as in 1122 B.C. Chou ousted Shang as the imperial house, so in 221 B.C. Ts’in definitely replaced Chou.
2. If Duke Muh distinguished himself by Tartar conquests, so did the Emperor Muh before him, and the authorities are all agreed on this point.
3. If in 984 B.C. the long-standing orthodox Chinese literary capacity was unequal to this effort, how is it that semi-barbarous Ts’in, the least literary of all the states (not only Chinese, but also half-Chinese), into which state records had only been introduced at all in 753 B.C., was able to compose such a book; or, if not to write the book, then to dictate so sustained and connected a story? Besides, the Emperor Muh left several inscriptions carved on stone during the progress of his travels.
4. The instances M. Chavannes cites of the tombs of Yue and Shun in South China, as being parallel instances of appropriation by orthodox Chinese of semi-Chinese traditions have already been put to quite another use above, as tending to show, on the contrary, that those two Emperors either came from the south, or had ancestral traditions in the south; (see pp. 138,191).
5. Finally, about a third of the Travels is taken up with a description of the incestuous intrigue with Lady Ki, and of her sumptuous ritual funeral. Why should Duke Muh trouble himself about the rites due to members of the Ki family, to which the Emperor belonged, but he himself did not? Why should the warlike Duke Muh (who had just then been recommended by an adviser (an ex- Chinese, since become a Tartar) to adopt simple Tartar ways instead of worrying himself with the Odes and the Book “as the Chinese did”) waste his time in pomp and ritual? ( see p. 180). Again, when, as the Travels tell us, various vassal rulers from orthodox China (even so far as Shan Tung in the extreme east) arrived to pay their respects to the Emperor as their liege-lord, how is it possible to suppose that these orthodox counts and barons would come to pay court to a semi-barbarian count (for that was all he was) like Duke Muh (as he is posthumously called), one of their equals, a man who took no part in the durbar affairs, and who, on account of his human sacrifices, was not even thought fit to become an emergency Protector of China? What could the semi- Tartar ruler of Ts’in have known of all these wearisome refinements in pomp, mourning, and music? Once more, the place the Emperor started from and came back to, though part of his appanage in 984 B.C. and possessing an ancestral Chou temple, was not part of the Ts’in dominions in 650 B.C., and never possessed a Ts’in temple: if not independent, it was at that time a bone of contention between Ts’in and Ts’u, and by no means a safe place for equipping pleasure expeditions. Finally, if it is marvellous that the Chou Annals of Sz-ma Ts’ien do not give full details of the voyage, is it not at least equally marvellous that the Ts’in Annals should not mention it in 650 B.C., when M. Chavannes supposes it took place, whilst they do so mention it under 984 B.C., when he thinks it did not take place? All accounts agree that the ancestor of Ts’in (named) was there with the Emperor as charioteer; he was, as we have seen, equally ancestor of Chao, and the Chao Annals of Sz-ma Ts’ien say exactly what the Ts’in Annals say.
Hence we may gratefully accept Professor Chavannes’ most illuminating proofs, so far as they tend to show that the Travels of the Emperor Muh are genuine history for a tour no farther than the middle Tarim Valley; but, so far as Duke Muh of Ts’in is concerned, he must be eliminated from all consideration of the matter, and we must ascribe the tour, as the Chinese do, to the Emperor Muh. Lastly, are there any proved instances of such radical tamperings with history by the Chinese annalists as M. Chavannes suggests? I do not know of any; and such superficial tamperings as there are the Chinese critics always expose, coute que coute, even though Confucius himself be the tamperer.