Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XXXVII - Ethics
We propose to say a few words now about peculiar customs which had vogue all over or in certain parts of China; of course some of them may be traced back to the “Rites of Chou,” and to what is prescribed therein; but general administrative schemes representing in general terms things as they ought to be, or as the Chou federal and feudal oligarchy would have liked them to be, do not give us such a life-like picture of ancient China as specific accounts of definite events which really did happen. Take, for instance, the peculiar formalities connected with abject surrender.
After a great defeat in 699 B.C., just when Ts’u was beginning to emerge from its narrow confines between the Han and Yang-tsz Rivers, the defeated Ts’u generals had themselves bound in fetters, or with ropes, in order to await their king’s pleasure. In 654, when Ts’u had one of the small orthodox states (in the Ho Nan nucleus) at its mercy, the baron presented himself with his hands tied behind, a piece of jade in his mouth, followed by his suite in mourning, carrying his coffin. It is evident that at this date Ts’u was still “barbarous,” for the king had to ask what it all meant. It was explained to him that, when the Chou founder conquered China, and mutilated the last Shang dynasty emperor, that emperor’s elder brother by an inferior mother had presented himself before the founder half naked, with his hands tied behind his back, his left hand leading a ram (or goat), and his right carrying sedge for wrapping round the sacrificial victim; he was enfeoffed as Duke of Sung. In 537 the same thing happened to a later King of Ts’u in connection with another petty principality, and the king had to be reminded of the 654 precedent. Thus there must have been records of some kind in Ts’u at an early date. In 645 B.C., when the ruler of Ts’in took prisoner his brother-in- law, the ruler of Tsin, and was seriously contemplating the annexation of Tsin, together with the duty of discharging Tsin sacrifices, his own sister, with bare feet, wearing mourning, and bound with a mourning belt, intercedes successfully for her husband. In 597 B.C. the ruler of the important orthodox state of Cheng went through the form of dragging along, with the upper part of his own body uncovered, a ram or goat into the presence of the King of Ts’u. In 511, when the ruler of Lu had to fly the country and throw himself upon the generosity of Tsin, in order to escape from the dangerous machinations of the intriguing great families of Lu, the six Tsin statesmen (who were themselves at that moment, as heads of great private clans, gradually undermining their own prince’s rights) sent for the arch-intriguer, and called upon him to explain his conduct. At that time Lu was coquetting between its two powerful neighbours, Tsin and Ts’i. The conspirator duly presented himself before the Areopagus of Tsin grandees, barefoot and attired in common cloth (i.e. not of silk, but of hemp), in order to explain to them the circumstances of the duke’s exile: it is characteristic of the times, and also of the frankness of history, to find it added that he succeeded in bribing the grandees to give an unjust decision. When the Kings of Yueeh and Wu were in turn at each other’s mercy, in 494 and 473 respectively, their envoys, in offering submission, in each case advanced to the conqueror “walking on the knees,” with bust bared: this knee-walking suggests Annamese, Siamese, and possibly Japanese forms rather than Chinese. The Wu servants at dinner are said to have “waited” on their knees. The third and last August Emperor in 207 submitted to the conquering Han dynasty seated in an unadorned chariot, drawn by a white horse (with signs of mourning), carrying his seal-sash round his neck (figurative of hanging or strangling himself), and offered the seals of the Son of Heaven to the Prince of Han.
Something has already been said about the rules of succession in Ts’u and Ts’in. When the Duke of Sung just mentioned died, in 1078 B.C., he was succeeded by his younger brother because his own son was dead; this was in accordance with the Shang dynasty’s ritual laws. Even the Warrior King himself, founder of the Chou dynasty, was not the eldest son of his father, the (posthumously) Civilian King; the latter had set aside the elder of the two sons; and it will be remembered that, several generations before that, two of the royal Chou brothers had voluntarily retired to colonize the Wu Jungle country, in order that their younger brother, father of the future Civilian King, might succeed to the then extremely limited vassal state of Chou. Later on, in 729, a Duke of Sung on his death-bed bequeathed the succession to his younger brother instead of to his own son, on the ground that the rule is, “son to father, younger to elder brother"–a “universal rule” approved by Mencius in later times. The younger brother in this case thrice refused the kingly crown, but at last accepted, and Confucius in his history censures the act, which, it is considered, contributed to Sung’s ultimate downfall. (It must be remembered that Confucius’ ancestors were themselves of royal Sung extraction.) In 652 the younger brother by the superior spouse wished, at his father’s death-bed, to cede his right to the succession of Sung to his elder brother by an inferior wife; the dying father commended the spirit, but forbade the proposed sacrifice of prior right, and the elder therefore served the younger as counsellor. In 493 a Duke of Sung, irritated on account of his eldest son having left the country, nominated a younger son as successor, and after his death his wife confirmed by decree her late husband’s nomination; but the younger brother firmly declined, on the ground that the rule of succession was a fixed one, and that he was unworthy to perform the sacrifices to the gods of the land and grain. It is a curious coincidence that the question of status in wives affects the present rulers of both China and Japan. Though the dowager was Empress-Mother, she always ceded the pas to the senior dowager, who had no children. And as to the Mikado’s mother, who died last October, she was, it seems, never officially considered as an Empress.
In 817 B.C. the Emperor himself is censured by history for having, “contrary to rule,” wished to set up as ruler of Lu a second son in preference to the elder son; he repeated the act in 796, as has already been explained in Chapter XX., when a few other instances were cited to illustrate the general rule in China. At this time the waning power of the emperors still evidently flickered. In 608, through the meddlesome political interference of Ts’i, a concubine’s son succeeded to the Lu throne in preference to the legitimate wife’s son; curiously enough, the legitimate wife was a Ts’i princess. The result of this irregularity was that the “three powerful families” of Lu (themselves descendants of the ruling family) grew restless, and the state began to decline. On the death of a King of Ts’u in 516, it was proposed to put on the throne, instead of the king’s young son, the king’s younger brother by an inferior mother, on the ground that the mother of the young son in question was the wife obtained from Ts’in by the king for marriage to his eldest son (who had since joined the king’s enemies), which young lady the king had subsequently decided to marry himself. Even under this irregular and complicated family tangle, the proposed succession was disapproved by the counsellors, on the ground that irregular successions invariably produced trouble in the state. In the year 450 B.C. the ruler of Ts’i insisted, against advice, on the succession of a younger son by a favourite concubine in preference to his elder sons by superior mothers, including the first and most dignified spouse. But here, again, the powerful families intervened; one of the elder sons, who had fled to Lu, was brought back secretly in a sack; the wrongful successor was murdered, and the “powerful family” which took the lead in state affairs soon afterwards, to the horror of Confucius, by intrigue and by further assassination, secured the Ts’i throne for itself. It will thus be noticed that all the great states except Ts’in had their full share of succession troubles.
There were several customs practised in warfare which are worthy of short notice. In 633 B.C. a Ts’u general, in the interests of discipline, flogged several military men, and “had the ears of others pierced by arrows, according to military regulation.” In 639 this same king had sent as a present to some princesses of other states, who had congratulated him on his victory over Sung, “a pile of the enemy’s left ears.” As the historians express their disgust at this indelicate act, it was presumably not an orthodox practice, at all events in this particular form. In 607 there were captured from Sung 450 war-chariots and 250 soldiers; the latter had their left ears cut off; in this case the victors were CHENG troops, acting under Ts’u’s orders, and it is presumed that CHENG officers cut off the ears under Ts’u’s commands. A few years later two or three Ts’u generals were discussing what the ancients did when they challenged for a battle; it was decided that the best “form” was to rush up to the entrenchments, cut off an enemy’s left ear, carry him away in your chariot, and rush back to your own camp. As there is a special Chinese character or pictograph for “ears cut off in battle,” it thus appears that to a certain extent even the orthodox Chinese practised the “scalping” art, which was doubtless intended to furnish easy proof of claims for reward based upon prowess; in fact, even in modern official Chinese, a decapitated head is called a “head-step,” an expression evidently dating from the time when a step in rank was given for each head or group of heads taken.
Rulers, whether the Emperor or vassals, faced south in the exercise of their sovereign powers. Thus, when the Duke of Chou, after the death of his brother the Martial King, acted as Regent pending the minority of the Martial King’s son, his own nephew, he faced south; but he faced north once more when he resumed his status of subject. It has already been mentioned, in Chapter XX., that in 640 B.C. the state of Lu made the south gate of the Lu capital the Law Gate, because it was by the south gates that all rulers’ commands emanated. In 546 a counsellor of Ts’u explained to the king how, since Tsin influence had predominated in the orthodox state of CHENG, this last had ceased to “face south towards its former protector.” Thus, though the Emperor faces south towards the sun, and his subjects in turn face north in his honour, those subjects face their other protector in whatever direction he may lie, supposing the Emperor’s protection to be inadequate. It is evidently the same principle as “bowing towards the east,” and “turning towards Mecca,” both of which formalities must be modified according to place. In 315 B.C., when Yen (the Peking plain) had become one of the six independent kingdoms, a usurper (to whom the King of Yen had foolishly committed full powers) “turned south” to perform acts of sovereignty in the king’s name. In 700 B.C., in the orthodox state of Wei, we hear of “princes of the left and right,” which is explained to mean “sons of mothers whose official place is left or right of the principal spouse.” Right used to be more honourable than left in China, but left now takes precedence of right. Thus the provinces of Shan Tung and Shan Si are also called “Left of the Mountains” and “Right of the Mountains,” because the Emperor faces south. Notwithstanding, the ancient phraseology sometimes survives; for instance, “stands right of him” means “is better than he is,” and “to left him” means “to prove him wrong or worse.” All yamens in China face south; there are rare exceptions, usually owing to building difficulties. Once, in the province of Kwei Chou, I was officially invited by the mandarin to take my seat on his right instead of on his left, because, as he explained, his yamen door did not face south, but west; and, he added, it was more honourable for me, as an official guest, to sit north, facing west, than to sit south, facing west. In Canton, the Viceroy used out of courtesy to sit south, facing north, and make his own interpreter sit north, facing south; the consul sat east, facing west, and the consul’s interpreter sat west, facing east. But the consul could not have presumed to occupy the north seat thus given to an inferior on the principle of de minimis non curat lex; nor was the Viceroy willing to assert his “command" to a guest. In 436 the armies of Yiieh marching north through Ho Nan called the Chinese places lying to their west the “left” towns; but that was perhaps because Yiieh came marching from the south. In 221 B.C., when for the first time South China to the sea became part of the imperial dominions, the Emperor’s territory was described as extending southward to the “north-facing houses.” Hong Kong and Canton are just on the tropical line; but the island of Hainan, and also Tonquin, are actually in the tropics. Whether the houses there do really face north–which I have never noticed–or whether the expression is merely symbolical, I cannot say; but the idea is “to the regions where, when the sun is on the tropic, you have to turn north to see him.”
A point of honour in China was not to make war on an enemy who was in mourning, but this rule seems to have been honoured in the breach as much as in the observance thereof. Two centuries before the Chou dynasty came into power, an emperor of the Shang dynasty distinguished himself by not speaking at all during the three years he occupied the mourning hut near the grave. As we have seen, the first rulers of Lu (as a Chou fief) modified existing customs, and introduced the three years’ mourning rule there. In connection with a Sung funeral in 651 B.C., it is explained that the bier lay between the two front pillars, and not, as with the Chou dynasty, on the top of the west side steps; it will be remembered that Sung represented the sacrifices of the extinct Shang dynasty. That same year the future Second Protector (then a refugee among the Tartars) declined to put in a claim to the Tsin succession against his brothers “because he had not been in mourning whilst a fugitive.” In 642 Sung and her allies made war on Ts’i, which was then mourning for the First Protector; by a just Nemesis the Tartars came to the rescue and saved Ts’i. In 627, after the Second Protector’s death, Ts’in declared war, whilst Tsin was mourning, upon a petty orthodox principality belonging to the same clan as Tsin and the Emperor, and belonging also to the Tsin vassal system. This so enraged the new ruler of Tsin that he dyed his white mourning clothes black, so as to avenge the insult, and yet not to outrage the rites: moreover, white was unlucky in warfare: victorious over Ts’in, he then proceeded to mourn for his father, and ever after that black was adopted, by way of memento, as the national colour of Tsin. In 626 and 622 the Emperor sent high officers to represent him at Lu funerals, and to carry gems to place in deceased’s mouth, “to show that he (the Emperor) had not the heart to leave the deceased unsupplied with food.” In 581 the ruler of Lu, being on a visit to Tsin, was forcibly detained by Tsin, in order to swell the importance of a Tsin ruler’s funeral. Lu (like the petty orthodox states of Wei, Sung, CHENG, etc., further south) was nearly always under the rival political constraint of either Ts’i, Tsin, or Ts’u; and this factor must accordingly also be taken into account in explaining Confucius’ longing for the good old days of imperial predominance. In 572 Tsin attacked Cheng, though of the same clan as itself, whilst in mourning; but in 567 semi-barbarian Ts’u set a good example to orthodox Tsin by withdrawing its troops out of deference to a later official mourning then in force in Cheng: in 564 the King of Ts’u withdrew his armies home altogether on account of the mourning due to his own deceased mother. In 560 barbarian Wu attacked Ts’u whilst in mourning for the above king (the one who first conquered the Canton region for Ts’u); but, here again, by a just Nemesis, Wu’s army was cut to pieces, and Wu’s own ally, Tsin, censured her for having done such an improper thing. In 544 the prime minister of Tsin mourned for his Ts’u co- signatory of the celebrated Peace Conference Treaty of 546; and this graceful act is explained to be in accordance with the rites. In 544 Ts’u herself was in mourning, and in accordance with the terms of the Peace Conference Treaty, under which the Tsin vassals and the Ts’u vassals were to pay their respects to Ts’u and Tsin respectively–Ts’in and Ts’i, as great powers, being excused, or, rather, discreetly left alone–Ts’u put great pressure on Lu to secure the personal presence of the Lu ruler at the Ts’u funeral. The orthodox duke did not at all like this “truckling to a barbarian"; but one of his counsellors suggested behaving before the corpse as he would behave to a vassal of his own: this was done, and the unsophisticated Ts’u was none the wiser at the time, though, later on, the king discovered the pious fraud. In 514 B.C. Wu wished to attack Ts’u while, mourning, and the virtuous Ki- chah was promptly sent by Wu to sound Tsin about the facheuse situation. At a Lu funeral in 509, it was explained that the new duke could only mount the throne after the burial was over; it was added “even the Son of Heaven’s commands do not run in Lu during this critical period; a fortiori is the duke not capable of transacting his own subjects’ business.” But long before this, when the First Protector died, in 643, his body lay for sixty-seven days in the coffin unattended, whilst his five sons were wrangling about the succession; in fact, the worms were observed crawling out of the coffin. These painful details have a powerful historical interest, for when (as mentioned on p. 209) his tomb was opened nearly 1000 years later, dogs had to be sent in ahead to test the air, as the stench was so great. In 492 an unpopular prince of Wei was in Tsin, which state had an interest in placing him on the throne. There happened to be in Tsin at that moment a scoundrel who had fled to Tsin from Lu, because he had found Confucius too strong for him in Lu; and this man suggested to Tsin that it would be a good plan to send seventy Wei men back to Wei in mourning clothes and sash, so as to make the Wei people think that the prince was dead, and thus gain an opportunity to “run him in” by surprise, and set him up as ruler. In 489, when the King of Ts’u died in the field of battle, his three brothers, all of whom had declined his offer of the throne, but one of whom had at last accepted in order to give the dying man peace, decided to conceal the king’s death from the army whilst they sent for his son by a Yiieh mother, pleading that the king had been non compos mentis when he proposed an irregular succession, and that the promise made to him was, therefore, of no avail. In 485 Lu and Wu joined in an attack upon Ts’i during the latter’s mourning–a particularly disgraceful political combination: no wonder Confucius was hastily sent for from the state of CH’EN, whither he had previously retired in disgust at the corruption of his native land. In 481 a conspiracy which was going on in Ts’i was delayed because one of the chief actors, being in mourning, could not attend to public business of any kind. In 332 B.C. Ts’i took ten towns from Yen by successfully attacking her whilst in mourning; one of the travelling diplomats and intriguers so common in China at that period insisted upon the towns being restored. This was at the exact moment when the philosopher Mencius, who seems to have also been a great political dilettante, was circulating to and fro between such monarchs as the Kings of Ts’i and Ngwei, alias Liang, as is fully explained in the still extant book of Mencius.
All the above quaint instances, novel though they may be in detail, strongly recall to us in principle our own “rules” of international law, which are always liable to unexpected “construction” according to the exigencies of war and the power wielded by the “constructor.” Inter arma leges silent. As usual in these ritual matters, Ts’in is distinguished by total absence of mention.