Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XLIV - Confucius
Confucius has hitherto appeared to many of us Westerners as a stiff, incomprehensible individual, resting his claim to immortality upon sententious nothingnesses directed to no obvious practical purpose; but, from the slight sketches of the manners of the times in which he lived given above, it will be apparent that he was a practical man with a definite object in view, and that both his barebones history and his jerky moral teachings were the best he could do with sorry material, and in the face of inveterate corruption and tyranny. It has been explained how the Warrior King who conquered China for the Chou family in 1122, about a dozen years later enfeoffed the elder brother of the last Shang dynasty emperor in the country of Sung, where he ruled the greater part of what was left of the late dynasty’s immediate entourage, and kept up the sacrifices. This is what Confucius meant when he said: “There remain not in K’i sufficient indications of what the institutions of the Hia dynasty were; but I have studied in Sung what survives of the Shang dynasty institutions. In practice I follow the Chou dynasty institutions, as I have studied them at home in Lu.” K’i was a very petty state of marquess rank situated near Lu, to which, indeed, it was subordinate; but just as Sung had, as representatives of the Shang dynasty, the privilege of carrying out certain imperial sacrifices, so had K’i, as representatives of the Hia dynasty (enfeoffed by Chou in 1122), an equal right to distinction. Confucius’ ancestors were natives of Sung and scions of the ducal family reigning there; in fact, in 893 his ancestor ought to have succeeded to the Sung throne: in 710 B.C. the last of these ancestors to hold high official rank in Sung was killed, together with his princely master; and several generations after that the great-grandfather of Confucius, in order to avoid the secular spite of the powerful family who had so killed his ancestor, decided to migrate to Lu. In other words, he just crossed the modern Grand Canal (then the river Sz, which rose in Lu), and moved a few days’ journey north-east to the nearest civilized state of any standing. Confucius’ father is no mythical personage, but a stout, common soldier, whose doughty deeds under three successive dukes are mentioned in the Lu history quite in a casual and regular way. When still quite a child, Confucius disclosed a curious fancy for playing with sacrificial objects and practising ceremonies, just as English children in the nursery sometimes play at “being parson and sexton,” and at “having feasts.” When he grew up to manhood, a high officer of Lu foretold his future greatness, not only on account of his precociously grave demeanour, but also because he was in direct descent from the Shang dynasty, and because the intrigues that had taken place in Sung had deprived him of his succession rights there also. This high officer’s two sons, both frequently mentioned by various contemporary authors, and one of whom subsequently went with Confucius to visit Lao-tsz at the imperial court, thereupon studied the rites under the man of whom their father had spoken so well. The only official appointment in Lu that Confucius was able to obtain at this period was that of steward to one of the “powerful families” then engaged in the task, so congenial in those times all over China, of undermining the ducal authority; this appointment was a kind of stewardship, in which his duties consisted in tallying the measures of grain and checking the heads of cattle. One of the two sons of the above-mentioned statesman who had foreseen Confucius’ distinction, some time after this submitted a request to the ruler of Lu that he might proceed in company with Confucius to visit the imperial capital; and it is supposed by Sz-ma Ts’ien, the historian of 100 B.C., that this was the occasion on which took place the philosopher’s famous interview with Lao-tsz. In this connection there are two or three remarks to make. In the first place, it is recorded of nearly all the vassal states that they either did pay visits to, or wished to visit, the metropolis; and that royal dukes and royal historians, either at vassal request or under imperial instruction, took part in advising vassal states. In the second place, as Confucius then held no high office, his visit, being a private affair, would not be considered worth mentioning in the Lu annals, and it would therefore almost follow as a matter of course that the young man who accompanied him, being of official status by birth, would count as the chief personage. In the third place, there is no instance in the Confucian histories of a mere archive-keeper or a mere philosopher being mentioned on account of his importance in that capacity. Such men as Tsz-ch’an, Shuh Hiang, Ki-chah, and the other distinguished “ritualists” of the time, are not mentioned so much on account of their abstract teachings as they are on account of their being able statesmen, competent to stave off the rising tide of revolutionary opinions. Even Confucius himself only appears in contemporary annals as an able administrator and diplomat; there is no particular mention of his “school,” and, a fortiori, he himself does not mention Lao-tsz’s “school,” even if Lao-tsz had one; for he disapproved of Lao-tsz’s republican and democratic way of construing the ancient tao. Finally, neither Confucius nor Lao-tsz, however great their local reputations, were yet universally “great"; they were consequently as little the objects of hero-worship as was Shakespeare when he was at the height of his activity; and of the living Shakespeare we know next to nothing. At this time Lu was in a quandary, surrounded by the rival great powers of Tsin, Ts’i, and Ts’u, all three of which absolutely ignored the Emperor, except so far as they might succeed in using him and his ritualistic prestige as a cat’s-paw in their own selfish interests. When Confucius was thirty years of age (522 B.C.) the ruler of Ts’i, accompanied by his minister the philosopher Yen-tsz, paid a visit to Lu, and had a discussion with Confucius upon the question: “How did Ts’in, from beginnings so small and obscure, reach her present commanding position?” Besides this, the Ts’i ruler and his henchman Yen-tsz both took the opportunity to study the rites at Lu. This fact seems to support the (later) statement that Confucius had himself been to study the rites at the metropolis, and also to explain Confucius’ own confession that he did not understand much about the Hia dynasty institutions that used to exist in K’i,–a state lying eastward of Ts’i. In 520 the last envoy ever sent from Lu to the Chou metropolis reported on his return that the imperial family was in a state of feud and anarchy: if, as it is stated, this was really the last envoy from Lu, then Confucius and his friend must have visited Lao-tsz before the former reached the age of thirty. Tsin and Lu were both now in a revolutionary condition, and a struggle with the “powerful families” was going on in each case; it was also beginning in Ts’i, and in principle seems to have been exactly akin to our English struggle between King John and his barons (as champions of popular rights) against the greed of the tax-collector. To avoid home troubles, Confucius at the age of thirty-five went to Ts’i, in order, if possible, to serve his friend the Marquess, who had a few years before consulted him about the rise of Ts’in. There perhaps it was that he found an opportunity to study the music of the Hia dynasty at the petty state of K’i, only one day’s journey east of the Ts’i capital, on the north-east frontier of Lu; and then it must have been that he formed his opinion about the surviving Hia rites. His advice to the reigning prince of Ts’i was so highly appreciated that it was proposed to confer an estate upon him. It is interesting to note that the jealous Yen-tsz (who was much admired as a companionable man by Confucius) protested against this grant, on the ground that “men of his views are sophistical rhetoricians, intoxicated with the exuberance of their own verbosity; incompetent to administer the people; wasting time and money upon expensive funerals. Life is too short to waste in trying to get to the bottom of these inane studies.” From this it will be seen that Lao-tsz was by no means alone in despising Confucius’ conservative and ritualistic views, though it is quite possible that Yen-tsz may still have respected him as a man and a politician. Finally, Confucius, finding that the Ts’i ministers were all arrayed against him, and that the Marquess fain confessed himself too old to fight his battles for him, quitted the country and returned home. His own duke died in exile in 510 B.C., power remaining in the intriguing hands of an influential private family; and for at least ten years Confucius held no office in his native land, but spent his time in editing the Odes, the Book, the Chou Rites, and the Music; by some it is even thought that he not only edited but composed the Book (of History), or put together afresh such parts of the old Book as suited his didactic purposes. Meanwhile the private family intrigues went on more actively than ever; until at last, in 501, when Confucius was fifty years of age, the most formidable agitator of them all, finding his position untenable, escaped to Ts’i; it even seems that Confucius placed, or thought of placing, his services at the disposal of one of these rebel subjects. Possibly it was in view of such contingencies that the reigning duke at last gave Confucius a post as governor of a town, where his administration was so admirable that he soon passed through higher posts to that of Chief Justice, or Minister of Justice. Confucius’ views on law are well known. He totally disapproved of Tsz-ch’an’s publication of the law in the orthodox state of Cheng, as explained in Chapter XX., holding that the judge should always “declare” the law, and make the punishment fit the crime, instead of giving the people opportunities to test how far they could strain the literal terms of the law. He also said: “I am like others in administering the law; I apply it to each case; it is necessary to slay one in order not to have to slay more. The ancients understood prevention better than we do now; at present all we can hope to do is to avoid punishing unjustly. The ancients strove to save a prisoner’s life; now we can only do our best to prove his guilt. However, better let a guilty man go free than slay an innocent one.”
Confucius’ old friend the ruler of Ts’i was still alive (he reigned fifty-eight years, one of the longest reigns on record in Chinese history), and he had just suffered serious humiliation at the hands of the barbarous King of Wu, to whose heir-apparent he had been obliged to send one of his daughters in marriage. The Protectorate of China was going a-begging for want of a worthy sovereign, and it looked at one time as though Confucius’ stern and efficient administration would secure the coveted prize for Lu. The Marquess of Ts’i therefore formed a treacherous plot to assassinate both master and man, and with this end in view sent an envoy to propose a friendly conference. It was on this occasion that Confucius uttered his famous saying (quoted, however, from what “he had heard”) that “they who discuss by diplomacy should always have the support of a military backing.” A couple of generals accordingly accompanied the party to the trysting-place; and it is presumed that the generals had a force of soldiers with them, even though the indispensable common people be not worth mention in Chinese history. In conformity with practice, an altar or dai’s was constructed; wine was offered, and the usual rites were being fulfilled to the utmost, when suddenly a Ts’i officer advanced rapidly and said: “I now propose to introduce some foreign musicians,” a band of whom at once entered the arena, with brandished weapons, waving feathers, and noisy yells. Confucius saw through this sinister manoeuvre at once, and, hastily mounting the dais (except, out of respect, the last step), expostulated in the plainest terms. The ruler of Ts’i was so ashamed of his position that he at once sent the dancers away. But a second group of mountebanks were promptly introduced in spite of this check. Confucius was so angry, that he demanded their instant execution under the law (presumably a general imperial law) “providing the punishment of death for those who should excite animosity between princes.” Heads and legs soon covered the ground; and Confucius played his other cards so well that he secured, in the sequel, a formal treaty, actually surrendering to Lu certain territories that had unlawfully been held for some years by Ts’i. On the other hand, Lu had to promise to aid Ts’i with 22,500 men in case Ts’i should engage in any “foreign” war–probably alluding to Wu. Two or three years after that stirring event there was civil war in Lu, owing to Confucius having insisted on the “barons” dismantling their private fortresses.
At the age of fifty-six Confucius left his post as Minister of Justice to take up that of First Counsellor: his first act was to put to death a grandee who was sowing disorder in the state. It was during these years of supreme administration that complete order was restored throughout the country; thieves disappeared; “sucking-pigs and lambs were sold for honest prices"; and there was general content and rejoicing throughout the land. All this made the neighbouring people of Ts’i more and more uneasy, even to the point of fearing annexation by Lu. The wily old Marquess therefore, again at the instigation of the man who had planned the attempted assassination of 500 B.C., made a selection of eighty of the most beautiful women Ts’i could produce, besides thirty four- horsed chariots of the most magnificent description. The reigning Marquess of Lu, as well as his “powerful family” friend against whom Confucius had once thought of taking arms (who, indeed, acted as intermediary) both fell into the trap: public duty and sacrifices were neglected; and the result was that Confucius at once threw up his offices and left the country in disgust. His first visit was to Wei (imperial clan), the capital city of which state then stood on the Yellow River, in the extreme north-east part of modern Ho Nan province; and through this capital the river then ran: the metropolis of one of the very ancient emperors previous to the Hia dynasty had nearly 2000 years before been in the immediate neighbourhood, as also had been the last capital of the Shang dynasty, of which, as we have seen, Confucius was a distant scion. After a few months’ stay there, he was suspected and calumniated; so he decided to move on, although the ruler of Wei had generously appropriated to him a salary (in grain) suitable to his high rank. He accordingly proceeded eastwards to a town belonging to Sung (in the extreme south of modern Chih Li province): here he had the misfortune to be mistaken for the dangerous individual who had fled from Lu to Ts’i in 501, in consequence of which he returned to stay in Wei with his friend K’u-peh-yuh, who, as mentioned in Chapter XXVIII., had been visited by Ki-chah of Wu in 544 B.C. Here, as a distinguished traveller, he was asked (practically commanded) by one of the ruler’s wives to pay her a visit; and, though the reluctant visit was paid with all propriety and reserve, the fact that this woman was at the time suspected of having committed incest with her own brother is considered by uncompromising native critics to leave a slight stain on Confucius’ character. Worse still, the reigning prince took his wife out for a drive with a eunuch sitting in the same carriage, ordering the sage to follow the party in an inferior carriage. This was too much for Confucius, who then resumed his original journey through Sung, from which he had turned back, and proceeded to the small state of Ts’ao (imperial clan; still called Ts’ao-thou, extreme south-west of modern Shan Tung province). To-day he would have had to cross the Yellow River, but of course none is here mentioned, as Confucius had already left it behind at the Wei capital: in fact, he had been on the right bank ever since he left his own country. This was 495 B.C. After a short stay in Ts’ao, the philosopher proceeded south towards the capital of Sung (modern Kwei-teh Fu in the extreme east of Ho Nan). For some reason the Minister of War there wished to assassinate him–probably because the arch-intriguer whom Confucius had driven out of Lu in 501, and who had taken refuge first in Ts’i and then in Sung, had calumniated him there. Confucius thereupon made his way westwards, over the various headwaters of the River Hwai, to Cheng (imperial clan), the state which had been for a generation so admirably administered by Tsz- ch’an: in fact, a man outside the city gate observed “how like Tsz-ch’an” the stranger looked. Some accounts make out that Tsz- ch’an was then only just dead, but the better opinion is that he had already then been dead for twenty-seven years: in any case it is curious that Confucius, who was a very tall man, should twice be mistaken for other persons. Thence Confucius turned back south- east to the orthodox state of Ch’en (modern Ch’en-chou Fu in Eastern Ho Nan). This was one of the very oldest principalities in China, dating from even before the Hia dynasty (2205 B.C.); and the Warrior King of Chou, after conquering the empire in 1122 B.C., had industriously sought out the most suitable lineal descendant to take over the ancient fee of his remote ancestor, and continue the sacrifices.
Confucius remained in Ch’en over three years, and during that time the barbarian King of Wu annexed several neighbouring towns, whilst Tsin and Ts’u ravaged the surrounding country in turn, in their rival efforts to secure a predominant influence there. Here it was, too, that a bird of prey, pierced with a strange arrow, fell near the prince’s palace: from the wood used in making the arrow and the peculiar stone barb employed to tip it, Confucius was able to explain that the bird must have flown from (modern) Manchuria. (This annual flight of bustards and geese, to and from the Steppes, may be observed any winter to-day.) He next turned north, and arrived once more at the spot in Sung he had visited in 496: here he was arrested, but set free on his solemn promise that he would not go to Wei, which state at the moment was considering the advisability of attacking that very Sung town. Confucius deliberately broke his plighted word, on the ground that “promises extorted by violence are void, and are not recognized by the gods.” (These words, which, after all, are good English law, were quoted by the irate Chang Chf-tung when Russia “extorted” the Livadia Treaty from Ch’unghou.) On his arrival in Wei, he advised his old friend, the Wei duke, to attack the Sung town he had just left. But the duke thought it best to have the Yellow River between himself and the rival states of Ts’u and Tsin (this specific mention of the Yellow River as being west of a city in long. 114o 30’ E. is interesting). The latter state, Tsin, then held most of the left bank. Confucius even thought of accepting the invitation of a Tsin rebel to go and assist him: this was just at the moment when the “six families” were gradually breaking up the once powerful northern orthodox state. He also hesitated whether he would not do better, as the prince of Wei would not employ him, to proceed west to Tsin in order there to serve one of the contending six families: in fact he actually got as far as the Yellow River (another proof that it must then have run on the west side of Wei-hwei Fu in Ho Nan); but turned back to Wei on hearing unfavourable news from the Tsin capital (in south Shan Si). As the Wei prince treated him somewhat cavalierly during an interview, he decided to go back once more due south to the ancient state of Ch’en. Here (492) he heard news of the destruction by fire of some of the Lu ancestral temples, and of the death of the “powerful family” minister whose disgraceful conduct with the singing girls had led to his departure from Lu in disgust. This minister was a sort of hereditary maire du palais, an arrangement which seems to have been customary in many states, and his last words to his son were: “When you succeed me, send for Confucius: my administration has failed: I did wrong in dismissing him.” The son had not the courage to ask Confucius himself, but he sent instead for one of the philosopher’s disciples, and it was arranged with Confucius’ friends that this disciple on taking office should send for Confucius himself, who really wished to be employed in Lu again. Meanwhile Confucius decided to visit the orthodox state of Ts’ai (imperial clan), lying to the south of Che’n: the capital of this state had been originally a town on the upper waters of the Hwai River, right in the heart of modern Ho Nan province; but, under stress of the Tsin and T’su wars, it had twice moved its chief city eastwards, and owing to a Ts’u invasion, it was now (491) on the main Hwai River in modern An Hwei province, and was at the moment under the political influence of Wu; it is not clear, however, whether Confucius visited the old or the new capital. After a year’s stay here, Confucius went further westwards to a certain Ts’u town (near Nan-yang Fu in Ho Nan), passing, on his way, near the place in which Lao-tsz was born. He soon returned to Ts’ai, where he stayed three years. It will be observed that ever since 700 B.C. it had been the deliberate policy of Ts’u to annex or overshadow as many of the orthodox states as possible, so that Ts’u’s undoubtedly high literary output, in later years, is easily accounted for: in other words, Ts’u’s northern population was now already orthodox Chinese. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that, even before the Chou conquest, one of the early Ts’u rulers was an author himself, and had been tutor to the father of the Chou founder: that means to say Ts’u was possibly always as literary as China.
Meanwhile Ts’u and semi-barbarian Wu were contesting possession of Ch’en, and the King of Ts’u tried to secure by presents the services of Confucius, who had prudently transferred himself to a safe place in the open country lying between Ch’en and Ts’ai The ministers of these two orthodox states, fearing the results to their own people should Confucius (as he seems in fact to have contemplated) decide to accept the Ts’u offer, with a police force surrounded the Confucian party; they were only able to escape from starvation by sending word to the King, who at once sent a detachment to free the sage. He would have conferred a fief upon Confucius, but his ministers advised him of the danger of such a proceeding, seeing that the Chou dynasty conquered the empire after beginning with a petty fief, and that the great kingdom of Ts’u itself had arrived at its present greatness after beginning with a still smaller fief. Accordingly the sage decided to return to Wei (489), where several of his disciples received official posts, and where Confucius himself seems to have acted as unofficial adviser, especially in the matter of a contested succession. All this competition for, or at least jealousy of, Confucius’ services proves that his repute as an administrator (not necessarily as a philosopher) was already widely spread. The following year the King of Wu appeared before the Lu capital, and one of Confucius’ former disciples holding office there (the one who went in advance in 492) just succeeded in moderating the barbarians’ demands, which, however, only took the comparatively harmless “spiritual” form of orthodox sacrificial victims.
1. The dotted line shows the present Grand Canal; the part between the Yang-tsz and Hwai Rivers was made by the King of Wu. The part north of the Hwai is chiefly the channel of the River Sz, flowing from the Lu capital into the Hwai.
2. The old Hwai embouchure, running from the Lake Hung-tseh to the sea, no longer exists; it dissipates itself in canals and salt flats.
3. From 1852 the Yellow River has flowed north as depicted in the other maps. For several centuries previous to 1851 it flowed as shown by the long-link-and-dot line, and took possession of the now extinct Hwai embouchure.
4. The crosses mark capitals. Ts’ai (two marked) and Hii (one marked) frequently shifted capitals.]
In 484 Confucius was still in Wei, for in that year he is stated to have declined to discuss there a question connected with making war. In the year 484 or 483 the disciple sent by Confucius to Lu, as stated, in 492 conducted an expedition against Ts’i: this was the shameful period when orthodox Lu, in compulsory league with barbarous Wu, was playing a double and treacherous game under stress, and the question of recalling Confucius to save his native country was on the tapis. Hearing of this, and despite the heavy bribes offered him to stay by the ruler of Wei, Confucius started with alacrity for Lu, where he arrived safely after fourteen years of wandering. He is often stated to have visited over forty states in all; but it must be remembered that each of the important countries he visited had in turn a number of satellites of its own; as, for instance, the extremely ancient “marquess state” of Ki, or K’i, subordinate to Lu, which, though possessing great spiritual authority, had no weight in lay policy. An interesting point to notice is that Confucius’ travels almost exactly coincide with those of the Second Protector 150 years earlier (see Chapter XXXIX); both of them ignored the Emperor, and both of them visited Ts’i, Ts’ao, Sung, and Cheng on their way to the Ts’u frontiers; but Confucius was not able to get much farther west so as to reach the Ts’u capital; nor was he able to get to Tsin; not to say the still more distant Ts’in. In other words, the limited centre of orthodox China remained for many centuries the same, and the vast regions surrounding it were still semi- barbarian in the fifth century B.C. Now it was that Confucius, seeing that the imperial power had diminished almost to nothing; that the Odes and Book, the Rites, and the Music no longer possessed their former influence; employed himself in making systematic search for documents, in re-editing the Book (of History), and in endeavouring to ascertain the exact ritual or administration of the preceding dynasties. “Henceforth the Rites could be understood and transmitted,"–from which we may assume that, up to this time, they had been practically a monopoly of the princely caste. He did not go further back into the mythical period than the two emperors who preceded the Hia dynasty, nor did he bring the Book farther down than to the time of Duke Muh of Ts’in, which practically means the time of the first Protectors. He really did for rites and history what he had blamed Tsz-ch’an for doing with the law: he popularized it. He also attempted with persistent study to master the Changes, to which incomprehensible work he added features of his own–very little more understandable than the original texts. As to the Odes, 3000 in number, he used the pruning knife much more vigorously, and nine-tenths of them were rejected as unsuitable for the purposes of good didactic lessons or conservative precedents. If we substitute, as we are entitled to do, the vague word “religion” for the equally vague word “rites” (which in fact were the only ancient Chinese religion); if we substitute the empty Christian churches of to- day, and the too little scrupulous ambitions of rival European Powers, for the neglected tao of the Chou ideal, and for the savage rivalry of the great Chinese vassals; we obtain an almost precisely similar situation in modern Europe. If we can imagine a great Pope, or a great philosopher, taking advantage of a turn in the European conscience to bring back the simple ideals of Christianity, we can easily imagine this European Confucius being universally hailed in future times as the saviour of a parlous situation; which, in Europe now, as 2000 years ago in China, entails on the people so much misery and suffering. Confucius was, in short, in a way, a Chinese Pius X. declaiming against Modernism.
Confucius’ only certain original work was the “Springs and Autumns,” which is practically a continuation (with the necessary introductory years) of the ancient Book edited or, as some think, composed by him. He brought the former, this history of his, down from 722 to 481 B.C. and died in 479. His pupil Tso K’iu-ming, who was official historian to the Lu court, annotated and expounded Confucius’ bald annals, bringing the narrative down from 481 to 468; and Tso’s delightful work forms the chief, but by no means the sole, basis for what we have to say in the present book of sketches.