Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker

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Chapter XLV - Confucius and Lao-Tsz

Apart from the fact that reverence for rulers was the pivot of the Chou religious system, or, what was then the same thing, administrative system; official historiographers, who were mere servants of the executive, had to be careful how they offended the executive power in those capricious days; all the more had a private author and a retired official like Confucius carefully to mind the conventions. For instance, two historians had been put to death by a king-maker in Ts’i for recording the murder by him of a Ts’i reigning prince; and Ts’i was but next door to Lu. Hence we find the leading feature of his work is that he hints rather than criticizes, suggests rather than condemns, conceals rather than exposes, when it is a question of class honour or divine right; just as, with us, the Church prefers to hush up rather than to publish any unfortunate internal episode that would redound to its discredit. So shocked was he at the assassination of the ruler of Ts’i by an usurping family in 481, that, even at his venerable age, he unsuccessfully counselled instant war against Ts’i. His motive was perhaps doubtful, for the next year we find a pupil of his, then in office, going as a member of the mission to the same usurper in order to try and obtain a cession of territory improperly held. This pupil was one of the friends who assisted at the arrangement made in Wei in 492. Confucius’ failings–for after all he was only a man, and never pretended to be a genius–in no way affect the truth of his writings, for they were detected almost from the very beginning, and have never been in the least concealed. Notable instances are the mission from Lu to Ts’u in 634; Confucius conceals the fact that, not courtesy to barbarian Ts’u, but a desire to obtain vengeance against orthodox Ts’i was the true motive. Again, in 632, when the faineant Emperor was “sent for” by the Second Protector to preside at a durbar; Confucius prefers to say: “His Majesty went to inspect his fiefs north of the river,” thus even avoiding so much as to name the exact place, not to say describe the circumstances. He punishes the Emperor for an act of impropriety in 693 by recording him as “the King,” instead of “the Heavenly King.” On the other hand, in 598, even the barbarian King of Ts’u was “a sage,” because, having conquered the orthodox state of Ch’en, he magnanimously renounced his conquest. In 529 the infamous ruler of the orthodox state of Ts’ai is recorded as being “solemnly buried"; but the rule was that no “solemn funeral” should be accorded to (1) barbarians, (2) rulers who lose their crown, (3) murderers. Now, this ruler was a murderer; but it was a barbarian state (Ts’u) that killed him, which insult to civilization must be punished by making two blacks one white, i.e. by giving the murdered murderer an orthodox funeral. Again, in 522, a high officer was “killed by robbers"; it is explained that there were no robbers at all, in fact, but that the mere killing of an officer by a common person needs the assumption of robbery. It is like the legal fiction of lunacy in modern Chinese law to account for the heinous crime of parricide, and thus save the city from being razed to the ground. Once more, at the Peace Conference of 546, Ts’u undoubtedly “bluffed” Tsin out of her rightful precedence; but, Tsin being an orthodox state, Confucius makes Tsin the diplomatic victor. We have already seen that he once deliberately broke his plighted word, meanly attacked the men who spared him; and, out of servility, visited a woman of noble rank who was “no better than she ought to have been.” There is another little female indiscretion recorded against him. When, in 482, the Lu ruler’s concubine, a Wu princess (imperial clan name), died, Confucius obsequiously went into mourning for an “incestuous” woman; but, seeing immediately afterwards that the powerful family then at the helm did not condescend to do so, he somewhat ignominiously took off his mourning in a hurry. All these, and numerous similar petty instances of timorousness, may appear to us at a remote distance trifling and pusillanimous, as do also many of the model personal characteristics and goody-goody private actions of the sage; but if we make due allowance for the difficulty of translating strange notions into a strange tongue, and for the natural absence of sympathy in trying to enter into foreign feelings, we may concede that these petty details, quite incidentally related, need in no way destroy the main features of a great picture. Few heroes look the character except in their native clothes and surroundings; and, as Carlyle said, a naked House of Lords would look much less dignified than a naked negro conference.

As a philosopher, Confucius in his own time had scarcely the reputation of Tsz-ch’an of Cheng, who in many respects seems to have been his model and guide. Much more is said of Tsz-ch’an’s philosophy, of his careful definition of the ritual system, of his legal acumen, of his paternal care for the people’s welfare; but, like his contemporaries and friends of Ts’i, Tsin, Cheng, Sung, Wei; and even of Wu and Yueh; he was working for the immediate good of his own state in times of dire peril; whereas Confucius from first to last was aiming at the restoration of religion (i.e., of the imperial, ritualistic, feudal system); and for this reason it was that, after the violent unification of the empire by the First August Emperor in 221 B.C., followed by his fall and the rise of the Han dynasty in 202 B.C., this latter house finally decided to venerate, and all subsequent houses have continued to venerate, Confucius’ memory; because his system was, after Lao- tsz’s system had been given a fair trial, at last found the best suited for peace and permanency.

Not only is Lao-tsz not mentioned in the “Springs and Autumns” of Confucius, as extended by his contemporary and latter commentators, but none other of the great writers and philosophers anterior to and contemporary with Confucius are spoken of except strictly in their capacity of administrators. Thus the Ts’i philosopher Kwan-tsz of the First Protector’s time, 650 B.C.; the Ts’i philosopher Yen-tsz of Confucius’ time; and the others mentioned in preceding Chapters, notably in Chapter XV. (of whom each orthodox state of political importance can boast at least one); based their reputation on what they had achieved for the state rather than what they had taught in the abstract; and their economical and historical books, which have all come down to us in a more or less complete and authentic state, are valued for the expression they give to the definite theories by which they arrived at practical results, rather than for the preaching of the counsels of perfection, We have seen that Yen-tsz expressed rather a contempt for the (to him) out-of-date formalistic ideals of Confucius, though Confucius himself had a high opinion of Yen-tsz. Lao-tsz is first mentioned by the writers of the various “schools" brought into existence by the collapse of Tsin in 452 B.C., and its subdivision into three separate kingdoms, recognized as such by the puppet Emperor in 403 B.C. The diplomatic activity was soon after that quite extraordinary, and each of the seven royal courts became a centre of revolutionary thought; that is, every literary adventurer had his own views of what interpretation of ancient literature was best suited to the times: it was Modernism with a vengeance. There is ample evidence of Lao-tsz’s influence upon the age, though Lao-tsz himself had been dead for a century or more in the year 403. Lao-tsz is spoken of and written about in the fourth century B.C. as though it were perfectly well known who he was, and what his sentiments were; but as, up to Confucius’ time, state intercourse had been confined to traders, warriors, and officials of the princely castes; and as books had been unwieldy objects stored only in capitals and great centres; there is good reason to assume that philosophy had been taught almost entirely by word of mouth, and that something must have occurred shortly after his death to cheapen and facilitate the dissemination of literature. Probably this something was the gradual introduction of the practice of writing on silk rolls and on silk “paper,” which practice is known to have been in vogue long before the discovery of rubbish paper A.D. 100. Confucius himself evidently made use of the old-fashioned bamboo slips, strung together by cords like a bundle of tickets; for we are told that he worked so hard in endeavouring to understand the “Changes,” that he “wore out three sets of leather bands"; and it will be remembered from Chapter XXXV. how the Bamboo Books buried in 299 B.C., to be discovered nearly 600 years later, consisted of slips strung together in this way.

Confucius’ movements during the fourteen years of his exile are very clearly marked out, and there seems to be no doubt that his visit to the Emperor’s court took place when he was a young man; firstly, because Lao-tsz ironically calls him a young man, and secondly because he went to visit Lao-tsz with the son of the statesman who on his death-bed foretold Confucius’ future distinction; and there was no Lu mission to the imperial court after 520. In the second century B.C., not only are there a dozen statesmen specifically stated to have studied the works of Lao- tsz, but the Empress herself is said to have possessed his book; and a copy of it, distinctly said to be in ancient character, was then stored amongst other copies of the same book in the imperial library. The two questions which the Chinese historians and literary men of the fifth, fourth, third, and second centuries B.C. do not attempt to decide are: Why is the life of Lao-tsz not given to us earlier than 100 B.C.? Why is that life so scant, and why does the writer of it allude to “other stories” current about him? Why is it that the book which Lao-tsz wrote at the request of a friend is not alluded to by any writer previous to 100 B.C.?

As not one single one of these numerous Taoists or students of Lao-tsz expresses the faintest doubt about Lao-tsz’s existence, or about the genuineness of his traditional teachings, it is evident that the meagreness of Lao-tsz’s life, as told by the historian, is rather a guarantee of the truth of what he says than the reverse, so far as he knows the truth; otherwise he would have certainly embellished. The essence of Lao-tsz’s doctrine is its democracy, its defence of popular rights, its allusion to kings and governments as necessary evils, its disapproval of luxury and hoarding wealth; its enthusiasm for the simple life, for absence of caste, for equality of opportunity, for socialism and informality; all of which was, though extracted from the same Odes, Book, Changes, and Rites, quite contrary in principle to the “back to the rites” doctrine of Confucius. Therefore, there could be no possible inducement for Confucius, the pruning editor of the Odes, Book, etc., or for his admirers, to mention Lao-tsz in either his original work, the “Springs and Autumns,” or in the other works (composed by his disciples) giving the original words and sentiments of Confucius. Besides, during the whole of Lao- tsz’s life, the imperial court (where he served as a clerk) was totally ignored by all the “powers” as a political force; the only persons mentioned in what survives of Chou history are the historiographers, the wizards, the ritual clerks, the ducal envoys, now sent by the Emperor to the vassals, now consulted by the vassals upon matters of etiquette. Lao-tsz, being an obscure clerk in an obscure appanage, and holding no political office, had no more title to be mentioned in history than any other servant or “harmless drudge.” That his doctrines were well known is not wonderful, for Tsz-ch’an, his contemporary, and this great man’s colleagues of the other states, also had doctrines of their own which were widely discussed and, as we have seen, even Tsz-ch’an was severely blamed for the unheard-of novelty of committing the laws to writing, both by Confucius of Lu and by Shuh Hiang of Tsin (imperial clan states). It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the traditional story is true; namely, that Lao-tsz’s doctrines were never taught in a school at all, and that he had no followers or admirers except the vassal envoys who used to come on spiritual business to the metropolis. We have seen how these men used to entertain each other over their wine by quoting the Odes and other ancient saws; when consulting the imperial library to rectify their own dates, they would naturally meet the old recluse Lao-tsz, and hear from his own mouth what he thought of the coming collapse anticipated by all. He is said to have left orthodox China in disgust, and gone West–well, he must have passed through Ts’in if he went to the west. At the frontier pass (it is not known precisely whether on the imperial frontier or on the Ts’in frontier) an acquaintance or correspondent on duty there invited him to put his thoughts into writing, which he did. Books being extremely rare, copies would be slowly transmitted. This was about 500 B.C., between which time and 200 B.C., when a copy of his book is first reported to be actually held in the hand by a definite person, the great protecting powers, and later the seven kings, were all engaged in a bloodthirsty warfare, which ended in the almost total destruction throughout the empire of the Odes, Rites, and the Book in 213 B.C. Remember, however, that the literary empire practically meant parts of the modern provinces of Ho Nan and Shan Tung. The “Changes” were not destroyed; and as the First August Emperor himself, his illegitimate father, several of his statesmen, and his visitors the travelling diplomats, were all either Taoists or imbued with Taoist doctrines (their sole policy being to destroy the old ritual and feudal thrones), there is ground to conjecture that Lao-tsz’s book escaped too, and was deliberately suffered to escape. We know absolutely nothing of that; assuming the truth of the tradition that there was a book, we do not know what became of the first copy, nor how many copies were made of it during the succeeding 300 years. No attempt whatever has ever been made by the serious Chinese historians themselves to manufacture a story. It is, of course, unsatisfactory not to know all the exact truth; but, for the matter of that, the existence, identity, and authorship of Confucius’ pupil and commentator Tso K’iu-ming, the official historian of Lu, is equally obscure; not to mention the history of the earliest Taoist critics who actually mention Lao-tsz, and quote the words of (if they do not mention) his book. When we read Renan’s masterly examination into the origins of our own Gospels, and when we reflect that even the origin of Shakespeare’s plays, and the individuality of Shakespeare’s person, are open to everlasting discussion, we may not unreasonably leave Chinese critics and Chinese historians to judge of the value of their own national evidence, and accept in general terms what they tell us of fact, however imperfect it may be in detail, without adding hypothetical facts or raising new critical difficulties of our own. No such foreign criticisms are or can be worth much unless the original Chinese histories and the original Chinese philosophers have been carefully examined by the foreign critic in the original Chinese text.


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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