Gems of Chinese Literature/Six Dynasties &c.

Gems of Chinese Literature
Various Authors, translated by Herbert Allen Giles
Six Dynasties &c. (a.d. 200 TO a.d. 600)
1520869Gems of Chinese Literature — Six Dynasties &c. (a.d. 200 TO a.d. 600)Herbert Allen GilesVarious Authors


Reigned 227―239 a.d.

[An intelligent and kindly monarch, whose beard, when he stood up, is said to have touched the ground. Under his reign women were for the first time admitted into official life, and several actually rose to high office. No women officials however have been known since the eighth century.]


WE have heard that if a sovereign is remiss in government, God terrifies him by calamities and strange portents. These are divine reprimands sent to recall him to a sense of duty. Thus, partial eclipses of the sun and moon are manifest warnings that the rod of empire is not wielded aright.

Ever since We ascended the throne, Our inability to continue the glorious traditions of Our departed ancestors and carry on the great work of civilisation, has now culminated in a warning message from on high. It therefore behoves US to issue commands for personal reformation, in order to avert the impending calamity.

But the relations of God with Man are those of a father and son; and a father about to chastise his son, would not be deterred were the latter to present him with a dish of meat. We do not therefore consider it part of Our duty to act in accordance with certain memorials advising that the Grand Astrologer be instructed to offer up sacrifices on this occasion. Do ye governors of districts and other high officers of State, seek rather to rectify your own hearts; and if any one can devise means to make up for Our shortcomings, let him submit his proposals to the Throne.


Died a.d. 256.

[A very distinguished scholar who wrote and published many volumes of classical commentaries. He is said to have found, in the house of a descendant of the Sage, the text of "The Family Sayings of Confucius," and to have published it in a.d. 240; but the generally received opinion is that he wrote the work himself, based no doubt upon tradition. Specimens are given below.]


Adisciple asked Confucius, saying, “Why, sir, does the superior man value jade much more highly than serpentine? Is it because jade is scarce and serpentine is abundant?” “It is not,” replied Confucius; “but it is because the superior men of olden days regarded it as a symbol of the virtues. Its gentle, smooth, glossy appearance suggests charity of heart; its fine close texture and hardness suggest wisdom; it is firm and yet does not wound, suggesting duty to one’s neighbour; it hangs down as though sinking, suggesting ceremony; struck, it gives a clear note, long drawn out, dying gradually away and suggesting music; its flaws do not hide its excellences, nor do its excellences hide its flaws, suggesting loyalty; it gains our confidence, suggesting truth; its spirituality is like the bright rainbow, suggesting the heavens above; its energy is manifested in hill and stream, suggesting the earth below; as articles of regalia it suggests the exemplification of that than which there is nothing in the world of equal value, and thereby is―TAO itself. We read in the Odes―

When I think of my husband,[1]
As gentle as jade,
In his hutment of planking,
My heart is afraid...


Confucius noticed in the ancestral temple of Duke Huan[2] of the Lu State certain vessels which stood awry, and enquired of the verger what these vessels were; to which the verger replied that they were goblets for use at banquets. "I have been told," said Confucius, "that when these goblets are empty they stand awry, that when they are half full they stand up straight, and that when filled up they topple right over. A wise ruler would use them as a warning, and see that such were always placed alongside of his guests." Then turning to his disciples, the Sage said, "Let us try them with water;" and accordingly water was poured in until the goblets were half full, when they stood up straight. They were then filled up, and at once toppled over. "Alas!" cried Confucius, heaving a deep sigh, "there are men who are full of wickedness, but they do not topple over."


A man of the Lu State lived alone in a cottage, and a neighbour, who was a widow, lived alone in another. One night, there was a terrific storm of wind and rain; the widow's cottage was destroyed, and she herself ran across to the man and asked to be taken in. The man, however, bolted his door and refused to admit her; whereupon the widow called to him, saying, "Where, sir, is your charity of heart, that you do not let me in?" "I have heard," replied he, "that until a man is sixty, he may not share a house with a woman.[3] Now, you are young, and I too am young; so that I dare not receive you." "Sir," said the widow, "why not play the part of Liu-hsia Hui?[4] Besides, I am an old dame, and not a damsel of doubtful reputation; there would be no scandal talked about us." "Liu-hsia Hui," answered the man, "might act as you say, but I am unable to do so. I will follow my own inability in striving to imitate the ability of Liu-hsia Hui." When Confucius heard this, he said, "Good indeed! There has never been any one who has better imitated Liu-hsia Hui.[5] Can a desire to be good, without the attempt to succeed, be accounted wisdom?"


The Prince of the Ch‘u State having invited Confucius to visit him, the Master proceeded thither to pay his respects. His way lay through Ch‘ên and Ts‘ai; and the high officials of those States consulted together, saying, “Confucius is an inspired and good man; his counsels will consist of attacks upon the vices of us nobles; and if that should be the case, our States would be in danger.” Accordingly, they arranged for a number of armed men to obstruct the Sage’s way and to prevent him from continuing his journey. His party were cut off from supplies for seven days, nothing being allowed to reach them. Broth made from leaves was not sufficient, and all fell ill except Confucius himself, whose spirits rose higher than usual, as he lectured, recited, played, and sang without giving way. He called Tzŭ-lu[6] to him and said, “We read in the Odes―

We are neither wild cattle[7] nor tigers,
That we should be kept in these desolate wilds

Has my doctrine of Eternal Right[8] been a failure? How have I come to this pass?” To this, Tzŭ-lu angrily replied, “The superior man can suffer no restrictions. To think that you, Sir, have ever failed in charity of heart is what I cannot believe; to think that you have ever acted unwisely towards others has not come within my experience. Besides, Sir, in other times I have heard you say that God will reward with happiness those who do good,[9] and will punish with misfortunes those who do evil; and now for a long time you have been accumulating a splendid record of virtues and of duty towards your neighbour. How then should you be reduced to this extremity?” “My son,” said the Master, “you have not understood me. I will tell you. If all depended on charity of heart, loyalty, and giving good counsel, many great heroes would have escaped suffering and death.[10] But success and failure are matters of opportunity; the worthy and the worthless are distinguished by their talents. Superior men of wide learning and wise schemes, who have failed from want of opportunity, are many indeed; why should I be the only one? The epidendrum grows in the depth of the forest, but it is not wanting in fragrance because there is no one there to smell it; the superior man cultivates the doctrine of Eternal Right and exemplifies it in practice; but he does not give up his principles because he is reduced to extremities. The man acts; the result, whether life or death, belongs to the will of God.”


3rd Century a.d.

[One of seven hard-drinking poets of the day who formed themselves into a club, known as the Bamboo Grove. He was always accompanied by a servant carrying a wine-flask; and he gave orders that if he fell dead in his cups he should be buried where he lay. In this respect, he was perhaps out-Heroded by another famous tippler, who left instructions that he should be buried in a potter’s field, so that, “when time into clay might resolve him again,” he would have a chance of re-appearing among men under the form of a wine-jug.]


AN old gentleman, a friend of mine (sc. himself), regards eternity as but a single day, and whole centuries as but an instant of time. The sun and moon are the windows of his house; the cardinal points are the boundaries of his domain. He wanders unrestrained and free; he dwells within no walls. The canopy of Heaven is his roof; his resting-place is the lap of Earth. He follows his fancy in all things. He is never for a moment without a wine-flask in one hand, a goblet in the other. His only thought is wine: he knows of naught beyond.

Two respectable philanthropists, hearing of my friend’s weakness, proceeded to tax him on the subject; and with many gestures of disapprobation, fierce scowls, and gnashing of teeth, preached him quite a sermon on the rules of propriety, and sent his faults buzzing round his head like a swarm of bees.

When they began, the old gentleman filled himself another bumper; and sitting down, quietly stroked his beard and sipped his wine by turns, until at length he lapsed into a semi-inebriate state of placid enjoyment, varied by intervals of absolute unconsciousness or of partial return to mental lucidity. His ears were beyond the reach of thunder; he could not have seen a mountain. Heat and cold existed for him no more. He knew not even the workings of his own mind. To him, the affairs of this world appeared but as so much duckweed on a river; while the two philanthropists at his side looked like two wasps trying to convert a caterpillar (into a wasp, as the Chinese believe is done).


365-427 a.d.

[Chiefly remarkable for having thrown up a good official appointment, because as he said his salary did not repay him for being obliged to “crook the pregnant hinges of the knee.” In private life, he amused himself with authorship and rearing chrysanthemums. See The Language of Flowers, under Chou Tun-i.]


HOMEWARDS I bend my steps. My fields, my gardens, are choked with weeds: should I not go? My soul has led a bondsman’s life: why should I remain to pine? But I will waste no grief upon the past: I will devote my energies to the future. I have not wandered far astray. I feel that I am on the right track once again.

Lightly, lightly, speeds my boat along, my garments fluttering to the gentle breeze. I enquire my route as I go. I grudge the slowness of the dawning day. From afar I descry my old home, and joyfully press onwards in my haste. The servants rush forth to meet me: my children cluster at the gate. The place is a wilderness; but there is the old pine-tree and my chrysanthemums. I take the little ones by the hand, and pass in. Wine is brought in full bottles, and I pour out in brimming cups. I gaze out at my favourite branches. I loll against the window in my new-found freedom. I look at the sweet children on my knee.

And now I take my pleasure in my garden. There is a gate, but it is rarely opened. I lean on my staff as I wander about or sit down to rest. I raise my head and contemplate the lovely scene. Clouds rise, unwilling, from the bottom of the hills: the weary bird seeks its nest again. Shadows vanish, but still I linger round my lonely pine. Home once more! I’ll have no friendships to distract me hence. The times are out of joint for me; and what have I to seek from men? In the pure enjoyment of the family circle I will pass my days, cheering my idle hours with lute and book. My husbandmen will tell me when spring-time is nigh, and when there will be work in the furrowed fields. Thither I shall repair by cart or by boat, through the deep gorge, over the dizzy cliff, trees bursting merrily into leaf, the streamlet swelling from its tiny source. Glad is this renewal of life in due season: but for me, I rejoice that my journey is over. Ah, how short a time it is that we are here! Why then not set our hearts at rest, ceasing to trouble whether we remain or go? What boots it to wear out the soul with anxious thoughts? I want not wealth: I want not power: heaven is beyond my hopes. Then let me stroll through the bright hours as they pass, in my garden among my flowers; or I will mount the hill and sing my song, or weave my verse beside the limpid brook. Thus will I work out my allotted span, content with the appointments of Fate, my spirit free from care.


Towards the close of the fourth century a.d., a certain fisherman of Wu-ling, who had followed up one of the river branches without taking note whither he was going, came suddenly upon a grove of peach-trees in full bloom, extending some distance on each bank, with not a tree of any other kind in sight. The beauty of the scene and the exquisite perfume of the flowers filled the heart of the fisherman with surprise, as he proceeded onwards, anxious to reach the limit of this lovely grove. He found that the peach trees ended where the water began, at the foot of a hill; and there he espied what seemed to be a cave with light issuing from it. So he made fast his boat, and crept in through a narrow entrance, which shortly ushered him into a new world of level country, of fine houses, of rich fields, of fine pools, and of luxuriance of mulberry and bamboo. Highways of traffic ran north and south; sounds of crowing cocks and barking dogs were heard around; the dress of the people who passed along or were at work in the fields was of a strange cut; while young and old alike appeared to be contented and happy.

One of the inhabitants, catching sight of the fisherman, was greatly astonished; but, after learning whence he came, insisted on carrying him home, and killed a chicken and placed some wine before him. Before long, all the people of the place had turned out to see the visitor, and they informed him that their ancestors had sought refuge here, with their wives and families, from the troublous times of the House of Ch‘in, adding that they had thus become finally cut off from the rest of the human race. They then enquired about the politics of the day, ignorant of the establishment of the Han dynasty, and of course of the later dynasties which had succeeded it. And when the fisherman told them the story, they grieved over the vicissitudes of human affairs.

Each in turn invited the fisherman to his home and entertained him hospitably, until at length the latter prepared to take his leave. “It will not be worth while to talk about what you have seen to the outside world,” said the people of the place to the fisherman, as he bade them farewell and returned to his boat, making mental notes of his route as he proceeded on his homeward voyage.

When he reached home, he at once went and reported what he had seen to the Governor of the district, and the Governor sent off men with him to seek, by the aid of the fisherman's notes, to discover this unknown region. But he was never able to find it again. Subsequently, another desperate attempt was made by a famous adventurer to pierce the mystery; but he also failed, and died soon afterwards of chagrin, from which time forth no further attempts were made.[11]

  1. Away at the war.
  2. Reigned 684-642 b.c. A great and wise ruler, who late in life gave way to sensuality, and whose corpse lay unburied while his sons fought for the throne.
  3. Compare Mencius, "Separation of Sexes."
  4. 7th and 6th centuries b.c. His name was Chan Huo; his canonization title was Hui; he was Governor of Liu-hsia; hence the popular term, meaning Hui of Liu-hsia. He was a man of eminent virtue, and is said on one occasion to have held a lady in his lap without the slightest imputation on his moral character.
  5. This of course is a paradox.
  6. See Tung-fang So.
  7. This word has always been translated by “rhinoceros.” It is quite certain, however, that a kind of buffalo is the real meaning, as witness the Odes (in two places) “Crumpled is the goblet made from the ssŭ horn,” in support of which there are many other arguments.
  8. Tao. The Confucian Tao and the Tao of Lao Tzŭ must be kept strictly apart.
  9. These words are not in the spirit of Confucian teaching; those which follow are.
  10. A short list of such personages is here inserted.
  11. The whole story is allegorical, and signifies that the fisherman had been strangely permitted to go back once again into the peach-blossom days of his youth.