Gems of Chinese Literature/Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien-A Century before Christ

1523663Gems of Chinese Literature — A Century Before ChristHerbert Allen GilesSsŭ-ma Ch‘ien

(By an Eye-Witness)

Wealth, vice, corruption,―barbarism at last.
And history, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.

WHEN the House of Han arose, the evils of their predecessors had not passed away. Husbands still went off to the wars. The old and the young were employed in transporting food. Production was almost at a standstill, and money became scarce. So much so, that even the Son of Heaven had not carriage horses of the same colour; the highest civil and military authorities rode in bullock-carts; and the people at large knew not where to lay their heads.

At this epoch, the coinage in use was so heavy and cumbersome that a new law was made, under which the people themselves cast money, the gold unit being equal to sixteen ounces. But the laws were too lax, and it was impossible to prevent grasping persons from coining largely, buying largely, and then holding against a rise in the market. The consequence was that prices went up enormously. Rice sold at 10,000 cash[1] per picul: a horse cost 100 ounces of silver. But by-and-by, when the empire was settling down to tranquility, His Majesty, Kao Tsu, gave orders that no trader should wear silk nor ride in a carriage; besides which, the imposts levied upon this class were greatly increased, in order to keep them down. Some years later, these restrictions were withdrawn; still, however, the descendants of traders were disqualified from holding any office connected with the State.

Meanwhile, certain levies were made on a scale calculated to meet the exigencies of public expenditure; while the land-tax and customs’ revenue were regarded by all officials, from the Emperor downwards, as their own personal emolument, and such revenue was not entered in the ordinary expenses of the empire. Grain was forwarded by water to the capital for the use of the officials there; but the quantity did not amount to more than a few hundred thousand piculs every year.

Gradually, the coinage began to deteriorate and light coins to circulate; whereupon another issue followed, each piece being marked “half an ounce.” But at length the system of private issues led to serious abuses, resulting first of all in vast sums of money accumulating in the hands of individuals; finally, in rebellion; until the country was flooded with the coinage of the rebels, and it became necessary to enact laws against any such issue in the future.

At this period, the Huns were harassing our northern frontier, and soldiers were massed there in large bodies, in consequence of which food become so scarce that the authorities offered certain rank and titles of honour to those who would supply a given quantity of grain. Later on, a drought ensued in the west, and in order to meet necessities of the moment, official rank was again made a marketable commodity, while those who broke the law were allowed to commute their penalties by money payments. And now horses began to reappear in official stables; and in palace and hall, signs of an ampler luxury were visible once more.

Thus it was in the early days of the dynasty, until some seventy years after the accession of the House of Han. The empire was then at peace. But for such catastrophes as flood and drought, the people had been in the enjoyment of plenty. The public granaries were well stocked; the government treasuries were full. In the capital, strings of cash were piled in myriads, until the very strings rotted, and their tale could no longer be told. The grain in the Imperial storehouses grew mouldy year by year. It burst from the crammed granaries, and lay about until it became unfit for human food. The streets were thronged with horses belonging to the people, and on the high roads whole droves were to be seen, so that it became necessary to prohibit the public use of mares. Village elders ate of the best grain and also meat. Petty government clerkships and the like lapsed from father to son; the higher offices of State were adopted as surnames. For there had gone abroad a spirit of self-respect and of reverence for the law, while a sense of charity and of duty towards one's neighbour kept men aloof from disgrace and shame.

At length, under lax laws, the wealthy began to use their riches for evil purposes of pride and self-aggrandisement and oppression of the weak. Members of the Imperial family received grants of land, while from the highest to the lowest, every one vied with his neighbour in lavishing money on houses, and appointments, and apparel, altogether beyond the limit of his means. Such is the everlasting law of the sequence of prosperity and decay.[2]

Then followed extensive military preparations in various parts of the empire; the establishment of a tradal route with the barbarians of the south-west, for which purpose mountains were hewn through for many miles. The object was to open up the resources of those remote districts; but the result was to swamp the inhabitants in hopeless ruin. Then, again, there was the subjugation of Korea; its transformation into an Imperial dependency; with other troubles nearer home. The Huns violated their treaty and broke in upon our northern frontier, with great injury to the empire. Nothing in fact but wars and rumours of wars from day to day. Those who went to the war carried money with them; those who remained sent money after them. The financial stability of the empire was undermined, and its impoverished people were driven thereby into crime. Wealth had been frittered away, and its renewal was sought in corruption. Those who brought money in their hands received appointments under government. Those who could pay escaped the penalties of their guilt. Military merit opened the door to advancement. Shame and scruples of conscience were laid aside. Laws and punishments were administered with severer hand.

From this period must be dated the rise and growth of official venality.

  1. About 25 cash used to go to a penny. 1 picul = 133 1/3 lbs.
  2. For further on this law, see Fulness and Decay, by Ou-yang Hsiu.