Cathay as a supposed separate entity may be considered to come to an end with the journey of Benedict Goës, the lay-Jesuit. This admirable person was, in 1603, despatched through Central Asia by his superiors in India with the specific object of determining whether the Cathay of old European writers and of modern Mahommedans was or was not a distinct region from that China of which parallel marvels had now for some time been recounted. Benedict, as one of his brethren pronounced his epitaph, “seeking Cathay found Heaven.” He died at Suchow, the frontier city of China, but not before he had ascertained that China and Cathay were the same. After the publication of the narrative of his journey (in the Expeditio Christiana apud Sinas of Trigault, 1615) inexcusable ignorance alone could continue to distinguish between them, but such ignorance lingered many years longer.
Chinese literature contains no record of any kind which might justify us in assuming that the nucleus of the nation may have immigrated from some other part of the world; and the several ingenious theories pointing to Babylonia, Egypt, India, Khotan, and other seats of ancient civilization as the starting-points of ethnical wanderings must be dismissed as untenable. Whether the Chinese were seated in their later homes from times immemorial, as their own historians assume, or whether they arrived there from abroad, as some foreign scholars have pretended, cannot be proved to the satisfaction of historical critics. Indeed, anthropological arguments seem to contradict the idea of any connexion with Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, or Indians. The earliest hieroglyphics of the Chinese, ascribed by them to the Shang dynasty (second millennium B.C.), betray the Mongol character of the nation that invented them by the decided obliquity of the human eye wherever it appears in an ideograph. In a pair of eyes as shown in the most ancient pictorial or sculptural representations in the west, the four corners may be connected by a horizontal straight line; whereas lines drawn through the eyes of one of the oldest Chinese hieroglyphics cross each other at a sharp angle, as shown in the accompanying diagrams:—
This does not seem to speak for racial consanguinity any more than the well-known curled heads and bearded faces of Assyrian sculptures as compared to the straight-haired and almost beardless Chinese. Similarities in the creation of cultural elements may, it is true, be shown to exist on either side, even at periods when mutual intercourse was probably out of the question; but this may be due to uniformity in the construction of the human brain, which leads man in different parts of the world to arrive at similar ideas under similar conditions, or to prehistoric connexions which it is as impossible for us to trace now as is the origin of mankind itself. Our standpoint as regards the origin of the Chinese race is, therefore, that of the agnostic. All we can do is to reproduce the tradition as it is found in Chinese literature. This tradition, as applying to the very earliest periods, may be nothing more than historical superstition, yet it has its historical importance. Supposing it were possible to prove that none of the persons mentioned in the Bible from Adam down to the Apostles ever lived, even the most sceptical critic would still have to admit that the history of a great portion of the human race has been materially affected by the belief in the examples of their alleged lives. Something similar may be said of the alleged earliest history of the Chinese with its model emperors and detestable tyrants, the accounts of which, whether based on reality or not, have exercised much influence on the development of the nation.
The Chinese have developed their theories of prehistoric life. Speculation as to the origin and gradual evolution of their civilization has resulted in the expression of views by authors who may have reconstructed their systems from remnants of ancestral life revealed by excavations, or from observation of neighbouring nations living in a state of barbarism. This may account for a good deal of the repetition found in the Chinese mythological and legendary narratives, the personal and chronological part of which may have been invented merely as a framework for illustrating social and cultural progress. The scene of action of all the prehistoric figures from P‘an-ku, the first human being, down to the beginning of real history has been laid in a part of the world which has never been anything but Chinese territory. P‘an-ku’s epoch, millions of years ago, was followed by ten distinct periods of sovereigns, including the “Heavenly emperors,” the “Terrestrial emperors,” and the “Human emperors,” the Yu-ch‘au or “Nest-builders,” and Sui-jön, the “Fire Producer,” the Prometheus of the Chinese, who borrowed fire from the stars for the benefit of man. Several of the characteristic phases of cultural progress and social organization have been ascribed to this mythological period. Authors of less fertile imagination refer them to later times, when the heroes of their accounts appear in shapes somewhat resembling human beings rather than as gods and demigods.
The Chinese themselves look upon Fu-hi as their first historical emperor; and they place his lifetime in the years 2852-2738 B.C. Some accounts represent him as a supernatural being; and we see him depicted as a human figure with a fish tail something like a mermaid. He is credited with having established social order among his people, who, before him, had lived like animals in the wilds. The social chaos out of which Chinese society arose is described as being characterized by the absence of family life; for “children knew only their mothers and not their fathers.” Fu-hi introduced matrimony; and in so doing he placed man as the husband at the head of the family and abolished the original matriarchate. This quite corresponds with his views on the dualism in natural philosophy, of which he is supposed to have laid the germs by the invention of the so-called pa-kua, eight symbols, each consisting of three parallel lines, broken or continuous. The continuous lines represented the male element in nature; the broken ones, the female. It is characteristic that the same ruler who assigned to man his position as the head of the family is also credited with the invention of that natural philosophy of the “male and female principles,” according to which all good things and qualities were held to be male, while their less sympathetic opposites were female, such as heaven and earth, sun and moon, day and night, south and north. If these traditions really represent the oldest prehistoric creations of the popular mind, it would almost seem that the most ancient Chinese shared that naïve sentiment which caused our own forefathers to invent gender. The difference is that, with us, the conception survives merely in the language, where the article or suffixes mark gender, whereas with the Chinese, whose language does not express gender, it survives in their system of metaphysics. For all their attempts at fathoming the secrets of nature are based on the idea that male or female powers are inherent in all matter.
To the same Emperor Fu-hi are ascribed many of the elementary inventions which raise man from the life of a brute to that of a social being. He taught his people to hunt, to fish, and to keep flocks; he constructed musical instruments, and replaced a kind of knot-writing previously in use by a system of hieroglyphics. All this cannot of course be considered as history; but it shows that the authors of later centuries who credited Fu-hi with certain inventions were not quite illogical in starting from the matriarchal chaos, after which he is said to have organized society with occupations corresponding to those of a period of hunting, fishing and herding. This period was bound to be followed by a further step towards the final development of the nation’s social condition; and we find it quite logically succeeded by a period of agricultural life, personified in the Emperor, Shön-nung, supposed to have lived in the twenty-eighth century B.C. His name may be freely translated as “Divine Labourer”; and to him the Chinese ascribe the invention of agricultural implements, and the discovery of the medicinal properties of numerous plants.