Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

so in her poetic art is suggestiveness the great end and aim of the artist. Beginners are taught that the three canons of verse composition are lucidity, simplicity and correctness of diction. Yet some critics have boldly declared for obscurity of expression, alleging that the piquancy of a thought is enhanced by its skilful concealment. For the foreign student, it is not necessary to accentuate the obscurity and difficulty even of poems in which the motive is simple enough. The constant introduction of classical allusions, often in the vaguest terms, and the almost unlimited licence as to the order of words, offer quite sufficient obstacles to easy and rapid comprehension. Poetry has been defined by one Chinese writer as “clothing with words the emotions which surge through the heart.” The chief moods of the Chinese poet are a pure delight in the varying phenomena of nature, and a boundless sympathy with the woes and sufferings of humanity. Erotic poetry is not absent, but it is not a feature proportionate in extent to the great body of Chinese verse; it is always restrained, and never lapses from a high level of purity and decorum. In his love for hill and stream which he peoples with genii, and for tree and flower which he endows with sentient souls, the Chinese poet is perhaps seen at his very best; his views of life are somewhat too deeply tinged with melancholy, and often loaded with an overwhelming sadness “at the doubtful doom of human kind.” In his lighter moods he draws inspiration, and in his darker moods consolation from the wine-cup. Hard-drinking, not to say drunkenness, seems to have been universal among Chinese poets, and a considerable amount of talent has been expended upon the glorification of wine. From Taoist, and especially from Buddhist sources, many poets have obtained glimpses to make them less forlorn; but it cannot be said that there is any definitely religious poetry in the Chinese language.

History.—One of the labours undertaken by Confucius was connected with a series of ancient documents—that is, ancient in his day—now passing under a collective title as Shu Ching (or Shoo King), and popularly known as the Canon, or Book, of History. Mere fragments as some of these documents are, it is from their pages of unknown date that we can supplement the pictures drawn for us in the Odes, of the early civilization of China. The work opens with an account of the legendary emperor Yao, who reigned 2357-2255 B.C., and was able by virtue of an elevated personality to give peace and happiness to his “black-haired” subjects. With the aid of capable astronomers, he determined the summer and winter solstices, and calculated approximately the length of the year, availing himself, as required, of the aid of an intercalary month. Finally, after a glorious reign, he ceded the throne to a man of the people, whose only claim to distinction was his unwavering practice of filial piety. Chapter ii. deals with the reign, 2255-2205 B.C., of this said man, known in history as the emperor Shun. In accordance with the monotheism of the day, he worshipped God in heaven with prayer and burnt offerings; he travelled on tours of inspection all over his then comparatively narrow empire; he established punishments, to be tempered with mercy; he appointed officials to superintend forestry, care of animals, religious observances, and music; and he organized a system of periodical examinations for public servants. Chapter iii. is devoted to details about the Great Yü, who reigned 2205-2197 B.C., having been called to the throne for his engineering success in draining the empire of a mighty inundation which early western writers sought to identify with Noah’s Flood. Another interesting chapter gives various geographical details, and enumerates the articles, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel, silken fabrics, feathers, ivory, hides, &c., &c., brought in under the reign of the Great Yü, as tribute from neighbouring countries. Other chapters include royal proclamations, speeches to troops, announcements of campaigns victoriously concluded, and similar subjects. One peculiarly interesting document is the Announcement against Drunkenness, which seems to have been for so many centuries a national vice, and then to have practically disappeared as such. For the past two or three hundred years, drunkenness has always been the exception rather than the rule. The Announcement, delivered in the 12th century B.C., points out that King Wên, the founder of the Chou dynasty, had wished for wine to be used only in connexion with sacrifices, and that divine favours had always been liberally showered upon the people when such a restriction had been observed. On the other hand, indulgence in strong drink had invariably attracted divine vengeance, and the fall and disruption of states had often been traceable to that cause. Even on sacrificial occasions, drunkenness is to be condemned. “When, however, you high officials and others have done your duty in ministering to the aged and to your sovereign, you may then eat to satiety and drink to elevation.” The Announcement winds up with an ancient maxim, “Do not seek to see yourself reflected in water, but in others,”—whose base actions should warn you not to commit the same; adding that those who after a due interval should be unable to give up intemperate habits would be put to death. It is worth noting, in concluding this brief notice of China’s earliest records, that from first to last there is no mention whatever of any distant country from which the “black-haired people” may have originally come; no vestige of any allusion to any other form of civilization, such as that of Babylonia, with its cuneiform script and baked-clay tablets, from which an attempt has been made to derive the native-born civilization of China. A few odd coincidences sum up the chief argument in favour of this now discredited theory.

The next step lands us on the confines, though scarcely in the domain, of history properly so called. Among his other literary labours, Confucius undertook to produce the annals of Lu, his native state; and beginning with the year 722 Annals of the Lu state. B.C., he carried the record down to his death in 479, after which it was continued for a few years, presumably by Tso-ch‘iu Ming, the shadowy author of the famous Commentary, to which the text is so deeply indebted for vitality and illumination. The work of Confucius is known as the Ch‘un Ch‘iu, the Springs and Autumns, q.d. Annals. It consists of a varying number of brief entries under each year of the reign of each successive ruler of Lu. The feudal system, initiated more than four centuries previously, and consisting of a number of vassal states owning allegiance to a central suzerain state, had already broken hopelessly down, so far as allegiance was concerned. For some time, the object of each vassal ruler had been the aggrandizement of his own state, with a view either to independence or to the hegemony, and the result was a state of almost constant warfare. Accordingly, the entries in the Ch‘un Ch‘iu refer largely to covenants entered into between contracting rulers, official visits from one to another of these rulers, their births and deaths, marriages, invasions of territory, battles, religious ceremonies, &c., interspersed with notices of striking natural phenomena such as eclipses, comets and earthquakes, and of important national calamities, such as floods, drought and famine. For instance, Duke Wên became ruler of Lu in 625 B.C., and under his 14th year, 612 B.C., we find twelve entries, of which the following are specimens:—

2.  In spring, in the first month, the men of the Chu State invaded our southern border.
3.  In summer, on the I-hai day of the fifth month, P‘an, Marquis of the Ch‘i State, died.
5. In autumn, in the seventh month, there was a comet, which entered Pei-ton (αβγδ in Ursa Major).
9. In the ninth month, a son of the Duke of Ch‘i murdered his ruler.

Entry 5 affords the earliest trustworthy instance of a comet in China. A still earlier comet is recorded in what is known as The Bamboo Annals, but the genuineness of that work is disputed.

It will be readily admitted that the Ch‘un Ch‘iu, written throughout in the same style as the quotations given, would scarcely enable one to reconstruct in any detail the age it professes to record. Happily we are in possession of the Tso Chuan, a so-called commentary, presumably by some one named Tso, in which the bald entries in the work of Confucius are separately enlarged upon to such an extent and with such dramatic brilliancy that our commentary reads more like a prose epic than “a treatise consisting of a systematic series of comments or annotations on the text of a literary work.” Under its guidance we can follow the intrigues, the alliances, the treacheries, the ruptures of the jealous states which constituted feudal China; in its picture pages we can see, as it were with our own eyes, assassinations, battles, heroic deeds, flights, pursuits and the sufferings of the vanquished from the retribution exacted by the victors. Numerous wise and witty sayings are scattered throughout the work, many of which are in current use at the present day.

History as understood in Europe and the west began in China with the appearance of a remarkable man. Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien, who flourished 145-87 B.C., was the son of an hereditary grand astrologer, also an eager student of history and the actual planner of The Historical Record. the great work so successfully carried out after his death. By the time he was ten years of age, Ssŭ-ma Ch‘ien was already well advanced with his studies; and at twenty he set forth on a round of travel which carried him to all parts of the empire. Entering the public service, he was employed upon a mission of inspection to the newly-conquered regions of Ssŭch‘uan and Yünnan; in 110 B.C. his father died, and he stepped into the post of grand astrologer. After devoting some time and energy to the reformation