Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/The Chinese Theory of Evolution



NOT long ago I engaged a new Chinese teacher, Mr. Khu, and as I was his first foreign acquaintance, as he had never tampered with books of Western origin, and as he was said to have made a special study of the occult sciences and to be devoutly religious, I considered him a treasure-trove. That which I here set down as the Chinese theory of evolution has been translated largely from Mr. Khu's expositions of cosmogony. It agrees with what I have gathered, through conversations in the vernacular, from other native scholars.

Neither Lau-Tse, Confucius, nor Buddha, the founders of the three great religions whose tenets harmoniously dwell together in the Chinese mind, has set forth an account of the making of the universe. But the human intellect seems to trend inevitably toward attempts to explain the existence of things seen, and so there is a Chinese theory of evolution, whose exact origin it is difficult to trace through the four millenniums and the myriads of volumes that hold the written history of the empire.

In the beginning all matter was transparent, diffused, and without differentiation. In it dwelt the dual powers; both subtle, ethereal, and eternal; but the one was virile, warm, radiant, and active; the other, feminine, cold, somber, and quiescent. These dual powers are symbolized by two similar, conjoined figures, whose outlines may be made by drawing upon the diameter of a circle two oppositely directed semicircles, whose centers are those of the two radii. The reciprocal action of the dual powers, continuing through ages, produced all that is. Puan Ko, sometimes represented as a giant holding up the sun and moon and shaping the mountains, is only the personification of the forces that wrought in chaos. A zenith, a nadir, and all the points the compass were gradually evolved. There came to lie a distinction between heavens, with the seven moving luminaries, and the dark earth, with its seas. The male principle predominated above, the female principle predominated below, as Father Heaven and Mother Earth, each having an all-pervading spirit, but with unlike influence. The body comes from and depends upon the earth; the soul comes from and returns to the heavens.

The rocks are the bones of the divine body, the soil is the flesh, the metals are the nerves and veins; the tide, wind, rain, clouds, frost, and dew are all caused by its respirations, pulsations, and exhalations. Originally the mountains rose to the firmament, and the seas covered the mountains to their tops. At that time there was, in the divine body, no life besides the divine life. Then the waters subsided; small herbs grew, and in the lapse of cycles developed into shrubs and trees. As the body of man, unwashed for years, breeds vermin, so the mountains, unlaved by the seas, bred worms and insects, greater creatures developing out of lesser. Beetles in the course of ages became tortoises, earth-worms became serpents, high-flying insects became birds, some of the turtle-doves became pheasants, egrets became cranes, and wild cats became tigers. The praying mantis was by degrees transformed into an ape, and some of the apes became hairless. A hairless ape made a fire by striking crystal upon a rock, and, with the spark struck out, igniting the dry grass. With the fire they cooked food, and by eating warm victuals they grew large, strong, and knowing, and were changed into men. There is a story that the ape who first taught cooking had a peculiar origin. He was imprisoned, from the beginning, in a rock on the sea-shore. The waves beat on the rock century after century, and at last wore away all except the ape that had been its center. Then the sun warmed him, and the winds breathed upon him, till he became alive, and with a divine impulsion went and taught his kind to cook their food.

Khu says: "In the early days of man there were peace and plenty, because no one disturbed or maltreated the body of God. Those who saw a stone removed from its natural site, wept, and carried it back and put it in the place from which it came. Children were taught that if they found a piece of metal they must not touch it. No silver, nor gold, nor jade was to be seen in any dwelling. To the wise, dreams were given, in which the universal parent spoke, saying: 'Child, the gold, the jade, the metals, and the gems are all parts of my body. Touch them not, nor meddle with them to my hurt and yours. To take stones from the earth is to dislocate the bones of one's parent; when the parent suffers, the dependent child is harmed.' In those days the soil was red and rich; it was heavy as iron, and so ductile that it could be drawn into filaments. There was no need of fertilizing the fields. Whatever was planted grew quickly, and the kernels of grain were as large as chestnuts, and the potato-tubers were as large as squashes now are. The products of the earth were so nutritious that one meal a day was sufficient, and so luscious were they that condiments were needless. It is the disrespect shown to the divine body that has made the life of man so hard. One should be content with what may be had without deeply disturbing the soil. The displeasure of Heaven is often manifestly visited upon the agriculturists who give the land no rest, and the lightning frequently strikes those who are at work in the fields. Those who walk on mountains soon tire, because they tread upon the bones, while those who keep to the artificial highways are not so soon fatigued."

This pantheistic theory being in its loftiest conceptions too abstract for the masses, it is expressed by them in the assertion that "there is a god to every eight feet of space." Every tree, grotto, and hummock has its tutelary deity. Consequently, no man begins to dig a cistern, to remove earth from a hill, to cut a stone, or to till a garden, without offering propitiatory gifts to the local divinity. If fever, headache, or dyspepsia follow the effort, the displeasure of the god is believed to be its cause, and the work is apt to be abandoned.

It is at once apparent that this pantheistic theory of evolution offers serious hindrance to the utilization of the metals contained in the mountains, to the opening of mines, the building of rail-roads, and the erection of structures requiring deep foundations. It has prevented the Chinese from availing themselves of the vast mineral resources of their country, from leveling thoroughfares where they are pressingly required for traffic, and from full use of the products of the earth in promoting the well-being of man. It is the chief reason why the emigration of hundreds of thousands of men in search of work has now become necessary. If the Chinese were unhampered by fear of the invisible ones who are considered by all to be the real proprietors of the land, they would have an abundance of lucrative work within their own borders, and they need not then afflict other countries by their immigration. The losses that accrue to them through this false theory are both positive and negative. It occasions an enormous outlay upon profitless offerings that must be bought with money earned by hard labor; and it prevents their use of the wealth stored in their lands. Affecting daily the welfare of hundreds of millions of persons, it well illustrates the practical evil of false doctrine, and, by contrast, shows the great economic value of truth.