Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society/Volume 1/Memoir concerning the Chinese




I. Memoir concerning the Chinese. By John Francis Davis, Esq., F.R.S., M.R.A.S.

Read May 17, 1823.

The Empire of China furnishes a subject of investigation, highly deserving the attention of the antiquarian and the philosopher; and one which, in proportion as it has been little attempted, affords the ampler field for research. It may in some measure be considered as a reproach to this country, that, notwithstanding our having a much greater interest in the subject, we should have permitted the learned of France and of Germany to anticipate us on many points of inquiry: although the labours of the last twenty years, and more especially of the last ten, have gone far towards giving us the first place in the ranks of Chinese literature; and much more may be expected from the future.

I shall endeavour, in this paper, to take a cursory view of such facts connected with the earlier history of the Chinese, as may be depended upon, in order to obtain a correct idea of the antiquity of their empire, and their advancement in knowledge, points on which the most vague and unfounded notions have been prevalent; and the view may not be without its utility, in shewing what parts of the subject stand in need of further investigation. Great as is the antiquity of the Chinese, it has still been extravagantly overrated. The best-informed and most reflecting among themselves reject, as unprofitable fables, the earliest traditions of their history:[1] and indeed the prodigies that are recorded, as well as the fanciful names that are given to their first emperors, carry with them the most unquestionable marks of fabrication. National vanity and a love of the marvellous have influenced in a similar manner the early history of most other countries, and furnished materials for nursery tales, as soon as the spirit of sober investigation has supplanted that appetite for wonders, which marks the infancy of nations, as well as of individuals. The person called Fo-hi, and some of his immediate successors, appear to have been of the number of those gifted men, who rescued the human race from primeval barbarism, and whom their gratitude has invested with superhuman attributes. All institutions and inventions, of whose real origin no history remains,[2] have been referred to them as to a common source; but the grave appellation of Emperor is only applied by the ignorant and the unthinking, to savages who first taught their cotemporaries to make fishing nets, to till the ground, and live together in a state of society.[3]

In order to prove how little dependence can be placed on the accounts which the Chinese give of their own antiquity and inventions, I need only produce the following quotation from the abstract of history given by Du Halde. "Chuen-hiŏ regulated the calendar, and desired to begin the year the first day of the month in which the sun should be nearest the 15th degree of Aquarius, for which he is called the author and father of the Ephemeris. He chose the time when the sun passes through the middle of the sign, because in this season the earth is adorned with plants, trees renew their verdure, and all nature: seems re-animated. This of course means the spring season. Now Chuen-hiŏ is said to have lived more than two thousand years before Christ, and according to the usual mode of calculating the precession of the equinoxes, the sun must have passed through the 15th of Aquarius, in his time, somewhere about the middle of December.

This strange blunder might very well have been expected from a Chinese historian, but that Du Halde should have quoted it, without any comment, is certainly extraordinary. I am inclined to think that the present rule for commencing the Chinese year, near the middle of Aquarius, has a reference to the position of the Winter Solstitial Colure at a remote period, though it would not be so far back as the reputed age of Chuen-hiŏ, but short of it by about six hundred years. From the circumstance of the Winter Solstice being at present observed as a festival, there is a possibility that it was at first the period of their year's commencement; though I mention this merely as a conjecture.

The only direct and positive testimony that we seem to possess, out of China, relating to the first origin of the Chinese nation, exists in the Institutes of Menu: and I cannot help thinking that the observations of Sir W. Jones on the passage in question are deserving of great attention. It is there written, that "many families of the military class, having gradually abandoned the ordinances of the Veda, and the company of Brahmens, lived in a state of degradation, as the Chinas and some other nations." The great antiquity of the laws of Menu is in favour of the authenticity of the above testimony; for at the period at which Sir W. Jones supposes them to have been written (above one thousand years B.C.), there can be no doubt whatever but the Chinese nation was yet in its infancy, and that it could lay no claim to the character of an extensive, united, and powerful empire, until many centuries after that date: as I shall attempt to shew. I content myself with noticing in this place the statement of one of their own histories,[4] that twelve hundred years before Christ, "the Chinese nation was small and feeble, the eastern foreigners (that is, the aborigines, perhaps Tartars, between them and the east coast) numerous and strong," and that the former "gradually obtained a residence in the middle of the country," namely, in Honan. It is universally admitted among themselves, that the seat of government was at first in Shen-si, the north-west part of the present empire, where the colonists, mentioned by the Indian Lawgiver, are supposed to have settled, and that they subsequently carried on wars against a state called Yen, in Pĕ-chĕ-li, and another named Tsi, in Shan-tung, until they succeeded in fixing themselves in Honan.

The opinion, hazarded by M. de Guignes, that the Chinese were a colony from Egypt, seems hardly capable of being supported by sufficient proof. Such a distant and extensive emigration could not have taken place without the knowledge and notice of the nations inhabiting the vast countries that intervene; besides which, there exists no resemblance between the mysterious hieroglyphics of Egypt and the Chinese characters, which might, as Sir W. Jones observes, "have been contrived by the first Chinas, or outcast Hindus, who either never knew, or had forgotten, the alphabetic character of their wiser ancestors." Though M. de Pauw and other learned men have been of opinion that the Chinese were originally a tribe of Tartars, or Scythians, I cannot help thinking that there are some reasonable grounds for concluding that they were a colony from India, and that they owe their present distinctive character to their subsequent mixture with the aborigines of the country, and with the Tartars.

The Empire of China cannot be dated earlier than the dynasty called Tsin, about two hundred years before Christ; and the term Wang, or Prince, instead of Hoang-ti, or Emperor, is applied by their own historians to all the monarchs of the race of Chow, which immediately preceded it. From this race of Chow (B.C. 1100 to 240) we may date the Authentic History of the Chinese, which commences with the Chun-tsew of Confucius, the annals of his own times, in which he relates the wars of the different petty states against each other.[5] The northern half of modern China, from the great river Keang[6] to the confines of Tartary, appears then to have been divided by a number of petty independent states, which contended against each other with various success, and as one obtained a temporary ascendancy over the rest, it assumed the pretensions of a doubtful sovereignty, which was acknowledged or denied, in proportion as adversity or success might influence the dispositions of its neighbours. The province of Pĕ-chĕ-li was occupied by a nation or state called Yen, Shan-tung was held by the Kings of Loo and Tsi, Keang-nan by the sovereign of Woo; while a large portion of the modern half of the empire to the south of the Keang, together with the province of Sze-chuen, was occupied by Barbarians, who are seldom mentioned in the histories of that period, except as provoking, by their incursions, the chastisement of the more civilized states in the north.

The period of Chow, from about the middle of which the era of authentic history may be dated, was distinguished by the birth of Confucius, and of Laou-keun, the founders of two of the sects of China; while , or Buddha, the author of the third, was also born in India about the commencement of the same period, although his worship was not introduced into the empire until long after, in the first century of the Christian era. The memory and the doctrines of Confucius have met with almost uninterrupted veneration down to the present time; while the absurd superstitions of the other two have been alternately embraced and despised by the different sovereigns of the country. Under the present Tartar government, they can merely be said to be tolerated. In the instructions of the Emperor Yung-ching to the people, the tenets of and of Laou-keun are stigmatized among the “impure doctrines” against which the nation is warned to guard itself with especial caution.

Leaving the religion of his countrymen as he found it, Confucius embodied in sententious maxims the first principles of morals and of government, and the purity and excellence of some of his precepts (whatever may have been said to the contrary by persons ignorant of the language) will bear a comparison with even those of the gospel. He, and he only, of the men who have at different times aspired to teach the Chinese, was truly deserving of the title of Philosopher; and he alone, during the revolutions of ages, has met with uniform veneration. Guided by the light of reason, he applied the energies of a powerful intellect to the Study of man, and grounded his doctrines on the fixed and immutable principles of human nature. His works are at this day the Sacred Books of the Chinese, and when compared with the evanescent relics of and of Laou-keun, confirm the superiority of truth over the fictions of artful, and the ravings of fanatical teachers. Thus it is that “opinionum delet dies, naturæ judicia confirmat.”

After the death of Confucius, who appears to have been respected by the sovereigns of nearly all the independent states of China, a series of sanguinary contests arose among them, which gave to this period of history the name of Chen-kwo, or the “contending nations,” and proved at length the ruin of the race of Chow. The king of Tsin, who had long been growing very powerful at the expense of the neighbouring states, fought against six other nations, and after a course of successes, compelled them all to acknowledge his supremacy (B.C. 200). The chief government began now to assume the aspect of an Empire, which comprehended the greater portion of the northern half of modern China; but which, after the lapse of not much more than four centuries, was doomed again to be divided into three or four parts.

Chi-Hoang-ti, the First Emperor, as his name seems to import, had hardly established his authority, when the Tartars, or barbarians of the north, began to make incursions over the extensive frontiers. The Emperor succeeded in driving them back into their desarts, and then employed the united resources of his dominions in the erection of the vast Wall, which has existed during a space of two thousand years, and remains to this day a stupendous, though nearly useless, monument of the ambitious disposition of this prince.[7] As if determined, however, to have a counterpoise to the reputation which this great work entitled him to, or influenced by a spirit not unlike that by which Erostratus was inspired, when he burned the Ephesian temple, the same Emperor issued a general order that all the books of the learned should be cast into the flames. Though a great many, of course, escaped this sweeping sentence, his memory is execrated by the literati of China.

It is stated in the history of that period, that Japan was colonized from China during the same dynasty; and there appears to myself some grounds for giving credit to the record. The union of the different states under his single authority, and the magnificent turn of mind that prompted Chi-Hoang-ti to carry into execution such a work as the Great Wall, were most likely to urge him to schemes of colonization, which are sometimes very analogous to those of conquest; and the extension of his new dominions to the shores of the Eastern Sea was still farther calculated to suggest such ideas. I am well aware that the Japanese have been asserted by some to have peopled their islands as early as the 13th century before Christ, and that those people are said to disdain the very idea of being descended from the Chinese. If, however, we remark the striking similarity that exists between the persons, the manners, the dispositions, and the policy of the two nations, we cannot but recognize them to be of one family; and the fact of the Japanese making use of the Chinese written language, and rencing the books of Confucius, may fairly be considered as evidence that they carried them from China, at, or some time previous to, the period in question.[8] The earliest traditions of every country must be listened to with distrust, unless corroborated by circumstantial proof; and the most fastidious native of Japan need not be offended with the chronology that gives to his country an antiquity of more than two thousand years.

During the succeeding dynasties of Han (B.C. 200-A.D. 220), the first of which is called Si, or western, from holding its metropolis in Shen-si, while the latter bears the opposite name of Tung, or eastern, from its court having been removed to Honan, the empire suffered several revolutions. The ambition of the rulers of the different states, as well as of the ministers of the Emperor, gave rise to various wars; and, in the last days of Han, so little was left of an empire, that the sovereigns of that period are called Choo, or Lord, instead of Hoang-ti. The Tartars, too, by their fugitive and predatory mode of warfare, were the cause of much trouble, and forced the Chinese to propitiate them with alliances and tribute. This impolitic system, which commenced so early, was in subsequent ages carried to a still greater height, and terminated, many centuries afterwards, in the overthrow of the empire, by the Mongol Tartars.[9]

The dynasty of Han, however, is a very celebrated period in Chinese history, and learning especially is said to be under great obligations to it. At the present day, the term for a Chinese, in contradistinction to a Tartar is Han-jin, "a Man of Han." Paper and ink, instead of the awkward and cumbrous method of pricking characters on the bark of trees with a stile, are stated to have been invented during this dynasty, shortly previous to the Christian era:[10] and it is probable that the rapid progress of Buddhism, or the religion of , which was soon after introduced from India, was in some measure owing to those inventions. The leading tenets of this sect were taught in the Chinese language, while the mere sounds of the characters were used, Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/44 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/45 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/46 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/47 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/48 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/49 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/50 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/51 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/52 Page:Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society - Volume 1.djvu/53 warm and fertile regions of the Tropics, or rather of the Equinoctial, where lodging and clothing, the two most necessary things after food, are rendered almost superfluous by the climate, and where food itself is produced with very little exertion, we find how small an advancement has in most cases been made; while, on the other hand, the whole of Europe, and by far the greater part of China, is situated beyond the northern Tropic. If, again, we go further north, to those Arctic Regions where men are still in a very miserable state, we shall find that there thay have no materials to work upon. Nature is such a niggard in the returns which she makes to labour, that industry is discouraged and frozen, as it were, in the outset. In other words, the proportion is destroyed. The equinoctial regions are spontaneously fertile, and the arctic too unkindly barren: and industry, wealth, and civilization seem on this account to have been principally confined to the temperate zone, where there is at once necessity to excite labour, and production, to recompense it. I am well aware that there are other important circumstances, besides geographical situation, which influence the progress of nations: all I mean to say is, that the last cause does not seem generally to have met with the attention is deserves. It will be obvious too, that the foregoing observations apply solely to those counties whose inhabitants may be considered as indigenous, in the common acceptation of the word, and not to such as have been peopled by extensive emigrations from old states, whence all their industry and knowledge—"tanta memoria præteritorum futurorumque prodentia, tot artes, tantæ scientiæ, tot inventa"—have been transferred.

  1. See, in Morrison's Chronology, p. 57, a quotation from Choo-foo-tsze, in which he says: "It is impossible to give entire credit to the traditions of these remote ages."
  2. "All they relate concerning the progress of the arts and sciences, is an incongruous mass of fictions. Every thing with them is produced as if by enchantment: and events succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity; but the greatest absurdity consists in attributing all inventions of that nature to princes, who we know have few opportunities of making discoveries."—De Pauw, Preliminary Discourse on the Egyptians and Chinese.
  3. "At this time," says a Chinese author, speaking of Fo-hi, "men differed but little from brutes; they knew their mother, but not their father."—See Du Halde.
  4. See Morrison's Chinese Chronology, p. 52.
  5. It would perhaps be going too far to condemn all that precedes the time of Chow, as absolutely fabulous; but it is so mixed up with fable, as not to deserve the name of history. They have no records older than the compilations of Confucius.
  6. Yang-tsze-keang, or κατ’εξοχην, Keang, "The River."
  7. The substance of the Great Wall, which extends along a space of 1,500 miles, from the shore of the Yellow Sea to Western Tartary, has been estimated by Mr. Barrow to exceed in quantity that of all the houses in Great Britain, and to be capable of surrounding the whole earth with a wall several feet high.
  8. Allowing that this might have happened before the burning of the books, B.C. 200, it must necessarily have been after the time of Confucius, B.C. 500.
  9. During the learned and polite, but unwarlike dynasty of Sung (A.D. 950-1281), who were crushed by the Mongols, enormous supplies of money and silk were repeatedly demanded and obtained by the Barbarians. This unwise submission had the natural effect of increasing their insolence, and hastening the ruin of the empire.
  10. The art of printing is not recorded to have arisen until about A. D. 925, a little before the time of Sung.