China's Story - William Griffis

The Empire and the Northern Barbarians

Out of the thirty-five dynasties known in Chinese history, only two are reckoned as of purely native origin, the Han and the Ming. As in England, the founders of ruling houses were mostly foreigners.

The Han line of emperors is divided by historians into two branches and epochs, the Former or Western Han, B.C. 206 to A.D. 25, and the Later or Eastern Han dynasty, A.D. 25 to 214. It is not necessary, in this little book, to name the emperors, some thirty in number, or to say much about them, but only to speak of the characteristics of the line and the age in which they lived.

Some of the traditions of the early ages, as in the following example, explain the situation better than descriptions could do. Han Sin, a grandson of the prince of the Han domain, whose territory was seized by the first Tsin ruler, was left so poor that he had to get his breakfast out of the water which flowed around the castle of his ancestors. While the hungry boy sat in front of the moat, waiting for a bite, a poor woman, who was steeping flax near by, took pity on him and gave him food. Becoming a soldier when grown, he rose rapidly as a hero and served under the founder of the Western Han dynasty, and winning many battles was made prince of the domain in which lay his ancestral castle. At once he sought out the old woman who had helped him, and made her a present of one thousand gold pieces. He also hunted up and gave a position of trust to a man who had once dared him when a boy to show his grit.

In later life, slandered by enemies to the emperor who was founder of the Han dynasty, Han Sin expected to be put to death, for he knew how often jealous men who reach power handle cruelly their helpers, when the benefit of their service has been exhausted. So Han Sin said, "When the cunning hare is caught, the fleet bound goes into the cooking pot; when the soaring bird is shot, the trusty bow is laid aside; when the foe is vanquished, the wise counselor is forgotten. The empire is now established,—it is right that I should go into the cooking pot." He lived, however, some years after this episode. Han Sin was one of the "Three Heroes" most famous in Chinese history.

This being the first really national dynasty, the Chinese, especially the northerners, still speak proudly of themselves as the Sons of Han. The good opinions of the scholars were won by repealing the decree against them, by collecting the books which were hidden or had survived, and by paying honor to literature and offering sacrifices at the tomb of Confucius. The capital was located in Shen Si, so as to be near the threatening danger, the barbarians of the north, with which the Chinese had to grapple. The Tartars had by this time spread over the northern part of what is now China proper.

These Mongolians, of the same stock as the Huns and Turks, had no cities and never dwelt in towns. Their homes were on their horses. Even the children were taught, when very young, to ride on the sheep's backs. Having no fields or gardens, their animals furnished them occupation, food, drink, clothing, means of travel, and power in war. Tartar food was mainly meat and milk. With their camels, asses, mules, horses, and sheep as their daily care, they moved from place to place in search of pasture. They fought on horseback, charging with wild shouts against their enemies.

The eastern Tartars became the Manchus and Koreans, and also made part of the composite people of Japan. The western Tartars at various times overran western Asia, the Roman Empire, and medieval Europe.

So began and continued for centuries the struggle of the Chinese with the fierce shepherds and wandering horsemen of the north. In its nature, this strife was much the same as that rivalry between Abel and Cain, which we behold in the forefront of human history. One is a farmer. He settles down to regular life, tills the soil, and begins the civilization which means progress. The other is a hunter, or a shepherd, who will not plough the ground or live under a roof. If a hunter, he finds his food in the forest. If a nomad, he moves over the earth, never abiding in any one place. In either case he despises, or even hates, the man of regular life. He is apt to consider the property of the farmer or townsman as fair game, and the tempting spoils of war. We see the same picture of life in ancient Israel, where the wandering Bedawin in the desert and the settled Hebrews in the walled cities were ever at war; in early Japan between the Yamato men and the Ainu; in Europe between the Romans and the Teutonic barbarians, our ancestors, between the lowlanders and the highlanders of Scotland, between our colonial fathers and the Indians; and, indeed, in all human history.

War in China had occasionally its comic side, and many things occurred to make one laugh as well as to mourn. In one case these northern mauraders, after making a raid, started back to carry off their spoil. The Chinese emperor pursued them, but "caught a Tartar," and was obliged himself to get into a walled city. There he might have been captured, except for a smart trick played upon his enemy. In the Tartar camp, the barbarous chieftain's wife had no fear that her husband would not conquer the Chinese men, but she dreaded the Chinese women, lest with their beauty they should steal away her husband's affections. So the emperor stuck up on the city walls puppets or lay figures, dressed and painted to represent pretty Chinese girls. He then craftily sent a letter to the Tartar chieftain's wife, saying that he proposed to present these lovely maidens to her husband. Instead of being glad to hear this, the lady developed a fit of fiery jealousy, and was not happy until she had persuaded her husband to raise the siege and retreat. This incident made a great impression on the northerners, who were so feared yet despised by the Chinese. When a few years afterwards they made another irruption, the emperor bought them off by giving his own daughter to their leader and promising an annual tribute of silk, wine, and grain. For centuries, Tartar chiefs made invasions southward, lured by the beauty of the Chinese women. Soon we shall find these Tartar chiefs with Chinese wives claiming the throne through their heirs.

During this era, the barbarians fought among themselves. One tribe withdrew from Mongolia and moved westward, beginning that great march which continued for centuries. They settled in Bokhara, and were part of the great movement of the Huns that struck the Roman Empire so disastrously in the era of its weakness.

One can see easily how much alike, and at very much the same time, was the work of both the Roman and the Chinese Empire in keeping back the northern barbarians, who in Europe were the Teutons, our ancestors, and in Asia were Tartars. Yet on both continents and in both empires there were victories in peace as well as in war.

One emperor, Wen-ti, was renowned for his filial devotion. During his mother's last illness, which lasted three years, it is said he never left her apartments. He was a very humane ruler. He reformed the code of barbarous punishment, which hitherto had included branding on the face, cutting off the nose, chopping off the feet, etc. He also revived the study of literature and collected manuscripts. His star, in the constellation named after him, is the abode of the god of literature.

Many stories are told of battle, ambuscade, advance, and retreat in these wars on the northern frontier. To develop grand strategy and to make a flank movement, one emperor invaded and annexed the northern part of Korea, then much larger than now, and including Liao Tung. Wu-ti, who reigned fifty-four years, also extended the confines of the empire westward and southward. Although so active in war and letters, he was very superstitious. He patronized magicians and sorcerers and indulged his sensual passions. One of these necromancers professed to be able to bridle and mount dragons and bestride the hoary crane, and on these coursers of the air to visit the whole universe; to make snow out of silver and transmute cinnabar into gold. Centuries after Wu-ti's time, these Chinese theories, brought into Europe by the Arabs, greatly influenced our ancestors' notions of alchemy and chemistry.

In popular tradition this emperor Wu-ti bears two different characters. In the later wonder tales, he is represented as being wooed by his fairy visitor, whose title is the Western Royal Mother. She dwelt on a famous high mountain, at the head of her troops of genii and fairies, and from time to time she had friendly interviews with favored emperors. The magnificence of the mountain pal-ace of this Empress of the West is glowingly described in the romances, and on many a Chinese dish, vase, or plate we recognize her and her train and the story wrought in splendid colors. Here, by the Lake of Gems, grows the peach tree, whose fruit confers the gift of immortality, which the queen bestows upon her favorites, and from her mountain home she sends out the azure-winged birds, who serve as her attendants and messengers.

A staff of generals, brave and daring, carried the arms of Wu-ti into the heart of central Asia. By B.C. 130 the tribes of Yunnan were brought under imperial rule, and the boundaries of China proper became very much as they are found to-day. Through these conquests the Chinese became acquainted with the countries of the West, and the aborigines and barbarians received much Chinese culture. Travel was then by land, for ships able to cross the ocean were not yet known. Embassies and caravans came from Parthia, Mesopotamia, Bactria, and Afghanistan, by which many Greek, Persian, and Hindoo ideas and inventions were brought to the Middle Kingdom. Traffic opened with the Roman Empire. Many things made in China and inscribed with ancient Chinese letters have been found in Egypt and various parts of Africa and Europe. The magnetic needle was used to guide travelers on land at night and in cloudy and stormy weather. It was called the South Pointing Chariot, because to the Chinese mind the needle trembled in that direction. Forcing their way over the mountains, Chinese pilgrims reached India to bring back news of great treasure lands scarcely known before. Buddhist missionaries, for the first time, found their way into China. The first two are said to have come riding eastward on white horses, and about the same time that St. Paul was moving westward into Europe.

Thus began the long and glorious reign of the Indian and Aryan religion in China, blending Mongol and Hindoo ideals of life. Buddhism has done much to uplift the Chinese people, cheer them in affliction, and minister to their spiritual wants as Confucianism could not, besides offering the greatest of all hopes,—life hereafter.

Wind box Gorge


Under Buddhism, the Chinese landscape was greatly changed. The country was covered with shrines and sculpture, pagodas, monasteries, and temples. The Hindoo and the Chinese were brought together as brothers in the same household of faith. Asia became like a garden. Gradually the ideals of the two races and civilizations commingled. The philosophy of India penetrated that of China. Of the permanent and far-reaching influence of this religion we may have more to say. From this time the intellect of the Chinese is touched with a new fertility, and their imagination stimulated. China becomes the land of the pagoda. The law of tenderness and mercy sways life as never before.

One of the ministers of Wu-ti was a great explorer. He "pierced the void," that is, penetrated into the extreme regions of the hitherto unknown Far West, and discovered the sources of the Yellow River. Before his time this stream was believed to flow from the verge of Heaven, as a continuation of the Milky Way. Taken prisoner by the wild tribes, he lived among them for many years, brought back the grapevine, and re-taught his countrymen the art of wine-making.

Around this River of Heaven many pretty stories cluster, one of the most famous being that of the Ox-boy and the Weaver-girl. These lovers meet on the night of August 7, every year, over a bridge of magpies' wings. Many are the poems recited, the songs sung, and the charming customs based on this legend, both in China and in Japan. In the long course of centuries most of the famous personal adventures, exploits of travel, voyages, martial deeds, and visits to wonderful caves, mountains, or forests by the various Chinese heroes became nursery legends or themes for artists,—a veritable Milky Way, full of light, glory, and mystery. As with most other histories, beside that of China, the people do not, cannot, retain in memory the dates, statistics, or exact details. They hold the substance of these chiefly in poetry, art, and pleasing story, retaining what is richest in human interest.