China's Story - William Griffis

The Evolution of Government

Chinese society rests for its longevity upon the principle contained in the fifth commandment in the decalogue of Moses. In China, the church-nation, filial piety lies at the foundation of all order, and its typical saints are those who most highly honor their parents. It is related of Shun (B.C. 2317-2208), that, though cruelly treated by his father, who had taken a new wife and favored her offspring, he in nowise lessened his dutiful conduct toward his parents or his regard for his step-brother. The good boy was rewarded even by the beasts, so that they came to help him drag his plough, while the birds weeded the fields for him. He also made pottery and caught fish for his step-parent and brother, though they still persecuted him. They even set fire to his house, and then, getting him to go into a deep well, tried to put him out of the way, but in every case his life was miraculously preserved.

In Chinese literature there are twenty-four stories of twenty-three sons and one daughter who illustrated filial piety in their unswerving obedience, and in the unselfish sacrifices they made for their parents. It rather amuses the Occidental to find so many boys and only one girl thus canonized. We recognize these characters in the storybooks, in pictures on plates, cups, and vases, and in many forms of art in China and Japan. Putnam and the wolf, George Washington and his cherry tree, Betsy Ross and her flag, are not better known to us than are these paragons to the Chinese.

We must not forget that classic China, where these worthies lived, with fewer than a million people in it, comprised only parts of three northern provinces. The neighboring aborigines had not been wholly subdued, though peaceful measures were gradually winning them over. So long as they remained quiet, they were allowed to live on the soil, gradually becoming Chinese.

All land in theory belonged to the ruler, who gave certificates of ownership, part of the produce being paid to him for the support of order. Where the ruler lived was the capital. This was in the centre of five squares, of different sizes, inclosed one within another. The central one was called the Royal Domain. The Noble's Tenure, or next square, consisted of lands allotted to the great officers. The Region of Tranquil Tenure, the Territory of Aliens, and the Wild Domain followed in their order. In these five squares lived the nine different grades of people, from the ruler and his household to the savages in the distant regions where civilization was unknown. Those living in the square nearest the capital paid the highest taxes, and those at the greatest distance the lightest.

Gradually government changed from the simple patriarchal form, in which the head of a tribe ruled his people, as if all were in one family, into a monarchy, where there was a king, with grades of society,—the nobles, the higher order of citizens, the lower orders, the half subdued, and the utterly wild,—each class paying taxes according to ability. Thus by slow evolution the form of government approached that of to-day. In reality China has passed through many varieties of government, but the nation is one family and the emperor is the father of his people.

All religions are less complicated and more simple as we ascend the stream of time. There were no idols or temples, or any caste of priests, in early China. Worship was offered to the Supreme Ruler, to the Six Objects of Honor, to hills and rivers, and to the hosts of spirits. Many scholars translate the term Shang-ti by our word God. A sentence from Confucius, in ten characters, in his Doctrine of the Mean, or Middle Way, is thus put into English: "In the ceremonies at the altars of Heaven and Earth they served God." In spirit and form, ancient Chinese religion was but slightly different from that of the ancient Semites. The Temple of Heaven in Peking, mostly of white marble, in three stories, is roofed with blue tiles, as if to represent the azure of the sky. Dr. Legge put off his shoes in visiting this sacred place. In 1900, the British cavalry made a stable of it!

Ancient worship was graded. When we first know anything of Chinese ancestral worship, we find this to be the form of their religion. Only the emperor offered sacrifice to the spirits of his imperial progenitors, the province governors to the spirits of Earth and Heaven, and the common people to their ancestors.

In all ancient cults, however, what a man neglected to do was even more significant than what he performed. It was believed that the spirits of the forefathers had great powers of evil, as well as of good. Therefore to neglect honoring the ancestors might mean frightful disasters from water, fire, or pestilence.

When scholars tell us about the ancient religion of China, as described in or learned from the books, we must remember that this lofty faith was practiced in its purity only by the most intelligent and devout. The great mass, the ignorant, the vulgar, the stupid, the brutal and wicked held to debasing habits and notions. Beast-worship, belief in fox and wolf possession, witchcraft and resort to magic, and a degrading fear of evil spirits, were and are general. In China, as in other countries, there is a great gulf between the theory and the practice of religion.

In China, whether pre-ancient or of to-day, the unit of society is not the individual, but the family. The happiness or unhappiness of the individual is nothing in itself, that of the family is everything. Equality and fraternity are written on the Chinese heart, and the idea of education is to inspire family affection. There is no other country in the world where the family idea is so prominent or its unity so safeguarded.

Oriental civilization is communal, not individual. Even the language mirrors the state of society. There are no true personal pronouns, few ways or none of expressing individuality, no personification in poetry, while the whole speech is impersonal to the last degree. Many words common to us cannot be translated directly into these languages, nor theirs into ours, for there are no exact equivalents. It is like making change as between American quarters and English shillings, or American dollars and French five-franc pieces. One can come only near to a fair exchange.

Circular house


With us the husband and wife begin the home, living, as a rule, apart from their parents. In China the married children occupy the same house with the son's parents. If a man is adopted into another family, with no father or son in it, he must, in order to become its head, take his wife's family name. Of old the members of the same family lived in one hamlet, and when the families increased they became a clan, which was supposed to have had but one ancestor. Even to-day in remote villages, all the people form one household. One great house, built in the form of a circle, or hollow ring, with the garden in the centre and cultivated fields outside, may hold three or four generations in many families who make up one clan, living under one round roof for better protection against robbers.

This prehistoric division of the people into clans is reflected in the very small number of Chinese family names. Ours, like Smith, Jones, etc., are large in number, compared to the Li, Sun, Fan, etc., of the "Hundred Families" of China. In all matters that are purely local, the head of the family or clan has control. There is no country in the world more famous for its local freedom, and no larger democracy than China. Yet there seems lacking a powerful middle class between the throne and the people. This is China's great need. Local customs are so tenacious as to have the force of law, and with these customs or binding traditions of a place, very few magistrates, whether emperors, province rulers, mayors, or village elders, dare interfere.

In very, very early days, human sacrifices were as common in eastern Asia as in Europe. When the master died, some, often many, of his faithful servants, yes, even his wives, died with him. Traces of this custom are found within quite modern times. Among the beneficent reforms was the substitution of clay figures, and, in process of time, of paper effigies. Memorial tablets are said to have originated B.C. 350 in honor of a courtier who had given his own flesh to save the life of an emperor. Ancestor-worship involved the propitiation of the evil as well as the good spirits. This is the immediate purpose in mind when fire-crackers are set off by the Chinese in their burying-grounds and at funerals; that is, to scare off the spirits that would work harm. In constant fear of the over-populated world of the unseen, the Chinaman, like the Japanese, is apt to laugh or appear gay, when announcing bad news or telling of trouble, especially of the death of near friends. It is a relic of the old dread of evil spirits and the desire of not letting them know, lest they might seize upon the departed. A large part of the ritual of burial is intended to fool or drive away the goblins, and at the grave these are kept off by fireworks. This is the real and the unconsciously inherited philosophy of "the Japanese smile." The Chinese grin while bearing pain, or announce sad news with apparent merriment.

One of several stories illustrating the ancient custom of men "dying with the master," or of virgins being offered to appease gods and monsters, is that of "giving a wife in marriage to the river-god." It also shows how a brave man abolished a bad custom. A reforming governor, B.C. 424, found that the ruling elders of a certain city, in league with the sorcerers and a chief priestess, levied money on the people and then selected a pretty maiden, who was richly dressed and thrown into the Yellow River to meet the embraces of the god. The next year the governor seized the chief sorceress and some of her associates and tumbled them into the water in place of the customary virgin. After that the river lord, or god of the Yellow River, had to do without his regular allowance.

In a pack of fire-crackers, one can see reflected the order of ancient society. There is, first of all, the one yellow, or imperial cracker. That stands for the emperor. Various green-tinted crackers represent the nobles and magistrates of various ranks, whom we call "mandarins." The great number alike and of the same color, red, tell of the populace or common people, who are "made of the red earth and to the red earth return." What we long employed to celebrate the birth of a new nation, July 4, 1776, the Chinese used ages ago in connection with funerals. The one way is about as civilized as the other.

When Yu succeeded to power, B.C. 2205, there began the Hia or first regular Chinese dynasty, which lasted to B.C. 1818. It was so named after the territory now in the province of Honan, which was given to Yu the Great, for his services in controlling the Yellow River. After this herculean task, he gave the country a good government. In order to be close to the people, he had a drum, a gong, a sounding-stone, a wooden bell, and a rattle hung outside the palace walls. These, in their order, were to be sounded according as one came to instruct the king, had a suggestion to offer, came to tell of famine or rebellion, appealed from an unjust decision, or asked for justice. During Yu's reign, more aboriginal tribes were conquered and the realm was extended. As gold and silver were now mined, stamped money took the place of the old-fashioned barter.

The legends of the era show the influence of both good and wicked women as well as men. They make it plain, also, that as wealth increased, luxury and cruelty became more general. The state of affairs became so bad that one Prince Tang, a very virtuous man, was, in B.C. 1766, provoked into rebellion,—the first of the many successful "rebels" known in Chinese history.

On the occasion of a great drought, it was supposed that the wrath of Heaven required a human victim. In this crisis, the emperor, Tang, after fastening and cutting off his hair, put on white robes, and in a chariot drawn by white horses came to the mulberry grove where sacrifices were offered. Confessing his sins, Tang prayed to Heaven to take his life for the sins of the people. Happily at this moment clouds gathered, rain fell, and his life was spared. The Shang or Yin dynasty, which he founded, endured for over six hundred years, from B.C. 1766 to B.C. 1122. Most of the twenty-six rulers were of little personal importance.

During this period, in addition to the wild tribes on the borders, we note the beginning of the long struggle between the Chinese and the northern Tartars, which at last, after thirty centuries, ended by the Manchus subduing the Chinese in war, and ruling in Peking. On the other hand, the Chinese overcame their conquerors in time of peace, civilization winning greater victories than those of bloodshed.

Most interesting during this epoch is the division of the arable land into units of nine equal squares. Each family cultivated its own block, while the ninth, or central square, was worked in common by all and its produce paid to the government as a tax. Gradually it came to pass that the emperor, who ruled by divine right as the father of his people, was looked upon as the favorite of the Supreme Ruler and was called the Son of Heaven, as we have seen.

Probably the most famous man of this period was the scholar Ki Tsze, an ancestor of Confucius, whom the Koreans call the founder of their civilization. He was the author of part of the classics. Vainly protesting against the wickedness of his sovereign, he was thrown into prison, but, released in 1122, he went to Liao Tung, or the Far East. His alleged tomb at Ping Yang was greatly injured during the war of 1894, but was soon re-paired. Around a sacrificial stone table and drum are the effigies of horses and sheep, as at the tombs of great men in China. Because Ki Tsze lived before Confucius, the Koreans boast an antiquity greater than China's and a "civilization four thousand years old." Yet they have no real history covering half this period.

With the defeat of Chou Hsin, in 1122, the Divine Prince, Wu Wang, founded the famous Chow dynasty, lasting from B.C. 1122 to B.C. 255, ushering in also the feudal system, so brilliantly described in the poetry gathered by Confucius, at which we shall now glance.