China's Story - William Griffis

The Feudal System

During the era from 1122 to 255 B.C., society in China was organized under the forms of the feudal system. Feudalism, through which almost every civilized nation has passed, is in substance much the same all over the world, whatever be the time or the people. Hundreds of volumes have been written on this subject, telling us what feudalism is and how it originated, but not from very many writers do we get real light. Some seem rather to increase the darkness.

The feudalism of Japan, under which I had the rare experience of living, in 1871, during the last year of its career, was seven centuries old, and was very much like that of other countries and ages. Indeed one reason, and the chief one, for the difference in the reputations of Chinese and Japanese merchants lies in the fact that in China, since feudalism passed away, trade has been honorable for more than two thousand years. In Japan feudalism was not abolished until 1872, and until that time the merchant had no social standing.

In feudalism there is no place of honor for the trader, but only for the landowner and the soldier. There may be many definitions of feudalism, but practically in this state of society there are only two classes of people,—those who own land and are "somebody," and those who are landless and are "nobody." The whole basis of feudalism is ownership of land. All the territory, instead of being owned by those who have bought or who till it, belongs to men of varying rank, to whom it has been given as a reward for personal service.

In such a state of society there are lords and nobles, and in some countries the clergy also, as privileged classes. Yet instead of many classes of the people, or hundreds of ways of earning a living, making many social distinctions, as in mod-ern life, there are but two divisions of society,—taxpayers and non-taxpayers. The peasantry may consist of the free and the unfree, that is, of serfs and farmers who have certain privileges on the soil. "The people" do not exist politically. They have few or no rights, for the lord of the land owns everything,—the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the beasts in the forest, and the treasures in the ground. All privileges come from the land-lord, who permits or forbids, exercising authority in even the smallest affairs. Yet there are many picturesque phases of human life and generally a great diversity of color, costume, and customs. In the feudal system, almost all relations and usages being based on ownership of land, the chief characteristics of social and political life are the relationships of lords and vassals. In such a state of society, public law becomes merged into private law, so that office, jurisdiction, and even kingship are forms of property. The tenures of land are in the form of feuds, that is, fees, or fiefs. The retainer is bound to serve his lord at court or as a soldier. The personal note of the system is loyalty. For the sake of his lord, the knight or soldier must count his life, his parents, wife, children, or property as naught, in comparison to the claims of his master upon him. Thus the great laws of con-tract and of mutual dependence and service are taught, and probably as these can be taught in no other system of society. In China, filial piety is the basis of civilization and the note of ethics and history. In Japan it is loyalty.

When Wu Wang, who founded the Chow dynasty (1122255 B.C.), became emperor, he parceled out his domain, rewarding those who had helped him during his campaigns. Besides giving them grants of land he added titles of honor, such as duke, marquis, earl, count, etc. These high officers were the emperor's vassals and were bound to serve him as courtiers or soldiers. In this way China was divided up like a chessboard, though the areas were of various shapes and sizes, for the real value of territory is not in its measurement, but in its fertility, and is reckoned according to the average results of the harvest.

Now there are two ways of picturing to the mind this remarkable era and the people who lived under it. One is to write the outward story of events, give a catalogue of the petty states,—scores in number, each with a monosyllabic name, which few of us can remember,—and then mention the rulers in succession, or tell of the feudal wars; in other words, to show the bones of history.

As to war, one might almost say that campaigns seemed continuous and interminable. Many rulers, ambitious of power and coveting more land, extended their boundaries unjustly. Armies went out regularly when the millet flowers bloomed in the spring, and returned when the snow lay on the mire. As each state was governed by its own ruler, there was constant rivalry between these vassal kingdoms. In time, some of them became so powerful that their rulers took the title of kings. One of them, the state of Tsin, or Chin, became paramount, B.C. 255, overthrew the imperial dynasty, and usurped the throne. It is believed that from this state the name China became known throughout Asia. Dr. Legge declares that "the state of Tsin fought its way to empire through seas of blood. Probably there is no country in the world which has drunk in so much blood from its battles, sieges, and massacres as this."

There is another way of picturing China's feudal age. It is to tell how people felt, played, hunted, met together socially, and enjoyed themselves; or, how the nobles and their men of war with their splendid chariots, caparisoned horses, silken banners, shining armor, fine clothes, jewels, and equipment made grand display at the durbars, or state levees, when the prince gave audience to his vassals. It is pleasant, also, to learn how the women and young folks lived, dressed, and amused them-selves, how children were reared and educated, what was the round of daily life, what grew in the fields, and what kind of food was eaten. We would know something about agriculture and industry, what flowers were cultivated, and what animals were hunted or reared for protection and defense, or employed for burdens or draught. One would like to be told of the ornaments and jewels worn, of the perfumes that were considered pleasant, of the musical instruments played, and, in general, about what human beings cared most to do. Has any one reported these things? In the days before newspapers, who wrote on such subjects?

Happily for us we have true pictures made by men and women who lived during the feudal era. These word-paintings are found in the form of poetry, written from B.C. 1765 to B.C. 585, in the She King, or Book of Odes, which Confucius edited, and Dr. James B. Legge has translated. According to the tradition, "the old poems amounted to more than three thousand. Confucius removed those which were only repetitions of others, and selected those which would be service-able for the inculcation of propriety and righteousness." Confucius published in all three hundred and five pieces, which he sung over to his lute to bring them into accordance with the musical style then prevalent.

Many of these verse-pictures are of lovers and weddings, and of the joyous festivals celebrated when the maid became bride and wife. Lovers seem to have been like those of to-day,—as much in a hurry as now,—eager to get their wives, then, after marriage, taking things as a matter of course. See the swift-driving lover in this poem:—

"With axle creaking all on fire I went,

To fetch my young and lovely bride.

No thirst or hunger pangs my bosom rent,—

I only longed to have her by my side.

I feast with her, whose virtue fame had told,

Nor need we friends our rapture to behold."

The poem in five stanzas then describes the birds and living creatures met by the rider on his way to his "virtuous bride of noble mind and personality," and how he ascended the hills and ridges. Whether on level roads or slopes, he drew from the things seen, were they oak trees or trailing-tailed pheasants, images of the beauty and grace of the maid who was to make his home.

In another case, when, "like the dove in the magpie's nest," the bride goes to her future home, a hundred chariots are ready to meet her and take her there. Again a wife, with industry and reverence, assists her husband in sacrificing at the temple. In other verses, the wife of a great officer bewails his absence on duty and longs for the joy of his return. Many are the picture-songs celebrating the diligence and virtue of good wives, or the charms of royal princesses. One poem shows the anxiety of a young lady to get married. She notices that the plums when ripe fall from the bough,—at first only seven tenths, then three tenths are left, and finally she gives notice that they who would "wish her love to gain" will not now apply in vain. When no more plums are on the bough, and all are in the basket, any ardent seeker "need only speak the word."

The position of woman was not very high in these early ages. It never has been in China, where subordination is the great principle. The introduction of Confucianism into Korea and Japan resulted in a distinct lowering of the status of women. Even the loved bride might be called a dove, but it would be with the idea of her stupidity, not loveliness. A score of odes celebrate the lack of jealousy in the true wife toward the other women in the harem, one of them being devoted to the cure of jealousy and "the restoration of good feeling in the harem." The Chinese can never be proud of their treatment of one half of the race, despite all their boasted ethics. Nevertheless, China has had many great women who are justly famous.

One of the difficult tasks in translating poetry or prose from one language into another is that of retaining the pleasing associations of the original. "One man's meat is another man's poison," and "concerning tastes there should be no dispute." Different peoples have very varying ideas as to a goose, a dove, or the tree from which jujube paste is made. Not only plants, but animals, have a different language to various nations. The same flower in one country suggests a funeral and in another a wedding. To one mind there rises at a certain word the idea of grace and beauty, to another that of stupidity and folly. In one country the cherry blossom is the queen of flowers, in another the rose. In our land the rose-bud is the emblem of blooming young womanhood, but in Japan the Valerian blossom. Many common flowers in the gardens of China, as familiar as are golden-rod or pond-lilies to us, are known in America only by their long and uncouth Latin names. It is very evident that we cannot do justice to these ancient poems of China by mere translation. The task awaits some poet who is also a scholar in Chinese.

Very remarkable is the fact that many of these odes, written thousands of years ago, contain the same ideas expressed in almost the same metre with which our poets have made us familiar. For example, there is one nearly identical with our "Woodman, Spare that Tree":—

"Oh fell not that sweet pear-tree!

See how its branches spread

Spoil not its shade," etc.

And the reason is that the people love the tree because their good ruler, the duke, rested under it.

All know Poe's wonderful rhymes on the raven. About B.C. 200, an exiled Chinese poet pictures himself in grief and loneliness amid his volumes of lore, in a poem half as long as Poe's, which Dr. W. A. P. Martin has translated thus:—

"On his bed of straw reclining,

Half despairing, half repining,

When athwart the window-sill

In flew a bird of omen ill,

And seemed inclined to stay."

Then follow seven other stanzas, which contain much the same idea as that over which Poe brooded:—

"Gentle bird, in mercy deign

The will of fate to me explain,

Where is my future way?

It raised its head as if 't were seeking

To answer me by simply speaking;

Then folded up its sable wing,

Nor did it utter anything,

But breathed a 'Well-a-day'!"

Confucius may, or may not, be held responsible for admitting into his collection, without a word of explanation, an ode which has done much to perpetuate among his people a barbarous contempt for women. However we translate it, the idea is there. It occurs in a poem on the completion of a royal palace with good wishes for the builder and his posterity. Dr. Martin thus gives a rhyming translation:—

"When a son is born—in a lordly bed

Wrap him in raiment of purple and red;

Jewels and gold for playthings bring

For the noble boy who shall serve the king.

"When a girl is born—in coarse cloth wound

With a tile for a toy, let her lie on the ground.

In her bread and her beer be her praise or her blame,

And let her not sully her parents' good name."

Wonderfully vivid, in the poems, are the pictures of the costumes, the handsome figures, and the easy dignity of popular officers at the court. Fulsome praises of certain dukes, for their culture and accomplishments, are set in tuneful lines. The weaknesses of conceited young men of rank are held up to ridicule. There are sentimental travelers who give themselves up to melancholy on contemplating the desolation of former capitals. Famous buildings, once filled with gay lords and ladies, now lying as ruins among the millet fields or forgotten among men, compel reflection. The moon inspired to much verse-making then as now. We hear also the murmurs of the soldiers who have been long absent on service, and are home-sick. In many a case, an officer of character is weary of life and complains that men of principle suffer while worthless men escape punishment.

"Caught as the pheasant in the net,

That vainly for the hare is set.

So those who duty promptly do

Find cause their loyal zeal to rue," etc.

Many narratives show how virtuous magistrates repress crime and licentiousness. The daring charioteer is praised for his skill and speed in the races, while the archers are honored in verse for their rapidity, skill, and ability to hit the target.

The praises of many birds, insects, and animals, that furnish human beings with good examples, are sung by these men of the lute. The noxious vermin and rodents are awful examples to the lazy and vicious. One man is likened to a rat, because he is uncultured and rude, or in Chinese phrase "lacks propriety." In another case, a rabbit catcher is praised as fit to be a prince's mate. The country boy diligent in his business stands before kings.

A very large number of the poems are about, or by, or dedicated to women, but many more are by, about, or in praise of or sympathy with soldiers, so that one would think the feudal age was given up wholly to love and war. The peasantry are praised and misgovernment is condemned, in some cases even when the people, while complaining of their harsh treatment, profess still more strongly their loyalty. Evidently there was plenty of gossip and slander, for these furnish the theme of many of the odes.

Step by step we can trace the rise of some of the feudal lords, and their growing opulence and pride, which led to luxury in the castle, but which meant more oppression and heavier taxes for the people. Many of the poets lament over the frivolous character of their princes, who are more fond of displaying their robes than of attending to the duties of government. Certain lines also read as if the fashion reporter of a modern society journal had been present, for the description of dresses is quite detailed. There is no lack of sarcasm, irony, jibe, and pun. One poet lampoons the gate wardens, who shine so grandly in their red knee covers, but who really disgrace the court, looking rather like pelicans that stand on the dam:—

"And there their pouches cram,

Unwet the while their wings,

But take no part in toil or care,

Nor the State's welfare seek."

An accurate picture of lazy office-holders, who feed at the public expense!

Thus in the early morning of Chinese history, we find numerous poets and plenty of poetry. Through all the centuries and to this day the Chinese gentleman pens verses. The national store-house of poetry is very rich. Verse-writing literary parties and contests are very common. The Worthies of the Bamboo Grove, a club of seven convivial men of letters, about A.D. 275, are among those most renowned. Many improvised poems are popularly known and quoted, the following stanza being among the most famous. A tyrant and usurper, jealous of his brother, who had talents as a poet, hoping to bring him to confusion, commanded hint publicly to compose an ode while taking seven paces. Equal to the occasion, the poet took seven steps while reciting these satiric lines:—

"A kettle had beans inside,

And stalks of beans made a fire;

When the beans to their brother-stalks cried,

'We spring from one root,—why such ire?'"