China's Story - William Griffis

The Era of Printing and Literature

Wen ti, the first Sui Emperor (A.D. 589-605) was an unusually able ruler. He practiced what he preached, and faced the logic of his creed. Ascribing the calamity of a famine to his own lack of virtue, he made a pilgrimage to a high mountain and there confessed his sins and prayed for forgiveness. Attracted by his fame, envoys from distant tribes visited his court. His successor, Yang Ti, was infamous and extravagant. He built many canals, compelling even the women to work in digging them. One of these, connecting the Yellow and Yang-tse rivers, became the Grand Canal. In his luxurious palaces, he rivaled Solomon in collecting beautiful women for his harem.

When Korea refused to forward the usual tribute, the emperor sent an army of three hundred thousand men into Liao Tung province, then part of "the little outpost state on the eastern frontier," and besieged the capital. The military operations, in A.D. 610, took place about where the great campaign between the Russians and Japanese was fought in 1904, another conflict being waged near the Yalu River. The Chinese were defeated, but the emperor insisted upon raising another army and again attacking the Koreans, whose splendid courage had been so manifested in their fortresses. When in A.D. 615 this mighty expedition moved eastward again, the Korean king yielded and promised submission. Embassies from Japan also visited the imperial court. After campaigns with the Turkomans on the west, the latter joined, as allies, with the imperial general Li Yuan, who in 618 A.D. became master of the empire and established the great Tang line of rulers, one of the longest of China's dynasties.

In China the rulers change often, but the people remain one. Her social system seems unchangeable. Japan, on the contrary, that appears so elastic and ready to change, has had but one imperial dynasty. Over thirty acknowledged families of rulers have occupied the Chinese throne. The contrasted situations in Japan and China are the results of different political theories. In China government rests on the idea of virtue in the emperor, the Son of Heaven, who alone has the right to worship Heaven, bearing their sins and asking blessings for his people. In Japan government rests on the idea of the divine right of hereditary succession to the throne, as one may read in the first clause of the Constitution of 1889. In China no historic dynasty has ever continued during three hundred years. In Japan there has been one ruling house since the written history of the sixth century, or in legend from B.C. 660. When China shall have adopted representative government, the responsibility will be, as it has not been, shared by the people.

The arts both of war and of peace were highly cultivated during the Tang period, from A.D. 618 to 905. The foot soldiers were equipped with longer pikes and stronger bows. The cavalry, in which the Tartars had hitherto excelled, was now better organized and cultivated by the Chinese. Most of the tactics and ideas of strategy which were adopted in this age remained in fashion in China down to the Russo-Japanese War.

Still older is the Book of War, the military classic of Chin, which was written in the fourth century B.C., and which has been read and studied in the whole Chinese world of culture. Even after the Japanese, rejecting chariots, umbrellas, and fans, conchs and kettle-drums, had adopted artillery and rifles, the sayings of the two authors, Sun and Wu, wrought into proverbs and maxims, fired their resolution and carried them through the Russian war. The reason is that this classic, over two thousand years old, deals less with strategy and tactics than with the morale, or spirit, of commanders and their troops, regarding the state of mind as of even more importance than missiles and supplies. Uniforms and weapons change, but not the mind of the soldier. Human nature remains ever the same. The spirit of the true warrior, the coward, the brave man, the deserter, the homesick follower, and the general traits of the commander and the commanded have altered little, if at all, in two thousand years. The Chinese are governed less by sentiment than by reason.

Most famous of all in the Tang dynasty was the emperor Tai-Tsung, who reigned from A.D. 627 to 650. He built a library in which two hundred thousand volumes were stored and used. He held discussions on morals and the best methods of government. There is a vivid picture of his court, in the year 630, when embassies from many vassal states and kingdoms, and even from the island empire of Japan, were present. The variety of languages and diversity and brilliancy of the costumes of the envoys excited much interest and caused some merriment in the capital.

Tai-Tsung's generals overcame the Turkomans, and he himself led an army into Korea, but here again the notable valor of the Koreans, when besieged, brought disaster and demoralization to the Chinese, who had to retreat. But the Chinese persevered, and in 667 sent another expedition to Korea. The city of Ping Yang—the same before which the great battles of 1593 and 1904 were fought—was besieged and surrendered. Korea again became vassal, and was divided into five colonies with Chinese overseers.

A fresh enemy appeared on the west when the Tibetans, then called Turfans, became hostile. Kokonor, or the Azure Lake, was the scene of a battle in which the Tibetans were beaten. A new Tartar tribe invaded from the north, ravaging and plundering. From its name, Khitai, comes the familiar word "Cathay."

One of the longest reigns in Chinese history was that of a woman, the empress Wu-Hu, who ruled from A.D. 684 to 705. After her time, the story of the Tang dynasty is that of decay, there being many insurrections. Yet this epoch is brilliant in history, because in the year A.D. 785 the Han-lin or Imperial Academy was founded. The words mean Forest of Pencils. The hall in which the scholars met was called later the Jeweled Dome. In front of the gateway of the college grew magnolia trees, so that it was also known as the Jeweled Magnolias. At the examination, held once in three years, only six candidates were chosen. In Peking, in 1900, during the Boxer troubles, the vast library of the Han-lin, with its precious treasures, was destroyed by fire.

In this Tang epoch, also, the oldest newspaper in the world, the official Gazette of the Court, was founded, to publish the edicts of the emperor. This era is well called the Augustan age of Chinese literature, and its famous poets and philosophers are regarded as models and their language as the standard.

Buddhists on Rock


Nestorian missionaries had entered China as early as A.D. 506, but in the eighth century they increased in number and met with great success. Christian ideas greatly influenced Buddhist philosophy in China, but even more in Japan. There still stands a tablet, upon which is recorded in outline a summary of the Nestorian form of Christianity, in Chinese characters.

The population of China proper was reduced some millions by the wars, civil and foreign, which marked the later days of the Tang dynasty. From A.D. 907 to 960 is the epoch of the five dynasties whose beads were Tartar chieftains or of Turkoman origin. Here again the conditions in Europe and Asia were much alike. This may be called also the period of military despotism, and yet one invention made at this time was destined to have a large influence upon mankind. In 932 the art of printing with wooden blocks was invented, and the Five Classics of Confucius and the Four Books were printed. Later on, "living types," or, as we call them, "movable" types, were invented and much used in Korea and China. There is no convincing evidence that printing was invented in Europe. It was probably brought there out of China, where it had been used for centuries, during the Mongol invasions. Once in Germany and the Netherlands, this Chinese art came rapidly into general use.

During the Tang era, the teachers and missionaries of both Taoism and Buddhism were very active. It was an age of toleration and brotherhood. A constant stream of learned Hindoo priests came into China, bringing books, writing, new ideas in ethics, art, literature, and architecture. At one time there were three thousand priests from India and ten thousand Hindoo families in China. Gradually Aryan thought penetrated the minds of scholars. Sanskrit script gave the Chinese the idea of an alphabet, spelling by syllables, and an easier system of writing for the common people, thus helping greatly the spread of general education. New popular festivals were instituted. Temples, pagodas, extensive rock carvings, monasteries, and nunneries began to be very numerous. Not a few shrines became renowned for the holy relics of the saints, and gained gradually a reputation for miracle-working which drew myriads of visitors thither, thus stimulating habits of travel and pilgrimages. In spite of all opposition from the literati and even from the nation's great high priest, the emperor, Buddhism flourished until it reached its culmination of popularity in the twelfth century, when it began to decline.

It was not the ethics of Buddhism, but its doctrines of hope, consolation, retribution, and of the boundless compassion of the Buddha, in new incarnations of mercy, that made it acceptable to the masses. Confucianism attracts intellectual men and works for order and government, but it means also the subjugation of women. It has little inspiration or aspiration. Its head and front is Heaven, or impersonal Law. The high church" Buddhists reckon a regular succession of patriarchs from the Buddha, or Shakyamuni of India, who lived in the sixth century before Christ. Taoism, taking more and more the form of magic, alchemy, the attempted mastery of matter, ran off into mystical speculation upon corporeal immortality, the elixir of life, alchemy, transmutation of metals, aviation on dragons, cranes, etc. One of the Eight Immortals of the Taoists is often met with and easily recognized in the art of the Chinese world, being an especial favorite with Japanese artists also. This eighth-century man rode on a white mule, which carried him thousands of miles a day. When he halted he condensed the beast into small compass, folding it up and hiding the skin in his wallet. When he would travel again, he spurted water from his mouth, when presto! the mule resumed his proper shape. Preferring the life of a tramp, he declined even the invitation of the emperor to be a priest at court. He "became a guest in heaven," that is, entered upon immortality without suffering bodily dissolution, and in his honor one of the million or more shrines in the empire was erected. Another famous immortal who practiced reflection and self-examination, when not in a mood for thought, could put his supernal self into a gourd. Then at will he would uncork the vessel and let his visible soul be projected upon the clouds or air, and thus study his own personality. We meet with him often in the art of Japan and China on porcelain, vase, or sword-guards, at his favorite occupation of enjoying his dual personality.

Progress in art was also notable during the Tang era, the impulses of which were felt in Korea and Japan, notably stimulating and developing the schools of artists at the capitals, Sunto and Nara, and hastening the erection of the colossal images of Buddha in both pupil countries. Especially is this true of the paintings of the dragons as symbols of power. Buddhism enriched the folklore, in which the dragon holds so prominent a place that we must here glance at this creature, the cyclopedia of all the vital forces in nature.

There is a famous story about the Dragon Mother, who is a deified being, worshiped at a celebrated temple. There was once an old woman who gained her living by catching fish. One day she found an enormous egg, which she carried home. Out of it came forth a creature which aided her in fishing. By accident the old woman cut off a part of the creature's tail, whereupon it left her and she thought no more of it, except to mourn her loss, for she could not catch as many fish as before. Some years afterwards, this same creature returned in such splendor that the old woman at once recognized it as a dragon. The emperor summoned her to give an account of her wonderful adventures. She started to go, but when halfway to the Court she was overcome with a longing for home. Thereupon a dragon at once appeared and transported her in an instant to the banks of the stream where she lived. As the story went down the ages and others hoped to receive similar summons to the Court and ride on the dragon's back, this fish woman came to be revered as a divinity and the patroness of navigators on the West River, where the sailors still worship her.

Fishing boats


The Chinese do not seem to have used balloons or to have had recourse to aeroplanes, but there are a great many stories of aerial coursers, who on the backs of dragons or storks traverse swiftly the atmosphere on their important errands.

"High mounted on the dragon's back he rode

Aloft to where the dazzling cloudlands lie,"

is about the way some romances begin. There are also hundreds of stories of Taoists and wise men of the mountain, or sennin, taking these voyages in the air with dirigible creatures. On the backs of whales or great fishes, also, they bring art, letters, and material blessings across the sea.

More important, even, than the rise and fall of a dynasty was the discovery in southern China of a plant from whose leaf a delicious, perfumed, mildly stimulating drink could be brewed. As a rival of the grape, and filling "the cups that cheer but not inebriate," tea has been a blessing to China and the race. The use of tea helped mightily, thus early in their history, to make and keep the Chinese a temperate people.

The tea-plant is the queen of the camellia family. It was not always used as it is now. The method of serving it has passed through several stages of evolution in social use. Originating in southern China, probably during the Han era, it was known first in botany as a medicine, and its leaves were made into plasters for rheumatism. As a drink, the Taoists first made it known, for with them it was an ingredient in the elixir of immortality. It is alluded to in the classics as Tou, from which the modern character tcha, cha, tea, or te, is derived. The Buddhist monks, on coming from India into China, were delighted to discover its exhilarating qualities, and they brewed it during their night vigils to prevent sleep. Indeed the legend of its origin is associated with religion.

Dharma, the holy saint from south India, was accustomed to give himself to midnight devotions. One night nature revolted, and he fell asleep until morning. Waking up in horror at his lapse from holiness, he pulled out a sharp knife, cut off his eyelids and threw them on the ground. Presto! there sprang up twin plants, each with pearly white flowers. Steeping the leaves in hot water, he bade good-by to fear. He told his brethren the secret, and henceforth holy men were kept from nodding by the cheering brew.

In Japan, this saint, who first saw the tea-rose and leaf, is called Daruma, and is represented as legless. He is honored as the founder of the Zen sect of contemplation. In red-painted wood, squat, and round as a pumpkin, with terrible, lidless eyes, his effigy serves as the tobacco shopman's sign of trade, though he deserves a better fame. His lower limbs dropped off after he had sat in meditation during nine years.

Chinese poets called their new drink "froth of the liquid jade," and emperors proffered cups of it as a reward of honor for eminent service. Out from the Yang-tse valley, the use of tea spread abroad, not reaching Japan, however, until A.D. 805, nor becoming a common drink in the islands until the twelfth century. By slow evolution, its use blossomed into an aesthetic cult called cha-yo-yu, or tea-decoction. Why, we shall see.

In the beginning no one thought of steeping tea. Between its early application as a cold plaster for rheumatism and its modern use in ice-cream (in Japan), the art of making tea had to pass through three stages requiring heat, or fire.

In the beginning the leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, and made into a cake. Then with rice, ginger, salt, orange-peel, spices, milk, onions, or what not, men boiled the tea, even as the Mongolians and Tibetans do to-day, and as was often done at first in Europe. Indeed the Russians, and we after them, still use a slice of lemon in the infusion. This is a survival of the old custom. To this day "brick tea" is the kind most imported into the land of the Czar and the samovar.

We should all read Mr. Okakura's delightful work, "The Book of Tea," in which we are told that the poet Luwuh of the Tang dynasty, who is the tutelary god of the tea-merchants in China, wrote a book in three volumes, entitled the Tea Classic, treating of the history, nature, and preparation of the herb and describing "the twenty-four members of the tea equipage." Tea drinking powerfully influenced the development of the ceramic art in China. Luwuh considered blue as the ideal color of the teacup. He used cake tea. In the time of the Mings, when the steeped leaves were used, white porcelain was preferred.

During the Sung dynasty, whipped tea, or a frothing liquid made by pouring boiling water on powdered tea and churning it round with a whisk of split bamboo, came into fashion. Thus the second school of tea was formed.

After the Mongol invasion, tea was steeped and drunk in modern fashion. Not till late in the Ming dynasty did Europe become acquainted with tea, and then only according to the one fashion of infusion, steeping, and decoction. The introduction of hot drinks had a tremendous and far-reaching influence on social life in China, but probably even more upon table customs and the ceramic art in Europe, where it gave woman her proper place at the head of the table. Among the poorer Chinese, who could not afford rich wine in the nuptial cup, tea became the recognized drink, and oftentimes to this day, among them, the only marriage ceremony consists in the woman's making tea for the man and proffering him the cup.

In the Far East, tea is associated with philosophy. As with some other things borrowed from the Orient, we took the ceramic part of the gift, the cup's cover, upside down, turning the lid into a saucer.