China's Story - William Griffis

China's Experiment in Socialism

After the period of military despotism (A.D. 907960) China was virtually divided between the Tartars of the north, of whom the Kin, or Golden, was the most famous tribe, and the Chinese, whose imperial house or family was the Sung (A.D. 9601333), with their capital at Kai Feng in Honan. The Sung dynasty is usually reckoned as the Sung (A.D. 9601126) and the Southern Sung (A.D. 1127-1333).

The emperor, Tai Tsu, made it the aim of his life to consolidate the empire. He took away from the provincial officers the power of life and death and centred them in a board of punishments at the capital. He made expeditions against the Khitans into Liao Tung, but without success. He bestowed posthumous honors on those descendants of Confucius who had lived during the previous forty-four generations, and exempted from taxation all the future descendants of the sage,—a privilege which these gentlemen, still among the ablest men in the empire, yet enjoy. Beside other reforms, literature was encouraged, so that this era is remembered as one of the most brilliant for its schools and education and the number of great writers, one of them being the standard historian, Sze Ma Kwang, whose history of China fills three hundred and fifty-four volumes.

A Chinese library differs greatly in appearance from one of ours. We must not think of heavy octavo books, with stiff bindings of boards, leather, or cloth. A volume in Chinese is made of thinner and tougher bamboo paper, and is much smaller and lighter in weight than the average one in the West. The books lie flat, one upon another, piled upright, in boxes, and do not stand on their edges, as with us. The binding being of paper, or thin pasteboard, the leaves are stitched at the sides with silk and the title is marked in ink on what with us would be the lower edge. Where we end they begin, and the reading is in columns from top to bottom and from right to left. The Chinese call us "the crab-writing barbarians."

As most of the interesting events of history, or the situations in Chinese social life, are painted on porcelain, one can easily recognize a scene in the life of a child who was destined to grow up and become the famed historian, Sze Ma Kwang. When several children were playing together, Kwang, with his playmates, leaned on the rim of a large porcelain vessel in which tame gold-fish were kept. One boy lost his balance and fell into the water among the fishes. The child would have been drowned, except for the presence of mind of Kwang. The other boys, screaming with terror, ran away, but Kwang took up a large stone and smashed the vessel with it. Fish, boy, and water all rushed out. The jar was spoiled, but the boy was saved.

Proverbs and bright-colored pictures, on many a cup, plate, saucer, and vase, keep alive the memory of the boy Kwang. As a man he became a great statesman. He opposed strenuously the doctrines of a famous populist, or socialistic agitator, Wang (10211086 A.D.), whose schemes of reform included new methods of taxation and tenure of land, besides radical notions as to economics and philosophy which would make paternalism the form of government. The changes proposed were so far-reaching that wise men called them revolutionary. Yet the populace, for a while, hailed Wang as the savior of society.

Even in this era, A.D. 1068, rich men controlled the market, bought from the poor their crops, and sold at the highest rate possible, which was often exorbitant. The emperor backed the agitator when he put into practice his new ideas. Wang proposed that the taxes should be paid in produce and that the government should purchase the surplus, to be distributed according to the demand and sold at a reasonable rate in different parts of the empire. In a word, the commerce of the country was to be wholly a state affair. That the state should advance money to the farmers, at a very low rate of interest and to be repaid after the harvest, was another part of the scheme.

In the enrollment of the militia, it was proposed to divide the whole empire into groups of ten, fifty, and five hundred families under the control of graded officers. Every family with more than one son was to furnish a soldier. In time of peace, they were to follow their ordinary business, but when danger threatened they were to assemble on call.

Incomes were to be taxed to build public works. Instead of compulsory labor, each family was to be assessed according to its income. The same difficulty was experienced then as at the present time in finding out just what the income was. Another enterprise was to publish the classics at public expense, with Wang's peculiar ideas as commentary.

This great experiment in socialism, despite violent opposition, was tried; but the result was total failure. Customs could be changed, but not human nature. Dishonest and rapacious men took advantage of their position and robbed the people, so that, instead of the expected benefits, the general poverty and distress were increased.

This attempt at populism led the wisest men, especially the two brothers Cheng (10321111 A.D.), to re-read the classics and to think long and deeply, not only on the nature of man and Heaven (or God), but also on the subjects of property and taxes, rights and duties, and on government and social organizations generally. The result, after a hundred years of thought and discussion, was the complete restatement of the Confucian system, by Chu Hi, of whom we shall tell.

By this time also, when Normans and Saxons in England were blending to form the English people, Taoism and especially Buddhism in China had greatly influenced the minds of men, so that scholars, who began the long and hard thinking necessary for clearness and re-statement, had abundant material upon which to work. The most eminent of all the philosophers was Chu Hi (11301200). He took his second degree at the literary examination before reaching his twentieth year. Being appointed a mandarin, he first studied for some years the systems of Buddha and Lao Tsze, and then mastered the writings, not only of Confucius and Mencius, but also of the famous scholars, critics, and commentators who for a century had been reexamining the doctrines of Confucius in the light of socialistic and other theories of the times.

Chu Hi's renown was so great that the emperor appointed him adviser at the court, and then governor of Nanking. Continuing his studies, he vindicated and restated the orthodox doctrine handed down from the past, but with additions ranging out into all departments of human thought. Until the twentieth century Chu Hi's commentaries on the classical writings formed the aids to reflection, the strategic points of metaphysical discussion, and the recognized standard of what gentlemen in eastern Asia ought to believe. Chu Hi's teachings so developed Confucianism, that from being merely a system of rules and observances it became both a philosophy and a creed for centuries.

We foreigners think of the three old religions of China as separate in idea and history. To the average Chinese, in everyday life, they are one. The ancestral cult teaches manners and morals. Buddhism, the Aryan faith from India, gives hope of the hereafter. Taoism is a system of philosophy for the thinkers and of superstition to the populace. In reality, though there are three religions there is no God. In the age of Sung (A.D. 9601333) religion, literature, industry, and commerce were greatly developed under the intellectual stimulus and blending of ideas so notable in this tolerant era. Buddhism henceforth was less the faith of the educated than of the learned, while Confucianism, greatly affected by the thought of India, took on the form of a creed as well as a ritual of worship and rule of conduct. In Taoism the development was in the line of outward organization.

Taoists, as we have seen, are very "high church" in their notions, and their doctrine of succession is held to almost as rigidly as in Buddhist, Mahometan, or Christian countries. Chang Tao-ling, born A.D. 34, turned aside from royalty's favors and lived in the high mountains, cultivating alchemy, purity, and mental abstraction. Receiving instruction from a book supernaturally received from Lao Tsze himself, he found the elixir of life and confided the secret to his son. Then, at the age of one hundred and twenty-three, he compounded and swallowed a draught of it, and ascended to the heavens to enjoy the bliss of immortality. At this point legend turns into history. His descendants were in 1016 endowed with land and later honored by the Mongol emperors. To this day the family claim the headship of the Taoist sect. Like the Lamas of Tibet, the succession is perpetuated by the transmigration of the soul of each successor of Chang Tao-ling into the body of some infant or child of the family, whose heirship is supernaturally revealed as soon as the miracle is effected.

Besides being the era when printed books were put into the hands of school children for their use in the study of the classics, the Sung period was famous for its poetry and imaginative literature. In the beginning, the far-off ancestors, the pre-historic people of China, were little better than simple savages, but when they came to consciousness of themselves, and were filled with the wonder of life, they began to think of their past. Reasoning upon this, they inquired as to their origins. Then men with active imagination took to the making of mythology and the formulating of traditions. Skillful penmen set down the manufactured myths in attractive literary form, while with songs and dances, art and commemorative customs, these traditions became articles of the national faith. On the basis of these primitive ideas, symbols, animals, signs, and numerical groups have developed during forty centuries the poetry, philosophy, literature, romance, drama, sculpture, and pictured representations that make the Chinese seem so peculiar to us. In a word, there was during the Sung period such an outburst of literary splendor that this is often called the Augustan age, or the Elizabethan era of Chinese literature. The larger part of the mythology, poetry, and standard literature, apart from the ancient classics, dates from this time.

Of one of the most famous poets, Su Tang Po, it was written that "under his hands, the language of which China is so proud may be said to have reached perfection of finish, of art concealed." One of his poems, called "The Song of the Cranes," has been thus rendered into English, though "translation is treachery."

"Away !Away! My birds fly westward now,

To wheel on high and gaze on all below;

To swoop together, pinions closed, to earth;

To soar aloft once more among the clouds;

To wander all day long in sedgy vale,

To gather duckweed in the stony marsh.

Come back! Come back! Beneath the lengthening shades,

Your serge-clad master stands, guitar in hand.

'T is he that feeds you from his slender store,

Come back I Come back! Nor linger in the west."

Progress was not confined to the domain of the intellect. Industry, enterprise, trade, and commerce expanded. There were now four well-known and well-traveled routes westward to India and the Mahometan countries of Asia, while by sea, Hindoo, Javanese, and Arab fleets of trading-ships made the ocean less lonely. The ship's compass came into general use. Banks and cash-shops were numerous at the seaports. China has always had a currency of perforated copper, brass, and iron "cash" strung on strings, and paper money, but no silver or gold coinage. The Arabs probably taught the idea of using silver by weight, and Sycee or "shoe" silver, looking like little white trays or boats, passes as money. In keeping accounts, the terms taels, mace, candarin, and li, according to the decimal system, are used, but there are no coins corresponding to these names, which are theoretical, like the English "guinea."

The size of the bank notes is peculiar, 12x8 inches, and the reading matter is very interesting. On one of these under the Ming dynasty and of the date A.D. 1399, it is stated that this note is current as money everywhere in China (all under Heaven), and that counterfeiters will be beheaded.

With the progress of civilization, the lot of the average woman became less one of outdoor toil and more of indoor work and accomplishments. In mythology, in fairy lore, and in actual history, woman is ever the weaver and spinster. The star maiden in the Milky Way, or River of Heaven, works at her loom. On earth it is the wife of the Heavenly Emperor who rears silkworms and teaches the wearing of silk. In the feudal age, we read of flax and hemp and see the women steeping the stalks in the castle moats. Not, however, until the Sung era do we hear of Chinese women weaving into cloth the white blossom of the cotton plant, which is probably the gift of the Semitic world.

It was a great day for China when cotton was brought from the West. It was not cultivated in China until the time of the Sung dynasty. Even then the Chinese hemp and silk growers (just like the linen weavers of England in 1721, when people were fined for wearing muslin) were so opposed to it that it was not until Mongol times that the plant was common throughout the empire. It is sown in June and gathered in October. After Sung times, instead of grass and hemp cloth for the poor and silk for the rich, the common people could have clothes of muslin, made thin for summer and by padding rendered suitable for winter. The spinning-wheel and loom now took their places in the houses of the peasantry, and most garments were home-made.

Winter in China


In a country where forestry was unknown and fuel dear, so that most people had to do without fire in their houses during the time of snow and ice, the Chinese kept warm by putting on more clothes. Thus they would describe the temperature by saying it was "two coats cold," "three coats cold," etc. The day on which they "took off cotton," that is, removed their padded or thickly lined garments for lighter wear, formed a point in the calendar. Out of cotton the Chinese weave many fabrics, such as nankeen, which was formerly exported. Now it is all used at home, and the Chinese import both raw cotton and cotton cloth to the value of millions. Most of their native textiles are dyed with indigo, so that China has been called the Land of the Blue Gown. With steam mills equipped with the latest and best machinery, cotton cloth is woven for the clothing of millions.