China's Story - William Griffis

China Unified: The Great Wall

Out of the crowd of petty feudal states, that of Chin rose to be paramount. Its dukes then began to take on the airs of emperors. This was shown in the thoroughly Chinese fashion of their offering the imperial sacrifices to Heaven. Their dynasty lasted from 255 B.C. to 205 B.C. After various struggles and much bloodshed, one of their princes, 221 B.C., borrowing from Whang Ti, who ruled, according to tradition, 2769 B.C., assumed the title of She Whang-ti, or First Universal Emperor. From the "Land of Chin" has arisen the name China.

For twenty centuries, the phrase Whang-ti, which stands for the Universal Sovereignty claimed by China, has represented the political theory underlying the Chinese world of ideas in all eastern Asia. It is the foundation principle of action by the emperor and government. The doctrine is that China, as the most highly civilized nation on earth, and at the centre of the world, is supreme. All other nations and rulers must accept the calendar and etiquette of the Central Empire and be obedient vassals, or else be considered as "outside barbarians."

Millions of men in China still hold this notion, which lay at the root of the Chino-Japanese War of 1894. Throughout the Middle Ages Tibet, Annam, Korea, Japan, and the whole fringe of nations surrounding China were considered as more or less dependent. When European rulers sent their envoys and brought presents, it was given out publicly, and often flauntingly advertised, that these men coming from distant nations were tribute-bearers to the great Chinese emperor, and the people supposed that they were. It is true that the pupil nations often reduced this idea of "tribute" to mere trade, and profited by it. The Koreans, for example, made more money out of it than did the Chinese.

Japan's hostile encounter with this dogma in 1894 was over the question of Korea. She had either to destroy it or be destroyed. Just as the American republic came into collision with the relies of European feudalism, the divine right of kings, the pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire, and other worn-out political dogmas, so foreign diplomatists have frequently encountered notions of sovereignty in China which have long been discarded elsewhere.

Our American ministers in Peking have always refused to make the kow-tow, or nine prostrations, before the Chinese throne. Japan led the nations of Asia in obtaining audience of the Son of Heaven in Peking with dignity and in refusing to treat on any principles but those of international law. In fact, the Japanese claimed to have a Son of Heaven of their own. Hence the difficulty of mutual agreement between the two nations. It was a dogmatic collision, in which one party suffered severely.

The emperor who unified China was only thirteen years old when he ascended the throne, B.C. 246. He showed unexpected ability. He built a new capital and then gave his life's energies to reconstructing the empire. He divided the country into thirty-six provinces, putting over each one three great officers who were directly responsible to him.

The first founders of imperialism, of the Chin dynasty, did not perhaps mean to abolish the feudal states. Yet in order to secure national unity it was necessary to do away with feudalism, which was a perpetual source of weakness, besides being a men-ace to imperial power. Since the northern Tartars were ever pressing upon civilized China, national strength was of the first importance.

In carrying out the policy of uniting all China, the emperor was opposed on every hand by the literary men, who lauded the traditions of the past, and were hostile to the new plans of progress. Under feudalism, the local and personal idea of loyalty had been so cultivated that few men cared for anything outside of their neighborhood. There was no community of ideas, or feeling for anything larger than one's petty state. No such thing as patriotism in a broad sense existed. The unifier of China therefore resolved to break with the past and to fuse many local loyalties into one that was national. He would help the people to see and appreciate larger ideas, and teach them to live for the commonwealth and not for a section. So he swept away feudalism. He also burned the classics and put to death many of the literati. For this he has been held up to scorn by native historians.

In order to rear a monument of united China and at the same time a defense against the Tartars, he began the building of the Great Wall, which still stands, after many enlargements and frequent rebuildings. This massive line of brick and masonry, over eighteen hundred miles long, is the most stupendous work of human industry in the history of the race. Its top, wide enough for six horsemen to ride abreast, is strengthened with parapets, turrets, and towers. It strikes wonder into the beholder, and appeals to the imagination as it disappears from view in the distance. Surmounting hills, valleys, rivers, and plains, it stretches over a line which if drawn in America would reach from Philadelphia to Kansas City.

The emperor's life was spent in restless activity. He entered upon vaster enterprises as he grew older. He opened new roads through the forest, protected the frontiers with fortifications, diked the rivers, built bridges, and in various ways made life more comfortable and pleasant to the people. Yet notwithstanding all his energies, he was the slave of superstition. Always in dread of death, he tried to secure from his magicians an elixir that would secure for him a long life.

In later times, other emperors, imitating his example, made the same search for some liquid to lengthen life. A famous Japanese novel is based upon the idea that from southern China a colony sailed away to the Isles of the Rising Sun to obtain what Ponce de Leon sought in Florida. Instead of coming back, the colonists remained in the country. Then, the young men and maidens marrying, began the peopling of Japan.

From earliest ages, the curse of China has been the fear of evil spirits. To this day millions of dollars are spent annually in paying sorcerers and buying charms and inventions of various kinds to drive away the malevolent beings that overpopulate the sky, air, and earth. Many crafty people make a living by preying on these fears. As of old, witchcraft is the enemy of science and religion.

The great emperor was told that he was pursued by evil spirits and must sleep in a different room of his palace every night, so as to puzzle them. A like idea accounts for the crookedness, irregular widths, and oddities of Chinese streets, locations of gateways and houses, and many strange customs concerning infants, weddings, and funerals. He employed seven hundred thousand men, mostly criminals, or prisoners of war, wasting millions of the people's money, to build a palace as full of rooms as a honeycomb is of cells, in order to mystify the demons. At the western end was the Loadstone Gateway, or Barbarian-Repelling Gate. Through it, the people outside, that is, the barbarians, entered from the west. Every one was expected to disarm, but if any carried concealed weapons they were drawn by force of attraction to the side of the gate and held there! Near by was the colossal palace built within the imperial park or hunting-grounds. The central hall was of such dimensions that ten thousand persons could be assembled within it, and banners sixty feet high could be unfurled. In spite, however, of this prolonged game of hide-and-seek, death came to the emperor at last.

Not long after this his newly founded dynasty (Yin) went to ruin. The empire had been greatly extended and many of the northern tribes had been brought under control, but so much conquered territory made the new China like a farm that was too large to be tilled properly. The elements within were too discordant, and the result was not a good illustration of e pluribus unum. After a few years, the house of Yin fell to pieces.

China's feudal age had been so rich in dramatic and spectacular elements that the imagination of later ages loved to play upon it, and thus to enrich and embellish its pictures of life, as left by the poets. Some could not easily adapt themselves to a change in the order of things. The men who remembered the old, picturesque life were opposed to reform, and especially to the abolition of the feudal privileges. This is the real reason why they were handled so roughly, oppressed, persecuted, and even put to death, and their books burnt. This explains also why the man who unified the empire is said to have been "an enemy to literature,"—a heinous crime in the eyes of the Chinese,—even wantonly destroying the old texts and writings. But as in European history, we must be careful not to believe too much of what the monkish scribes wrote about the so-called enemies of religion. We need not take at their full value all the stories which the ancient writers have told concerning the past. To this day the literati are ultra-conservatives who, as a rule, hate and oppose all changes, even when improvements.

Before we pass from feudalism to centralized government, we must note again, that if history concerned itself only with wars and battles, we should know little of the greater things which make up human life and secure the prosperity of the race. The wars of this epoch are hardly more than shadows in the memory even of scholars, while the words of Confucius still breathe and his thoughts burn. Written history begins with Confucius, who, in B.C. 481, wrote the only original work ascribed to his pen. This is a chronicle of his native state, from B.C. 722, entitled "Spring and Autumn."

It was during the feudal era that the three greatest intellectual men of China lived. They were philosophers, whose writings have influenced seventy generations of China and the nations around her. One of them has been the teacher of the largest number of men and for the longest time of any known in the history of the race. These three men we call Lao-tse, or Laotius, Confucius, and Mencius. Confucius was an active man of affairs, a true teacher, and not at all the prig that late ages have represented him to be.

The ideas of these great men concerning religion, law, morals, and philosophy, we can learn easily, if we will, for many scholars have translated their texts and made commentaries; but if we wish to know what notions, fancies, and superstitions they held, we must question Chinese art and literature, which give us copious answers. We find that besides the living creatures that roam the earth, fly in the air, or swim in the waters, most Chinese believe in some that never were on sea or land or in the atmosphere. They see them in dreams, paint them in pictures, or tell about them in stories.

Chinese plate


Some of these, described by the ancient writers before Confucius, have been so long in the national literature that the common people take it for granted that they exist as real beings. Other animals are associated with what is patriotic, or sacred, like the creatures found in European heraldry, or copied from actual life, on the national banners. The British lion and unicorn, the French cock, the American eagle, the double-headed birds of prey of Russia and Germany are in the same patriotic menagerie.

The four chief supernatural creatures are the unicorn, phoenix, tortoise, and dragon. The first is believed to be the noblest form of the animal creation and is the emblem of perfect good, be-cause it is the incarnation of the five elements out of which all things are made: that is, water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, it lives to be a thousand years old. The male is called ki and the female lin, so the word kilin is generally used for the species. The appearance of one of these beasts upon the earth is an omen of good fortune and prosperity. We find this soft-horned creature often pictured on porcelain plates and dishes.

The phoenix being an omen of good government, virtuous rulers use it as an emblem of their office. With the bead of a pheasant, the beak of a swallow, and the neck of a tortoise, it has much of the look of majesty which is associated with a dragon. Usually pictured as having the colors and features of both the peacock and the pheasant, it occupies a large place in Chinese art, on coins, tablets, decorated faience, etc. In the classic books we are told that it sat in the court of the traditional "universal sovereign," Whang Ti, who ruled 2697 B.C., whose wife taught the people the art of rearing silkworms. Also when the great Shun presided at the musical ceremonies, the pheonix came with stately steppings to add splendor to the occasion. Each of the five colors which embellished the plumage of the phoenix is typical of one of the virtues,—benevolence, uprightness, propriety, knowledge, and good faith. A name is given to each of the many intonations ascribed to its voice.

The Kwei or tortoise is also a supernatural creature. By stitching together a few scraps of reference from the ancient books, the story has been made that when Yu was draining off the flood, a divine tortoise rose out of the river, presenting to his gaze a scroll of writing upon his back, composed of the numbers from one to nine. The sage interpreted this, and made it the base of his nine-fold exposition of philosophy. Thus the first "dragon-horse" carried upon his back the elements of the future literature of the Chinese. It is remarkable also that in the Japanese story of creation, when Uzumé danced before the cave to entice out the sun goddess, she sang a song which some interpret as the numerals, one, two, three, up to myriads.

There are whole books of marvelous tales about the tortoise, which is supposed to exercise a happy influence on the region in which it lives. Its shell has always been the chief element in divination. Another creature, which partakes of the form and qualities of both the tortoise and the dragon, has the power of transforming itself and taking many shapes. Another tortoise-shaped "god of the rivers" has enormous strength. For that reason it is often sculptured in stone as the support of huge monumental tablets planted immovable upon its steadfast back. In Korea and Japan also, as in China, one sees this burden-bearer carrying tons of marble or granite upon its shell.

These classic legends are told, and their pictorial, representations are common, in all the countries influenced by Chinese civilization, just as nearly all our fairy tales and imaginary beings, such as the chimera, griffin, sea-serpent, Santa Claus, Rip Van Winkle, the Golden Goose, and other old friends of the nursery, have come to us from the ancient nations from which we have derived our culture.

The philosophy of fortune-telling is based on the diagrams or symbols supposed to have been found on the back of the dragon-horse, or tortoise, and whole libraries of occult lore have been developed from it. The eight trigrams, or sets of whole and broken lines, remind one of the Morse telegraph alphabet of dashes and dots. They represent the first developments from unity, or the primal substance of the Yin and Yang, or the positive and negative elements. These eight figures are capable of sixty-four combinations. When handled by the philosophers and diviners, they are supposed to give a clue to the secrets of nature and existence. The whole lines correspond to Heaven, the celestial expanse, or the perfect male principle; while the broken lines correspond to the earth, terrestrial matter, or the pure feminine principle. Others represent the forms of water, mist, fog, cloud, etc., of heat and light, of thunder and wind, simple water, mountains, etc. These all interwork in ceaseless activity, and their evolution is indicated by combinations of the diagrams. In the course of their movement, they mutually extinguish and give birth to one another, thus producing the phenomena of existence. Some Chinese books are filled with these diagrams in various arrangements. Before the fortune-tellers' shops or booths in the cities one sees them, as indicative of the money-earner's occupation. Most of the oddities seen on Chinese streets, in popular art, in the toy shops, etc., are as directly connected with Chinese philosophy as are ours with the traditions and notions of our ancestors.

In the case of all these mythical animals, the general idea is to combine both strength and beauty, or to embody in one creature the power, charms, and graces of the many different animals inhabiting earth, air, and water. In mythical zoology, whether in Europe or in China, the human mind is not content with plain reality, but desires gorgeous and astonishing combinations. The Chinese imaginary animals are hardly more monstrous or amusing than those in the heraldry of Europe. This beast-worship underlies all the religions of Asia.

The idea of the five colors—black, red, azure, white, and yellow—runs all through Chinese thoughts about dress, furniture, heraldry, and symbolism. Each of the five metals, five planets, and five kinds of clouds has its particular color. In the skies each color has an omen or meaning, betokening a plague of creeping things, mourning, war, destruction, floods, prosperity, abundance, etc. Each of these sets of things, or influences, grouped in fives, affects every other. Since they have to do with pleasure or pain, disgust or delight in the every-day life of the Chinese, one can easily see how many mistakes foreigners are apt to make in the eyes of the natives.

The Chinese take this method of arranging their ideas according to number, so as to keep their thoughts in order. They talk also about the five blessings, which are long life, riches, peace, love of virtue, and a noble end crowning life. There are five grades of mourning, for parents, grandparents and ancestors, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and distant relatives in the line of descent or ascent. The five punishments, each with from two to five degrees of severity or duration, are beating with the bamboo; bastinado, or whipping on the soles of the feet; banishment; transportation; and death, either by strangling or by decapitation. There are five atmospheric influences,—rain, fine weather, heat, cold, and wind; each of which is dominated by one of the five elements,—wood, metal, fire, water, and earth. These invisible influences in the air are classified as pertaining to heaven, while the five tastes or flavors, salt, bitter, sour, acrid, and sweet, appertain to the earth. So also there are five constituents of the human frame, the muscles, flesh, bones, skin, and hair, while the five inward parts of the body are the heart, liver, stomach, lungs, and kidneys.

In Chinese cemeteries we see that many tombs are made of five stones, set one upon the other in the form of a base (earth), a cube (air), a sphere (water), a saucer (fire), and flame-shape (ether), representing the five elements of the human soul.

When people get married, they must be careful to see that the proper elements in them are harmonized. For example, the five elements are wood, metal, fire, water, and earth. Every one born under the signs of the respective elements has a disposition or character corresponding to the element under which he is born, and of which he partakes, or by which he is influenced. Thus, it would never do for a woman of fire disposition to marry a man born under the wood element, because then there would be continual bickering or hot water, and marital happiness would be entirely burned up or would go off in steam. It is perfectly proper for a man of wood to marry a woman of water temperament, because wood floats on water, and it is expected that a husband must rule his wife. It would not do for a man of earth disposition to marry a woman of water temperament, lest he should be ultimately washed away, or lost in her superior power. Even the dynasty is supposed to be under the direct potency of one of the five elements, which is believed to overcome the element prevailing in the previous line of rulers.

Now when it is remembered that there are also five planets and five points of space, and the five arrangements of time,—the year, the month, the day, the signs of the stars and zodiac, and the great calculations of the calendar, which the astronomers make,—one can see what terrors there are in store for those ignorant of Chinese etiquette. The fortune-tellers, star-gazers, geomancers, and tricksters of every sort, including the whole faculty of professors of tomfoolery and the sorcerers, have a rich field. Millions of dollars are annually extracted from the pockets of the poor people who believe in the guesses of palm-readers, shufflers of the bamboo sticks, or readers of the eight diagrams. These crafty folk, who get the people's money, pretend that what they tell their dupes is based upon profound calculations and observation of things unseen by the average mortal eye. Fortune-tellers abound on the streets of the large cities, and are found all over the empire. Heavy is the burden which poor China, from the imperial palace to the beggar's mat, groans under and has to pay for. No people will be more benefited by science, or be given greater deliverance and clearer vision through pure religion, than the Chinese.