Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

How the Empire of China Arose and Grew

From the history of Japan we now turn to that of China, a far older and more extensive kingdom, so old, indeed, that it has now grown decrepit, while Japan seems still in the glow of vigorous youth. But, as our tales will show, there was a long period in the past during which China was full of youthful energy and activity, and there may be a time in the future when a new youth will come to that hoary kingdom, the most venerable of any existing upon the face of the earth.

Who the Chinese originally were, whence they came, how long they have dwelt in their present realm, are questions easier to ask than to answer. Their history does not reach back to their origin, except in vague and doubtful outlines. The time was when that great territory known as China was the home of aboriginal tribes, and the first historical sketch given us of the Chinese represents them as a little horde of wanderers, destitute of houses, clothing, and fire, living on the spoils of the chase, and on roots and insects in times of scarcity.

These people were not sons of the soil. They came from some far-off region. Some think that their original home lay in the country to the south-east of the Caspian, while later theorists seek to trace their origin in Babylonia, as an offshoot of the Mongolian people to whom that land owed its early language and culture. From some such place the primitive Chinese made their way by slow stages to the east, probably crossing the head-waters of the Oxus and journeying along the southern slopes of the Tian-Shan Mountains.

All this is conjecture, but we touch firmer soil when we trace them to the upper course of the Hoang-ho, or Yellow River, whose stream they followed eastward until they reached the fertile plains of the district now known as Shan-se. Here the immigrants settled in small colonies, and put in practice those habits of settled labor which they seem to have brought with them from afar. Yet there is reason to believe that they had at one time been nomads, belonging to the herding rather than to the agricultural races of the earth. Many of the common words in their language are partly made up of the characters for sheep and cattle, and the Chinese house so resembles the Tartar tent in outline that it is said that the soldiers of Genghis Khan, on taking a city, at once pulled down the walls of the houses and left the roof supported by its wooden columns as an excellent substitute for a tent.

However that be, the new-comers seem to have quickly become farmers, growing grain for food and flax for their garments. The culture of the silk-worm was early known, trade was developed, and fairs were held. There was intellectual culture also. They knew something of astronomy, and probably possessed the art of hieroglyphic writing,—which, if they came from Babylonia, they may well have brought with them.

This took place five thousand years or more ago, and for a long time the history of the Chinese was that of the conquest of the native tribes. They name themselves the "black-haired race," but their foes are classed as "fiery dogs" in the north, "great bowmen" in the east, "mounted warriors" in the west, and "ungovernable vermin" in the south. Against these savages war was probably long continued, the invaders gradually widening their area, founding new states, driving back the natives into the mountains and deserts, and finally so nearly annihilating them that only a small remnant remained. The descendants of these, the Meaou-tsze, mountain-dwellers, still remain hostile to China, and hold their own in the mountain strongholds against its armies.

Such was the China with which history opens. Ancient Chinese writers amuse themselves with a period of millions of years in which venerable dynasties reigned, serving to fill up the vast gap made by their imagination in the period before written history began. And when history does appear it is not easy to tell how much of it is fact and how much fiction. The first ruler named, Yew-chaou She (the Nest-having), was the chief who induced the wanderers to settle within the bend of the Yellow River and make huts of boughs. After him came Suy-jin She (the Fire-maker), who discovered the art of producing fire by the friction of two pieces of dry wood, also how to count and register time by means of knots tied in cords. Fuh-he discovered iron by accident, and reigned one hundred and fifteen years. Chin-hung invented the plough, and in one day discovered seventy poisonous plants and as many antidotes. Under Hoang-ti the calendar was regulated, roads were constructed, vessels were built, and the title of Ti, or Emperor, was first assumed. Hoang-ti means "Yellow Emperor," and became a favorite name with the founders of later dynasties. His wife, Se-ling-she, was the first to unravel silk from cocoons and weave it into cloth. Several others followed, all partly or wholly fabulous, until Yao ascended the throne in 2356 B.C. With this emperor history begins to throw off some little of the mist of legend and mythology.

With the reign of Yao the historical work of Confucius begins. His narrative is not trustworthy history, but it is not pure fable. Yao and Shun, his successor, are two of the notable characters in the ancient annals of China. Under them virtue reigned supreme, crime was unknown, and the empire grew in extent and prosperity. The greatest difficulty with which they had to contend was the overflow of the Hoang-ho, an unruly stream, which from that day to this has from time to time swept away its banks and drowned its millions. Yu, the next emperor, drained off the waters of the mighty flood,—which some have thought the same as the deluge of Noah. This work occupied him for nine years. His last notable act was to denounce the inventor of an intoxicating drink made from rice, from which he predicted untold misery to the people.

All this comes to us from the Confucian "Book of History," which goes on with questionable stories of many later emperors. They were not all good and wise, like most of those named. Some of the descendants of Yu became tyrants and pleasure-seekers, their palaces the seats of scenes of cruelty and debauchery surpassing the deeds of Nero. Two emperors in particular, Kee and Chow, are held up as monsters of wickedness and examples of dissoluteness beyond comparison. The last, under the influence of a woman named Ta-Ke, became a frightful example of sensuality and cruelty. Among the inventions of Ta-Ke was a cylinder of polished brass, along which her victims were forced to walk over a bed of fire below, she laughing in great glee if they slipped and fell into the flames. In fact, Chinese invention exhausts itself in describing the crimes and immoral doings of this abominable pair, which, fortunately, we are not obliged to believe.

Of the later emperors, Mou Wang, who came to the throne about 1000 B.C., was famed as a builder of palaces and public works, and was the first of the emperors to come into conflict with the Tartars of the Mongolian plains, who afterwards gave China such endless trouble. He travelled into regions before unknown, and brought a new breed of horses into China, which, fed on "dragon grass," were able to travel one thousand li  in a day. As this distance is nearly four hundred miles, it would be well for modern horsemen if some of that dragon grass could yet be found.

It is not worth while going on with the story of these early monarchs, of whom all we know is so brief and unimportant as not to be worth the telling, while little of it is safe to believe. In the "burning of the books," which took place later, most of the ancient history disappeared, while the "Book of History" of Confucius, which professes to have taken from the earlier books all that was worth the telling, is too meagre and unimportant in its story to be of much value.

Yet, if we can believe all we are told, the historians of China were at any time ready to become martyrs in the cause of truth, and gave the story of the different reigns with singular fidelity and intrepidity. Mailla relates the following incident: In the reign of the emperor Ling Wang of the Chow dynasty, 548 B.C., Chang Kong, Prince of Tsi, became enamoured of the wife of Tsouichow, a general, who resented the affront and killed the prince. The historians attached to the household of the prince recorded the facts, and named Tsouichow as the murderer. On learning this the general caused the principal historian to be arrested and slain, and appointed another in his place. But as soon as the new historian entered upon his office he recorded the exact facts of the whole occurrence, including the death of his predecessor and the cause of his death. Tsouichow was so much enraged at this that he ordered all the members of the Tribunal of History to be executed. But at once the whole literary class in the principality of Tsi set to work exposing and denouncing the conduct of Tsouichow, who soon perceived that his wiser plan would be to reconstitute the Tribunal and to allow it to follow its own devices." Other stories to the same effect are told. They are very likely exaggerated, but there is good reason to believe that the literary class of China were obstinate to the verge of martyrdom in maintaining the facts and traditions of the past, and that death signified to them less than dishonor. We shall see a striking instance of this in the story of Hoang-ti, the burner of the books.

In the period to which we have now come, China was far from being the great empire it is to-day. On the south it did not extend beyond the great river Yang-tsze Kiang, all the region to the south being still held by the native tribes. On the north the Tartar tribes occupied the steppes. At the fall of the Chow dynasty, in 255 B.C., the empire extended through five degrees of latitude and thirteen of longitude, covering but a small fraction of its present area.

And of this region only a minor portion could fairly be claimed as imperial soil. The bulk of it was held by feudal princes, whose ancestors had probably conquered their domains ages before, and some of whom held themselves equal to the emperor in power and pride. They acknowledged but slight allegiance to the imperial government, and for centuries the country was distracted by internal warfare, until the great Hoang-ti, whose story we have yet to tell, overthrew feudalism, and for the first time united all China into a single empire.

The period that we have so rapidly run over embraces no less than two thousand years of partly authentic history, and a thousand or more years of fabulous annals, during which China steadily grew, though of what we know concerning it there is little in which any absolute trust can be placed. Yet it was in this period that China made its greatest progress in literature and religious reform, and that its great lawgivers appeared. With this phase of its history we shall deal in the succeeding tale.