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The earliest religion of the Chinese consisted in the worship of a Supreme Being, who was the sovereign both of the heavens and of the earth. The people recognized with shrewd practical judgment that the power which could not be divided on earth without suffering in extent could not be divided in a sphere of assumed perfection. It may be doubted whether any nation possessed and described, with anything approaching the same degree of beautiful conception, the idea of that moral and spiritual pre-eminence which among all the peoples of the world has taken form in the creation of a great and supreme God. Originally, and in its essence, the religion of the Chinese was as far removed from materialism as can be conceived. The great moral teaching of Christianity had been learnt and taken to heart at least seven centuries before the birth of Christ, and among the traditions of the Chinese, in the days of the great philosophers, were that “God ultimately rewards the good, and punishes the wicked ; but his punishment is awarded without hatred and without anger,” and “however wicked a man may be, if he repent of his sins, he may offer sacrifices.” China, like Rome, was hospitable to all the gods, and when foreign nations came, as recorded in the chronicles, they brought with them their rites, if not a distinct religion. It is impossible to estimate how much or how little influence exterior considerations exercised on the religious life of the Chinese, but we know by the history of the human race that a religion composed solely of the worship of a single Supreme Being has never sufficed to meet the wants of a people. The cult has in every case been extended so as to include a mediator, or to permit of an elaborate ritual being grafted on what were the simple and original impressions of the earliest of mankind. China could be no exception to the rule, and when the great philosophers of the sixth century B.C. appeared, the grand truths of the single-minded worship of the Chinese had lost their efficacy, and the nation was plunged in a condition of moral indifference which was on a par with the prevailing corruption among the officials, and with the decline in the authority and power of the king. The appearance of Laoutse, the first and perhaps the greatest of the Chinese philosophers, was therefore doubly opportune; of him it may be said that the times produced the man, although his individuality has been most difficult to grasp. In fact, some have doubted his existence, and believed that many of the most cherished of the objects of the Chinese rested upon a myth. A brief sketch of his career may best serve to explain the ambiguity as to his existence, and to throw light on the achievements of the great reformer. Laoutse was born in the year B.C. 604, of humble parents. A village in the province of Honan is identified with the place where he was born, which bore the doubtless apocryphal name of Keuhjin, or “oppressed benevolence.” Of his youth and early manhood we know nothing more than that he obtained a small official post in one of the departments of the province of Chow. The probability is that this was the Department of the Archives, of which, in the course of time, he became the chief keeper. When he was at the advanced age of more than one hundred years he was visited by Confucius, but the interview was not of a satisfactory character. Confucius, full of the wrongs of his country, importuned the aged philosopher with his description of the remedies for prevailing evils, and something in his impetuosity, and the very sanguineness of his expectations, chased the old man's spirit. In his concluding address, which was the reverse of complimentary to Confucius, he said, “Put away, sir, your haughty airs and many desires, your flashy manner and extravagant will; these are all unprofitable to you.” In this it is easy to discern the disappointment of one
LAOUTSE AND VIRTUE. 2I
who had aspired to be the founder of a new state religion, and who saw in the ambitious Confucius a rival, and one likely to prove more successful than himself. Shortly after this interview, Laoutse resigned his office, and led a life of retirement, giving himself up to “the cultivation of Taou and Virtue.” The disorders in the state compelled him to seek a safer abode, and he accordingly left Chow by the Hankoo pass, for the western countries. To the guardian of this pass he gave a book containing five thousand characters which represented the meditations of his life. This book was called the Taoutihking, and is the Bible of Taouism. After this act Laoutse continued his journey and disappeared from history. We are told that thenceforth all trace of him was lost; but according to one version he announced his intention of visiting and returning from India, Cabul, Rome, and other kingdoms of the West. Of the exact significance of his teaching it is difficult to speak with any degree of confidence, for, as M. de Remusat said in his Memoir on Laoutse, “the text is so full of obscurity, we have so few means of acquiring a perfect understanding of it, so little knowledge of the circumstances to which the author makes allusion, we are, in a word, so distant in all respects from the ideas under the influence of which he wrote, that it would be temerity to pretend to reproduce exactly the sense which he had in view, when that sense is beyond our grasp." Laoutse's great object was to define the method of attaining true virtue and religion. Taou, which has been defined as meaning “reason” and other significations, was simply the “way;” and Laoutse, in explaining what in his eyes Taou was, rejected the old beliefs and trusted solely to his own inspiration. His work was therefore entirely original, and the writer quoted compares him to Pythagoras. Three centuries after his disappearance, there was what may be called a revival of Taouism, under the short-lived dynasty of the Tsins, and the precepts of the philosopher have become grafted in the national religion, of which it has been truly and graphically said by a French writer that it is “practically one religion, of which the doctrine belongs to Confucius, the objects of the cult to Laoutse, and the precepts to Buddha."
The example set by Laoutse was carried out in a still more striking and successful manner by Confucius, whose veneration for the past gave him greater claims upon the goodwill of his countrymen than the strict moral and logical rectitude of the Chinese iconoclast. Devoting himself to the study and observance of the ancient rites, his earnestness, combined with simple eloquence, gathered round him a band of disciples, whose numbers steadily increased with the course of years. But the times were unfavourable for men of peace. The reigning princes were at feud with each other and defiant towards their liege lord; and the petty barons and chiefs in their turn paid but scant attention to the behests of their suzerains. The Duke of Loo was compelled by three turbulent vassals to flee from his estates, and with him went Confucius, who held a small post at his court. On the road we are told of the following incident which afforded the philosopher the opportunity of giving expression to a forcible comment on the condition of the country. A woman was found sitting beside the highway weeping, and on being asked the cause of her grief, replied that a tiger had slain her husband, fatherin-law, and lastly her son. “Why, then, do you not remove to another place?” “Because,” she replied, “here there is no oppressive government.” The philosopher's comment was to the point. “My children, remember this, oppressive government is fiercer than a tiger.” At the court of the Duke of Tse, Confucius was accorded an honourable reception; but this proved of short duration, because he incurred the enmity of the chief minister, who soon turned his master against the new-comer. The Duke brought matters to a conclusion by declaring that he was too old to adopt the doctrines of the philosopher.
Of the later career of Confucius at the courts of Loo, Ting, and other nobles, it is unnecessary to say anything here. Both his teachings and his literary labours exercised little influence on contemporary affairs. A later generation had to come before either were appreciated at their just value. The very basis of his philosophy rested on the respect due from the subject to the Emperor, as the representative of the wisdom of the ancients; and this was extremely distasteful to
great personages living in open indifference to that authority, and secretly desirous of substituting their own in its place. Confucius became, therefore, a wanderer from one court to another; and while he preached an ideal government the rulers of the land were engaged in the pursuit of their own pleasure, regardless alike of the national welfare and of the dictates of the morality which Laoutse and Confucius had defined for them with all the force of intellect, the one as a moral obligation, the other as an article of faith and obedience. Confucius strove repeatedly to induce some of the reigning princes to entrust him with responsible posts in their administrations, and on several occasions he succeeded in obtaining his wish. But it was never for any length of time. He always became the object of the hostility of the courtiers, and his fall generally happened very soon after his rise to power. At last Confucius began to despair of success in finding a ruler after his own heart; and, discouraged by years of disappointment, it was with a presentiment of the coming end that he said, “No intelligent monarch arises, there is not one in the Empire who will make me his master. My time is come to die.” That very day the event happened which he had foreseen. Such was the end of the career of Confucius, who, if enthusiastic in his advocacy of a model of government that was probably antiquated, was at least earnest in his desire to promote the interests of his country. His example lived after him, and bore better fruit at a later period than it had borne at any time during his life.’ The reign of Kwang Wang closed in B.C. 606, and his brother Ting Wang became Emperor in his place. At this time a contemporary writer exclaimed that, although the dynasty of the Chows had lost much of its ancient lustre, Heaven had not yet rejected it; but even the court chroniclers were constrained to admit that the events happening in the provinces were of greater interest than those occurring at the capital. Ting Wang desired to assert his authority more vigorously than had been done by any of his immediate predecessors, and commissioned one of his ministers, Prince Chantse, to visit the capitals of the great nobles and to report to him on the manner in which the feudatories governed their