Imatges de pàgina
PDF
EPUB

MEN OF LETTERS. 47

It was at this period (B.C. 219-218) that the collision which had been long imminent between Hwangti and the literati occurred. In those days it was customary for the kings of China to ascend lofty mountains, for the purpose of offering sacrifices on their summits; and the learned classes were not unnaturally anxious that this should be done in accordance with form. Their representation of what the early Emperors had done became tedious by repetition, and their admonitions roused the ire rather than inspired the devotion of the impatient Hwangti. These discussions he cut short by saying that, "You vaunt the simplicity of the ancients ; but I act after a still simpler fashion than they did." The Chinese literati have always been noted for the obstinate courage they have shown in expressing their opinions at all hazards; but in Hwangti they encountered an opponent too powerful, and too free from prejudice and superstition, to be vanquished by the stock weapons in their armoury.

The contest had not yet reached its crisis. The resentment of the .king against his enemies was slumbering, and the literati were only biding their time for a favourable opportunity to reassert the rights of which they considered they had been wrongfully deprived. The occasion offered itself five years later (B.C. 213), when Hwangti had summoned to his capital all the governors and principal officials for a General Council of the Empire. The scene, we may well imagine, was imposing. The men who had made China a single Empire by their valour and ability, assembled in the magnificent palace, erected from the spoils of kingdoms, to do honour to the Emperor who had inspired their efforts; and side by side with these representatives of practical politics a small body of theoretical observers, wedded to their own beliefs and traditions, containing all the book-learning of the country in their ranks, defiant and hostile, holding Hwangti to be a dangerous and unscrupulous innovator, and not refraining from expressing their opinion in words. It was only in consonance with human nature that the long pent-up hostility of the two classes, the practical man of affairs, and the theoretical student, who was nothing if not the devotee of antiquity, reduced to a focus within the walls of this palace, should reveal itself in acts. Hwangti may be credited with sufficient knowledge of men to have anticipated what took place; and he shrewdly suspected that the literati would be unable to curb their feelings. His anticipations were fulfilled, and his opponents put themselves forward as the aggressors.

Hwangti called upon those present to express their candid opinion of his government, and of the new legislation which he had inaugurated. Upon this a courtier rose, and delivered a panegyric on what he had accomplished. "Truly you have surpassed the very greatest of your predecessors, even at the most remote period." This eulogium brought matters to a climax. The literati, unable to tolerate this last insult to their heroes, broke into murmurs, and one, more courageous than the rest, gave vent to his disapproval. He began by styling the former speaker "a vile flatterer, unworthy of the high position which he occupied," and, proceeding to heap praise on the earlier rulers, he concluded a speech not less remarkable for its bad taste than for its weakness in argument, by advocating the division of the Empire into principalities. Hwangti cut short the admonitions of this no doubt highly respectable individual by reminding him that that point had been already discussed and decided. But as the point was one of the first importance, he called upon Lisseh to state over again the reasons which rendered the maintenance of the unity of the Empire advisable.

Lisseh's speech is very remarkable, both as an exposition of policy and as a defence of the reasons which dictated the burning of the books. The following is the substance of this great speech :—" It must be admitted," he said, "after what we have just heard, that men of letters are, as a rule, very little acquainted with what concerns the government of a country—not that government of pure speculation, which is nothing more than a phantom, vanishing the nearer we approach to it, but the practical government which consists in keeping men within the sphere of their proper duties. With all their pretence of knowledge, they are, in this matter, only ignorant. They can tell you by heart everything which has happened in the past, back to the most remote period, THE BURNING OF THE BOOKS. 49

but they are, or seem to be, ignorant of what is being done in these later days, of what is passing under their eyes. . . . Incapable of discerning that the thing which was formerly suitable would be wholly out of place to-day, that that which was useful, perhaps necessary, in the past would be positively injurious in the time in which we live, they would have everything arranged in exact imitation of what they find written in their books." Lisseh then went on to denounce the learned classes as enemies of the public weal, and as a class apart and uninfluenced by the national feeling. "Now is the time or never," he concluded, "to close the mouths of these secret enemies, to place a curb upon their audacity."

The Emperor expressed his entire approval of Lisseh's remarks, and ordered him to lose no time in carrying out his propositions. All books were proscribed, and the authorities burnt every work except those treating of medicine, agriculture, etc. By these violent measures Hwangti hoped to root out from the memory of his people the names of the early Emperors. Before condemning this as an inexcusable act of Vandalism, the hostility of the literati to every act from the commencement of his tenure of power must be taken into consideration. Nor can it be truthfully said that this was a struggle between " light" and " darkness," " knowledge" and M ignorance," in which brute force gained the upper hand. For if the situation is thoroughly grasped, if we make allowance for the antipathies of the rival classes, surely it will be admitted that the "light" and the *' knowledge " were on the side of Hwangti and his ministers, and not of Chunyuyue and the chroniclers. While the former perceived the necessities and true wants of the nation, the latter were foolishly clamouring for the observance of idle forms with the same breath that they advocated measures inevitably entailing the dismemberment of the Empire. Hwangti's extreme remedy of destroying the written record of his predecessors' virtues was one that cannot be expected to receive the approval of civilized people. On the other hand, there was much to justify such a course in the eyes of Hwangti and his ministers, and although all subsequent generations of Chinese historians have piled obloquy on their heads, they have failed to obscure VOL. L E

the greatness of this Emperor, who founded the political entity known as China.

The peace which had been established within the country by a long series of successes only inspired Hwangti with the desire to render the stability of his triumph the more assured by making his power felt beyond his extreme borders. Strong at home, he would be respected abroad. Drawing his troops from classes peculiarly suitable for a military life—" from those who were without any fixed profession, and those among the ranks of the people possessed of exceptional physical strength "—he found himself the master of a regular army which was capable of extending his dominions in whatever direction he desired. During these later years his principal successes were obtained in the south, where, after annexing the states of Tonquin and Cochin China, the terror of his arms went before him, it is said, into the kingdoms of Ava and Bengal. His general, Moungtien, about the same time carried on operations against the tribes beyond Kansuh, and there is some reason for believing that the town of Hami, many hundreds of miles distant from Kansuh, fell into his hands, and thus became for the first time a watch-tower for China in the direction of Central Asia, a position which it has often since held.

These victories in the field were the precursors of the great defensive work on the northern frontier, which had been conceived early in the reign, and which has become immortalized as the Great Wall. Hwangti, with the practical good sense which was characteristic of him, perceived that extension of dominion over the barbarian tribes of the north would be attended by quite as many disadvantages as advantages. Having chastised his old foes, he withdrew therefore his forces from their solitudes, and employed his soldiers, and a large number of the male population as well, in constructing a fortified wall from the seacoast to the extremity of Kansuh. He lived long enough to see this gigantic undertaking finished; and, whether this rampart effected everything its originator expected or not, Hwangti had the satisfaction of knowing that he had done everything in his power for the protection of the people whom he had united. In another respect he THE GREAT WALL. 51

had put the seal to his own greatness. The educated might continue to sneer at his shortcomings from their standard, and brand him as a reckless destroyer; but in the Great Wall," which exists now, two thousand years after his death, he left a monument to his own greatness, and one which would impress later ages, better than any words, with a true sense of what manner of man he was.

Hwangti did not long survive these great and crowning acts of his career. Seized with some malady (B.C. 210) which is not specified, he neglected the simplest precautions, and paid the penalty of his rashness. The death of this great ruler roused all the passions dormant during his life, and among the people the belief spread that after his death his estates would be divided among many claimants. In this the popular fancy proved too true. With Hwangti were buried many of his wives, and large quantities of treasure— a custom peculiar to the Huns, and, among Chinese rulers, to the chiefs of Tsin. The striking achievements which illustrated his reign are the best evidence of his personal character. Loving splendour, he yet repudiated idle form ; magnificent in his ideas, he left as the record of his reign great public works to testify to the pureness of his taste as well as to his care for his people; and, abstemious in his personal habits, be set an example of simplicity in the midst of the luxury of his court. His favourite exercise was walking, and this alone would mark him out as apart from other Chinese rulers. As a soldier he was not particularly distinguished, but he knew how to select good generals; and as an administrator he was not too self-confident to despise the aid of a minister such as Lisseh. He left an example which the greatest of his successors might seek to follow, and while, in a personal sense, the least Chinese of all the Emperors, he was undoubtedly the first to give form to the national will on what may be called Imperial questions. In that sense none of his successors, down to the present dynasty, were more ardent -.upporters of Chinese dignity than he was.

• For a description of this work, see Pauthier, pp. 10-13. Du Halde lad numerous other writers (including several English travellers, Bell, f-.e.-amg. Michie, Williamson, James, and Younghusband) may also bs consulted for details of various portions of it.

« AnteriorContinua »