Imatges de pÓgina




The Chinese are unquestionably the oldest nation in the world, and their history goes back to a period to which no prudent historian will attempt to give a precise date. They speak the language and observe the same social and political customs that they did several thousand years before the Christian era, and they are the only living representatives to-day of a people and government which were contemporary with the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Jews. So far as our knowledge enables us to speak, the Chinese of the present age are in all essential points identical with those of the time of Confucius, and there is no reason to doubt that be. fore his time the Chinese national character had been thoroughly formed in its present mould. The limits of the Empire have varied from time to time under circumstarces of triumph or disuntion, but the Middle Kingdom, or China Proper; of the eighteen provinces has always possessed more or less of its existing proportions. Another striking and peculiar feature about China is the small amount of influence that the rest of the world has exercised upon it. In fact it is only during the present century that that influence can be said to have existed at all. Up to that point China had pursued a course of her own, carrying on her own struggles within a definite limit, and completely indifferent to, and ignorant of, the ceaseless competition and contests of mankind outside her orbit, which make up the history of the rest of the old world. The long struggles for supremacy in Western Asia between Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian, the triumphs of the Greek, followed by the absorption of what remained of the Macedonian conquests in the Empire of Rome, even the appearance of Islam and the Mahomedan conquerors, who changed the face of Southern Asia from the Ganges to the Levant, and long threatened to overrun Europe, had no significance for the people of China, and reacted as little on their destiny as if they had happened in another planet. Whatever advantages the Chinese may have derived from this isolation, it has entailed the penalty that the early history of their country is devoid of interest for the rest of the world, and it is only when the long independent courses of China and Europe are brought into proximity by the Mongol conquests, the efforts of the mediæval travellers, the development of commerce, and the wars carried on for the purpose of obtaining a secure position for foreigners in China-four distinct phases covering the last


seven centuries,—that any confidence can be felt in successfully attracting notice to the affairs of China. Yet, as a curiosity in human existence, the earlier history of that country may justly receive some notice. Even though the details are not recited the recollection of the antiquity of China's institutions must be ever present with the student, as affording an indispensable clue to the character of the Chinese people and the composition of their government.

The first Chinese are supposed to have been a nomad tribe in the province of Shensi which lies in the north-west of China, and among them at last appeared a ruler, Fohi, whose name at least has been preserved. His deeds and his person are mythical, but he is credited with having given his country its first regular institutions. One of his successors was Hwangti (which means Heavenly Emperor), who was the first to employ the imperial style of Emperor, the earlier rulers having been content with the inferior title of Wang, or prince. He adopted the convenient decimal division in his administration as well as his coinage. His dominions were divided into ten provinces, each of these into ten departments, these again into ten districts, each of which held ten towns. He regulated the calendar, originating the Chinese cycle of sixty years, and he encouraged commerce. He seems to have been a wise prince and to have been the first of the great Emperors. His grandson, who was also Emperor, continued his good work and earned the reputation of being “the restorer or even founder of true astronomy.”

But the most famous of Hwangti's successors was his great grandson Yao, who is still one of the most revered of all Chinese rulers.

He was "diligent, enlightened, polished, and průcent;" and if his words reflected his actions he must have been most solicitous of the welfare of his people. He is specially remarkable for his anxiety to discover the best man to succeed him in the government, and during the last twenty-eight years of his reign he associated the minister Chun with him for that purpose. On his death he left the crown to him, and Chun, after some hesitation, accepted the charge, but he in turn hastened to secure the co-operation of another minister named Yu in the work of administration, just as he had been associated with Yao. The period covered by the rule of this triumvirate is considered one of the most brilliant and perfect in Chinese history, and it bears a resemblance to the age of the Antonines. These rulers seem to have passed their leisure from practical work in framing moral axioms, and in carrying out a model scheme of government based on the purest ethics. They considered that “a prince entrusted with the charge of a State has a heavy task. The happiness of his subjects absolutely depends upon him. To provide for everything is his duty; his ministers are only put in office to assist him," and also that “a prince who wishes to fulfil his obligations, and to long preserve his people in the ways of peace, ought to watch without ceasing that the laws are observed with exactitude.” They were staunch upholders of temperance, and they banished the unlucky discoverer of the fact that an intoxicating drink could be obtained from rice. They also held fast to the theory that all government must be based on the popular will. In fact the reigns of Yao, Chun, and Yu are the ideal period of Chinese history when all questions were decided by moral right and justice, and even now Chinese philosophers are said to test their maxims of morality by the degree of agreement they may have with the conduct of those rulers.

With them passed away the practice of letting the most capable and ex perienced minister rule the State. Such an impartial and reasonable mode of selecting the head of a community can never be perpetuated. The rulers themselves may see its advantages and may endeavour as honestly as these three Chinese princes to carry out the arrangement, but the day must come when the family of the able ruler will assert its rights to the succession, and take advantage of its opportunities from its close connection with the government to carry out its ends. The Emperor Yu, true to the practice of his predecessors, nominated the President of the Council as his successor, but his son Tiki seized the throne, and became the founder of the first Chinese dynasty which was called the Hia from the name of the province first ruled by his father. This event is supposed to have taken place in the year 2197 B.C. and the Hia dynasty, of which there were seventeen Emperors, ruled down to the year 1776 B.C. These Hia princes present no features of interest, and the last of them, named Kia, was deposed by one of his principal nobles, Ching Tang, Prince of Chang.

This prince was the founder of the second dynasty, known as Chang, which held possession of the throne for 654 years, or down to 1122 B.C. With the exception of the founder, who seems to have been an able man, this dynasty of twenty-eight Emperors did nothing very noteworthy. The public morality deteriorated very much under this family, and it is said that when one of the Emperors wanted an honest man as minister he could only find one in the person of a common labourer. At last, in the 12th century before our era, the enormities of the Chang rulers reached a climax in the person of Chousin, who was deposed by a popular rising headed by Wou Wang, Prince of Chow.

This successful soldier, whose name signifies the Warrior King, founded the third Chinese dynasty of Chow, which governed the Empire for the long space of 867 years down to 255 B.C. During that protracted period there were necessarily good and bad Emperors, and the Chow dynasty was rendered specially illustrious by the appearance of the great social and religious reformers, Laoutse, Confucius, and Mencius during the existence of its power. The founder of the dynasty instituted the necessary reforms to prove that he was a national benefactor, and one of his successors, known as the Magnificent King, extended the authority of his family over some of the States of Turkestan. But on the whole the rulers of the Chow dynasty were not particularly distinguished, and one of them in the eighth century B.C. was weak enough to resign a portion of his sovereign rights to a powerful vassal, Siangkong the Prince of Tsin, in consideration of his undertaking the defence of the frontier against the Tartars. At this period the authority of the central government passed under a cloud. The Emperor's prerogative became the shadow of a name, and the last three centuries of the rule of this family would not call for notice but for the genius of Laoutse and Confucius, who were both great moral teachers and religious reformers.

Laoutse, the founder of Taouism, was the first in point of time, and in some respects he was the greatest, of these reformers. He found his countrymen sunk in a low state of moral indifference and religious infidelity which corresponded with the corruption of the times and the disunion in the kingdom. Heat once set himself to work with energy and devotion to repair the evils of his day, and to raise before his countrymen a higher ideal of duty. He has been called the Chinese Pythagoras, the most erudite of

sinologues have pronounced his text obscure, and the mysterious Taouism which he founded holds the smallest or the least assignable part in what passes for the religion of the Chinese. As a philosopher and minister Laoutse will always attract attention and excite speculation, but as a practical reformer and politician he was far surpassed by his younger and less theoretical contemporary Confucius.

Confucius was an official in the service of one of the great princes who divided the governing power of China among themselves during the whole of the seventh century before our era, which beheld the appearance of both of these religious teachers and leaders. He was a trained administrator with long experience when he urged upon his prince the necessity of reform, and advocated a policy of union throughout the States. His exhortations were in vain, and so far ill-timed that he was obliged to resign the service of one prince after another. In his day the authority of the Chow Emperor had been reduced to the lowest point. Each prince was unto himself the supreme authority. Yet one cardinal point of the policy of Confucius was submission to the Emperor, as implicit obedience to the head of the State throughout the country as was paid to the father of every Chinese household. Although he failed to find a prince after his own heart, his example and precepts were not thrown away, for in a later generation his reforms were executed, and down to the present day the best points in Chinese government are based on his recommendations. If "no intelligent monarch arose" in his time, the greatest Emperors have since sought to conform with his usages and to rule after the ideal of the great philosopher. His name and his teachings were perpetuated by a band of devoted disciples, and the book which contained the moral and philosophical axioms of Confucius passed into the classic literature of the country and stood in the place of a Bible for the Chinese. The list of the great Chinese reformers is completed by the name of Mencius, who, coming two centuries later, carried on with better opportunities the reforming work of Confucius, and left behind him in his Sheking the most popular book of Chinese poetry and a crowning tribute to the great Master.

From teachers we must again pass to the chronicle of kings, although few of the later Chow Emperors deserve their names to be rescued from oblivion. One Emperor suffered a severe defeat while attempting to establish his authority over the troublesome tribes beyond the frontier; of another it was written that “his good qualities merited a happier day,” and the general character of the age may be inferred from its being designated by the native chroniclers “The warlike period.” At last, after what seemed an interminable old age, marked by weakness and vice, the Chow dynasty came to an end in the person of Nan Wang, who, although he reigned for nearly sixty years, was deposed in ignominious fashion by one of his great vassals, and reduced to a humble position. His conqueror became the founder of the fourth Chinese dynasty.

During the period of internal strife which marked the last four centuries of the Chow dynasty, one family had steadily waxed stronger and stronger among the princes of China. The princes of Tsin, by a combination of prudence and daring, gradually made themselves supreme among their fellows. It was said of one of them that “like a wolf or a tiger he wished to draw all the other princes into his claws, so that he might devour them.” Several of the later Tsin princes, and particularly one named Chow Siang Wang, showed great capacity, and carried out a systematic policy for their

own aggrandisement. When Nan Wang was approaching the end of his career, the Tsin princes had obtained everything of the supreme power short of the name and the right to wear the Imperial yellow robes. Ching Wang, or to give him his later name as Emperor, Tsin Chi Hwangti, was the reputed great-grandson of Chow Siang Wang, and under him the fame and power of the Tsins reached their culminating point. This prince also proved himself one of the greatest rulers who ever sat on the Dragon Throne of China.

The country had been so long distracted by internal strife, and the authority of the Emperor had been reduced to such a shadow, that peace was welcome under any ruler, and the hope was indulged that the Tsin princes, who had succeeded in making themselves the most powerful feudatories of the Empire, might be able to restore to the central government something of its ancient power and splendour. Nor was the expectation unreasonable or ungratified. The Tsins had fairly earned by their ability the confidence of the Chinese nation, and their principal representative showed no diminution of energy on attaining the throne, and exhibited in a higher post, and on a wider field, the martial and statesman-like qualities his ancestors had displayed when building up the fabric of their power as princes of the Empire. Their supremacy was not acquiesced in by the other great feudatories without a struggle, and more than one campaign was fought before all rivals were removed from their path, and their authority passed unchallenged as occupants of the Imperial office.

It was in the middle of this final struggle, and when the result might still be held doubtful, that Tsin Chi Hwangti began his eventful reign. When he began to rule he was only thirteen years of age, but he quickly showed that he possessed the instinct of a statesman, and the courage of a born commander of armies. On the one hand he sowed dissension between the most formidable of his opponents, and brought about by a stratagem the disgrace of the ablest general in their service, and on the other he increased his army in numbers and efficiency, until it became unquestionably the most formidable fighting force in China. While he endeavoured thus to attain internal peace, he was also studious in providing for the general security of the Empire, and with this object he began the construction of a fortified wall across the northern frontier to serve as a defence against the troublesome Hiongnou tribes, who are identified with the Huns of Attila. This wall, which he began in the first years of his reign, was finished before his death, and still exists as the Great Wall of China, which has been considered one of the wonders of the world. He was careful in his many wars with the tribes of Mongolia not to allow himself to be drawn far from his own border, and at the close of a campaign he always withdrew his troops behind the Great Wall. Towards Central Asia he was more enterprising, and one of his best generals, Moungtien, crossed what is now the Gobi Desert, and made Hami the frontier fortress of the Empire.

In his civil administration Hwangti was aided by the minister Lisseh, who seems to have been a man of rare ability, and to have entered heartily into all his master's schemes for uniting the Empire. While Hwangti sat on the throne with a naked sword in his hand, as the emblem of his authority, dispensing justice, arranging the details of his many campaigns, and superintending the innumerable affairs of his government, his minister was equally active in reorganising the administration and in supporting his

« AnteriorContinua »