Ancient History & Civilisation

4. The First Chinese Civilization

The Feudal Age in China—An able minister—The struggle between custom and law—Culture and anarchy—Love lyrics from the “Book of Odes”

The feudal states that now provided for almost a thousand years whatever political order China was to enjoy, were not the creation of the conquerors; they had grown out of the agricultural communities of primitive days through the absorption of the weaker by the stronger, or the merger of groups under a common chief for the defense of their fields against the encompassing barbarians. At one time there were over seventeen hundred of these principalities, ordinarily consisting of a walled town surrounded by cultivated land, with smaller walled suburbs constituting a protective circumference.18 Slowly these provinces coalesced into fifty-five, covering what is now the district of Honan with neighboring portions of Shan-si, Shen-si and Shantung. Of these fifty-five the most important were Ts’i, which laid the bases of Chinese government, and Chin (or Tsin), which conquered all the rest, established a unified empire, and gave to China the name by which it is known to nearly all the world but itself.

The organizing genius of Ts’i was Kuan Chung, adviser to the Duke Huan. Kuan began his career in history by supporting Huan’s brother against him in their competition for the control of Ts’i, and almost killed Huan in battle. Huan won, captured Kuan, and appointed him chief minister of the state. Kuan made his master powerful by replacing bronze with iron weapons and tools, and by establishing governmental monopoly or control of iron and salt. He taxed money, fish and salt, “in order to help the poor and reward wise and able men.”19 During his long ministry Ts’i became a well-ordered state, with a stabilized currency, an efficient administration, and a flourishing culture. Confucius, who praised politicians only by epitaph, said of Kuan: “Down to the present day the people enjoy the gifts which he conferred. But for Kuan Chung we should now be wearing our hair disheveled, and the lappets of our coats buttoning on the left side.”*20

In the feudal courts was developed the characteristic courtesy of the Chinese gentleman. Gradually a code of manners, ceremonies and honor was established, which became so strict that it served as a substitute for religion among the upper classes of society. The foundations of law were laid, and a great struggle set in between the rule of custom as developed among the people and the rule of law as formulated by the state. Codes of law were issued by the duchies of Cheng and Chin (535, 512 B.C.), much to the horror of the peasantry, who predicted divine punishment for such outrages; and indeed the capital of Cheng was soon afterward destroyed by fire. The codes were partial to the aristocracy, who were exempted from the regulations on condition that they should discipline themselves; gentlemen murderers were allowed to commit suicide, and most of them did, in the fashion later so popular in samurai Japan. The people protested that they, too, could discipline themselves, and called for some Harmodius or Aristogiton to liberate them from this new tyranny of law. In the end the two hostile forces, custom and law, arrived at a wholesome compromise: the reach of law was narrowed to major or national issues, while the force of custom continued in all minor matters; and since human affairs are mostly minor matters, custom remained king.

As the organization of states proceeded, it found formulation in the Chou-li, or Law of Chou, a volume traditionally but incredibly ascribed to Chou-kung, uncle and prime minister of the second Duke of Chou. This legislation, suspiciously infused with the spirit of Confucius and Mencius, and therefore in all likelihood a product of the end rather than of the beginning of the Chou Dynasty, set for two thousand years the Chinese conception of government: an emperor ruling as the vicar and “Son of Heaven,” and holding power through the possession of virtue and piety; an aristocracy, partly of birth and partly of training, administering the offices of the state; a people dutifully tilling the soil, living in patriarchal families, enjoying civil rights but having no voice in public affairs; and a cabinet of six ministries controlling respectively the life and activities of the emperor, the welfare and early marriage of the people, the ceremonies and divinations of religion, the preparation and prosecution of war, the administration of justice, and the organization of public works.22 It is an almost ideal code, more probably sprung from the mind of some anonymous and irresponsible Plato than from the practice of leaders sullied with actual power and dealing with actual men.

Since much deviltry can find room even in perfect constitutions, the political history of China during the Feudal Age was the usual mixture of persevering rascality with periodic reforms. As wealth increased, luxury and extravagance corrupted the aristocracy, while musicians and assassins, courtesans and philosophers mingled at the courts, and later in the capital at Loyang. Hardly a decade passed without some assault upon the new states by the hungry barbarians ever pressing upon the frontiers.23 War became a necessity of defense, and soon a method of offense; it graduated from a game of the aristocracy to competitive slaughter among the people; heads were cut off by tens of thousands. Within a little more than two centuries, regicides disposed of thirty-six kings.24Anarchy grew, and the sages despaired.

Over these ancient obstacles life made its plodding way. The peasant sowed and reaped, occasionally for himself, usually for his feudal lord, to whom both he and the land belonged; not until the end of the dynasty did peasant proprietorship raise its head. The state—i.e., a loose association of feudal barons faintly acknowledging one ducal sovereign—conscripted labor for public works, and irrigated the fields with extensive canals; officials instructed the people in agriculture and arboriculture, and supervised the silk industry in all its details. Fishing and the mining of salt were in many provinces monopolized by the government.25 Domestic trade flourished in the towns, and begot a small bourgeoisie possessed of almost modern comforts: they wore leather shoes, and dresses of homespun or silk; they rode in carts or chariots, or traveled on the rivers by boat; they lived in well-built houses, used tables and chairs, and ate their food from plates and dishes of ornamented pottery;26 their standard of living was probably higher than that of their contemporaries in Solon’s Greece, or Numa’s Rome.

Amid conditions of disunity and apparent chaos the mental life of China showed a vitality disturbing to the generalizations of historians. For in this disorderly age were laid the bases of China’s language, literature, philosophy and art; the combination of a life made newly secure by economic organization and provision, and a culture not yet forged into conformity by the tyranny of inescapable tradition and an imperial government, served as the social framework for the most creative period in the history of the Chinese mind. At every court, and in a thousand towns and villages, poets sang, potters turned their wheels, founders cast stately vessels, leisurely scribes formed into beauty the characters of the written language, sophists taught to eager students the tricks of the intellect, and philosophers pined over the imperfections of men and the decadence of states.

We shall study the art and language later, in their more complete and characteristic development; but the poetry and the philosophy belong specifically to this age, and constitute the classic period of Chinese thought. Most of the verse written before Confucius has disappeared; what remains of it is chiefly his own stern selection of the more respectable samples, gathered together in the Shi-Ching, or “Book of Odes,” ranging over a thousand years from ancient compositions of the Shang Dynasty to highly modern poems as recent as Pythagoras. Its three hundred and five odes celebrate with untranslatable brevity and suggestive imagery the piety of religion, the hardships of war, and the solicitude of love. Hear the timeless lament of soldiers torn from their homes and dedicated to unintelligible death:

How free are the wild geese on their wings,

And the rest they find on the bushy Yu trees!

But we, ceaseless toilers in the king’s services,

Cannot even plant our millet and rice.

What will our parents have to rely on?

O thou distant and azure Heaven!

When shall all this end? . . .

What leaves have not turned purple?

What man is not torn from his wife?

Mercy be on us soldiers:

Are we not also men?27

Though this age appears, to our ignorance, to have been almost the barbaric infancy of China, love poetry abounds in the Odes, and plays a gamut of many moods. In one of these poems, whispering to us across those buried centuries that seemed so model to Confucius, we hear the voice of eternally rebellious youth, as if to say that nothing is so old-fashioned as revolt:

I pray you, dear,

My little hamlet leave,

Nor break my willow-boughs;

’Tis not that I should grieve,

But I fear my sire to rouse.

Love pleads with passion disarrayed,—

“A sire’s commands must be obeyed.”

I pray you, dear,

Leap not across my wall,

Nor break my mulberry-boughs;

Not that I fear their fall,

But lest my brother’s wrath should rouse,

Love pleads with passion disarrayed,—

“A brother’s words must be obeyed.”

I pray you, dear,

Steal not the garden down,

Nor break my sandal trees;

Not that I care for these,

But oh, I dread the talk of town.

Should lovers have their wilful way,

Whatever would the neighbors say?28

And another—the most nearly perfect, or the most excellently translated, of all—reveals to us the ageless antiquity of sentiment:

The morning glory climbs above my head,

Pale flowers of white and purple, blue and red.

I am disquieted.

Down in the withered grasses something stirred;

I thought it was his footfall that I heard.

Then a grasshopper chirred.

I climbed the hill just as the new moon showed,

I saw him coming on the southern road,

My heart lays down its load.29

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