Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ancient China Shifting Scenes

Having now seen how the Chinese people, taking advantage of the material and moral growth naturally following upon a settled industrial existence, and above all upon the exclusive possession of a written character, gradually imposed themselves as rulers upon the ignorant tribes around them, let us see to what families these Chinese emigrant adventurers or colonial satraps belonged. To begin with the semi-Tartar power in the River Wei Valley-- destined six hundred years later to conquer the whole of China as we know it to-day--the ruling caste claimed descent from the most ancient Emperors of China; but for over a thousand years previous to 842 B.C. this remote branch of the Chinese race had become scattered and almost lost amongst the Tartars. However, a generation or two before our opening period, one of these princes had served the then ruling imperial dynasty as a sort of guardian to the western frontier, as a rearer of horses for the metropolitan stud, and perhaps even as a guide on the occasion of imperial expeditions into Tartarland. The successor of the Emperor who was driven from his capital in 842 B.C. about twenty years later employed this western satrap to chastise the Tartar nomads whose revolt had in part led to the imperial flight. After suffering some disasters, the conductors of this series of expeditions were at last successful, and in 815 B.C. the title of "Warden of the Western Marches" was officially conferred on the ruler for the time being of this western state, who in 777 B.C. had the further honour of seeing one of his daughters married to the Emperor himself. This political move on the part of the Emperor was unwise, for it led indirectly to the Tartars, who were frequently engaged in war with the Warden, interfering in the quarrels about the imperial succession, in which question the Tartars naturally thought they had a right to interfere in the interests of their own people. The upshot of it was that in 771 B.C. the Emperor was killed by the Tartars in battle, and it was only by securing the military assistance of the semi-Tartar Warden of the Marches that the imperial dynasty was saved. As it was, the Emperor's capital was permanently moved east from the immediate neighbourhood of what we call Si-ngan Fu in Shen Si province to the immediate neighbourhood of Ho-nan Fu in the modern Ho Nan province; and as a reward for his services the Warden was granted nearly the whole of the original imperial patrimony west of the Yellow River bend and on both sides of the Wei Valley. This was also in the year 771 B.C., and this is really one of the great pivot-points in Chinese history, of equal weight with the almost contemporaneous founding of Rome, and the gradual substitution of a Roman centre for a Greek centre in the development and civilization of the Far West. The new capital was not, however, a new city. Shortly after the imperial dynasty gained the possession of China in 1122 B.C., it had been surveyed, and some of the regalia had been taken thither; this, with a view of making it one of the capitals at least, if not the sole capital.
As Chinese names sound uncouth to our Western ears, and will, therefore, in these introductory chapters only be used sparingly and gradually, it becomes correspondingly difficult to explain historical phenomena adequately whilst endeavouring to avoid as far as possible the use of such unintelligible names: it will be well, then, to sum up the situation, and even repeat a little, so that the reader may assimilate the main points without fatigue or repulsion. The reigning dynasty of Chou had secured the adhesion of the thousand or more of Chinese vassal princes in 1122 B.C., and had in other words "conquered" China by invitation, much in the same way, and for very much the same general reasons, that William III. had' accepted the conquest of the British Isles; that is to say, because the people were dissatisfied with their legitimate ruler and his house. But, before this conquest, the vassal princes of Chou had occupied practically the same territory, and had stood in the same relation to the imperial dynasty subsequently ousted by them in 1122, that the Wardens of the Marches occupied and stood in when the imperial house of Chou in turn fled east in 771 B.C. The Shang dynasty thus ousted by the Chou princes in 1122, had for like misgovernment driven out the Hia dynasty in 1766 B.C. Thus, at the time when the Wardens of the Marches practically put the imperial power into commission in 771 B.C., the two old-fashioned dynasties of Shang and Chou had already ruled patriarchally for almost exactly one thousand years, and nothing of either a very startling, or a very definite, character had taken place at all within the comparatively narrow area described in our first chapter.
From this date of 771 B.C., and for five hundred years more down to 250 B.C., when the Chou dynasty was extinguished, the rule of the feudal Emperors of China was almost purely nominal, and except in so far as this or that powerful vassal made use of the moral, and even occasionally of the military power of the metropolitan district when it suited his purpose, the imperial ruler was chiefly exercised in matters of form and ritual; for under all three patriarchal dynasties it was on form and ritual that the idea of government had always been based. Of course the other powerful satraps--especially the more distant ones, those not bearing the imperial clan-name, and those more or less tinged with barbarian usages--learning by degrees what a helpless and powerless personage the Emperor had now become, lost no time in turning the novel situation to their own advantage: it is consequently now that begins the "tyrant period," or the period of the "Five Dictators," as the Chinese historians loosely term it: that is to say, the period during which each satrap who had the power to do so took the lead of the satrap body in general, and gave out that he was restoring the imperial prestige, representing the Emperor's majesty, carrying out the behests of reason, compelling the other vassals to do their duty, keeping up the legitimist sacrifices, and so on. In other words, the population of China had grown so enormously, both by peaceful in-breeding and by imperceptible absorption of kindred races, that more elbow-room was needed; more freedom from the shackles of ritual, rank, and feudal caste; more independence, and more liberty to take advantage of local or changed traditions. Besides all this, the art of writing, though still clumsy, expensive, and confined in its higher and literary aspects to the governing classes, had recently become simplified and improved; the salt trade, iron trade, fish industry, silk industry, grain trade, and art of usury had spread from one state to the other, and had developed: though the land roads were bad or non-existent, there were great numbers of itinerant dealers in cattle and army provisions. In a word, material civilization had made great strides during the thousand years of patriarchal rule immediately preceding the critical period comprised between the year 842 B.C. and the year 771 B.C. The voices of the advocates and the preachers of ancient patriarchal virtues were as of men crying in a wilderness of substantial prosperity and manly ambition. Thus political and natural forces combined with each other to prepare the way for a radical change, and this period of incipient revolution is precisely the period treated of in Confucius' history, the first history of China--meagre though it be--which deals with definite human facts, instead of "beating the air" with sermons and ritualistic exhortations.

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