Told for centuries by wise men, parents, and nurses around the family fire in winter, under the trees in summer, or by the lamp in spring or autumn, every old country has many hero and wonder tales stored in the national memory.
In each nation the hero must be the kind of man admired of the people, and very much like popular living men, but greater in every way. He must represent the nation's ideal of a great and good man. He must be crafty, strong, or brave, like Jacob, Samson, or David; powerful like Charlemagne, full of energy like Napoleon, or noble like Lincoln. If the real man did not actually have these traits, the romancers clothe him with them in fiction. Most of the ancient demigods, saints, and heroes would never know themselves if they could look into the mirror of modern fancy. The value of these oft-told stories about great men is to reflect opinion and show what ought to be, as well as what is. Story-tellers usually drop what is displeasing, and keep only what is lovely or exciting to tell. Mythology is rich in literary candy and sweets. Children like these best, and in the childhood of the race the taste of hearers requires what is suited to the palate.
Chinese fathers want their sons to be like the men who lived in the morning of creation. Every mother in the eighteen provinces hopes that her daughters will imitate the women of antiquity. All over the Chinese world, on the 7th of August, is the feast of the Starry Weaver Maiden, whose graces and accomplishments every Chinese girl hopes to have. Their early heroes are wonderfully like the popular men of modern China. If, therefore, the Chinese ideal is linked with toil, then their first man, or Adam, must be a tremendous worker with his hands. Incessant labor is the lot of China's millions. In Chinese fairy tales, the naughty boy or girl is lazy, the good one is always notably industrious.
This is so true that in China when any one wants to show that he is rich and does not have to toil with his hands, he lets his finger-nails grow long, sometimes even until they become like Nebuchadnezzar's talons. They look first like birds' claws, and then like switches. Little bamboo splints, or ivory supports, are used to keep them straight and prevent breakage, so that these signs of luxury may be trained as upon a trellis. Manicuring is an old art with the Chinese, but it is more like vine-dressing than with us. Portraits of persons of leisure show this. Empresses, who wear a sort of long, golden thimble on their finger tips, are thus represented.
When the Chinese think of creation, they tell us about the first being, who was named Pau Ku. He was placed on the earth, when sky and ground were all one, to reduce chaos to order and to pound, chisel, and carve the earth until it got into proper shape. The mighty giant had a chisel in one hand and a mallet in the other. For eighteen thousand years he began work every morning early and kept up his task until dark. As he toiled, he increased in stature, so that gradually he was able to push up the heavens and expand the earth, making it more solid and shapely. He held the sun and moon in his hands. At last, in a rough way indeed, the world was fit for human beings to live upon.
Then Pan Ku died, but in his death he did almost as much to make the world habitable as during his life, for the products of the decay of his body gave the earth its furniture. His head became mountains; his breath, winds and clouds; his voice, thunder; his left eye the sun, and his right eye the moon. His limbs were changed into the four quarters of the globe, and his five extremities into the five great mountains famous in Chinese history. His sinews became the undulations of the earth's surface, his blood the rivers, his muscles and veins the strata of the earth, his flesh the soil, his hair and beard the stars and constellations, his skin and the hairs on it plants and trees, his teeth and bones metals, and his marrow pearls and precious stones. The sweat of his body turned into rain, and then, as the last particles of his mortal frame were blown upon by the wind, the parasites, or, as we should call them, microbes, turned into human beings.
The Chinese and the Scandinavian theories of creation are much alike.
There were many giants on the earth in those days, There always are in ancient stories. Some of the big fellows, being unruly, had to be kept in older. So three rulers in succession, called the heavenly, the earthly, and the human sovereigns, each of them living eighteen thousand years, ruled the world. Gradually the inhabitants learned to do many things, becoming thus less brutish and more human. They had homes and families. Children knew their fathers. As yet, however, they lived in caves, in holes in the ground, or among the branches of the trees, and ate their food raw. The earth was full of horrible beasts and reptiles, and the trees and vegetation were rougher than at present and furnished little food for man. Gradually better breeds of animals came into being, and some of these were tamed for human service. Certainly no race has excelled the Chinese in taming animals, beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish for the service of man.
After Pan Ku and the three early sovereigns, there followed a ruler who instructed men in the building of "wooden nests" or houses. Then the Fire Maker showed men how to rub one stick against another until smoke and flame came forth. He also taught them to count and record days, months, and years by tying knots with strings. From this time on, men cooked their food, softened many hard things by fire, hot water, and steam, and kept warm in cold weather.
One must not ask, nor try to answer, too many questions about these old stories. Myths are mirrors of belief. They are very useful in showing what the Chinese believed about their ancestors. These, they thought, rose from very humble beginnings and passed through periods of lowest savagery, which is a kind of life not very far lifted up, either in habits or in states of mind, from that of the brutes. Then they merged into a condition one stage higher, barbarism, in which there were arts and crafts, by which men avail themselves of the forces and resources of nature and gain health, comforts, and time for thought. The first is an age of long processes, the other of distinct events.
This unknown period of early beginnings men fill up with mythology and fairy tales, because they cannot now tell exactly what took place, any more than a child can remember what happened in its infancy. There are no records, for there was then no writing, but only rude picture signs, such as Indians and Esquimaux use. In the next age certain great happenings stand out by them-selves, such as a flood, a famine, an earthquake or pestilence which destroys many lives. The happy events, such as the introduction of a new article of food or drink, the discovery of metals, a sure remedy for diseases, or an invention that saves toil or gives beauty, are long remembered.
In this period also there are great civilizers, who teach marriage and politeness, medicine and agriculture, the catching of fish, and the rearing of domestic animals. They show how hemp may be woven into cloths, or how silkworms may be made to yield shining fibres for beautiful dresses. Some make musical instruments and draw sweet sounds therefrom, or they invent writing, and thus store up and hand down, even after death, ideas, information, and records of events. With what the steel point scratches on bamboo, or the brush pen puts with ink on paper, men may be moved by history, eloquence, or poetry. Then the drama and the theatre come into existence.
In time, these great men who were inventors are supposed to have been "gods." Gratitude turns to adoration, prayer, and honors paid to their memory. Craftsmen, guilds and companies, cities and provinces, adopt them as their patron gods or saints. The painters attempt to represent their faces. Legend, poetry, the drama, proverbs, and art make their names and their sup-posed features, as shown in their portraits, so familiar that they become very real to the people. Where we foreigners, visiting a temple in Canton, or seeing a collection of dolls, images, idols, or pictures in Ningpo, behold only strangeness and oddity, the natives of China recognize benefactors and familiar friends, whose names are to them as household words. As the thirteen stripes and cluster of stars suggest the independent thirteen colonies which became the United States, or as an axe and rails recall Abraham Lincoln, so to the Chinese mind the cock standing on the drum means peace, the sacred unicorn prosperity, and a score of other symbols bring to memory famous events in the long and glorious history of China,—the oldest of states.
The legendary age extends from 2852 b.c. to the historical period, which begins about 800 b.c. , after which we have clearly written accounts of men who did things at a fixed date, and who lived very much nearer in time to the men who wrote about them. The Chinese have no history before 800 b.c. , and the Japanese none before 400 a.d. Yet, like Europeans of all sorts, they claim vast age, which has only lately manufactured tradition to support it.
All the languages of mankind may be divided into a few families. The Aryan has inflections, gender, number, person, and case, and the root is changeable in form. The Semitic has tri-literal roots. The Turanian is agglutinative, extra pieces or parts of speech being glued on to the unchangeable root. Now, Chinese is perhaps the oldest written, living language in the world, but the very fact that it began to be written so early prevented its growth. Infants learn to talk in single syllables. Chinese is the baby talk of the ancient world, too early fixed in form by written characters, and has little or no grammar. It is monosyllabic. The poverty of sounds is made into richness by a system of tones, so that one syllable may have many meanings, according as it is intoned.
That is the main reason why it is so hard for us to hold Chinese names in our mind. There are no long words, and even proper names are made of monosyllables. If we do not know the language by eye or ear, it is only by making Chinese words and names look and sound like our own that we can easily remember them, as we see in the case of names of places and Latin forms like Confucius, Mongolia, Manchuria, etc.
Hence, also, the very short names of the early founders of Chinese order. To read of them and what they did is like perusing the early chapters of Genesis. Thus Tsi, now worshiped as the god of agriculture, was Director of Husbandry. Shen Nung, the Divine Husbandman, first fashioned timber into ploughs and taught men farming. He discovered the curative virtues of plants and began the practice of bolding markets. He developed the scheme of the eight diagrams, on which philosophy is based, into sixty-four. Hi Chung, director of chariots under Yu the Great, taught men to apply horses in draught, and ploughs and wheeled vehicles in place of human labor. Another introduced the grapevine and showed men how to make wine. Ling Lun began the art of music. In medical science, one physician dissected the human body, learned about its internal parts and the blood channels, and set forth a theory of the pulses. One of his successors, long afterward, was very skilful in acupuncture, or needle surgery, and by this means relieved an emperor of cerebral disease. Li Show was the inventor of the art of notation, and drew up the nine sections of mathematics. In order to measure the earth, that is, the known dominions, Tai Chang paced the earth from its eastern to its western border, while Shu Hai performed the same task from north to south, by which means its length and breadth were ascertained. To these early people "the earth" meant China.
Indeed, most Chinese precedents are drawn from this age, which we may call that of the Yellow Emperor, Whang Ti (b.c. 2697), who was surrounded by eminent men of light and leading, whose names are famous. Of course, the Chinese, though now a very peaceful people, must have a god of war. All old nations did. Yeo was a great rebel, who was beaten by the Yellow Emperor. He headed a confederacy of eighty-one brothers who talked like men, but who had the bodies of beasts and fed on dust. They made war weapons and oppressed the people until Whang Ti marched to chastise them. On the day of battle, Yeo called on the wind god and rain lord to aid him, but when a mighty tempest rose, the Yellow Emperor sent his ally, the Daughter of Heaven, to quell the storm. Then he slew the rebel, whose spirit went up and occupied the planet Mars, which still influences the issues of battle. Verily this was a war of Titans. Yeo was the first to produce disorder, but is reputed to be the inventor of weapons and of astrology.
Two great men, Yao and Shun, are to the Chinese very much what Abraham and Moses are to the Semitic peoples. Chinese gentlemen will say, and believe what they are telling you, that there is hardly anything in the China of to-day that was not in the minds or plans of Yao and Shun. The reign of one began b.c. 2356, and of the other, his associate, b.c. 2285. As with most national worthies, we have wonderful stories as to what their fond mothers thought of them, even before they were born. The mother of Yu the Great gave him birth after seeing a falling star and swallowing a divine pearl. The three, considered as peerless in wisdom and virtue, have been immortalized by Confucius and Mencius, and glorified beyond measure by later writers.
Theirs was the golden age which it is the object of the good men of to-day to bring back to the earth. Yao began great works, but selected Shun, because of his filial piety, to complete them. In Yao's time a great flood covered the country, the water rising even to the tops of the mountains. This overflow, which destroyed fields and houses, was probably a change in the channel of the Yellow River. After nine years of incredible toil, during which he took heed neither to food nor clothing, and thrice passed by the door of his home without stopping, even when he heard the wailing of his infant son within, Yu brought the waters under control. Then he divided the empire into nine provinces. Agriculture was taught and a calendar was begun, by having men watch the notions of the stars and planets. To accept the Chinese calendar has ever been a mark of loyal vassalage to the Chinese emperor. Shun also improved the ritual of religion and ordained a code of punishments.
It is the peculiarity of nearly all ancient writing and religion, and the mark usually of age, both in individuals and in nations, to assert vehemently that the past was better than the present, and things are not as they used to be, either in ancient times or when "we were children." With every succeeding age glorifying the former one, and the story-teller always embellishing what went before, there is piled up a vast mass of unconscious exaggeration. The past "wins a glory by its being far." In those distant days in China, nobody stole anything, or locked his doors at night, and things dropped on the road were never picked up by any but the owner. In a word, as among savages, private ownership, or property, was unknown. Everything was held in common. Morals were of the community, not of the individual.
The virtues and prosperous government of the two celebrated sovereigns, Yao and Shun, are commemorated in a phrase of four characters, the synonym for prosperity, and reading literally "Yao Heaven, Shun sun"; or, in full, "Heaven favoring, as in the days of Yao; and the sun resplendent, or the day prosperous, as in the time of Shun." Another phrase is "Pearls strung together and the tally of gems united," meaning brilliancy and concord. When Yao had completed the seventieth year of his reign at the winter solstice, the five planets were in conjunction and the sun and moon stood opposite to each other.
Learned men's essays and Chinese literature in general, but especially of the elegant sort, are full of such terse phrases, which make sentences sparkle and delight cultured readers. No language is as luxurious as the Chinese in allusions to ancient stories, anecdotes of famous people, or places and things delightful. It is no wonder the Chinese love their favorite authors, whose texts are a mosaic rich in pleasing images.
Chinese notions of eclipses were those of primitive man everywhere. It was especially charged upon the two earliest astronomers that they should give warning of a solar eclipse. According to the tradition, these men neglected their duty and became riotous and drunken. An eclipse having come on without notice, the pair were put to death.
The great mass of ignorant people in China are still terrified when they see during the daytime untimely darkness, and the birds going to roost in the premature twilight. Believing that a great dragon in the sky is swallowing the luminary, they beat gongs, drums, and tom-toms, blow horns and whistles, and by every kind of hideous noise try to frighten the monster away or make him disgorge his prey. When full light comes again, they imagine they have succeeded. Similar ideas prevailed in ancient Europe.
The dragon is also the symbol of what is most precious. It is believed that pearls endowed with peculiar virtues of magic and blessing are carried by dragons upon their foreheads. We see them playing with one another and the jewels, or, supremely strenuous, they contend in dire conflict for the possession of the prizes. One of the most common representations on works of art is that of two dragons, that are struggling for, or, it may be, guarding a precious gem. This is a picture, in symbol, of the terrific struggle of the forces of the universe, as manifested in storm, cyclone, typhoon, earthquake, tidal wave, volcanic eruption, or the phenomena of the skies, ocean, and land. On the Chinese national flag the dragon is the emblem of authority. Although the Chinese did not know the theory of the tides, and the effect which the moon has upon the sea and its waters, yet they associated the moon, or the precious pearl among the moving clouds in the sky, with the pulses of the ocean. A common representation in bronze and crystal is that of dragons seizing, contending for, or controlling the crystal ball or pearl, which represents the moon. Hence the dragon is used as a symbol of commerce and fortunate voyages, or the hope of such, and on paper money.
We meet the dragon very often in fairyland. The shrine of the king of the world beneath the sea is under his guardianship. He guides the daring voyager into strange seas and to the treasure castle on far-off islands. He loves music, and can be diverted by the sound of the lute. He delivers the hero out of his dangers, and brings the princess safely to joy and peace. In their dreams, Chinese children, and especially ambitious students, ride on the backs of dragons and go soaring through the air and over mountains and sea, or they travel on these coursers into strange lands, or go down beneath the ocean's bed. In serious thought the dragon is the symbol of that with which the impious may not fool or trifle, and whose powers none may mock or defy.
One would need a library to tell of all the stories of dragons in the lore and art of Japan, Korea, and other nations under Chinese culture. In geography an amazing number of features of the landscape take their name from some part of the dragon's body, head, tail, eye, or mouth. The successful students at examinations are called dragons. The emblem of their success is either the dragon or the tiger. The Son of Heaven, the emperor, and his high ministers, and all the imperial attributes are associated with this divinely constituted creature, and the seat of power is called the Dragon's Seat. Hence, around the imperial throne of China the dragon is carved in the richest wood and rarest stones. The emperor's face is the Dragon Countenance, and his carriage the Dragon's Chariot.