Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
William E. Griffis

Primeval China

China is the oldest living nation in the world. Of all in the human family, her people have the longest story. To-day China is like an elderly gentleman, hale and hearty, despite his years, not liking to change and yet ready for new things. The danger is now that he may go too fast.

A wrinkled old man does not look like the rosy infant he once was. Yet "the child is father of the man." In going back four thousand years, we must not expect to find anything like the Chinese Empire of to-day. In size, population, manner of life, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, the China of youth will not resemble the mighty nation of the twentieth century. There have been changes in food, dress, style of houses, government, and in religion, philosophy, belief, and opinions. China is neither inscrutable nor in a state of arrested development.

We shall study each age during the many dynasties, so as to distinguish the features of a society based always on land and labor, but ever developing with new inventions. Its great men and women, the novelties and characteristics of the times, the amusements and tastes of each era will be noted. We shall see that those things which we have always associated in our minds with China did not come all at once. The oldest of them were at one time new. Their introduction brought delightful surprise to those who liked and disgust to those who disliked them. In China, as in Europe, new things were always opposed by those who thought them harmful, and were welcomed by those who voted them good.

Chinese civilization, which seems to-day so fixed, and which our people imagine has always been very much the same as it is now, is in reality an affair of long and slow evolution. Not more different in their appearance to-day from their humble beginnings ages ago are the luscious peach, the splendid rose, the race-horse, the latest triumphs of science—yes, even our men and women—than are the Chinese gentleman and lady from their savage originals. The world of experience and the outlook of fortieth-century China are vastly other than those of her cradle days. In the far-off beginning of things Chinese there were no rice, wheat, oats, silk, cotton, tea, paper, porcelain, pagodas, priests, temples, idols, letters, writing, books, jade, ivory, kites, falconry, cormorant fishing, fire-crackers, or coins with a square hole in the middle. Then the men did not wear queues, nor did the women bind their feet to make them small. There was then no Buddhism, and very little folklore or legend. There was even a time, farther back, when the people knew nothing of fire, woven clothing, houses, medicine, domestic animals, musical instruments, the institution of marriage, or the measurement of time. The natives were savages as wild as were our own far-off ancestors in the caves of the geological ages. Then, instead of being full of tilled fields, tea-gardens, towns, and villages, China was one vast forest, with swamps tenanted by ferocious wild beasts.

The originals of the fantastic creatures now known only in mythology or fairyland then lived on the earth with the men who were the distant fathers of the Chinese people. Making allowance for what myth-makers and artists have done to change or embellish the reality, some of the so-called "mythical monsters" were once as real as are elephants and gorillas. Chinese wonder-tales contain little more of exaggeration than do those of our own forbears. Nor are the beliefs of the common people, in Canton and Mukden, one whit more absurd than those of our own fore fathers.

Science and the sure witness of writing, art, architecture, customs, and traditions, when critically studied, show that the Chinese have followed the course of nature. The great has developed out of the little, according to the divine formula of seed, blade, and ear. Nevertheless, most Chinese writers still follow the fashions of an earlier world of thought and ways of reasoning. They tell us that the golden age was in the unmeasured aeons of the past. They place the best time of the world millions of years back, in the interval between the beginnings of heaven and earth and the coming of Fu Hi, whom they honor as their own great civilizer. To them the past is more honorable than the modern age. In it lived holy and semi-divine beings.

Entering Chinese temples, we discern both the first heavenly beings and the initial human makers of society, and are at once struck with the peculiarities of native art. Naturally these first men are Chinese, to all appearances. Their expression, style of hair and headdress, their jewels and ornaments, the fashion of their clothes and boots are not what we should give to our ancestors.

Yet we are like the Chinese. Although we do not dress our Adam and Eve in anything but fig leaves, we make them in their faces look like people we meet on Broadway. The first man and woman would be represented with different color of skin, according as an American, an Indian, or a Mongol should picture them. So in Chinese art there are "Jewel Lords," the "Three Pure Ones," and Panku, the first man, besides the "god" of tides, of war, of agriculture, etc., who have faces, dress, and posture according to Chinese taste and propriety.

In a word, the Chinese do no more than do we with our far-off ancestors, heroes, saints, and mighty folk, whom we idealize as if they lived in London, Boston, or Chicago. When we understand the artist's method of representing faces, dress, drapery, clouds, trees, mountains, water, bridges, and whatever goes into the making of a picture, whether Chinese or European, we soon learn what ideas he would convey. We make a difference between what is real, or supposed to be real, and what is imaginary. We soon note what the painter or sculptor has added for effect, or to heighten interest, to give local color, or to make what he thinks will suit the taste of his patrons and give us something pretty or popular. Myths and fairy tales usually keep in what is pleasant and leave out what is disagreeable. This is art—the praise of life.

The Chinese have, therefore, little trouble in comprehending their own pictures, nor need we have, when we know the mind and method of the artists in Nanking or Amoy. By patiently studying Oriental art we learn much and enjoy a great deal, beside getting truth and understanding history much more clearly. Such a method, with text, picture, inscription, architecture, games, plays, and customs, is more satisfactory than reading newspapers or accepting what foreigners have guessed at. Such a plan we try to follow in this little book.

In telling the story of the oldest nation, it is not at all necessary to use many Chinese names or words. These sound uncouth to us, because in our minds they have no meaning or association of ideas. Only by turning Kung Fu Tse—that is, the learned Professor Kung—and the name of his pupil Meng Tse into Latin, do "Confucius " and "Mencius" sound familiar to our ears. We can tell the story of China better in simple English than by appearing learned in the use of odd terms and many dates.

The Chinese are just as human as we are. They are moved by the same feelings and stirred by the same passions. It is not his curious dress, long queue, shaven forehead, or heelless velvet shoes that make a Chinaman. Nor do bound feet, wobbly slippers with the toes turned up, and loose clothes, that are purposely made so as to hide the marks of sex, make a Chinese woman. Neither will mills and machine-shops, telephones, railways, aeroplanes, automobiles, or steel battleships make any difference in the deviltry or sainthood of China. A native would be still Chinese even if he adopted all our customs, fashions, manners, inventions, and varieties of religion. The real man and woman in the Middle Kingdom can be fully described in English.

In the past these people taught us a great many things, some of them so long ago that we have forgotten how they came to us. The Chinese have probably invented and originated more than any other people with whose history we are acquainted. The civilization of China is her own, while ours is only a new edition, revised and corrected, of former civilizations.

The names of this long-lived empire and grand-mother of many nations, historically the oldest State in the world, are numerous and suggestive. Her own people do not know or use the term China, or Chinese, yet this name occurs in the ancient books of India. Isaiah knew of "the land of Sinim." Of native names the most common, perhaps, means the Middle Kingdom, or the Central Empire, or the Central Flowery Land—that is, the civilized country surrounded by pupil and vassal nations. All other countries lie on the edge of the map, while China fills the page. Distant nations look like microbes, or parasites. "All under Heaven " means the Chinese Empire. It is often seen on bank-notes.

This method of atlas-making is not so very different from our own. We often give a page to one State, or even a county, and then in a similar space we represent all the Chinas. The empire holding one fourth of the human race is squeezed into a space that one could cover with a teacup, while Japan looks like a caterpillar.

Among the names which the natives themselves do not use, but are known in Europe, several forms of this word being found in the Bible, is Seres, meaning silk. Sinae means "the Chinas," having the idea of plurality, or of many countries. In Russia, Khitai or Khata became "Cathay," with which we are all familiar. Tennyson has said, "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay." By this he meant a long, indefinite period without change.

Another name is Heavenly Dynasty, which some foreigners have translated Celestial Empire, but the odd term "Celestials " is not a native idea. The official name, used in Japan, as in China, means the Country Ruled by a Line of Rulers of Heavenly Origin. This notion is not exclusively Chinese. Europeans long believed that czars, emperors, and other rulers enjoy the special grace of the Deity, because of their form of government, teaching this as religious truth. As the Tang Dynasty (a.d. 618905) was one of the most celebrated in history, and very brilliant, a common name for China is the Hills (or the country) of Tang.

No one can understand China unless he knows the variation, in features and limbs, ideas and speech, mind and body, between the northern and the southern Chinese. They are quite as different as are English and Scotch. Only the southern Chinamen have thus far gone abroad in large numbers. In the south the people call themselves the Men of Tang, while in the north their favorite title is the Men of Han, after the famous dynasty b.c. 206220 a.d. The people also speak of themselves as the Black-haired Race, or the Sons of Han. Their beloved home, in contrast with the outlying lands, is the Central Flowery Land. For the Country of the Hundred Families they get very homesick when abroad. When in a mood like that suggested by our "Hail Columbia," or Fourth of July, the Chinaman talks of the glorious Hia, an ancient dynasty. With loyal spirit, in order to compliment the present or Tsin (Pure) dynasty in Peking, they call their country the Great Pure Kingdom.

There are pious ways of speaking of China from a religious or exalted point of view. The Buddhists, who came from India, call it by the Hindoo name the Land of Dawn. The Mahometans, who entered from the West, speak of the Land of the East. When we want a Latin adjective meaning Chinese, we call the mixed writing common in Japan, Sinico-Japanese, and the peoples which have received Chinese culture the Sinitic nations. A man who is familiar with the Lingua Sinica, or Chinese language, is a sinologne, because learned in the wonderful script that the average American sees only on tea-boxes or in "Chinatown" of New York or San Francisco.

Nevertheless, Chinese characters, which speak to the eye, can be just as well used to write English or German as to express native thought. China has no alphabet based on sound, nor a syllabary like the Japanese or Ethiopic. Her writing consists of ideographs, which were once pictures of the objects represented, to which a sound was attached, so that the characters represent things or stand for words in themselves. Speaking to the eye, the Chinese written language is the richest in the world. It means even more in sight than in sound. There are no ideas in science, philosophy, or invention that cannot be expressed in Chinese script.

Let us, then, study China, allowing the Chinese as far as possible to speak for themselves.