From about the time of the Christian era the empire assumes the general form and features of the civilization which we associate with the word Chinese. The great question of national life and growth presents itself in two forms,—interior development, and defense against enemies. From within evolution is according to the ideals of Confucius.
Most of these movements, including battles, sieges, rebellions, and the rise and fall of dynasties, have very little meaning to us. Indeed, it is almost impossible to get or hold clear ideas of the personality of the leaders, whether generals or statesmen. The length of China's history and the great number of names and persons forbid any attempt on the part of the average reader to keep a clear picture of the details, though the general course is clear. The subject, however, is divisible into two parts: first, the struggle with the Tartars, until the nineteenth century; second, the clash with the Western world of ideas.
As elsewhere, success or failure decides what name shall be given in history to the insurgents against throne or government. If their plan fails, it is rebellion; if it succeeds, it is revolution. The Chinese, like other people, adjust their philosophy to the facts. Rebellion is the greatest of crimes, but if successful, Heaven has willed it so. In the human method of reasoning, success is the manifest will of God. The Chinaman always acknowledges a fact. "Whatever is, is right."
No one can understand their government and its policy until he realizes that the Chinese are a church-nation, with a doctrine that is orthodoxy never to be swerved from, while from time to time men who have done great things for China are canonized as saints. The emperor is the father and high priest of the whole nation. The government is the embodiment of China's ethical system. Confucius was the incarnate conscience of the nation. He taught that the emperor was the vice-gerent and the Son of Heaven. The emperor is therefore the Father of his People. He alone mediates between his subjects or children and Heaven. The supreme duty of each subject is obedience to the emperor. If the emperor is not him-self what he ought to be, if the public works are neglected and the government does not do what it ought, then the subject takes no concern, since his own duty is fulfilled in obedience to the emperor, who is the representative of Heaven and destiny.
The duties of the emperor and his subjects are reciprocal. If there be peace and prosperity in the empire, these are the results of his fatherly rule. But if his subjects rebel, or things go wrong, then the reason of it is, as the emperor usually acknowledges, his own lack of ability or wisdom.
One curious feature is common to the state papers of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom and the countries which follow Chinese customs: namely, their frequent and public confession of sin. Emperor, mikado, king, and kinglet acknowledge that in them lies the fault of misrule, calamities, or rebellion. If a rebellion succeeds, the argument is that Heaven has punished the sovereign for his want of virtue.
The rebellion during the first Han dynasty, in a.d. 9, in which a band of marauders known as the Red Eyebrows figured prominently, is famous. They were so named because they dyed their eye-brows red. After a great battle, the Han dynasty was restored, and is known as the Later or Eastern Han dynasty, which lasted from a.d. 25 to 214. The chief events were the introduction of Buddhist priests and books from India; the building of a dike, thirty miles long, to prevent the overflow of the Yellow River; the marching of an army to the Caspian Sea, that is, as far as the eastern boundaries of the Roman Empire; the engraving of the Five Classics on stone tablets; and the establishment, in a.d. 175, of public contests for literary degrees. These became the basis of the civil service examinations, which have lasted to our day.
Henceforward employment in official life was possible only to those who could pass an examination in the classics, the writing of verses, and the composition of essays. This system came to be very widely organized. Halls were built in the district, province, and national capitals, and to these came the young men from all quarters. Setting out from their native villages, the candidates would gather together and journey over the same road, often carrying banners duly inscribed with mottoes or the names of their homes. In thousands of cells, with pen, ink, and paper, and their food, also, they were shut up and carefully guarded, to secure fair play for all. Here they remained many hours and sometimes days. It frequently happened that the ambition of some was too great for their nerves or strength, and they were found dead at their desks. The examiners and judges assigned the questions and looked over the papers, making the awards at an appointed time. The successful candidate, on reaching home, was received in his native village and ancestral temple with banners, songs, speeches of welcome, and other evidences of local joy. In time, many foolish and amusing customs grew up. What we call hazing, or ragging, was often boisterous and rough.
Those who attended were not always young. Some beginning early in life might try again year after year. The sight of gray-haired students was very common. The life of many a literary man was spent in examinations. It was not rare to find a grandfather, father, and son at the same examination. Only a small percentage of applicants were able to meet the test, but most of these received office. In time, passing successfully through other examinations, these became mayors of cities, governors of provinces, or high officers of the empire.
The large majority of those who failed would go back home to become teachers, clerks, or literary men. Educated men were thus found all over China, and village schoolmasters were numerous. As a class they were very conservative in their notions, being opposed to changes in customs or religion; but otherwise they were centres of culture for the uplift of the masses.
Following the Han dynasty came the period of the Three Kingdoms of Wei in the North, Wu in the South, and Shu in the West, reminding one of the division at Verdun of Charlemagne's empire among his grandsons, whence began the evolution of the French, Germans, and Italians; or of the three countries of Great Britain,—Scotland, England, and Wales.
While probably not so important in history, this period a.d. 221–277 kindles the Chinese imagination, because the novelists, romancers, and artists have made it appear the most romantic in all Chinese history. Outwardly it resembled the age of chivalry in Europe. To this day street story-tellers and actors on the stage never tire of picturing in word, act, or costume the events of this era. According to fiction and drama, there were a great many heroes and heroines who had amazing adventures, exciting escapes, and joyful triumphs, quite equal to any to be found in our dime novels. In China, Korea, and Japan, one of the most popular books is a long romance, entitled "The Three Kingdoms," so full of incident as to remind one of a moving picture show. To a Chinese boy, this era is as wonderful as is that of Bruce and Wallace to a Scottish lad.
Among the instances narrated as historical was that of three generals who took the "Peach Garden Oath" by drawing blood from one another's arms, mingling it, and drinking it,—a custom which has since become common to men engaged in desperate enterprises. So terrible a fighter was one of these generals that after death he was deified as the god of war, and is now worshiped all over China. As with other gods of pagan people, those of the Middle Kingdom were once men. Indeed, the history of China and Japan and other Asiatic nations is largely taken up with the manufacture of gods, that are nothing more nor less than common men, whose ghosts the ignorant and vulgar fear and worship. When Islam came to China with its message, "There is no God but God," it brought a truth to help and uplift.
It being difficult for the average man, who lives and dies near the spot on which he was born, to hold clearly the idea of one God, it is necessary for him, he thinks, to believe in scores, hundreds, thousands, and even millions of petty deities. Every village, locality, mountain, and valley has its gods. They swarm on the roof, cellar, well, garden, swamp, wood, hills, and rivers. Temples are crowded with their images. In a festival, or pageant, the scholar can recognize their effigies in threefold character: as men who once lived on the earth, as deities with names and titles, and as fanciful creatures that cause terror, delight, or merriment. Superstition keeps the people poor. Armies of priests, diviners, and sorcerers fatten and get rich by playing on popular hopes and fears.
The achievements and actions of these men-gods have given rise to many proverbs or popular sayings. Nearly every trade or craft has its patron god. For example, Pan, an ingenious mechanic, to avenge his father's death, carved an effigy in wood, whose hand pointed toward the kingdom of Wu. In consequence, a drought prevailed for the space of three years. The men of Wu paid Pan a large sum of money to have him cut off the hand of the figure, which he did, and at once rain fell. Hence the masons and carpenters of China worship him, and the proverb "skillful in the house of Pan" means much the same as "Preaching to Buddha," or "carrying coals to Newcastle."
Another military craftsman in Han days moved his army so fast that he was said to have employed "wooden oxen and machine-made horses," by which some think are meant wheel-barrows, which in China are used as land boats with sails and as passenger cars, as well as to carry pigs, vegetables, and freight. He also invented a bow that would shoot many arrows at one time, and his system of tactics in eight lines of battle has been much discussed.
In another case a defeated general, with only a handful of men, beat his enemies "by means of broomsticks." While in retreat, he occupied a walled town that had been deserted, and ordered his men to throw open the gates and stand with brooms in their hands, while he climbed up into a tower over the city wall and began to play upon the lute. The enemy, suspecting an ambuscade, retreated.
Incessant border wars followed the era of the Three Kingdoms. The northern Tartars seemed to make constant progress southward. They coveted the high-bred women of the south for wives. When victorious, their leaders demanded Chinese princesses who married their conquerors, so that in time these northern chieftains, through their children, could claim to be heirs to the imperial throne. Through these women, Chinese writing, etiquette, learning, medicine, and general culture were spread through the northern regions.
It became the custom also in this ancestor-worshiping country that whenever the claimant of the throne was successful, he would seize the old capital or establish a new one.
Casting out the ancestral tablets of those whom he had overcome, he set up in their place those of his own ancestors. Giving his dynasty an auspicious name, he and his descendants would hold the power as long as possible. Yet it became the law of history that dynasties should rise and fall, while the people, ever steadily gaining, remained. Imperial families perished, but the nation lived, becoming ever greater.
Yet while the Tartars and Chinese, like Greek and barbarian, Roman and Teuton, mingled together, there were also many disintegrating forces. In the north, as in a similar case and time in Europe, there sprang up a great many small kingdoms, so that there were constant hostilities between the cultured in the south and the rude peoples in the north. The process resembled very much that of the struggle of the Roman Empire with the Teutonic barbarians and later of Christianity with northern paganism. On both continents there was first the successful invasion, the destruction of the old power, and then the formation of new nations, governments, and types of man. When the barbarians accepted and assimilated the civilization of the conquered, they yielded themselves to them and became like them. Conquest by force is always temporary. The victories of peace are permanent.
This first great struggle with the Tartars ended when the Sui dynasty, which held power from a.d. 599 to 618, was established. The whole empire was one household again, and those once foreigners within the empire had yielded themselves not only to the superior civilization of the conquered, but to their religion, so that to all intents and purposes they were Chinese.
It was during this period of changing dynasties that many stories were told in which sentimental ideas about the moon and the jade stone, with other notions in the world which is outside of science, grew up, and these have been developed by writers of fiction and poetry. As these still influence powerfully the Chinese in their art and everyday life, it is well to glance at them.
The moon is the favorite home of the fairies, and one wonders what the story-tellers would do without this ornament of the night sky. The moon is the refuge of lovely women when persecuted, and at this terminal the famous characters in the fairy world arrive sooner or later. Chinese children, according as they are taught the fairy, the Buddhist, or the Taoist legends, or all of them, see three different figures on the moon's face.
The Archer Lord who, in b.c. 2435, served the emperor, is famous as the moon's deliverer. When the precious pearl of heaven was being swallowed by a dragon, this worthy shot arrows into the sky and gave deliverance from the monster. His wife stole from him the drug of immortality which grows in the moon-world and had been given him by the Western Royal Mother, who dwells on the sacred mountain-top, amid troops of genii and the azure-winged birds, and in whose gardens the precious cassia tree flourishes. With the coveted booty the jealous wife fled to the moon, but was changed into a frog, and there she is yet, and Chinese children will trace the outline on the full moon's surface on a bright night.
Other young folks, who have read the story of the Man in the Moon, see Mr. Kang, who, for some offense against the supernal powers, was banished to the white planet and condemned to labor without ceasing in trying to hew down the cassia, or cinnamon tree, which grows there. As fast as his axe falls, the wood closes again. So his labors are endless and all for naught. This is at root and in idea the same man in the moon, and it is the same story told in Europe a thousand years ago, of the sinner who broke the Sabbath by gathering fagots of wood and is still carrying them.
In the moon grows the cassia tree, at the foot of which crouches the hare that pounds drugs for the genii. As this noble tree is especially brilliant at mid-autumn, those who take a degree at the literary examinations "pluck a leaf from the cassia tree." At this time the moon is worshiped and the children enjoy immensely the moon cakes which are made in honor of the season.
The Japanese, who borrowed so many of their ideas and legends from China, as we did most of ours from the nations in Asia, tell us that it is the reddening leaves of the cassia, or katsura tree, that causes the effulgence of the autumn moon. The islanders have stories also of moon-maidens visiting the earth and returning to their silvery palace in the sky. Chinese who admire a very beautiful woman may call her The Lady of the Moon, in reference to the one who fled with the immortal drug.
Jade, or nephrite, is a real mineral, which, apart from its beauty or comparative rarity, has a thousand sentimental values. The word jade is one of a hundred or more, like joss, junk, mandarin, cat-sup (or ketchup), etc., which foreigners think is Chinese, and Chinese think is foreign. It is of Spanish origin, meaning colic (stone). Nephrite is Greek, meaning kidney (stone). The mineral was so named by our ancestors, who were often as superstitious as the Chinese, because they imagined it would cure the stomachache or kidney disease. The hard stone, worked into tools and used as axes, knives, etc., is found all over the world, but is believed to have come in every case from China, where it is called yu. Being so costly, the Chinese from ancient times, as the poems edited by Confucius show, considered it their chief gem, and made sceptres, bracelets, vases, and ornaments of it. To them it was the symbol of all that is most excellent in human life and virtue. Like heaven, of which it is an emblem, it combines the highest strength with the purest effulgence. As the most perfect expression of the positive masculine principle in nature, various magical virtues have been attributed to it. The mystical treaties of the immortals are inscribed on tablets of jade. These tell us that the liquid flowing from the jade mountains, after a thousand years, becomes clear as crystal. If to this liquid a certain herb be added, the drinker of the draught attains millennial life. By virtue of this "jade spirit beverage," he becomes incorporeal and is able to soar through the air without wings, balloon, or aeroplane. It is curious to read that this rock of jade stone, where the genii live and whence flows the liquor of immortality, is placed by ancient writers seventy thousand li to the west. Of the jade tree blossoming in the moon, we have already heard.