We can understand Chinese history if we think of the Roman Empire and the northern barbarians of Europe. Tartary was the general name given by Europeans to those countries north of China proper. Roughly speaking, the story of China is largely that of civilized Chinese struggling to resist the assaults of the Tatars, or "Tar-tars." Just as there were at the opening of the Christian era only two kinds of people in early Europe, civilized and barbarian, so also in China.
In Europe the Alps made the mountain line dividing the Romans from the vassal and pupil nations under their control. There were as yet no French, Germans, Dutch, English, Scotch, Irish, or Scandinavian populations and languages, but only wandering savages and rude barbarians, of whose language and general life, though they were our ancestors, we know but little. In time the northern barbarians, moving southward over the Alps, broke up the Roman Empire, mingled their blood with that of the southern people, and adopted more or less of Roman civilization. Through Christianity and mutual struggle, they passed by evolution into higher forms of life, in which the different nations, languages, and governments grew into their present form. To-day there are in Europe, Spaniards, French, Germans, Dutch, English, Russians, etc. Two thousand years ago, as there were north of the Roman Empire only "barbarians," so also there were only "Tartars" outside and north of China.
In eastern Asia, China was the civilized centre, with aborigines or uncivilized peoples to the east, south, and west, while in the north was the long frontier, beyond which were the savages called collectively Tatars. Their countries were later named Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan, etc. This term, Tatar, is suggestive of horses or cattle and "horsy" men, whose business is with herds and droves, and who live, not on rice and grain, but on the milk of mares, sheep, and goats. One of their commandments was—"Never strike a horse."
When the Mongols broke into Europe, the similarity of the name Tatar to Tartarus, or Hell, prompted the monks to write the word Tatar as if it were spelled Tartar. The French king, St. Louis, in speaking of these rough riders from the Far East and their horrible deeds, said, "Well may they be called Tartars, for their deeds are those of fiends from Tartarus." They were certainly kinder to their animals than to men not of their own race.
As was the case with the various tribes called collectively Germans, so these many kinds of men in northern Asia bore different tribal names in various eras. Some scholars have divided Chinese history into two periods: first, development and evolution, until b.c. 206; while all the rest, until a.d. 1644, is comprised in the "struggles with the Tartars." The first great clash lasted from 206 b.c. to a.d. 589, when the empire was divided between the Tartars in the north and the Chinese in the south.
The second great struggle lasted from 589 to 1644, during which, after divisions between the Chinese and the Kin and Mongol Tartars, there was only one pure Chinese dynasty, called the Ming, or Bright, which lasted from 1388 to 1644. Then followed the Manchu Tartars, who assumed the rule over the empire with the capital at Peking. For the most part the conquerors kept themselves separated from the Chinese, not intermarrying with them. While they held the governmental rule and military power, the purse and the sword, they let the Chinese have their own way, so that the conquered won, as they perhaps always will, in the long run, by passive resistance. The Manchus lost their own language and changed most of their habits. Thus, through luxury and conformity to native ways, they became to all intents and purposes Chinese, and are now largely blended with the nation which they rule.
Nevertheless, there are still great differences in the physical appearance of the Manchus and the genuine natives, while many institutions, such as slavery, peculiar to the Tartars, were never adopted by the Chinese. In the wearing of the queue, the people were forced to be like their conquerors; for a "pigtail" is a sign of loyalty.
In the ancient world, before Confucius (551–479 b.c. ), when China meant only a little kingdom, not much larger than France or Texas, the various kinds of men, aborigines, savage and half-civilized, at the four points of the compass and on the islands, were vastly more different from one another than they are to-day. Manners, customs, food, religions, forms of social order, and government differed widely, and before becoming what they are, have passed through a long evolution. To-day they show the results of human beings under the play both of natural forces and of human influences, such as religion, literature, art, the pressure of invading and conquering nations, and the events of war and peace. Education and the social system have made one solvent that dissolves everything which it touches or which is dropped into it.
Perhaps no writer has made a better map showing the limits of old China and the gradual extension of the empire than has Professor E. H. Parker, though Klaproth's Atlas of twenty-six epochs is very suggestive. We see old China lying between parallels thirty-five and forty of north latitude, and between the Yellow River and the Gulf of Pechili. By a glance at Professor Parker's map, one may learn more about the other annexations, incorporations, and assimilations of territory, the areas conquered from and re-taken by the Tartars or nomads, the portions inhabited by mixed races, or only partially or very lately brought under Chinese influence, than from reading pages of description. To this day, in the very heart of the empire, there are tribes, like the Lolos, only half absorbed. An area as large as France is still occupied by several millions of people belonging to aboriginal tribes, nearly two hundred in number, called Chinese, but reckoned as "tame" savages, in contrast to the "wild" or the wholly unsubdued.
The general relations between the Chinese and their northern frontagers is best shown in the legends and anecdotes, just as the stories of our frontiersmen and captives among the Indians illustrate American colonial life. Many a Tartar lad, taken prisoner and employed at the Chinese court as a stable boy, waiter, or slave, rose to favor and fame. In one case, in 86 b.c. , an imperial general marched into Turkestan and captured the golden image worshiped by the tribe,—possibly a statue of Buddha,—and brought it home as spoil, along with the chieftain's son Jih Ti. The tall and fine-looking boy, so faithful to his duties, attracted the attention of the emperor, who raised him to the post of Master of the Horse, with the surname of Kin, or golden, and later made him regent of the empire. Jih Ti was famous for the magnificence of his clothes and houses, and in history his name enjoys posthumous honors.
This idea of gold as the measure of things super-fine, and with a sentimental as well as money value, is as common with the Chinese as with us. The small feet of the women are "golden lilies." The lights in the imperial palace are called "The Golden Lily Candelabra," and one of the highest honors conferred by the emperor upon a minister was to order him to be escorted home by light-bearers. The Gate of the Golden Horses, belonging to the imperial palace, took its name from a group of statuary, and to this day "to wait at the Gate of the Golden Horses" means to hold one's self in readiness for the imperial commands. It is this constant allusion to good stories, happy omens, or things that suggest pleasure, that makes a literary composition or the conversation of Chinese gentlemen with one another so sparkling. One of the most famous authors of dramatic literature of the seventeenth century had Kin in his name. In a thousand ways the Chinese show their love of gold, both sentimentally and in rhetoric, in art and in business, the Buddhists especially making their images, altars, and temple furnishings a blaze of golden glory.
It is from the Chinese, also, that the idea of the transmutation of metals, and especially of the baser into the nobler, comes. Since the discovery of radium in our time, scientific men do not sneer at this notion quite in the same way as they formerly did. The Chinese mystics taught that gold grows by natural evolution, beginning with the original substance of all things. It was argued that gold is the perfected essence of mountain rock, which, after the lapse of a thousand years, is changed into quicksilver. But this moon-metal, mercury, is called into existence by the female or lunar principle of nature, and remains liquid until acted upon by the solar or masculine elemental force, when it is converted into gold. This belief in the transmutation of metals was especially in vogue during the Tang and Sung dynasties, when the Arabs were bringing Chinese ideas, discoveries, and inventions to Europe. During the Middle Ages the Tartars called their dynasty Kin, or Golden. The great Mongol host that invaded Russia was called the Golden Horde.
Many are the novels and poems which picture the Chinese frontier settlements and garrisons, the troops and officers pining for home and tired of their monotonous life, the sudden raids and cunning stratagems of the enemy, and the experiences of border fighting. In many civil wars the Tartars were employed as auxiliaries, just as the British used the Indians during our Revolutionary War, and as both sides enrolled them in the War of 1812. Banishment beyond the Great Wall was frequent, and many are the laments of the exiles, in poetry. In some cases the long-banished one went out as a youth and came back as a white-haired man. Su Wu, who lived b.c. 100, was one of these, who is now extolled in the popular stories as the pattern of unchanging fidelity to his imperial lord. Forgotten at court, he sent a message to the emperor by means of "wireless telegraphy" on the wings of a bird. How he did it is thus told:—
After many years' absence, having meanwhile clung to his staff of office as a precious wand, he married a wife and reared a son. Catching a wild goose, he wrote a message of loyalty and attached it to the creature's leg just as it was about to fly southward in the autumn. The emperor, hunting in his pleasure grounds, shot the bird, and observing the missive, opened and read it. He at once took measures to have Su Wu recalled, and the venerable man, now husband and father, returned to receive honors.
Other instances are known in which fugitives from crime or debt, and Chinese renegades, got among the Tartars, teaching them many new things or helping them to profit by treachery in raids against the Chinese. Many also are the stories of the lovely wives of these exiles, left at home, but ever faithful to their lords. In the fourth century a.d. a lady, the wife of a banished governor, thus bereaved, embroidered her poetical laments in an intricate circular scrollwork, in 840 characters, on satin, and sent it as a souvenir to her absent lord. This dainty piece of needlework is as celebrated as is the Bayeux tapestry on which the Norman invasion of England is depicted. In China it is the original of many such works in the same style.
Chinese art, thought, and literature reflect this long struggle with the Tartars. There are two reasons why the South is always associated with what is sunny and pleasant, and is looked upon as the source of all that is good and desirable,—peace, calm, abundance, fruit, spice, treasure, commerce, and civilization; while the North is the quarter whence come cold, storm, death, disease, evil influences, war, and the Tartars. Of the two reasons, one arises from nature and the weather, the other is the lengthened shadow of history lying athwart the national memory.
Yet in the age-long clash between Chinese civilization and Tartar barbarism there were many mutual gains. The southerners learned many a lesson, and adopted from their neighbors not a few articles of food and other material advantages, while the northerners absorbed Chinese culture for their own good. The contact of the two peoples for their mutual benefit has been much like that of our American people with the Indians, who gave us tobacco, maple sugar, maize, the snow-shoe, the bark canoe, and many articles of food. Almost all distinctive American dishes, besides our best native fruits, grains, and berries, have been developed from Indian or native originals. So also the debt of the Chinese to the Tartars is very great. It is true that the very learned Terrien de la Couperie tried to trace at least one hundred and sixty items of civilization in China to Western sources; but the great body of critical scholars believe that in the Chinese Empire itself arose most of what is now part and parcel of the civilization of China.
In a word, as some writers contend, the real history of the Chinese Empire is as much that of the Tartars as of the Chinese. In the slow evolution of the ages, and especially during the reign of the dynasty ruling from 1644 into the twentieth century, itself Tartar, the two peoples have virtually blended together. Through alien pressure, and in presence of foreign aggressions, they have become one.