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Robert Van Bergen

Brief History of China

When we study the history of England, we read of rulers of the House of Plantagenet, of the House of Tudor, etc. Such a family of kings is called a dynasty. In many accounts of European nations only the history of the dynasty, or of the reigning family, is given, and little or no attention is paid to the history of the people. It is the same with the history of China. In their long, long records of the past they mention twenty-six dynasties.

The writers of Chinese history tell us that the Emperor Fuh-hi (foo-hee) was living in the time of Noah. They state that much progress in civilization was made under his two successors—Shin-nung (shin-noong), that is, "the Husbandman," and Hwang-ti (hwhahng-tee), or the "Yellow Emperor." New inventions increased the comfort of the people. Of Yau and the Deluge we have read in the last chapter. Until Yu, of whom I have told you, became Emperor, each ruler had always selected his successor; but from that time on it was the son who succeeded, although, if there were more sons than one, it was not necessarily the oldest. The Emperor retained the right to appoint as his successor any one of his sons.

The first Emperor of the Shang family (b.c. 1760-1198) is said to have worshiped God under the name of Shang-ti (shahng-tee), or Supreme Ruler. When no rain fell for seven years, he prayed earnestly, saying: "Do not on account of any neglect of mine, who am but a single individual, destroy the lives of the people!" When his prayer was ended rain began to fall plentifully.

The worship of images or idols began under Wu-yih (woo-yee), the twenty-fifth Emperor (b.c. 1198). He is spoken of as one of the most wicked of all China's rulers. The "History Made Easy," one of the Chinese books, tells us that he ordered images of clay to be made in the shape of human beings, and had them called gods. He grew tired of them, however, and cast them aside. Then he had leather bags made, filled with blood, which he threw up in the air. He shot at them with arrows, and when the blood was pouring down, he shouted: "I have killed the gods!" The people soon grew very tired of such a madman, and another dynasty succeeded to the throne.

The Tsin dynasty, from which probably we have the name of China, existed only three years under the Emperor Chi hwang-ti (chee hwahng-tee),which means "First Emperor." His father had made war upon the last of the Chau family, and compelled him to kneel in the dust at his feet.

This First Emperor made his capital at Hien-yang (heen-yahng), on the River Hwai (hwie), where he built a great palace from the spoils of all the captive kings who had submitted to him, and he ordered that all the treasures of their palaces should he brought to him. He visited various parts of the empire, built public buildings, ordered canals and roads to be constructed, and drove the Huns back into Mongolia. It was he who continued that Great Wall, extending from the sea to the desert, a distance of 1,250 miles. This Wan-li Chang (wahn-lee chahng), or Myriad Mile Wall, as the Chinese call it, was constructed to keep out the Huns and other nomadic tribes (b.c. 220).


The Great Wall

This Emperor was very vain. He desired to be thought the first emperor the country ever had, and ordered that every book in China should be burned. This order was carried out, and all the historical records of the country, as well as the works of Confucius and Mencius, went up in flames. There is, however, no doubt that several copies of their works were saved.

The Tsin dynasty did not last long. Chi's successor was defeated by Liu Pang (leeo pahng), who, under the name of Kautsu (kah-oot-soo), was the founder of the Han dynasty. The Chinese say that their modern history commences at this time. The capital of China under the Han dynasty was first in Shen-si (shen-see), but later at Loh-yang in the province of Ho-nan.

When Ming ti (ming tee) was emperor, some learned men were sent to India (a.d. 65), where they studied the religion of Buddha. From that time Buddhism spread in China, but became so steeped in superstition that nothing but the form remains. Ming and his successor, Chang, extended the empire westward as far as the Caspian Sea. The Chinese had intercourse with the Romans. They say of Rome: "Everything precious and admirable in all other countries comes from this land. Gold and silver money is coined there; ten of silver are worth one of gold. Their merchants trade by sea with Persia and India, and gain ten for one in their traffic. They are simple and honest, and never have two prices for their goods; grain is sold among them very cheap, and large sums of money are employed in trade."

The Tang (tahng) dynasty occupied the throne 287 years (a.d. 618-905), during which time China was probably the most civilized country in the world. Li Chi-min (lee chee-min), the son of the founder, was one of the best emperors of China. He was known for his goodness and wisdom, his temperance, refined taste, and love of art. The capital of the empire was again removed to Sien-gan (see-en-gahn), in Shen-si. It was he who established schools, and began the system of examinations for officers ( a.d. 627). He ordered all the writings of Confucius and Mencius to be collected, and commanded that the memory of Confucius should be honored by special ceremonies. A code of laws was also prepared by his order.

Theodosius, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, sent an envoy to Sien-gan, bearing presents of emeralds and rubies. It was at this time that the first Christian missionaries entered China. The Emperor Tai-tsung (tietsoong) listened to them with interest, and ordered a temple to be built for them. He also had some of their sacred books translated into Chinese (a.d. 643).

After a reign of tweny-three years, Tai-tsung died, and was succeeded by his son Kau-tsung (kah-oh tsoong). Under him the conquest of Korea, commenced by his father, was completed. It was, however, not he who ruled, but a woman named Wu Tsih-tien (woo tsee-teen). She obtained such power over him, that the real Empress was first degraded and afterwards put to death, when this woman took her place. After her husband's death she ruled in her own name. She extended the limits of the empire, but did not hesitate to murder anyone opposing her, not even her own sons. At last, when she was very old, one of her sons—Chung-tsung (choong-tsoong)—entered into a conspiracy against her and confined her within her own apartments. Here she died at the age of eighty-one. Her reign is given as an instance of the evil of allowing women to meddle with the government.

From a.d. 1127-1280 the empire was attacked by the Mongols. About 1245 Li-tsung (lee-tsoong) calling in the help of Kublai Khan (kooblie khahn), his son, Ti Ping (tee ping), drowned himself. The Mongols, now in possession of Northern China, lost no time in invading the south. Kublai founded the Yuen (yoo-en) dynasty, and built the Grand Canal. The Mongols, however, were expelled in 1368, and the Ming or Bright dynasty succeeded.


Marble Arch, Ming Tombs.

The son of the founder, Yung-loh (yoong-loh) removed the capital to Peking from Nanking, where his father had lived. He was also the author of the code of laws which is still supposed to be in force in China. It was during this dynasty that the Portuguese and Jesuits came into China. In the year 1618 Tien-ming (teen-ming), a Manchu prince, declared war against the Ming. He died in 1627, but left his army in command of his son, Tien-tsung (teen-tsoong). At this time the empire was disturbed by insurrections, and one of the rebels attacked Peking, whereupon the last of the Ming hanged himself (1643). While different rebels were claiming the throne, the Manchu Tien-tsung marched upon the capital, and declared himself emperor. He died the following year, and his son Shun-chi (shoon-chee) is considered as the first emperor of the present Manchu, Tsing, or Pure dynasty.

The Manchu introduced the fashion of shaving the head and wearing the queue. Kang hi (kahng hee), his successor, reigned sixty-one years. It is said of him "that he was tireless in his duty to the government, careful to select none but honest and able officers, liberal toward others, but with simple tastes for himself, and eager to promote the happiness of the people by the steady execution of the laws, and by watching over the conduct of the high officers."

His grandson Kien-lung (keen-loong) proved worthy of his grandfather. He also reigned sixty years. It was he who subdued Thibet. He received embassies from the Russians, Dutch, and English, so that China became better known in Europe. The Chinese were confirmed in their theory that theirs is the Middle Kingdom, and that all other kings and emperors must acknowledge an older brother in their Tien-tsz', and as such do homage to him. Tribute was never expected. Kien-lung died in 1799, having given the throne in 1796 to his fifth son, Kia-King (kee-ah king), who reigned twenty-five years.

Kia-King was succeeded by Tau Kwang (tah-oh kwahng) in 1821. His reign was a constant succession of wars and insurrections, and is remarkable because for the first time in its long existence China was involved in a war with Europeans. This war and its results are too important for brief mention and will be treated in another chapter.

Tau Kwang was the sixth emperor of the Manchu, or Tsing dynasty. He was the second son of Kia-King, and was born in 1781, hence he was forty years old when he succeeded his father. As a man, he was fitted for times of peace, but was unable to meet or overcome the difficulties which filled his reign.

Each emperor, upon ascending the throne, assumes a certain name by which, not he, but the period of his reign, shall be known. Thus, Tau Kwang means Glory of Reason. The family name is Gioro (gee-oh-roh), from their ancestor Aisin Gioro (i-sin). The word Tsing, or Purity, denotes that the dynasty shall be known by the purity of its justice. It is the same with other dynasties: Ming, the Illustrious; Yuen, the Original, etc. The present dynasty is also mentioned as the Ta Tsing (tah tsing). Ta is a prefix meaning Great.