Read CHAPTER IV - A.D. 220-1200 of The Civilization Of China , free online book, by Herbert A. Giles, on

The long-lived and glorious House of Han was brought to a close by the usual causes.  There were palace intrigues and a temporary usurpation of the throne, eunuchs of course being in the thick of the mischief; added to which a very serious rebellion broke out, almost as a natural consequence.  First and last there arose three aspirants to the Imperial yellow, which takes the place of purple in ancient Rome; the result being that, after some years of hard fighting, China was divided into three parts, each ruled by one of the three rivals.  The period is known in history as that of the Three Kingdoms, and lasted from A.D. 220 to A.D. 265.  This short space of time was filled, especially the early years, with stirring deeds of heroism and marvellous strategical operations, fortune favouring first one of the three commanders and then another.  The whole story of these civil wars is most graphically told in a famous historical romance composed about a thousand years afterwards.  As in the case of the Waverley novels, a considerable amount of fiction has been interwoven with truth to make the narrative more palatable to the general reader; but its basis is history, and the work is universally regarded among the Chinese themselves as one of the most valuable productions in the lighter branches of their literature.

The three to four centuries which follow on the above period were a time of political and social disorganisation, unfavourable, according to Chinese writers, to the development of both literature and art.  The House of Chin, which at first held sway over a once more united empire, was severely harassed by the Tartars on the north, who were in turn overwhelmed by the House of Toba.  The latter ruled for some two hundred years over northern China, while the southern portions were governed by several short-lived native dynasties.  A few points in connexion with these times deserve perhaps brief mention.

The old rule of twenty-seven months of mourning for parents was re-established, and has continued in force down to the present day.  The Japanese sent occasional missions, with tribute; and the Chinese, who had already in A.D. 240 dispatched an envoy to Japan, repeated the compliment in 608.  An attempt was made to conquer Korea, and envoys were sent to countries as far off as Siam.  Buddhism, which had been introduced many centuries previously ­no one can exactly say when ­began to spread far and wide, and appeared to be firmly established.  In A.D. 399 a Buddhist priest, named Fa Hsien, started from Central China and travelled to India across the great desert and over the Hindu Kush, subsequently visiting Patna, Benares, Buddha-Gaya, and other well-known spots, which he accurately described in the record of his journey published on his return and still in existence.  His object was to obtain copies of the sacred books, relics and images, illustrative of the faith; and these he safely conveyed to China by sea from India, via Ceylon (where he spent three years), and Sumatra, arriving after an absence of fifteen years.

In the year A.D. 618 the House of T’ang entered upon its glorious course of three centuries in duration.  Under a strong but dissolute ruler immediately preceding, China had once more become a united empire, undivided against itself; and although wars and rebellions were not wanting to disturb the even tenor of its way, the general picture presented to us under the new dynasty of the T’angs is one of national peace, prosperity, and progress.  The name of this House has endured, like that of Han, to the present day in the popular language of the people; for just as the northerners still delight to style themselves “good sons of Han,” so are the southerners still proud to speak of themselves as “men of T’ang.”

One of the chief political events of this period was the usurpation of power by the Empress Wu ­at first, as nominal regent on behalf of a step-child, the son and heir of her late husband by his first wife, and afterwards, when she had set aside the step-child, on her own account.  There had been one previous instance of a woman wielding the Imperial sceptre, namely, the Empress Lu of the Han dynasty, to whom the Chinese have accorded the title of legitimate ruler, which has not been allowed to the Empress Wu.  The latter, however, was possessed of much actual ability, mixed with a kind of midsummer madness; and so long as her great intellectual faculties remained unimpaired, she ruled, like her successor of some twelve centuries afterwards, with a rod of iron.  In her old age she was deposed and dismissed to private life, the rightful heir being replaced upon his father’s throne.

Among the more extravagant acts of her reign are some which are still familiar to the people of to-day.  Always, even while her husband was alive, she was present, behind a curtain, at councils and audiences; after his death she was accustomed to take her place openly among the ministers of state, wearing a false beard.  In 694 she gave herself the title of Divine Empress, and in 696 she even went so far as to style herself God Almighty.  In her later years she became hopelessly arrogant and overbearing.  No one was allowed to say that the Empress was fair as a lily or lovely as a rose, but that the lily was fair or the rose lovely as Her Majesty.  She tried to spread the belief that she was really the Supreme Being by forcing flowers artificially and then in the presence of her courtiers ordering them to bloom.  On one occasion she commanded some peonies to bloom; and because they did not instantly obey, she caused every peony in the capital to be pulled up and burnt, and prohibited the cultivation of peonies ever afterwards.  She further decided to place her sex once and for all on an equality with man.  For that purpose women were admitted to the public examinations, official posts being conferred upon those who were successful; and among other things they were excused from kneeling while giving evidence in courts of justice.  This innovation, however, did not fulfil its promise; and with the disappearance of its vigorous foundress, the system also disappeared.  It was not actually the first time in Chinese history that the experiment had been tried.  An emperor of the third century A.D. had already opened public life to women, and it is said that many of them rose to high office; but here too the system was of short duration, and the old order was soon restored.

Another striking picture of the T’ang dynasty is presented by the career of an emperor who is usually spoken of as Ming Huang, and who, after distinguishing himself at several critical junctures, mounted the throne in 712, in succession to his father, who had abdicated in his favour.  He began with economy, closing the silk factories and forbidding the palace ladies to wear jewels or embroideries, considerable quantities of which were actually burnt.  He was a warm patron of literature, and schools were established in every village.  Fond of music, he founded a college for training youth of both sexes in this art.  His love of war and his growing extravagance led to increased taxation, with the usual consequences in China ­discontent and rebellion.  He surrounded himself by a brilliant court, welcoming men of genius in literature and art; at first for their talents alone, but finally for their readiness to participate in scenes of revelry and dissipation provided for the amusement of a favourite concubine, the ever-famous Yang Kuei-fei (pronounced Kway-fay).  Eunuchs were appointed to official posts, and the grossest forms of religious superstition were encouraged.  Women ceased to veil themselves, as of old.  At length, in 755, a serious rebellion broke out, and a year later the emperor, now an old man of seventy-one, fled before the storm.  He had not proceeded far before his soldiery revolted and demanded vengeance upon the whole family of the favourite, several unworthy members of which had been raised to high positions and loaded with honours.  The wretched emperor was forced to order the head eunuch to strangle his idolized concubine, while the rest of her family perished at the hands of the troops.  He subsequently abdicated in favour of his son, and spent the last six years of his life in seclusion.

This tragic story has been exquisitely told in verse by one of China’s foremost poets, who was born only a few years later.  He divides his poem into eight parts, dealing with the ennui of the monarch until he discovers beauty, the revelry of the pair together, followed by the horrors of flight, to end in the misery of exile without her, the return when the emperor passes again by the fatal spot, home where everything reminds him of her, and finally spirit-land.  This last is a figment of the poet’s imagination.  He pictures the disconsolate emperor sending a magician to discover Yang Kuei-fei’s whereabouts in the next world, and to bear to her a message of uninterrupted love.  The magician, after a long search, finds her in one of the Isles of the Blest, and fulfils his commission accordingly.

Her features are fixed and calm, though myriad tears fall, Wetting a spray of pear-bloom, as it were with the raindrops of spring.  Subduing her emotions, restraining her grief, she tenders thanks to His Majesty.  Saying how since their parting she had missed his form and voice; And how, although their love on earth had so soon come to an end, The days and months among the Blest were still of long duration.  And now she turns and gazes towards the above of mortals, But cannot discern the Imperial city, lost in the dust and haze.  Then she takes out the old keepsake, tokens of undying love, A gold hairpin, an enamel brooch, and bids the magician carry these back.  One half of the hairpin she keeps, and one half of the enamel brooch, Breaking with her hands the yellow gold, and dividing the enamel in two.  “Tell him,” she said, “to be firm of heart, as this gold and enamel, And then in heaven or on earth below we two may meet once more.”

The magnificent House of T’ang was succeeded by five insignificant dynasties, the duration of all of which was crowded into about half a century.  Then, in A.D. 960, began the rule of the Sungs (pronounced Soongs), to last for three hundred years and rival in national peace and prosperity any other period in the history of China.  The nation had already in a great measure settled down to that state of material civilization and mental culture in which it has remained to the present time.  To the appliances of ordinary Chinese life it is probable that but few additions have been made since a very early date.  The dress of the people has indeed undergone several variations, but the ploughs and hoes, the water-wheels and well-sweeps, the tools of the artisans, mud huts, carts, junks, chairs, tables, chopsticks, etc., which we still see in China, are probably very much those of two thousand years ago.  Mencius, of the third century B.C., observed that written characters had the same form, and axle-trees the same breadth, all over the empire; and to this day an unaltering uniformity is one of the chief characteristics of the Chinese people in every department of life.

In spite, however, of the peaceful aspirations of the House of Sung, the Kitan Tartars were for ever encroaching upon Chinese territory, and finally overran and occupied a large part of northern China, with their capital where Peking now stands.  This resulted in an amicable arrangement to divide the empire, the Kitans retaining their conquests in the north, from which, after about two hundred years, they were in turn expelled by the Golden Tartars, who had previously been subject to them.

Many volumes, rather than pages, would be required to do justice to the statesmen, soldiers, philosophers, poets, historians, art critics, and other famous men of this dynasty.  It has already been stated that the interpretation of the Confucian Canon, accepted at the present day, dates from this period; and it may now be of interest to give a brief account of another remarkable movement connected with the dynasty, though in quite a different line.

Wang An-shih (as shi in shirk), popularly known as the Reformer, was born in 1021.  In his youth a keen student, his pen seemed to fly over the paper.  He rose to high office; and by the time he was forty-eight he found himself installed as confidential adviser to the emperor.  He then entered upon a series of startling political reforms, said to be based upon new and more correct interpretations of portions of the Confucian Canon, which still remained, so far as explanation was concerned, just as it had been left by the scholars of the Han dynasty.  This appeal to authority was, of course, a mere blind, cleverly introduced to satisfy the bulk of the population, who were always unwilling to move in any direction where no precedent is forthcoming.  One of his schemes, the express object of which was to decrease taxation and at the same time to increase the revenue, was to secure a sure and certain market for all products, as follows.  From the produce of a given district, enough was to be set aside (1) for the payment of taxes, and (2) to supply the wants of the district; (3) the balance was then to be taken over by the state at a low rate, and held for a rise or forwarded to some centre where there happened to be a demand.  There would be thus a certainty of market for the farmer, and an equal certainty for the state to make profits as a middleman.  Another part of this scheme consisted in obligatory advances by the state to cultivators of land, whether these farmers required the money or not, the security for the loans being in each case the growing crops.

There was also a system of tithing for military purposes, under which every family having more than two males was bound to supply one to serve as a soldier; and in order to keep up a breed of cavalry horses, every family was compelled to take charge of one, which was provided, together with its food, by the government.  There was a system under which money payments were substituted for the old-fashioned and vexatious method of carrying on public works by drafts of forced labourers; and again another under which warehouses for bartering and hypothecating goods were established all over the empire.

Of all his innovations the most interesting was that all land was to be remeasured and an attempt made to secure a more equitable incidence of taxation.  The plan was to divide up the land into equal squares, and to levy taxes in proportion to the fertility of each.  This scheme proved for various reasons to be unworkable; and the bitter opposition with which, like all his other measures of reform, it was received by his opponents, did not conduce to success.  Finally, he abolished all restrictions upon the export of copper, the result being that even the current copper “cash” were melted down and made into articles for sale and exportation.  A panic ensued, which Wang met by the simple expedient of doubling the value of each cash.  He attempted to reform the examination system, requiring from the candidate not so much graces of style as a wide acquaintance with practical subjects.  “Accordingly,” says one Chinese author, “even the pupils at the village schools threw away their text-books of rhetoric, and began to study primers of history, geography, and political economy” ­a striking anticipation of the movement in vogue to-day.  “I have myself been,” he tells us, “an omnivorous reader of books of all kinds, even, for example, of ancient medical and botanical works.  I have, moreover, dipped into treatises on agriculture and on needlework, all of which I have found very profitable in aiding me to seize the great scheme of the Canon itself.”  But like many other great men, he was in advance of his age.  He fell into disfavour at court, and was dismissed to a provincial post; and although he was soon recalled, he retired into private life, shortly afterwards to die, but not before he had seen the whole of his policy reversed.

His career stands out in marked contrast with that of the great statesman and philosopher, Chu Hsi (pronounced Choo Shee), who flourished A.D. 1130-1200.  His literary output was enormous and his official career successful; but his chief title to fame rests upon his merits as a commentator on the Confucian Canon.  As has been already stated, he introduced interpretations either wholly or partly at variance with those which had been put forth by the scholars of the Han dynasty, and hitherto received as infallible, thus modifying to a certain extent the prevailing standard of political and social morality.  His guiding principle was merely one of consistency.  He refused to interpret words in a given passage in one sense, and the same words occurring elsewhere in another sense.  The effect of this apparently obvious method was magical; and from that date the teachings of Confucius have been universally understood in the way in which Chu Hsi said they ought to be understood.

To his influence also must be traced the spirit of materialism which is so widely spread among educated Chinese.  The God in whom Confucius believed, but whom, as will be seen later on, he can scarcely be said to have “taught,” was a passive rather than an active God, and may be compared with the God of the Psalms.  He was a personal God, as we know from the ancient character by which He was designated in the written language of early ages, that character being a rude picture of a man.  This view was entirely set aside by Chu Hsi, who declared in the plainest terms that the Chinese word for God meant nothing more than “abstract right;” in other words, God was a principle.  It is impossible to admit such a proposition, which was based on sentiment and not on sound reasoning.  Chu Hsi was emphatically not a man of religious temperament, and belief in the supernatural was distasteful to him; he was for a short time under the spell of Buddhism, but threw that religion over for the orthodoxy of Confucianism.  He was, therefore, anxious to exclude the supernatural altogether from the revised scheme of moral conduct which he was deducing from the Confucian Canon, and his interpretation of the word “God” has been blindly accepted ever since.

When Chu Hsi died, his coffin is said to have taken up a position, suspended in the air, about three feet from the ground.  Whereupon his son-in-law, falling on his knees beside the bier, reminded the departed spirit of the great principles of which he had been such a brilliant exponent in life ­and the coffin descended gently to the ground.