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The Mythical Period

( Originally Published 1910 )

Account of Creation P'an-ku, the Ancient Founder—The Three Sovereigns—The Five Rulers, the Beginnings of Human Civilisation—The Golden Age—Yau, the Unselfish Monarch—Shun, the Paragon of Domestic Virtues—Story of Ta-yu Rise of Hereditary Monarchy

UNLIKE the Greeks and Hindoos, the Chinese are deficient in the sort of imagination that breeds a poetical mythology. They are not, however, wanting in that pride of race which is prone to lay claim to the past as well as to the future. They have accordingly constructed, not a mythology, but a fictitious history which begins with the creation of the world.

How men and animals were made they do not say; but they assert that heaven and earth were united in a state of chaos until a divine man, whom they call P'an-ku, the " ancient founder," rent them asunder. Pictures show him wielding his sledge-hammer and disengaging sun and moon from overlying hills—a grotesque conception in strong contrast with the simple and sublime statement, " God said, `Let there be light' and there was light." P'an-ku was followed by a divine being named' Nu-wa, in regard to whom it is doubtful whether to speak in the feminine or in the masculine gender. Designated queen more frequently than king, it is said of her that, a portion of the sky having fallen down (probably owing to the defective work of her predecessor), she rebuilt it with precious stones of many colours. Lien shih pu tien, " to patch the sky with precious stones," is a set phrase by which the Chinese indicate that which is fabulous and absurd.

Instead of filling the long interval between the creation of the world and the birth of history with gods and fairies, the Chinese cover that period by three sovereigns whom they call after their favourite triad, heaven, earth, and man, giving them the respective titles Tién-hwang, Ti-hwang, and Jin-hwang. Each of these reigned eighteen thousand years; but what they reigned over is not apparent. At all events they seem to have contributed little to the comfort of their people; for at the close of that long period the wretched inhabitants of the empire—the only country then known to exist on earth—had no houses, no clothes, no laws, and no letters.

Now come five personages who, in accordance with Chinese historical propriety, are likewise invested with imperial dignity and are called Wu-ti, " the five rulers." Collectively they represent the first appearance of the useful arts, the rude beginnings of human civilisation. One of these rulers, noticing that birds constructed nests, taught his people to build huts, from which he is called the "nest builder." Another was the Prometheus of his day and obtained fire, not, however, by stealing it from the sun, but by honestly working for it with two pieces of wood which he rubbed together. The third of these rulers, named Fuhi, appears to have been the teacher of his people in the art of rearing domestic animals; in other words, the initiator of pastoral life, and possibly the originator of sacrificial offerings. The fourth in order introduced husbandry. As has been stated in a previous chapter (see page 36), he has no name except Shin-nung, "divine husbandman"; and under that title he continues to be worshipped at the present day as the Ceres of China. The Emperor every spring repairs to his temple to plough a few furrows by way of encouragement to his people. The last of the five personages is called the " yellow ruler," whether from the colour of his robes, or as ruler of the yellow race, is left in doubt. He is credited with the invention of letters and the cycle of sixty years, the foundation of Chinese chronology (2700 B. C.).

Unlike the long twilight which precedes the dawn in high latitudes, the semi-mythical age was brief, covering no more than two reigns, those of Yao and Shun. Confucius regarded these as included in the "five rulers." To make room for them, he omits the first two; and he seldom refers to the others, but appears to accept them as real personages. He is no critic; but he has shown good sense in drawing the line no further back. He has made the epoch of these last a golden age (2356–22o6) which is not the creation of a poet, but the conception of a philosopher who wished to have an open space on which to build up his political theories. He found, moreover, in these primitive times some features by which he was greatly fascinated. The simplicity and freedom which appeared to prevail in those far-off days were to him very attractive.

It is related that Yao, the type of an unselfish monarch, while on a tour of inspection in the disguise of a peasant, heard an old man singing this song to the notes of his guitar:

"I plough my ground and eat my own bread.
I dig my well and drink my own water:
What use have I for king or court?"

Yao returned to his palace, rejoicing that the state of his country was such that his people were able to forget him.

Another feature which the Chinese hold up in bold relief is the fact that in those days the occupancy of the throne was not hereditary. Yao is said to have reigned a hundred years. When he was growing old he saw with grief that his son showed no signs of being a worthy successor. Setting him aside, therefore, he asked his ministers to recommend someone as his heir. They all agreed in nominating Shun. " What are his merits ? " asked the King. "Filial piety and fraternal kindness," they replied. " By these virtues he has wrought a reform in a family noted for perverseness." The King desiring to know the facts, they related the following story:

"Shun's father is an ill-natured, blind man. He has a cruel stepmother and a selfish, petulant younger brother. This boy, the pet of his parents, treated Shun with insolence; and the father and mother joined in persecuting the elder son. Shun, without showing resentment, cried aloud to Heaven and obtained patience to bear their harshness. By duty and affection he has won the hearts of all three." "Bring him before me," said the King; "1 have yet another trial by which to test his virtues." Yao made him his son-in-law, giving him his two daughters at once. He wished to see whether the good son and brother would also be a good husband and father—an example for his people in all their domestic relations. Shun accepted the test with becoming resignation and comported himself to the satisfaction of the old king, who raised him to the throne. After a reign of fifty years, partly as Yao's associate, Shun followed the example of his father-in-law. Passing by his own son, he left the throne to Ta-yu or Yü, a man who had been subjected to trials far more serious than that of having to live in the same house with a pair of pretty princesses.

A question discussed in the school of Mencius, many centuries later, may be cited here for the light it throws on the use made by Chinese schoolmen of the examples of this period. "Suppose," said one of his students, "that Shun's father had killed a man, would Shun, being king, have allowed him to be condemned?" "No," replied the master; "he would have renounced the throne and, taking his father on his shoulders, he would have fled away to the seaside, rejoicing in the consciousness of having performed the duty of a filial son." Shun continues to be cited as the paragon of domestic virtues, occupying the first place in a list of twenty-four who are noted for filial piety.

The trial by which the virtues of Ta-yü were proved was an extraordinary feat of engineering—nothing less than the subduing of the waters of a deluge. "The waters," said the King, "embosom the high hills and insolently menace heaven itself. Who will find us a man to take them in hand, and keep them in place?" His ministers recommended one Kun. Kun failed to accomplish the task, and Shun, who in this case hardly serves for the model of a just ruler, put him to death. Then the task was imposed on Ta-yü, the son of the man who had been executed. After nine years of incredible hardships he brought the work to a successful termination. During this time he extended his care to the rivers of more than one province, dredging, ditching, and diking. Three times he passed his own door and, though he heard the cries of his infant son, he did not once enter his house. The son of a criminal who had suffered death, a throne was the meed of his diligence and ability.

A temple in Hanyang, at the confluence of two rivers, commemorates Ta-yü's exploit, which certainly throws the labours of Hercules completely into the shade. On the opposite side of the river stands a pillar, inscribed in antique hieroglyphics, which professes to record this great achievement. It is a copy of one which stands on Mount Hang; and the characters, in the tadpole style, are so ancient that doubts as to their actual meaning exist among scholars of the present day. Each letter is accordingly accompanied by its equivalent in modern Chinese. The stone purports to have been erected by Ta-yü himself—good ground for suspicion—but it has been proved to be a fabrication of a later age, though still very ancient.

In the two preceding reigns the sovereign had always consulted the public good rather than family interest —a form of monarchy which the Chinese call elective, but which has never been followed, save that the Emperor exercises the right of choice among his sons irrespective of primogeniture. The man who bears the odium of having departed from the unselfish policy of Yao and Shun is this same Ta-yü. He left the throne to his son and, as the Chinese say, " made of the empire a family estate."

This narrative comes from the Shu-King or " Book of History," the most venerated of the Five Classics edited by Confucius; but the reader will readily perceive that it is no more historical than the stories of Codrus or Numa Pompilius.

In the reign of Yao we have an account of astronomical observations made with a view to fixing the length of the year. The King tells one man to go to the east and another to the west, to observe the culmination and transit of certain stars. As a result he says they will find that the year consists of 366 days, a close approximation for that epoch. The absurdity of this style, which attributes omniscience to the prince and leaves to his agents nothing but the task of verification, should not be allowed to detract from the credit due to their observations. The result arrived at was about the same as that reached by the Babylonians at the same date (2356 B. C.)

Other rulers who are credited with great inventions probably made them in the same way. Whether under Fuhi or Hwang-ti, Ts'ang-kié is recognised as the Cadmus of China, the author of its written characters; and Tanao, a minister of Hwang-ti, is admitted to be the author of the cycle of sixty. Both of those emperors may be imagined as calling up their ministers and saying to one, " Go and invent the art of writing," and to the other, " Work out a system of chronology."

In the same way, the inception of the culture of the silkworm and the discovery of the magnetic needle are attributed to the predecessors of Yao, probably on the principle that treasure-trove was the property of the King and that if no claimant for the honour could be found it must be attributed to some ancient monarch. The production of silk, as woman's work, they profess to assign to the consort of one of those worthies—a thing improbable if not impossible, her place of residence being in the north of China. Their picture-writing tells a different tale. Their word for a southern barbarian, compounded of " silk " and " worm," points to the south as the source of that useful industry, much as our word "silk," derived from sericum, points to China as its origin.

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