The Three Dynasties
( Originally Published 1910 )
The House of Hia—Ta-yu's Consideration for His Subjects —Kies Excesses—The House of Shang—Shang-tang, the Founder, Offers Himself as a Sacrificial Victim, and Brings Rain—Chou-sin Sets Fire to His Own Palace and Perishes in the Flames —The House of Chou
THE Hia, Shang and Chou dynasties together extend over the twenty-two centuries preceding the Christian Era. The first occupies 440 years; the second, 644; and the last, in the midst of turmoil and anarchy, drags out a miserable existence of 874 years. They are grouped together as the San Tai or San Wang, " the Three Houses of Kings," because that title was employed by the founder of each. Some of their successors were called Ti; but Hwang-ti, the term for " emperor now in use, was never employed until it was assumed by the builder of the Great Wall on the overthrow of -the feudal states and the consolidation of the empire, 240 B. C.
Unlike most founders of royal houses, who come to the throne through a deluge of blood, Ta-yii, as has been shown in the last chapter, climbed to that eminence through a deluge of water. Like Noah, the hero of an earlier deluge, he seems to have indulged, for once at least, too freely in the use of wine. A chapter in the " Book of History," entitled "A Warning Against Wine," informs us that one Yiti having made wine presented it to his prince. Ta-yü was delighted with it, but discontinued its use, saying that in time to come kings would lose their thrones through a fondness for the beverage. In China "wine" is a common name for all intoxicating drinks. That referred to in this passage was doubtless a distillation from rice or millet.
In the discharge of his public duties Ta-yü showed, himself no less diligent than in contending with the waters. He hung at his door a bell which the poorest of his subjects might ring and thus obtain immediate attention. It is said that when taking a bath, if he heard the bell he sometimes rushed out without adjusting his raiment and that while partaking of a meal, if the bell rang he did not allow himself time to swallow his rice.
Prior to laying down his toilsome dignity Ta-yû caused to be cast nine brazen tripods, each bearing an outline map or a description of one of the provinces of the empire. In later ages these were deemed pre-eminently the patent of imperial power. On one occasion a feudal prince asked the question,"How heavy are these tripods?" A minister of state, suspecting an intention to remove them and usurp the power, replied in a long speech, proving the divine commission of his master, and asked in conclusion, " Why then should you inquire the weight of these tripods?"
Of the subsequent reigns nothing worth repetition is recorded except the fall of the dynasty. This, however, is due more-to the meagreness of the language of that day than to the insignificance of the seventeen kings. Is it not probable that they were occupied in making good their claim to the nine provinces em-blazoned on the tripods?
Kié, the last king, is said to have fallen under the fascination of a beautiful woman and to have spent his time in undignified carousals. He built a mountain of flesh and filled a tank with wine, and to amuse her he caused 3,000 of his courtiers to go on all fours and drink from the tank like so many cows.
THE SHANG DYNASTY, 1766-1122 B. C. (28 kings)
The founder of this dynasty was Shang-tang, or Cheng-tang, who to great valour added the virtues of humanity and justice. Pitying the oppressions of the people, he came to them as a deliverer; and the frivolous tyrant was compelled to retire into obscurity. A more remarkable exhibition of public spirit was the offering of himself as a victim to propitiate the wrath of Heaven. In a prolonged famine, his prayers having failed to bring rain, the soothsayers said that a human victim was required. " It shall be myself," he replied; and, stripping off his regal robes, he laid himself on the altar. A copious shower was the response to this act of devotion.
The successor of Shang-tang was his grandson T'ai-kia, who was under the tutelage of a wise minister named I-yin. Observing the indolence and pleasure-loving disposition of the young man, the minister sent him into retirement for three years that he might acquire habits of sobriety and diligence. The circumstance that makes this incident worth recording is that the minister, instead of retaining the power in his own family, restored the throne to its rightful occupant.
Another king of this house, by name P'an-keng, has no claim to distinction other than that of having moved his capital five times. As we are not told that he was pursued by vindictive enemies, we are left to the conjecture that he was escaping from disastrous floods, or, perhaps under the influence of a silly superstition, was in quest of some luckier site.
Things went from bad to worse, and finally Chou-sin surpassed in evil excesses the man who had brought ruin upon the House of Hia. The House of Shang of course suffered the same fate. An ambitious but kind-hearted prince came forward to succour the people, and was welcomed by them as a deliverer. The tyrant, seeing that all was lost, arrayed himself in festal robes, set fire to his own palace, and, like another Sardanapalus, perished in the flames.
He and Kié make a couple who are held up to ever-lasting execration as a warning to tyrannical princes. Like his remote predecessor, Chou-sin is reputed to have been led into his evil courses by a wicked woman, named Ta-ki. One suspects that neither one nor the other stood in need of such prompting. According to history, bad kings are generally worse than bad queens. In China, however, a woman is considered out of place when she lays her hand on the helm of state. Hence the tendency to blacken the names of those famous court beauties.
If Mencius may be believed, the tyrants themselves were not quite so profligate as the story makes them. He says, " Dirty water has a tendency to accumulate in the lowest sinks " ; and he warns the princes of his time not to put themselves in a position in which future ages will continue to heap opprobrium on their memory.
Of the wise founders of this dynasty it is said that they "made religion the basis of education," as did the Romans, who prided themselves on devotion to their gods. In both cases natural religion degenerated into gross superstition. In the number of their gods. the Chinese have exceeded the Romans ; and they refer the worship of many of them to the Shang dynasty.
The following dynasty, that of Chou (35 sovereigns, II22—249 B. c.) merits a separate chapter.