House Of Chou
( Originally Published 1910 )
Wen-wang, the founder—Rise and Progress of Culture—Communistic Land Tenure—Origin of the term "Middle Kingdom "—Duke Chou and Cheng wang, "The Completer "—A Royal Traveller—Li and Yu, two bad kings
THE merciful conqueror who at this time rescued the people from oppression was Wu-wang, the martial king. He found, it is said, the people " hanging with their heads downward " and set them on their feet. On the eve of the decisive battle he harangued his troops, appealing to the Deity as the arbiter, and expressing confidence in the result. " The tyrant," he said, "has ten myriads of soldiers, and I have but one myriad. His soldiers, however, have ten myriads of hearts, while my army has but one heart."
When the battle had been fought and won he turned his war-horses out to pasture and ordained that they should be forever free from yoke and saddle. Could he have been less humane in the treatment of his new subjects?
The credit of his victory he gave to ten wise counsellors, one of whom was his mother. History, however, ascribes it in a large degree to his father, Wen-Wang, who was then 'dead, but who had prepared the way for his son's triumph.
Wen-wang, the Beauclerc of the Chous, is one of the most notable figures in the ancient history of China. A vassal prince, by wise management rather than by military prowess he succeeded in enlarging his do-minions so that he became possessor of two-thirds of the empire. He is applauded for his wisdom in still paying homage to his feeble chief. The latter, however, must have regarded him with no little suspicion, as Wen-wang was thrown into prison, and only regained his liberty at the cost of a heavy ransom. Wen-wang apparently anticipated a mortal struggle; for it is related that, seeing an old man fishing, he detected in him an able general who had fled the service of the tyrant. " You," said he, " are the very man I have been looking for" ; and, taking him up into his chariot, as Jehu did Jonadab, he rejoiced in the assurance of coming victory. The fisherman was Kiang Tai Kung, the ancestor of the royal House of Ts'i in Shantung. Though eighty-one years of age he took command of the cavalry and presided in the councils of his new master.
Fitting it was that the Beauclerc, Wen-wang should be the real founder of the new dynasty; for now for the first time those pictured symbols become living blossoms from which the fruits of learning and philosophy are to be gathered. The rise and progress of a generous culture is the chief characteristic of the House of Chou. Besides encouraging letters Wen-wang contributed much to the new literature. He is known as a commentator in the Yih-King, " Book of Changes," pronounced by Confucius the profoundest of the ancient classics—a book which he never understood.
In theory there was under this and the preceding dynasty no private ownership of land. The arable ground was laid out in plots of nine squares, thus :
Eight of these were assigned to the people to cultivate for themselves; and the middle square was reserved for the government and tilled by the joint labour of all. The simple-hearted souls of that day are said to have prayed that the rains might first descend on the public field and then visit their private grounds.
In later years this communistic scheme was found not to work perfectly, owing, it is said, to the decay of public virtue. A statesman, named Shangyang, converted the tenure of land into fee simple—a natural evolution which was, however, regarded as quite too revolutionary and earned for him the execrations of the populace.
The charming simplicity of the above little diagram would seem to have suggested the arrangement of fiefs in the state, in which the irregular feudality of former times became moulded into a symmetrical system. The sovereign state was in the centre ; and those of the feudal barons were ranged on the four sides in successive rows. The central portion was designated Chung Kwoh, "Middle Kingdom," a title which has come to be applied to the whole empire, implying, of course, that all the nations of the earth are its vassals.
Laid out with the order of a camp and ruled with martial vigour, the new state prospered for a few reigns.
At length, however, smitten with a disease of the heart the members no longer obeyed the behests of the head. Decay and anarchy are written on the last pages of the history of the House of Chou.
The martial king died young, leaving his infant heir under the regency of his brother, the Duke of Chou. The latter, who inherited the tastes and talents of Wen-wang, was avowedly the character which the great Sage took for his pattern. With fidelity and ability he completed the pacification of the state. The credit of that achievement inured to his ward, who received the title of Cheng-wang, " The Completer."
Accused of scheming to usurp the throne, the Duke resigned his powers and withdrew from the court. The young prince, opening a golden casket, found in it a prayer of his uncle, made and sealed up during a serious illness of the King, imploring Heaven to accept his life as a ransom for his royal ward. This touching proof of devotion dispelled all doubt; and the faithful duke was recalled to the side of the now full-grown monarch.
Even during the minority of his nephew the Duke never entered his presence in other than full court costume. On one occasion the youthful king, playing with a younger brother, handed him a palm leaf saying, " This shall be your patent of nobility. I make you duke of such and such a place." The regent remonstrated, whereupon the King excused himself by saying, " I was only in sport." The Duke replied, " A king has no right to indulge in such sports," and insisted that the younger lad receive the investiture and emoluments. He was also, it is said, so careful of the sacred person that he never left on it the mark of his rod. When the little king deserved chastisement, the guardian always called up his own son, Pechin, and thrashed him soundly. One pities the poor fellow who was the innocent substitute more than one admires the scrupulous and severe regent. The Chinese have a proverb which runs, " Whip an ass and let a horse see it."
What shall be said of the successors of Cheng-wang? To account for the meagre chronicles of previous dynasties one may invoke the poverty of a language not yet sufficiently mature for the requirements of history; but for the seeming insignificance of the long line of Chous, who lived in the early bloom, if not the rich fruitage, of the classic period, no such apology is admissible.
Some there were, doubtless, who failed to achieve distinction because they had no foreign foe to oppose, no internal rebellion to suppress. Others, again, were so hampered by system that they had nothing better to do than to receive the homage of vassals. So wearied was one among them, Mu-wang, the fifth in succession, with those monotonous ceremonies that he betook himself to foreign travel as a relief from ennui, or perhaps impelled by an innate love of adventure. He delighted in horses; and, yoking eight fine steeds to his chariot, he set off to see the world. A book full of fables professes to record the narrative of his travels. He had, it says, a magic whip which possessed the property of compressing the surface of the earth into a small space. Today Chinese envoys, with steam and electricity at command, are frequently heard to exclaim : "Now at last we have got the swift steeds and the magic whip of Mu-wang."
Two other kings, Li and Yu, are pointed at with the finger of scorn as examples of what a king ought not to be. The latter set aside his queen and her son in favour of a concubine and her son; and so offended was high heaven by this unkingly conduct that the sun hid his face in a total eclipse. This happened 775 B. C.; and it furnishes the starting-point for a reliable chronology. For her amusement the king caused the signal-fires to be lighted. She laughed heartily to see the great barons rush to the rescue and find it was a false alarm; but she did not smile when, not long after this, the capital was attacked by a real foe, the father of her injured rival. The signal-fires were again lighted; but the barons, having once been deceived by the cry of "Wolf," took care not to expose themselves again to derision.
The other king has not been lifted into the fierce light that beats upon a throne by anything so tragic as a burning palace; but his name is coupled with that of the former as a synonym of all that is weak and contemptible.
The story of the House of Chou is not to be disposed of in a few paragraphs, like the accounts of the preceeding dynasties, because it was preeminently the formative period of ancient China; the age of her greatest sages, and the birthday of poetry and philosophy. I shall therefore devote a chapter to the sages and an-other to the reign of anarchy before closing the Book of Chou.