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The Sages Of China

( Originally Published 1910 )

Confucius—Describes Himself as Editor, not Author—"Model Teacher of All Ages"—Mencius—More Eloquent than his Great Master—Lao-tse, the Founder of Taoism

I SHALL not introduce the reader to all who justly bear the august title of sage; for China has had more and wiser sages than any other ancient country. Some of them may be referred to in the sequel; but this chapter I shall devote chiefly to the two who by universal consent have no equals in the history of the Empire—Confucius and Mencius. These great men owe much of their fame to the learned Jesuits who first brought them on the stage, clad in the Roman toga, and made them citizens of the world by giving them the euphonious names by which they are popularly known. Stripped of their disguise they appeal.' respectively as K'ung Fu-tse and Meng-tse. Exchanging the ore rotundo of Rome for the sibillation of China, they never could have been naturalised as they are now.

Born in the year 549 B. C., Confucius was contemporaneous with Isaiah and Socrates. Of a respectable but not opulent family he had to struggle for his education—a fact which in after years he was so far from concealing that he ascribed to it much of his success in life. To one who asked him, "How comes it that you are able to do so many things," he replied, " I was born poor and had to learn." His schoolmasters are unknown; and it might be asked of him, as it was of a greater than Confucius, "How knoweth this man letters, having never learned ? "

Of his self-education, which continued through life, he gives the following concise account: "At fifteen I entered on a life of study; at thirty I took my stand as a scholar; at forty my opinions were fixed; at fifty I knew how to judge and select; at sixty I never relapsed into a known fault; at seventy I could follow my inclinations without going wrong." Note how each stage marks an advance towards moral excellence. Mark also that this passage gives an out-line of self-discipline. It says nothing of his books or of his work as a statesman and a reformer.

He is said to have had, first and last, three thousand disciples. Those longest under instruction numbered twelve. They studied, not with lectures and text-books, as in modern schools, but by following his foot-steps and taking the impress of his character, much as Peter and John followed the steps and studied the life of Christ. Some of them followed Confucius when, bent on effecting a political as well as an ethical re-form, he travelled from court to court among the petty principalities. They have placed it on record that once, when exposed to great peril, he comforted them by saying, "If Heaven has made me the depositary of these teachings, what can my enemies do against me ? " Nobly conscious of a more than human mission, so pure were his teachings that, though he taught morals, not religion, he might fairly, with Socrates, be allowed to claim a sort of inspiration.

The one God, of whom he knew little, he called Heaven, and he always spoke of Heaven with the profoundest reverence. When neglected or misunderstood he consoled himself by saying, "Heaven knows me." During a serious illness a disciple inquired if he should pray for him, meaning the making of offerings at some temple. Confucius answered, "I have long prayed," or " I have long been in the habit of praying."

In letters he described himself as an "editor, not - an author," meaning that he had revised the works of the ancients, but had published nothing of his own. Out of their poetry he culled three hundred odes and declared that "purity of thought" might be stamped on the whole collection. Into a confused mass of traditional ceremonies be brought something like order, making the Chinese (if a trifle too ceremonious) the politest people on earth. Out of their myths and chronicles he extracted a trustworthy history, and by his treatment of vice he made princes tremble, lest their heads should be exposed on the gibbet of history. He gave much time to editing the music of the ancients, but his work in that line has perished. This, however, cannot be regarded as a very great loss, in view of the rude condition in which Chinese music is still found. However deficient his knowledge of the art, his passion for music was extraordinary. After hearing a fine performance "he was unable for three months to enjoy his food." A fifth task was the editing of the Yih-King,* the book of divination compiled by Wen-wang. How thoroughly he believed in it is apparent from his saying, " Should it please Heaven to grant me five or ten years to study this book, I would not be in danger of falling into great errors." He meant that he would then be able to shape his conduct by the calculation of chances.

Great as were his labours in laying the foundation of literary culture, the impression made by his personal intercourse and by his collected sayings has been ten-fold more influential. They form the substance of the Four Books which, from a similar numerical coincidence, the Chinese are fond of comparing with our Four Gospels. Confucius certainly gives the Golden Rule as the essence of his teaching. True, he puts it in a negative form, " Do not unto others what you would not have them do to you"; but he also says, "My doctrine is comprehended in two words, chung and shu." The former denotes fidelity; the latter signifies putting oneself in the place of another, but it falls short of that active charity which has changed the face of the world.

It were easy to point out Confucius' limitations and mistakes; yet on the whole his merits were such that his people can hardly be blamed for the exaggerated honours which they show to his memory. They style him the model teacher of all ages," but they do not invoke him as a tutelary deity, nor do they represent him by an image. Excessively honorific, their worship of Confucius is not idolatry.


A hundred years later Mencius was born, and received his doctrine through the grandson of the Sage. More eloquent than his great master, more bold in rebuking the vices of princes, he was less original. One specimen of his teaching must suffice. One of the princes asking him, " How do you know that I have it in me to become a good ruler ? " he replied, " I am told that, seeing the extreme terror of an ox that was being led to the altar, you released it and commanded a sheep to be offered in its stead. The ox was before your eyes and you pitied it; the sheep was not before your eyes and you had no pity on it. Now with such a heart if you would only think of your people, so as to bring them before your eyes, you might become the best of rulers."

Mencius lost his father in his infancy, but his mother showed rare good sense in the bringing up of her only child. Living near a butcher, she noticed that the boy mimicked the cries of the pigs. She then removed to the gate of a cemetery; but, noticing that the child changed his tune and mocked the wailing of mourners, she struck her tent and took up her abode near a high school. There she observed with joy that he learned the manners and acquired the tastes of a student. Perceiving, however, that he was in danger of be-coming lazy and dilatory, she cut the warp of her web and said, " My son, this is what you are doing with the web of life."

The tomb of each of these sages is in the keeping of one of his descendants, who enjoys the emoluments of a hereditary noble. Mencius himself says of the master whom he never saw, "Since men were born on earth there has been no man like Confucius."


I cannot close this chapter without a word or two on Lao-tse, the founder of Taoism. He bore the family name of Li, "plum-tree," either from the fact that his cottage was in a garden or possibly because, like the Academics, he placed his school in a grove of plum-trees. The name by which he is now known signifies "old master," probably because he was older than Confucius. The latter is said to have paid him a visit to inquire about rites and ceremonies; but Lao-tse, with his love of solitude and abstract speculation, seems not to have exerted much influence on the mind of the rising philosopher. In allusion to him, Confucius said, "Away from men there is no philosophy—no tao."

Less honoured by the official class, Lao-tse's influence with the masses of China has been scarcely less than that of his younger rival. Like the other two sages he, too, has to-day a representative, who enjoys an official status as high priest of the Taoist sect. Chang Tien-shi dwells in a stately palace on the summit of the Tiger and Dragon Mountain, in Kiangsi, as the head of one of the three religions. But, alas! the sublime teachings of the founder of Taoism have degenerated into a contemptible mixture of jugglery and witchcraft.

Not till five centuries later did Buddhism enter China and complete the triad of religions—a triad strangely inharmonious; indeed one can scarcely conceive of three creeds more radically antagonistic.

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