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The Three Kingdoms, The Nan-peh Chao, And The Sui Dynasty, 214-618 A.d.

( Originally Published 1910 )

The States of Wei, Wu, and Shuh—A Popular Historical Romance—Chu-koh Lïang, an Inventive Genius—The "three P's, "Pen, Paper, Printing The Sui Dynasty

AFTER four centuries of undisputed sway, the sceptre is seen ready to fall from the nerveless hands of feeble monarchs. Eunuchs usurp authority, and the hydra of rebellion raises its many heads. Minor aspirants are easily extinguished; but three of them survive a conflict of twenty years, and lay the foundation of short-lived dynasties.

The noble structure erected by the Ts'ins and consolidated by the Hans began to crumble at the be-ginning of its fifth century of existence. In 221 A. D. its fragments were removed to three cities, each of which claimed to be the seat of empire. The state of Wei was founded by Tsao Tsao, with its capital at Lo-yang, the seat of the Hans. He had the further advantage, as mayor of the palace, of holding in his power the feeble emperor Hwan-ti, the last of the house of Han. The state of Wu, embracing the provinces of Kiangsu, Kiangsi, and Chéhkiang, was established by Siun Kien, a man of distinguished ability who secured his full share of the patrimony. The third state was founded by Liu Pi, a scion of the imperial house whose capital was at Chingtu-fu in Szechuen. The historian is here confronted by a problem like that of settling the apostolic succession of the three popes, and he has decided in favour of the last, whom he designates the " Later Han," mainly on the ground of blood relationship.

Authority for this is found in the dynastic history; but reference may also be made to a romance which deals with the wars of those three states. Composed by Lo Kwan-chung and annotated by Kin Sheng Tan, it is the most popular historical novel in the whole range of Chinese literature. Taking the place of a national epic, its heroes are not of one type or all on one side, but its favourites are found among the adherents of Liu Pi. It opens with a scene in which Liu, Kwan, and Chang, like the three Tells on Grütli, meet in a peach-garden and take vows of brotherhood—drinking of a loving-cup tinged with the blood of each and swearing fidelity to their common cause. Of the three brothers the first, Liu Pi, after a long struggle, succeeds in founding a state in western China. The second, Kwan Yü, is the beau-ideal of patriotic courage. In 1594 he was canonised as the god of war. The gifted author has, therefore, the distinction, beyond that of any epic poet of the West, of having created for his countrymen their most popular deity. Chang-fi, the youngest of the three brothers, is the inseparable henchman of the Chinese Mars. He wields a spear eighteen feet in length with a dash and impetuosity which no enemy is able to withstand.

Other characters are equally fixed in the public mind. Tsao Tsao, the chief antagonist of Liu Pi, is not merely a usurper: he is a curious compound of genius, fraud, and cruelty. Another conspicuous actor is Lü Pu, an archer able to split a reed at a hundred paces, and a horseman who performs prodigies on the field of battle. He begins his career by shooting his adopted father, like Brutus perhaps, not because he loved Tung Choh less, but China more.

All these and others too numerous to mention may be seen any day on the boards of the theatre, an institution which, in China at least, serves as a school for the illiterate.

Liu Pi succeeds, after a struggle of twenty years, in establishing himself in the province of Szechuen; but he enjoys undisturbed dominion in his limited realm for three years only, and then transmits his crown to a youthful son whom he commends to the care of a faithful minister. The youth when an infant has been rescued from a burning palace by the brave Chang-fi, who, wrapping the sleeping child in his cloak and mounting a fleet charger, cut his way through the enemy. On reaching a distant point the child was still asleep. The witty annotator adds the re-mark, "He continued to sleep for thirty years."

The minister to whom the boy had been confided, Chu-koh Liang, is the most versatile and inventive genius of Chinese antiquity. As the founder of the house of Chou discovered in an old fisherman a counsellor of state who paved his way to the throne, so Liu Pi found this man in a humble cottage where he was hiding himself in the garb of a peasant, San Ku Mao Lu, say the Chinese. He "three times visited that thatched hovel" before he succeeded in persuading its occupant to commit himself to his uncertain fortunes. From that moment Chu-koh Liang served him as eyes and ears, teeth and claws, with a skill and fidelity which have won the applause of all succeeding ages. Among other things, he did for Liu Pi what Archimedes did for Dionysius. He constructed military engines that appeared so wonderful that, as tradition has it " he made horses and oxen out of wood."

Entrusted by his dying master with the education of the young prince, he has left two papers full of wise counsels which afford no little help in drawing the line between fact and fiction. Unquestionably Chukoh Liang was the first man of his age in intellect and in such arts and sciences as were known to his times. Yet no one invention can be pointed to as having been certainly derived from Chu-koh Liang. The author of the above-mentioned romance, who lived as late as the end of the thirteenth century, constantly speaks of his use of gunpowder either to terrify the enemy or to serve for signals; but it is never used to throw a cannon-ball. It probably was known to the Chinese of that date, as the Arab speaks of gun-powder under the designation of "Chinese snow," meaning doubtless the saltpetre which forms a leading ingredient. The Chinese had been dabbling in alchemy for many centuries, and it is scarcely possible that they should have failed to hit on some such explosive. It is, however, believed on good authority that they never made use of cannon in war until the beginning of the fifteenth century.

There are, however, three other inventions or improvements of the known arts, which deserve notice in this connection, namely, the "three Ps" pen, paper and printing—all preeminently instruments of peaceful culture. The pen in China is a hair pencil resembling a paint-brush. It was invented by Mung-tien in the third century B. C. Paper was invented by Tsai Lun, 100 B. C., and printing by Fungtao in the tenth century of the present era. What is meant by printing in this case is, however, merely the substitution of wood for stone, the Chinese having been for ages in the habit of taking rubbings from stone inscriptions. It was not long before they divided the slab into movable characters and earned for them-selves the honour of having anticipated Gutenberg and Faust. Their divisible types were never in general use, however, and block printing continues in vogue; but Western methods are rapidly supplanting both.

The three states were reunited under the Tsin dynasty, 265 A. D. This lasted for a century and a half and then, after a succession of fifteen emperors, went down in a sea of anarchy, from the froth of which arose more than half a score of contending factions, among which four were sufficiently prominent to make for themselves a place in history. Their period is described as that of the Nan-peh Chao, "Northern and Southern Kingdoms." The names of the principals were Sung, Wei, Liang and Chin. The first only was Chinese, the others belonging to various branches of the Tartar race. The chiefs of the Liang family were of Tibetan origin—a circumstance which may perhaps account for their predilection for Buddhism. The second emperor of that house, Wu Ti, became a Buddhist monk and retired to a monastery where he lectured on the philosophy of Buddhism. He reminds one of Charles the Fifth, who in his retirement amused himself less rationally by repairing watches and striving, in vain, to make a number of them keep identical time.

It may be noted that behind these warring factions there is in progress a war of races also. The Tartars are forever encroaching on the Flowery Land. Repulsed or expelled, they return with augmented force; and even at this early epoch the shadow of their coming conquest is plainly visible.

In the confused strife of North and South the preponderance is greatly on the side of the Tartars. The pendulum of destiny then begins to swing in the other direction. Yan Kien, a Chinese general in the service of a Tartar principality, took advantage of their divisions to rally a strong body of his countrymen by whose aid he cut them off in detail and set up the Sui dynasty, The Tartars have always made use of Chinese in the invasion of China; and if the Chinese were always faithful to their own country no invader would succeed in conquering them.

Though the Sui dynasty lasted less than thirty years (589-618, three reigns), it makes a conspicuous figure on account of two events : (1) a victorious expedition in the north which reached the borders of Turkestan, and (2) the opening of canals between the Yellow River and the Yang-tse Kiang. The latter enterprise only hastened the fall of the house. It was effected by forced labour; and the discontented people were made to believe, as their historians continue to assert, that its chief object was to enable a luxurious emperor to display his grandeur to the people of many provinces. We shall see how the extension of those canals precipitated the overthrow of the Mongols as we have already seen how the completion of the Great Wall caused the downfall of the house of Ts'in.

Yang-ti, the second emperor of the Sui dynasty, though not wanting in energy, is notorious for his excesses in display and debauch. He is reported to have hastened his accession to the throne by the murder of his father. A peaceful end to such a reign would have been out of keeping with the course of human events. Li Yuen, one of his generals, rose against him, and he was assassinated in Nanking.

By wisdom and courage Li Yuen succeeded in setting up a new dynasty which he called T'ang (618 A. D.) : After a long period of unrest, it brought to the distracted provinces an era of unwonted prosperity; it held the field for nearly three hundred years, and surpassed all its predecessors in splendour.



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