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The T'ang Dynasty, 618-907 A.d.

( Originally Published 1910 )

(2o Emperors)

An Augustan Age—A Pair of Poets—The Coming of Christianity—The Empress Wu—System of Examinations

I HAVE seen a river plunge into a chasm and disappear. After a subterranean course of many miles it rose to the surface fuller, stronger than before. No man saw from whence it drew its increment of force, but the fact was undeniable. This is just what took place in China at this epoch.

It is comforting to know that during those centuries of turmoil the Chinese were not wholly engrossed with war and rapine. The T'ang dynasty is conspicuously the Augustan Age. Literature reappears in a more perfect form than under the preceding reigns. The prose writers of that period are to the present day studied as models of composition, which cannot bd affirmed of the writers of any earlier epoch. Poetry, too, shone forth with dazzling splendour. A galaxy of poets made their appearance, among whom two particular stars were Tufu and Lipai, the Dryden and Pope of Chinese literature.

The following specimen from Lipai who is deemed the highest poetical genius in the annals of China, may show, even in its Western dress, something of his peculiar talent :


Here are flowers and here is wine,
But where's a friend with me to join
Hand in hand and heart to heart
In one full cup before we part?

Rather than to drink alone,
I'll make bold to ask the moon
To condescend to lend her face
The hour and the scene to grace.

Lo, she answers, and she brings
My shadow on her silver wings;
That makes three, and we shall be,
I ween, a merry company

The modest moon declines the cup;
But shadow promptly takes it up,
And when I dance my shadow fleet
Keeps measure with my flying feet.

But though the moon declines to tipple
She dances in yon shining ripple,
And when I sing, my festive song,
The echoes of the moon prolong.

Say, when shall we next meet together?
Surely not in cloudy weather,
For you my boon companions dear
Come only when the sky is clear.

The second emperor, Tai-tsung, made good his claims by killing two of his brothers who were plotting against him. Notwithstanding this inauspicious beginning he became an able and illustrious sovereign. The twenty-three years during which he occupied the throne were the most brilliant of that famous dynasty.

At Si-ngan in Shensi, the capital of the T'angs, is a stone monument which records the introduction of Christianity by Nestorians from Syria. Favoured by the Emperor the new faith made considerable headway. For five hundred years the Nestorian churches held up the banner of the Cross; but eventually, through ignorance and impurity, they sank to the level of heathenism and disappeared. It is sad to think that this early effort to evangelise China has left nothing but a monumental stone.

At the funeral of Tai-tsung his successor, Kao-tsung, saw Wu, one of his father's concubines, who pleased him so much that, contrary to law, he took her into his own harem. Raised to the rank of empress and left mother of an infant son, she swayed the sceptre after Kao-tsung's death for twenty-one years. Beginning as regent she made herself absolute.

A system of civil service examinations which had sprung up with the revival of learning under the Hans was now brought to maturity. For good or for evil it has dominated the mind of the Empire for twelve centuries. Now, however, the leaders of thought have begun to suspect that it is out of date. The new education requires new tests; but what is to hinder their incorporation in the old system? To abolish it would be fraught with danger, and to modify it is a delicate task for the government of the present day.

That the scholar should hold himself in readiness to serve the state no less than the soldier was an acknowledged principle. It was reserved for the states-men of T'ang to make it the mainspring of the government. To them belongs the honour of constructing a system which would stimulate literary culture and skim the cream of the national talent for the use of the state. It had the further merit of occupying the minds of ambitious youth with studies of absorbing interest, thus diverting them from the dangerous path of political conspiracy.

Never was a more effective patronage given to letters. Without founding or endowing schools the state said: " If you acquire the necessary qualifications, we shall see that your exertions are duly rewarded. Look up to those shining heights—see the gates that are open to welcome you, the garlands that wait to crown your triumphant course!"

Annual examinations were held in every country; and the degree of S. T. (Siu-tsai), equivalent to A. B., was conferred on 3 per cent. of the candidates. To fail was no disgrace; to have entered the lists was a title to respect. Once in three years the budding talent of the province convened in its chief city to compete for the second degree. This was H. L. (Hiao Lien, "Filial and Honest"), showing how ethical ideas continued to dominate the literary tribunals. It is now Chu-fin, and denotes nothing but promotion or prize man. The prize, a degree answering to A. M., poetically described as a sprig of the Olen fragrans, was the more coveted as the competitors were all honour men of the first grade, and it was limited to one in a hundred. Its immediate effect is such social distinction that it is said poor bachelors are common, but poor masters are rare.

If the competition stopped here it would be an Olympic game on a grander scale. But there are loftier heights to be climbed. The new-made masters from all the provinces proceed to the imperial capital to try their strength against the assembled scholars of the Empire. Here the prizes are three in a hundred. The successful student comes forth a Literary Doctor —a Tsin-shi, " fit for office." To all such is assured a footing, high or low, on the official ladder.

But another trial remains by which those who are good at the high leap may at a single bound place themselves very near the top. This final contest takes place in the palace—nominally in the presence of the Emperor, and the questions are actually issued by him. Its object is to select the brightest of the doctors for chairs in the Hanlin Academy—an institution in which the humblest seat is one of exalted dignity. How dazzling the first name on that list! The Chuang Yuen or senior wrangler takes rank with governors and viceroys. An unfading halo rests on the place of his birth. Sometimes in travelling I have seen a triumphal arch proclaiming that " Here was born the laureate of the Empire." Such an advertisement raises the value of real estate; and good families congregate in a place on which the sun shines so auspiciously. A laureate who lived near me married his daughter to a viceroy, and her daughter became consort to the Emperor Tungchi.

What then are the objections to a regulation which is so democratic that it makes a nobleman of every successful scholar and gives to all the inspiration of equal opportunity? They are, in a word, that it has failed to expand with the growing wants of the people. The old curriculum laid down by Confucius, " Begin with poetry; make etiquette your strong point; and finish off with music," was not bad for his day, but is utterly inadequate for ours, unless it be for a young ladies' seminary. The Sage's chapter on experiment as the source of knowledge—a chapter which might have anticipated the Novum Organum—having been lost, the statesmen of the T'ang period fell into the error of leaving in their scheme no place for original research. This it was that made the mind of China barren of discoveries for twelve centuries. It was like putting a hood on the keen-eyed hawk and permitting him to fly at only such game as pleased his master.

The chief requirement was superficial polish in prose and verse. The themes were taken exclusively from books, the newest of which was at that time over a thousand years old. To broach a theory not found there was fatal; and to raise a question in physical science was preposterous. Had any one come forward with a new machine he might have been rewarded; but no such inventor ever came because the best minds in the Empire were trained to trot blindfold on a tread-mill in which there was no possibility of progress. Had the mind of the nation been left free and encouraged to exert its force, who can doubt that the country that produced the mariner's compass might have given birth to a Newton or an Edison?

After Wu none of the monarchs of this dynasty calls for notice. The last emperor was compelled to abdicate; and thus, after a career of nearly three centuries bright with the light of genius and prolific of usages good and bad that set the fashion for after ages, this great house was extinguished.

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