1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese History: 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors; Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC); Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC); Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC).

(Part 26)


Ancient Era (Earliest Times to 221 BC)

3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors; Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC); Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC); Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC).

Far reaching as is the history of China, it yet fails to give us any account of the origin of the Chinese race. Its first page begins by describing the nucleus of the nation as a little horde of wanderers, roving among the forests of Shan-se, without houses, without clothing, wi6thout fire to dress their victuals, and subsisting on the spoils of the chase, ekes out with roots and insects. Investigation, however, has proved beyond doubt that these wanderers were no indigenous sons of the soil, but were strangers and pilgrims form other lands. Some believe that their point of departure was in the region to the south-east of the Caspian Sea, and that, having, crossed the head waters of the Oxus, they made their way eastward along the southern slopes of the Teen-shan. But however this may be, it is plain that as they journeyed they struck on the northern course of the Yellow River, and that they followed its stream, on the eastern bank, as it trended south as far as Tung-kwan, and that them turning with it due eastward, they establish small colonies on the fertile plains of the modern province of Shan-se. But though these immigrants were for the moment wanderers they brought with them habits of settled labour. Some traces are discernible while might possibly be accepted as evidences that the Chinese had at one time a tendency to a nomadic rather than to an agricultural state of existence. In the Book of Historical Documents the governors of the province are called "pastors" and "herdsmen," and Mencius speaks of princes generally as "pastors of men." It is impossible also to overlook the identity of outline between the Chinese house and the sweeping roof supported by poles of the Tatar tent; and it is said that when Jengiz Khan in his invasion of China took a city, his soldiers immediately set about pulling down the four walls of the houses, leaving the overhanging roofs supported by the wooden columns,—by which process they converted them into excellent tents for themselves and their horses. To some extent it may be said, too, that the language countenances this belief, since many common words find their expression in characters of which the hieroglyphics for sheep and cattle form part. For instance, we find that the character _____, meaning truthfulness, uprightness, is composed of the two parts, _____ and _____, or "my sheep," thus apparently pointing to a time when the ownership of flocks was a common cause of dispute; the same is the case also with the character _____, cho, "right," which is made up of _____, Tsze, "one’s own," and _____, yang, "sheep," and _____, Tseang, "to examine and judge clearly," which is composed of _____, yen, "words," or to talk, and _____, "sheep," which indicate that the first idea of a judicial examination arose out of wranglings about sheep. But notwithstanding these apparent evidences in favour of the Chinese having been originally a nomadic rather than an agricultural people, it becomes abundantly evident from the earliest records they possess that at all events, immediately on their arrival in China, they settled down as agriculturists. They cultivated grain for their sustenance, and flax, which they wove into garments. They knew the value of silk-worms and planted the mulberry tree; they developed trade, and established fairs at certain centres in their districts. Neither were they destitute of the elements of intellectual culture. They had some knowledge of astronomy, and in all probability they brought with them as acquaintanceship with hieroglyphic writing; at all events, at a very early period, we hear of E Yin (1743-1710 B.C.), presenting a petition in writing to the king, and there is no surer ground for the belief that knotted cords were in use among them writing was invented than there is for the legend, that the forms of the characters were first suggested to Tsang-Kë_ by the marks on the back of a tortoise.

The possession of these habits and acquirements gave the immigrants a great advantage over the nations of the land. As they advanced they found the country inhabited by "fiery dog" on the north, "great bowmen" in the east, "the ungovernable vermin" on the south, and the "mounted warriors" on the west. Deferring in language, as also in every other respect, from the invaders, these tribes became their natural enemies, but they were unable to stand against the "black-haired race." During the first centuries after the establishment of a regular system of government we hear of them now as common enemies of the Chinese, and now as temporary allies of one of another of the states into which the growing kingdom was divided. But by degrees they drop out of the history of the empire. Step by stem they were driven back into the less inhabited parts; whole tribes were transported, others were annihilated, until but a small remnant was left. These wanderers sought and found refuge from their enemies in the mountainous regions of Kwei-chow and Kwang-se, where their descendants, the Meaou-tsze, still maintain themselves against the forces of China.

It was an ancient belief of Chinese writers that there had existed a period of 2,267,000 and odd years between the time when the powers of heaven and earth first united to produce man as the possessor of the soil of China, and the time of Confucius. This having been accepted as a fact, it became necessary for the early historians to invent long lines of dynastic rulers to fill up the gap between the creation and the period with which the Book of Historical Documents commences. Accordingly, we find a series of ten epochs described as preceding the Chow dynasty. The events connected with most of these are purely fabulous, and it is not until we come down to the eighth period that we can trace any glimmer, however obscured, of history. This, we are told, commenced with the reign of Yew-chaou She (the Nest-having), who, if such a man ever existed, was probably one of the first of those who, as the immigrants increased and multiplied, was chosen to direct their counsels and to lead their armies. This chief induced them to settle within the bend of the Yellow River, the site of the modern province of Shan-se, and taught them to make huts of the boughs of trees. Under the next chief, Suy-jin She (the Fire-producer), the grand discovery of the fire was effected by the accidental friction of two pieces of dry wood. He taught the people to look up to Teen, the great creating, preserving, and destroying power; and he invented a method of registering time and events, by making certain knots on thongs or cords twisted out of the bark of trees. Next to him followed Yung-ching She, and then Fuh-he, who separated the people into classes or tribes, giving to each a particular name, discovered iron, appointed certain days to show their gratitude to heaven, by offering the first-fruits of the earth, and invented the eight diagrams which serve as the foundation of the Y_h-king. Fuh-he reigned 115 years, and his tomb is shown at Chin-choo, in the province of Shen-se, at this day. His successor, Chin-nung, invented the plough; and from that moment the civilization of China proceeded by rapid and progressive steps.

As the early history of every ancient people is more or less vitiated by fable, we ought not to be more fastidious ort less indulgent towards the marvellous in that of China, than we are towards Egyptian, Greek, or Roman history. The main facts may be true, though the details are incorrect; and though the accidental discovery of fire may not have happened under Suy-jin She, yet it probably was first communicated by the friction of two sticks, which at this day is a common method among almost all savages of producing fire. Nor is it perhaps strictly correct that Fuh-he made the accidental discovery of iron, by having burnt a quantity of wood on a brown earth, any more than that the Phoenicians discovered the mode of making glass by burning green wood on sand; yet it is not improbable that some such processes first led to these discoveries. And if it be objected against the history, that the reign of 115 years exceeds the usual period of human existence, this after all is as nothing, when compared with the contemporaneous ones recorded in biblical history. Thus, also, considerable allowances are to be deducted from the scientific discoveries of Chin-nung in botany, when we read of his having in one day discovered no less than seventy different species of plants that were of a poisonous nature, and seventy others that were antidotes against their baneful effects.

The next sovereign, Hwang-te, was a usurper; but during his reign the Chinese are stated to have made a very rapid progress in the arts and conveniences of civilized life; and to his lady, Se-ling-she, is ascribed the honour of having first observed the silk produced by the worms, of having unravelled their cocoons, and of having worked the fine filaments into a web of cloth. The tomb of Hwang-te is also preserved to this day in the province of Shen-se.

But with the reign of Yaou (2356 B.C.) we emerge to some extent from the mist which hangs over the earlier records of China. Here Confucius takes up the strain, and though his narrative will not bear criticism it yet furnishes us with some historical data. The character of Yaou and his successor Shun have been the theme of every writer of history from the time of Confusions downwards. So strong was the force of the examples they set that virtue pervaded the land, crime was unknown, and the nation increased in size and prosperity. During the reign of Yaou the empire extended from 23° to 40° N. lat., and from the 6th degree of longitude west from Peking to the 10th degree east. He established his capital at Ke-choo in Shang-tung, and established marts and fairs throughout the land. After his death he was succeeded by Shun, who for some years had shared with him the responsibilities of government. It was during this period that the "Great" Yu was employed to drain off the waters of the flood which had visited the north of China in consequence, probably, of one of the numerous changes in the course of the Yellow River. This work he accomplished after having expended nine years’ labour upon it, and as a reward for this and other services he was raised to the throne on the death of Shun. After him succeeded a number of rulers, each one less qualified to govern than the last, until one Kë_ (1818 B.c.) ascended the throne. In this man were combined all the worst vices of kings. He was licentious, cruel, faithless, and dissolute. From such a one Heaven withdrew her protection.

Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC)

The people rose against him, and having swept away all traces of him and his bloody house, they proclaimed the commencement of a new dynasty, to be called the Shang dynasty, and their leader, Tang, they named the first emperor of the new line (1766 B.C.). Aided by wise counselors, this monarch restored to the country some of its former prosperity.

Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC)

But the same fatality which attended the descendants of Yu overtook also his successors. They became self-indulgent and effeminate. They lost all hold on the affections of their people, so that when Chow, aided and abetted by his consort Ta-ke, gave vent to passions of a more than usually cruel and debased nature, they revolted, and Woo-Wang ascended the throne as the first emperor of the Chow dynasty. Woo-Wang was all that tradition represents the founders of dynasties to have been. He was brave4, talented, and virtuous, but he committed the mistake of dividing his kingdom into seventy-two feudal states in order that he might bestow principalities on his own relations and the descendants of former emperors. The fatal result of this subdivision soon became obvious. Jealousies sprang up among the princes, internecine wars raged unceasingly, and the allegiance of the feudatories to the central authority became daily weakened. Nor were the enemies of the empire confined to those within its borders, for, during the reign of Muh Wang (936 B.C.) we are told that the Tatars, of whom we now hear for the first time, taking advantage of the confusion which reigned within the limits of the empire, made predatory incursions into the states, and though they were invariably driven off, yet from this time they remained a constant source of danger and annoyance to the Chinese. Such was the state of the empire, distracted by internal wars and harassed by the attacks of a foreign foe, when Confucius was born (551 B.C.), and though the sage devoted his life to the promulgation of virtue and the right principles of government, little or no heed was at the time paid to his remonstrances and exhortations, and he died (475 B.C.) in retirement, a neglected and disappointed man. Neither did the efforts of Laou-tsze, who was a few years senior to Confusius, or of Mencius, who succeeded him after an interval of 107 years, meet with any better success. Disorder was rife throughout the land, and the authority of the central Government was on the wane.

Signs now began to appear foreshadowing the fall of the dynasty. During the reign of Wei-lë_ Wang, the brazen vessels upon which Yu had engraved the different provinces of the empire were observed to shake violently and shortly afterwards a mountain fell across the stream of the yellow River causing a wide-spread inundation. As the empire became weakened by internal dissensions so much the more did the power of the neigbhouring states increase. Of these the most important was that of Thsin, on the north-west, which, when it became evident that the kingdom of Chow must fall to pieces, took a prominent part in the wars undertaken by Tsoo on the south and Tsin on the north for the covered prize. But the struggle was an unequal one. The superiority of Thsin in point of size, and in the number of fighting-men at its command, carried all before it, and in 255 B.C. Chaou-seang Wang, having silenced his rivals, possessed himself of the imperial states. Thus fell the Chow dynasty, during the existence of which the empire may have said to have been extended from the 33d to the 38th parallels of latitude, and from the 106th to the 119th degree of longitude, that is to say, it included the southern portions of the province of Chih-li, Shan-se, and Shen-se, the northern portions of Ho-nan and Keang-soo, and the western half of Shan-tung. The capital was fixed at Chang-gan Heen in Shen-see. But though virtually emperor, Chaou-seang Wang abstained from adopting the imperial title, and he died in 251 B.C., leaving his son Heaou-w_n Wang to succeed him.

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