1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - The Book of Rites; Spring and Autumn Annals.

(Part 45)


The Book of Rites. Spring and Autumn Annals.

The Book of Rites

As we shall have occasion at a subsequent stage to treat at some length of the compilation which stands next on the list of the classics,—the Book of Odes,—we pass on to mention a work whose dicta have entered into the very marrow of Chinese life—namely the Le ke, or Book of Rites, This work is said to have been compiled by the duke of Chow in the 12th century B.C., since which time it has ever been the guide and rule by which Chinamen have regulated all the actions and relations of their lives. No every-day ceremony is too insignificant to escape notice, and no social and domestic duty is considered to be beyond its scope. From the nature of its contents, therefore, it is the work of all the classics which has left the most palpalbe impression on the manners and customs of the people. Its rules an minutely observed at the present day, and one of the six governing boards at Peking—the Board of Rites—is entirely concerned with seeing that its precepts are carried out throughout the empire.

Speaking of this work, Callery says with justice, "In ceremonial is summed up the whole soul of the Chinese, and to my mind the Book of Rites is the most exact and complete monograph that this nation can give of itself to the rest of the world. Its affections, if it has any, are satisfied by commercial ; its duties are fulfilled by means of ceremonial. Its virtues and vices are recognizes by ceremonial ; the natural relations of created being are essentially connected with ceremonial ; in a word, for it ceremonial is man, the man moral, the man politic, and the man religious, in their numberless relations with the family, society, the state, morality and religion."

Spring and Autumn Annals

But though each and all of the classics bear to some extent the impress of Confucius, only one, the Chun Tsew, or Spring and Autumn Annals, was written by him. At first sight, therfore, a more than usual interest attaches to this book, which is not lessened by the statements made by the sage himself, and by contemporary scholars concerning it. "The world," says Mencius, "was fallen into decay, and right principles had dwindled away. Perverse discourses and oppressive were again waxen rife. Cases were occurring of ministers who murdered their rulers, and of sons who murdered their fathers. Confucius was afraid, and made the Chun Tsew." As soon as it appeared, we are told that rebellious ministers quaked with fear and undutiful sons were overcome with terror. "Its righteous decisions," said Confucius himself, "I ventured to make."

The title also of the book, we are told, was given it, because its commendations were life-giving like spring, and its censures life-withering like autumn. The expectant student might therefore be excused for anticipating in its pages an intellectual treat. He would look to have the history of the period dealt with treated as a sustained narrative, interspersed with sage reflections and deep analyses of the characters and circumstances of the time. He would expect to find praise and blame distributed with a discriminating pen, and the foul crimes of regicide and murder denounced impassioned outbursts of indignation. But how different is the book when we take it up! In the words of Dr Legge—"Instead of a history of events woven artistically together, we find a congeries of the briefest possible intimations of matters in which the court and state of Loo were more or less concerned, extending over 242 years, without the slightest tincture of literary ability in the composition, or the slightest indication of judicial opinion on the part of the writer. The paragraphs are always brief. Each one is designed to commemorate a fact; but whether that fact be a display of virtue calculated to command our admiration, or a deed of atrocity fitted to awaken our disgust, it can hardly be said that there is anything in the language to convey to us the shadow of an idea the author’s feeling about it. The notices, for we cannot call them narratives, are absolutely unimpassioned. A base murder and a shining act of heroism are chronicled just as the eclipses of the sun are chronicled. So and so took place: that is all. No details are given; no judgment is expressed."

The following extract from the annals of a year taken at random will be sufficient to show that Dr Legge’s remarks are well founded. "1. In the 15th year in spring the duke went to Tse. 2. A body of men from Tsoo invaded Seu. 3. In the third month the duke had a meeting with the marquis of Tse and others, when they made a covenant in Mow-Kew, and then went on to Kwang. 4. Kung-sun Gaou led a force and, with the great officers of the other princes, endeavoured to relieve Seu. 5. In summer in the 5th month the sun was eclipsed. 6. In autumn in the 7th month an army of Tse and an army of Tsoo invaded Le. 7. In the 8th month there were locusts. 8. The dukes’daughter went to her home in Tsang. 9. On Ke-mao, the last day of the moon, the temple of E-pih was struck by lightning. 10. In winter a body of men from Sung invaded Tsaou." And so on page after page.

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