1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Doctrine and Style of Confucius; Wholesale Destruction of Books.

(Part 47)


Doctrine and Style of Confucius. Wholesale Destruction of Books.

Doctrine and Style of Confucius

We have dwelt at some length on the classics, because, since they are the sacred books of China, it is natural to suppose that in them we may find the mainspring of the national literature. Unfortunately, to some extent this is the case, and Confucius has much to answer for, both as regards his teaching and the literary model he bequeathed to his countrymen. Instead of encouraging his disciples to think for themselves, to look into their own hearts, and to acquire that personal knowledge that enables a man to stand alone, he led them out both by precept and example into the dreary waste of cold formalism, in which all individuality is lost, and all force and originality of thinking is crushed out. It may be said that, as far as his teachings were concerned, he strove to suit his system to the capacity of his audience ; and that he was successful in so doing is proved by the fact that for twenty-two centuries his name has been revered and his precepts have been followed by his countrymen of whatever rank and station in life.

As has been well observed by Wells Williams, "If Confucius had transmitted to posterity such works as the Iliad, the De Officiis, or the Dialogues of Plato, he would no doubt have taken a higher rank among the commanding intellects of the world ; but it may be reasonably doubted whether his influence among his own countrymen would have been as good or as lasting. The variety and minuteness of his instructions for the nurture and education of children, the stress he lays upon filial duty, the detail of etiquette and conduct he gives for the intercourse of all classes and ranks in society, characterize his writings from those of al philosopher in other countries, who, comparitively speaking, gave small thought to the education of the young. The Four Books and the Five Classics would not, as far as regards their intrinsic character in comparison with other productions, be considered anything more than curiosities in literature, for their antiquity and language, were it not for the incomparable influence they have exerted over so many millions of minds."

But no such apology can be offered for the example he set them in the substance and style of his writings. And we are forced to the conclusion that, though a man o great force of character, he was yet strangely devote of imagination, and that in his blind admiration for the ancient, he constrained himself to walk humbly and passively in the paths that had been traced by other. At all events he has done his countrymen an irreparable injury. The inflexible sterility of the earliest specimens of literature might possibly have been the characteristic of a particular phase in the national mind, but Confucius helped to perpetuate it throughout all generations. As might be expected, in no class of the literature is the effect thus produced more apparent than in the commentaries on the classics. These works are to be numbered by thousands, and, with some few exceptions, they are, as has been said of the writings of the scribes at the time of our Lord, cold in manner, second-hand and iterative in their very essence ; with no freshness in them, no force, no fire ; servile to all authority, opposed to all independence ; never passing a hair’s-breadth beyond the carefully-watched boundary line of precedent ; full of balanced inference and orthodox hesitancy, and impossible literalism ; elevating mere memory above genius, and repetition above originality.

But whatever may be the shortcoming of Confucius as a writer, the respect he felt and inculcated for letters gave an impetus to literature. Following the example he set, men began to compile the histories of the various states; and authors with a turn for more original composition busied themselves with the production of works on such arts and sciences, including medicine, mathematics, law, and husbandry, as were known to them. It was just as this new industry was beginning to flourish that the Emperor Che Hwang-ti, to whom reference has already been made, an able and ambitious prince, ascended the throne. By a judicious mixture of fore and diplomacy, he abolished the feudal states, into which the empire had up to his time been divided, and drew all power and authority into his own hands.

Wholesale Destruction of Books

Estimating the traditions of the past to be almost as potent as Confucius has supposed, and for that very reason deeming them as dangerous to the existence of his rule as Confucius had considered them to be beneficial to the empire, he determined to break with them once and for ever. He therefore issued an order that all books should be burned, except those containing records of his own reign ; that all who dared to speak together about the Book of Odes or the Book of History (harmless subject enough, one would think) should be put to death, and their bodies exposed in the market-place ; that those who should make mention of the past, so as to blame the present, should be put to death along with their relatives ; and that any one possessing a book after the lapse of thirty days from the issuing of the ordinance should be branded and sent to labour on the Great Wall for four years. The publication of this edict was followed shortly afterwards by an order for the execution of upwards of 460 scholars who had failed to obey the mandate of the emperor.

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