1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Historical Records; Topographical Works.

(Part 49)


Historical Records. Topographical Works.

Historical Records

At this and at later periods the art of printing has been turned to no better purpose in China than to the publication of the histories of the various dynasties. Debarred both by the nature of the material at their command and by a lack of original genius from indulging in the higher branches of imaginative writing, Chinese authors have devoted themselves with untiring energy and with very considerable ability to the compilation of information concerning the physical and political features of their own and the neighbouring countries. Each dynasty has its official chronicle of these subjects, and the celebrated collection of twenty-one histories, which forms a well-nigh unbroken record of the nation’s annals, by contemporary authors from the 3rd century B.C. down to the middle of the 17th century, forms a notable monuments of the indefatigable industry of their authors. The edition of this huge work which stands on the shelves of the Chinese library at the British Museum is contained in sixty-six Chinese European-bound volumes of folio size. In order to facilitate the process of reference the different histories of which it is composed, though they vary considerably in extent, are all formed on the same model. First in order come the Imperial Records, which consist of the purely political which occurred in each reign ; then follow the Memoirs, including articles on mathematical chronology, rites, music, jurisprudence, political economy, state sacrifices, astronomy, elemental influences, geography, literature, biographies, and records of the neighbouring countries.

On all these subjects they contain a vast amount of valuablel and varied information, much of which possesses considerable interest for European readers. The position which China, as nation, has occupied and maintained through so many centuries has been such as to render her the natural depository of the annals of the kingdoms of Central and Eastern Asia. With Burmah, Cochin-China, Tibet, Japan, and Corea as her vassels, with a never-ceasing relationship with the tribes of Central Asia, kept up as times and circumstances changed, now subjects, now as allies, and now as enemies, alone unchanging in her political constitution amidst the recurring wrecks of neighbouring states, she has had the means at her command of collecting masses of the ethnological information which are beyond the reach of any other people. The movements of the tribes in Central Asia, to which her policy has largely contributed, are all clearly traced in the dynastic annals ; and it was with the view of placing the record of these within the reach of European readers that a proposal was recently made to translate, as a beginning, the history of the Han dynasty.

Topographical Works

Allied to these annals are the topographical works of China, which for breadth of scope and of minuteness of detail are scarcely to be equalled in the literature of any other country. The most generally comprehensive of these is he Ta Tsing yih tung chi, which forms a geography of the empire, together with the Chinese districts of Mongolia and Manchuria as existing since the accession of the present dynasty. This work, which consists of 356 books, was published at Peking in the year 1744. In it each province, each prefecture, each department, and each district is separately dealt with ; and all are severally treated of under the following twenty-four headings :—1. A table of the changes which the district to be described has undergone during the successive dynasties from the Han downwards ; 2. Maps ; 3. A list of the distances from the various places to the chief towns of the department; 4. Its astronomical bearings ; 5. Its ancient geography ; 6. Its geographical position and its notable localities ; 7. The manners and customs of the inhabitants ; 8. Its fortified places ; 9. Its colleges and schools ; 10. The census of the population ; 11. The taxes on land ; 12. Its mountains and rivers ; 13. Its antiquities ; 14. Its means of defence ; 15. Its bridges ; 16. Its dykes ; 17. Its tombs and monuments ; 18 Its temples and ancestral halls ; 19. Its Buddhist and Taouist temples ; 20. Patriotic native officials from the time of the Han dynasty downwards ; 21. Celebrated men and things ; 22 Illustrious women ; 23. Saints and immortals ; 24. The products of the soil.

On this model district topographies have also been compiled, under official superintendence, of every province, every prefecture, every department, and almost every district. And not only this, but the water-ways of China, as well as the rivers of Manchuria, Mongolia, and Tibet, have all been accurately surveyed and minutely described. The narrow train of thought, however, into which the system of Chinese education has compressed the mind of the people tends to develop in them a faculty for the observation of minute details rather than to foster the power of taking a correct comprehensive view of any wide subject. This peculiarity is observable in the class of works just spoken of ; for while they are wonderfully accurate as to details, their maps and general descriptions are often vague and untrustworthy. But when we remember how only recently the very important duty of causing surveys to be made of the British Islands has been undertaken by the Government, it becomes us rather to speak with respect of the energy and wisdom shown by the Chinese topographers, than to criticise too closely their shortcoming.

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