1902 Encyclopedia > China > Chinese Literature (cont.) - Encyclopaedias; Taoist Literature.

(Part 50)


Encyclopaedias. Taoist Literature.


It would not be dealing fairly by Chinese literature were we to leave this part of our subject without referring to the historical and literary encyclopaedias which form so very notable a feature in every library throughout the country. The best known of these compilations, and the one which may be taken as a specimen of the class, is the W_n heen tung kaou, by Ma Twan-lin. This work has been more largely drawn upon by European authors than has any other Chinese book of reference, and those who are best acquainted with it are those who speak most highly in its praise. "One cannot cease to admire," says Remusat, "the depth of research which the author was compelled to make in order to collect his materials, the sagacity he was shown in the arrangement of them, and the clearness and precision with which he has presented this multitude of object in every light. It may fairly be said that this excellent work is a library in itself, and that if Chinese literature contained nothing else, it would be worth while to learn the language in order to read it. One has only to choose the subject one wishes to study, and one finds all the facts recorded and classified, all the sources of information indicated, and all the authorities cited and discussed." "It elevated our opinion," says Wells Williams, "of a nation whose literature can boast of a work like this exhibiting such patient investigation and candid comparison of authorities, such varied research and just discrimination of what is truly important, and so extensive a mass of facts and opinions upon subject of historical interest."

In point of size and importance, however, this encyclopedaedia yields place to one other, entitled Koo kin too shoo tseih ching, or A Complete Collection of Ancient and Modern Books. During the reign of the Emperor Kang-he (1661-1721) it occurred to that monarch that, in view of the gradual alterations which were being introduced into the texts of works of interest and value, it would be advisable to reprint such from the old editions. He therefore appointed a commission, and directed them to reprint in one huge collection all such works as they might deem worthy of preservation. A complete set of copper type was cast for the undertaking, and when the commissioners brought their labours to a close, they were able to lay before the emperor a very palpable proof of their diligence in the shape of a compilation consisting of 6109 volumes. The contents they divided under thirty-two heads, embracing works on every subjects contained in the national literature. Only a small edition was printed off in the first instance, and before long the Government, yielding to the necessities of a severe monetary crisis, ordered the copper type employed to print it to be melted down for cash. Thus only a few copies of the first edition are in existence, and it is but rarely that one finds its way into the market. It so happens, however, that one is now (1876) for sale of Peking, and it is much to be hoped that this copy of a work which is the largest in the world, unique, of its kind, and incapable of reproduction, may, though at present fate is adverse, find it way to the shelves of some one of the great libraries of the West.

Taoist Literature

Space would fail were we even to refer to the immense number of biographies and of works on the sciences, on education, and on jurisprudence, which have from time to time issued, and are still issuing, from the presses in China. Nor need the literature of the religious sects of China—the Confucianists, the Buddhists, and the Taouists—detain us long, since the works of Confucius have already been noticed, and the since the great bulk of Chinese Buddhist literature is of Indian origin. It remains, therefore, for us to refer only to the Taouist literature, which his its foundation in The Sûtra of Reason and of Virtue by Laoutsze, the founder of the sect. Like Confucius, of whom he was a contemporary, he held office at the court of Chow; but being less ambitious than the sage, he retired early from his post, and we are told that as he passed the frontier on his way westward, whither we know not, he placed in the hands of the officer in charge of the frontier guard a small volume, which embodied the results of his meditations.

According to the interpretation put upon his system thus expounded by the famous commentator Choo He, it would appear to bear a strong analogy to those of the Quietists and Manicheists. "Laou-tsze’s scheme of philosophy," he tells us, "consists in modesty, self-emptiness, in being void of desires, quiet and free from exertion, in being self-empty, retiring, and self-controlling in actual life." But beyond this his great object seems to have been to elucidate and develop his idea of the relations between something which he calls Taou and the universe. To this Taou, Laou-tsze refers all things as the ultimate ideal unity of the universe. All things originate from Taou,conform to Taou, and to Taou they at last return. Formless, it is the cause of form. It is an eternal road ; along it all beings and all things walk ; but no being made it, for it is being itself, and yet nothing. It is the path, and also the path-goers, and everything and nothing, and the cause and effect of all.

This is sufficiently mystical foundation to allow of any superstructures, however wildly superstitious, to be based upon it. And just as the religion of ancient Rome became incrusted and overlaid by superstitious vanities gathered from Egypt, and from wherever the Roman arms penetrated so the teachings of Laou-tsze have been debased and disfigured in the hands of later writers, who, casting aside his profound speculations, busy themselves with the pursuit of immortality, the search after the philosopher’s stone, the use of amulets, with the observance of facts and sacrifices, rituals and charms, and the indefinite multiplication of objects of worship.

Read the rest of this article:
China - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-21 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries