HISTORY—LEXICOGRAPHY - The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

So far as China is concerned, the art of writing history may be said to have been created during the period under review. SSU-MA CHIEN, the so-called Father of History, was born about B.c. 145. At the age of ten he was already a good scholar, and at twenty set forth upon a round of travel which carried him to all parts of the empire. In B.c. 110 his father died, and he stepped into the hereditary post of grand astrologer. After devoting some time and energy to the reformation of the calendar, he now took up the historical work which had been begun by his father, and which was ultimately given to the world as the Historical Record. It is a history of China from the earliest ages down to about one hundred years before the Christian era, in one hundred and thirty chapters, arranged under five headings, as follows:—(1) Annals of the Emperors; (2) Chronological Tables; (3) Eight chapters on Rites, Music, the Pitch-pipes, the Calendar, Astrology, Imperial Sacrifices, Watercourses, and Political Economy; (4) Annals of the Feudal Nobles; and (5) Biographies of many of the eminent men of the period, which covers nearly three thousand years. In such estimation is this work justly held that its very words have been counted, and found to number 526,500 in all. It must be borne in mind that these characters were, in all probability, scratched with a stylus on bamboo tablets, and that previous to this there was no such thing as a history on a general and comprehensive plan; in fact, nothing beyond mere local annals in the style of the Spring and Autumn.

Since the Historical Record, every dynasty has had its historian, their works in all cases being formed upon the model bequeathed by Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien. The Twenty-four Dynastic Histories of China were produced in 1747 in a uniform series bound up in 219 large volumes, and together show a record such as can be produced by no other country in the world.

The following are specimens of Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien's style:—

(1.) "When the House of Han arose, the evils of their predecessors had not passed away. Husbands still went off to the wars. The old and the young were employed in transporting food. Production was almost at a standstill, and money became scarce. So much so, that even the Son of Heaven had not carriage-horses of the same colour; the highest civil and military authorities rode in bullock-carts, and the people at large knew not where to lay their heads.

"At this epoch, the coinage in use was so heavy and cumbersome that the people themselves started a new issue at a fixed standard of value. But the laws were too lax, and it was impossible to prevent grasping persons from coining largely, buying largely, and then holding against a rise in the market. The consequence was that prices went up enormously. Rice sold at 10,000 cash per picul; a horse cost 100 ounces of silver. But by and by, when the empire was settling down to tranquillity, his Majesty Kao Tsu gave orders that no trader should wear silk nor ride in a carriage; besides which, the imposts levied upon this class were greatly increased, in order to keep them down. Some years later these restrictions were withdrawn; still, however, the descendants of traders were disqualified from holding any office connected with the State.

"Meanwhile, certain levies were made on a scale calculated to meet the exigencies of public expenditure; while the land-tax and customs revenue were regarded by all officials, from the Emperor downwards, as their own personal emolument. Grain was forwarded by water to the capital for the use of the officials there, but the quantity did not amount to more than a few hundred thousand piculs every year.

"Gradually the coinage began to deteriorate and light coins to circulate; whereupon another issue followed, each piece being marked 'half an ounce.' But at length the system of private issues led to serious abuses, resulting first of all in vast sums of money accumulating in the hands of individuals; finally, in rebellion, until the country was flooded with the coinage of the rebels, and it became necessary to enact laws against any such issues in the future.

"At this period the Huns were harassing our northern frontier, and soldiers were massed there in large bodies; in consequence of which food became so scarce that the authorities offered certain rank and titles of honour to those who would supply a given quantity of grain. Later on, drought ensued in the west, and in order to meet necessities of the moment, official rank was again made a marketable commodity, while those who broke the laws were allowed to commute their penalties by money payments. And now horses began to reappear in official stables, and in palace and hall signs of an ampler luxury were visible once more.

"Thus it was in the early days of the dynasty, until some seventy years after the accession of the House of Han. The empire was then at peace. For a long time there had been neither flood nor drought, and a season of plenty had ensued. The public granaries were well stocked; the Government treasuries were full. In the capital, strings of cash were piled in myriads, until the very strings rotted, and their tale could no longer be told. The grain in the Imperial storehouses grew mouldy year by year. It burst from the crammed granaries, and lay about until it became unfit for human food. The streets were thronged with horses belonging to the people, and on the highroads whole droves were to be seen, so that it became necessary to prohibit the public use of mares. Village elders ate meat and drank wine. Petty government clerkships and the like lapsed from father to son; the higher offices of State were treated as family heirlooms. For there had gone abroad a spirit of self-respect and of reverence for the law, while a sense of charity and of duty towards one's neighbour kept men aloof from disgrace and shame.

"At length, under lax laws, the wealthy began to use their riches for evil purposes of pride and self-aggrandisement and oppression of the weak. Members of the Imperial family received grants of land, while from the highest to the lowest, every one vied with his neighbour in lavishing money on houses, and appointments, and apparel, altogether beyond the limit of his means. Such is the everlasting law of the sequence of prosperity and decay.

"Then followed extensive military preparations in various parts of the empire; the establishment of a tradal route with the barbarians of the south-west, for which purpose mountains were hewn through for many miles. The object was to open up the resources of those remote districts, but the result was to swamp the inhabitants in hopeless ruin. Then, again, there was the subjugation of Korea; its transformation into an Imperial dependency; with other troubles nearer home. There was the ambush laid for the Huns, by which we forfeited their alliance, and brought them down upon our northern frontier. Nothing, in fact, but wars and rumours of wars from day to day. Money was constantly leaving the country. The financial stability of the empire was undermined, and its impoverished people were driven thereby into crime. Wealth had been frittered away, and its renewal was sought in corruption. Those who brought money in their hands received appointments under government. Those who could pay escaped the penalties of their guilt. Merit had to give way to money. Shame and scruples of conscience were laid aside. Laws and punishments were administered with severer hand. From this period must be dated the rise and growth of official venality."

(2.) "The Odes have it thus:—'We may gaze up to the mountain's brow: we may travel along the great road;' signifying that although we cannot hope to reach the goal, still we may push on thitherwards in spirit.

"While reading the works of Confucius, I have always fancied I could see the man as he was in life; and when I went to Shantung I actually beheld his carriage, his robes, and the material parts of his ceremonial usages. There were his descendants practising the old rites in their ancestral home, and I lingered on, unable to tear myself away. Many are the princes and prophets that the world has seen in its time, glorious in life, forgotten in death. But Confucius, though only a humble member of the cotton-clothed masses, remains among us after many generations. He is the model for such as would be wise. By all, from the Son of Heaven down to the meanest student, the supremacy of his principles is fully and freely admitted. He may indeed be pronounced the divinest of men."

(3.) "In the 9th moon the First Emperor was buried in Mount Li, which in the early days of his reign he had caused to be tunnelled and prepared with that view. Then, when he had consolidated the empire, he employed his soldiery, to the number of 700,000, to bore down to the Three Springs (that is, until water was reached), and there a foundation of bronze1 was laid and the sarcophagus placed thereon. Rare objects and costly jewels were collected from the palaces and from the various officials, and were carried thither and stored in vast quantities. Artificers were ordered to construct mechanical crossbows, which, if any one were to enter, would immediately discharge their arrows. With the aid of quicksilver, rivers were made, the Yang-tsze, the Hoang-ho, and the great ocean, the metal being poured from one into the other by machinery. On the roof were delineated the constellations of the sky, on the floor the geographical divisions of the earth. Candles were made from the fat of the man-fish (walrus), calculated to last for a very long time.

"The Second Emperor said, 'It is not fitting that the concubines of my late father who are without children should leave him now;' and accordingly he ordered them to accompany the dead monarch to the next world, those who thus perished being many in number.

"When the interment was completed, some one suggested that the workmen who had made the machinery and concealed the treasure knew the great value of the latter, and that the secret would leak out. Therefore, so soon as the ceremony was over, and the path giving access to the sarcophagus had been blocked up at its innermost end, the outside gate at the entrance to this path was let fall, and the mausoleum was effectually closed, so that not one of the workmen escaped. Trees and grass were then planted around, that the spot might look like the rest of the mountain."

The history by Ssŭ-ma Ch'ien stops about 100 years before Christ. To carry it on from that point was the ambition of a scholar named Pan Piao (A.D. 3-54), but he died while still collecting materials for his task. His son, PAN KU, whose scholarship was extensive and profound, took up the project, but was impeached on the ground that he was altering the national records at his own discretion, and was thrown into prison. Released on the representations of a brother, he continued his work; however, before its completion he became involved in a political intrigue and was again thrown into prison, where he died. The Emperor handed the unfinished history to PAN CHAO, his gifted sister, who had been all along his assistant, and by her it was brought to completion down to about the Christian era, where the occupancy of the throne by a usurper divides the Han dynasty into two distinct periods. This lady was also the author of a volume of moral advice to young women, and of many poems and essays.

Lexicography, which has since been so widely cultivated by the Chinese, was called into being by a famous scholar named HSÜ SHÊN (d. a.d. 120). Entering upon an official career, he soon retired and devoted the rest of his life to books. He was a deep student of the Five Classics, and wrote a work on the discrepancies in the various criticisms of these books. But it is by his Shuo Wên that he is now known. This was a collection, with short explanatory notes, of all the characters—about ten thousand—which were to be found in Chinese literature as then existing, written in what is now known as the Lesser Seal style. It is the oldest Chinese dictionary of which we have any record, and has hitherto formed the basis of all etymological research. It is arranged under 540 radicals or classifiers, that is to say, specially selected portions of characters which indicate to some extent the direction in which lies the sense of the whole character, and its chief object was to exhibit the pictorial features of Chinese writing.


1 Variant "firm," i.e. was firmly laid.