A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The T'ang Dynasty (A.D. 600-900)

THE classical scholarship of the Tang dynasty was neither very original nor very profound. It is true that the second Emperor founded a College of Learning, but its members were content to continue the traditions of the Hans, and comparatively little was achieved in the line of independent research. Foremost among the names in the above College stands that of Lu YÜAN-LANG (550-625). He had been Imperial Librarian under the preceding dynasty, and later on distinguished himself by his defence of Confucianism against both Buddhist and Taoist attacks. He published a valuable work on the explanations of terms and phrases in the Classics and in Taoist writers.

Scarcely less eminent as a scholar was WEI CHÊNG (581-643), who also gained great reputation as a military commander. He was appointed President of the Commission for drawing up the history of the previous dynasty, and he was, in addition, a poet of no mean order. At his death the Emperor said, "You may use copper as a mirror for the person; you may use the past as a mirror for politics; and you may use man as a mirror to guide one's judgment in ordinary affairs. These three mirrors I have always carefully cherished; but now that Wei Chêng is gone, I have lost one of them."

Another well-known scholar is YEN SHIH-KU (579645). He was employed upon a recension of the Classics, and also upon a new and annotated edition of the history of the Han dynasty; but his exegesis in the former case caused dissatisfaction, and he was ordered to a provincial post. Although nominally reinstated before this degradation took effect, his ambition was so far wounded that he ceased to be the same man. He lived henceforth a retired and simple life.

LI PO-YAO (565-648) was so sickly a child, and swallowed so much medicine, that his grandmother insisted on naming him Po-yao = Pharmacopoeia, while his precocious cleverness earned for him the sobriquet of the Prodigy. Entering upon a public career, he neglected his work for gaming and drink, and after a short spell of office he retired. Later on he rose once more, and completed the History of the Northern Ch'i Dynasty.

A descendant of Confucius in the thirty-second degree, and a distinguished scholar and public functionary, was K'UNG YING-TA (574-648). He wrote a commentary on the Book of Odes, and is credited with certain portions of the History of the Sui Dynasty. Besides this, he is responsible for comments and glosses on the Great Learning and on the Doctrine of the Mean.

Lexicography was perhaps the department of pure scholarship in which the greatest advances were made. Dictionaries on the phonetic system, based upon the work of Lu Fa-yen of the sixth century, came very much into vogue, as opposed to those on the radical system initiated by Hsü Shên. Not that the splendid work of the latter was allowed to suffer from neglect. LI YANG-PING, of the eighth century, devoted much time and labour to improving and adding to its pages. The latter was a Government official, and when filling a post as magistrate in 763, he is said to have obtained rain during a drought by threatening the City God with the destruction of his temple unless his prayers were answered within three days.

CHANG CHIH-HO (eighth century), author of a work on the conservation of vitality, was of a romantic turn of mind and especially fond of Taoist speculations. He took office under the Emperor Su Tsung of the T'ang dynasty, but got into some trouble and was banished. Soon after this he shared in a general pardon; whereupon he fled to the woods and mountains and became a wandering recluse, calling himself the Old Fisherman of the Mists and Waters. He spent his time in angling, but used no bait, his object not being to catch fish. When asked why he roamed about, Chang answered and said, "With the empyrean as my home, the bright moon my constant companion, and the four seas my inseparable friends,—what mean you by roaming?" And when a friend offered him a comfortable home instead of his poor boat, he replied, "I prefer to follow the gulls into cloudland, rather than to bury my eternal self beneath the dust of the world."

The author of the T'ung Tien, an elaborate treatise on the constitution, still extant, was Tu Yu (d. 812). It is divided into eight sections under Political Economy, Examinations and Degrees, Government Offices, Rites, Music, Military Discipline, Geography, and National Defences.

Among writers of general prose literature, LIU TSUNG-YÜAN (773-819) has left behind him much that for purity of style and felicity of expression has rarely been surpassed. Besides being poet, essayist, and calligraphist, he was a Secretary in the Board of Rites. There he became involved in a conspiracy, and was banished to a distant spot, where he died. His views were deeply tinged with Buddhist thought, for which he was often severely censured, once in a letter by his friend and master, Han Yü. These few lines are part of his reply on the latter occasion:—

"The features I admire in Buddhism are those which are coincident with the principles enunciated in our own sacred books. And I do not think that, even were the holy sages of old to revisit the earth, they would fairly be able to denounce these. Now, Han Yü objects to the Buddhist commandments. He objects to the bald pates of the priests, their dark robes, their renunciation of domestic ties, their idleness, and life generally at the expense of others. So do I. But Han Yü misses the kernel while railing at the husk. He sees the lode, but not the ore. I see both; hence my partiality for this faith.

"Again, intercourse with men of this religion does not necessarily imply conversion. Even if it did, Buddhism admits no envious rivalry for place or power. The majority of its adherents love only to lead a simple life of contemplation amid the charms of hill and stream. And when I turn my gaze towards the hurry-scurry of the age, in its daily race for the seals and tassels of office, I ask myself if I am to reject those in order to take my place among the ranks of these.

"The Buddhist priest, Hao-ch'u, is a man of placid temperament and of passions subdued. He is a fine scholar. His only joy is to muse o'er flood and fell, with occasional indulgence in the delights of composition. His family follow in the same path. He is independent of all men, and no more to be compared with those heterodox sages of whom we make so much than with the vulgar herd of the greedy, grasping world around us."

On this the commentator remarks, that one must have the genius of Han Yü to condemn Buddhism, the genius of Liu Tsung-yüan to indulge in it.

Here is a short study on a great question:—

"Over the western hills the road trends away towards the north, and on the farther side of the pass separates into two. The westerly branch leads to nowhere in particular; but if you follow the other, which takes a north-easterly turn, for about a quarter of a mile, you will find that the path ends abruptly, while the stream forks to enclose a steep pile of boulders. On the summit of this pile there is what appears to be an elegantly built look-out tower; below, as it were a battlemented wall, pierced by a city gate, through which one gazes into darkness. A stone thrown in here falls with a splash suggestive of water, and the reverberations of this sound are audible for some time. There is a way round from behind up to the top, whence nothing is seen far and wide except groves of fine straight trees, which, strange to say, are grouped symmetrically, as if by an artist's hand.

"Now, I have always had my doubts about the existence of a God, but this scene made me think He really must exist. At the same time, however, I began to wonder why He did not place it in some worthy centre of civilisation, rather than in this out-of-the-way barbarous region, where for centuries there has been no one to enjoy its beauty. And so, on the other hand, such waste of labour and incongruity of position disposed me to think that there cannot be a God after all."

One favourite piece is a letter which Liu Tsung-yüan writes in a bantering style to congratulate a well-to-do literary man on having lost everything in a fire, especially, as he explains, if the victim has been "utterly and irretrievably beggared." It will give such a rare opportunity, he points out, to show the world that there was no connection whatever between worldly means and literary reputation.

A well-known satirical piece by Liu Tsung-yüan is entitled "Catching Snakes," and is directed against the hardships of over-taxation:—

"In the wilds of Hu-kuang there is an extraordinary kind of snake, having a black body with white rings. Deadly fatal, even to the grass and trees it may chance to touch; in man, its bite is absolutely incurable. Yet, if caught and prepared, when dry, in the form of cakes, the flesh of this snake will soothe excitement, heal leprous sores, remove sloughing flesh, and expel evil spirits. And so it came about that the Court physician, acting under Imperial orders, exacted from each family a return of two of these snakes every year; but as few persons were able to comply with the demand, it was subsequently made known that the return of snakes was to be considered in lieu of the usual taxes. Thereupon there ensued a general stampede among the people of those parts."

It turned out, however, that snake-catching was actually less deadly than paying such taxes as were exacted from those who dared not face its risks and elected to contribute in the ordinary way. One man, whose father and grandfather had both perished from snake-bites, declared that after all he was better off than his neighbours, who were ground down and beggared by the iniquities of the tax-gatherer. "Harsh tyrants," he explained, "sweep down upon us, and throw everybody and everything, even to the brute beasts, into paroxysms of terror and disorder. But I,—I get up in the morning and look into the jar where my snakes are kept; and if they are still there, I lie down at night in peace. At the appointed time, I take care that they are fit to be handed in; and when that is done, I retire to enjoy the produce of my farm and complete the allotted span of my existence. Only twice a year have I to risk my life: the rest is peaceful enough and not to be compared with the daily round of annoyance which falls to the share of my fellow-villagers."

A similar satire on over-government introduces a deformed gardener called Camel-back. This man was extraordinarily successful as a nurseryman:—

"One day a customer asked him how this was so; to which he replied, 'Old Camel-back cannot make trees live or thrive. He can only let them follow their natural tendencies. Now in planting trees, be careful to set the root straight, to smooth the earth around them, to use good mould, and to ram it down well. Then, don't touch them; don't think about them; don't go and look at them; but leave them alone to take care of themselves, and nature will do the rest. I only avoid trying to make my trees grow. I have no special method of cultivation, no special means for securing luxuriance of growth. I only don't spoil the fruit. I have no way of getting it either early or in abundance. Other gardeners set with bent root and neglect the mould. They heap up either too much earth or too little. Or if not this, then they become too fond of and too anxious about their trees, and are for ever running backwards and forwards to see how they are growing; sometimes scratching them to make sure they are still alive, or shaking them about to see if they are sufficiently firm in the ground; thus constantly interfering with the natural bias of the tree, and turning their affection and care into an absolute bane and a curse. I only don't do these things. That's all.'

"'Can these principles you have just now set forth be applied to government?' asked his listener. 'Ah!' replied Camel-back, 'I only understand nursery-gardening: government is not my trade. Still, in the village where I live, the officials are for ever issuing all kinds of orders, as if greatly compassionating the people, though really to their utter injury. Morning and night the underlings come round and say, 'His Honour bids us urge on your ploughing, hasten your planting, and superintend your harvest. Do not delay with your spinning and weaving. Take care of your children. Rear poultry and pigs. Come together when the drum beats. Be ready at the sound of the rattle.' Thus are we poor people badgered from morn till eve. We have not a moment to ourselves. How could any one flourish and develop naturally under such conditions?'"

In his prose writings Han Yü showed even more variety of subject than in his verse. His farewell words to his dead friend Liu Tsung-yüan, read, according to Chinese custom, by the side of the bier or at the grave, and then burnt as a means of communicating them to the deceased, are widely known to his countrymen:—

"Alas! Tzŭ-hou, and hast thou come to this pass?—Fool that I am! is it not the pass to which mortals have ever come? Man is born into the world like a dream: what need has he to take note of gain or loss? While the dream lasts, he may sorrow or may joy; but when the awakening is at hand, why cling regretfully to the past?

"Twere well for all things an they had no worth. The excellence of its wood is the bane of the tree. And thou, whose early genius knew no curb, weaver of the jewelled words, thou wilt be remembered when the imbeciles of fortune and place are forgot.

"The unskilful bungler hacks his hands and streams with sweat, while the expert craftsman looks on with folded arms. O my friend, thy work was not for this age; though I, a bungler, have found employment in the service of the State. Thou didst know thyself above the common herd; but when in shame thou didst depart never to return, the Philistines usurped thy place.

"Alas! Tzŭ-hou, now thou art no more. But thy last wish, that I should care for thy little son, is still ringing sadly in my ears. The friendships of the day are those of self-interest alone. How can I feel sure that I shall live to carry out thy behest? I did not arrogate to myself this duty. Thou thyself hast bidden me to the task; and, by the Gods above, I will not betray thy trust.

"Thou hast gone to thy eternal home, and wilt not return. With these sacrifices by thy coffin's side, I utter an affectionate farewell."

The following passages are taken from his essay on the Way or Method of Confucianism:—

"Had there been no sages of old, the race of man would have long since become extinct. Men have not fur and feathers and scales to adjust the temperature of their bodies; neither have they claws and fangs to aid them in the struggle for food. Hence their organisation, as follows:—The sovereign issues commands. The minister carries out these commands, and makes them known to the people. The people produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of everyday use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers. The sovereign who fails to issue his commands loses his raison d'être; the minister who fails to carry out his sovereign's commands, and to make them known to the people, loses his raison d'être; the people who fail to produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of everyday use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers, should lose their heads."

… …

"And if I am asked what Method is this, I reply that it is what I call the Method, and not merely a method like those of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha. The Emperor Yao handed it down to the Emperor Shun; the Emperor Shun handed it down to the Great Yü; and so on until it reached Confucius, and lastly Mencius, who died without transmitting it to any one else. Then followed the heterodox schools of Hsün and Yang, wherein much that was essential was passed over, while the criterion was vaguely formulated. In the days before Chou Kung, the Sages were themselves rulers; hence they were able to secure the reception of their Method. In the days after Chou Kung, the Sages were all high officers of State; hence its duration through a long period of time.

"And now, it will be asked, what is the remedy? I answer that unless these false doctrines are rooted out, the true faith will not prevail. Let us insist that the followers of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha behave themselves like ordinary mortals. Let us burn their books. Let us turn their temples into dwelling-houses. Let us make manifest the Method of our ancient kings, in order that men may be led to embrace its teachings."

Of the character of Han Yü's famous ultimatum to the crocodile, which all Chinese writers have regarded as a real creature, though probably the name is but an allegorical veil, the following extract may suffice:—

"O Crocodile! thou and I cannot rest together here. The Son of Heaven has confided this district and this people to my charge; and thou, O goggle-eyed, by disturbing the peace of this river and devouring the people and their domestic animals, the bears, the boars, and deer of the neighbourhood, in order to batten thyself and reproduce thy kind,—thou art challenging me to a struggle of life and death. And I, though of weakly frame, am I to bow the knee and yield before a crocodile? No! I am the lawful guardian of this place, and I would scorn to decline thy challenge, even were it to cost me my life.

"Still, in virtue of my commission from the Son of Heaven, I am bound to give fair warning; and thou, O crocodile, if thou art wise, will pay due heed to my words. There before thee lies the broad ocean, the domain alike of the whale and the shrimp. Go thither and live in peace. It is but the journey of a day."

The death of a dearly loved nephew, comparatively near to him in age, drew from Han Yü a long and pathetic "In Memoriam," conveyed, as mentioned above, to the ears of the departed through the medium of fire and smoke. These are two short extracts

"The line of my noble-hearted brother has indeed been prematurely cut off. Thy pure intelligence, hope of the family, survives not to continue the traditions of his house. Unfathomable are the appointments of what men call Heaven: inscrutable are the workings of the unseen: unknowable are the mysteries of eternal truth: unrecognisable those who are destined to attain to old age!

"Henceforth my grey hairs will grow white, my strength fail. Physically and mentally hurrying on to decay, how long before I shall follow thee? If there is knowledge after death, this separation will be but for a little while. If there is not knowledge after death, so will this sorrow be but for a little while, and then no more sorrow for ever."

… … .

"O ye blue heavens, when shall my sorrow have end? Henceforth the world has no charms. I will get me a few acres on the banks of the Ying, and there await the end, teaching my son and thy son, if haply they may grow up,—my daughter and thy daughter, until their day of marriage comes. Alas! though words fail, love endureth. Dost thou hear, or dost thou not hear? Woe is me: Heaven bless thee!"

Of all Han Yü's writings in prose or in verse, there was not one which caused anything like the sensation produced by his memorial to the Emperor on the subject of Buddha's bone. The fact was, Buddhism was making vast strides in popular esteem, and but for some such bold stand as was made on this occasion by a leading man, the prestige of Confucianism would have received a staggering blow. Here is an extract from this fiery document, which sent its author into exile and nearly cost him his life:—

"Your servant has now heard that instructions have been issued to the priestly community to proceed to Fêng-hsiang and receive a bone of Buddha, and that from a high tower your Majesty will view its introduction into the Imperial Palace; also that orders have been sent to the various temples, commanding that the relic be received with the proper ceremonies. Now, foolish though your servant may be, he is well aware that your Majesty does not do this in the vain hope of deriving advantages therefrom; but that in the fulness of our present plenty, and in the joy which reigns in the heart of all, there is a desire to fall in with the wishes of the people in the celebration at the capital of this delusive mummery. For how could the wisdom of your Majesty stoop to participate in such ridiculous beliefs? Still the people are slow of perception and easily beguiled; and should they behold your Majesty thus earnestly worshipping at the feet of Buddha, they would cry out, 'See! the Son of Heaven, the All-Wise, is a fervent believer; who are we, his people, that we should spare our bodies?' Then would ensue a scorching of heads and burning of fingers; crowds would collect together, and, tearing off their clothes and scattering their money, would spend their time from morn to eve in imitation of your Majesty's example. The result would be that by and by young and old, seized with the same enthusiasm, would totally neglect the business of their lives; and should your Majesty not prohibit it, they would be found flocking to the temples, ready to cut off an arm or slice their bodies as an offering to the god. Thus would our traditions and customs be seriously injured, and ourselves become a laughingstock on the face of the earth;—truly, no small matter!

"For Buddha was a barbarian. His language was not the language of China. His clothes were of an alien cut. He did not utter the maxims of our ancient rulers, nor conform to the customs which they have handed down. He did not appreciate the bond between prince and minister, the tie between father and son. Supposing, indeed, this Buddha had come to our capital in the flesh, under an appointment from his own State, then your Majesty might have received him with a few words of admonition, bestowing on him a banquet and a suit of clothes, previous to sending him out of the country with an escort of soldiers, and thereby have avoided any dangerous influence on the minds of the people. But what are the facts? The bone of a man long since dead and decomposed is to be admitted, forsooth, within the precincts of the Imperial Palace! Confucius said, 'Pay all respect to spiritual beings, but keep them at a distance.' And so, when the princes of old paid visits of condolence to one another, it was customary for them to send on a magician in advance, with a peach-wand in his hand, whereby to expel all noxious influences previous to the arrival of his master. Yet now your Majesty is about to causelessly introduce a disgusting object, personally taking part in the proceedings, without the intervention either of the magician or of his peach-wand. Of the officials, not one has raised his voice against it; of the censors, not one has pointed out the enormity of such an act. Therefore your servant, overwhelmed with shame for the censors, implores your Majesty that these bones be handed over for destruction by fire or water, whereby the root of this great evil may be exterminated for all time, and the people know how much the wisdom of your Majesty surpasses that of ordinary men. The glory of such a deed will be beyond all praise. And should the Lord Buddha have power to avenge this insult by the infliction of some misfortune, then let the vials of his wrath be poured out upon the person of your servant, who now calls Heaven to witness that he will not repent him of his oath."

A writer named Li HUA, of whom little is known except that he flourished in the ninth century, has left behind him one very much admired piece entitled "On an Old Battlefield":—

"Vast, vast,—a limitless extent of flat sand, without a human being in sight, girdled by a stream and dotted with hills, where in the dismal twilight the wind moans at the setting sun. Shrubs gone: grass withered: all chill as the hoar-frost of early morn. The birds of the air fly past: the beasts of the field shun the spot; for it is, as I was informed by the keeper, the site of an old battlefield. 'Many a time and oft,' said he, 'has an army been overthrown on this spot; and the voices of the dead may frequently be heard weeping and wailing in the darkness of the night.'"

This is how the writer calls up in imagination the ghastly scene of long ago:—

"And now the cruel spear does its work, the startled sand blinds the combatants locked fast in the death-struggle; while hill and vale and stream groan beneath the flash and crash of arms. By and by, the chill cold shades of night fall upon them, knee-deep in snow, beards stiff with ice. The hardy vulture seeks its nest: the strength of the war-horse is broken. Clothes are of no avail; hands frost-bitten, flesh cracked. Even nature lends her aid to the Tartars, contributing a deadly blast, the better to complete the work of slaughter begun. Ambulance waggons block the way: our men succumb to flank attacks. Their officers have surrendered: their general is dead. The river is choked with corpses to its topmost banks: the fosses of the Great Wall are swimming over with blood. All distinctions are obliterated in that heap of rotting bones… .

"Faintly and more faintly beats the drum. Strength exhausted, arrows spent, bow-strings snapped, swords shattered, the two armies fall upon one another in the supreme struggle for life or death. To yield is to become the barbarian's slave: to fight is to mingle our bones with the desert sand… .

"No sound of bird now breaks from the hushed hillside. All is still save the wind whistling through the long night. Ghosts of the dead wander hither and thither in the gloom: spirits from the nether world collect under the dark clouds. The sun rises and shines coldly over the trampled grass, while the fading moon still twinkles upon the frost flakes scattered around. What sight more horrible than this!"

The havoc wrought by the dreaded Tartars is indeed the theme of many a poem in prose as well as in verse. The following lines by CH'ÊN T'AO, of about this date, record a patriotic oath of indignant volunteers and the mournful issue of fruitless valour:—

"They swore the Huns should perish:

they would die if needs they must… .

And now five thousand, sable-clad,

have bit the Tartar dust.

Along the river-bank their bones

lie scattered where they may,

But still their forms in dreams arise

to fair ones far away."

Among their other glories, the Tangs may be said to have witnessed the birth of popular literature, soon to receive, in common with classical scholarship, an impetus the like of which had never yet been felt.

But we must now take leave of this dynasty, the name of which has survived in common parlance to this day. For just as the northerners are proud to call themselves "sons of Han," so do the Chinese of the more southern provinces still delight to be known as the "men of Tang."