MISCELLANEOUS LITERATURE-POETRY - The Mongol dynasty (A.D. 1200-1368)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Mongol dynasty (A.D. 1200-1368)

THE thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed a remarkable political revolution. China was conquered by the Mongols, and for the first time in history the empire passed under the rule of an alien sovereign. No exact date can be assigned for the transference of the Imperial power. In 1264 Kublai Khan fixed his capital at Peking, and in 1271 he adopted Yüan as his dynastic style. It was not, however, until 1279 that the patriot statesman, Chao Ping, had his retreat cut off, and despairing of his country, took upon his back the boy-Emperor, the last of the Sungs, and jumped from his doomed vessel into the river, thus bringing the great fire-led dynasty to an end.

Kublai Khan, who was a confirmed Buddhist, paid great honour to Confucius, and was a steady patron of literature. In 1269 he caused Bashpa, a Tibetan priest, to construct an alphabet for the Mongol language; in 1280 the calendar was revised; and in 1287 the Imperial Academy was opened. But he could not forgive WÊN T'LEN-HSLANG (1236-1283), the renowned patriot and scholar, who had fought so bravely but unsuccessfully against him. In 1279 the latter was conveyed to Peking, on which journey he passed eight days without eating. Every effort was made to induce him to own allegiance to the Mongol Emperor, but without success. He was kept in prison for three years. At length he was summoned into the presence of Kublai Khan, who said to him, "What is it you want?" "By the grace of the Sung Emperor," Wên T'ien-hsiang replied, "I became his Majesty's Minister. I cannot serve two masters. I only ask to die." Accordingly he was executed, meeting his death with composure, and making a final obeisance southwards, as though his own sovereign was still reigning in his own capital. The following poem was written by Wên T'ien-hsiang while in captivity:—

"There is in the universe an Aura which permeates all things and makes them what they are. Below, it shapes forth land and water; above, the sun and the stars. In man it is called spirit; and there is nowhere where it is not.

"In times of national tranquillity this spirit lies perdu in the harmony which prevails; only at some great crisis is it manifested widely abroad."

[Here follow ten historical instances of devotion and heroism.]

"Such is this grand and glorious spirit which endureth for all generations, and which, linked with the sun and the moon, knows neither beginning nor end. The foundation of all that is great and good in heaven and earth, it is itself born from the everlasting obligations which are due by man to man.

"Alas! the fates were against me. I was without resource. Bound with fetters, hurried away towards the north, death would have been sweet indeed; but that boon was refused.

"My dungeon is lighted by the will-o'-the-wisp alone; no breath of spring cheers the murky solitude in which I dwell. The ox and the barb herd together in one stall, the rooster and the phoenix feed together from one dish. Exposed to mist and dew, I had many times thought to die; and yet, through the seasons of two revolving years, disease hovered round me in vain. The dank, unhealthy soil to me became paradise itself. For there was that within me which misfortune could not steal away. And so I remained firm, gazing at the white clouds floating over my head, and bearing in my heart a sorrow boundless as the sky.

"The sun of those dead heroes has long since set, but their record is before me still. And, while the wind whistles under the eaves, I open my books and read; and lo! in their presence my heart glows with a borrowed fire."

"I myself," adds the famous commentator, Lin Hsi-chung, of the seventeenth century, "in consequence of the rebellion in Fuhkien, lay in prison for two years, while deadly disease raged around. Daily I recited this poem several times over, and happily escaped; from which it is clear that the supremest efforts in literature move even the gods, and that it is not the verses of Tu Fu alone which can prevail against malarial fever."

At the final examination for his degree in 1256, Wên Tien-hsiang had been placed seventh on the list. However, the then Emperor, on looking over the papers of the candidates before the result was announced, was immensely struck by his work, and sent for the grand examiner to reconsider the order of merit. "This essay," said his Majesty, "shows us the moral code of the ancients as in a mirror; it betokens a loyalty enduring as iron and stone." The grand examiner readily admitted the justice of the Emperor's criticism, and when the list was published, the name of Wên T'ien-hsiang stood first. The fame of that examiner, WANG YING-LIN (1223-1296), is likely to last for a long time to come. Not because of his association with one of China's greatest patriots, nor because of his voluminous contributions to classical literature, including an extensive encyclopædia, a rare copy of which is to be seen in the University of Leyden, but because of a small primer for schoolboys, which, by almost universal consent, is attributed to his pen. For six hundred years this primer has been, and is still at this moment, the first book put into the hand of every child throughout the empire. It is an epitome of all knowledge, dealing with philosophy, classical literature, history, biography, and common objects. It has been called a sleeve edition of the Mirror of History. Written in lines of three characters to each, and being in doggerel rhyme, it is easily committed to memory, and is known by heart by every Chinaman who has learnt to read. This Three Character Classic, as it is called, has been imitated by Christian missionaries, Protestant and Catholic; and even the T'ai-p'ing rebels, alive to its far-reaching influence, published an imitation of their own. Here are a few specimen lines, rhymed to match the original:—

"Men, one and all, in infancy

Are virtuous at heart;

Their moral tendencies the same,

Their practice wide apart.

Without instruction's kindly aid

Man's nature grows less fair;

In teaching, thoroughness should be

A never-ceasing care."

It may be added that the meaning of the Three Character Classic is not explained to the child at the time. All that the latter has to do is to learn the sounds and formation of the 560 different characters of which the book is composed.

A clever boy, who attracted much attention by the filial piety which he displayed towards his stepfather, was LIU YIN (1241-1293). He obtained office, but resigned in order to tend his sick mother; and when again appointed, his health broke down and he went into seclusion. The following extract is from his pen:—

"When God made man, He gave him powers to cope with the exigencies of his environment, and resources within himself, so that he need not be dependent upon external circumstances.

"Thus, in districts where poisons abound, antidotes abound also; and in others, where malaria prevails, we find such correctives as ginger, nutmegs, and dogwood. Again, fish, terrapins, and clams are the most wholesome articles of diet in excessively damp climates, though themselves denizens of the water; and musk and deer-horns are excellent prophylactics in earthy climates, where in fact they are produced. For if these things were unable to prevail against their surroundings, they could not possibly thrive where they do, while the fact that they do so thrive is proof positive that they were ordained as specifics against those surroundings.

"Chu Hsi said, 'When God is about to send down calamities upon us, He first raises up the hero whose genius shall finally prevail against those calamities.' From this point of view there can be no living man without his appointed use, nor any state of society which man should be unable to put right."

The theory that every man plays his allotted part in the cosmos is a favourite one with the Chinese; and the process by which the tares are separated from the wheat, exemplifying the use of adversity, has been curiously stated by a Buddhist priest of this date:—

"If one is a man, the mills of heaven and earth grind him to perfection; if not, to destruction."

A considerable amount of poetry was produced under the Mongol sway, though not so much proportionately, nor of such a high order, as under the great native dynasties. The Emperor Ch'ien Lung published in 1787 a collection of specimens of the poetry of this Yüan dynasty. They fill eight large volumes, but are not much read.

One of the best known poets of this period is LIU CHI (A.D. 1311-1375), who was also deeply read in the Classics and also a student of astrology. He lived into the Ming dynasty, which he helped to establish, and was for some years the trusted adviser of its first ruler. He lost favour, however, and was poisoned by a rival, it is said, with the Emperor's connivance. The following lines, referring to an early visit to a mountain monastery, reveal a certain sympathy with Buddhism:—

"I mounted when the cock had just begun,

And reached the convent ere the bells were done;

A gentle zephyr whispered o'er the lawn;

Behind the wood the moon gave way to dawn.

And in this pure sweet solitude I lay,

Stretching my limbs out to await the day,

No sound along the willow pathway dim

Save the soft echo of the bonzes' hymn"

Here too is an oft-quoted stanza, to be found in any poetry primer:—

"A centenarian 'mongst men

Is rare; and if one comes, what then?

The mightiest heroes of the past

Upon the hillside sleep at last."

The prose writings of Liu Chi are much admired for their pure style, which has been said to "smell of antiquity." One piece tells how a certain noble who had lost all by the fall of the Ch'in dynasty, B.C. 206, and was forced to grow melons for a living, had recourse to divination, and went to consult a famous augur on his prospects.

"Alas!" cried the augur, "what is there that Heaven can bestow save that which virtue can obtain? Where is the efficacy of spiritual beings beyond that with which man has endowed them? The divining plant is but a dead stalk; the tortoise-shell a dry bone. They are but matter like ourselves. And man, the divinest of all things, why does he not seek wisdom from within, rather than from these grosser stuffs?

"Besides, sir, why not reflect upon the past—that past which gave birth to this present? Your cracked roof and crumbling walls of to-day are but the complement of yesterday's lofty towers and spacious halls. The straggling bramble is but the complement of the shapely garden tree. The grasshopper and the cicada are but the complement of organs and flutes; the will-o'-the-wisp and firefly, of gilded lamps and painted candles. Your endive and watercresses are but the complement of the elephant-sinews and camel's hump of days bygone; the maple-leaf and the rush, of your once rich robes and fine attire. Do not repine that those who had not such luxuries then enjoy them now. Do not be dissatisfied that you, who enjoyed them then, have them now no more. In the space of a day and night the flower blooms and dies. Between spring and autumn things perish and are renewed. Beneath the roaring cascade a deep pool is found; dark valleys lie at the foot of high hills. These things you know; what more can divination teach you? "

Another piece is entitled "Outsides," and is a light satire on the corruption of his day:—

"At Hangchow there lived a costermonger who understood how to keep oranges a whole year without letting them spoil. His fruit was always fresh-looking, firm as jade, and of a beautiful golden hue; but inside —dry as an old cocoon.

"One day I asked him, saying, 'Are your oranges for altar or sacrificial purposes, or for show at banquets? Or do you make this outside display merely to cheat the foolish? as cheat them you most outrageously do.' 'Sir,' replied the orangeman, 'I have carried on this trade now for many years. It is my source of livelihood. I sell; the world buys. And I have yet to learn that you are the only honest man about, and that I am the only cheat. Perhaps it never struck you in this light. The bâton-bearers of to-day, seated on their tiger skins, pose as the martial guardians of the State; but what are they compared with the captains of old? The broad-brimmed, long-robed Ministers of to-day pose as pillars of the constitution; but have they the wisdom of our ancient counsellors? Evil-doers arise, and none can subdue them. The people are in misery, and none can relieve them. Clerks are corrupt, and none can restrain them. Laws decay, and none can renew them. Our officials eat the bread of the State and know no shame. They sit in lofty halls, ride fine steeds, drink themselves drunk with wine, and batten on the richest fare. Which of them but puts on an awe-inspiring look, a dignified mien?—all gold and gems without, but dry cocoons within. You pay, sir, no heed to these things, while you are very particular about my oranges.'

"I had no answer to make. Was he really out of conceit with the age, or only quizzing me in defence of his fruit?"