A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644)

THE first Emperor of the Ming dynasty, popularly known as the Beggar King, in allusion to the poverty of his early days, so soon as he had extinguished the last hopes of the Mongols and had consolidated his power, turned his attention to literature and education. He organised the great system of competitive examinations which prevails at the present day. He also published a Penal Code, abolishing such punishments as mutilation, and drew up a kind of Domesday Book, under which taxation was regulated. In 1369 he appointed SUNG LIEN(A.D. 1310-1381), in conjunction with other scholars, to produce the History of the Mongol Dynasty. Sung Lien had previously been tutor to the heir apparent. He had declined office, and was leading the life of a simple student. He rose to be President of the Han-lin College, and for many years enjoyed his master's confidence. A grandson, however, became mixed up in a conspiracy, and only the Empress's entreaties saved the old man's life. His sentence was commuted to banishment, and he died on the journey. Apart from the history above mentioned, and a pronouncing dictionary on which he was employed, his literary remains fill only three volumes. The following piece is a satire on the neglect of men of ability, which, according to him, was a marked feature of the administration of the Mongols:—

"Têng Pi, whose cognomen was Po-i, was a man of Ch'in. He was seven feet high. Both his eyes had crimson corners, and they blinked like lightning flashes. In feats of strength he was cock of the walk; and once when his neighbour's bulls were locked in fight, with a blow of his fist he broke the back of one of them and sent it rolling on the ground. The stone drums of the town, which ten men could not lift, he could carry about in his two hands. He was, however, very fond of liquor, and given to quarrelling in his cups; so that when people saw him in this mood, they would keep out of his way, saying that it was safer to be at a distance from such a wild fellow.

"One Day he was drinking by himself in a tea-house when two literati happened to pass by. Têng Pi tried to make them join him; but they, having rather a low opinion of the giant, would not accept his invitation. 'Gentlemen,' cried he in a rage, 'if you do not see fit to do as I ask, I will make an end of the pair of you, and then seek safety in flight. I could not brook this treatment at your hands.'

"So the two had no alternative but to walk in. Têng Pi took the place of honour himself, and put his guests on each side of him. He called for more liquor, and began to sing and make a noise. And at last, when he was well tipsy, he threw off his clothes and began to attitudinise. He drew a knife, and flung it down with a bang on the table; at which the two literati, who were aware of his weakness, rose to take leave.

"'Stop!' shouted Têng Pi, detaining them. 'I too know something about your books. What do you mean by treating me as the spittle of your mouth? If you don't hurry up and drink, I fear my temper will get the better of me. Meanwhile, you shall ask me anything you like in the whole range of classical literature, and if I can't answer, I will imbrue this blade in my blood.'

"To this the two literati agreed, and forthwith gave him a number of the most difficult allusions they could think of, taken from the Classics; but Têng Pi was equal to the occasion, and repeated the full quotation in each case without missing a word. Then they tried him on history, covering a period of three thousand years; but here again his answers were distinguished by accuracy and precision.

"'Ha! ha!' laughed Têng Pi, 'do you give in now?' At which his guests looked blankly at each other, and hadn't a word to say. So Têng Pi shouted for wine, and loosed his hair, and jumped about, crying, 'I have floored you, gentlemen, to-day! Of old, learning made a man of you; but to-day, all you have to do is to don a scholar's dress and look consumptive. You care only to excel with pen and ink, and despise the real heroes of the age. Shall this be so indeed?'

"Now these two literati were men of some reputation, and on hearing Têng Pi's words they were greatly shamed, and left the tea-house, hardly knowing how to put one foot before the other. On arriving home they made further inquiries, but no one had ever seen Têng Pi at any time with a book in his hand."

FANG HSIAO-JU (A.D. 1357-1402) is another scholar, coworker with Sung Lien, who adorned this same period. As a child he was precocious, and by his skill in composition earned for himself the nickname of Little Han Yü. He became tutor to one of the Imperial princes, and was loaded with honours by the second Emperor, who through the death of his father succeeded in 1398 to his grandfather. Then came the rebellion of the fourth son of the first Emperor; and when Nanking opened its gates to the conqueror, the defeated nephew vanished. It is supposed that he fled to Yunnan, in the garb of a monk, left to him, so the story runs, with full directions by his grandfather. After nearly forty years' wandering, he is said to have gone to Peking, and lived in seclusion in the palace until his death. He was recognised by a eunuch from a mole on his left foot, but the eunuch was afraid to reveal his identity. Fang Hsiao-ju absolutely refused to place his services at the disposal of the new Emperor, who ruled under the year-title of Yung Lo. For this refusal he was cut to pieces in the market-place, his family being as far as possible exterminated and his philosophical writings burned. A small collection of his miscellanies was preserved by a faithful disciple, and afterwards republished. The following is an extract from an essay on taking too much thought for the morrow:—

"Statesmen who forecast the destinies of an empire ofttimes concentrate their genius upon the difficult and neglect the easy. They provide against likely evils, and disregard combinations which yield no ground for suspicion. Yet calamity often issues from neglected quarters, and sedition springs out of circumstances which have been set aside as trivial. Must this be regarded as due to an absence of care?—No. It results because the things that man can provide against are human, while those that elude his vigilance and overpower his strength are divine."

After giving several striking examples from history, the writer continues:—

"All the instances above cited include gifted men whose wisdom and genius overshadowed their generation. They took counsel and provided against disruption of the empire with the utmost possible care. Yet misfortune fell upon every one of them, always issuing from some source where its existence was least suspected. This, because human wisdom reaches only to human affairs and cannot touch the divine. Thus, too, will sickness carry off the children even of the best doctors, and devils play their pranks in the family of an exorcist. How is it that these professors, who succeed in grappling with the cases of others, yet fail in treating their own? It is because in those they confine themselves to the human; in these they would meddle with the divine.

"The men of old knew that it was impossible to provide infallibly against the convulsions of ages to come. There was no plan, no device, by which they could hope to prevail, and they refrained accordingly from vain scheming. They simply strove by the force of Truth and Virtue to win for themselves the approbation of God; that He, in reward for their virtuous conduct, might watch over them, as a fond mother watches over her babes, for ever. Thus, although fools were not wanting to their posterity—fools able to drag an empire to the dust—still, the evil day was deferred. This was indeed foresight of a far-reaching kind.

"But he who, regardless of the favour of Heaven, may hope by the light of his own petty understanding to establish that which shall endure through all time—he shall be confounded indeed."

The third Emperor of this dynasty, whose nephew, the reigning Emperor, disappeared so mysteriously, mounted the throne in 1403. A worthy son of his father as regarded his military and political abilities, he was a still more enthusiastic patron of literature. He caused to be compiled what is probably the most gigantic encyclopædia ever known, the Yung Lo Ta Tien, to produce which 2169 scholars laboured for about three years under the guidance of five chief directors and twenty sub-directors. Judging from the account published in 1795, it must have run to over 500,000 pages. It was never printed because of the cost of the block-cutting; but under a subsequent reign two extra copies were taken, and one of these, imperfect to the extent of about 20,000 pages, is still in the Han-lin College at Peking.1 The others perished by fire at the fall of the Ming dynasty. Not only did this encyclopaedia embrace and illustrate the whole range of Chinese literature, but it included many complete works which would otherwise have been lost. Of these, no fewer than 66 on the Confucian Canon, 41 on history, 103 on philosophy, and 175 on poetry were copied out and inserted in the Imperial Library.

Many names of illustrious scholars must here, as indeed throughout this volume, be passed over in silence. Such writers are more than compensated by the honour they receive from their own countrymen, who place classical scholarship at the very summit of human ambitions, and rank the playwright and the novelist as mere parasites of literature. Between these two extremes there is always to be found a great deal of general writing, which, while it satisfies the fastidious claim of the Chinese critic for form in preference even to matter, is also of sufficient interest for the European reader.

YANG CHI-SHÊNG (1515-1556) was a statesman and a patriot, who had been a cowherd in his youth. He first got himself into trouble by opposing the establishment of a horse-market on the frontier, between China and Tartary, as menacing the safety of his country. Restored to favour after temporary degradation, he impeached a colleague, now known as the worst of the Six Traitorous Ministers of the Ming dynasty. His adversary was too strong for him. Yang was sent to prison, and three years later his head fell. His name has no place in literature; nor would it be mentioned here except as an introduction to an impassioned memorial which his wife addressed to the Emperor on her husband's behalf:—

"May it please your Majesty,—My husband was chief Minister in the Cavalry Department of the Board of War. Because he advised your Majesty against the establishment of a tradal mart, hoping to prevent Ch'ou Luan from carrying out his design, he was condemned only to a mild punishment; and then, when the latter suffered defeat, he was restored to favour and to his former honours.

"Thereafter, my husband was for ever seeking to make some return for the Imperial clemency. He would deprive himself of sleep. He would abstain from food. All this I saw with my own eyes. By and by, however, he gave ear to some idle rumour of the market-place, and the old habit came strong upon him. He lost his mental balance. He uttered wild statements, and again incurred the displeasure of the Throne. Yet he was not slain forthwith. His punishment was referred to the Board. He was beaten; he was thrown into prison. Several times he nearly died. His flesh was hollowed out beneath the scourge; the sinews of his legs were severed. Blood flowed from him in bowlfuls, splashing him from head to foot. Confined day and night in a cage, he endured the utmost misery.

"Then our crops failed, and daily food was wanting in our poverty-stricken home. I strove to earn money by spinning, and worked hard for the space of three years, during which period the Board twice addressed the Throne, receiving on each occasion an Imperial rescript that my husband was to await his fate in gaol. But now I hear your Majesty has determined that my husband shall die, in accordance with the statutes of the Empire. Die as he may, his eyes will close in peace with your Majesty, while his soul seeks the realms below.

"Yet I know that your Majesty has a humane and kindly heart; and when the creeping things of the earth, —nay, the very trees and shrubs,—share in the national tranquillity, it is hard to think that your Majesty would grudge a pitying glance upon our fallen estate. And should we be fortunate enough to attract the Imperial favour to our lowly affairs, that would be joy indeed. But if my husband's crime is of too deep a dye, I humbly beg that my head may pay the penalty, and that I be permitted to die for him. Then, from the far-off land of spirits, myself brandishing spear and shield, I will lead forth an army of fierce hobgoblins to do battle in your Majesty's behalf, and thus make some return for this act of Imperial grace."

"The force of language," says the commentator, "can no farther go." Yet this memorial, "the plaintive tones of which," he adds, "appeal direct to the heart," was never allowed to reach the Emperor. Twelve years later, the Minister impeached by Yang Chi-shêng was dismissed for scandalous abuse of power, and had all his property confiscated. Being reduced to beggary, he received from the Emperor a handsome silver bowl in which to collect alms; but so universally hated was he that no one would either give him anything or venture to buy the bowl, and he died of starvation while still in the possession of wealth.

A curiously similar case, with a happier ending, was that of SHÊN SU, who, in the discharge of his duties as Censor, also denounced the same Minister, before whose name the word "traitorous" is now always inserted. Shên Su was thrown into prison, and remained there for fifteen years. He was released in consequence of the following memorial by his wife, of which the commentator says, "for every drop of ink a drop of blood":—

"May it please your Majesty,—My husband was a Censor attached to the Board of Rites. For his folly in recklessly advising your Majesty, he deserved indeed a thousand deaths; yet under the Imperial clemency he was doomed only to await his sentence in prison.

"Since then fourteen years have passed away. His aged parents are still alive, but there are no children in his hall, and the wretched man has none on whom he can rely. I alone remain—a lodger at an inn, working day and night at my needle to provide the necessaries of life; encompassed on all sides by difficulties; to whom every day seems a year.

"My father-in-law is eighty-seven years of age. He trembles on the brink of the grave. He is like a candle in the wind. I have naught wherewith to nourish him alive or to honour him when dead. I am a lone woman. If I tend the one, I lose the other. If I return to my father-in-law, my husband will die of starvation. If I remain to feed him, my father-in-law may die at any hour. My husband is a criminal bound in gaol. He dares give no thought to his home. Yet can it be that when all living things are rejoicing in life under the wise and generous rule of to-day, we alone should taste the cup of poverty and distress, and find ourselves beyond the pale of universal peace?

"Oft, as I think of these things, the desire to die comes upon me; but I swallow my grief and live on, trusting in Providence for some happy termination, some moistening with the dew of Imperial grace. And now that my father-in-law is face to face with death; now that my husband can hardly expect to live—I venture to offer this body as a hostage, to be bound in prison, while my husband returns to watch over the last hours of his father. Then, when all is over, he will resume his place and await your Majesty's pleasure. Thus my husband will greet his father once again, and the feelings of father and child will be in some measure relieved. Thus I shall give to my father-in-law the comfort of his son, and the duty of a wife towards her husband will be fulfilled."

TSUNG CH'ÊN gained some distinction during this sixteenth century; in youth, by his great beauty, and especially by his eyes, which were said to flash fire even at the sides; later on, by subscribing to the funeral expenses of the above-mentioned Yang Chi-shêng; and finally, by his successful defence of Foochow against the Japanese, whose forces he enticed into the city by a feint of surrender, and then annihilated from the walls. The following piece, which, in the opinion of the commentator, "verges upon trifling," is from his correspondence. Several sentences of it have quite a Juvenalian ring:—

"I was very glad at this distance to receive your letter, which quite set my mind at rest, together with the present you were so kind as to add. I thank you very much for your good wishes, and especially for your thoughtful allusion to my father.

"As to what you are pleased to say in reference to official popularity and fitness for office, I am much obliged by your remarks. Of my unfitness I am only too well aware; while as to popularity with my superiors, I am utterly unqualified to secure that boon.

"How indeed does an official find favour in the present day with his chief? Morning and evening he must whip up his horse and go dance attendance at the great man's door. If the porter refuses to admit him, then honeyed words, a coaxing air, and money drawn from the sleeve, may prevail. The porter takes in his card; but the great man does not come out. So he waits in the stable among grooms, until his clothes are charged with the smell, in spite of hunger, in spite of cold, in spite of a blazing heat. At nightfall, the porter who has pocketed the money comes forth and says his master is tired and begs to be excused, and will he call again next day. So he is forced to come once more as requested. He sits all night in his clothes. At cockcrow he jumps up, performs his toilette, and gallops off and knocks at the entrance gate. 'Who's there?' shouts the porter angrily; and when he explains, the porter gets still more angry and begins to abuse him, saying, 'You are in a fine hurry, you are! Do you think my master sees people at this hour?' Then is the visitor shamed, but has to swallow his wrath and try to persuade the porter to let him in. And the porter, another fee to the good, gets up and lets him in; and then he waits again in the stable as before, until perhaps the great man comes out and summons him to an audience.

"Now, with many an obeisance, he cringes timidly towards the foot of the daïs steps; and when the great man says 'Come!' he prostrates himself twice and remains long without rising. At length he goes up to offer his present, which the great man refuses. He entreats acceptance; but in vain. He implores, with many instances; whereupon the great man bids a servant take it. Then two more prostrations, long drawn out; after which he arises, and with five or six salutations he takes his leave.

"On going forth, he bows to the porter, saying, 'It's all right with your master. Next time I come you need make no delay.' The porter returns the bow, well pleased with his share in the business. Meanwhile, our friend springs on his horse, and when he meets an acquaintance flourishes his whip and cries out, 'I have just been with His Excellency. He treated me very kindly, very kindly indeed.' And then he goes into detail, upon which his friends begin to be more respectful to him as a protégé of His Excellency. The great man himself says, 'So-and-so is a good fellow, a very good fellow indeed;' upon which the bystanders of course declare that they think so too.

"Such is popularity with one's superiors in the present day. Do you think that I could be as one of these? No! Beyond sending in a complimentary card at the summer and winter festivals, I do not go near the great from one year's end to another. Even when I pass their doors I stuff my ears and cover my eyes, and gallop quickly by, as if some one was after me. In consequence of this want of breadth, I am of course no favourite with the authorities; but what care I? There is a destiny that shapes our ends, and it has shaped mine towards the path of duty alone. For which, no doubt, you think me an ass."

WANG TAO-K'UN took his third degree in 1547. HIS instincts seemed to be all for a soldier's life, and he rose to be a successful commander. He found ample time, however, for books, and came to occupy an honourable place among contemporary writers. His works, which, according to one critic, are "polished in style and lofty in tone," have been published in a uniform edition, and are still read. The following is a cynical skit upon the corruption of his day:—

"A retainer was complaining to Po Tzŭ that no one in the district knew how to get on.

"'You gentlemen,' said he, 'are like square handles which you would thrust into the round sockets of your generation. Consequently, there is not one of you which fits.'

"'You speak truth,' replied Po Tzŭ; 'kindly explain how this is so.'

"'There are five reasons,' said the retainer, 'why you are at loggerheads with the age, as follows:—

"'(1) The path to popularity lies straight before you, but you will not follow it.

"'(2) Other men's tongues reach the soft places in the hearts of their superiors, but your tongues are too short.

"'(3) Others eschew fur robes, and approach with bent backs as if their very clothes were too heavy for them; but you remain as stiff-necked as planks.

"'(4) Others respond even before they are called, and seek to anticipate the wishes of their superiors; whose enemies, were they the saints above, would not escape abuse; whose friends, were they highwaymen and thieves, would be larded over with praise. But you—you stick at facts and express opinions adverse to those of your superiors, whom it is your special interest to conciliate.

"'(5) Others make for gain as though bent upon shooting a pheasant, watching in secret and letting fly with care, so that nothing escapes their aim. But you— you hardly bend your bow, or bend it only to miss the quarry that lies within your reach.

"'One of these five failings is like a tumour hanging to you and impeding your progress in life. How much more all of them!'

"'It is indeed as you state,' answered Po Tzŭ. 'But would you bid me cut these tumours away? A man may have a tumour and live. To cut it off is to die. And life with a tumour is better than death without. Besides, beauty is a natural gift; and the woman who tried to look like Hsi Shih only succeeded in frightening people out of their wits by her ugliness. Now it is my misfortune to have these tumours, which make me more loathsome even than that woman. Still, I can always, so to speak, stick to my needle and my cooking-pots, and strive to make my good man happy. There is no occasion for me to proclaim my ugliness in the marketplace.'

"'Ah, sir,' said the retainer, 'now I know why there are so many ugly people about, and so little beauty in the land.'"

Hsü HSIEH graduated as Senior Classic in 1601, and received an appointment in the Han-lin College, where all kinds of State documents are prepared under the superintendence of eminent scholars. Dying young, he left behind him the reputation of a cross-grained man, with whom it was difficult to get along, ardently devoted to study. He swore that if it were granted to him to acquire a brilliant style, he would jump into the sea to circulate his writings. The following piece is much admired. "It is completed," says a commentator, "with the breath of a yawn (with a single effort), and is like a heavenly robe, without seam. The reader looks in vain for paragraphing in this truly inspired piece ":—

"For some years I had possessed an old inkstand, left at my house by a friend. It came into ordinary use as such, I being unaware that it was an antique. However, one day a connoisseur told me it was at least a thousand years old, and urged me to preserve it carefully as a valuable relic. This I did, but never took any further trouble to ascertain whether such was actually the case or not. For supposing that this inkstand really dated from the period assigned, its then owner must have regarded it simply as an inkstand. He could not have known that it was destined to survive the wreck of time and to come to be cherished as an antique. And while we prize it now, because it has descended to us from a distant past, we forget that then, when antiques were relics of a still earlier period, it could not have been of any value to antiquarians, themselves the moderns of what is antiquity to us! The surging crowd around us thinks of naught but the acquisition of wealth and material enjoyment, occupied only with the struggle for place and power. Men lift their skirts and hurry through the mire; they suffer indignity and feel no sense of shame. And if from out this mass there arises one spirit purer and simpler than the rest, striving to tread a nobler path than they, and amusing his leisure, for his own gratification, with guitars, and books, and pictures, and other relics of olden times,—such a man is indeed a genuine lover of the antique. He can never be one of the common herd, though the common herd always affect to admire whatever is admittedly admirable. In the same way, persons who aim at advancement in their career will spare no endeavour to collect the choicest rarities, in order, by such gifts, to curry favour with their superiors, who in their turn will take pleasure in ostentatious display of their collections of antiquities. Such is but a specious hankering after antiques, arising simply from a desire to eclipse one's neighbours. Such men are not genuine lovers of the antique. Their tastes are those of the common herd after all, though they make a great show and filch the reputation of true antiquarians, in the hope of thus distinguishing themselves from their fellows, ignorant as they are that what they secure is the name alone without the reality. The man whom I call a genuine antiquarian is he who studies the writings of the ancients, and strives to form himself upon their model, though unable to greet them in the flesh; who ever and anon, in his wanderings up and down the long avenue of the past, lights upon some choice fragment which brings him in an instant face to face with the immortal dead. Of such enjoyment there is no satiety. Those who truly love antiquity, love not the things, but the men of old, since a relic in the present is much what it was in the past,—a mere thing. And so if it is not to things, but rather to men, that devotion is due, then even I may aspire to be some day an antique. Who shall say that centuries hence an antiquarian of the day may not look up to me as I have looked up to my predecessors? Should I then neglect myself, and foolishly devote my energies to trifling with things?

"Such is popular enthusiasm in these matters. It is shadow without substance. But the theme is endless, and I shall therefore content myself with a passing record of my old inkstand."

This chapter may close with the names of two remarkable men. Li SHIH-CHÊN completed in 1578, after twenty-six years of unremitting labour, his great Materia Medica. In 1596 the manuscript was laid before the Emperor, who ordered it to be printed forthwith. It deals (1) with Inanimate substances; (2) with Plants; and (3) with Animals, and is illustrated by over 1100 woodcuts. The introductory chapter passes in review forty-two previous works of importance on the same subject, enumerating no fewer than 950 miscellaneous publications on a variety of subjects. The famous "doctrine of signatures," which supposes that the uses of plants and substances are indicated to man by certain appearances peculiar to them, figures largely in this work.

Hsü KUANG-CH'I (1562-1634) is generally regarded as the only influential member of the mandarinate who has ever become a convert to Christianity. After graduating first among the candidates for the second degree in 1597 and taking his final degree in 1604, he enrolled himself as a pupil of Matteo Ricci, and studied under his guidance to such purpose that he was able to produce works on the new system of astronomy as introduced by the Jesuit Fathers, besides various treatises on mathematical science. He was also author of an encyclopaedia of agriculture of considerable value, first published in 1640. This work is illustrated with numerous woodcuts, and treats of the processes and implements of husbandry, of rearing silkworms, of breeding animals, of the manufacture of food, and even of precautions to be taken against famine. The Jesuit Fathers themselves scattered broadcast over China a large number of propagandist publications, written in polished book-style, some few of which are still occasionally to be found in old bookshops.


1 On the 23rd June 1900, almost while these words were being written, the Han-lin College was burnt to the ground. The writer's youngest son, Mr. Lancelot Giles, who went through the siege of Peking, writes as follows:— "An attempt was made to save the famous Yung Lo Ta Tien, but heaps of volumes had been destroyed, so the attempt was given up. I secured vol. 13.345 for myself."