THE EMPERORS K’ANG HSI AND CH’IEN LUNG - The Manchu Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1900)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Manchu Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1900)

THE second Emperor of the Manchu dynasty, known to the world by his year-title K'ANG HSI, succeeded to the throne in 1662 when he was only eight years of age, and six years later he took up the reins of government. Fairly tall and well-proportioned, he loved all manly exercises and devoted three months annually to hunting. Large bright eyes lighted up his face, which was pitted with small-pox. Contemporary observers vie in praising his wit, understanding, and liberality of mind. Indefatigable in government, he kept a careful watch on his Ministers, his love for the people leading him to prefer economy to taxation. He was personally frugal, yet on public works he would lavish large sums. He patronised the Jesuits, whom he employed in surveying the empire, in astronomy, and in casting cannon; though latterly he found it necessary to impose restrictions on their propagandism. In spite of war and rebellion, which must have encroached seriously upon his time, he found leisure to initiate and carry out, with the aid of the leading scholars of the day, several of the greatest literary enterprises the world has ever seen. The chief of these are (1) the K'ang Hsi Tzŭ Tien, the great standard dictionary of the Chinese language; (2) the P'ei Wên Yün Fu, a huge concordance to all literature, bound up in forty-four large closely-printed volumes; (3) the P'ien Tzü Lei P'ien, a similar work, with a different arrangement, bound up in thirty-six large volumes; (4) the Yüan Chien Lei Han, an encyclopaedia, bound up in forty-four volumes; and (5) the T'u Shu Chi Ch'êng, a profusely illustrated encyclopædia, in 1628 volumes of about 200 pages to each. To the above must be added a considerable collection of literary remains, in prose and verse, which, of course, were actually the Emperor's own work. It cannot be said that any of these remains are of a high order, or are familiar to the public at large, with a single and trifling exception. The so-called Sacred Edict is known from one end of China to the other. It originally consisted of sixteen moral maxims delivered in 1670 under the form of an edict by the Emperor K'ang Hsi. His Majesty himself had just reached the mature age of sixteen. He had then probably discovered that men's morals were no longer what they had been in the days of "ancient kings," and with boyish earnestness he made a kindly effort to do something for the people whose welfare was destined to be for so many years to come his chief and most absorbing care. The maxims are commonplace enough, but for the sake of the great Emperor who loved his "children" more than himself they have been exalted into utterances almost divine. Here are the first, seventh, and eleventh maxims, as specimens:—

"Pay great attention to filial piety and to brotherly obedience, in order to give due weight to human relationships."

"Discard strange doctrines, in order to glorify the orthodox teaching."

"Educate your sons and younger brothers, in order to hinder them from doing what is wrong."

K'ang Hsi died in 1722, after completing a full cycle of sixty years as occupant of the Dragon Throne. His son and successor, Yung Cheng, caused one hundred picked scholars to submit essays enlarging upon the maxims of his father, and of these the sixteen best were chosen, and in 1724 it was enacted that they should be publicly read to the people on the 1st and 15th of each month in every city and town in the empire. This law is still in force. Subsequently, the sixteen essays were paraphrased into easy colloquial; and now the maxims, the essays, and the paraphrase, together make up a volume which may be roughly said to contain the whole duty of man.

In 1735 the Emperor Yung Chêng died, and was succeeded by his fourth son, who reigned as CH'IEN LUNG. An able ruler, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and an indefatigable administrator, he rivals his grandfather's fame as a sovereign and a patron of letters. New editions of important historical works and of encyclopaedias were issued by Imperial order, and under the superintendence of the Emperor himself. In 1772 there was a general search for all literary works worthy of preservation, and ten years later a voluminous collection of these was published, embracing many rare books taken from the great encyclopaedia of the Emperor Yung Lo. A descriptive catalogue of the Imperial Library, containing 3460 works arranged under the four heads of Classics, History, Philosophy, and General Literature, was drawn up in 1772-1790. It gives the history of each work, which is also criticised. The vastness of this catalogue led to the publication of an abridgment, which omits all works not actually preserved in the Library. The personal writings of this Emperor are very voluminous. They consist of a general collection containing a variety of notes on current or ancient topics, prefaces to books, and the like, and also of a collection of poems. Of these last, those produced between 1736 and 1783 were published, and reached the almost incredible total of 33,950 separate pieces. It need hardly be added that nearly all are very short. Even thus the output must be considered a record, apart from the fact that during the reign there was a plentiful supply both of war and rebellion. Burmah and Nepaul were forced to pay tribute; Chinese supremacy was established in Tibet; and Kuldja and Kashgaria were added to the empire. In 1795, on completing a cycle of sixty years of power, the Emperor abdicated in favour of his son, and three years later he died.

His Majesty's poetry, though artificially correct, was mediocre enough. The following stanza, "On Hearing the Cicada," is a good example, conforming as it does to all the rules of versification, but wanting in that one feature which makes the "stop-short" what it is, viz., that "although the words end, the sense still goes on":—

"The season is a month behind

in this land of northern breeze,

When first I hear the harsh cicada

shrieking through the trees.

I look, but cannot mark its form

amid the foliage fair,—

Naught but a flash of shadow

which goes flitting here and there."

Here, instead of being carried away into some suggested train of thought, the reader is fairly entitled to ask "What then?"

The following is a somewhat more spirited production. It is a song written by Ch'ien Lung, to be inserted and sung in a play entitled "Picking up Gold," by a beggar who is fortunate enough to stumble across a large nugget:—

"A brimless cap of felt stuck on my head;

No coat,—a myriad-patchwork quilt instead;

In my hand a bamboo staff;

Hempen sandals on my feet;

As I slouch along the street,

'Pity the poor beggar,' to the passers-by I call,

Hoping to obtain broken food and dregs of wine.

Then when night's dark shadows fall,

Oh merrily, Oh merrily I laugh,

Drinking myself to sleep, sheltered in some old shrine.

Black, black, the clouds close round on every side;

White, white, the gossamer flakes fly far and wide.

A i-yah! is't jade that sudden decks the eaves?

With silver tiles meseems the streets are laid.

Oh, in what glorious garb Nature's arrayed,

Displaying fairy features on a lovely face!

But stay! the night is drawing on apace;

Nothing remains my homeward track to guide;

See how the feathered snow weighs down the palm-tree leaves!

I wag my head and clap my hands, ha! ha!

I clap my hands and wag my head, ha! ha!

'There in the drift a lump half-sunken lies;

The beggar's luck has turned up trumps at last!

O gold!—for thee dear relatives will part,

Dear friends forget their hours of friendship past,

Husband and wife tear at each other's heart,

Father and son sever life's closest ties;

For thee, the ignoble thief all rule and law defies.

What men of this world most adore is gold;

The devils deep in hell the dross adore;

Where gold is there the gods are in its wake.

Now shall I never more produce the snake;

Stand begging where the cross-roads meet no more;

Or shiver me to sleep in the rush hut, dank and cold;

Or lean against the rich or poor man's door.

Away my yellow bowl, my earthen jar!

See, thus I rend my pouch and hurl my gourd afar!

An official hat and girdle I shall wear,

And this shrunk shank in boots with pipeclayed soles encase;

On fête and holiday how jovial I shall be,

Joining my friends in the tavern or the tea-shop o'er their tea

Swagger, swagger, swagger, with such an air and grace.

Sometimes a sleek steed my 'Excellence' will bear;

Or in a sedan I shall ride at ease,

One servant with my hat-box close behind the chair,

While another on his shoulders carries my valise."