A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

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

THE death of Yüan Yuan in 1849 brings us down to the period when China began to find herself for the first time face to face with the foreigner. The opening of five ports in 1842 to comparatively unrestricted trade, followed by more ports and right of residence in Peking from 1860, created points of contact and brought about foreign complications to which the governors of China had hitherto been unused. A Chinese Horace might well complain that the audacious brood of England have by wicked fraud introduced journalism into the Empire, and that evils worse than consumption and fevers have followed in its train.

From time immemorial wall-literature has been a feature in the life of a Chinese city surpassing in extent and variety that of any other nation, and often playing a part fraught with much danger to the community at large. Generally speaking, the literature of the walls covers pretty much the same ground as an ordinary English newspaper, from the "agony" column downwards. For, mixed up with notices of lost property, consisting sometimes of human beings, and advertisements of all kinds of articles of trade, such as one would naturally look for in the handbill literature of any city, there are to be found announcements of new and startling remedies for various diseases or of infallible pills for the cure of depraved opium-smokers, long lists of the names of subscribers to some coming festival or to the pious restoration of a local temple, sermons without end directed against the abuse of written paper, and now and then against female infanticide, or Cumming-like warnings of an approaching millennium, at which the wicked will receive the reward of their crimes according to the horrible arrangements of the Buddhist-Taoist purgatory. Occasionally an objectionable person will be advised through an anonymous placard to desist from a course which is pointed out as offensive, and similarly, but more rarely, the action of an official will be sometimes severely criticised or condemned. Official proclamations on public business can hardly be classed as wall literature, except perhaps when, as is not uncommon, they are written in doggerel verse, with a view to appealing more directly to the illiterate reader. The following proclamation establishing a registry office for boats at Tientsin will give an idea of these queer documents, the only parallel to which in the West might be found in the famous lines issued by the Board of Trade for the use of sea-captains:—

"Green to green, and red to red,

Perfect safety, go ahead" &c.

The object of this registry office was ostensibly to save the poor boatman from being unfairly dealt with when impressed at nominal wages for Government service, but really to enable the officials to know exactly where to lay their hands on boats when required: —

"A busy town is Tientsin,

A land and water thoroughfare;

Traders, as thick as clouds, flock in;

Masts rise in forests everywhere.

"The official's chair, the runner's cap,

Flit past like falling rain or snow,

And, musing on the boatman's hap,

His doubtful shares of weal and woe,

"I note the vagabonds who live

On squeezes from his hard-earned due;

And, boatmen, for your sakes I give

A public register to you.

"Go straightway there, your names inscribe

And on the books a record raise;

None then dare claim the wicked bribe,

Or waste your time in long delays.

"The services your country claims

Shall be performed in turn by all

he muster of the boatmen's names

Be published on the Yamên wall.

"Once your official business done.

Work for yourselves as best you can;

Let out your boats to any one;

I'll give a pass to every man.

"And lest your lot be hard to bear

Official pay shall ample be;

Let all who notice aught unfair

Report the case at once to me.

"The culprit shall be well deterred

In future, if his guilt is clear;

For times are hard, as I have heard,

And food and clothing getting dear.

"Thus, in compassion for your woe,

The scales of Justice in my hand,

I save you from the Yamên foe,

The barrack-soldiers' threat'ning band.

"No longer will they dare to play

Their shameful tricks, of late revealed;

The office only sends away

Boats—and on orders duly sealed.

"One rule will thus be made for all,

And things may not go much amiss;

Ye boatmen, 'tis on you I call

To show your gratitude for this.

"But lest there be who ignorance plead,

I issue this in hope to awe

Such fools as think they will succeed

By trying to evade the law.

"For if I catch them, no light fate

Awaits them that unlucky day;

So from this proclamation's dale

Let all in fear and dread obey."

It is scarcely necessary to add that wall literature has often been directed against foreigners, and especially against missionaries. The penalties, however, for posting anonymous placards are very severe, and of late years the same end has been more effectually attained by the circulation of abusive fly-sheets, often pictorial and always disgusting.

Journalism has proved to be a terrible thorn in the official side. It was first introduced into China under the aegis of an Englishman who was the nominal editor of the Shên Pao or Shanghai News, still a very influential newspaper. For a long time the authorities fought to get rid of this objectionable daily, which now and again told some awkward truths, and contained many ably written articles by first-class native scholars. Eventually an official organ was started in opposition, and other papers have since appeared. An illustrated Chinese weekly made a good beginning in Shanghai, but un-fortunately it soon drifted into superstition, intolerance, and vulgarity.

Attempts have been made to provide the Chinese with translations of noted European works, and among those which have been produced may be mentioned "The Pilgrim's Progress," with illustrations, the various characters being in Chinese dress; Mr. Herbert Spencer's "Education," the very first sentence in which is painfully misrendered; the "Adventures of Baron Munchausen," and others. In every case save one these efforts have been rejected by the Chinese on the ground of inferior style. The exception was a translation of Æsop's Fables, published in 1840 by Robert Thom as rendered into Chinese by an eminent native scholar. This work attracted much attention among the people generally; so much so, that the officials took alarm and made strenuous efforts to suppress it. Recent years have witnessed the publication in Chinese of "Vathek," in reference to which a literate of standing offered the following criticism:— "The style in which this work is written is not so bad, but the subject-matter is of no account." The fact is, that to satisfy the taste of the educated Chinese reader the very first requisite is style. As has been seen in the case of the Liao Chai, the Chinese will read almost anything, provided it is set in a faultless frame. They will not look at anything emanating from foreign sources in which this greatest desideratum has been neglected.

The present age has seen the birth of no great original writer in any department of literature, nor the production of any great original work worthy to be smeared with cedar-oil for the delectation of posterity. It is customary after the death, sometimes during the life, of any leading statesman to publish a collection of his memorials to the throne, with possibly a few essays and some poems. Such have a brief succès d'estime, and are then used by binders for thickening the folded leaves of some masterpiece of antiquity. Successful candidates for the final degree usually print their winning essays, and sometimes their poems, chiefly for distribution among friends. Several diaries of Ministers to foreign countries and similar books have appeared in recent years, recording the astonishment of the writers at the extraordinary social customs which prevail among the barbarians. But nowadays a Chinaman who wishes to read a book does not sit down and write one. He is too much oppressed by the vast dimensions of his existing literature, and by the hopelessness of rivalling, and still more by the hopelessness of surpassing, those immortals who have gone before.

It would be obviously unfair to describe the Chinese people as wanting in humour simply because they are tickled by jests which leave us comparatively unmoved. Few of our own most amusing stories will stand conversion into Chinese terms. The following are specimens of classical humour, being such as might be introduced into any serious biographical notice of the individuals concerned.

Chun-yü K'un (4th cent. B.C.) was the wit already mentioned, who tried to entangle Mencius in his talk. On one occasion, when the Ch'u State was about to attack the Chi State, he was ordered by the Prince of Chi, who was his father-in-law, to proceed to the Chao State and ask that an army might be sent to their assistance; to which end the Prince supplied him with 100 lbs. of silver and ten chariots as offerings to the ruler of Chao. At this Ch'un-yü laughed so immoderately that he snapped the lash of his cap; and when the Prince asked him what was the joke, he said, "As I was coming along this morning, I saw a husbandman sacrificing a pig's foot and a single cup of wine; after which he prayed, saying, 'O God, make my upper terraces fill baskets and my lower terraces fill carts; make my fields bloom with crops and my barns burst with grain!' And I could not help laughing at a man who offered so little and wanted so much." The Prince took the hint, and obtained the assistance he required.

T'ao Ku (A.D. 902-970) was an eminent official whose name is popularly known in connection with the following repartee. Having ordered a newly-purchased waiting-maid to get some snow and make tea in honour of the Feast of Lanterns, he asked her, somewhat pompously, "Was that the custom in your former home?" "Oh, no," the girl replied; "they were a rough lot. They just put up a gold-splashed awning, and had a little music and some old wine."

Li Chia-ming (10th cent. A.D.) was a wit at the Court of the last ruler of the T'ang dynasty. On one occasion the latter drew attention to some gathering clouds which appeared about to bring rain. "They may come," said Li Chia-ming, "but they will not venture to enter the city." "Why not?" asked the Prince. "Because," replied the wit, "the octroi is so high." Orders were thereupon issued that the duties should be reduced by one-half. On another occasion the Prince was fishing with some of his courtiers, all of whom managed to catch something, whereas he himself, to his great chagrin, had not a single bite. Thereupon Li Chia-ming took a pen and wrote the following lines:—

"'Tis rapture in the warm spring days to drop the tempting fly

In the green pool where deep and still the darkling waters lie;

And if the fishes dare not touch the bait your Highness flings,

They know that only dragons are a fitting sport for kings."

Liu Chi (nth cent. A.D.) was a youth who had gained some notoriety by his fondness for strange phraseology, which was much reprobated by the great Ou-yang Hsiu. When the latter was Grand Examiner, one of the candidates sent in a doggerel triplet as follows:—

"The universe is in labour,

All things are produced,

And among them the Sage."

"This must be Liu Chi," cried Ou-yang, and ran a red-ink pen through the composition, adding these two lines:—

"The under graduate jokes,

The examiner ploughs."

Later on, about the year 1060, Ou-yang was very much struck by the essay of a certain candidate, and placed him first on the list. When the names were read out, he found that the first man was Liu Chi, who had changed his name to Liu Yün.

Chang Hsüan-tsu was a wit of the Han dynasty. When he was only eight years old, some one laughed at him for having lost several teeth, and said, "What are those dog-holes in your mouth for?" "They are there," replied Chang, "to let puppies like you run in and out."

Collections of wit and humour of the Joe Miller type are often to be seen in the hands of Chinese readers, and may be bought at any bookstall. Like many novels of the cheap and worthless class, not to be mentioned with the masterpieces of fiction described in this volume, these collections are largely unfit for translation. All literature in China is pure. Novels and stories are not classed as literature; the authors have no desire to attach their names to such works, and the consequence is a great falling off from what may be regarded as the national standard. Even the Hung Lou Mêng contains episodes which mar to a considerable extent the beauty of the whole. One excuse is that it is a novel of real life, and to omit, therefore, the ordinary frailties of mortals would be to produce an incomplete and inadequate picture.

The following are a few specimens of humorous anecdotes taken from the Hsiao Lin Kuang Chi, a modern work in four small volumes, in which the stories are classified under twelve heads, such as Arts, Women, Priests:—

A bridegroom noticing deep wrinkles on the face of bis bride, asked her how old she was, to which she replied, "About forty-five or forty-six." "Your age is stated on the marriage contract,"he rejoined, "as thirty-eight; but I am sure you are older than that, and you may as well tell me the truth." "I am really fifty-four," answered the bride. The bridegroom, however, was not satisfied, and determined to set a trap for her. Accordingly he said, "Oh, by the by, I must just go and cover up the salt jar, or the rats will eat every scrap of it." "Well, I never!" cried the bride, taken off her guard. "Here I've lived sixty-eight years, and I never before heard of rats stealing salt."

A woman who was entertaining a paramour during the absence of her husband, was startled by hearing the latter knock at the house-door. She hurriedly bundled the man into a rice-sack, which she concealed in a córner of the room; but when her husband came in he caught sight of it, and asked in a stern voice, "What have you got in that sack?" His wife was too terrified to answer; and after an awkward pause a voice from the sack was heard to say, "Only rice."

A scoundrel who had a deep grudge against a wealthy man, sought out a famous magician and asked for his help. "I can send demon soldiers and secretly cut him off," said the magician. "Yes, but his sons and grandsons would inherit," replied the other; "that won't do." "I can draw down fire from heaven," said the magician, "and burn his house and valuables." "Even then," answered the man," his landed property would remain; so that won't do." "Oh," cried the magician, "if your hate is so deep as all that, I have something precious here which, if you can persuade him to avail himself of it, will bring him and his to utter smash." He thereupon gave to his delighted client a tightly closed package, which, on being opened, was seen to contain a pen. "What spiritual power is there in this?" asked the man. "Ah!" sighed the magician, "you evidently do not know how many have been brought to ruin by the use of this little thing."

A doctor who had mismanaged a case was seized by the family and tied up. In the night he managed to free himself, and escaped by swimming across a river. When he got home, he found his son, who had just begun to study medicine, and said to him, "Don't be in a hurry with your books; the first and most important thing is to learn to swim."

The King of Purgatory sent his lictors to earth to bring back some skilful physician. "You must look for one," said the King, "at whose door there are no aggrieved spirits of disembodied patients." The lictors went off, but at the house of every doctor they visited there were crowds of wailing ghosts hanging about. At last they found a doctor at whose door there was only a single shade, and cried out, "This man is evidently the skilful one we are in search of." On inquiry, however, they discovered that he had only started practice the day before.

A general was hard pressed in battle and on the point of giving way, when suddenly a spirit soldier came to his rescue and enabled him to win a great victory. Prostrating himself on the ground, he asked the spirit's name. "I am the God of the Target," replied the spirit. "And how have I merited your god-ship's kind assistance?" inquired the general. "I am grateful to you," answered the spirit, "because in your days of practice you never once hit me."

A portrait-painter, who was doing very little business, was advised by a friend to paint a picture of himself and his wife, and to hang it out in the street as an advertisement. This he did, and shortly afterwards his father-in-law came along. Gazing at the picture for some time, the latter at length asked, "Who is that woman?" "Why, that is your daughter," replied the artist. "Whatever is she doing," again inquired her father, "sitting there with that stranger?"

A man who had been condemned to wear the cangue, or wooden collar, was seen by some of his friends. "What have you been doing," they asked, "to deserve this?" "Oh, nothing," he replied; "I only picked up an old piece of rope." "And are you to be punished thus severely," they said, "for merely picking up an end of rope?" "Well," answered the man, "the fact is that there was a bullock tied to the other end."

A man asked a friend to stay and have tea. Unfortunately there was no tea in the house, so a servant was sent to borrow some. Before the latter had returned the water was already boiling, and it became necessary to pour in more cold water. This happened several times, and at length the boiler was overflowing but no tea had come. Then the man's wife said to her husband, "As we don't seem likely to get any tea, you had better offer your friend a bath!"

A monkey, brought after death before the King of Purgatory, begged to be reborn on earth as a man. "In that case," said the King, "all the hairs must be plucked out of your body," and he ordered the attendant demons to pull them out forthwith. At the very first hair, however, the monkey screeched out, and said he could not bear the pain. "You brute!" roared the King, "how are you to become a man if you cannot even part with a single hair?"

A braggart chess-player played three games with a stranger and lost them all. Next day a friend asked him how he had come off. "Oh," said he, "I didn't win the first game, and my opponent didn't lose the second. As for the third, I wanted to draw it, but he wouldn't agree."

The barest sketch of Chinese literature would hardly be complete without some allusion to its proverbs and maxims. These are not only to be found largely scattered throughout every branch of writing, classical and popular, but may also be studied in collections, generally under a metrical form. Thus the Ming Hsien Chi, to take one example, which can be purchased anywhere for about a penny, consists of thirty pages of proverbs and the like, arranged in antithetical couplets of five, six, and seven characters to each line. Children are made to learn these by heart, and ordinary grown-up Chinamen may be almost said to think in proverbs. There can be no doubt that to the foreigner a large store of proverbs, committed to memory and judiciously introduced, are a great aid to successful conversation. These are a few taken from an inexhaustible supply, omitting to a great extent such as find a ready equivalent in English:—

Deal with the faults of others as gently as with your own.

By many words wit is exhausted.

If you bow at all, bow low.

If you take an ox, you must give a horse.

A man thinks he knows, but a woman knows better.

Words whispered on earth sound like thunder in heaven.

If fortune smiles—who doesn't? If fortune doesn't— who does?

Moneyed men are always listened to.

Nature is better than a middling doctor.

Stay at home and reverence your parents; why travel afar to worship the gods?

A bottle-nosed man may be a teetotaller, but no one will think so.

It is easier to catch a tiger than to ask a favour.

With money you can move the gods; without it, you can't move a man.

Bend your head if the eaves are low.

Oblige, and you will be obliged.

Don't put two saddles on one horse. Armies are maintained for years, to be used on a single day.

In misfortune, gold is dull; in happiness, iron is bright.

More trees are upright than men.

If you fear that people will know, don't do it.

Long visits bring short compliments.

If you are upright and without guile, what god need you pray to for pardon?

Some study shows the need for more.

One kind word will keep you warm for three winters.

The highest towers begin from the ground.

No needle is sharp at both ends.

Straight trees are felled first.

No image-maker worships the gods. He knows what stuff they are made of.

Half an orange tastes as sweet as a whole one.

We love our own compositions, but other men's wives.

Free sitters at the play always grumble most.

It is not the wine which makes a man drunk; it is the man himself.

Better a dog in peace than a man in war.

Every one gives a shove to the tumbling wall.

Sweep the snow from your own doorstep.

He who rides a tiger cannot dismount.

Politeness before force.

One dog barks at something, and the rest bark at him.

You can't clap hands with one palm.

Draw your bow, but don't shoot.

One more good man on earth is better than an extra angel in heaven.

Gold is tested by fire; man, by gold.

Those who have not tasted the bitterest of life's bitters can never appreciate the sweetest of life's sweets.

Money makes a blind man see.

Man is God upon a small scale. God is man upon a large scale.

A near neighbour is better than a distant relation.

Without error there could be no such thing as truth.