1. Chinese literature.—2. The Language.—3. The Writing.—4. The five Classics and four Books.—5. Chinese Religion and Philosophy, Lao-tse, Confucius, Meng-tse or Mencius.—6. Buddhism.—7. Social Constitution of China.—8. Invention of Printing.—9. Science, History, and Geography. Encyclopaedias.—10. Poetry.—11. Dramatic Literature and Fiction.—12. Education in China.
1. CHINESE LITERATURE.—The Chinese literature is one of the most voluminous of all literatures, and among the most important of those of Asia. Originating in a vast empire, it is diffused among a population numbering nearly half the inhabitants of the globe. It is expressed by an original language differing from all others, it refers to a nation whose history may be traced back nearly five thousand years in an almost unbroken series of annals, and it illustrates the peculiar character of a people long unknown to the Western world.
2. THE LANGUAGE.—The date of the origin of this language is lost in antiquity, but there is no doubt that it is the most ancient now spoken, and probably the oldest written language used by man. It has undergone few alterations during successive ages, and this fact has served to deepen the lines of demarkation between the Chinese and other branches of the race and has resulted in a marked national life. It belongs to the monosyllabic family; its radical words number 450, but as many of these, by being pronounced with a different accent convey a different meaning, in reality they amount to 1,203. Its pronunciation varies in different provinces, but that of Nanking, the ancient capital of the Empire, is the most pure. Many dialects are spoken in the different provinces, but the Chinese proper is the literary tongue of the nation, the language of the court and of polite society, and it is vernacular in that portion of China called the Middle Kingdom.
3. THE WRITING.—There is an essential difference between the Chinese language as spoken and written, and the poverty of the former presents a striking contrast with the exuberance of the latter. Chinese writing, generally speaking, does not express the sounds of the words, but it represents the ideas or the objects indicated by them. Its alphabetical characters are therefore ideographic, and not phonetic. They were originally rude representations of the thing signified; but they have undergone various changes from picture-writing to the present more symbolical and more complete system.
As the alphabetic signs represent objects or ideas, it would follow that there must be in writing as many characters as words in the spoken language. Yet many words, which have the same sound, represent different ideas; and these must be represented also in the written language. Thus the number of the written words far surpasses that of the spoken language. As far as they are used in the common writing, they amount to 2,425. The number of characters in the Chinese dictionary is 40,000, of which, however, only 10,000 are required for the general purposes of literature. They are disposed under 214 signs, which serve as keys, and which correspond to our alphabetic order.
The Chinese language is written, from right to left, in vertical columns or in horizontal lines.
4. THE CLASSICS.—The first five canonical books are “The Book of Transformations,” “The Book of History,” “The Book of Rites,” “The Spring and Autumn Annals,” and “The Book of Odes”
“The Book of Transformations” consists of sixty-four short essays on important themes, symbolically and enigmatically expressed, based on linear figures and diagrams. These cabala are held in high esteem by the learned, and the hundreds of fortune-tellers in the streets of Chinese towns practice their art on the basis of these mysteries.
“The Book of History” was compiled by Confucius, 551-470 B. C., from the earliest records of the Empire, and in the estimation of the Chinese it contains the seeds of all that is valuable in their political system, their history, and their religious rites, and is the basis of their tactics, music, and astronomy. It consists mainly of conversations between kings and their ministers, in which are traced the same patriarchal principles of government that guide the rulers of the present day.
“The Book of Rites” is still the rule by which the Chinese regulate all the relations of life. No every-day ceremony is too insignificant to escape notice, and no social or domestic duty is beyond its scope. No work of the classics has left such an impression on the manners and customs of the people. Its rules are still minutely observed, and the office of the Board of Rites, one of the six governing boards of Peking, is to see that its precepts are carried out throughout the Empire. According to this system, all the relations of man to the family, society, the state, to morals, and to religion, are reduced to ceremonial, but this includes not only the external conduct, but it involves those right principles from which all true politeness and etiquette spring.
The “Book of Odes” consists of national airs, chants, and sacrificial odes of great antiquity, some of them remarkable for their sublimity. It is difficult to estimate the power they have exerted over all subsequent generations of Chinese scholars. They are valuable for their religious character and for their illustration of early Chinese customs and feelings; but they are crude in measure, and wanting in that harmony which comes from study and cultivation.
The “Spring and Autumn Annals” consist of bald statements of historical facts. Of the Four Books, the first three—the “Great Learning,” the “Just Medium,” and the “Confucian Analects”—are by the pupils and followers of Confucius. The last of the four books consists entirely of the writings of Mencius (371-288 B. C.). In originality and breadth of view he is superior to Confucius, and must be regarded as one of the greatest men Asiatic nations have produced.
The Five Classics and Four Books would scarcely be considered more than curiosities in literature were it not for the incomparable influence, free from any debasing character, which they have exerted over so many millions of minds.
5. CHINESE RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY.—Three periods may be distinguished in the history of the religious and philosophical progress of China. The first relates to ancient tradition, to the idea of one supreme God, to the patriarchal institutions, which were the foundation of the social organization of the Empire, and to the primitive customs and moral doctrines. It appears that this religion at length degenerated into that mingled idolatry and indifference which still characterizes the people of China.
In the sixth century B.C., the corruption of the ancient religion having reached its height, a reaction took place which gave birth to the second, or philosophical period, which produced three systems. Lao-tse, born 604 B.C., was the founder of the religion of the Tao, or of the external and supreme reason. The Tao is the primitive existence and intelligence, the great principle of the spiritual and material world, which must be worshiped through the purification of the soul, by retirement, abnegation, contemplation, and metempsychosis. This school gave rise to a sect of mystics similar to those of India.
Later writers have debased the system of Lao-tse, and cast aside his profound speculations for superstitious rituals and the multiplication of gods and goddesses.
Confucius was the founder of the second school, which has exerted a far more extensive and beneficial influence on the political and social institutions of China. Confucius is a Latin name, corresponding to the original Kung-fu-tse, Kung being the proper name, and Fu-tse signifying reverend teacher or doctor. He was born 551 B.C., and educated by his mother, who impressed upon him a strong sense of morality. After a careful study of the ancient writings he decided to undertake the moral reform of his country, and giving up his high position of prime minister, he traveled extensively in China, preaching justice and virtue wherever he went. His doctrines, founded on the unity of God and the necessities of human nature, bore essentially a moral character, and being of a practical tendency, they exerted a great influence not only on the morals of the people, but also on their legislation, and the authority of Confucius became supreme. He died 479 B.C., at the age of seventy-two, eleven years before the birth of Socrates. He left a grandson, through whom the succession has been transmitted to the present day, and his descendants constitute a distinct class in Chinese society.
At the close of the fourth century B.C., another philosopher appeared by the name of Meng-tse, or Mencius (eminent and venerable teacher), whose method of instruction bore a strong similarity to that of Socrates. His books rank among the classics, and breathe a spirit of freedom and independence; they are full of irony on petty sovereigns and on their vices; they establish moral goodness above social position, and the will of the people above the arbitrary power of their rulers. He was much revered, and considered bolder and more eloquent than Confucius.
6. The third period of the intellectual development of the Chinese dates from the introduction of Buddhism into the country, under the name of the religion of Fo, 70 A.D. The emperor himself professes this religion, and its followers have the largest number of temples. The great bulk of Buddhist literature is of Indian origin. Buddhism, however, has lost in China much of its originality, and for the mass it has sunk into a low and debasing idolatry. Recently a new religion has sprung up in China, a mixture of ancient Chinese and Christian doctrines, which apparently finds great favor in some portions of the country.
7. SOCIAL CONSTITUTION OF CHINA.—The social constitution of China rests on the ancient traditions preserved in the canonical and classic books. The Chinese empire is founded on the patriarchal system, in which all authority over the family belongs to the pater familias. The emperor represents the great father of the nation, and is the supreme master of the state and the head of religion. All his subjects being considered as his children, they are all equal before him, and according to their capacity are admitted to the public offices. Hence no distinction of castes, no privileged classes, no nobility of birth; but a general equality under an absolute chief. The public administration is entirely in the hands of the emperor, who is assisted by his mandarins, both military and civil. They are admitted to this rank only after severe examinations, and from them the members of the different councils of the empire are selected. Among these the Board of Control, or the all-examining Court, and the Court of History and Literature deserve particular mention, as being more closely related to the subject of this work. The duty of this board consists in examining all the official acts of the government, and in preventing the enacting of those measures which they may deem detrimental to the best interests of the country. They can even reprove the personal acts of the emperor, an office which has afforded many occasions for the display of eloquence. The courage of some of the members of this board has been indeed sublime, giving to their words wonderful power.
The Court of History and Literature superintends public education, examines those who aspire to the degree of mandarins, and decides on the pecuniary subsidies, which the government usually grants for defraying the expenses of the publication of great works on history and science.
8. INVENTION OF PRINTING.—At the close of the sixth century B.C. it was ordained that various texts in circulation should be engraved on wood to be printed and published. At first comparatively little use seems to have been made of the invention, which only reached its full development in the eleventh century, when movable types were first invented by a Chinese blacksmith, who printed books with them nearly five hundred years before Gutenberg appeared.
In the third century B.C., one of the emperors conceived the mad scheme of destroying all existing records, and writing a new set of annals in his own name, in order that posterity might consider him the founder of the empire. Sixty years after this barbarous decree had been carried into execution, one of his successors, who desired as far as possible to repair the injury, caused these books to be re-written from a copy which had escaped destruction.
9. SCIENCE, HISTORY, AND GEOGRAPHY.—Comparing the scientific development of the Chinese with that of the Western world, it may be said that they have made little progress in any branch of science. There are, however, to be found in almost every department some works of no indifferent merit. In mathematics they begin only now to make some progress, since the mathematical works of Europe have been introduced into their country. Astrology still takes the place of astronomy, and the almanacs prepared at the observatory of Peking are made chiefly by foreigners. Books on natural philosophy abound, some of which are written by the emperors themselves. Medicine is imperfectly understood. They possess several valuable works on Chinese jurisprudence, on agriculture, economy, mechanics, trades, many cyclopaedias and compendia, and several dictionaries, composed with extraordinary skill and patience.
To this department may be referred all educational books, the most of them written in rhyme, and according to a system of intellectual gradation.
The historical and geographical works of China are the most valuable and interesting department of its literature. Each dynasty has its official chronicle, and the celebrated collection of twenty-one histories forms an almost unbroken record of the annals from, the third century B.C. to the middle of the seventeenth century, and contains a vast amount of information to European readers. The edition of this huge work, in sixty- six folio volumes, is to be found in the British Museum. This and many similar works of a general and of a local character unite in rendering this department rich and important for those who are interested in the history of Asiatic civilization. “The General Geography of the Chinese Empire” is a collection of the statistics of the country, with maps and tables, in two hundred and sixty volumes. The “Statutes of the Reigning Dynasty,” from the year 1818, form more than one thousand volumes. Chinese topographical works are characterized by a minuteness of detail rarely equaled.
Historical and literary encyclopaedias form a very notable feature in all Chinese libraries. These works show great research, clearness, and precision, and are largely drawn upon by European scholars. Early in the last century one of the emperors appointed a commission to reprint in one great collection all the works they might think worthy of preservation. The result was a compilation of 6,109 volumes, arranged under thirty-two heads, embracing works on every subject contained in the national literature. This work is unique of its kind, and the largest in the world.
10. POETRY.—The first development of literary talent in China, as elsewhere, is found in poetry, and in the earliest days songs and ballads were brought as offerings from the various principalities to the heads of government. At the time of Confucius there existed a collection of three thousand songs, from which he selected those contained in the “Book of Odes.” There is not much sublimity or depth of thought in these odes, but they abound in touches of nature, and are exceedingly interesting and curious, as showing how little change time has effected in the manners and customs of this singular people. Similar in character are the poems of the Tshian-teng-shi, another collection of lyrics published at the expense of the emperor, in several thousand volumes. Among modern poets may be mentioned the Emperor Khian-lung, who died at the close of the last century.
After the time of Confucius the change in Chinese poetry became very marked, and, instead of the peaceful tone of his day, it reflected the unsettled condition of social and political affairs. The simple, monotheistic faith was exchanged for a superstitious belief in a host of gods and goddesses, a contempt for life, and an uncertainty of all beyond it. The period between 620 and 907 A.D., was one of great prosperity, and is looked upon as the golden age.
11. DRAMATIC LITERATURE AND FICTION.—Chinese literature affords no instance of real dramatic poetry or sustained effort of the imagination. The “Hundred Plays of the Yuen Dynasty” is the most celebrated collection, and many have been translated into European languages. One of them, “The Orphan of China,” served as the groundwork of Voltaire's tragedy of that name. The drama, however, constitutes a large department in Chinese literature, though there are, properly speaking, no theatres in China. A platform in the open air is the ordinary stage, the decorations are hangings of cotton supported by a few poles of bamboo, and the action is frequently of the coarsest kind. When an actor comes on the stage, he says, “I am the mandarin so-and-so.” If the drama requires the actor to enter a house, he takes some steps and says, “I have entered;” and if he is supposed to travel, he does so by rapid running on the stage, cracking his whip, and saying afterwards, “I have arrived.” The dialogue is written partly in verse and partly in prose, and the poetry is sometimes sung and sometimes recited. Many of their dramas are full of bustle and abound in incident. They often contain the life and adventures of an individual, some great sovereign or general, a history, in fact, thrown into action. Two thousand volumes of dramatic compositions are known, and the best of these amount to five hundred pieces. Among them may be mentioned the “Orphan of the House of Tacho,” and the “Heir in Old Age,” which have much force and character, and vividly describe the habits of the people.
The Chinese are fond of historical and moral romances, which, however, are founded on reason and not on imagination, as are the Hindu and Persian tales. Their subjects are not submarine abysses, enchanted palaces, giants and genii, but man as he is in his actual life, as he lives with his fellow-men, with all his virtues and vices, sufferings and joys. But the Chinese novelists show more skill in the details than in the conception of their works; the characters are finished and developed in every respect. The pictures with which they adorn their works are minute and the descriptions poetical, though they often sacrifice to these qualities the unity of the subject. The characters of their novels are principally drawn from the middle class, as governors, literary men, etc. The episodes are, generally speaking, ordinary actions of common life—all the quiet incidents of the phlegmatic life of the Chinese, coupled with the regular and mechanical movements which distinguish that people. Among the numberless Chinese romances there are several which are considered classic. Such are the “Four Great Marvels' Books,” and the “Stories of the Pirates on the Coast of Kiangnan.”
12. EDUCATION IN CHINA. Most of the Chinese people have a knowledge of the rudiments of education. There is scarcely a man who does not know how to read the hooks of his profession. Public schools are everywhere established; in the cities there are colleges, in which pupils are taught the Chinese literature; and in Peking there is an imperial college for the education of the mandarins. The offices of the empire are only attained by scholarship. There are four literary degrees, which give title to different positions in the country. The government fosters the higher branches of education and patronizes the publication of literary works, which are distributed among the libraries, colleges, and functionaries. The press is restricted only from publishing licentious and revolutionary books.
The future literature of China in many branches will be greatly modified by the introduction of foreign knowledge and influences.