Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
CONFUCIANISM — NORTHERN CHINA
THE first wave of continental influenoe which swept over the art of primitive Japan, before Buddhism reached us in the sixth century, was that of the Hang and the Six Dynasties of China.
Hang art was itself the natural outcome of a primeval Chinese culture, which had culminated under the Shu dynasty B.C. 1122 to B.C. 221, and its idea may be broadly termed Confucian, from the name of the great Sage who embodied and elucidated the fundamental notions of the Celestial race.
For the Chinese — who are agricultural Tartars, just as the Tartars are nomadic Chinese — in settling, untold ages earlier, in the rich valley of the Yellow River, had begun at once to evolve a grand system of communism, entirely distinct from the civilisation of their wandering brethren, left behind them on the Mongolian steppes, though no doubt even in that earliest phase, amongst the cities in their kingdoms of the plateaux, some congenial elements had existed, suited to become the germ of the Confucian development. From this moment, lost as it is in prehistoric night, to the present day, the function of the Yellow River peoples has been one and the same, in the midst of their own progressive development, to receive periodically fresh increments of Tartar nomads, and assimilate them to a place in the agricultural scheme.
This is a process which, by beating the sword of the nomad into the ploughshare of the peasant, weakens the resistive powers of the new citizen, and leaves him to suffer again "behind the walls" the fate he once inflicted from without. Thus the long succession of Chinese dynasties is always the story of the rise of some fresh tribe to the head of the state, to be again supplanted, when the old conditions are repeated.
For many ages after their settlement on the plains, however, the Chinese Tartars still retained a pastoral notion of government, the governors of the nine provinces into which early China was divided being called Boku or pastors. They believed in a patriarchal God, symbolised by Ten or Heaven, who, in His benevolence, rained destinies in mathematical order on mankind, probably, since the Chinese word for Fate is Mei or Command, the root idea of that fatalism which, lent to the Arabs by the Tartars, became Mohammedanism. They maintained still their dread of the various wandering spirits of the unseen world, their idealism of womanhood, which was to develop later into the zenana-life of the East; that knowledge of the stars which they had gathered, with the dualistic mythology of the Turanians, as they wandered amongst the tall grasses of the plateaux; above all, the grand idea of a universal brotherhood, inalienable heritage of all the pastoral nations who roam between the Amoor and the Danube. This fact, that in China the peasant was by the shepherd, is expressed in their mythology by saying that the first emperor was Fukki, the Teacher of Grazing, succeeded by Shunno, the Divine Farmer.
But the slowly-defining necessities of an agricultural community, developing itself through uncounted ages of tranquillity, were yet to bring forth that great ethical and religious system, based on Land and Labour, which to the present day constitutes the inexhaustible power of the Chinese nation. True to this, their ancestral organisation, and self-contained in its exalted socialism, its children, in spite of political disturbances, go on now spreading their industrial conquest to all available corners of the globe.
It fell to the lot of Confucius (B. c. 551 to B.C. 479), at the end of the Shu dynasty, to elucidate and epitomise this great scheme of synthetic labour, worthy of study by every modern sociologist. He devotes himself to the realisation of a religion of ethics, the consecration of Man to Man. To him, Humanity is God, the harmony of life his ultimate. Leaving the Indian soul to soar and mingle with its own infinitude of the sky; leaving empiric Europe to investigate the secrets of Earth and matter, and Christians and Semites to be wafted in mid-air through a Paradise of terrestrial dreams — leaving all these, Confucianism must always continue to hold great minds by the spell of its broad intellectual generalisations, and its infinite I compassion for the common people.
The Eki or Book of Change, Veda of the Chinese race, full of allusions, as it is, to the pastoral life, though by it he approaches the Incomprehensible, is almost a forbidden page to the agnostic Confucius, who says, "Knowing not yet of life, how am I to talk of death?" According to Chinese ethics, the unit of society is the family constituted on the system of graduated obedience, and the peasant is of equal importance with the emperor — that parental autocrat whose virtues have placed him at the head of the great communistic brotherhood of mutual duties, entirely by its own consent and choice.
The supreme canon of life was the self-sacrifice of the individual to the community, and art was prized for its service to the moral deeds of society. Music, it is to be noted, was placed in the highest rank, its special function being to harmonise men with men, and communities with communities. The study of music was therefore the first accomplishment of a Shu youth of gentle blood.
There are some who will recall in the life of Confucius, not only the several dialogues in which he dwells lovingly on its beauty, but also the stories of his choosing to fast, rather than forego the hearing of music, of his following a child on one occasion who was beating an earthen pot, simply for the pleasure of watching the effect of the rhythm on the people, and finally of his journey to the province of Sei (Shantung) in the enthusiasm of his desire to hear the ancient chants which were there extant, handed down from the days of Taiko-bo.
Poetry, in like manner, was regarded as a means of conducing to political harmony. It was not the province of the prince to command, but to suggest, nor the aim of the subject to remonstrate, but to hint, and of all this poetry was the recognised medium. This is a theory which implies that, just as in medieval Europe, the folk-songs of countrysides, with their burden of love, and labour, and the beauty of earth; the ballads of border-warfare, echoing the clang of weapons and the trampling of excited steeds; and weird chants of the supernatural, on the borderland of the realm where ignorance bows before the Infinite — were its accepted form. For such a doctrine could only be formulated in an age rich in such elements, and by a people amongst whom the poetry of individual self-realisation was not yet born.
Ancient ballads were collected by the Sage by way of illustrating the manners of the Chinese Golden Age, of the three early dynasties of Kha, In, and Shu, when its songs furnished the test by which the welfare or misgovernment of a province was to be determined.
Even painting was held in esteem for its inculcation of the practice of virtue. The Sage, in his family dialogues, speaks of visiting the mausoleum of the kings of Shu, and describing how on the wall was a portrait of Shuko, bearing in his arms the infant King Seiwo, he contrasts this with another picture of Ketsu and Chu, despotic tyrants of the past, shown in the act of personal enjoyment, and dwells on the glory and meanness depicted in the respective delineations.
It may be said of the Shu vases and other bronzes that, although they followed a different convention, they are more than equal in purity of form to the Greek. Indeed, these together constitute, like the calm and delicate jade, compared with the flashing individualistic diamond, the antithesis of ideals, the two poles, of the decorative impulse in East and West. And here also, amongst the workers in metal and jade, we find the same passionate effort to realise the ideal of harmony that absorbs the singers and painters of the period.
The consolidated Shu power had lasted some five hundred years, when it was weakened by the rise of strong feudal houses, which were again conquered and finally absorbed about the year 221 B.C., according to the perpetual destiny of China, by a tribe from the out-lands known as Shin, whose importance had been increasing during some six hundred years. These were Mongolian herdsmen, who had been horse-breeders and charioteers under the first emperors of Shu, and who now, as the last-comers from the desert, became the dominant element. From their territories, lying on the frontiers of the empire, it is supposed that the name by which foreigners know the Celestial soil is taken.
To these tyrants ancient Confucian scholars attributed every conceivable abomination and terror. But it may be held that they were, after all, an integral factor in the working out of the Shu system. It was by them that the Chinese Empire was consolidated, with its roads and great walls, its provincial governments akin to the Persian satrapies, and its invention, or more correctly its choice, of a national system of chirography. It was they who formally disarmed China, and it was they who first assumed the style and title of emperors. In all this it may be that they only followed the common tradition of imperialism, which provides for its own purposes that centralisation by which it is afterwards to be overthrown.
Even their antipathy and persecution of letters may be considered as not necessarily directed against Confucian scholars so much as towards the suppression of free political thought — a dangerous element in the feudalistic kingdoms of the latter part of the Shu power. They had national schools, but only under instructors called Hakushi, appointed by the Government.
This was the age of wide philosophic thought the world over. Buddhism was becoming a social consciousness. Athens was a living influence. Christianity was about to dawn on mankind at Alexandria. And on the eastern side of the great ranges, the era of the Shin tyrants was rich in schools. They practised a censorship which is known as the "Fire of Shin," but it is probable that the destruction of literature, so greatly lamented by posterity, was not in fact due to this so much as to the civil war, which raged for twenty years, during the downfall of their short empire.
The Hâng dynasty (202 B.C. to 220 A.D.) succeeding the Shin, followed in the main their policy, with the one difference that from the time of their third emperor they made a knowledge of Confucianism compulsory in the civil service examinations, a regulation which has come down to the present day. This system was very helpful in drawing the best intellect of the country to the service of the state, and yet, the critical element in the test being fixed, growth and evolution were checked, and Confucianism itself tended to become rigid.
So strong, indeed, was the influence of Confucian thought at this period that in the first century of the Christian era a prime minister, Omo by name, ascended the Dragon Throne in its authority, asserting the choice of the wise men of the time, according to the tradition which it upheld.
This man, it is interesting to note, was of remarkable genius. He established the dynasty of Shin, and it is supposed, from the fact that during his short reign of fourteen years his coins reached all parts of the known world, that it was then that the name of China (Shin-land) was first given. It is probable, however, from the earlier occurrence of the name in Indian literature, that he only reinforced its use. He has the distinction of being the first sovereign in history to publish an edict abolishing slavery, and his downfall only occurred when he allowed his Confucian instincts to carry him to the point of proclaiming, and attempting to effect, equal division of the land amongst all the people. This concentrated the power of the nobles against him, and he was killed in the year 23 A.D. The story of his death is a superb instance of the fatalism natural to the Confucian mind. He sat in his palace, jade staff in hand, gazing out upon the stars, while the battle raged round his standards without. "If it be the will of Heaven I shall die; if not, nothing can kill me," he said calmly, and his assassins rushed in upon him and killed him, unresisting, as he sat. His name is still surrounded by the aroma of that courtesy with which he received the foreign embassies.
The art of the Hângs — who spread Confucian ideals as the Romans did Hellenic culture — was Shu-ist in form, though tinged by that richer colouring and magnificent imagery which were an integral part of the Hang consciousness, with its vast unification and luxurious life. In literature one notes with interest that its writers are always striving to find an ethical basis for this, the gorgeous colouring of their stupendous indulgence, and do so from a standpoint of remarkable social intelligence. Any Chinese scholar will recall the rhymed prose of Shibasojo and Soshimon, where, after depicting the wonderful hunting-parties of the emperor, with their glittering chariots, their elephants and lions, brought from distant realms, their banquets and dancers, they add, "We are indeed happy that the times are so peaceful, for thus kings may afford such luxury!" Again, they enumerate the glories of the principal cities of the empire, and end by suggesting that the true beauty of a capital lies rather in the happy faces of its people than in the towers and ornaments upon its buildings.
The architecture of the period is characterised by gigantic palaces, adorned with caryatided pillars and profuse carving, representative chiefly of the moral life. Stupendous towers, and great structures in wood and brick, were erected by these true successors of the Shin. For it was the era of military walls, and, like the Romans after them, the Shin emperors had left their memorial in the Great Wall that stretches from Dokwan to the Yellow Sea. It may, indeed, be held that this, the culmination, had also been the beginning of the decadence of their power, exhausting alike the resources and the prestige of their government. But many succeeding dynasties added to the work. Other architectural achievements of this period, however, like the colossal statues in bronze and iron, of which such frequent mention is made in letters, are now lost, partly because Chinese emperors have had the habit of burning themselves with their treasures in the hour of defeat, and partly by the vandalism of dynastic changes.
The pictorial style of the Hangs is, of course, irrecoverable, unless we can conjure up its richness and maturity from the roughly-chiselled rocks of the Burioshi in Shantung, tombs of a family of provincial nobles, who belonged to the latter part of the Hang dynasty. These fresco-sculptures contain descriptions of Chinese mythology and history, and show the life and customs of early China.
In order to find specimens of the wonderful crafts of the period, we have to turn to Japan, to the collections of the imperial family, to the treasuries of Shinto temples, and to the unearthed contents of the dolmens. For we received Hang art from China, and were even perhaps acquainted with Chinese literature, long before Wani the Hakushi, the Korean scholar, came to expound Confucian texts. That there was a prior stream of influence is attested by the numerous inscriptions in Chinese, showing the facility with which that language was cultivated, not long after his advent. Thus in Japan, as in China, Confucianism provided the soil on which the seed of Buddhism afterwards fell.
The vast bulk of Chinese and Korean immigrants were artists and artisans, who worked in the Hâng style, as their mirrors, horse-trappings, sword-ornaments, and beautiful armour in bronze and gold will testify. Thus the art-education of the Japanese was almost complete by the time Buddhism called for a new and grand expression in the Asuka Period. The genius of Toribushi, our great sculptor, was not born in a night, but was the fruit of causes long pre-existent; and in him we have only the first harvesting of a mighty culture that had covered the ploughlands for many a day.
Yet the Confucian ideal, with its symmetry born of dualism, and its repose, the result of the instinctive subordination of the part to the whole, was necessarily restrictive of the freedom of art. Enchained to the service of ethics, art naturally became industrial. Indeed, the Chinese art-consciousness must always have tended towards the decorative — as shown in its extraordinary development of textiles and ceramics — had the Taoist mind not imparted to it its playful individualism, and had Buddhism not come later, to lift it up to the expression of commanding ideals. But even if it had remained at the decorative, it could never have sunk to the bourgeois level, since from the remotest danger of such a failure of sympathy, Asiatic art, by her vast life of the Universal and Impersonal, stands eternally redeemed.
Eki or Book of Change. — The ancient Scripture of China, which was accumulated gradually through the periods of Kha and In, and attained to its present form under Bunno, the first King of Shu. Confucius added a commentary, which is considered an essential feature of Eki by Confucians. Here much is made of Man, as the central point between the conflicting forces of Heaven and Earth, thus philosophising communism. The Taoist, on the other hand, is able to ignore the Confucian commentary and interpret Eki in his own way. To him, its great note is the text, "Open matter and create work." This ancient Chinese Veda may be described as a philosophy of Nature, rather than a story of Creation. It deals with the immanence of One in all duality, and with the relation of the four seasons or Heaven to the eight elements or Earth. It consists of four books or divisions.
The Ancient days of Taiko-bo. — Taiko-bo was the chief counsellor of the first King of Shu, when the throne was taken from In. This great minister was rewarded by being made King of Sei (Shantung).