Chinese philosophy covers altogether too large a field to be dealt with, even in outline, on a scale suitable to this volume; only a few of its chief features can possibly be exhibited in the space at disposal.
Beginning with moral philosophy, we are confronted at once with what was in early days an extremely vexed question; not perhaps entirely set at rest even now, but allowed to remain in suspense amid the universal acceptance of Confucian teachings. Confucius himself taught in no indistinct terms that man is born good, and that he becomes evil only by contact with evil surroundings. He does not enlarge upon this dogma, but states it baldly as a natural law, little anticipating that within a couple of centuries it was to be called seriously in question. It remained for his great follower, Mencius, born a hundred years later, to defend the proposition against all comers, and especially against one of no mean standing, the philosopher Kao . Kao declared that righteousness is only to be got out of man's nature in the same way that good cups and bowls are to be got out of a block of willow wood, namely, by care in fashioning them. Improper workmanship would produce bad results; good workmanship, on the other hand, would produce good results. In plain words, the nature of man at birth is neither good nor bad; and what it becomes afterwards depends entirely upon what influences have been brought to bear and in what surroundings it has come to maturity. Mencius met this argument by showing that in the process of extracting cups and bowls from a block of wood, the wood as a block is destroyed, and he pointed out that, according to such reasoning, man's nature would also be destroyed in the process of getting righteousness out of it.
Again, Kao maintained that man's nature has as little concern with good or evil as water has with east or west; for water will flow indifferently either one way or the other, according to the conditions in each case. If there is freedom on the east, it will flow east; if there is freedom on the west, it will flow west; and so with human nature, which will move similarly in the direction of either good or evil. In reply, Mencius freely admitted that water would flow either east or west; but he asked if it would flow indifferently up or down. He then declared that the bent of human nature towards good is precisely like the tendency of water to flow down and not up. You can force water to jump up, he said, by striking it, and by mechanical appliances you can make it flow to the top of a hill; but what you do in such cases is entirely contrary to the nature of water, and is merely the result of violence, such violence, in fact, as is brought into play when man's nature is bent towards evil.
"That which men get at birth," said Kao, "is their nature," implying that all natures were the same, just as the whiteness of a white feather is the same as the whiteness of white snow; whereupon Mencius showed that on this principle the nature of a dog would be the same as that of a an ox, or the nature of an ox the same as that of a man. Finally, Mencius declared that for whatever evil men may commit, their natures can in nowise be blamed. In prosperous times, he argued, men are mostly good, whereas in times of scarcity the opposite is the case; these two conditions, however, are not to be charged against the natures with which God sent them into the world, but against the circumstances in which the individuals in question have been situated.
The question, however, of man's original nature was not set permanently at rest by the arguments of Mencius. A philosopher, named Hsun Tzu , who flourished not very much later than Mencius, came forward with the theory that so far from being good according to Confucius, or even neutral according to Kao, the nature of man at birth is positively evil. He supports this view by the following arguments. From his earliest years, man is actuated by a love of gain for his own personal enjoyment. His conduct is distinguished by selfishness and combativeness. He becomes a slave to envy, hatred, and other passions. The restraint of law, and the influence and guidance of teachers, are absolutely necessary to good government and the well-being of social life. Just as wood must be subjected to pressure in order to make it straight, and metal must be subjected to the grindstone in order to make it sharp, so must the nature of man be subjected to training and education in order to obtain from it the virtues of justice and self-sacrifice which characterize the best of the human race. It is impossible to maintain that man's nature is good in the same sense that his eyes see and his ears hear; for in the latter there is no alternative. An eye which does not see, is not an eye; an ear which does not hear, is not an ear. This proves that whereas seeing and hearing are natural to man, goodness is artificial and acquired. Just as a potter produces a dish or a carpenter a bench, working on some material before them, so do the sages and teachers of mankind produce righteousness by working upon the nature of man, which they transform in the same way that the potter transforms the clay or the carpenter the wood. We cannot believe that God has favourites, and deals unkindly with others. How, then, is it that some men are evil while others are good? The answer is, that the former follow their natural disposition, while the latter submit to restraints and follow the guidance of their teachers. It is indeed true that any one may become a hero, but all men do not necessarily become heroes, nor is there any method by which they can be forced to do so. If a man is endowed with a capacity for improvement, and is placed in the hands of good teachers, associating at the same time with friends whose actions display such virtues as self-sacrifice, truth, kindness, and so forth, he will naturally imbibe principles which will raise him to the same standard; whereas, if he consorts with evil livers, he will be a daily witness of deceit, corruption, and general impurity of conduct, and will gradually lapse into the same course of life. If you do not know your son, says the proverb, look at his friends.
The next step was taken by the philosopher Yang Hsiung , 53 B.C. to A.D. 18. He started a theory which occupies a middle place between the last two theories discussed above, teaching that the nature of man at birth is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but a mixture of both, and that development in either direction depends altogether on environment. A compromise in matters of faith is not nearly so picturesque as an extreme, and Yang's attempted solution has attracted but scant attention, though always mentioned with respect. The same may also be said of another attempt to smooth obvious difficulties in the way of accepting either of the two extremes or the middle course proposed by Yang Hsiung. The famous Han Yu, to be mentioned again shortly, was a pillar and prop of Confucianism. He flourished between A.D. 768 and 824, and performed such lasting services in what was to him the cause of truth, that his tablet has been placed in the Confucian temple, an honour reserved only for those whose orthodoxy is beyond suspicion. Yet he ventured upon an attempt to modify this important dogma, taking care all the time to appear as if he were criticizing Mencius rather than Confucius, on whom, of course, the real responsibility rests. He declared, solely upon his own authority, that the nature of man is not uniform but divided into three grades--namely, highest, middle, and lowest. Thus, natures of the highest grade are good, wholly good, and nothing but good; natures of the lowest grade are evil, wholly evil, and nothing but evil; while natures of the middle grade may, under right direction, rise to the highest grade, or, under wrong direction, sink to the lowest.
Another question, much debated in the age of Mencius, arose out of the rival statements of two almost contemporary philosophers, Mo Ti and Yang Chu. The former taught a system of mutual and consequently universal love as a cure for all the ills arising from misgovernment and want of social harmony. He pointed out, with much truth, that if the feudal states would leave one another alone, families cease to quarrel, and thieves cease to steal, while sovereign and subject lived on terms of benevolence and loyalty, and fathers and sons on terms of kindness and filial piety--then indeed the empire would be well governed. But beyond suggesting the influence of teachers in the prohibition of hatred and the encouragement of mutual love, our philosopher does little or nothing to aid us in reaching such a desirable consummation.
The doctrine of Yang Chu is summed up as "every man for himself," and is therefore diametrically opposed to that of Mo Ti. A questioner one day asked him if he would consent to part with a single hair in order to benefit the whole world. Yang Chu replied that a single hair could be of no possible benefit to the world; and on being further pressed to say what he would do if a hair were really of such benefit, it is stated that he gave no answer. On the strength of this story, Mencius said: "Yang's principle was, every man for himself. Though by plucking out a single hair he might have benefited the whole world, he would not have done so. Mo's system was universal love. If by taking off every hair from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot he could have benefited the empire, he would have done so. Neither of these two doctrines is sound; a middle course is the right one."
The origin of the visible universe is a question on which Chinese philosophers have very naturally been led to speculate. Legend provides us with a weird being named P'an Ku, who came into existence, no one can quite say how, endowed with perfect knowledge, his function being to set the gradually developing universe in order. He is often represented pictorially with a huge adze in his hand, and engaged in constructing the world out of the matter which has just begun to take shape. With his death the detailed part of creation appeared. His breath became the wind; his voice, the thunder; his left eye, the sun; his right eye, the moon; his blood yielded rivers; his hair grew into trees and plants; his flesh became the soil; his sweat descended as rain; and the parasites which infested his body were the forerunners of the human race. This sort of stuff, however, could only appeal to the illiterate; for intellectual and educated persons something more was required. And so it came about that a system, based originally upon the quite incomprehensible Book of Changes, generally regarded as the oldest portion of the Confucian Canon, was gradually elaborated and brought to a finite state during the eleventh and twelfth centuries of our era. According to this system, there was a time, almost beyond the reach of expression in figures, when nothing at all existed. In the period which followed, there came into existence, spontaneously, a principle, which after another lapse of time resolved itself into two principles with entirely opposite characteristics. One of these principles represented light, heat, masculinity, and similar phenomena classed as positive; the other represented darkness, cold, femininity, and other phenomena classed as negative. The interaction of these two principles in duly adjusted proportions produced the five elements, earth, fire, water, wood, and metal; and with their assistance all Nature as we see it around us was easily and rapidly developed. Such is the Confucian theory, at any rate so called, for it cannot be shown that Confucius ever entertained these notions, and his alleged connexion with the Canon of Changes is itself of doubtful authenticity.
Chuang Tzu , a philosopher of the third and fourth centuries B.C., who was not only a mystic but also a moralist and a social reformer, has something to say on the subject: "If there is existence, there must have been non-existence. And if there was a time when nothing existed, then there must have been a time before that, when even nothing did not exist. Then when nothing came into existence, could one really say whether it belonged to existence or non-existence?"
"Nothing" was rather a favourite term with Chuang Tzu for the exercise of his wit. Light asked Nothing, saying: "Do you, sir, exist, or do you not exist?" But getting no answer to his question, Light set to work to watch for the appearance of Nothing. Hidden, vacuous--all day long he looked but could not see it, listened but could not hear it, grasped at but could not seize it. "Bravo!" cried Light; "who can equal this? I can get to be nothing , but I can't get to be not nothing."
Confucius would have nothing to say on the subject of death and a future state; his theme was consistently this life and its obligations, and he regarded speculation on the unknown as sheer waste of time. When one of three friends died and Confucius sent a disciple to condole with the other two, the disciple found them sitting by the side of the corpse, merrily singing and playing on the lute. They professed the then comparatively new faith which taught that life was a dream and death the awakening. They believed that at death the pure man "mounts to heaven, and roaming through the clouds, passes beyond the limits of space, oblivious of existence, for ever and ever without end." When the shocked disciple reported what he had seen, Confucius said, "These men travel beyond the rule of life; I travel within it. Consequently, our paths do not meet; and I was wrong in sending you to mourn. They look on life as a huge tumour from which death sets them free. All the same they know not where they were before birth, nor where they will be after death. They ignore their passions. They take no account of their ears and eyes. Backwards and forwards through all eternity, they do not admit a beginning or an end. They stroll beyond the dust and dirt of mortality, to wander in the realms of inaction. How should such men trouble themselves with the conventionalities of this world, or care what people may think of them?"
Life comes, says Chuang Tzu, and cannot be declined; it goes, and cannot be stopped. But alas, the world thinks that to nourish the physical frame is enough to preserve life. Although not enough, it must still be done; this cannot be neglected. For if one is to neglect the physical frame, better far to retire at once from the world, since by renouncing the world one gets rid of the cares of the world. There is, however, the vitality which informs the physical frame; that must be equally an object of incessant care. Then he whose physical frame is perfect and whose vitality remains in its original purity--he is one with God. Man passes through this sublunary life as a sunbeam passes through a crack; here one moment, and gone the next. Neither are there any not equally subject to the ingress and egress of mortality. One modification brings life; then comes another, and there is death. Living creatures cry out; human beings feel sorrow. The bow- case is slipped off; the clothes'-bag is dropped; and in the confusion the soul wings its flight, and the body follows, on the great journey home.
Attention has already been drawn to this necessary cultivation of the physical frame, and Chuan Tzu gives an instance of the extent to which it was carried. There was a certain man whose nose was covered with a very hard scab, which was at the same time no thicker than a fly's wing. He sent for a stonemason to chip it off; and the latter plied his adze with great dexterity while the patient sat absolutely rigid, without moving a muscle, and let him chip. When the scab was all off, the nose was found to be quite uninjured. Such skill was of course soon noised abroad, and a feudal prince, who also had a scab on his nose, sent for the mason to take it off. The mason, however, declined to try, alleging that the success did not depend so much upon the skill of the operator as upon the mental control of the patient by which the physical frame became as it were a perfectly inanimate object.
Contemporary with Chuang Tzu, but of a very different school of thought, was the philosopher Hui Tzu . He was particularly fond of the quibbles which so delighted the sophists or unsound reasoners of ancient Greece. Chuang Tzu admits that he was a man of many ideas, and that his works would fill five carts--this, it must be remembered, because they were written on slips of wood tied together by a string run through eyelets. But he adds that Hui Tzu's doctrines are paradoxical, and his terms used ambiguously. Hui Tzu argued, for instance, that such abstractions as hardness and whiteness were separate existences, of which the mind could only be conscious separately, one at a time. He declared that there are feathers in a new-laid egg, because they ultimately appear on the chick. He maintained that fire is not hot; it is the man who feels hot. That the eye does not see; it is the man who sees. That compasses will not make a circle; it is the man. That a bay horse and a dun cow are three; because taken separately they are two, and taken together they are one: two and one make three. That a motherless colt never had a mother; when it had a mother, it was not motherless. That if you take a stick a foot long and every day cut it in half, you will never come to the end of it.
Of what use, asked his great rival, is Hui Tzu to the world? His efforts can only be compared with those of a gadfly or a mosquito. He makes a noise to drown an echo. He is like a man running a race with his own shadow.
When Chuang Tzu was about to die, his disciples expressed a wish to give him a splendid funeral. But Chuang Tzu said: "With heaven and earth for my coffin and my shell; with the sun, moon and stars as my burial regalia; and with all creation to escort me to my grave,--are not my funeral paraphernalia ready to hand?" "We fear," argued the disciples, "lest the carrion kite should eat the body of our Master;" to which Chuang Tzu replied: "Above ground I shall be food for kites; below ground for mole-crickets and ants. Why rob one to feed the other?"
Life in China is not wholly made up of book-learning and commerce. The earliest Chinese records exhibit the people as following the chase in the wake of the great nobles, more as a sport than as the serious business it must have been in still more remote ages; and the first emperors of the present dynasty were also notable sportsmen, who organized periodical hunting-tours on a scale of considerable magnificence.
Hawking was practised at least so far back as a century before Christ; for we have a note on a man of that period who "loved to gallop after wily animals with horse and dog, or follow up with falcon the pheasant and the hare." The sport may be seen in northern China at the present day. A hare is put up, and a couple of native greyhounds are dispatched after it; these animals, however, would soon be distanced by the hare, which can run straight away from them without doubling, but for the sudden descent of the falcon, and a blow from its claw, often stunning the hare at the first attempt, and enabling the dogs to come up.
Sportsmen who have to make their living by the business frequently descend to methods which are sometimes very ingenious, and more remunerative than the gun, but can hardly be classified as sport. Thus, a man in search of wild duck will mark down a flock settled on some shallow sheet of water. He will then put a crate over his head and shoulders, and gradually approach the flock as though the crate were drifting on the surface. Once among them, he puts out a hand under water, seizes hold of a duck's legs, and rapidly pulls the bird down. The sudden disappearance of a colleague does not seem to trouble its companions, and in a short time a very considerable bag has been obtained. Tradition says that Confucius was fond of sport, but would never let fly at birds sitting; which, considering that his weapon was a bow-and-arrow, must be set down as a marvel of self-restraint.
Scores of Chinese poets have dwelt upon the joys of angling, and fishing is widely carried on over the inland waters; but the rod, except as a matter of pure sport, has given place to the businesslike net. The account of the use of fishing cormorants was formerly regarded as a traveller's tale. It is quite true, however, that small rafts carrying several of these birds, with a fisherman gently sculling at the stern, may be seen on the rivers of southern China. The cormorant seizes a passing fish, and the fisherman takes the fish from its beak. The bird is trained with a ring round its neck, which prevents it from swallowing the prey; while for each capture it is rewarded with a small piece of fish. Well-trained cormorants can be trusted to fish without the restraint of the ring. Confucius, again, is said to have been fond of fishing, but he would not use a net; and there was another sage of antiquity who would not even use a hook, but fished with a straight piece of iron, apparently thinking that the advantage would be an unfair one as against the resources of the fish; and declaring openly that he would only take such fish as wished to be caught. By such simple narratives do the Chinese strive to convey great truths to childish ears.
Many sports were once common in China which have long since passed out of the national life, and exist only in the record of books. Among these may be mentioned "butting," a very ancient pastime, mentioned in history two centuries before the Christian era. The sport consisted in putting an ox-skin, horns and all, over the head, and then trying to knock one's adversary out of time by butting at him after the fashion of bulls, the result being, as the history of a thousand years later tells us, "smashed heads, broken arms, and blood running in the Palace yard."
The art of boxing, which included wrestling, had been practised by the Chinese several centuries before butting was introduced. Its most accomplished exponents were subsequently found among the priests of a Buddhist monastery, built about A.D. 500; and it was undoubtedly from their successors that the Japanese acquired a knowledge of the modern /jiu-jitsu/, which is simply the equivalent of the old Chinese term meaning "gentle art." A few words from a chapter on "boxing" in a military work of the sixteenth century will give some idea of the scope of the Chinese sport.
"The body must be quick to move, the hands quick to take advantage, and the legs lightly planted but firm, so as to advance or retire with effect. In the flying leap of the leg lies the skill of the art; in turning the adversary upside down lies its ferocity; in planting a straight blow with the fist lies its rapidity; and in deftly holding the adversary face upwards lies its gentleness."
Football was played in China at a very early date; originally, with a ball stuffed full of hair; from the fifth century A.D., with an inflated bladder covered with leather. A picture of the goal, which is something like a triumphal arch, has come down to us, and also the technical names and positions of the players; even more than seventy kinds of kicks are enumerated, but the actual rules of the game are not known. It is recorded by one writer that "the winners were rewarded with flowers, fruit and wine, and even with silver bowls and brocades, while the captain of the losing team was flogged, and suffered other indignities." The game, which had disappeared for some centuries, is now being revived in Chinese schools and colleges under the control of foreigners, and finds great favour with the rising generation.
Polo is first mentioned in Chinese literature under the year A.D. 710, the reference being to a game played before the Emperor and his court. The game was very much in vogue for a long period, and even women were taught to play--on donkey-back. The Kitan Tartars were the most skilful players; it is doubtful if the game originated with them, or if it was introduced from Persia, with which country China had relations at a very early date. A statesman of the tenth century, disgusted at the way in which the Emperor played polo to excess, presented a long memorial, urging his Majesty to discontinue the practice. The reasons given for this advice were three in number. " When sovereign and subject play together, there must be contention. If the sovereign wins, the subject is ashamed; if the former loses, the latter exults. To jump on a horse and swing a mallet, galloping here and there, with no distinctions of rank, but only eager to be first and win, is destructive of all ceremony between sovereign and subject. To make light of the responsibilities of empire, and run even the remotest risk of an accident, is to disregard obligations to the state and to her Imperial Majesty the Empress."
It has always been recognized that the chief duty of a statesman is to advise his master without fear or favour, and to protest loudly and openly against any course which is likely to be disadvantageous to the commonwealth, or to bring discredit on the court. It has also been always understood that such protests are made entirely at the risk of the statesman in question, who must be prepared to pay with his head for counsels which may be stigmatized as unpatriotic, though in reality they may be nothing more than unpalatable at the moment.
In the year A.D. 814 the Emperor, who had become a devout Buddhist, made arrangements for receiving with extravagant honours a bone of Buddha, which had been forwarded from India to be preserved as a relic. This was too much for Han Yu , the leading statesman of the day, who was a man of the people, raised by his own genius, and who, to make things worse, had already been banished eleven years previously for presenting an offensive Memorial on the subject of tax-collection, for which he had been forgiven and recalled. He promptly sent in a respectful but bitter denunciation of Buddha and all his works, and entreated his Majesty not to stain the Confucian purity of thought by tolerating such a degrading exhibition as that proposed. But for the intercession of friends, the answer to this bold memorial would have been death; as it was he was banished to the neighbourhood of the modern Swatow, then a wild and barbarous region, hardly incorporated into the Empire. There he set himself to civilize the rude inhabitants, until soon recalled and once more reinstated in office; and to this day there is a shrine dedicated to his memory, containing the following inscription: "Wherever he passed, he purified."
Another great statesman, who flourished over two hundred years later, and also several times suffered banishment, in an inscription to the honour and glory of his predecessor, put down the following words: "Truth began to be obscured and literature to fade; supernatural religions sprang up on all sides, and many eminent scholars failed to oppose their advance, until Han Yu, the cotton-clothed, arose and blasted them with his derisive sneer."
Since the fourteenth century there has existed a definite organization, known as the Censorate, the members of which, who are called the "ears and eyes" of the sovereign, make it their business to report adversely upon any course adopted by the Government in the name of the Emperor, or by any individual statesman, which seems to call for disapproval. The reproving Censor is nominally entitled to complete immunity from punishment; but in practice he knows that he cannot count too much upon either justice or mercy. If he concludes that his words will be unforgivable, he hands in his memorial, and draws public attention forthwith by committing suicide on the spot.
To be allowed to commit suicide, and not to suffer the indignity of a public execution, is a privilege sometimes extended to a high official whose life has become forfeit under circumstances which do not call for special degradation. A silken cord is forwarded from the Emperor to the official in question, who at once puts an end to his life, though not necessarily by strangulation. He may take poison, as is usually the case, and this is called "swallowing gold." For a long time it was believed that Chinese high officials really did swallow gold, which in view of its non-poisonous character gave rise to an idea that gold-leaf was employed, the leaf being inhaled and so causing suffocation. Some simple folk, Chinese as well as foreigners, believe this now, although native authorities have pointed out that workmen employed in the extraction of gold often steal pieces and swallow them, without any serious consequences whatever. Another explanation, which has also the advantage of being the true one, is that "swallowing gold" is one of the roundabout phrases in which the Chinese delight to express painful or repulsive subjects. No emperor ever "dies," he becomes "a guest on high." No son will say that his parents are "dead;" but merely that "they are not." The death of an official is expressed by "he is drawing no salary;" of an ordinary man it may be said that "he has become an ancient," very much in the same way that we say "he has joined the majority." A corpse in a coffin is in its "long home;" when buried, it is in "the city of old age," or on "the terrace of night." To say grossly, then, that a man took poison would be an offence to ears polite.