Page:A history of Chinese literature - Giles.djvu/16

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4
CHINESE LITERATURE

The more sober Chinese historians, however, are content to begin with a sufficiently mythical emperor, who reigned only 2800 years before the Christian era. The practice of agriculture, the invention of wheeled vehicles, and the simpler arts of early civilisation are generally referred to this period; but to the dispassionate European student it is a period of myth and legend: in fact, we know very little about it. Neither do we know much, in the historical sense, of the numerous rulers whose names and dates appear in the chronology of the succeeding two thousand years. It is not indeed until we reach the eighth century B.C. that anything like history can be said to begin.

For reasons which will presently be made plain, the sixth century B.C. is a convenient starting-point for the student of Chinese literature.

China was then confined to a comparatively small area, lying for the most part between the Yellow River on the north and the river Yang-tsze on the south. No one knows where the Chinese came from. Some hold the fascinating theory that they were emigrants from Accadia in the ancient kingdom of Babylonia; others have identified them with the lost tribes of Israel. No one seems to think they can possibly have originated in the fertile plains where they are now found. It appears indeed to be an ethnological axiom that every race must have come from somewhere outside its own territory. However that may be, the China of the eighth century B.C. consisted of a number of Feudal States, ruled by nobles owning allegiance to a Central State, at the head of which was a king. The outward tokens of subjection were homage and tribute; but after all, the allegiance must have been more nominal than real, each State being