China: Its State and Prospects/Chapter 7
LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.
In the Chinese language, both the oral and written mediums are of the most primitive order. Their words are all monosyllabic, and their characters symbolic; while both continue as they most probably existed in the earliest ages of antiquity. The first invention of the written character was such an effort of genius, that the Chinese have hardly ventured to advance on the original discovery, and have contented themselves with imitating the ancients. Before, however, we discuss the nature of their figures, it will be necessary to trace the progress of the human mind, in the art of communicating and recording thoughts: and point out how the Chinese were led to the adoption of their present mode of writing.
That which constitutes the most striking superiority of the human over the brute creation is the ability of the former to conceive and communicate ideas to their fellows, by articulate sounds. The first employment of human speech is referred to in Gen. ii. 19, 20. "And God brought every beast of the field and every fowl of the air to Adam, to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to every fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." Having once affixed a definite term to each object, that word continued to be the sign of the object referred to, and each called up the other to recollection, whenever presented to the mind. In communicating with their fellows, human beings soon found that the names of things were insufficient to express all they wished to say, and attributes and actions received appropriate appellations. The operations of the mind next required designation and description; and speech, at first poor, became gradually enriched, until it answered all the purposes of human society.
But the ear is not the only inlet to the soul, and as men derived knowledge to themselves by the organs of sight, they soon found that it was possible to communicate information to others through the same medium. Hence, when language failed, external action was resorted to, and the eye as well as the ear aided in the interchange of ideas. When both voice and gesture were insufficient for their purpose, delineation was employed; and objects were rudely pictured for the inspection of the bye standers. The same method was used for sending intelligence to a distance, or recording events for the benefit of posterity. Hence originated pictorial writing", or what is generally termed hieroglyphics. As scenes and circumstances became complicated, abbreviation was found necessary; and the principal part of an event was substituted for the whole; which has been called a curiologic hieroglyphic. A second mode of abridgment was by putting the instrument for the thing itself; which has been termed a tropical hieroglyphic. A third method, borrowed from the use of metaphor in language, was to make one thing stand for another; which has been denominated the symbolic hieroglyphic. This pictorial mode of writing, abridged as it was in the way above described, being insufficient for all the purposes of human intercourse, a certain number of arbitrary marks were invented, to express, not only mental conceptions, but visible objects. These went on increasing till they in some measure answered the purpose of a written medium.
The next step was the construction of Phonetic characters, which seems such a leap from the previous mode, that many have thought the human mind, unaided by Divine inspiration, incapable of discovering it. It consists in uniting, what has no connection in the nature of things, form and sound. Finding that vocables were numerous, and their component parts but few, it occurred to some remarkable genius that the words in common use might be resolved into their elements, and that it would be easier to invent arbitrary marks to represent the few elementary sounds than to construct new and different signs for the multitude of things. We cannot exactly say what led to the adoption of the particular signs for the elementary sounds which are found in most ancient alphabets; but the presumption is, that selecting the names of some very common objects, in the beginning of which certain sounds occurred, they formed a rude representation of the object, and made it stand for the sound in question; thus aleph, "an ox;" beth, "a house;" gimel, "a camel;" and daleth, "a door;" were probably pictured something like those objects, and stood for the sounds a, b, g, and d. Pursuing this method, they soon obtained marks for all the elementary sounds, and, combining them, formed words. This brought about an entire revolution in the written medium of the ancients; and certain combinations of characters became the representatives of audible words, instead of visible objects; by which the written medium was rendered as full, compact, and definite as a spoken tongue; and ideas were communicated to the distance of a thousand years, or as many miles, with certainty and precision.We are now prepared to consider the origin and nature of the Chinese mode of writing. Their traditions tell us that, in the infancy of their empire, events were recorded by means of knotted cords, as among the Peruvians. These were soon found indistinct, and pictorial representations were resorted to, similar to those used by the Mexicans. The abridged plan of the Egyptians was then adopted; and curiologic, tropical, and symbolic hieroglyphics were used; till, all these proving insufficient, arbitrary marks were invented, and increased, till the present written medium, with all its variety and multiplicity, was formed. The Chinese characters are not strictly hieroglyphic, as they were neither invented by, nor confined to the priesthood. They were in the first instance, doubtless, pictorial, then symbolic, afterwards compounded, and finally arbitrary.
The invention is ascribed to Tsang-këĕ, who lived in the reign of Hwang-te, about 4500 years ago. This is, of course, an extravagant assumption. Still, from the simple and primitive nature of their words and characters, we may infer that their origin was extremely ancient. It is evident, that writing was used by the Chinese long before the time of Wăn-wang and Woo-wang, B.C. 1120, from a number of odes composed by those monarchs, and arranged by Confucius; besides which, several instances occur, in the previous history, of written messages having been sent, and events recorded, which could not have been done without a written medium. They assert that the first suggestion of arbitrary signs was derived from the tracing of birds' tracts in the snow, and the observation of the marks on the back of a tortoise.
Their characters are divided into six classes; first, pictorial, or those which bear some resemblance to the object; such as sun, moon, mountain, river, field, house, boat, tortoise, fish, horse, sheep, swallow, bird, &c., which are really representations of the things referred to; second, metaphorical, or those which derive a meaning from something else; thus the character for "handle" signifies also "authority;" that for "raw hides" means, likewise, "to strip;" while that for "heart" signifies also "mind," &c.; third, indicative, or those which indicate the sense by the formation of the character; as a man above-ground signifies "above," and one underneath, "below;" fourth, constructive, or those which derive their signification from the component parts of the character; as the symbol for "fire," and that for "surround," mean together "to roast;" and the symbol for "metal," with that for "distinguish," mean, when united, "to refine in the furnace;" with many others: fifth, derivative, or those which are formed from other characters, with a slight variation; as the character for "old," if turned a little to the right instead of the left, means "to examine;" and that for "great," with an additional dot, means "very great " sixth, phonetic; or those in which form and sound harmonize together; as the characters for "river," and "stream," in which three drops represent the water, combined with other characters, whose sound is well known, to give some clue to the pronunciation.
According to these six modes, all the Chinese characters have been formed; and thus they have arrived at the construction of their written language. The principle on which it is based, is that of assigning a separate character for each word; and, with the exception of the sixth division, above enumerated, of establishing no connection between form and sound. By this means the symbols of the Chinese language have become very numerous, and can hardly be learned without great difficulty. The characters, in the imperial dictionary, exceed thirty thousand; but many of these are obsolete, and of rare occurrence. By a careful collation of a historical novel in twenty volumes, and of the Chinese version of the sacred scriptures, it appears, that the whole amount of characters used in both does not much exceed three thousand different sorts; which would all be known and readily remembered, by reading the whole twice through.
Chinese characters appear exceedingly complicated, to an unpractised observer; but a minute inspection and comparison, will remove much of the difficulty. It will soon be perceived, that however involved the characters appear, they are all composed of six kinds of strokes; which, variously combined and repeated, constitute the formidable emblem, which startles and confounds the beginner. These strokes are the horizontal, the perpendicular, the dot, the oblique slanting to the right, that to the left, and the hooked. On further examination it will appear, that the characters are resolvable into elements as well as strokes, some of which occur very frequently, and are frequently repeated several times in a single character. The whole number of elements is two hundred and fourteen, but only fifty of these enter into frequent composition with other characters; and about ten or a dozen may be recognised, in some form or another, in every sentence. Indeed the component parts of a character may be familiar to the student, while both the sound and meaning are unknown.
The elements, or radicals, of the Chinese language refer generally to very simple and well known things, such as the human species, man and woman; the parts of the body, head, mouth, ear, eye, face, heart, hand, foot, flesh, bones, and hair; human actions, such as speaking, walking, and eating; things necessary to man, such as silk, clothes, dwelling, door, and city; celestial objects, such as sun, moon, and rain; the five elements, such as wood, water, fire, metal, and earth; the vegetable kingdom, such as grass, grain, and bamboo; the animal kingdom, such as birds, beasts, fishes, and insects; with the mineral kingdom, such as stones, gems, &c. Most of the words referrible to these substances or subjects, are classed under them; and though the arrangement may not appear to us exactly philosophical, yet it evidences the inclination of the Chinese, at a very early period, to classification and order. The radical is generally discernible without much difficulty; and by a calculation of the additional number of strokes, the position of the given character in the dictionary is ascertained, almost as readily as by the alphabetic mode. Each character occupies an exact square, of whatever number of strokes it be composed, and the Chinese delight in writing it in such a uniform manner, that the page shall appear as though divided into an equal number of sections, as pleasing to the eve as instructive to the mind. The whole is surrounded by a border, with the title of the book, and the number of the volume, section, or page, noted on the side, instead of the top of the leaf. The Chinese read from top to bottom, and commence at the right hand, going regularly down each column till the end of the book. Chinese paper being thin, they write and print only on one side; and doubling each page, leave the folded part outside. The edges are not cut in front, but on the top, bottom, and back of the book, where it is stitched and fastened. Their volumes contain about eighty pages or leaves, and are about half an inch in thickness. The Chinese use no thick covers for their books: but instead of these, make a sort of case or wrapper, in which about eight or ten volumes are inclosed, and placed flat on the shelf. In some books, the typographical execution and binding are superior; but in most instances, they are turned out in a slovenly manner, and sold at as cheap a rate as possible.
The modes of writing to be met with in Chinese books are various, viz., the ancient form, the seal character, the grotesque, the regular, the written, and the running hand; assimilating to our uncial, black, Grecian, Roman, Italic, and manuscript forms of writing. The ancient form shews, in some measure, how the Chinese characters were constructed; for in it we find various objects delineated as they appear in nature. The seal character, as it is called, because found engraven on seals, differs from the usual form in being entirely composed of horizontal and perpendicular strokes, without a single oblique or circular mark belonging to it; resembling in some degree the arbitrary marks used among the Egyptians. The regular and exact form is that met with in all Chinese books, from which the written form differs, as much as our Italic from our Roman letters. The running hand seems to have been invented for the purpose of expediting business; and by the saving of strokes, and the blending of characters, enables the transcriber to get over a great deal of work in a little time. Such productions are not easily decyphered, and yet the Chinese are so fond of this ready, and, in their opinion, graceful mode of writing, that they frequently hang up specimens of penmanship in the most abbreviated form, as ornaments to their shops and parlours. The Chinese writers are generally so practiced in the use of the pencil, that they run down a column with the utmost rapidity, and would transcribe any given quantity of matter as soon as the most skilful copyist in England.
It has been suggested, that the Chinese mode of writing has been derived from Egypt; and considering that the Chinese and Egyptians proceeded from the same stock, were civilized at a very early period, and resembled each other in their wants and resources, it is not be wondered at, that they should adopt the same method of communicating ideas. The notion of some connection between China and Egypt has been revived, since two small porcelain bottles were brought from Egypt to this country; on these inscriptions have been discovered, apparently in the Chinese character; and the learned have been curious to know their identity and import. A fac-simile of one was seen by the author in China; and a picture of the other has appeared in Davis's Chinese, but without any translation. On examination it has been found, that the inscriptions are in the Chinese running hand, and read as follows: Chun lae yew yǐh nëen, "The returning spring brings another year:" and Ming yuĕh sung chung chaou, "The clear moon shines through the midst of the fir tree." This latter sentence is part of a well-known couplet, composed by Wang Găn-shĭh, a famous writer under the Sung dynasty, A. D. 1068; and as there is a curious circumstance connected with it, we shall here relate it. The original couplet ran thus:—
Ming yuĕh sung këen keaou;
Wang keuen hwa sin shwuy.
"The clear moon sings in the middle of the fir-tree;
"The royal hound sleeps in the bosom of the flower!"
Soo-tung-po, another famous writer, who flourished about fifty years afterwards, found fault with this couplet, and altered it to the following:—
Ming yuĕh sung chung chaou
Wang keuen hwa yin shwuy.
"The clear moon shines through the midst of the fir-tree;
"The royal hound sleeps under the shade of the flower!"
Travelling, afterwards, in the south of China, he heard a bird singing in the woods; and, on enquiry, found that they called it, Ming-yuĕh, "the clear moon;" and, observing a grub nestling in a beautiful flower, he ascertained its name to be Wang keuen, "the royal hound." It is unnecessary to add, that he now became convinced of his mistake; but too late to repair the evil; as the couplet, thus amended by him, had already been inscribed on various vessels, and transmitted, as we find, to distant Egypt. It will easily be seen, that this by no means strengthens the supposition of an early connection between China and Egypt; and so far from the bottles being coeval with Psammeticus, B. C. 658, as has been suggested; its date cannot be older than A. D. 1130. Since the commencement of the Christian era, Chinese history makes mention of foreign merchants coming from India and Arabia, by sea, to trade with China. A. D. 850, two Arabian travellers came to Canton, who have published their itineraries; and, A. D. 1300, Ibn Batuta visited China: so that an almost constant intercourse has been kept up between China and Arabia, by which means the bottles in question may have been transmitted to the latter country, and from thence conveyed into Egypt. It does not appear that these bottles were discovered "in an Egyptian tomb, which had not been opened since the days of the Pharaohs;" for the travellers purchased them of a Fellah, who offered them for sale, at Coptos. Indeed, the circumstance of the inscriptions being in the running hand, which was not invented until the Sung dynasty, would lead us to conclude, that the bottles are of a late date; and were, in all probability, carried to the west by Ibn Batuta.
The most celebrated compositions, in the Chinese language, are the "five classics," and the "four books," most of which were compiled by Confucius and his disciples. The five classics are the Yĭh king, "book of diagrams;" the She king, "collection of odes;" the Le ke, "record of ceremonies;" the Shoo king, containing the history of the three first dynasties; and the Chun tsew, which is an account of the life and times of Confucius. The book of diagrams is ascribed to Wăn-wang, B.C. 1130; the book of odes contains several pieces, referrible to the same age, and is a selection from a larger number, extant in the time of Confucius, and by him collected and published; the book of ceremonies was, probably, compiled from previously-existing documents, in the same manner. The history of the three dynasties commences with an account of Yaou and Shun, in the traditionary period, coeval with Noah; and describes the principal events of antiquity, down to the times of Wăn, and Woo-wang, B.C. 1120, and is probably the production of Chowkung, the brother of those monarchs. The last of the ancient classics was written by Confucius himself, and having been commenced in spring and concluded in autumn, was called chun chew, "spring and autumn." Of the "four books," the two first, chung yung, "the happy medium;" and ta-hëŏ, "the great doctrine;" were written by Tsze-sze, the grandson and disciple of Confucius: the third, called the Lun-yu, "book of discourses," is the production of the different disciples of the sage, who recollected and recorded his words and deeds; while the last of the four books was written by Măng-tsze, or Mencius, the disciple of Tsze-sze, and bears the name of its author.
These five classics, and four books, are highly prized by the Chinese, and constitute the class books in schools, and the ground work of the literary examinations. The first business of a Chinese student is, to commit the whole of these books and classics to memory; without which, he cannot have the least chance of succeeding. The text of these nine works, is equal in bulk to that of the New Testament; and it is not hazarding too much to say, that were every copy annihilated to-day, there are a million of people who could restore the whole to-morrow. Having been composed at a very early period, and somewhat mutilated in the time of Che Hwang-te, it necessarily follows, that there are several indistinct passages, unintelligible to the people of the present day. Hence commentaries have been found necessary, and a very celebrated writer, who flourished in the twelfth century, called Choo-foo-tsze, has composed an extensive exposition of the whole. This commentary is likewise committed to memory by the student, and his mind must be familiar with whatever has been written on the subject. The number and variety of explanatory works, designed to elucidate the Chinese classics, shew, in what estimation these writings are held, and what an extensive influence they exert over the mind of China. A Chinese author says, that the expositors of the four books are more than one thousand in number. The style and sentiment of all the moderns is greatly conformed to this ancient model; and the essays and exhortations of the present day, are chiefly reiterations of the sentiments of their great master, and an incessant ringing of the changes on the five constant virtues, and the five human relations, which form the basis of moral philosophy in China. Even the Buddhist priests, and the followers of Taou, teach their disciples the books of Confucius; and nothing is looked upon as learning in China which does not emanate from this authorized and infallible source.
In addition to their classical writings, they have a number of works of high antiquity and great estimation, such as the Chow-le and E-le, supposed to have been written by Chow-kung, eleven hundred years before Christ; and treating of the ceremonies of marriage, funerals, visiting, feasting, &c., the Kea-yu, or "sayings of Confucius," ascribed to his grandson, Tsze-sze; the Heaou king, treating of filial piety; the Yew-hëŏ, and Seaou-hëŏ, intended for young persons; together with the writings of later philosophers, celebrated both for their elegant style and orthodox sentiments. The Koo-wăn, or "specimens of ancient literature," contains extracts from their most celebrated authors, and is highly prized and commonly read in China. In addition to these philosophical writings, they have very voluminous works on history and biography, together with piles of poems, in which the genius of Chinese versifiers has been displayed, from the days of Wăn-wang to the present age. The departments of philology and philosophy, natural history and botany, medicine and jurisprudence, have been attended to by numerous authors; and though much improvement has not been made, of late years, yet the early advancement made in these studies is creditable to the genius of ancient China.
Besides the writers in the orthodox school, there have been a great number of authors, advocating the system of Laou-keun and Buddha. The Taou-tĭh-king, composed by the former, is coeval with the books of Confucius, and nearly as much esteemed by the followers of Taou; while the charms and prayers of the Buddhist sect, fill numerous cases in all the temples of Fŭh, and find their way, by gratuitous distribution, into the hands of millions. Plays and novels, with works of a light and questionable character, are still more extensively multiplied, and actually deluge the land. A Chinese bookseller issues his catalogue in the same way with our English bibliopolists, and in the number of works, with the cheapness of the prices, would vie with any advertisers on this side the globe. Many of their publications amount to two hundred and fifty or three hundred volumes; and one has been met with amounting to three thousand volumes, indicative either of the abundance of their matter, or their tedious prolixity.
We have hitherto alluded principally to the Chinese characters, and the method they have adopted of transmitting and perpetuating their ideas. We shall now treat of their spoken language; not that writing preceded speaking, but because the written character constitutes the universal medium, and has been, for centuries, unchanged; while spoken sounds vary in every province of the empire, and through each succeeding age. It is scarcely possible to ascertain the original sounds of the letters, in alphabetic languages, where the arbitrary marks are few; and how much less can the enunciations appropriated to several thousand characters be retained unimpaired for successive ages among hundreds of millions of people. The written medium, therefore, must be looked upon as the most stable part of the language; while their vocal communications come next into consideration.
The Chinese language is monosyllabic, inasmuch as the sound of each character is pronounced by a single emission of the voice, and is completed at one utterance: for though there are some Chinese words which appear to be disyllabic, and are written with a diaræsis, as këen, tëen, &c., yet they are as really monosyllabic, and sounded as much together, as our words "beer" and "fear." The joining of two monosyllables to form a phrase for certain words, as făh-too, for "rule," wang-ke, to express "forget," &c. does not militate against the assertion above made, for the two parts of the term are still distinct words, which are merely thrown together into a phrase, for the purpose of definiteness in conversation.
As the Chinese do not divide their words into elementary sounds, they know nothing of spelling; but they have a method of determining and describing particular enunciations, which nearly answers their purpose. The plan they adopt, is to divide each word into its initial and final, and then, taking two other well-known characters, one of which has the given initial, and the other the final, they unite them together, and form the sound required. This they call splitting the sounds: and though, from ignorance of the principles of orthography, they sometimes divide the sounds improperly, while from the various sounds attached to the characters adduced, the result is frequently undetermined; yet it is the best method they have, and is employed in all their dictionaries. A reference to the initials and finals of the mandarin dialect will enable the reader to see what sounds it contains, and what articulations the educated Chinese are capable of pronouncing.
The initials are sixteen simple, five aspirated, and one silent. The sixteen simple initials are as follows:—
ch, as in church.
f, as in far.
g, hard, as in go: sometimes gn, as in singing.
h, strongly aspirated.
j, as in French, jamais.
k, as in kite.
l, as in lame.
m, as in maim.
n, as in nun.
p, as in path.
s, as in send.
sh, as in ship.
sz, as in his zeal; pronounced without the vowels.
t, as in top.
ts, as in heart's ease, dropping all but the ts, and the succeeding vowel.
tsz, a peculiar sound followed by a short e.
The five aspirated initials are the ch, k, p, t, and ts, described above, pronounced with a strong aspirate between these consonants and the following vowels.
The silent initials give no sounds to the finals, which, therefore, when joined with this negative beginning, stand as they are; but wherever the diaræsis e, i, and u, occur in the final, y is prefixed, when writing the sound in English orthography, as ya, for ëa, yae for ëae, &c.
The forty-three finals, are as follows:— ch, as in church. f, as in far. g, hard, as in go : sometimes gn, as in singing. h, strongly aspi- rated. j, as in French, jamais. the vowels. t, as in lop. ts, as in heart's case, dropping all but the ts, and the succeeding vowel. tsz, a peculiar sound followed by a short e. ' I the a as in ^^' I father. an, ■' an, as in u^oman. ang, as in bang. ang, as in hung. aou, this sound is a combination of the a in fa' iher, and the ow in howl. ay, as in hay. e, as in me. e, as the French in je; — found only in combi- naticm with sh, sz, and tsz. ta, as in meander. eang, as ang m an- ger, preceded bye. eaou, like the aou, preceded by e. eay, as the ay in hay, preceded by e. ten, as en in pen, preceded by e. en, as the e'e in e'er. eo, as in geomancy. eu, as in the French pen. euen, as yawn, pre- ceded by e. eun, as the u in bun, ])reccdcd by e. eung, as in young. ew, as mfeiv. in, as in pin. tae,the a as in /a/Z/er, ing, as in hing. the e as in mc. o, as in no. , as in loo. ow, as in cow. uen, as the final sound of /ait;n. un, as in bun. ung, as Jiun(j. urh, as in viper. uy, as mjluid. wa, as in quaternion. wae, as the former, succeeded by e. wan, as in truant. wan, as in won. wang, as the a '
ther. Wang, as the a in U'O- man. we, as in we. wci, as in loily. wo, as in wo. woo, as in woo. By this, it will be seen, that the b, and d, are wholly wanting in the mandarin dialect; that the r has no vibratory sound; and that n and ng, are the only consonants among the finals; while all the rest have vowel terminations.
The orthography employed above, is that of Dr. Morrison's Dictionary, which is preferred, not as entirely unexceptionable, but as being generally known, and, at present, the only one which we possess, in the English language.
Were all these initials to be joined with the several finals, they would produce by their union nine hundred and forty-six monosyllables. They are not, however, varied to their utmost extent; and three hundred and two different monosyllables are all that the Chinese really extract from these combinations. In attempting to pronounce the names of foreigners, or the words of another language, they endeavour to express them by combining the monosyllables of their own tongue; and if these are not sufficient, they have no method of writing, and scarcely any of enunciating the given word. Thus they make sad havoc of the language of other nations, and missionaries, in aiming to write scripture names in the Chinese character, find considerable difficulty in expressing them sufficiently concise and clear.
But, it may be asked, how do the Chinese manage to make themselves intelligible to each other, with only three hundred monosyllables, and how can these be sufficient for all the purposes of oral language? To this it may be replied, that the Chinese have a method of increasing the number of their words by assigning to each a different tone, which, though scarcely discernible by an unpractised ear, are as readily distinguished and imitated by Chinese organs, as differences of elementary sounds with us. Indeed they more easily discern a change of intonation than a discrepancy in orthography; while even infants among them learn to imitate the tones as soon as they begin to utter words. All the words in their pronouncing dictionaries are arranged according to these tones, and they are as necessary a part of the language as the sounds themselves. Besides which, the tones never vary, either through the lapse of time or the distance of place; for however much the ancients may differ from the moderns, and the inhabitants of Peking from those of Canton, in the sounds they apply to the various characters, yet the tones are invariably the same, not only throughout every province of China, but even amongst the neighbouring nations of Cochin China, Corea, and Japan. This is evident, from the poetry of the Chinese, which is based upon the intonation, and which was the same a thousand years ago that it is now, and continues to be modulated in the same manner wherever the Chinese character is used.
The tones are substantially four, which the Chinese call the even, the high, the departing, and the entering tones; and which are thus described:—
"The even tone has an equal path, neither high nor low;
"The high tone is a loud sound, both shrill and strong;
"The departing tone is distinct, but seems to retreat to a distance;
"The entering tone is short, contracted, and hastily gathered up."
These four principal tones are increased by adding a lower "even" tone, making five in all. These may be distinguished in European books, by the employment of accents, such as the acute and grave, the long and short, with the circumflex. The "entering" or contracted tone, however, sometimes requires a different orthography; the concluding nasal being omitted, and the contracted vowel followed by the letter h, to shew that it is to be pronounced short. This exhibits in our Chinese dictionaries, alphabetically arranged, an increase of about one hundred words, though in fact the number of real Chinese sounds, unvaried by tones, is little more than three hundred. These three hundred words, if accentuated by the five tones, would give the sum of fifteen hundred distinguishable utterances in the mandarin dialect; but the Chinese do not avail themselves of all the advantages which their pronouncing system affords, and one thousand variations are the utmost actually in use. It necessarily follows, therefore, that they have many characters under one and the same sound. This constitutes a great difficulty in the communication of ideas, and renders mistakes both easy and frequent. In order to prevent the confusion likely to arise from this paucity of sounds, the Chinese are in the habit of associating cognates and synonymes, and of combining individual terms into set phrases, which are as regularly used in the accustomed form, as compound words in our own language. Hence the Chinese has become a language of phrases; and it is necessary to learn, not only the terms and the tones, but the system of collocation also; which in that country is the more important, on account of the paucity of words, and the number of terms resembling each other in sound, though differing in sense.
In the science of grammar, the Chinese have made no progress; and among the host of their literati, no one seems to have turned his attention to this subject. They have not learned to distinguish the parts of speech, or to define and designate case, gender, number, person, mood, or tense; they neither decline their nouns, nor conjugate their verbs, while regimen and concord are with them based on no written rules. Not that the language is incapable of expressing these ideas, or that a scheme of grammar could not be drawn up for the Chinese tongue; but the natives themselves have no notion of such distinctions, and could hardly be made to comprehend them. They have treatises on the art of speaking and writing, but these handle the subject in a manner peculiar to themselves. They divide their words into "living and dead," "real and empty;" a "living word" is a verb, and "a dead word" a substantive; while both of these are called "real," in distinction from particles, which are termed "empty." They also distinguish words into "important" and "unimportant." The chief aim of Chinese writers is to dispose the particles aright, and he who can do this is denominated a clever scholar. As for the distinction between noun, pronoun, verb, and participle, they have never thought of it; and use words occasionally in each of these forms, without any other change than that of position or intonation. They have terms for expressing the manner and time of an action, with the number and gender of individuals; but they more frequently leave these things to be gathered from the context, imagining that such auxiliary words disfigure rather than embellish the sentence. To an European, their composition appears indefinite, and sometimes unintelligible; but to a native, this terse and sententious mode of writing, is both elegant and intelligible. In conversation they are sometimes more diffuse, but in composition they are concise, and delight to express much in a few words. Moral apothegms and pithy sayings, are frequently indulged in; and so sententious are their books, that whole chapters may be met with, in which the sentences do not exceed four words each. It will be seen from this, that Chinese grammar is of a truly primitive character, just as we might expect to find it in the infancy of language, when men expressed themselves in short sentences and few words. The student of Chinese will not have to burthen his mind with many rules; but framing his speech according to the native model, will gradually acquire a mode of communicating his ideas at once perspicuous and acceptable.
It must not be thought, however, that the Chinese language is destitute of ornament. They employ various figures of speech, and in some they excel. Metaphor is frequently to be met with in their writings, and similes are abundant. They are fond of alliteration, and attention to rhythm is with them an essential part of composition. Gradation and climax are sometimes well sustained, while in description and dialogue they seem quite at home. But the most remarkable feature of Chinese composition, is the antithesis. Most of the principal words are classed in pairs, such as heaven and earth, beginning and end, day and night, hot and cold, &c. From antithetical words, they proceed to contrast phrases and sentences, and draw up whole paragraphs upon the same principle. In these antithetical sentences, the number of words, the class of expressions, the meaning and intonation, together with the whole sentiment, are nicely and exactly balanced, so that the one contributes to the perspicuity and effect of the other. Such a counting of words, and such a mechanical arrangement of sentences, would be intolerable in European composition, but are quite elegant and almost essential in Chinese. Tautology, which is justly repudiated with us, is much indulged in by them; and sentences are rendered emphatic and distinct by repeating words, and sometimes phrases, or by reiterating the same idea in other terms.
In ancient times the Chinese composed a number of odes, which were handed down to later ages. Out of three thousand of these poems, Confucius selected three hundred, which are still extant in the book of odes. The principal of these are on the usual subjects of love and war, and are replete with metaphor drawn from nature. In these compositions some little attention is paid to rhyme, but none to measure; the poetry consisting chiefly in the arrangement of the sentences, and the figurative character of the language.
During the Tang and the Sung dynasties, the art of poetry was much cultivated, and the present system of Chinese versification was then established. Their poetic effusions are of three kinds, odes, songs, and diffuse poems. In their modern odes, they observe both rhyme and measure, and are very particular about the antithesis. Their verses consist of four lines, with five or seven words in each; the first, second, and last line of the verse being made to rhyme. The measure consists in the right disposition of the accents, which have been above described as four. In poetry, however, they divide these into two, viz., the even and the oblique; which latter includes all besides the even. The rule is, that if the first two words are in the even, the next two must be in the oblique tone, and so the oblique and even tones must be diversified and contrasted, to the end of the verse. So essential are these tones to constitute good poetry, that the Chinese will not look at a verse, however well expressed, and neatly rhyming, in which accent is outraged. In addition to rhyme and measure, the Chinese require that the expressions should be bold, the thought vivid and striking, and every word in each line corresponding with its opposite, so as to form a chain of beautiful antitheses, mutually illustrating and setting forth their fellows. The most celebrated poets of China are Le-tae-pĭh, and Too-foo, both of whom flourished about a thousand years ago; and who not only animated their contemporaries by inditing rhymes, but have handed down a number of elegant and pithy poems, which are still the admiration of the Chinese.
The number of individuals acquainted with letters in China, is amazingly great. One half of the male population are able to read; while some mount the "cloudy ladder" of literary fame, and far exceed their companions. The general prevalence of learning in China, may be ascribed to the system pursued at the literary examinations; by which none are admitted to office, but those who have passed the ordeal with success, while each individual is allowed to try his skill in the public hall. Wealth, patronage, friends, or favour are of no avail in procuring advancement; while talent, merit, diligence, and perseverance, even in the poorest and humblest individual, are almost sure of their appropriate reward. This is their principle, and their practice does not much vary from it. They have a proverb, that "while royalty is hereditary, office is not;" and the plan adopted at the public examinations is an illustration of it.
In order to understand the theory of these examinations, it will be necessary, first, to allude to the general divisions of the country; because the various degrees of literary rank correspond to the size and importance of the districts, where the enquiry is held. China is divided into eighteen provinces, each containing about ten counties, or departments; and each county about ten districts; the districts do not exactly correspond to this number, but the aggregate throughout the empire is fifteen hundred and eighteen. In the province of Canton, there are nine counties, ten departments, and seventy-two districts. The degrees of literary honour are four; viz., sew tsae, "men of cultivated talent;" keu jin, "elevated persons;" tsin sze, "advanced scholars;" and han lin, "the forest of pencils," or national institute. The first title is conferred in the county towns; the second in the provincial cities; the third in the capital; and the fourth in the emperor's palace.
The examinations commence in the districts, in each of which about a thousand persons try their skill; averaging about two per cent of the male adult population. Twice in every three years, the presiding officer of each district assembles all the scholars under his jurisdiction in the place of examination, and there issues out themes on which they write an essay and an ode, to see whether they are suited for further trial; he then affixes a notice to the walls of his office, on which are inscribed the names of all those recommended to the lieutenant of the county; this officer again examines them, together with those residing in the county town; and after repeated trials selects a few, who thus gain what is called "a name in the village." This distinction is much coveted by the candidates, as affording the advantage of a good standing before the literary chancellor; the first name among them being almost sure of a degree.
After the magistrates have tried the capacities of the young men, they are subjected to a more rigorous examination before the chancellor, which determines their fate, as to the first degree. The trial takes place in the county hall, which is divided into compartments, just sufficient for the accommodation of each student; they are searched on entering, to prevent their carrying with them any books or papers, that might assist them in their compositions; themes are given out, on which they write both in prose and poetry; their productions are marked instead of being signed, in order to prevent partiality; and the papers being laid before the chancellor, he selects the best, and confers on their authors the title of sew tsae, equivalent to our bachelor of arts; at the rate of one per centon all the candidates; averaging ten for each district, twenty for each department, and thirty for each county; and giving about twelve hundred for the province of Canton, at every examination. As these take place twice in every three years, there must be an annual increase of eight hundred graduates for Canton alone. On attaining the first step of literary rank, the individual is exempted from corporeal punishment, and cannot be chastised but by the chancellor himself.
The examination for the second degree, takes place once in every three years, at the provincial cities; and is attended by sew tsae's only. The 2400 newly made graduates, together with the unsuccessful ones of former years, now assemble, and form a body of about 10,000 aspirants, for the rank of keu jin, or "elevated men." This is a most eventful and trying period, and many an anxious heart beats high with expectation of mounting another step of "the cloudy ladder." The imperial chancellor, and the chief officers of the province, unite together in examining the candidates. The literary arena is provided with several thousand small cells, into which the competitors are introduced, and guarded by soldiers, so as to prevent collusion or communication, till the trial is over. The examination takes place in the eighth month of the year, and the days of trial are the ninth, twelfth, and fifteenth; on the first of these days the candidates enter, and three schedules are handed over to them, containing seven texts from the classical writings, and three themes; upon each of the former they have to write a prose composition, and upon each of the latter a poetical effusion, for the inspection of the examiners: a scribe stands ready to copy their productions with red ink, and sets a mark on both the original and the transcript, in order that the officers may not discover to whom the pieces belong. After the completion of the essays, they are sent in for inspection, and if the slightest fault be committed, or a word improperly written or applied, the individual's mark is immediately stuck up at the office gate, by which he may understand that it is time to walk home, as he will not be permitted to proceed to the next trial.
The second day is like the first, and the defaulters are struck off as before; so that the number is greatly reduced by the time the third trial comes. At the close of this, the papers are closely inspected, and a few selected as the most intelligent, whose names are published for the information of the people. Seventy-two "elevated men," equivalent to our masters of arts, are chosen out of the ten thousand competitors in the province of Canton, and about as many for each of the other provinces, making about thirteen hundred for the whole empire. When the announcement of the successful candidates is published, the multitude rush forward to gain the intelligence, and hand-bills are printed and circulated far and wide; not only for the information of the candidates themselves, but their parents and kindred also, who receive titles and honours in common with their favoured relations. Presents are then made to the triumphant scholars, and splendid apparel prepared for them, so that they soon become rich and great. To-day they are dwelling in an humble cottage, and to-morrow introduced to the palaces of the great; riding in sedans, or on horseback, and every where received with the greatest honour.
The third degree is the result of a still more rigorous examination at the capital. The thirteen hundred new masters of arts, together with those formerly graduated, who have not risen higher, assemble once in three years, at the capital, to try for the third literary degree. Here also about ten thousand candidates enter the lists, and after an examination similar to what has been described, three hundred are chosen, who are dignified with the title of tsin-sze, or "advanced scholars," equal to our doctors of law. On attaining this degree, they are immediately eligible to office, and are generally appointed forthwith. The superintendency of a district is the first post they occupy, and there is not a magistrate throughout the empire who has not attained the degree referred to. The whole number of civil officers in China, of the rank of district magistrate, and upwards, is about three thousand; and the addition of one hundred per annum seems but just enough to fill up the vacancies occasioned by death or dismissal.
The fourth degree follows a very close examination in the presence of the emperor. The three newly made doctors are summoned into the imperial palace, where they all compose essays on given themes. A small number of these are chosen to enter the Han-lin-yuen, "the court of the forest of pencils," or national institute: where they reside, most liberally supported and patronized by the emperor, to prepare public documents, draw up national papers, and deliberate on all questions regarding politics and literature. The members of this court are considered the cream of the country, and are frequently appointed to the highest offices in the state. The three principal candidates at this fourth examination, are forthwith mounted on horseback, and paraded for three days round the capital, signifying that "thus it shall be done to the man whom the king delighteth to honour." The chief of the first three is one of a million, occupying the most enviable post in the nation, and yet a post to which all are eligible, and to which all aspire.
In order to succeed at any of the literary examinations, it is necessary to put forth extraordinary exertions. Each candidate is expected to know by heart the whole of the four books, and five classics, as well as the authorized commentaries upon them. They must also be well acquainted with the most celebrated writers of the middle ages; and the history of China, from the earliest antiquity, must be fresh in their recollection, that they may allude to the circumstances of bye-gone days, and enrich their compositions with phrases from ancient authors, who, in the estimation of the Chinese, thought and wrote far better than the moderns. The chief excellency of their essays, consists in introducing as many quotations as possible, and the farther they go back, for recondite and unusual expressions, the better; but they are deprived of every scrap of writing, and are expected to carry their library, to use their own phrase, in their stomachs, that they may bring forth their literary stores as occasion requires.
All this can only be attained by great application and perseverance. The first five or six years at school are spent in committing the canonical books to memory; another six years are required to supply them with phrases for a good style; and an additional number of years, spent in incessant toil, are needed to ensure success. Long before the break of day, the Chinese student may be heard chaunting the sacred books; and till late at night, the same task is continued. Of one man it is related, that he tied his hair to a beam of the house, in order to prevent his nodding to sleep. Another, more resolute, was in the habit of driving an awl into his thigh, when inclined to slumber. One poor lad, suspended his book to the horns of the buffalo, that he might learn while following the plough; and another bored a hole in the wainscot of his cottage, that he might steal a glimpse of his neighbour's light. They tell of one, who fearing that the task assigned him was too hard, gave up his books in despair; and was returning to a manual employment, when he saw an old woman rubbing a crow-bar on a stone; on asking her the reason, she replied, that she was just in want of a needle, and thought she would rub down the crow-bar, till she got it small enough. The patience of the aged female provoked him to make another attempt, and he succeeded in attaining to the rank of the first three in the empire.
The advantage of this system will appear, in the even-handed justice which it deals out to all classes. Caste is by this means abolished; no privileged order is tolerated; wealth and rank are alike unavailing to procure advancement; and the poor are enabled, by determined exertion, to obtain the highest distinction. Instances are frequent, of the meanest working their way, until they become ministers of state, and sway the destinies of the empire. These facts being trumpeted abroad, every individual strives for a prize, which is equally accessible to all. They say, of Shun, who was raised to the throne, by his talents and virtues, "Shun was a man; I, also, am a man; if I do but exert myself, I may be as great as he." The stimulus thus given to energetic perseverance, is immense; and the effect, in encouraging learning, incalculable. All persons acquire some knowledge of letters; and learning, such as it is, is more common in China, than in any other part of the world. Six poor brethren will frequently agree to labour hard, to support the seventh at his books; with the hope, that should he succeed, and acquire office, he may throw a protecting influence over his family, and reward them for their toil. Others persevere, to the decline of life, in the pursuit of literary fame; and old men, of eighty, have been known to die, of sheer excitement, and exhaustion, in the examination halls. In short, difficulties vanish before them, and they cheer each other on, with verses like the following:—
"Men have dug through mountains, to cut a channel for the sea;
"And have melted the very stones, to repair the southern skies;
"Under the whole heaven, there is nothing difficult;
"It is only that men's minds are not determined."
Another advantage of the system is, that it ensures the education of the magistrates. Before a single step can be gained in the literary ladder, the memory must be exercised; and the scrutiny through which the candidates pass, ensures a habit of vigilance and assiduity, which must be serviceable to them ever after. The ancient classics contain many moral maxims; and the history of the empire, recording the causes of the rise and fall of dynasties, affords some knowledge of political economy: thus the mind becomes informed, as far as information is attainable in China. The man who would prevail, must exercise his thoughts, and a thinking man is likely to prove a good magistrate. The system, at any rate, is calculated to ensure a corps of learned officers; and it would not be much amiss, if some triple examination of the kind were adopted, before our district magistrates, and lord-lieutenants, received their commissions. The Chinese look upon the public examinations as the glory of their land, and think meanly of those nations, where the same plan is not adopted.
The disadvantages of the system arise from the contracted range of their literature, and from their pertinacious attachment to the ancients, without fostering the genius and invention of the moderns. The sacred books are supposed to contain every thing necessary to be known; and whatever lies beyond the range of the human relations and the cardinal virtues, is not worth attending to. Ethics and metaphysics being their prime study, nature, with all her stores, continues unexplored; geography, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, and mechanics; with the laws of electricity, galvanism, and magnetism; the theory of light, heat, and sound; and all the results of the inductive philosophy, are quite neglected and unattended to. The ancients being considered more intelligent and virtuous than the moderns, the highest excellence consists in imitating them; and it is presumption to attempt to surpass them. Thus the human mind is fettered, and no advance is made in the walks of science.
Another disadvantage is ascribable to the occasional departures from the system. Notwithstanding the rigour of the laws, and the vigilance of the magistracy, ways and means are frequently discovered of bribing the police; and of inducing some candidates, more desirous of present advantage than of future fame, to make essays for their companions.
In addition to these underhand methods of getting forward, the government sometimes expose offices to public sale, in order to relieve their own necessities; but this practice is much reprobated by the imperial advisers, and seldom resorted to. If the course of study were improved and enlarged, and if all abuses were carefully guarded against, the system itself is truly admirable and worthy of imitation; and so far as it is maintained in its purity, constitutes the best institution in China.