Gems of Chinese Literature/Han Wên-Kung-True Faith of a Confucianist

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Gems of Chinese Literature  (1922)  translated by Herbert Allen Giles
True Faith of a Confucianist by Han Wên-Kung

HAN WÊN-KUNG.

768-824 a.d.

[From Mr. Watters’ invaluable Guide to the Tablets in a Confucian Temple, I learn that we should wash our hands in rose-water before taking up the works of Han Wên-kung, whose official name was Han Yü, Wên-kung being his title by canonisation. Known as the “Prince of Literature,” and generally regarded as the most striking figure in the Chinese world of letters, he certainly ranks high as poet, essayist, and philosopher. In official life, he got himself into trouble by his outspoken attacks upon Buddhism, at that time very fashionable at Court, and was banished to the then barbarous south, where he gained great kudos by his wise and incorrupt administration. It was there that he issued his famous manifesto to the crocodile, at which we might well smile if it were not quite clear that to the author superstition was simply, as elsewhere, an instrument of political power. Han Wên-kung was ultimately recalled from his quasi-exile, and died loaded with honours. His tablet has been placed in the Confucian temple, which is otherwise strictly reserved for exponents of the doctrines of Confucius, “because,” as Mr. Watters states, “he stood out almost alone against the heresy of Buddhism which had nearly quenched the torch of Confucian truth.”]

UNIVERSAL love is called charity: right conduct is called duty. The product of these two factors is called the Method; and its practice, without external stimulus, is called Exemplification.[1]

Charity and Duty are constant terms. Method and Exemplification are variable. Thus, there is the Method of the perfect man, and the Method of the mean man; while Exemplification may be either good or evil.

Lao Tzŭ merely narrowed the scope of charity and duty; he did not attempt to do without them altogether. His view of them was the narrow view of a man sitting at the bottom of a well and inferring the size of the heavens from the small portion visible to himself. He understood Charity and Duty in a limited, individual sense; and narrowness followed as a matter of course. What he called the Method was a Method he had determined was the Method. It was not what I call the Method. What he called Exemplification was different from what I call Exemplification. What I call Method and Exemplification are based upon a combination of Charity and Duty; and this is the opinion of the world at large. What Lao Tzŭ called Method and Exemplification were based upon a negation of Charity and Duty; but that was the opinion of one man.

Under the Chows, the true Method began to decay; the influence of Confucius to wane. Under the Ch‘ins, came the burning of the books.[2] Under the Hans, the doctrines of Lao Tzŭ prevailed, followed by the Buddhism of succeeding dynasties. Those who then occupied themselves with morals, sided either with Yang Chu or with Mo Tzŭ,[3] or embraced the tenets either of Lao Tzŭ or of Buddha. Such a one was necessarily led to denounce the teachings of Confucius. His adopted faith became all in all to him; his former faith, an outcast. He glorified the new; he vilified the old. And now those who would cultivate morality, hesitate between a choice of guides!

The followers of Lao Tzŭ say, “Confucius was a disciple of our Master.” The followers of Buddha say, “Confucius was a disciple of our Master.”[4] And the followers of Confucius, by dint of repetition, have at length fallen so low as themselves to indulge in such random talk, saying, “Our Master also respected Lao Tzŭ and Buddha.” Not only have they uttered this with their tongues, but they have written it down in books; and now, if a man would cultivate morality, from whom should he seek instruction?

Great is the straining of mankind after the supernatural! Great is their neglect of fundamentals in this yearning for the supernatural alone!

Of old, the people were divided into four classes. They are now divided into six.[5] Of old, there was but one faith. Now, there are three. The husbandman tills his field, and six classes eat of its fruits. The artisan plies his craft, and six classes profit by his skill. The trader barters his goods, and six classes are enriched by the exchange. Is it then surprising that beggary and crime are rampant?

In ancient times, man stood face to face with many dangers. Sages arose and taught him the secret of society. They gave him rulers for the people and teachers for the young. They drove away the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and established him at the centre of the earth.[6] He was cold, and they gave him clothes. He was hungry, and they gave him food. He entrusted his life to the hazard of a branch, or slept himself into sickness on the bare ground; and they built him palaces and houses to live in. They taught him handicrafts that he might furnish himself with useful things; they taught him trade that the deficiency of one region might be supplied from the abundance of another. They taught him medicine that he might battle against premature death; they taught him burial and sacrifice that the memory of the dead might be perpetuated for ever. They taught him ceremonial in order to secure a rule of precedence; they taught him music as a means of dissipating the melancholy of his heart. They taught him government in order to restrain the lax; they taught him punishment in order to weed out the vicious. As a safeguard against fraud, they made for him seals and measures and scales. As a safeguard against robbery, they built walls and organised militia. Thus did they take precautions against whatsoever evils might come upon him.

But now forsooth we are told that “unless our sages are put to death, deeds of violence will not cease;” and that “if we destroy our measures and break our scales, the people will have no further cause for dissension.” What thoughtless talk is this![7]

Had there been no sages of old, the race of man would have long since become extinct. Men have not fur and feathers and scales to adjust the temperature of their bodies; neither have they claws and fangs to aid them in the struggle for food. Hence their organisation, as follows:―The sovereign issues commands. The minister carries out these commands and makes them known to the people. The people produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of every-day use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers. The sovereign who fails to issue his commands loses his raison d’être: the minister who fails to carry out his sovereign’s commands and to make them known to the people, loses his raison d’etre: the people who fail to produce grain and flax and silk, fashion articles of every-day use, and interchange commodities, in order to fulfil their obligations to their rulers,―should lose their heads.

But now the rule runs thus:―“Discard the relationships of sovereign and subject, of father and son.” These social obligations are put out of sight in order to secure, as they say, “perfect purity in abstraction from a world of sense.” Happily, indeed, these doctrines were not promulgated until after the Three Dynasties, when they were unable to interfere with the already-established landmarks of our great Sages. Unhappily, it might be said, because they have thus escaped demolition at the hands of those mighty teachers of men.

Now the title of emperor is different from that of king; yet the wisdom of each is the same. To slake thirst by drinking and to appease hunger with food; to wear grass-cloth in summer and fur in winter,―these acts cannot be regarded as identical; yet the rationale of each is the same. Those who urge us to revert to the inaction of extreme antiquity, might as well advise us to wear grass-cloth in winter, or to drink when we are hungry. It is written, “He who would manifest his good instincts to all mankind, must first duly order the State. But previous to this he must duly order his Family. And previous to that his own Self. And previous to that his Heart. And previous to that his Thoughts.” It will be seen therefore that there was an ulterior motive in thus ordering the heart and the thoughts. What, on the other hand, is the object of the followers of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha? To withdraw themselves from the world, from the State, and from the family! To deny the eternal obligations of society so that sons need no longer submit themselves to their fathers, so that subjects need no longer own allegiance to their sovereigns, so that the people need no longer occupy themselves with their natural duties!

When Confucius wrote his Spring and Autumn,[8] he treated as barbarians those of the feudal princes who used a barbarian ceremonial; while those who adopted the ceremonial of the Central State, were treated by him as men of the Central State. It is written in the Book of Changes, “A barbarian prince is not the equal of a Chinese peasant.”[9] It is written in the Book of Odes, “Oppose the hordes of the west and north: punish the tribes of Ching and Shu.” But now when they would take the rule of life of barbarians and graft it upon the wisdom of our ancient kings, is not this the first step on the road to barbarism itself? For what was the wisdom of our ancient kings? It was this:―“Universal love is called charity: right conduct is called duty. The resultant of these two factors is called the Method; and their exemplification, without external stimulus, is called instinct.” Their cannon comprised the Book of Odes, the Book of History, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn. Their code embraced Ceremonial, Music, Punishment, and Administration in general. They divided the people into four classes;―Literati, Husbandmen, Artisans, and Traders. Their relationships were those between sovereign and subject, between father and son, with teacher and with friend, between host and guest, between elder and younger brother, and between husband and wife. Their clothes were of cloth or of silk. They dwelt in palaces or in ordinary houses. They ate grain and vegetables and fruit and fish and flesh. Their Method was easy of comprehension: their doctrines were easily carried into practice. Hence their lives passed pleasantly away, a source of satisfaction to themselves, a source of benefit to mankind. At peace within their own hearts, they readily adapted themselves to the necessities of the family and of the State. Happy in life, they were remembered after death. Their sacrifices were grateful to the God of Heaven, and the spirits of the departed rejoiced in the honours of ancestral worship.

And if I am asked what Method is this, I reply that it is what I call the Method, and not merely a method like those of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha. The Emperor Yao handed it down to the Emperor Shun; the Emperor Shun handed it down to the Great Yü; and so on until it reached Confucius, and lastly Mencius, who died without transmitting it to any one else. Then followed the heterodox schools of Hsün and Yang, wherein much that was essential was passed over, while the criterion was vaguely formulated. In the days before Chou Kung, the Sages were themselves rulers; hence they were able to secure the reception of their Method. In the days after Chou Kung, the sages were all high officers of State; hence its duration through a long period of time.

And now, it will be asked, what is the remedy? I answer that unless these false doctrines are rooted out, the true faith will not prevail. Let us insist that the followers of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha behave themselves like ordinary mortals. Let us burn their books. Let us turn their temples into dwelling-houses. Let us make manifest the Method of our ancient kings in order that men may be led to embrace its teachings. Thus, and thus only, will there be wherewithal to feed the widow and the orphan, to nourish the cripple and the sick;―and the scheme is feasible enough.


  1. This last term cannot be satisfactorily rendered. It is usually translated by “virtue”; but that, to go no farther, would make nonsense of the next clause. The meaning, however, may be sufficiently gathered from the context. I need hardly add that “method” must be here understood in its philosophical sense.
  2. See Li Ssŭ.
  3. Founders of the egoistic and altruistic schools, respectively (qq.vv.)
  4. Confucius is reported to have said “There is a prophet in the West,” and the Buddhists have explained this to mean Buddha. A few centuries later and the Jesuits would inevitably have appropriated it as a palpable allusion to Christ.
  5. Alluding to the priests of Lao Tzŭ and Buddha.
  6. Which the Chinese then believed to be square and flat.
  7. The doctrine elaborated by Chuang Tzŭ, namely, that if good was not defined, evil could not exist.
  8. The name given to the Annals said, but not universally admitted to be, from his pen. See p. 1, and Yüan Mei.
  9. As I was leaving China in 1883, I was presented by a literary friend with a complimentary poem, in which the following lines occurred:―

    We may easily meet once more: still it is hard to part.
    The chrysanthemums will have faded ere I shall see you again.
    Deep have been your researches in our Sacred Books;
    Shallow, alas! my wit to expound those books to you.
    From of old, literature has illumined the nation of nations;
    And now its influence has gone forth to regenerate a barbarian official.

    The word used for “barbarian” was the character tabooed by Treaty; and yet the writer was undoubtedly conscious only of an effort to please.

    Just now, there is a feeling in certain quarters that the term “Chinaman” is offensive to the Chinese people, and recently a young “Chinese” wrote to The Times on the subject. Incidentally, he spoke of us as “Britishers,” which though harmless is scarcely a term of respect. Britishers, however, are not so foolish as to resent this; nor I think should the Chinese show themselves too sensitive in regard to “Chinaman,” which may be too playful but is certainly not meant offensively, considering that they have but lately dropped the less endearing term “foreign devils,” and even now may be occasionally detected in the use of fan “barbarian.” Meanwhile, our wily Yankee rivals have advised the use of “Chinese” by “Americans who are desirous of improving the relations between the United States and China” (see “Commercial Handbook of China,” published by the United States Department of Commerce).