Sacred Books of the East/Volume 3/The Shu/Introduction/Chapter 1

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Sacred Books of the East, Vol. III, The Shû King
Introduction, Chapter I: The Nature and History of the Shû by James Legge



Chapter I.

The Nature and History of the Shû.

Meaning of the name Shû King.1. The Shû is the most ancient of the Chinese classical books, and contains historical documents of various kinds, relating to the period from about B.C. 2357–627. The character Shû shows us by its composition that it denotes 'the pencil speaking,' and hence it is often used as a designation of the written characters of the language. This, indeed, was the earliest meaning of it, but from this the transition was easy to its employment in the sense of writings or books, applicable to any consecutive compositions; and we find it further specially employed by Confucius and others to designate the historical remains of antiquity, in distinction from the poems, the accounts of rites, and other monuments of former times. Not that those other monuments might not also be called by the general name of Shû. The peculiar significancy of the term, however, was well established, and is retained to the present day.

The book has come down to us in a mutilated condition; but even as it is said to have existed in the time of Confucius, it did not profess to contain a history of China, and much less, to give the annals of that history. It was simply a collection of historical memorials, extending over a space of about 1700 years, but on no connected method, and with frequent and great gaps between them.

The name King (now in Pekinese King) was not added to Shû till the time of the Han dynasty (began B.C. 202). If Confucius applied it to any of the classical works, it was to the classic of Filial Piety, as will be seen in the Introduction to the translation of that work. The Han scholars, however, when engaged in collecting and digesting the ancient literary monuments of their country, found it convenient to distinguish the most valuable of them, that had been acknowledged by Confucius, as King, meaning what was canonical and of unchallengeable authority.

The Shû was an existing collection of documents before Confucius.2. In the Confucian Analects, the sage and one of his disciples quote from the Shû by the simple formula—'The Shû says.' In the Great Learning, four different books or chapters of the classic, all in it as we have it now, are mentioned, each by its proper name. Mencius sometimes uses the same formula as Confucius, and at other times designates particular books. It is most natural for us to suppose that Confucius, when he spoke of the Shû, had in his mind's eye a collection of documents bearing that title.

One passage in Mencius seems to put it beyond a doubt that the Shû existed as such a collection in his time. Having said that 'it would be better to be without the Shû than to give entire credit to it,' he makes immediate reference to one of the books of our classic by name, and adds, 'In the Completion of the War I select two or three passages only, and believe them[1].' In Mo-zze, Hsün-zze, and other writers of the last two centuries of the Kâu dynasty, the Shû is quoted in the same way, and also frequently with the specification of its parts or larger divisions,—'The Books of ,' 'of Hsiâ,' 'of Shang,' 'of Kâu.' And, in fine, in many of the narratives of Zo Khiû-ming's commentary on the Spring and Autumn, the Shû is quoted in the same way, even when the narratives are about men and events long anterior to the sage.[2] All these considerations establish the thesis of this paragraph, that the Shû was an existing collection of historical documents before Confucius.

Confucius did not compile the Shû. The number of documents in it in his time. The Preface ascribed to him.3. From the above paragraph it follows that Confucius did not compile the collection of documents that form the Shû. The earliest assertion that he did so we have from Khung An-kwo, his descendant in the eleventh generation, in the second century, B.C. Recounting the labours of his ancestor, An-kwo says, in the Preface to his edition of the Shû, that 'he examined and arranged the old literary monuments and records, deciding to commence with Yâo and Shun, and to come down to the times of Kâu. Of those deserving to be handed down to other ages and to supply permanent lessons, he made in all one hundred books, consisting of canons, counsels, instructions, announcements, speeches, and charges.' The same thing is stated by Sze-mâ Khien in his Historical Records, completed about B.C. 100, but Khien's information was derived from An-kwo. Such a compilation would have been in harmony with the character which Confucius gave of himself, as 'a transmitter and not a maker, believing and loving the ancients[3],' and with what his grandson says of him in the Doctrine of the Mean, that 'he handed down (the lessons of) Yâo and Shun, as if they had been his ancestors, and elegantly displayed those of Wăn and Wû, whom he took for his model[4].'

We have seen, however, that the collection existed in his time and before it. Did it then, as An-kwo says, consist of a hundred books? His authority for saying so was a Preface, which was found along with the old tablets of the Shû that were discovered in his time and deciphered by him, as will be related farther on. He does not say, however, that it was the work of Confucius, though Khien does. It still exists,—a list of eighty-one documents in a hundred books. The prevailing opinion of scholars in China is now, that it was not written by the sage. I entirely agree myself with the judgment of Zhâi Khăn, the disciple of Kû Hsî, whose Collected Comments, first published A.D. 1210, are now the standard of orthodoxy in the interpretation of the Shû. He says of the document: 'It sheds light on nothing, and there are things in it at variance with the text of the classic. On the books that are lost it is specially servile and brief, affording us not the slightest help. That it is not the work of Confucius is exceedingly plain.'

The eighty-one documents mentioned in it, and more, may have been in the Shû of the time of Confucius. I think, however, that several of them must have been lost subsequently, before the rise of the tyrant of Khin, who doomed the whole collection to the flames. Mencius complains that in his days the feudal princes destroyed many of the records of antiquity that they might the better perpetrate their own usurpations and innovations[5]. Other considerations, on the exhibition of which I need not enter, confirm me in this conclusion.

The sources of the Shû.4. It will be well here to devote a paragraph to the sources of the Shû. Have we sufficient proofs of the composition in ancient times of such documents as it contains, and of their preservation, so that they could be collected in a sort of historical canon?

We have. Under the dynasty of Kâu (B.C. 1122–256), at the royal court, and at the courts of the feudal princes on a smaller scale, there were officers styled Sze, which has been translated 'Recorders,' 'Annalists,' 'Historiographers,' and simply 'Clerks.' There were the Grand Recorder, the Assistant Recorder, the Recorder of the Interior, the Recorder of the Exterior, and the Recorder in Attendance on the Sovereign. Among the duties of the Recorder of the Interior were the following:—'In case of any charge given by the king to the prince of a state, or to any other dignitary, he writes it on tablets;' 'In case of any memorials on business coming in from the different quarters of the kingdom, he reads them (to the king);' 'It is his business to write all charges of the king, and to do so in duplicate.' Of the duties of the Recorder of the Exterior it is said:—'He has charge of the histories of the states in all parts of the kingdom;' 'He has charge of the most ancient books;' 'It is his business to publish in all parts of the kingdom the books and the characters in them[6].’

These entries show that under the Kâu dynasty there was provision made for the recording and preservation of royal charges and ordinances, of the operations of the general government, and of the histories of the different states; and, moreover, for the preservation and interpretation of documents come down from more ancient times. Confucius himself tells us that in his early days a recorder would leave a blank in his text, rather than enter anything of which he had not sufficient evidence[7]. Mencius also mentions three works, the Shăng of Kin, the Thâo-wû of Khû, and the Khun Kh of , which must have come from the recorders of those states.

Of the existence of a similar class of officers under the previous dynasties of Shang or Yin (B.C. 1766–1123) and Hsiâ (B.C. 2205–1765), we have not such abundant evidence. Chapter 2 in the 10th Book of the 5th Part of our classic, however, seems to speak of them in the time of the former. Wû-ting (B.C. 1324–1264), the twentieth sovereign of it, is described as communicating, in writing, a dream which he had had, to his ministers[8]; and fully four hundred years earlier, Î Yin, the chief minister, remonstrates, in writing, with his young and careless sovereign Thâi K[9]. Going back to the dynasty of Hsiâ, we find the prince of Yin, during the reign of Kung Khang (B.C. 2159–2145), in addressing his troops, quotes the Statutes of Government in a manner which makes us conceive of him as referring to a well-known written compilation[10]. The grandsons of the great Yü, its founder (B.C. 2205–2196), likewise, make mention, in the Songs of the Five Sons, of his Lessons, in a style that suggests to us the formula that Mencius was wont to employ when referring to the documents acknowledged to be of authority in his day 1[11]

Mâ Twan-lin, the encyclopedist, in his General Examination of Records and Scholars, first published A.D. 1321, says that 'the pencil of the recorders was busy from the time of Hwang Tî (B.C. 2697).' The compilers of the records of the Sui dynasty (A.D. 589–617) say that 'historical documents began immediately with the invention of written characters.' That invention I must place myself at an earlier date than the time assigned to Hwang Tî. When once the characters were invented, they would come in time to be employed in the writing of history. The early dates alleged for many of the documents in the Shû are no valid reason for rejecting them without further examination. We may rather be surprised that, when the compilation was made, it did not contain many more than a hundred documents.

Destruction of the classical literature by the emperor of Khin.5. The dynasty of Kâu came to an end in B.C. 256, and after an anarchic interval of thirty-five years, the king of Khin succeeded in uniting all the feudal states under his own sway, and proclaimed himself emperor. Up to this time the Shû had sustained no other damage than all human works are liable to in the course of time; but now it narrowly escaped an entire destruction. An edict went forth from the tyrant in B.C. 213, commanding that all the old classical books should be consigned to the flames, excepting those belonging to the great scholars in the service of the court, and the . His rage was hottest against the Shû and the Shih (the Book of Poetry). Death was the doom of scholars who should be known to meet together and speak of these works, and all who should be discovered having copies of them in their possession, when thirty days had elapsed after the publication of the edict, were to be branded, and sent to labour for four years on the Great Wall, which was then building.

This is not the place to explain the reasons that led to this insane attempt to extinguish, with the exception of one work, the ancient literary monuments of China. The edict was ruthlessly enforced, and hundreds of scholars who refused obedience to the imperial command were buried alive. The Shû had nearly perished from off the earth.

Recovery of the Shû.6. The tyrant, however, died in B.C. 210, within four years from the issuing of his edict. The dynasty which he had sought to establish passed away in B.C. 206. That of Han dates from the year B.C. 202, and in 191 the edict against the ancient books was formally repealed. They had been under the ban for less than a quarter of a century. There would probably have been no difficulty in recovering copies of them, but for the sack of the capital in B.C. 206 by the most formidable opponent of the founder of the House of Han. Then the fires blazed, we are told, for three months among the palaces and public buildings, and proved as destructive to the copies that might have been preserved about the court as the edict of Khin had been to those among the people.

Among the scholars of Khin, however, there had been one, of the surname , who, when the edict was issued, hid his tablets of the Shû in a wall. Returning for them, after the rule of Han was established, he found that many were perished or gone. He recovered only twenty-nine of the documents, containing, according to the division of them that has long been followed, thirty-five books in all. About one of them there is some difficulty, on the discussion of which I need not enter. Fû commenced teaching them, and from all parts scholars resorted to him, and sat at his feet. The emperor Wăn (B.C. 179–155) heard of him, and sent one of the recorders of the court to visit him, and bring the recovered tablets themselves, or a copy of them, to the capital. They were in the form of the character that was prevalent at that time, different from that which had been used in previous centuries, and are known as 'the Shû of the modern text.' The Catalogue of the Imperial Library, prepared by Liû Hin for the emperor Âi (B.C. 6–1), contains an entry of 'the text of the Shû in twenty-nine portions,'—the same, no doubt, which was received from Fû. Fû himself commented on his Shû. The text was engraved on the stone tablets of the emperor Ling (A.D. 168–189). Very many scholars of the Han times laboured on this text, taught it to their disciples, and published their views on it. Not one of their writings, however, survived, in a complete form, the troubles which desolated the empire during the reign of the emperor Hwâi (A.D. 307–312) of the western dynasty of Kin.

In the reign of the Han emperor (B.C. 140–85) a discovery was made in the wall of the house of the Khung or Confucian family of the tablets of the Shû, the Spring and Autumn, the classic of Filial Piety, and the Lun-yü or Confucian Analects. How long they had lain there we do not know. It is commonly said that they had been hidden by some one of the Khung family to save them from the fires of Khin. But they were in a form of the character that had long gone into disuse, and which hardly any one could decipher, and must have been deposited towards the beginning of the fifth century B.C. They were committed to the care of Khung An-kwo, who was then one of the 'great scholars' of the empire, and the chief of the Khung family. By means of the current text of Fû and other resources he made out all the tablets of the Shû that were in good preservation, and in addition to Fû's twenty-nine documents several others. He found also that Fû had in three cases incorporated two different documents under one name, and taken no note of the division of one other into three books or sections. Altogether there were now forty-six documents or different portions of the old Shû brought anew to light. They appear in Liû Hin's Catalogue as 'the text of the Shû in old characters in forty-six portions.'

When An-kwo had made out the tablets, he presented them to the emperor in B.C. 97, with a transcript of them in the current characters of the time, keeping a second transcript of them for himself; and he received an order to make a commentary on the whole. He did so, but when he was about to lay the result of his labours before the court, troubles had arisen which prevented for several years the paying attention to literary matters. It was owing to these that his commentary was neglected for a time, and the enlarged text which he had deciphered was not officially put in charge of the Board of 'Great Scholars,' to which the care of the five King, so far as they had been recovered, had been committed in B.C. 136.

An-kwo's commentary, however, was not lost; but before speaking of it, I must refer to a third recovery of a large portion of the Shû early in our first century. A scholar and officer, named Tû Lin, had been a fugitive, having many wonderful escapes, during the usurpation of Mang (A.D. 9–22). During his wanderings he discovered a portion of the Shû on 'lacquered' tablets, or perhaps on lacquered cloth, which he thenceforth guarded as his richest treasure, and kept near his person. When the empire was again settled by the first emperor of the eastern Han, he communicated his text to other scholars. Wei Hung published a commentary on it, and subsequently Kiâ Khwei, Mâ Yung, and Kăng Khang-khăng (all, great names in Chinese literature) did the same. Tû Lin's 'lacquered' books were the same in number as An-kwo's, but they contained five documents in thirteen books, which were not in the text of the other, and wanted nine documents, also in thirteen books, which An-kwo's text had. The commentary of Kăng Khang-khăng continued till the Sui dynasty, after which we lose sight of it.

I return to the commentary of An-kwo, which, of course, contained his text. Its transmission from hand to hand down to the close of the western Han dynasty is clearly traced. Less distinctly, but surely, we can discover evidence of its preservation, till we come to the commencement of the eastern dynasty of Kin, when Mei Zeh, a recorder of the Interior, having come into possession of a copy, presented it to the emperor Yüan (A.D. 317–322). The Canon of Shun was wanting in it, and was supplied from the commentary of Mâ Yung, based on the text of Tû Lin. From this time the text and commentary of An-kwo had their place assigned them in the Imperial College. They are mentioned in the Catalogue of the Imperial Library of Sui. The second emperor of the Thang dynasty gave orders for a grand edition of the Shû, under the superintendence of Khung Ying-tâ, assisted by others. They adopted the commentary of An-kwo, and enriched it with profuse annotations. In A.D. 654 their work was ordered to be printed, and happily remains to the present day. The text of the Shû, that is, of all of it that had been recovered by An-kwo, was still further secured, being engraved with that of all the other classics on the Thang tablets of stone which were completed in the year 837, and are still preserved at Khang-an, in Shen-hsî.

It is not necessary to trace the history of the Shû further on. The titles of more than 500 works, on the whole of it or on portions, from the dynasty of Thang to the present day, could easily be adduced. Under the Sung dynasty, indeed, there began the sceptical criticism, which, setting comparatively little store on external evidence, decides on the genuineness of documents principally from their style. The results of such criticism always vary according to the knowledge and the subjective character of the mind of its author. Many maintain that the commentary said to be that of An-kwo was not really from him, but was made by Mei Zeh, and palmed on the world under the name of the great Han scholar. Even if it were so, the work would remain, produced nearly 1600 years ago. And to the annotations of the Thang scholars upon it we are indebted for most of what we know of the earlier views of Mâ Yung, Kăng Khang-khăng, and other writers of the Han period. Whether its author were the true Khung or a false Khung, its value cannot be over-estimated. But I do not believe that it was a forgery. That An-kwo did write a commentary on his 'Shû in the ancient characters' is admitted by all. When did it perish? There is no evidence that it ever did so. On the contrary, its existence rises as a fact, here and there, at no great intervals of time, on the surface of the literary history of the empire, till we arrive at Mei Zeh, who received it, as Khung Ying-tâ proves, from a scholar named Zang Zhâo.

Then as to the text of the Shû, there is no controversy about the documents which were recovered in the first place by ; but the additional ones found by Khung An-kwo are so much more easily understood, that I do not wonder that the charge of not being genuine has been raised against them. But even they are not easy. They only appear to be so, when we come to one of them, after toiling through some of the more contorted portions common to both texts. And, moreover, the style of the different books differs according to their subjects. The 'Announcements' are the hardest to understand of all. The 'Charges,' 'Speeches,' and 'Instructions' are much simpler in their construction; and the portions which we owe to An-kwo consist principally of these. In making out his obsolete characters he had, in the first place, to make use of the Books of Fû. That he did not servilely follow his text we conclude from the readings of Fû's followers, different from his in many passages which the industry of critics has gathered up. When he came, however, to new books, which were not in Fû's copy, he had to make out his tablets as he best could. His most valuable aid had ceased. We can conceive that, when he had managed to read the greater portion of a paragraph, and yet there were some stubborn characters that defied him, he completed it according to his understanding of the sense with characters of his own. That he was faithful and successful in the main we find by the many passages of his peculiar books that are found quoted in writings of the Kâu dynasty. This is a fact worthy of the most attentive consideration. I do not think there is an important statement in his chapters that is not thus vouched for. The characteristics of his books which have exposed them to suspicion are not sufficient to overthrow their claims to be regarded as genuine transcripts of the tablets discovered in the wall of the house of the Khung family.

The conclusion to which I come, at the close of this chapter, is, that there is nothing seriously to shake our confidence in the portions of the Shû that we now possess, as being substantially the same as those which were in the collection of the Kâu dynasty both before and after Confucius.

  1. Mencius, VII, ii, ch. 3.
  2. The first quotation of the Shû in Zo is under the sixth year of duke Yin, B.C. 717.
  3. Analects, VII, i.
  4. The Doctrine of the Mean, XXX, 1.
  5. Mencius, V, ii, ch. 2.
  6. See for all these statements the Ritual or Official Book of Kâu, XXXI, 35–42.
  7. Analects, XV, xxv.
  8. Part IV, viii, section 1.
  9. Part IV, v, section 1.
  10. Part III, iv.
  11. Part III, iii.