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

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Sacred Books of the East, Vol. III, The Shû King
Introduction, Chapter III: On the Chronology of China, and the Principal Eras in the Shû by James Legge

Chapter III.

On the Chronology of China, and the Principal Eras in the Shû

No detailed chronological system can be made out from the Shû. 1. I do not enter here on the subject of the chronology of China further than is necessary to show that there is no chronological difficulty in the way of our accepting the documents of the Shû, which I have just specified, as being possessed of the antiquity ascribed to them.

The Shû itself does not supply the means of laying down any scheme of chronology for the long period of time which it covers. We learn from it that dynasty of Kâu succeeded to that of Shang (another name for which was Yin), and the dynasty of Shang to that of Hsiâ, and that prior to , the founder of the Hsiâ, there were the reigns of Shun and Yâo. As P. Gaubil has observed, 'If we had only the Shû King, we should have but confused ideas of the time comprised in the different parts of the book.' There is nothing in this to awaken our surprise. The chronology of a nation comes to be cultivated as a science only when a necessity is felt to arrange the events of its history in regular series on the course of time.

Attempts at systematic chronology began in the Han period.2. It was under the Han dynasty that it was first attempted to construct a chronological scheme of the history of the nation. For this purpose its scholars employed the well-known cycle of sixty years, in the fifteenth year of the seventy-sixth revolution of which I am now writing. It was assumed that this cycle was first devised by Tâ-nâo, an officer of Hwang Tî, in B.C. 2637, which is the first year of the first cycle. But all scholars in China, whether they call in question this origin of the cycle or not, now agree in saying that the use of the cyclic characters to chronicle years was not the ancient method, and did not begin earlier than the time of the usurper Mang (A.D. 9–22).

In the Shû itself the current cycle is used to chronicle days, and days only. Years are specified according to their order in the reign of the sovereign to whom they are referred. Such specification of years in it, however, is rare.

Ancient method of determining the length of Chinese history.Before the Han dynasty a list of sovereigns, and of the length of their several reigns, was the only method which the Chinese had of determining the duration of their national history. And it would still be a satisfactory method, if we had a list of sovereigns, and of the years that each reigned, that was complete and reliable. But we do not have this. Even in the early part of the Han dynasty, Sze-mâ Khien's father and himself, in their Historical Records, completed about B.C. 100, were obliged to content themselves with giving simply the names and order of most of the rulers of Shang and Hsiâ. It is right to state also that in A.D. 279, when the grave of king Hsiang of Wei (died in B.C. 295) was opened, there were found a number of bamboo tablets in it, written in the ancient seal characters, among which the most valuable portion was a book of annals, beginning with the reign of Hwang Tî, and coming down to the sixteenth year of the last king of Kâu, B.C. 299. This work is still current under the name of the Annals of the Bamboo Books. The chronology derived from it is shorter than the received system by rather more than 200 years.

If in any of the classical books of the Kâu dynasty we had a statement of the length of the national history from any given era to the time of the writer, the notice would be exceedingly valuable; or, if the length of the reigns of the sovereigns of Shang and Hsiâ, cursorily mentioned in it, were correctly given, we should be in a position to make an approximate computation for ourselves. But there are only two passages in all those books which are helpful to us in this point. The former of them is in a narrative in Zo Khiu-ming's supplement to the Spring and Autumn, under the third year of duke Hsüan, where it is said that the dynasty of Shang possessed the throne for 600 years. The other passage is the last chapter of the works of Mencius, where that philosopher says that 'from Yâo and Shun to Thang'—a period including all the dynasty of Hsiâ—'there were 500 years and more; from Thang to king Wăn'—the period of the Shang dynasty—'500 years and more; and from king Wăn to Confucius, 500 years and more.' We know that Confucius was born in B.C. 551. Adding 551 to the 1500 years 'and more,' given by Mencius, we have the era of Yâo and Shun at 2100 years 'and more' before our Christian era. And the received chronology places Yü's accession to the throne, as the successor of Shun, in B.C. 2205. Vague as the language of Mencius is, I do not think that with the most painstaking research, apart from conclusions based on astronomical considerations, we can determine anything more precise and definite concerning the length of Chinese history than it conveys.

The period of the Kâu dynasty.3. The Charge to the Marquis Wăn, which now forms the 28th Book of the 5th Part of the Shû, is understood to have been delivered by king Phing, the thirteenth of his line. His place in historical time is well ascertained. Confucius' chronicle of the Spring and Autumn commences in B.C. 722. The first of the thirty-six solar eclipses mentioned in it took place three years after, on the 14th February (N.S.) 719, and it is recorded that in the month after king Phing died. Here therefore is a point of time about which there can be no dispute. An earlier date in the Kâu dynasty is known with the same certainty. The Book of Poetry mentions an eclipse of the sun which took place on the 29th August, B.C. 776, in the sixth year of king , who preceded Phing. Yû reigned eleven years, and his predecessor, Hsüan, forty-six, whose reign consequently commenced B.C. 827. Up to this date Chinese chronologers agree. To the ten reigns before king Hsüan, the received chronology assigns 295 years, making the dynasty begin in B.C. 1122, which cannot be far from the truth.

The period of the Shang dynasty.4. In the period of the Shang dynasty we cannot fix a single reign by means of astronomical facts. The received chronology assigns to it twenty-eight reigns, extending over 644 years, so that its commencement was in B.C. 1766. The scheme derived from the bamboo books makes the sovereigns to be thirty, but the aggregate of their reigns is only 508. Mencius says that between Thang, the founder of the dynasty, and Wû-ting, the twentieth sovereign (in the common scheme), 'there had been six or seven worthy and sage rulers[1],'—leading to the conclusion that the number of twenty-eight sovereigns in all is not beyond the truth. In the fifteenth of the Books of Kâu the names of three of the Shang rulers are given, and the duration of their reigns,—to show how Heaven is likely to crown a good king with length of sway. They are Thâi Mâu, who reigned seventy-five years; Wû-ting, who reigned fifty-nine; and Zu-k, who reigned thirty-three. The two schemes agree in the length of those reigns and of five others. From the statement in the Zo-kwan, to which I have referred above, that the Shang dynasty possessed the throne for 600 years, and Mencius' language that it lasted 'for 500 years and more,' we may believe that the 644 years of the common scheme are more likely to be correct than the 508 of the shorter.

The period of Hsiâ.5. The dynasty of Hsiâ lasted, according to the received chronology, 439 years, and according to the bamboo books, 431; so that the difference here between the two schemes is small. The former estimate carries us up to B.C. 2205, as the first year of 's reign.

I referred on page 13 to an eclipse of the sun, mentioned in the fourth of the Books of Hsiâ, as having occurred in the reign of Kung Khang, a grandson of Yü, and stated that P. Gaubil had found by calculation that on the day and month stated in the document, and in the quarter of the heavens given, an eclipse did occur in the fifth year of Kung Khang, that is, in B.C. 2156, and was visible at his capital at 6h 49′, A.M. In 1840, J. B. Biot submitted a copy of Gaubil's calculations to the younger Largeteau, a member, like himself, of the Institute of France, who went over them with the lunar tables of Damoiseau and the solar tables of Delambre, and brought out the result that there was indeed an eclipse on the day stated, but before the rising of the sun at the then capital of China[2]. My friend, the Rev. Dr. Chalmers of Canton, not knowing anything of the examination made by Largeteau, undertook to verify the eclipse in 1861, and found that while the year, the month, and the day, as given by Gaubil, were correct, the eclipse had taken place during the night, and could not have been seen by the Chinese astronomers. The eclipse mentioned in the document of the Shû cannot therefore be used at present to confirm the received chronology of China; but I am unwilling to give it up entirely. M. Biot says that, 'Notwithstanding the failure of the attempt of Largeteau to verify the eclipse, the hope of yet finding it in some one of the years of the twenty-second century before our era is not entirely lost. We ought to wait till the further perfecting of the lunar tables brings us new lights, by means of which we can form a surer judgment.'

The period of Yâo and Shun.6. We come to the earliest period of Chinese history of which the Shû makes more than a cursory mention,—that of Yâo and Shun. It says that Shun was thirty years on the throne with Yâo, and that, fifty years after, he died and went on high. We learn from it also that it was in the seventieth year of his reign that Yâo sought for another to relieve him of the toils of government. The period covered by the two therefore is 150 years, which both the schemes of chronology accept. Adding two years of mourning between Shun's death and Yü's accession to the throne, we have B.C. 2357 as the first year of Yâo.

In the Canon of Yâo, when that personage is giving directions to his astronomers how to determine the equinoxes and solstices, he tells them that at the vernal equinox they would find the star in Niâo, and at the autumnal in Hsü; at the summer solstice, the star in Hwo, and at the winter in Mâo. It has always been assumed by Chinese scholars that when Yâo said, 'The star of mid-spring is Niâo,' he meant the star culminating at dusk at that season, at the point of observation. And so of the other stars and seasons. A Chinese astronomer at the present day would similarly express himself.

Further, the most common, and what was the earliest division of the ecliptic in China, is that of the twenty-eight lunar mansions, forming what we may call the Chinese zodiac. These mansions are grouped together in four classes of seven each, assigned to the four quarters of the heavens[3]. Of the celestial spaces which Yâo specified, Niâo is the general name for the seven mansions or constellations belonging to the southern quarter; Hwo is an old name of what is now called Fang, the central constellation of the eastern quarter; Hsü and Mâo are the central constellations of the northern and southern quarters respectively. What Yâo meant therefore was, that his astronomers could determine the solstices and the autumnal equinox by the culmination of the stars in the mansions which he specified for those seasons. And we may assume that he directed them, for the star of the vernal equinox, to Hsing, the central mansion in the southern space Niâo. Now, Hsing corresponds to α (Alphard) Hydræ, and small stars near it, in our stellar nomenclature; Hwo, to β, δ in Scorpio; Hsü, to β Aquarii; and Mâo, to Pleiades. When we wish to make the directions of Yâo available for the purpose of chronological enquiry, the question that arises is this:—When did the above-named stars culminate at dusk in China at the equinoctial and solstitial seasons?

Bunsen tells us that Ideler, computing the places of the constellations backwards, fixed the accession of Yâo at B.C. 2163, and that Freret was of opinion that the observations left an uncertainty of 3°, leaving a margin of 210 years[4] On the other hand, J. B. Biot found in the directions a sufficient confirmation of the received date for Yâo's accession,—B.C. 2357[5]. Appended to this Introduction is a chart of the stars as they were visible in China in B.C. 2300, which the Rev. C. Pritchard, Savilian Professor of Astronomy in the University of Oxford, kindly prepared for me. An inspection of it, in the manner directed by him, will show that the phenomena indicated by Yâo to his astronomers were all apparent at that date. This fact must be accepted as a strong proof of the approximate correctness of the chronology, which places Yâo in the twenty-fourth century B.C. The precession of the equinoxes, it has already been observed, was not known in China till more than 2500 years after the time assigned to Yâo, so that the culminating stars at the equinoxes and solstices of his remote period could not have been computed back scientifically in the time of the Kâu dynasty, during which the collection of the Shû existed. The form in which the directions are given, and other things in the Canon, savour, indeed, of legend, and I have not claimed for it that in its present form it be received as a document contemporaneous with the reign of Yâo. I have argued, however, that the compiler of it had before him ancient documents, and one of them must have contained the facts about the culminating of the stars, which I have now endeavoured to set in a clear light.

The mention of these culminating stars does seem to fix Yâo's place in chronology in the twenty-fourth century B.C., and to show that at that remote era it was the custom to make and to record astronomical observations of the heavenly bodies. Having respect to these things, my claim to have the documents of the Shû from the Speech at Kan, nearly two centuries later than Yâo, downwards, regarded as contemporaneous with the events which they describe, cannot be considered extravagant.

7. In the 27th Book of the 5th Part, the Marquis of Lü on Punishments, there is a historical reference which would carry us back four centuries beyond the time of Yâo. It is said that, 'According to the teachings of antiquity, Khih Yû was the first to create disorder.' There is no intimation, however, of the time when this rebel disturbed the happy order and innocence which had previously prevailed; and the very same sentence brings the review of antiquity down to the time of Shun. But the chronologers place him in the reign of Hwang Tî, towards the end of the twenty-seventh century B.C. Other writers describe the struggle between him and Hwang Tî, in which dragons, mists, and the invention of the compass play conspicuous parts. It is to the credit of the Shû, and an evidence of its being a genuine collection of historical memorials, that this cursory reference to Khih Yû is the only mention in it of any name older than that of Yâo.

  1. Mencius, II, i, ch. 1.
  2. Etudes sur l'Astronomie Indienne et sur l'Astronomie Chinoise, pp. 376–382.
  3. In the Official Book of Kâu, a work of the twelfth century before our era, Book XXVI, par. 25, in the enumeration of the duties of the astronomer royal of that day, there is mentioned the determination of 'the places of the twenty-eight stars,' meaning 'the principal stars in the twenty-eight lunar mansions.' The names of the stars and their mansions are not mentioned;—surely a sufficient indication that they were even then well known. See Biot's Etudes sur l'Astronomie Indienne, &c., pp. 112, 113.
  4. Egypt's Place in Universal History, III, pp. 400, 401.
  5. Etudes sur l'Astronomie Indienne, &c., pp. 361-366.