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Chinese History - BC 2207- 771 BC - Three Dynasties

Xia / Hsia
Shang or Yin
771 Western Zhou
The Hia, Shang and Chou dynasties together extend over the fifteen centuries. The first occupies 440 years; the second, 644; and the last, in the midst of turmoil and anarchy, drags out a miserable existence of over 400 years. They are grouped together as the San Tai or San Wang, "the Three Houses of Kings," because that title was employed by the founder of each. Some of their successors were called Ti; but Hwang-ti, the term for "emperor" now in use, was never employed until it was assumed by the builder of the Great Wall on the overthrow of the feudal states and the consolidation of the empire, 240 BC.

No writer questioned the authenticity of the history and chronology of the Chinese dynasties extending from the year BC 250 to the present time; while learned men were long divided in their opinions as to that of the three most ancient dynasties, reaching upwards to BC 2207 (140 years after the Deluge, according to the sacred Hebrew account of time), and of the preceding Patriarchial reigns, because Xi Hoamti, the second emperor of the fourth dynasty, who built the great Chinese Wall, caused the records of the three previous dynasties to be destroyed, that the aera of the empire might commence from his own time. This happened in the thirty-fourth year of his reign, in BC 214. These records were "restored" and republished seventy eight years afterwards, in the fifth year of the reign of Vuti, the fifth emperor of the fifth dynasty, BC 136; and their history and chronology are authenticated by a number of recorded astronomical observations, several of which have been calculated and verified by the Jesuit missionaries.

Others of the learned were of a different opinion, there being some uncertainty as to the beginning of the Chinese year in those early times, and consequently of the time of the year in which those recorded observations were made, which, by calculating from the present origin of the year in China, appear for the most part to be false, and the high antiquity of the Chinese empire thus devoid of astronomical support. All agreed that its antiquity is great; and the epoch of its origin ages before the date of the destruction of the annals ; but, on the assumption that the chronology of the first three dynasties was unsupported and extravagant, there were long nearly as many opinions on their epochs as authors who had treated of the subject.

Unlike most founders of royal houses, who come to the throne through a deluge of blood, Yu climbed to that eminence through a deluge of water. Yu the Great, the founder of the Hsia dynasty, is the hero of an early Chinese flood - possibly an unprecedented overflow of the Yellow River. Like Noah, the hero of an earlier deluge, he seems to have indulged, for once at least, too freely in the use of wine. A chapter in the " Book of History," entitled "A Warning Against Wine," informs us that one Yiti having made wine presented it to his prince. Ta-yu was delighted with it, but discontinued its use, saying that in time to come kings would lose their thrones through a fondness for the beverage. In China "wine" is a common name for all intoxicating drinks. That referred to in this passage was doubtless a distillation from rice or millet.

In the discharge of his public duties Ta-yu showed himself no less diligent than in contending with the waters. He hung at his door a bell which the poorest of his subjects might ring and thus obtain immediate attention. It is said that when taking a bath, if he heard the bell he sometimes rushed out without adjusting his raiment and that while partaking of a meal, if the bell rang he did not allow himself time to swallow his rice.

Prior to laying down his toilsome dignity Ta-yu caused to be cast nine brazen tripods, each bearing an outline map or a description of one of the provinces of the empire. In later ages these were deemed preeminently the patent of imperial power. On one occasion a feudal prince asked the question,"How heavy are these tripods?" A minister of state, suspecting an intention to remove them and usurp the power, replied in a long speech, proving the divine commission of his master, and asked in conclusion, "Why then should you inquire the weight of these tripods?"

Of the subsequent reigns nothing worth repetition is recorded except the fall of the dynasty. This, however, is due more to the meagreness of the language of that day than to the insignificance of the seventeen kings. Is it not probable that they were occupied in making good their claim to the nine provinces emblazoned on the tripods? Ki6, the last king, is said to have fallen under the fascination of a beautiful woman and to have spent his time in undignified carousals. He built a mountain of flesh and filled a tank with wine, and to amuse her he caused 3,000 of his courtiers to go on all fours and drink from the tank like so many cows.

The founder of the Shang dynasty of 28 kings was Shang-tang, or Cheng-tang, who to great valor added the virtues of humanity and justice. Pitying the oppressions of the people, he came to them as a deliverer; and the frivolous tyrant was compelled to retire into obscurity. A more remarkable exhibition of public spirit was the offering of himself as a victim to propitiate the wrath of Heaven. In a prolonged famine, his prayers having failed to bring rain, the soothsayers said that a human victim was required. "It shall be myself," he replied; and, stripping off his regal robes, he laid himself on the altar. A copious shower was the response to this act of devotion. The successor of Shang-tang was his grandson T'ai-kia, who was under the tutelage of a wise minister named I-yin. Observing the indolence and pleasureloving disposition of the young man, the minister sent him into retirement for three years that he might acquire habits of sobriety and diligence. The circumstance that makes this incident worth recording is that the minister, instead of retaining the power in his own family, restored the throne to its rightful occupant.

Another king of this house, by name P'an-keng, has no claim to distinction other than that of having moved his capital five times. Things went from bad to worse, and finally Chousin surpassed in evil excesses the man who had brought ruin upon the House of Hia. The House of Shang of course suffered the same fate. An ambitious but kind-hearted prince came forward to succour the people, and was welcomed by them as a deliverer. The tyrant, seeing that all was lost, arrayed himself in festal robes, set fire to his own palace, and, like another Sardanapalus, perished in the flames.

The historical period in the development of the Chinese began with the Chow Dynasty, founded in B.C. 1122. Chronicled history dates from about BC 770. Prior to that time there are traditions only. The feudal system arose under the Chow Dynasty (B.C. 1122-255), by which China was governed for nine hundred years, during which period literature and the fine arts flourished. China was divided into seventy-two principalities, out of which arose several States whose names and importance, even yet in the Twentieth Century, exert a potent influence on the internal politics of China. All traces of nomadic life disappeared, agriculture became universal, and great public works were constructed. This is the classical China pictured in ancient poetry.

The Feudal State, which lasted under the Three Dynasties (Hsia, 2205-1767 B.C.; Shang or Yin, 1766-1123 B.C.; and Chou, 1122-255 BC) for a period of nearly two thousand years. The feudal system of China was very similar to that which prevailed in Europe during the middle ages. At a grand durbar held by Yu after his accession there were, it is said, ten thousand princes present with their jade symbols of rank. But the feudal states were constantly being absorbed by one another. On the rise of the Shang dynasty they were only somewhat over three thousand, which had decreased to thirteen hundred when King Wu established the sovereignty of the Chftu. In 403 B.C. we find only seven great states, all sooner or later claiming to be 'the kingdom,' and contending for the supremacy, till Ts'in (Ch'in) put down all the others, and in 221 BC its king assumed the title of Hwang Ti, or Emperor, and determined that there should be no more feudal principalities, and that, as there is but one sun in the sky, there should be but one ruler in the nation. From that year dates the imperial form of the Chinese government, which existed for more than 2100 years.

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Page last modified: 20-06-2012 20:35:52 ZULU