From: The Chinese Classics, volume iii:



by: JAMES LEGGE 1865


...The lenghts of the several reigns in the standard chronology have been determined, mainly, I believe, to make the whole line stretch out to the years which had been fixed on astronomical considerations for the periods of Chung-k'ang of the Hea dynasty and of Yaou. It will be seen in the sequel, and more fully in the next chapter, how the Bamboo Books contrive to shorten many of the reigns, so that those periods shall be less remote than they are commonly placed by about 200 years.

If in the Four Books, or in any other books of the Chow dynasty, we had a statement of the length of the national history from any given era to that of the writer, the notice would be exceedingly valuable. Or, if the lengths of the reign of the sovereigns of Shang and Hea, cursorily mentioned, were given, we should be in a position to make an approximate computation for ourselves. I do not know, however, of more than two passages in all those books, which are really helpful to us in this point. Both of them are referred to by Gaubil. If the reader will turn to the passage translated from the Tso-chuen, in the note on p. 67 above, he will see it there stated that the dynasty of Shang possessed the empire for 600 years. That is one of the passages. 'The other is the very last chapter of the works of Mencius, where that philosopher says that ' from Yaou and Shun to T'ang,--a period including all the dynasty of Hea--were 500 years and more; that from T'ang to king Wan the period of the Shang dynasty--were 500 years and more; and that from king Wan to Confucius were 500 years and more.' Now, we know that the birth of Confucius took place in B.C. 551. Adding 551 to the 1500 years ' and more,' given by Mencius, we have the era of Yaou and Shun, at 2,100 years before our Savior, or thereabouts. The words of Mencius, 'from Yaou and Shun to T'ang,' are, indeed, sadly indefinite. Does he mean the end of Shun's reign, and the beginning of Yu's? or does he mean the beginning, of Yaou's reign? I think it was the latter which he intended. But vague as his langauge is, I do not think that with the most painstaking research we can determine anything more definite and precise concerning the length of Chinese history than it conveys. Mencius knew nothing of rulers before Yaou, nor do I. What we are told of Yaou and Shun, moreover, is little trustworthy. About 2,000 years before the Christian era, China, which has since become so large an empire, rises before us, with small beginnings, in the vista of the past, I do not think that anything more precise than this can be said upon the subject. Let us see.

The last, of the kings of the Chow dynasty mentioned in the Shoo is P'ing, the 13th of the line, whose ' Charge to Prince Wan ' of Tsin forms the 28th Book of the 5t.h Part. His place in history is well ascertained. Confucius' Chronicle of the Ch'un Ts'ew commences in B.C. 721. The 1st of the 36 eclipses mentioned in it took place three years after, on the 14th February (N.S.) B.C. 719; and it is recorded that in the month after king P'ing, died. Here, therefore, is a point of time about which there can be no dispute. In the words of Gaubil, ' we know the time of the end of the Shoo-king.' An earlier date in the Chow dynasty is known with the same certainty. The She mentions an eclipse which took place on the 29th August, B.C. 775, in the 6th year of king Yew, who preceded P'ing. Yew reigned 11 years, and his predecessor, king Seuen, 46, whose reign consequently commenced B.C. 826. Up to this date Chinese chronologers agree. To the ten reigns before king Seuen, the received chronology assigns 295 years, making the dynasty begin in B.C. 1,121. The Bamboo Books assign to them only 223, making it commence in B.C. 1,049. In the lengths of five of the reigns the two schemes agree; but whether the longer estimate of the other five or the shorter is to be preferred, I do not see that we have sufficient grounds to determine. Gaubil, reasoning from the cycle names of the days, which are given in several of the Books of Chow (as I have pointed out in my notes on the various passages), would fix the commencement of the dynasty in B.C. 1111 [or 1,110]. If we suppose that Mencius, as is most likely, in saying that 'from king Wan to Confucius were 500 years and more,' intended by ' king Wan ' the commencement of the Chow dynasty, we have to conclude that this era must be between B.C. 1,051 and 1,161. The date in the Bamboo Books places it too late; that in the common chronology cannot be far from the truth.

In treating of the period of the Shang dynasty, we cannot fix a single reign with certainty by means of astronomical data. The common chronology assigns to it 28 reigns extending over 644 years, so that its commencement was in B.C. 1,765. The Bamboo Books make the sovereigns to be 30, and the aggregate of their reigns only 508, so that the dynasty began in B.C. 1,557. Pan Koo of the Hall made the length of the dynasty 529 years

The difference of two reigns between the schemes of Sze-ma Kwang and the Bamboo Books is unimportant, and, if they otherwise agreed, could only affect the length of the dynasty by 6 years. Some remarks on those reigns will be found in the note on Mencius, V., Pt. I., v. 5. That the number of reigns is not over-estimated we may infer from the statement of Mencius that between T'ang, the founder of the dynasty, and Woo-ting, the 20th (or 22d) sovereign, ' there had been six or seven worthy and sage rulers. In the 15th of the Books of Chow, the name of three of the sovereigns are given, and the duration of their reigns, to show how Heaven is likely to crown a good king with length of sway: T'ae-mow, who reigned 75 years; Woo-ting, who reigned 59; and Tsoo-kea who reigned 33. The two schemes which I have mentioned agree in the length of those reigns, and of five others. From the statement in the Tso-chuen, that the Shang dynasty lasted 600 years, and that of Mencius, that 'from T'ang to king Wan were 500 years and more,’ we may judge that the 644 years assigned to the Shang by the standard chronology are too many, and the 508 years of the Bamboo Books too few .

According to the common chronology, the dynasty of Hea lasted 439 years; according to the Bamboo Books, it lasted 431. The difference between the two schemes is not great, though they agree exactly in the lengths of three of the reigns only. Mencius’ words, that 'from Yaou and Shun to T'ang, were 500 years and more,' include the period of Yaou and Shun as well as that of the Hea dynasty; but the years which he assigned to the two early sages, probably, did not differ much, if at all, from the common estimate of the two chronologies. If we add 150 years either to 431 or 439, the sum is under 600 years. The period usually assigned to the Hea dynasty cannot be far from the truth.

In the 4th of the Books of Hea we have the record of an astronomical fact, which we might hope would enable us to determine the time of its occurrence, with as much certainty as the year of the death of king P'ing of the Chow dynasty is determined. In the reign of Chung-k'ang, the 3d of Yu's successors, there was an eclipse of the sun in the sign Fang. Sze-ma Kwang places the event in Chung-k’ang’s 1st year, =B.C. 2,158 (or 2,159); the Bamboo Books place it in his 5th year, =, according to them, B.C. 1,947 (or 1,948). Neither of these years can be correct. Such an eclipse could not have taken place in them.

Gaubil tells us that the most famous astronomers of the T'ang dynasty, and subsequently those of the Yuen, determined this eclipse for the year B.C. 2,128 (or 2,127) on the 1st day of the 9th month, which year, moreover, they fixed as the 5th of Chung-k'ang; and that other astronomers of the same dynasties determined it for B.C. 2,155 (or 2,154), which would be the 5th of Chung-k'ang in the common chronology. He himself adopted and zealously supported the latter determination; but subsequent and more accurate calculations seem to prove that he was in error. The reader is referred to what I have said on the subject in the body of the Work, pp. 167, 168. the eclipse of B.C. 2,128 may possibly be that mentioned in the Shoo; and yet a different. one, or more than one, may be found, within the period of the Hea dynasty, which would satisfy the necessary conditions. The authenticity of the Book in which we have the statement about the eclipse is called in question; but I have pointed out that that particular passage is guaranteed by its being quoted in the Tso-chuen. The history or story in connection with which the statement is given is also put down, by Bunsen and others, as nothing better than ' a popular fable ;' and neither am I concerned to deny this: it may very well consist with the reference to the natural phenomenon which actually occurred. That phenomenon, however, shows that neither of the current chronologies of the time is to be relied on; and it does not by itself enable us to fix the time of the reign of Chung-k'ang.

We come to the earliest period of Chinese history,--that of Yaou and Shun. The Shoo assigns 50 years of independent reigning to Shun: and Sze-ma Kwang and the Bamboo Books adopt the estimate. It says also that he was on the throne along with Yaou 30 years. Mencius says these were only 28; but the two additional years may be made out by supposing that they were years of mourning after the death of Yaou. Yaou had reigned at least 70 years, before he felt the necessity of some one to relieve him of the toils of government. Both Kwang and the Bamboo Books adopt Yaou's 70th year, as the date of Shun's association with him, and so assign to him in all 100 years. Pall Koo gives 70 years to him, and 50 to Shun, thus strangely allowing the 28 or 30 years of their associate rule to drop altogether out of his chronology. Kwang's standard tables place Yaou's first year in B.C. 2,357, (or 2,356); the Bamboo Books place it in 2,145. There is thus a difference of rather more than 200 years between them. As we found them both wrong in regard to the reign of Chung-k'ang, we must hence conclude that they are wrong also in regard to the period which we are now examining.

It has been generally supposed that Yaou's directions to the astronomers He and Ho, in the first Book of the Shoo, furnished data sufficiently certain to enable us to determine his era. The Shoo does not tell us indeed, in what year of his reign Yaou delivered those instructions, but the chronologers have all assumed that it was in his first year. The remarks of Mr. Chalmers on the point, in the appendix to this chapter, show that the value of Yaou's observations for chronological determinations has been overrated. The emperor tells his officers, that, among other indications which would enable them to fix the exact period of the cardinal points of the year, the vernal equinox might be ascertained by observing the star neaou; the summer solstice by observing the star ho; the autumnal equinox by observing the star heu; and the winter solstice by observing the star maou. It was assumed by the scholars of the Han dynasty that by neaou was to be understood the constellation or equatorial space then called sing, beginning at Hydra, and including a space of 2o; and that by ho was to be understood fang, corresponding to Scorpio, and including-4o. It was assumed also, that, as the result of the observation (of the manner of which the Shoo says nothing), sing would be found to pass the meridian at six o'clock in the evening, at the vernal equinox; and that the other stars mentioned would pass it at the same hour at the seasons to which they were referred.

I do not think there is any reason to call these assumptions in question. The scholars of Han, ignorant of the fact of the procession of the equinoxes, could not have arbitrarily fixed the particular stars to suit their chronological views;--their determination of them must have been in accordance with the voice of accredited tradition. Supposing that the stars were all what it is now believed they were, to what conclusions are we led by them as to the era of Yaou ?

Bunsen tells us that Ideler, computing the places of the constellations backwards, fixed the accession of Yaou at B.C. 2,163,5 which is only 18 years before the date in the Bamboo Books. On the other hand, J. B. Biot finds in the statements of the Shoo a sufficient confirmation of the date in the received chronology, B.C. 2,357. Freret was of opinion that the observations left an uncertainty to the extent of 3 degrees, leaving, a margin of 210 years. It seems to myself that it is better not to insist on pressing what Yaou says about the stars of the equinoxes and solstices into the service of chronology at all. Gaubil, Biot, and the other writers on the subject, all quote Yaou's observations so far as they had astronomical reference; but they take no notice of other and merely popular indications, which he delivered to his officers to help them to ascertain the seasons. They would know the spring, he tells them, by the pairing of birds and beasts, and by the people's beginning to disperse into the country on their agricultural labours. Analogous indications are mentioned for summer and autumn; till in the winter time the people would be found in their cosy corners, and birds and beasts with their coats downy and thick. Taken as a whole, Yaou's instructions to He and Ho are those of a chief speaking popularly, and not after the manner of a philosopher or astronomer. We must not look for exactness in his remarks about the cardinal stars. The mention of them in the earliest portion of the Shoo proves that its compiler, himself, as I showed in the last chapter, of a later date, had traditions or written monuments of a high antiquity at his command; but Yaou was as likely to be speaking of what he had received from his predecessors as of what he had observed for himself; and those predecessors may not have lived in China, but in another region from which the Chinese came. If it were possible to fix the exact century, in which it was first observed that the stars of the equinoxes and solstices were neaou and heu, ho and maou, that century may have been anterior to Yaou, and not the one in which he lived.

From the review which I have thus taken of the different periods of Chinese history, documents purporting to belong to which are preserved in the Shoo, it will be seen that the year B.C. 775 is the earliest date which can be said to be determined with certainty. The exact year in which the Chow dynasty commenced is not known; and as we ascend the stream of time, the two schemes current among the Chinese themselves diverge more widely from each other, while to neither of them can we accord our credence. The accession of Yu, the first sovereign of the nation, was probably at some time in the nineteenth century before Christ; and previous to him there were the chiefs Shun and Yaou. Twenty centuries before our era the Chinese nation appears, beginning to be. To attempt to carry its early history to a higher antiquity is without any historical justification. There may have been such men as Chinese writers talk of under the appellations of Chuen-heuh, Hwang-te, Shin-nung, Fuh-he, &c.; but they cannot have been rulers of China. They are children of the mist of tradition, if we should not rather place them in the land of phantasy.