Wang ch‘ung lun-hêng miscellaneous essays Traduits et annotés par Alfred forke



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CHAPTER XXVIII

Thoughts on Omens

51. XVII, I. Chih-jui



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p2.306 The Literati hold that the phœnix and the unicorn appear for the sake of a holy emperor 1. They consider the phœnix and the unicorn as being kind-hearted and sage animals, which have deep thoughts and keep aloof from all danger. When virtue reigns in China, they appear, when there is no virtue, they abscond. Extolling the goodness and intelligence of the two animals, they at the same time wish to compliment the sages, there being nothing but their virtue to attract the phœnix and the unicorn. This statement is untenable :

If the phœnix and the unicorn are sage, sages are no less so. Sages toil and trouble for the world’s sake, and phœnixes and unicorns ought likewise to teach and admonish 2. Sages wander about in the world, and phœnixes and unicorns should also join birds and beasts. Why must they leave China behind, to sojourn beyond the frontier ? Are the sages defiled, and the phœnix and the unicorn pure ? Why is their sagehood the same, and their practice so different ?

Provided that sages must hide, then the Twelve Sages 3 ought to have hidden, but if sages must show themselves, the phœnix and the unicorn ought to do so as well. If these kind-hearted sage animals are cautious, and keep away from dangers, the arrest of Wên Wang in Yu-li 4, and the straits of Confucius in Ch‘ên and T‘sai 5 are wrong. Wên Wang and Confucius were benevolent sages, who in their efforts for the world, and their compassion of the people paid no heed to dangers ; so in spite of possessing the wisdom of benevolent sages they could not avoid imprisonment and troubles.

p2.307 Everybody, in his conduct, may cultivate his character and rectify his principles, but he cannot prevent others from doing him wrong. The dealings of sages are unequalled, still sages cannot eschew vexations. If the phœnix and the unicorn alone are apt to remain unscathed in the turmoil, the doings of brutes must be better than those of sages.

Besides, between birds, beasts, and man there cannot be any intellectual intercourse ; how can the former know then whether a State is well ordered or not ? 1 Men are similarly organized, and their moral qualities are the same, yet they do not know each other. How should birds and beasts endowed with a nature quite different from the human, know man ? Man does not understand birds and beasts, and the latter do not know man either. Both are aliens to one another. Birds and beasts are less intelligent than man ; how can they know him all the same ?

The scholars all make much of the excellence of phœnixes, with a view to illustrating the government of an enlightened monarch, but incidentally they proclaim the inferiority of man to beasts and birds. Their arguments strain the point and deviate from truth.

Furthermore, do phœnixes appear for sage emperors only ? Under the reign of Hsiao Hsüan Ti, phœnixes appeared five times and a unicorn once. Spiritual birds, yellow dragons, sweet dew, and wine springs all became visible 2, whence we have the year titles : Five Phœnixes, Spiritual Bird, Sweet Dew, and Yellow Dragon 3. If the phœnix and the unicorn really appear for a sage emperor, Hsiao Hsüan Ti must have been a sage, in the case, however, that he was not a sage, then both appear for a worthy 4 too. Should they come for worthies, then the dicta of the literati respecting phœnixes and unicorns are mistaken. The phœnix and the unicorn came for Yao and Shun, and they also came for Hsüan Ti, consequently they came for sages and worthies as well. As what the scholars say of p2.308 sages is exaggerated, so their arguments on phœnixes overshoot the mark.

The Ch‘un-ch‘iu relates that hunters in the west captured a dead unicorn 5. Some one informed Confucius, who exclaimed,

[— Why has it come, why has it come ?,

and with the back of his sleeve wiped his face, while his tears were wetting the lapel of his coat.] 6

The scholars recording this, opine that Heaven invested Confucius through a unicorn, for Confucius was a sage without the imperial dignity. Now, a unicorn makes its appearance for a sage emperor. Confucius did not take himself for an emperor, and neither the then reigning monarch, nor the prince of Lu 1 possessed sufficient virtue to move the unicorn. Whence Confucius’ amazement at its arrival, of which he did not know the purpose. Therefore he asked, ‘Why has it come ? Why has it come ?’ He was aware that it had not come in view of the peaceful government, but because the prospects of his doctrine were on the wane. His hopes having failed, he was disheartened, and his tears dropped down on the lapel of his coat.

From the question of Confucius ‘Wherefore has it come’ the inference is drawn that the unicorn comes for a wise emperor. I say that this view was already current among the literati of the time of Confucius, who, also, had heard of it, but was not well acquainted with the animal. Seeing the unicorn, he wondered why it had come. As a matter of fact, the arrival of a unicorn has no special reason. It is a common animal, which chanced to enter the marshes of Lu. There it was discovered by the people of Lu, who happened to capture it. Confucius beholding the captured unicorn, which was not only captured, but dead, compared himself with this unicorn, thinking that his doctrine was lost and would not be revived, and that unworthy persons would do away with it. If, therefore, Confucius, on perceiving the unicorn, shed tears, it was with reference to its capture and death, and not owing to the cause of its appearance 2.

p2.309 However, when the unicorn arrives, it is accompanied by multitudes of animals, and it dies killed by man. Supposing it to be intelligent, and to arrive for a wise emperor, why does it come, when there is no such ruler ? The unicorn is supposed to be very cautious and to avoid injuries, but why was it caught and slain in Lu ? Since it arrived at a time when there was no wise emperor, we know that it does not come for the sake of a holy ruler, and from the fact that it was captured and killed in Lu, we surmise that its endeavours to shun hostile attacks are unsuccessful. As holy animals are unfit to escape from all troubles, so sages are also unable to eschew misfortune. Misfortune and troubles being unavoidable things for sages, the affirmation that the phœnix and the unicorn, by their cautiousness, can keep free from perils, is unfounded.

Besides, phœnixes and unicorns do not live in foreign lands, nor come to China when there is a holy emperor. They live in China and are born in mountain forests. Their nature being very pure, they are seldom seen, and men have no occasion to destroy them. Therefore, they are spoken of as exceedingly cautious and keeping aloof from all perils. If they live simultaneously with a holy emperor, and their rambles just fall in a time of peaceful government, the public looks upon them as omens of a sage emperor, which appear for the sake of a sage.

Although its nest be destroyed and its eggs be broken, the phœnix does not fly away, and though people burn the woods for hunting, or drain the ponds for fishing, the tortoise and the dragon do not emigrate 1. The phœnix is related to the tortoise and the dragon. They all live in China, and near to man. Their nests being destroyed, and their eggs broken, they seek shelter, but do not fly away, and after the burning of the wood, and the drying up of the pond they abscond, but do not roam about ; nor is anything mentioned about their going far away.

How do we know that they live in foreign countries ? The tortoise, the dragon, and the phœnix belong to the same species. If, because it is seldom seen and not killed, the phœnix be supposed to be a foreign bird, the tortoise and the dragon, which, too, but seldom appear, would, likewise, be of foreign origin 2.



p2.310 In the time of the emperor Hsiao Hsüan Ti, the phœnix, the unicorn, the yellow dragon, and the spiritual bird all made their appearance. Since they all came forth at the same time, their nature must be alike, consequently their birth-place must also be in the same region 3.

The dragon is not born abroad, but foreign countries, also, have their dragons, nor are the phœnix and the unicorn exotic, but foreign countries have phœnixes and unicorns too. Thus China possesses phœnixes and unicorns as well, and they need not come from abroad. Noticing the rarity of these animals, people believe them to be exotic, and beholding them just in times of universal peace, they suppose them to appear for a sage emperor.

The appearance of phœnixes and unicorns is like the coming forth of wine springs, and the growth of vermilion grass. If the phœnix is said to come to China from abroad, upon hearing that virtue reigns there, how do wine springs and vermilion grass learn this, that they just come forth in times of universal peace ?

Wine springs and vermilion grass are produced by the harmonious fluid 4, and so are the phœnix and the unicorn. The harmonious fluid, likewise, procreates the sage. When he is born in times of decay, ominous things are produced. So it is with all men that become sages : grown up, they fall in with these omens. Times of decay, also, have their harmonious fluid, which always engenders sages. As sages are born in times of decay, such times may produce phœnixes as well.



Confucius was born towards the end of the Chou dynasty, and a unicorn appeared in the western marshes of Lu. The emperor Kuang Wu Ti saw the light 1 in the time intervening between the reigns of Ch‘êng Ti and Ai Ti 2, and a phœnix alighted in Chi-yang 3. Sages and sage animals are produced in periods of prosperity as well as in such of decline. A holy emperor meets with a sage animal just as a man blessed with happiness meets with auspicious auguries. As a matter of fact, he falls in with them, but they do not come out for his sake.

p2.311 The appearance of a unicorn does not differ from that of the white fish, and the red crow 4. The fish happened to jump of its own accord, when the emperor’s boat met it, and the fire by accident took the shape of a crow, which was perceived by the emperor who happened to be looking up. The fish had not heard of the virtue of Wu Wang, and therefore jumped into his boat, nor was the crow cognisant of the future rise of the house of Chou, and for that reason alighted on the emperor’s house. To say that the phœnix and the unicorn arrive for a holy emperor, is like asserting that the fish and the crow came for Wu Wang’s sake.

An emperor is predetermined for wealth and honour, consequently he sees propitious miracles, when setting out on a journey. These things, when seen, are called omens. There are large and small omens, and by the appearance of each the amount of virtue of the monarch may be ascertained. The white fish and the red crow are small animals and presages of some tranquillity, whereas the phœnix and the unicorn are large ones and signs of universal peace. Therefore Confucius said,

— The phœnix does not come ; the River sends forth no Plan : it is all over with me 5.

Not seeing these marks of universal peace, he knew that he did not live in such a period.

Why are the phœnix and the unicorn indicative of universal peace ? Because both are kind and sage animals. When such kind and sage animals arrive, the world is going to show benevolence and wisdom in its transactions.

In the ‘Great Record’ of the Shuking 6 we read that, when Kao Tsung was sacrificing in the temple of Ch‘êng T‘ang, a pheasant perched upon the handle of the tripod and crowed. Kao Tsung asked Tou Yi, who replied that probably a superior man from afar was about to arrive 7. Observing that, in its movements, the pheasant bore some resemblance to a superior man just arriving from abroad, he rejoined that a superior man from abroad was about to come. The phœnix and the unicorn are like the pheasant, and their arrival must be a presage similar to that of the pheasant.



p2.312 When the emperor Hsiao Wu Ti was making a tour of inspection in the west, he found a white unicorn with one horn and five feet 1, and there was, moreover, a tree whose boughs, after sprouting, again grew together with the root. Wu Ti consulted all his officers ; the (gentleman usher) Chung Chün 2 replied,

— A wild animal with joined horns shows that there is the same root, and all the branches turning inside mean that there is no outside. According to these omens, some outside people are likely to submit. If the presages prove true, they are probably going to open their plaited hair, to cut off the left lapel of their coats 3, to wear caps and girdles 4, and to accept civilisation.

Some months later, the country of the Yüeh 5 offered its allegiance, and a celebrated king of the Hsiung-nu appeared with several thousand men to make his submission, just as Chung Chün had predicted 6. His explanation was correct, since the omens turned out true.

Reasoning by analogy we find that the white fish and the red crow belong to the same class of portents. The essence of the fish is wood 7, and its whiteness is the colour of the Yin dynasty. The crow is a filial bird, and its red colour corresponds to the fluid of the Chou dynasty 8. First, the white fish was caught, afterwards the red crow, that meant to say that the sway of the Yin was broken, and their glory transferred upon the Chou. Prognosticating Wu Wang’s fate from the appearance of the fish and the crow, we see that the Chou were destined to obtain the control of the empire.

People noticing that when Wu Wang punished Chou he met with a fish and a crow, surmised that by means of these animals Heaven enjoined upon Wu Wang to chastise Chou. The thing may seem so, p2.313 but it is not a fact : In the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period a mainah arrived and built its nest. The diviners considered it an ill omen, for a wild bird coming and building its nest indicated that the capital of Lu was going to be treated like a mountain and waste land, and Duke Chao himself would have to leave his country. Subsequently, the duke was attacked by the Chi family and fled to Ch‘i, where he died, without having returned to Lu 1.

When Chia Yi 2 was privy councillor in Chang-sha 3, a screeching owl perched in his house. He opened his books and divined as follows :

« When a screeching-owl enters the house, the landlord must quit it.

Afterwards Chia Yi, in fact, went away 4.

Notwithstanding the discrepancy between the various wild birds, the interpretation remains the same. The arrival of the phœnix and the unicorn does not differ from the wild bird’s roosting or the perching of the screeching-owl. The mainah happened to build its nest, and it was by chance that the owl alighted in the house. Because they were animals from the wilds and the marshes which took their abode in a city and a palace, the diviners foresaw the catastrophe of the Lu State and declared the omen to be unlucky for the owner of the house. The mainah and the owl did not know the impending disaster of the two States nor roost or perch on purpose.

Emperors regard the whole world as their house. When happiness or misfortune is in store for house-owners, lucky or unlucky signs are seen among men beforehand. Experts can explain them and know whether good or evil is impending. Not that p2.314 ominous creatures possess knowledge, and therefore arrive for the sake of these fortunate or unlucky people.

There are the signs of the tortoises and also the lots of milfoil. These signs and lots always portend some good or bad luck. A lucky man consulting the tortoise or milfoil, meets with an auspicious augury, whereas the ill-fated find unpropitious signs. The milfoil and the tortoise do not possess supernatural powers, that they could know human fate and accordingly might put forward their signs or lots, to tell the persons in question.

Should somebody divine by the tortoise or milfoil only for fun, and no other person appear, he would obtain good or bad omens all the same 1. Between Heaven and Earth there is always good and bad fortune, and ominous things arriving must fall in with lucky and unlucky people.

Some hold that these presages are caused by Heaven’s command, but if immense Heaven were to give its orders to those tiny things, they would not understand its language nor comprehend its meaning ; how could it employ them ? These things would not do Heaven’s behests either, but their arrival appearing strange, it is, as if they were sent by Heaven, whence the idea that they are heavenly messengers.

When the Hsia emperor K‘ung Chia was hunting on Mount Shou 2, it began to rain, the sky turned dark, and he entered the house of a citizen, where the mistress was just nursing a baby. Some said that a child to which an emperor came must needs rise to high honours, but others were of opinion that a child unfit for such an honour would become ill-fated 3. K‘ung Chia entered the house, because he was caught in a rain-shower and sought shelter. He did not know that a subject would have a son who was doomed to misfortune, nor did he come for his sake. But, when he arrived, people explained his arrival either as lucky or unlucky.

Propitious and adverse portents appear in the court of the emperor, and when the latter enters the house of a citizen, it is like K‘ung Chia entering the cottage during the rain. He was unaware of the birth of a child and did not come for its sake. Consequently it is an error to pretend that the phœnix and other ominous creatures are endowed with intelligence and arrive in response to an auspicious destiny.

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CHAPTER XXIX

Auguries Verified

52. XVII, II. Shih-ying



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p2.315 The learned say in regard to the auguries of times of universal peace that they are things formed of a strange fluid, such as vermilion grass, wine springs, the flying phœnix, sweet dew 1, the brilliant star, auspicious grain, the ‘meat fan’, the monthly plant, the ‘indicator’, and the like. Moreover they add that in these times mountains produce chariots and lakes, boats ; that men and women each have their own way, and that in the markets there are not two different prices. Peasants yield their fieldmark and travellers, the road. Hoary heads have not to carry burdens in their hands 2, gates and bridges are never closed, no robberies committed on the roads. The wind does not howl in the boughs 3, the rain does not wash away the clods, every five days it is windy but one day, and every ten days there is one rainy day. This prosperity attracts the yellow dragon, the unicorn, and the phœnix.

These assertions of the literati are highly coloured and overdrawn. The ominous things partly exist and partly do not exist. The phœnix and the unicorn, &c. referred to are great auguries, and their description is more or less correct, but there should be no exaggeration. As for the smaller auguries and the less important correspondences, however, there is much wrong about them, I am afraid.



p2.316 Wind, air, rain, and dew must be sympathetic 4, the statement about the flying phœnix and the sweet dew, the wind not howling in the boughs, and the rain not washing the clods of earth away, is admissible therefore, but what has been said about the wind every five days, and the rain every ten, is nothing but a rodomontade. Though wind and rain must be in proper time, there can be no question of five and ten days or exactly fixed periods.

That men and women have no intercourse, and that one is not cheated with the market-price may be, but to speak of different roads, and that there are not two prices, is an exaggeration. How could in times of universal peace extra roads be constructed for the male and female sexes ? No special roads are built, they walk on the same road ; how could there be different ones 1.

Provided that in times of universal peace there are no merchants, very well, but if there are, they will see their principal aim in seeking their advantage. How should they not affect cheapness in purchasing goods, or how should they not attempt to obtain high prices in selling ? There being this instinct for low and high prices according to circumstances, we cannot avoid speaking of two prices.

All these things exist, but are magnified and puffed up. As to the ‘meat fans’, the ‘monthly plants’, and the ‘indicators’, however, there are no such things, mort likely for the following reasons : To tell the truth, there never were such things, not even in times of perfect peace.

Scholars pretend that ‘meat fans’ grow in cook-houses. In kitchens, they say, collops grow of their own accord, as thin as fans. Moved they make wind 2, and fanning eatables, they cause them not to spoil.

However genial the breeze of the time of universal peace may be, it cannot make ‘meat fans’ grow in kitchens, to be used for cooling purposes. If it could do this, it could cause the Five Grains to grow without any human help as well. In case it could make these ‘meat fans’ grow in kitchens spontaneously, why does it not p2.317 cause rice to boil in the pot of itself, or fire to burn in the oven of its own accord ? The purport of producing fans being to blow wind upon eatables, why are these eatables not caused not to spoil spontaneously, and why must special fans be produced to fan them ? Provided that fans can grow in kitchens of themselves, what is the use of ice-houses 3, and of cutting ice for the purpose of refrigerating things ?

In the summer months people use their fans, but, in order to cause wind, they must move them with their hands. Grasped by the hand, fans act like strong wind, but do not stir of themselves. If ‘meat fans’ possessed a spontaneous motion, it would be different, but they require wind to be moved, and without wind they remain motionless. Only after the hand has furnished the wind, they are fit to refrigerate the things in the kitchen. How are ‘meat fans’ required for this ?

There is a tradition that Tan, heir-presumptive of Yen, caused the sun to revert to the meridian, Heaven to rain grain, crows to get white heads, horses to grow horns, and the wooden elephants on the kitchen door to get legs of flesh 4. Since this is a fiction, the statement about the ‘meat fans’ being like the fulfilment of the five vows 1, is an untruth too, I dare say.




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