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

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p2.262 It is a common weakness of human nature to exaggerate the truth, while relating something. In compositions and speeches truth is drowned in a flood of words. Praising some goodness, they over-estimate its excellence, and referring to some wickedness, they over-colour the guilt. This is due to the bias of ordinary people for the marvellous, for they do not care for any but strange stories. Consequently, unless in belauding somebody you magnify his merits, the hearers are not pleased, and unless in running him down you aggravate his crimes, the audience is not satisfied. Hearing one thing, by exaggeration they make ten of it, and seeing a hundred, they increase them to a thousand. A plain and simple object is cut into ten pieces and split into a hundred particles, and a true statement is turned round and round again a thousand or ten thousand times 1.

Mê Tse wept over boiled silk, and Yang Tse over by-roads 2, for they were sorry that people should lose their original nature, and regretted their departing from truth. Flying rumours and numerous traditions emanate from the mouths of uncultured people, and are current in lanes and alleys. They are such exaggerations. The words of the philosophers however, the lucubrations of their pens, the writings of wise men, and the collections of fine thoughts, should all agree with truth, and yet even here we find exaggerations.

As regards the classical literature, in point of truthfulness, there are no utterances more reliable than those of the Sages 3. The classical literature continues immutable through all the ages 4, and yet it is not quite devoid of hyperboles over-charging the truth. But these coloured reports are all based on some facts and not p2.263 maliciously made to misguide people, small things having been exaggerated. Those who seriously study this question, maintain that there is a difference between the exaggerations of classical literature and common sayings and traditions. These classical exaggerations are of various kinds. Usually something conspicuous is put forward with a view to captivating those who still harbour some doubts. It goes to their hearts and enters their heads, thus opening their understanding and awakening their intelligence.

The remark of the Shuking that [harmony was established among ten thousand countries] 1 is intended to extol Yao’s virtue, which leads to universal peace, the effects of which were not only felt in China proper, but also among the I and Ti tribes. The affirmation that harmony prevailed in the border lands is correct, but the ten thousand countries are an exaggeration.

Under Yao and during the Chou period, the entire domain did not embrace more than five thousand Li. In the Chou time, there were one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three feudal States. Adding the wild dependencies, those of the Jung, and the guarded ones, together with the people without the Four Seas 2 which do not live on grain, such as the tribes with covered breasts, with hanging ears, the Pigmies, and the Po-chung 3, we obtain an aggregate sum of less than three thousand. All countries which Heaven covers and Earth sustains, are within the number of three thousand. The ten thousand people mentioned by the Shuking must therefore be held to be an exaggeration overshooting the mark, meant as a homage to Yao, implying his excellence and that great multitudes fell under its influence. All China as well as the p2.264 savages were in perfect accord, whence the term ten thousand countries, which comes near the thousands and hundred thousands of descendants mentioned in the Shiking 4.

This is a tribute paid to the virtue of King Hsüan of Chou 5. In recognition of his diligence in serving Heaven and Earth, these latter blessed him with so many descendants, that they amounted to thousands and hundreds of thousands. One may well say that his progeny was extremely numerous, but to speak of thousands and hundreds of thousands is straining the point, for however numerous they were, it could not be thousands or hundreds of thousands. From a desire to praise, the poets of the Shiking have gone beyond the truth.

From the time, when Hou Chi 1 was invested with T‘ai 2, down to King Hsüan 3, he with all his nearer and farther blood-relations could not be thousands and hundreds of thousands 4. A thousand and ten thousand are names of big numbers : ten thousand denotes a great many. Therefore the Shuking speaks of ten thousand countries, and the Shiking of thousands and hundreds of thousands.


The Shiking says that [the crane cried amidst the nine pools of the marches, and that its cry was heard in the sky.] 5 The meaning is that the crane cried in the marshes, which were divided into nine pools, and that its sound was still heard in the sky, an illustration of the cultivation of virtue by the superior man, whose name reaches the court in spite of his humble position. I agree that the sound may be heard at a great altitude, but to say that it was heard in the sky, is hyperbolical.

They urge that the sound was heard in the sky. Beholding a crane crying in the clouds, they hear it from the earth, and conjecture that, since this sound is heard on the earth, it must also be possible to hear it in the sky. For, when a crane cries in the clouds, man hears its voice, and looking up, his eyes decry p2.265 its shape. The ear and the eye possess the same power. When the ear hears its voice, the eye perceives its form. But hearing and vision do not extend beyond ten Li. A cry in the empyrean is inaudible for us. Why ? Because the distance between the sky and man measures several ten thousand Li 6. Consequently the eye cannot see, and the ear cannot hear so far. If we hear a crane crying from below, it is because it is near us, but the inference that, on account of its voice being audible from below, its cry ought to be heard in the sky, when it is uttered on the earth, is erroneous.

When a crane cries in the clouds, man hears it from below, but when it cries in the nine marshes, man is not up in the sky ; what means has he to know that it is perceptible there ? He does not know it, but makes this inference by analogy. Perhaps the poet was not aware of this and earnestly believed what he said, or he knew the fact, but wished to use it by way of illustration, and therefore stretched the point.


The Shiking says that among the black-haired people of Chou not a single one was left out 7. This signifies that, in the time of King Hsüan of Chou, the empire was afflicted with a great drought. Aggrieved by the severity of this drought, under which the people had to suffer, the poet said that not a single person was left but shared in the general distress. The drought may have been very severe, but to maintain that not a single individual was left out is an exaggeration.

The people of Chou are like the people of to-day. When the latter are visited with a great drought, the poor and the destitute who have not stored up provisions, beat their breasts and yearn for rain, whereas the rich who have a sufficient supply of grain and food, and whose granaries and store-houses are not empty, do not feel the pangs of hunger in their mouths and bellies. Wherefore should they be grieved then ?

When Heaven sends down a drought, mountain and forest tracts are not dried up, and, when Earth has an inundation, the tops of hills and mounds are not submerged. Mountain and forest p2.266 tracts are the rich and noble, who are sure to escape. The allegation that not a single person was spared, is merely a figure of speech designed to describe the intensity of the drought.


In the Yiking there is the following passage :

[« It shows its subject with his house made large, but only serving as a screen to his household. When he looks at his door, it is still, and there is nobody about it.] 1

There is not nobody, but no wise men. The Shuking says,

« Do not leave the various offices vacant 2.

Vacant is empty, and various, many : Let not all the offices be empty. To leave, for want of men, is equivalent with letting empty, whence this expression.

Now all short-witted people are imbued with the Five Virtues, but their gifts are scanty and inadequate, so that they cannot become fully wise. They are not wilfully obtuse and doltish, but their innate wisdom is incomplete. Virtue may be great or small, and talents of a higher or a lower order. Those who are in office and fill a post, all strive to do their best in the service, the officers of the Shuking and the inmates of the Yiking, therefore, can still be of use ; why then speak of emptiness and nobody ? The Shiking says,

[« How numerous were the scholars ? Wên Wang was blessed with them.] 3

That means to say that Wên Wang found many more wise men than imbeciles. Now the Yiking ought to say, ‘it is still, and there are but few persons’, and the Shuking should say, ‘Let not be there too few officers for all the offices’. ‘Few’ is the proper word, ‘empty’ and ‘nobody’ are likewise exaggerations.

The Five Grains are such that they all, when eaten, appease hunger. The taste of rice and millet is sweet and savoury, beans and barley are coarse, it is true, yet they satiate as well. Those eating beans and barley are all agreed that they are coarse and not sweet, but they do not pretend that, having eaten them, their stomachs remain empty, as if they had eaten nothing. Bamboo and wooden sticks both can support a sick man, but the strength of a bamboo stick is weak and does not equal wood. If somebody takes a bamboo stick, he says that it is not strong, but not that his p2.267 hand is empty and holds nothing in its grasp. Weak-minded officials are like beans, barley, and bamboo sticks.

For the Yiking to say that there is nobody, whereas all the officials are kept in the houses, is really too disdainful. In all the officials of the Shuking those of minor talents are also included, the remark that the offices must not be left vacant is too cutting therefore.


We read in the Analects,

[« Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign ! How grand was he ! The people could find no name for it.] 1

Furthermore, there is a record that a man of fifty was beating clods of earth on the road. An observer remarked,

— Grand indeed is the virtue of Yao !

The man who was playing with earth, replied,

— At sunrise, I begin my work, and at sunset, I take my rest. I dig a well to drink, and labour my field to eat. What sort of energy does Yao display ? 2

These words are supposed to corroborate his grandeur, which no language could express. The term grandeur may well be used, but the assertion that the people could find no name for it is a stretch of fancy.

That, throughout the land within the Four Seas and amongst thousands of people, nobody could find a name for Yao’s virtue must be impossible. Now the utterance of the man beating the earth ‘What sort of virtue does Yao display’ implies that the people could not find an expression for it 1. But the observer had said, ‘Grand indeed is the virtue of Yao’, ergo the people still knew of what sort it was. If something is possible, but those who know deny it, they exaggerate.

The works of the Literati also narrate that the people of Yao and Shun might have been called to office house by house. That means to say that in every family they behaved like superior men, so that all might have been made officials. It is admissible to say that they might be called to office, but the remark ‘house by house’ is an exaggeration.

A man of fifty is a father of a family. If such a father does not know his sovereign, how can he instruct his son ?

p2.268 During an age of universal peace, every family consists of superior men, every one observes propriety and righteousness, the father does not infringe the laws of decorum, and the son does not neglect his duty. Those who do their duty possess knowledge, and nobody knows the sovereign better than the officials. Officers as well as wise men know their sovereign, and knowing him, can govern the people. Now, how could those who were ignorant of Yao, be appointed to official posts ?

The man of fifty playing with earth, on the road, was in this respect a playfellow of small boys not yet grown up, but how could he be accounted a wise man ?

When [Tse Lu got Tse Kao appointed governor of Hou2, Confucius took exception on the ground that he had not yet studied, nor acquired knowledge. The man with the earth was an ignoramus ; how could he be called to office ? Praising Yao’s grandeur, one cannot say that house by house the people might have been appointed 3, and contending that house by house there were wise men fit to be appointed, one cannot propose simpletons and ignorant fellows 4. Keeping in view the man playing with earth, it is difficult to say ‘house by house’, and taking this second alternative 5, it is awkward to insist upon Yao’s grandeur. The dilemma owes its origin to an exaggeration overcolouring Yao’s excellence.


The Shuking tells us that Tsu Yi 6, remonstrating with Chou, said,

[« Among our people to-day there is none but desires the king’s death.] 1

None means nobody : The people of the whole empire all wish the king dead. One may say that they wished the king dead, but to pretend that all had this wish is going too far. Although Chou was depraved, yet many of his subjects and officers had received his favours. But Tsu Yi would use high flying words, with the object of frightening the king. Therefore I say that, unless the words be highly coloured, the heart does not take alarm, p2.269 and, without alarm, the mode of action is not altered. Exaggerations are used, in order to frighten and to stir up.

Su Ch‘in 2 told the king of Ch‘i that [in Lin-tse 3 the naves of the chariot-wheels were knocking together, and the men thronging shoulder to shoulder. Lifting their sleeves they formed tents, and the fronts of their coats joined together were the curtains. Their perspiration wiped off fell down like rain.] 4 In spite of all its splendour, Ch‘i could not come up to that. Su Ch‘in employed such high-flown language, for the purpose of rousing the king of Ch‘i. Tsu Yi’s admonitions of Chou are like the remonstrances addressed to the king of Ch‘i by Su Ch‘in.

In the fanciful reports of the wise and the sages, the events thus described have not always a true basis. From the chapter ‘Completion of the War’ 5 we learn that, when Wu Wang overthrew Chou, so much blood was spilled, that the pestles swam in it 6. So numerous were the combatants standing up for Wu Wang, that their blood flowed like that, all wishing the annihilation of Chou. But would they have been willing to fight in such a wholesale destruction ? The remark of Tsu Yi that everybody wished the death of Chou is like Su Ch‘in’s exaggeration and the reference in the chapter ‘Completion of the War’ to the pestles floating in streams of blood, which is likewise overshooting the mark.

The blood of the slain is shed, of course, but how could pestles swim in it ? When Wu Wang smote Chou in the plain of Mu, the country north of the river was elevated, and the soil no doubt scorched up and dry. The weapons being blunted, and the blood flowing forth, it must at once have entered the hot soil ; how could pestles have floated in it then ? The warriors of Chou and Yin all carried their provisions with them, and perhaps had prepared dried preserves, therefore they needed no pestles or mortars ; where then did these pestles come from ?

This statement about the pestles swimming in blood is meant to imply that, when Chou was destroyed, the weapons were blunted, and the soldiers wounded, and that, in consequence, the pestles floated in the blood.


p2.270 ‘During the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period, on the hsin-mao day, in the fourth month of summer, in the seventh year of Duke Chuang, at midnight, the common stars were invisible, and stars fell down like rain’. Kung Yang in his commentary asks :

[« What does ‘like rain’ mean ? It is not rain ; then, why use this expression ? ‘The unrevised Ch‘un-ch‘iu’ says, ‘Like rain. The stars, previous to approaching to within a foot of the earth, departed again’. The Sage corrected this, and said, ‘The stars fell down like rain’.]

‘The unrevised Ch‘un-ch‘iu’ refers to the time, when the Ch‘un-ch‘iu was not yet revised. At that time the Chronicle of Lu had the following entry : ‘It rained stars, and before they came near the earth, at a distance of over a foot, they seemed to depart again’. The Sage denotes Confucius. Confucius revised it, and said ‘The stars fell like rain’ 1.Like rain means like rain in appearance.

The vapours of mountains become clouds. Above, they do not reach up to the sky, and below, they form clouds. When it rains stars, the stars falling revert to the sky, before they have touched the earth. Whence the expression ‘like rain’. Confucius has employed the proper words. Stars falling either reach the earth or not, but it is difficult to ascertain the number of feet, and the statement of the chronicle that the distance was of one foot is also a stretch of fancy. For there are towers and high buildings, hills and mountains on the earth ; how can they speak of one foot’s distance ? Confucius said ‘like rain’, and that was correct. Confucius wrote the Ch‘un-ch‘iu, and then altered the text into ‘like rain’. Had Confucius not written the Ch‘un-ch‘iu, the reading that the stars came near the earth within a foot’s distance, would have been handed down to the present day.

Under the reign of the emperor Kuang Wu Ti 2, a clerk of a ministry, Pên Kuang of Ju-nan 3 sent in a report containing the statement that the emperor Hsiao Wen Ti 4 lived in a palace of brilliant splendour, and that only three men were sentenced in the whole empire 5. This was a compliment paid to the emperor Wên Ti, setting forth his achievements. But Kuang Wu Ti replied that, in Hsiao Wên Ti’s time, they did not live in a palace of brilliant splendour, and that there were not only three men sentenced.

p2.271 All accomplishments and virtues are put down to those who are famous, therefore the superior man loathes the company of low class people 6. Pên Kuang presented his report to a Han emperor, the Han epoch is our age, yet he exaggerated their merits and excellent qualities, going beyond the truth. Now, fancy the rulers and sovereigns of times out of mind, which have long passed away. When wise men of later ages give glowing reports of them, it is of frequent occurrence that they miss the truth and deviate from the historical facts. Had Pên Kuang not met with Kuang Wu Ti, but made his report ages after, this narrative about Hsiao Wên Ti would have found its way into the classical literature, and nobody would have known that the splendour of the palace and the three sentenced men were exaggerations, and they would have been taken for undeniable facts.



Lost Texts

61. XX, II. Yi-wên


p2.272 The emperor Hsiao Wu Ti conferred upon his younger brother the title of Prince Kung of Lu. Prince Kung, while demolishing the house of Confucius, for the purpose of building a palace, discovered there a Shuking in a hundred chapters, a Li(ki) in three hundred, a Ch‘un-ch‘iu in thirty 1, and a Lun-yü in twenty-one. When the wall was opened sounds of singing and guitar-playing were heard. The prince alarmed caused the hole again to be closed and plastered, and sent word to Wu Ti, who despatched an official, to fetch the old Canons and the Lun-yü. At this time they all were brought to light 2. When the Classics were taken out from the hole, there were sounds of singing, and playing of guitars. The texts were to be recovered by the Han, and the gay music was a portent accompanying the happy event. They had to be transmitted to the Han, and therefore lay concealed in the wall. Prince Kung pierced it, and the holy emperor occasioned the magical music, for the old texts were not to remain hidden, and the Han were expecting them as felicitous signs.

The emperor Hsiao Ch‘êng Ti wishing to read the hundred chapters of the Shuking, and none of the professors and secretaries understanding it, an invitation was issued to every one in the empire who could adjust the Shuking. Chang Pa of Tung-hai was well versed in the Ch‘un-ch‘iu of Tso Ch‘iu Ming. Following the order of the hundred chapters, he elucidated them with the help of the Tso-chuan, and thus produced one hundred and two chapters, which he presented to the emperor, when they were completed. Ch‘êng Ti took the Shuking that had been stored away, to compare and examine the new book, but not one character was the same. Then he handed Chang Pa over to the judges, who investigated his offence and pronounced it to be a case of great disrespect and irreverence. But Ch‘êng Ti being a great admirer of Chang Pa’s p2.273 talents, pardoned him, nor did he destroy his work. Consequently the one hundred and two chapters became current among the people 3.

Confucius said that [talents are difficult to find.] 4 He whom his genius and his imagination enabled to write a Classic in one hundred chapters, must have been endowed with quite remarkable gifts, and been an exceptional man, such as is seldom met with. Ch‘êng Ti forgave him in appreciation of his writings, for although they were spurious and not true, yet, by following the order of the chapters and sections and adhering to the subjects, they made the impression of being genuine, and therefore were not burned.

In a box of memorials a book is often circulated consisting of ten and more documents, memorials and reports to the throne, the productions of high officials and well worth reading. Their reading gives great pleasure, and not one out of a hundred officials is able to write such documents 1. Chang Pa was so ingenious, that he composed a hundred chapters. The Han era is in fact so like antiquity, that Ch‘êng Ti did well to forgive Chang Pa.

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