CHAPTER XXII. CITIES AND TOWNS

There are singularly few descriptions of cities in ancient Chinese history, but here again we may safely assume that most of them were in principle, if only on a small scale, very much what they are now, mere inartistic, badly built collections of hovels. Soul, the quaint capital of Corea, as it appeared in its virgin condition to its European discoverers twenty-five years ago, probably then closely resembled an ancient vassal Chinese prince's capital of the very best kind. Modern trade is responsible for the wealthy commercial streets now to be found in all large Chinese cities; but a small hien city in the interior - and it must be remembered that a hien circuit or district corresponds to an old marquisate or feudal principality of the vassal unit type - is often a poor, dusty, dirty, depressing, ramshackle agglomeration of villages or hamlets, surrounded by a disproportionately pretentious wall, the cubic contents of which wall alone would more than suffice to build in superior style the whole mud city within; for half the area of the interior is apt to be waste land or stagnant puddles: it was so even in Peking forty years ago, and possibly is so still except in the "Legation quarter."

In 745 B.C., when the Tsin marquess foolishly divided his patrimony with a collateral branch, the capital town of this subdivided state is stated to have been a greater place than the old capital. They are both of them still in existence as insignificant towns, situated quite close together on the same branch of the River Fen (the only navigable river) in South Shan Si; marked with their old names, too; that is to say, K'iih-wuh and Yih-CH'ENg. It was only after the younger branch annexed the elder in 679 that Tsin became powerful and began to expand; and it was only when a policy of "home rule" and disintegration set in, involving the splitting up of Tsin's orthodox power into three royal states of doubtful orthodoxy, that China fell a prey to Ts'in ambition. Absit omen to us.

In 560, when the deformed philosopher Yen-tsz visited Ts'u, and entertained that semi-barbarous court with his witticisms, he took the opportunity boastfully to enlarge upon the magnificence of Lin-tsz (still so marked), the capital of Ts'i. "It is," said he, "surrounded by a hundred villages; the parasols of the walkers obscure the sky, whose perspiration runs in such streams as to cause rain; their shoulders and heels touch together, so closely are they packed." The assembled Ts'u court, with mouths open, but inclined for sport at the cost of their visitor, said: "If it is such a grand place, why do they select you?" Yen-tsz played a trump card when he replied: "Because I am such a mean-looking fellow," - meaning, as explained in Chapter IX., that "any pitiful rascal is good enough to send to Ts'u." Exaggerations apart, however, there is every reason to believe that the statesman-philosopher Kwan-tsz, a century before that date, had really organized a magnificent city. A full description of how he reconstructed the economic life of both city and people is given in the Kwoh-yue (see Chapter XVII.), the authenticity of which work, though not free from question, is, after all, only subject to the same class of criticism as Renan lavishes upon one or two of the Gospels, the general tenor of which, be says, must none the less be accepted, with all faults, as the bonafide attempt of some one, more or less contemporary, to represent what was then generally supposed to be the truth.

Ts'u itself must have had something considerable to show in the way of public buildings, for in the year 542 B.C. after paying a visit to that country in accordance with the provisions of the Peace Conference of 546, the ruler of Lu built himself a palace in imitation of one he saw there. The original capital of Wu (see Chapter VII.) was a poor place, and is described as having consisted of low houses in narrow streets, with a vulgar palace; this was in 523. In 513 a new king moved to the site now occupied by Soochow, and he seems to have made of it the magnificent city it has remained ever since - the place, of course it will be remembered, where General Gordon and Li Hung-chang had their celebrated quarrel about decapitating surrendered rebels. There were eight gates, besides eight water-gates for boats; it was eight English miles in circuit, and contained the palace, several towers (pagodas, being Buddhist, were then naturally unknown), kiosks, ponds, and duck preserves. The extensive arsenal and ship- yard was quite separate from the main town. No city in the orthodox part of China is so closely described as this one, nor is it likely that there were many of them so vast in extent.