William Frederick Mayers (1831-1878)


A handbook of biographical, historical, mythological, and general literary reference

American Presbiterian Mission Press, Shanghai, 1874. Réimpression : Literature House, Taipeh, 1964.
Parties I et II (XXIV+360 pages), de XXIV+440 pages.

  • The title ‘CHINESE READER’S MANUAL’ has been given to the following work in the belief that it will be found useful in the hands of students of Chinese literature, by elucidating in its First Part many of the personal and historical allusions, and some portion at least of the conventional phraseology, which unite to form one of the chief difficulties of the language ; whilst in its remaining sections information of an equally essential nature is presented in a categorical shape.
  • The wealth of illustration furnished to a Chinese writer by the records of his long-descended past is a feature which must be remarked at even the most elementary stage of acquaintance with the literature of the country. In every branch of composition, ingenious parallels and the introduction of borrowed phrases, considered elegant in proportion to their concise and recondite character, enjoy in Chinese style the same place of distinction that is accorded in European literature to originality of thought or novelty of diction.

    Extraits : Passages de l'IntroductionUne impératrice, un empereur - Quelques beautés, souvent fatales



Passages de l'Introduction

Exemple de page de la Partie I en mode texte
Exemple de page de la Partie I en mode texte

In Part I of the following work, the designation ‘Index of Proper Names’ embraces both its principal feature as a historical and biographical compendium, and also the accounts of mythical beings and legends connected with animate or inanimate objects which cannot be overlooked in an attempt at interpreting the figurative language or the traditional expressions of the Chinese. In the domain of history and biography, it has been sought to collect in a form convenient for reference the data existing in Chinese literature with regard to personages of renown in every epoch and condition, thus assembling what may be termed the component parts of a tableau of Chinese history from the mythical period down to the present day. The principal object of the work being that of elucidating Chinese thought and expression, the language of the original authorities has been followed throughout as closely as possible ; and it has seemed expedient only in a few instances to enlarge on particular subjects from an independent point of view or with a critical intent. In the execution of this task a multitude of Chinese works have been collated, as no single native compilation unites the requisites demanded by a European enquirer. The author has at the same time sought to remove those difficulties which attend the course of original research, owing not only to the absence of an alphabetic system, but, also to the disregard exhibited by most Chinese writers, notwithstanding the methodical genius of the people, for the simplest expedients of indexing and literary order.

In addition to the historical and biographical sections of this Part, a limited number of illustrations of a mythological and legendary character are included. This department might be increased by many hundred-fold without exhausting the material collected in native cyclopædias ; but the time has not yet arrived when a European compiler can think it necessary, even were the undertaking feasible, to offer a complete substitute for works of this kind in the profounder walks of Chinese study. It is scarcely probable that more than a fraction of such matter as is comprised within works of the kind referred to, indispensable though it be for occasional reference, can ever be transferred to a European language. Twenty volumes of the largest size would barely suffice to contain the matter categorically arranged in the most modern and useful cyclopædia of literary reference, the Yüan Kien Lui Han ; nor would a less liberal allowance of space be sufficient to meet the wants of a complete biographical dictionary ; but the European student, whose researches carry him so far as to necessitate minute enquiry will, in most cases at least, be in a position to avail himself of the original authorities.

Exemple de page de la Partie II en mode texte
Exemple de page de la Partie II en mode texte

The Numerical Categories which constitute the matter presented in Part II have occupied a prominent place in Chinese thought from the very earliest period to which our knowledge reaches. In obedience, it would seem, to an impulse the influence of which is distinctly marked in the literary traditions of the Chaldæans, the Hebrews, and the Hindoos, a doctrine of the hidden properties and harmonies of number imbues the earliest recorded expression of Chinese belief. So also, it may be remarked, in the teachings of PYTHAGORAS, an abstract theory of Number was expounded as underlying the whole system of Existence, whence the philosophy of the Western world became tinged with conceptions strongly resembling those which still prevail on the same subject in the Chinese mind — conceptions which, although now wellnigh forgotten, remained in vigour long after the days of BACON as fundamental truths. That the views inculcated by PYTHAGORAS were derived from Asiatic sources is a commonly received assertion ; and it may well be that the ideas found corresponding in his philosophy with those of the Chinese were handed down from the earliest observers of the material phenomena of nature. The dual form of animated life, the succession of the seasons, the alternation of day and night, the revolutions of the visible planets, may not improbably have given rise to a conception of numerical harmony obeying some mysterious and unchanging law, when contemplated by minds striving after the rudiments of knowledge and absorbed in attempts to fathom the causes and order of existence. In the ‘Great Plan’, which forms one of the most highly reverenced sections of the Book of History, we see how profoundly the metaphysical speculations of the Chinese had become developed on a basis of this description in the most ancient times. The cast imparted to the national philosophy in this ninefold exposition of physical and ethical laws, minutely classsified in numerical divisions, has been maintained unimpaired to the present day, gathering strength, indeed, in the course of ages from the subtle refinements of Hindoo cosmogonists and religious teachers. Tracing in this wise the tendency of Chinese thought to adopt numerical forms of expression from its earliest discovered source, it is not necessary to exclaim with the polished French reviewer, AMPÈRE, that ‘pour saisir quelque chose de tellement Chinois il faudrait se faire Chinois soi-même, penser et écrire en Chinois’. That a logical conception of the Chinese theories of numerical concordance may be formed and may even be expounded in a European tongue has been shewn by the late T. T. MEADOWS in his admirable though unhappily incomplete dissertation on the philosophy of the Chinese . No faithful translator will console himself with M. AMPÈRE’s dictum for neglecting to render in his own language the combinations which form an essential element of Chinese style, whether belonging to the domain of metaphysics or to the practical details which are equally reduced to serial order ; and the undertaking carried out in Part II of the present work is a humble contribution to this end.


Une impératrice, un empereur

862. — WU HOW The Empress Wu, by whom the government of China was usurped during the latter half of the seventh century. Originally named Wu Chao, the daughter of a man of low station, she became one of the inferior concubines of the Emperor T’ai Tsung of the T’ang dynasty, on whose death in A.D. 649, she retired to a Buddhist nunnery, where, still at an early age, she assumed the monastic garb and vows. Here, a few years later, she was observed by the Emperor Kao Tsung, who had already noticed her while an occupant of his father’s seraglio. Kao Tsung’s Empress, anxious at the time to destroy the influence of a favoured concubine, and having discovered her consort’s fancy for the youthful nun, took the latter from her retreat and introduced her into the palace. Once reëstablished at Court, the adventuress speedily contrived to engross the monarch’s admiration, and in A.D. 654, she was raised to the rank of Chao I, and recognized as prime favourite. In the following year the Empress was deposed in order to make way for her quondam protégée, and from this moment the latter’s influence over the Emperor and in State affairs continued only to increase. To gratify her vindictive desires more than one of the most eminent public servants was sent to execution, and changes were liberally introduced to suit her tastes in the institutions and ceremonial of the Empire. In A.D. 674, she raised her nephew Wu Ch’êng-sze to the rank of Duke of Chow, whilst the Emperor and herself assumed respectively the titles Emperor and Empress of Heaven. On the death of Kao Tsung in A.D. 683, he was succeeded by one of his sons, a feeble youth (known in history as Chung Tsung), who contentedly resigned the powers of government into the hands of the Empress-dowager a month after his accession to the throne. The Empress, relegating the actual Sovereign to a state of virtual confinement, with the title of Prince of Lu Ling, hereupon assumed the full attributes of supreme power, which she continued to wield triumphantly for nearly twenty years. Her despotic rule was maintained with pitiless cruelty, statesman after statesman falling a victim to her resentment or caprice ; but at the same time she was careful to uphold the external interests of the Empire, the boundaries of which she enlarged whilst gaining a fresh hold on the allegiance of the neighbouring nations. Regardless of remonstrance, she introduced sweeping changes in the ordinances and practice of government, and even sought to signalize her reign by altering the form of some of the most familiar written characters of the language ; whilst her contempt for criticism was manifested in the free access to her private apartments which she granted to the Buddhist priest Hwai I. After a course of action extending over many years which gave rise to the suspicion that she cherished a design of totally supplanting the dynasty of T’ang, she at length threw off all disguise, and having put to death a great number of the off-shoots of the Imperial family, she proclaimed herself in A.D. 690, ‘Emperor’ of the Chow dynasty. She at the same time adopted one of the Imperial Princes as her heir, giving him her own surname, Wu, and assumed the full attributes recognized as pertaining to a change of dynasty. It was not until the infirmities of age had overtaken the vigorous frame and sapped the commanding intellect of this extraordinary woman that any effectual attempt was made to subvert her power. After some years of threatened revolt, a military conspiracy was at length organized, which, in A.D. 705, succeeded in wresting the government from the hands of the Empress, whereupon the rightful Sovereign was called from his seclusion and placed upon the Throne. Even in her downfall, however, the Empress retained a portion of the influence and respect she had been habituated to command. She was endowed with a palatial residence, and the title [] was assigned to her, whilst for the few remaining months of her life she was treated with high consideration by the Sovereign whom she had so long dispossessed. Her death took place in the same year with her deposition. From the title conferred upon her (see above), she is frequently designated Wu Tsêh-t’ien.

863. — [HAN] WU TI. D. B.C. 87. Son of King Ti, and fourth Sovereign of the Han dynasty. Acceding to the throne in B.C. 140, his reign of 54 years’ duration was both the longest and the most splendid of the entire House of Liu. The youthful Sovereign signalized the commencement of his reign by an enthusiastic patronage of literature, and under his auspices the newly recovered Confucian writings were diligently studied by Tung Chang-shu q.v., and his colleagues. In B.C. 136, the first literary degrees were instituted, with the title [] ; whilst at the same epoch the influence of the Empire began to make itself felt among the fierce nomads of the Northern frontier and at the Court of the then independent ruler of South-eastern China. Notwithstanding his early proclivities in favour of the Confucian literature, Wu Ti speedily betrayed a leaning toward the professors of magic and superstitious rites, — cf. Numbers 365 and 342 ; and sensual passion was at the same time indulged with more than ordinary license. This twofold development of the Imperial character gave rise, most probably, to the traditions which in a subsequent age recounted the amours of Wu Ti with his fairy visitor, Si Wang Mu, q.v. A galaxy of courageous and enterprising generals carried the arms of Wu Ti into the heart of Central Asia, — cf. Li Kwang-li, Chang K’ien, etc. ; and with sundry vicissitudes, the formidable Hiung-nu, were successfully held in check on the north-western frontiers. In B.C. 130, the tribes occupying the region of modern Yün-nan were also brought under subjection. In B.C. 104, a change of calendar, in accordance with the calculations of Sze-ma Ts’ien q.v., was introduced, and forms the epoch with which the modern period of Chinese chronology begins. The concluding years of Wu Ti’s reign were distinguished by a series of gorgeous Imperial journeys, having as their object the performance of sacrificial rites at different mountain-shrines ; and they were also disgraced by the proscriptions and judicial murders instigated by the Princess Kow Yih, — see No. 278. In B.C. 87, the Emperor, white lying on his deathbed, bequeathed his childish heir prince Fuh-Ling to the care of Ho Kwang and Kin Jih-ti qq.v., whom he nominated as Regents.


Quelques beautés, souvent fatales

24. — CHANG LI-HWA, or Chang Kwei-fei. The favourite princess of the last ruler of the Ch’ên dynasty, A.D. 583-589. See Ch’ên Shuh-pao. She was renowned for beauty, and in particular for her long and glossy hair, which was said to be seven feet in length. In A.D. 584, the imperial voluptuary devoted his whole energy, and appropriated vast sums of treasure, to the construction of three magnificent towers within the grounds of his palace, to which the names of [—] were given. In these abodes of pleasure he dwelt, a slave to licentious enjoyments, with Chang Li-hwa and his two other favoured concubines, K’ung Kwei-fei and Kung Kwei fei, wholly abandoning the duties of government to eunuchs and unworthy courtiers, until ruin and dethronement supervened. Chang Li-hwa was also styled Chang Ch’ang-ngo, a title of admiring endearment given her by her consort, in allusion to the lady of the Moon. See Ch’ang ngo.

25. — CHANG LI-P’IN, otherwise called A-yüan, a famous beauty of the harem or the last Emperor of the Mongol (Yüan) dynasty, A.D. 1333, celebrated for her elegant embroidery.

41. — CHAO FEI-YEN, 1st century B.C. A famous beauty. Daughter of a musician named Fêng Wan-kin. She was trained as a dancing-girl, and from her grace and litheness received the appellation Fei Yen (flying swallow). Left with her sister, Ho-têh, unprotected on their father’s death, the two girls, adopting the surname Chao in lieu of their own, found their way to the capital, where, after maintaining themselves for a time as courtesans, they attracted the notice of the Emperor Chêng Ti, B.C. 18, who took them into his seraglio and made Fei Yen his favourite concubine with the title tsieh-yü or lady-in-waiting. Her skill in the art of dancing (posturing) was such that it is said of her she could dance on the palm of a hand or in a bowl. In B.C. 16, the Emperor, infatuated with his new favourite, elevated her to the rank of Empress Consort, conferring the rank of Lady of Honour upon the younger sister. Was driven to commit suicide in B.C. 6, after the decease of Ch’êng Ti, through the machinations of his successor’s consort.

45. — CHAO KÜN. A famous heroine of romance. Said to have been taken into the harem of HAN Yüan Ti, B.C. 48, where, however, she was secluded from the notice of her Imperial lord through the malice of his treacherous minister Mao Yen-show. The latter, according to one version of a romance which is variously related, had been commissioned to bring her to the palace, on a report of her beauty reaching the court, and she was found by him to be of surpassing loveliness, the daughter of poor but worthy parents. Her father refused to pay a sum demanded from him as a bribe by Mao Yen-show, who, in revenge, presented to the Emperor a portrait so little like the original that his Majesty conceived no wish to see the new addition to his seraglio, and she languished in oblivion for years until chance threw the Emperor across her path, when he at once became enamoured of her beauty. The faithless Minister, his wiles discovered, lied from Court and took refuge with the Khan of the Hiung-nu, to whom he shewed the real portrait of Chao Kün. The Khan, fired by the hope of obtaining possession of so peerless a beauty, invaded China in irresistible force, and only consented to retire beyond the Wall when the lady was surrendered to him. She accompanied her savage captor, bathed in tears, until the banks of the Amur (Heh-lung Kiang) were reached, when, rather than go beyond the fatal boundary, she plunged into the waters of the stream. Her corpse was interred on the banks of the river, and it is related that the tumulus raised above her grave remained covered with undying verdure (whence the tomb is called Ts’ing Ch’ung). The history of Chao Kün forms the basic of a drama translated by Sir John Davis, with the title ‘The Sorrows of Han’. The actual historical fact, as narrated in the T’ung Kien Kang Muh, is that, in B.C. 33, the Emperor cemented an alliance with the Khan of the Hiung-nu by bestowing upon him in marriage, on his visiting the Court, the lady, called Chao Kün, who, on reaching the country of her adoption, become recognized as queen with the title Ning Hu.

60. — CHÊNG TAN. A famous beauty, said to have been presented to the harem of the Prince of Wu at the same time with Si She q.v.

278. — KOW YIH FU JÊN. D. B.C. 88. The title given to the lady Chao, who, while filling an official post in the seraglio of HAN Wu Ti, attracted by her beauty the notice of that sovereign, and was raised by him to a position of supreme favour. From the office conferred upon her she received the title Tsieh Yü and apartments were assigned to her in the Kow Yih Pavilion, whence the designation by which she is referred to above. In B.C. 94 she gave birth to a son, who received the name Fuh-ling, and the affection lavished upon this child by the Emperor inspired her with the ambition of setting aside in his favour the recognized heir to the throne. By a dark intrigue she succeeded in implicating the heir apparent in an accusation of sorcery and of parricidal designs, and so well did her plot succeed that the Emperor was persuaded to doom his son to death with thousands of other innocent persons. The infant on whose behalf this conspiracy was undertaken was then recognized as heir to the Throne, to which he actually succeeded in B.C. 86 ; but before this event occurred the Emperor Wu Ti had discovered the falsehood of the statements imposed upon him, and in B.C. 88 the lady Chao died by the hand of the executioner.

302a. — KWOH KWOH FU-JÊN. Youngest sister of Yang Kwei-fei, and consort of the latter in the seraglio of TANG Hüan Tsung, by whom this title was conferred upon her together with vast estates. She was the most beauteous of the three frail sisters who shared between them the Emperor’s favour. See Yang Kwei-fei. It was said of her : [—] she was beauty itself, needing no adornment to enhance her charms.

342. — LI FU-JÊN. A favourite concubine of HAN Wu Ti, and sister of Li Yen-nien q.v. Her beauty was hyperbolically described by the latter in a stanza sung to the emperor, — see K’ing Kwoh. Hence the phrase [—], as a synonym for female loveliness. The emperor was inconsolable at his favourite’s death. He cause her portrait to be enshrined in the Kan Ts’üan palace ; and was granted a glimpse of her spirit through the art of one of his magicians.

347. — LI KI. One of the ‘fatal beauties’ of Chinese history. She was the daughter of a chieftain of the Jung barbarians on the west of China, and having been captured in B.C. 672 by an expedition undertaken against her tribe by Duke Hien of Tsin, she was taken by him to wife and became the favourite among many concubines. She gave birth, in B.C. 666, to a son who was named Hi Ts’i, in whose favour the birth right of several elder half-brothers was set aside. (See Wên Kung). The prince being made heir to the throne through his mother’s influence, not only met an untimely death, but involved his country in a series of sanguinary disorders. See Hi Ts’i.

348. — LI KÜAN. A celebrated beauty of the harem of HAN Wu Ti, B.C. 140. The exquisite delicacy of her complexion at the age of fourteen was such that her Imperial lover dreaded, it is said, lest the mere contact of a silken fringe should cause her injury. The emperor playfully expressed the fear, moreover, that the zephyr, however gently blowing, might carry her away from earth.

483. — MAO TS’IANG. A famous beauty, said to have been one of the ornaments of the seraglio of the Prince of Yüeh B.C. 465, and a contemporary of the peerless Si She q.v. Chwang Tsze says:

« Mao Tsiang and Li Ki q.v. were of all mortals the most lovely. When the fish saw them they dived deep under water, and birds, when they saw them, soared high in the air ! (K.S.L.).

556. — P’AN FEI. A concubine of Tung Hwên How, the last of the sovereigns of the Ts’i dynasty, A.D. 501. She is celebrated for her beauty and grace, and it is related of her (but on untrustworthy grounds) that the practice of artificially cramping the feet was introduced under her auspices. See Yao Niang. Her imperial lover is said to have uttered one day, when gazing at her performances in the dance upon a platform ornamented with golden lilies the rapturous expression:

— Every footstep makes a lily grow !

and hence the term [—], metaphorically used for the feet of women is said to have taken its rise. In allusion to the same tradition, the expression [—] (lily hook) is also applied in celebrating this charm of woman-kind.

571. — SI SHE or SI TSZE. The ne plus ultra of loveliness in Chinese tradition. She was, it is narrated, the daughter of humble parents in the kingdom of Yüeh, during the 5th century B.C., and gained her livelihood in washing silk, or, according to another account, in selling firewood ; but, a report of her consummate beauty having reached the ears of the Prince of Yüeh, through his counsellor Fan Li q.v., he saw in this circumstance a hope of achieving the destruction of his victorious rival the Prince of Wu — see Fu Ch’a ; and causing Si She to be trained in all the accomplishments of her sex and dressed in gorgeous apparel, he sent the fatal beauty as a gift to the prince whom he desired to ruin. His stratagem was successful, and Fu Ch’a, abandoning himself to lustful dalliance, was ere long defeated and crushed by his wily neighbour. It is said of Si She, that thinking her beauty was enhanced by an air of melancholy, she was used to knit her brows as though in pain, and this device, adding, as it did, to her attractiveness, was copied by all the rival beauties who vainly sought to equal her in charms.



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