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Pale Ink, by Henriette Mertz, [1953], at

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The Shan Hai King

GEOGRAPHERS and historians alike acknowledge the Shan Hai King to be the world's oldest geography. Although frequently referred to, it is an "unknown." No English translation has been made of the whole of it—portions exist in French or German—and Chinese themselves rarely read it. The book, it appears, has been considered to be so full of whimsy and fantasy that a translation has never been attempted since the waste of time would have been thought stupid. Yet, it is referred to, with dignity, as our oldest known record of man's knowledge of the universe on which he lives. We do not know, today, what portion of the earth's surface it covers; we do not know if it refers solely to China or to other places as well.

The Chinese say that the record was compiled by the great Yu, at the time when he was minister under the Emperor Shun—prior to the time when he himself was Emperor. However, the compilation may have been completed after he took the throne. A noted British sinologist has assigned an approximate date of the 10th or 11th centuries B.C. to the Shan Hai King, stating however, that while its antiquity was certain, the date was disputable. The majority of French sinologists agree with the Chinese.

As stated earlier, there were originally 32 books, and, of the 32 only 18 remain. There is no way of knowing whether the total number of books formed a sequence or in what manner one book followed another or even if the 18 books themselves follow in any sequence. Each book is a separate entity but no book has a beginning or an ending. Whether the existing books deal with one country or 18 countries, is not known.

In 213 B.C., all books in China were ordered burned. The first Emperor of the Ts‘in dynasty decided to abolish all knowledge of the past and blot out history. His Premier, Le Sze, advised that the best way to accomplish that end was to burn all books—and therefore, the edict went out. The books were burned.

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In the fifth century A.D., records and documents concerning China's past, became so voluminous that it was both impossible to study them or to store them. Another edict was issued to condense all books. Everything available was re-read. Volumes were deleted. The remainder was compressed into a few scanty pages—the original volumes were destroyed. Again, in the thirteenth century, all records and documents, once more, were ordered condensed—the fifth century original condensations were scrapped. Of the ancient Book of Mountains and Seas, there exist today only those fragments that survived the burning of 213 B.C. and the two condensations. That which remains to work with is, at the very outset, extremely meagre.

The material itself is complicated by the fact that there is no beginning or ending to any book—each record as we now have it, starts on a mountain peak, wanders from peak to peak, covering 2,000 miles, and winds up on another peak—with no possible way of determining where, on the face of the globe, that first peak may have been located.

Each of the 18 books vary in content—some are a few paragraphs long, others are pages. Many are minutely detailed, neatly setting down exact mileage from point to point; the remainder, apparently having been written by more poetic souls, disregard mileage and grow lyrical over the beauties of nature. They are all eye-witness accounts—each person was somewhere. Their records are simple, straightforward and forthright. This is no collection of mythical or imaginary labyrinthine wanderings.

About the third century B.C., the Chinese themselves started looking in China to see whether or not they could identify some of the mountains described in the book—and they could not. Scholars looked all over China for some clue, and finding none, gave up. Doubt arose as to the veracity of the ancients. One after another, early writers decided that the accounts in the Book of Mountains and Seas were whimsies and extravagancies—not to be believed, but, nevertheless, good literature. By the eighth century A.D., everyone was convinced that, like Aesop's Fables, they were excellent reading—but myths. And so they

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have come down to us labeled "fairy tales."

If one should read even a few sentences from those "tales," it would be obvious that those who wrote them were sincere. Inconsistencies certainly crept in during the condensations—but the mile by mile record is no ephemeral dream, no elusive little visionary beam that someone was following. Hard, cold, facts—"travel south 100 miles over shifting sand and you will come to Bald Mountain where there is a large river flowing eastward"—nothing whimsical about it.

A most exhaustive study of historical backgrounds of the Shan Hai King was made by M. Bazin, the French authority, in 1839. His study showed that while there were originally 32 books, the condensation that took place in the fifth century A.D., eliminated all but 18. In this he departs from Chinese sources, where it has been stated that the books were lost during the burnings in 213 B.C. James Legge, who made extensive translations of the Classics, said that among the great scholars was one Fuh-sang who, when the order went out to burn all books, hid his copies in the wall of his house. His house later burned and many of the tablets were destroyed. In 178 B.C., when Fuh-sang was 90 years old, the Emperor commissioned him to re-write from memory what he could of the old texts. Much of what we now have came down to us in that manner.

The descriptive material contained in this oldest geography, told of mountain ranges in the north, south, east and west and those beyond the seas; of the regions beyond the seas to the north, south, east and west. The author believed that there were five major mountain ranges on the face of the globe and that on those mountain ranges all rivers of the earth had their sources. It also told of living things that peopled those areas and, in addition, some of those supposedly living things that were later interpreted to be of the spirit world—as was the unicorn and the archer that shot nine of the ten suns.

The shifting from a belief that the ancient writing was an actual recording to one that clothed it in mythology, came between 300-100 B.C. A later writer, commenting on the matter, said that the last 13 chapters of the Shan Hai King contained

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a description of foreign countries—and by "foreign countries" was meant those countries inhabited by spirits. The spirits that governed the earth in the days when the great Yu, as minister of the Emperor Shun, drained off the waters left from the deluge, he said, differed from those spirits which lived in later reigns. The spirits of the sun, moon and planets referred to in the History of the Gods, were not even mentioned in the Shan Hai King, and its authors have turned earth spirits into monsters and weird mis-shapen animals and, because of it, the account was a malicious parody.

Comments, throughout the ages, by the most learned of scholars, have reached the same conclusion. Sse-ma Chien, the greatest of all Chinese historians, declined to comment. He merely stated that the Book of Mountains was attributed to the great Yu but that such extraordinary things were contained in it, that he dared not speak of them. Confucius, in his Analects, said: "Straight was the course of the Annalist Yu, aye, straight as an arrow flies." He mentioned the Shan Hai King in his Kia-yu (Familiar Discourses) and Tseu-hia, a disciple of Confucius, said that during the reign of the Shang dynasty (1765-1123 B.C.) mention was made of the Book of Mountains.

Chao-shi, considered in importance second only to Sse-ma Chien, living at the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.), felt that the book was of doubtful merit and said that Yu, after consulting the spirits of the mountains and lakes, wrote down all the details about these "foreign" places.

In the third century of the Christian era, Tso-sse, one of the outstanding historical poets, mentioned the Shan Hai King in one of his verses on the Five Capitols. The preface to the Fabulous Encyclopedia (265-420 A.D.) contained a statement that two of the most ancient books then existing were the Herbal of Chi-nong and the Shan Hai King, which several writers have attributed to the great Yu. A more modern writer felt that all the operations of heaven and earth were mysterious and incomprehensible, and withdrew themselves from the investigations of men—that was why the Shan Hai King was a book that could not be comprehended.

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M. Bazin, after digesting some hundreds of comments during his years of research in digging out information concerning the Shan Hai King, himself came to the conclusion that since scholars had failed to find any of the descriptive material in China and, since many of the animals peopling the work were obviously whimsical, that the work was of little or no practical value.

He ended his conclusion with the statement that the book contained over 30,000 characters in the text and over 20,000 in the commentaries, which was a great number for a book containing such extravagancies and which did not merit deep study in a country like China, where the amount of geographical knowledge was far from despicable. He found the work unworthy of serious study. And that, today, is still the unqualified opinion.

The story of Prince I, the archer who killed nine of the ten suns, lyricized by poets for two thousand years, is considered the prize of imaginative fantasies. The archer, according to the Shan Hai King and the poets, travelled east until he reached the place where the sun was born. There he found ten suns. He shot down nine of them with his bow and those nine lie asleep in the "Great Luminous Canyon." Story after story recount tales of the archer, some elaborated upon, others unadulterated. Dr. Creel mentioned it in connection with the Shang bronzes. The archer is put down as a credit to poetic imagination—nothing more.

On reading the translation of that portion that I had of the Shan Hai King, it was clear that this was an authentic travel account—not whimsy. There were ten-tailed foxes and eight-headed serpents, it is true, but rarely does one find old manuscripts that fail to include some oddment, some Poseidon, Ra, banshee or werewolf. Sir Walter Raleigh's Iwaipanomas, the headless warriors of the upper Orinoco, are good examples—and they were believed. The Shan Hai King made sense. It was a simple and sincere statement of a place visited and a distance measured by a man who had been there—short notes jotted down in a little bamboo note-book.

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Two of the descriptive accounts began their recordings on an unknown mountain top, travelled 2,000 miles from north to south, finding a peak every one hundred miles, and wound up on another peak—but, in those 2,000 miles, that person definitely was somewhere, and he alone knew where. The statements were concise, without embellishment of any kind. If the books were whimsy, the language would have been flowery. That which was written, insofar as I could determine, was as far from being flowery as clipped speech could make it. It rang true.

If the accounts were true, someplace on the face of the earth those places must exist. China itself had been thoroughly gone over and eliminated. Fragmentary though the records were, the places that they described would have to be found. Since the portion that I had in translation was captioned "The Classic of the Eastern Mountains" in a section identified as "Overseas," that seemed the logical place to look first. Directions would have to be followed and, after that, it would be a process of elimination.

The four maps on the following pages, together with the translation as I found it, will show more clearly than any words of mine exactly where the Chinese were. It is hoped that they will speak eloquently for themselves. In the concluding translation, which gave no mileage and so will have no map, will be found the place where, I believe, the archer legend originated. There would hardly be two spots on earth that could so aptly fit that description. That each thrilled person who saw that "Great Luminous Canyon" where the nine suns lie buried, fulfilled his lifetime hope and ambition, can well be understood.

This chapter could not be ended without one concluding priceless gem concerning comment on the Shan Hai King. It came from a book published in China at the beginning of the Christian era:

"Heaven and earth are great; what do they not contain? The Shan Hai King is full of doubtful statements, but who can affirm that the assertions which seem doubtful to us are absolutely false?"

Next: Chapter XIII. Across the Sea