Monday, November 07, 2005

On Viewing Ruins

Yang Xuanzhi (also spelled Yang Hsuan-chih) spent his youth in Luoyang (also spelled Lo-yang) in the north China plain, when it was the opulent capital of the Northern Wei dynasty. He finished his life, however, in the city of Ye, under a new dynasty, while the old capital fell into decrepitude. Returning to the site of Luoyang a decade later, he was moved by the ruins of the capital he had once seen in splendor, and wrote a nostalgic account (more background here) of the old city and its stories, secular and sacred, hung on a survey of the city's monasteries. In his preface, he wrote:

During the troubled Yongxi years [that is, A.D. 532-534], the emperor moved to Ye accompanied by monks of the various temples. It was not until the fifth of the Wuding years, a ding/mao year [A.D. 547], that I revisited Luoyang while on official duty. The outer and inner city walls lay in ruins, palaces were toppled, temples and monasteries were in ashes, and stupas [Buddhist reliquaries] were no more than deserted graves. Walls were covered with wild vines, and streets were dotted with thorny bushes. Wild beasts lived under deserted stairways, and mountain birds bode in trees of abandoned courtyards. Wandering youngsters and cowherds walked back and forth through the nine intersections of the city, while farmers and ploughmen grew crops on the grounds where palace towers once stood. Then I began to realize that it was not Weizi alone who lamented over the ruins of the old Yin dynasty [1765-1123 B.C.], but indeed any loyal official of the Zhou dynasty [1122-256 B.C.] would have been saddened at the sight of millet growing in deserted palace grounds (adapted from Yi-t'ung Wang's translation, pp. 6-7)

The reference to Weizi is to a Zhou official, who in the early years of the dynasty was summoned to court and passed by the old Yin capital's ruins:

Weizi was setting out to attend the Zhou court. As he passed the old ruins of the city Yin, he saw the wheat stalks growing richly there and thought, "This was the kingdom of my father and mother" . . . his will was moved and his heart sorrowful . . . so he composed the song of the wheat stalks.

The last ruler of the Yin dynasty was, in legend at least, an evil ruler and rightly replaced by the new and vigorous Zhou. Why then should he or anyone else mourn the ruins of the bad old Yin? Because it was the dynasty of his fathers and mothers.

In 1992 in Mongolia, I came across a ruin of the Soviet empire near the city of Sainshand in the Gobi: an air base, where jet fighters had once been on 24-hour alert to confront the threat of Maoist China. The rows of underground bunkers swelled out of the ground like graves in a cemetery of giants, but the metal shutters were gone and the shards of engines discarded by looters rusted in the sun, as the sand slowly blew over them. In the capital Ulaanbaatar, the new regime was rapidly removing almost all the posters and statues of the once eternal Soviet-Mongolian friendship, but out here in the desert was this reminder of the Soviet empire that had once terrified the world.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the ideological and non-ideological way of looking at the rise and fall of states. To the proclamation by the kingdom we live under that our kingdom exists because we have made it so and made it the best of all possible kingdoms, the Lutheran responds:

"I am indeed loyal to you, but not because of all the things you so pride yourself on. I am loyal and submit to you because, whether you know it or not, or acknowledge it or not, you have been raised up by God as my particular regime." The Lutheran thus can and should be the best and most loyal citizen with his body, but must deny to any ideological regime the one thing it craves: assurance that its ideology is the true solution of the "regime question."

Regimes rise and fall from God. The errors of some are obvious, of others less so. To see the ruins of the past is to see God's judgment on all regimes, that He overthrows just what is most flourishing and strong. In face of this judgment it is not our place to jeer and mock as the Edomites did over the ruins of Zion (see the prophet Obadiah). Still less is it our place to attempt to reverse the judgments of God and battle His providences and set up again what He has thrown down. Our place as we serve the kingdom God has given us, is to be silent, remember our father and mother's kingdom, and with fear and trembling place our confidence in God alone. Why remember our father and mother's kingdom? Because whatever the particular greater or lesser faults of this world's kingdoms, in the end they fall for one reason: they are flesh and all flesh is grass.