Thursday, January 11, 2007

(Part of) Where I Was Coming From on the Last Post

So what was I trying to say here about the execution of Saddam Hussein? At the most general, that the objectors have no sense of the importance of time in judging political actions. That ways and means which work wonderfully in one time will lead to disaster if applied at another, and that the maxims that must be internalized to maintain a state are fatal to those attempting to establish a state.

Sima Qian 司馬遷 ( also written Ssu-ma Ch'ien, pronounced roughly suh-mah chih-yen) said this in a hundred different ways in his wonderful Records of the Grand Historian, and he did it with a light touch; none of my heavy breathing and straining for effect.

In his chapter 99, he is telling the story of Shusun Tong 叔孫通, who served Liu Bang 劉邦 (the emperor Gaozu 漢高祖), who in the chaos and rebellions that marked the end of the Qin dynasty found his way from being a peasant to being the founder of the Han dynasty.

When Shusun Tong surrendered to the king of Han [the future Emperor Gaozu of China's first imperial dynasty], he was accompanied by over 100 Classicists* who had been studying under him. However, he did not recommend any of them to the king, but instead spent his time recommending all sorts of men who had originally been outlaws or ruffians. His disciples began to curse him behind his back, saying "Here we have served the master for a number of years until at last we are lucky enough to surrender and join the forces of the king of Han. But now, instead of recommending us for positions, he spends all his time recommending a bunch of gangsters! What sort of behavior is this?"

Shusun Tong got word of what they were saying, and told them, "The king of Han is at the moment busy dodging arrows and missiles in a struggle for control of the world. What could a lot of scholars like you do in such a fight? Therefore I have first recommended the sort of men who can cut off the heads of enemy generals and seize their pennants. Wait a while! I won't forget you!

The king of Han made Shusun Tong an erudite and awarded him the title of lord of Jisi. In the fifth year of the Han dynasty, after the entire empire had been conquered, the nobles joined at Dingdao in conferring upon the king of Han the title of Supreme Emperor, and Shusun Tong arranged the ceremony and titles to be used. [Early Chinese Classicists saw public ritual and decorum as both vital to government and the area in which they were the experts.] The emperor completely did away with the elaborate and irksome ritual which the Qin [the previous tyrannical dynasty] had followed and greatly simplified the rules of the court. His followers and ministers, however, were given to drinking and wrangling over their respective achievements, some shouting wildly in their drunkenness, others drawing their swords and hacking at the pillars of the palace, so that Emperor Gaozu worried about their behavior. Shusun Tong knew that the emperor was becoming increasingly disgusted by the situation, and so he spoke to him about it. "Classicists" he said, "are not much use when one is marching to conquest, but they can be of help in keeping what has already been won. I beg to summon some of the scholars of Lu [the homeland of Confucius, which still had the best reputation in Classical studies] who can join with my disciples in drawing up a ritual for the court. . . .

"You may try and see what you can do," replied the emperor. "But make it easy to learn! Keep in mind that it must be the sort of thing I can learn!"

Shusun Tong accordingly went as an envoy to summon some thirty or more scholars of Lu. Two of the Lu scholars, however, refused to come. "You have served close to ten different masters," they replied, "and with each of them you have gained trust and honor simply by flattering them to their faces. Now the world has justbeen set at peace, the dead have not been properly buried, and the wounded have not risen from their beds, and yet you wish to set up rites and music for the new dynasty. But rites and musci can only be set up after a dynasty has accumulated virtue for a period of a hundred years. We could never bring ourselves to take part in what you are doing, for what you are doing is not in accord with the ways of antiquity. We will never go! Now go away and do not defile us any longer!"

"True pig-headed Classicists you are, indeed!" said Shusun Tong, laughing. "You do not know that the times have changed!"

After a month of practice the ceremonies were conducted, with the officials drawn up in strict ranks, the emperor arriving on a litter, blessings from the nobles, ritual wine, and toasts:

Anyone who did not perform the ceremony correctly was promptly pulled out of line and expelled from the hall. During the drinking which followed the formal audience there was no one who dared to quarrel or misbehave in the least. [Imagine that!] With this, Emperor Gaozu announced, "Today for the first time I realize how exalted a thing it is to be an emperor!" He appointed Shusun Tong his master of ritual and awarded him 500 catties of gold.

(from Sima Qian, trans. Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I: pp. 241-244.)

Of course the "pig-headed Classicists" had their own eloquent spokesmen, such as Ouyang Xiu, writing a 1,000 years later who in making his biography of the figure of Feng Dao eloquently denounced a man quite like Shusun Tong as a lubricious hypocrite. But I'll present Ouyang Xiu and Feng Dao another time . . .

*This is my preferred rendition for Watson's "Confucian scholars." At least at this time, they were students not so much of the works of Confucius himself, but of the five Classics held to date from well before Confucius's time. Think of these works as the Torah, Confucius and Mencius as Rabbis Hillel and Akiva, and the "Classicists" as Chinese-style Talmudists and you've basically got it. The main difference was that because China remained politically independent, the Chinese Classicists still read their Classics as basically political, state-building documents. So these "Talmudists" were supposed to actually help build a real empire and bring order to the real world.

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