Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Shocking Bull's Eye

(More in occasional snippets from Ouyang Xiu's history of the chaotic tenth century in China in Richard L. Davis's fine translation). Click here for the previous entry). The painting shows a siege from the Japanese invasion of Korea; more here).

Ouyang Xiu's broad argument in his Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, is that disorder in the family and disorder in the state go together. Once begun at the close of the great Tang dynasty by (avoidable) rebellions and disorders, the disorders in family and state reinforced each other until the human condition becomes virtually animalic. Thus the Five Dynasties period between the Tang and the Song (Ouyang Xiu's own dynasty) was a serious cautionary tales. One of the clearest examples and expositions is as follows:

It was AD 937. Ruling North China was Emperor Gaozu of the Jinn dynasty, a general of Shatuo Turkish origin, who had come to power in the wake of an invasion of the Heartland by the Kitans to the north east. One of the regional commanders, Fan Yanguang, rebelled. He appointed a man named Li Yanxun to command the fortress of Weizhou. In response, the emperor sent Yang Guangyuan to siege the city:

Named chief director of [rebel] infantry by Fan Yanguang 范延光, Li Yanxun 李彥珣 was entrusted with the city's defense. Yang Guangyuan, the emperor's commissioner of bandit suppression, knew Yanxun to be a native to the [nearby] city of Xingzhou and that Yanxun's mother was still there. Guangyuan sent a messenger to Xingzhou to retrieve her and bring her in sight of the walls of Weizhou to show Yanxun, hoping to sway him. Yanxun shot and killed her upon with his arrow. Once the chief rebel Yanguang emerged to surrender, the Emperor Gaozu of the Jinn dynasty named Yanxun prefect of Fangzhou. Senior officials insisted that he deserved execution for killing his mother, yet Emperor Gaozu argued that an amnesty order had been issued [to all the rebels in exchange for their surrender] and his credibility could not be compromised. Yanxun was later executed for bribery.

We Woefully Lament: Human nature requires prudence with the familiar. Therefore the Prophet/Lawgiver*, a man steeped in benevolence and righteousness, exudes devotion without sloth and moderation without compulsion in the teaching of others. He aspires to acquaint the people gradually with virtues for purposes of converting them, familiarity over the long haul fostering good habits. The common people lack knowledge: accustomed to witnessing good, they accept goodness; accustomed to seeing vice, they accept vice.

The chaos of the Five Dynasties has remote origins. Since the decline of the Tang [which had finally falled thirty years before this] and attendant wars and famine, fathers could not nourish sons and sons could not care for parents. At the onset, it was by mere misfortune that flesh-and-blood kin failed to protect each other, causing rites and rightousness to dissipate by the day, the charity of parents and the compassion of children to wane. After prolonged familiarity with these conditions, an all-pervading breakdown set in, as fathers and sons engaged in villainous acts of mutual destruction.

For the Five Dynasties era, the catastrophe and killings defy description. Human nature makes the love for parents a universal instinct and unfilial conduct a universal abomination. But when Yanxun stretched his bow to shoot an arrow into his mother and Emperor Gaozu acquitted him with a pardon, beyond symbolizing Yanxun's inability to appreciate his actions as abominable, it further shows Gaozu's condoning a deed not deemed perverse. This can scarcely happen except under the weight of bad habits over a long time. In the Analects, Confucius says, "In constitution we are close, in habits far apart." When carried to an extreme, men's hearts do not differ from animals and beasts. Is it not harrowing? Based on the abominable conduct of Yanxun, who acted wilfully with no sense of perversity, or an emperor such as Chu, who severed bonds with his own father, the failure to recognize wrong characterized an entire age (Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, pp. 417-18; Chinese text in 新五代史,卷 51, pp. 580-81).

*Davis's translation here has "Sage" for shengren 聖人. I think "sage" has quite the wrong connotations. The sheng is not just a man who hears and knows the will of Heaven, but one who then announces it to humanity effectively as the right way of life. This can be conceived of in either a more charismatic or a more rationalistic way, but the idea of effectively leading men to follow the instructions and intentions of Heaven and Earth (the understanding of which again can range from virtually God to impersonal nature) is an essential part of the concept. Hence I prefer Prophet or Lawgiver. The term sheng is applied sometimes by Chinese Christians to Jesus and regularly by Chinese Muslims to Muhammad, who is called zhisheng 至聖, the perfected sheng. The greatest of such prophets are the pre-historic kings, and of course Confucius and his successors. At least in theory, however, every emperor is also supposed to be a sage/prophet/lawgiver.

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