Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wei Xiang's Considerations on War and Monstrous Crimes

During the Fundamental Repose 元康 years (65-62 BC) the Huns* 匈奴 sent some of their armed men to attack the Hangarrison and military farm in Kioshi 車師**, but were unable to force a surrender. The emperor† consulted with the general of the rear Zhao Chongguo 趙充國 and others, hoping to take advantage of the apparent weakness of the Hun kingdom by sending a force of men to attack the western portion of their territory and intimidating them from making further trouble for the regions west of China. Wei Xiang‡ 魏相 , however, submitted a letter to the throne opposing such a plan of action and saying:

"I have heard that military action which is designed to rectify disorder and punish violence is called a campaign of righteousness; such a campaign is the mark of a true king. Action and arises unavoidably when an enemy launches an attack against one's own forces is called a campaign of response; such a campaign will be victorious. An action which arises from petty wrangling and spite, from ire and vexation that can no longer be restrained, is called a campaign of anger, and such a campaign will end in failure. An action which has as its object the exploitation of someone else's land or treasures is called a campaign of greed and it will face defeat. An action in which one party, relying upon the superior size of its territory and boasting of the large number of its people, sets out to overawe its enemy by a show of force is called a campaign of arrogance, and it is doomed to annihilation. These five categories are not merely something contrived by men but have their basis in the Way of Heaven.

"In recent times the Huns have consistently manifested a spirit of good will, immediately returning to China any subjects the Han who happened to fall into their hands and refraining from violations of the border. Although there has been a scuffle with the garrison troops of Kyoshi, it is scarcely important enough even to merit notice. And yet now I hear that the various generals are planning to call out troops and move into Hun territory. Ignorant as I am, I am at a loss to know what name to assign to a campaign such as this!

"The border regions these days are beset by poverty and want, father and son sharing their pelts of lamb and dog, eating the seeds of grasses and herbes, ever fearful that there will not be enough to sustain life. It would be hard in such a time to launch a military campaign. They say that war is always followed by a year of dearth -- this is because the anguished and suffering spirits of people bring injury to the harmony of yin and yang. Thus, although the troops that march forth may win victory, there is bound to be sorrow and suffering in its wake, and this suffering, I fear, will bring about unusual occurences such as natural calamities and disasters.

"These days there are many men serving as governors of provinces or prime ministers of vassal kingdoms who are not fitted for their jobs; the customs and folkways have grown frivolous and corrupt, and flood and drought visit us without respite. According to the statistics for the past year, there was a total of two hundred and twenty cases of sons or younger brothers who murdered their fathers or elder brothers, or wives who murdered their husbands. If I may say so, thi is an 'unusual occurence' of far from petty proportions. Yet those who attend Your Majesty fail to worry about this and instead propose to call out trops to repay some trifling grudge against some far-off barbarians. This is perhaps what Confucius 孔子 meant when he said, 'I suspect that the threat to the Jisun 季孫 family lies not in Zhuanyu 顓臾 but within its own screens and walls.'§ I hope that Your Majesty will consult with the marquis of Pingchang 平昌侯, the marquis of Lechang 樂昌侯, the marquis of Ping'en 平恩侯, and other knowledgeable persons in careful deliberation before reaching a final decision."

The emperor heeded his advice and abandoned plans for an expedition against the Hun kingdom.

From the Han shu 漢書 of Ban Gu 班固, chapter 74. Translation (with a few modifications) from Burton Watson, from his Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han Dynasty by Pan Ku, pp. 178-180.

*In Chinese, Xiongnu. Recent research by Etienne de la Vaissiere has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that in name at least the Xiongnu are the equivalent of the later Huns of India, Eastern Europe, and Hungary. See his "Huns et Xiongnu," Central Asiatic Journal 49 (2005), 3-26.
**Roughly the area of modern Turpan/Turfan in Xinjiang, then as now, ruled by China, but mostly not Chinese ethnically.
†Emperor Xuan of the Han, who had barely escaped death in his great-grandfather Emperor Wu's purges, began his life as a commoner, and become along with Emperor Wen the best emperor of the Han dynasty.
‡Then prime Minister of the realm.
§Analects xvi:1. The Jisun, a very powerful ministerial family of the ancient duchy of Lu was preparing to attack the tiny state of Zhuanyu, which it claimed was a threat to its power. (Note the text I've cited uses the older transcription system.)

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