After all the praise that my Monarchy post got, I started to suspect that people hadn’t really got the point. And while I am quite proud of it as a piece of storytelling, I wasn’t praising monarchy as a system or anything like that. My suspicion was confirmed when Habsburgian transhumanist monarchist Michael Anissimov linked to the post in Twitter. Well if he liked it I’m sure I didn’t make my point clear.
The point of the story was that the Japanese monarchy is a sham, and has been so for 13/14 of its history. Actual imperial rule lasted, at most, 100 years, after which it was co-opted by the Fujiwaras, the Heikes, the Genjis, and so on. The fact that the Imperial family was never actually deposed Chinese style has more to do with the ineptitude of the early shoguns and sheer inertia later.
Now one might make the point that even if the official monarchy was a sham, to the extent that the shoguns exerted personal rule they were running a monarchy themselves. Which is quite true. What’s amusing is that the pattern of takeover of political power by the father in law not only happened to the Emperor himself, many shoguns also fell into it. So the Emperor loses actual rule to the Genji shogun, who is himself a puppet of his Hojo father in law. This puppetry chain never went further than two links though. But anyway, yes of course the shoguns were monarchs too, and the Tokugawas run a very real monarchy for 250 years.
What’s ironic is that while the Tokugawas were monarchs by right of conquest, and run the best unified administration Japan had never seen, that didn’t help their legitimacy in the long run. In the end, the national studies scholars ended up arguing that Japan only had one legitimate monarch which was the imperial family, the Tokugawas were usurpers inasmuch as they ruled in place of the emperor, so the best monarchs that Japan had ever had were evil usurpers and had to go. Funny thing is after the Meiji revolution which ostensibly was started in order to restore personal rule by the Emperor, the system that resulted was a broad oligarchy where not only the Emperor didn’t have personal rule, but monarchy as a system ceased to function. The revolution was led by the peripheral provinces of Satsuma and Choshu, but not by their feudal lords; it was a broad movement mostly led by junior samurais. So they installed a Privy Council with the elders of the revolution, told the Emperor what to do, and got themselves busy monopolizing the army and bureaucracy.
The restoration of monarchy of 1868 was actually the abolition of monarchy. Of course that didn’t go unnoticed, but the thing is nobody in Japan has never argued for monarchy per se. Japan has and has never had monarchists. What they have is legitimists. Nobody ever thought that the young samurais should have put their feudal lord as the shogun, and run the government as a monarchy. No, to the extent that the Emperor was legally the seat of sovereignty and the commander of the armed forces, the actual constitution of the government was of no concern. The only real problem was that the Emperor didn’t actually have the reins of power.
Funny thing is that the revolutionary elders couldn’t hold to power that long, as resentment to exclusive rule by a bunch of provincials was widely resented. So they were forced to set up a parliamentary system, and elections. The franchise was tiny at the beginning, but as you might suspect it grew rapidly, and Japan had universal suffrage by 1928. The revolutionary elders held to their Privy Council dearly, but eventually they died, and once they did, the government ceased to be controlled by this noble oligarchy, and political parties were formed. 4 decades after the glorious revolution which restored power to the legitimate emperor, not only had Japan abolished monarchy, it had an electoral system of political parties running the country. How the hell did that happen?
There was no wide consensus in Japan towards the moral necessity of parliamentary politics, elections were the result of internal conflicts among the elite, and the official ideology of the country kept on being that Japan was a glorious monarchy under the personal rule of the great Emperor descended from heaven. Yet somehow they got free press, political parties, universal suffrage and massive pork distribution to the parties’ patronage networks. All this happened against the official and popular ideology of the country. How did this happen? The Jews! No, no Jews in Japan. It just happened, for many reasons which are enough to fill many books, and of course there’s a large bibliography on the subject. Now the vast majority of people can’t care less about the dissonance between the written Constitution and the actual constitution. But there’s always someone who’s going to notice that something looks fishy.
In Japan the focus of discontent was the army. The army was full of overzealous dim kids who had their head filled with propaganda on boundless loyalty to his majesty son of the Goddess. And when you’re being asked to die for this ideal, well you might as well take it seriously. And so the movement grew, also fueled by many popular intellectuals in the big universities. Their goal was again not restoration of monarchy qua superior political arrangement. They were legitimists, and wanted personal rule by His Majesty. Starting in the 30s they made a lot of noise, and in 1936 they attempted a massive coup, killed a bunch of millionaires and government ministers, and asked the Emperor to stand for them and assume power.
The coup itself was quite successful, and the Emperor (Hirohito by then) could plausibly have joined the coup leaders and change the system. But he didn’t, and his rationale was one of the best comebacks in 20th century history. “They want me to assume personal rule? They killed my dear ministers! I want nothing to do with this people, call whoever’s in charge and crackdown the coup as fast as possible.”
Point being that the law says the Emperor already has personal rule, he just happens to appoint ministers to help him with the task. The coupists had killed the dear ministers he had personally appointed to run his country! Hirohito was many things but he wasn’t stupid. The coupists were instantly discouraged, the crackdown proceeded nicely, and those who weren’t apprehended obediently killed themselves.
The lesson here is that Hirohito could have got personal rule but he didn’t want it. Japan had a massive state apparatus to promote monarchy as the heavenly mode of government, but the heavenly ruler himself couldn’t be bothered to uphold this. Which of course was a very smart move on his part. Hirohito got to enjoy his sham monarchy until his death in 1989 (!), and he even got to visit the USA, quite a feat after the ruckus of WW2. After his visit he run the first press conference ever, on which he had to answer an untactful question about the Hiroshima bombings. Hirohito had the nerve to say: “Well these things happen during wars, and while I’m sorry about the people in Hiroshima, I think it couldn’t be helped.” You can see how nervous he got when answering it. “Ehm… uhm… well…”. By the way the latter half of the clip is about an unrelated question, he isn’t laughing about the nuke.
I guess my point is that Monarchy doesn’t happen because you want it to happen. Japan very much wanted it to happen, but it didn’t. One part of it is that there are some structural prerequisites for monarchical rule, say the size of government, military technology and whatnot, and modernity seems not to be very conducive to autocratic rule. And the second point is that many monarchs just can’t be bothered to rule themselves. Recently there is a lot of talk about sociopathy, and how some people are innately driven by their personalities to seek power to a quite irrational degree. Well it follows that not everyone seeks power, and many monarchs don’t. It’s hard enough to keep power when you want it, imagine when you don’t even want it. This of course isn’t just a problem of modernity, although the conveniences of modern life for non-kings probably make it worse. But monarchs not bothering being monarchs are a very old problem.
Let me introduce another lecture from the Chinese history series by Yuan Tengfei.
I’m always being misunderstood. People say I hate the Ming Dynasty. That’s a huge misunderstanding. It’s not that I don’t like the Ming Dynasty. What I don’t like are the Ming emperors. Why? As I said earlier, the Ming Dynasty is full of both tyrants and lousy emperors.
During the Ming Dynasty, which lasted 276 years, emperors didn’t attend court even once during 121 years. Emperors didn’t attend court for almost half the dynasty. They had their own hobbies. And these hobbies of theirs can hardly be said to be very sophisticated. A majority of the emperors were lewd and vicious. Awful in both arms and letters.
Say the first horrible emperor, Zhengde. There’s a famous play now on his life. Well this fucker was bored in his palace, so he went out often. He was actually fooling around, seducing people’s daughters and sisters. The Zhengde emperor ruled for 10 years. What he liked most was to go fooling around. In Tiananmen there are this two columns, with two weird animals on top. It’s kinda like a dragon and a lion mixed, anyway this thing’s called Hou. These Hou’s have names: one is “hope lord leaves”, the other is “hope lord returns”. If the Emperor is constantly out of palace, doesn’t attend to the administration, “hope lord returns” starts to cry. “Come back boss, the palace needs you, lots of stuff to do”. If the Emperor is constantly in the palace, fooling around with his concubines, doesn’t know of the hardship of his subjects, and the big problems of his land, then “hope lord leaves” cries. “Boss, come out man, the people are suffering, stop fooling around.”
During the Ming Dynasty these two Hous were extremely busy. This one cries, then the other one, alternating like crazy. In the Zhengde era, I suspect that “hope lord returns” cried so much it lost his voice. The Emperor was constantly out. Thing is when the Emperor goes out he has to organize security, has to file for it. The Emperor thought it was a hassle, so he disguised and left without asking. Once he left for the North, hearing that in Datong there are lots of hotties. No idea, but anyway, all he did was going out in disguise and looking for women. Rumor has it he was once detained and sent to the county sheriff. I’ve no idea how he explained who he was to the county sheriff. “I am the Zhengde Emperor”. “Your Majesty, aren’t you satisfied with all your concubines? You come out to seduce women?” He also died doing that, he was fooling around with women and fell into some body of water, they picked him up but he got a fever and died at 30.
So he was constantly fooling with women. He also had one other hobby, he liked to play war. He didn’t like to wage war, he liked to play war. They even gave him the temple name “Martial Emperor”. He often went around the Great Wall with a small team of armored soldiers. If they found some Mongolians, the armored soldiers would run into them and kill them. Victory in battle! No matter that those weren’t Mongolian soldiers, just some herders. Who cares.
And he also felt his title, “Emperor” was too short. Too boring. If you see the titles of ancient ministers, they’re all very long. Some had even 200 letters. Just like today, “consultant to the State Council, March 8 red banner, awarded May 1st workers price, especial expert recognized by State Council”. Back then they had all their titles together, if they printed a name-card they’d have needed an A4 sized paper, both sides. Look at all the titles of Li Hongzhang, it never ends.
The Emperor really envied that. All those names, damn that sounds fun. But I only got one, “Emperor”. Not cool. I’ll give myself a title. I’ll be “Pacifier Lord Martial General”. And some commandery lord or something. The ministers couldn’t stop laughing. He also changed his name. He had a name, Zhu Houzhao, but he changed it to “Zhu Shou 朱寿”. [Pun is the surname Zhu 朱, which means Crimson, is homophonous with 猪, meaning pig. And Shou 寿 means "long lived", is homophonous with 瘦, meaning skinny]. Pigs should be fat, but he was a skinny pig.
The Ministers were just ashamed. Emperors are lords. Generals are subjects. You can’t be both. You can’t call your mother in law dear sister. It doesn’t work like that. Can you just stop? Why would you be a general anyway. The Emperor answered “I cut an enemy officer’s head among millions of soldiers.” The Ministers just had it. “Why don’t you try then, huh. Even the Dynasty founder didn’t brag about that. Let’s see if you can make it.” So the Emperor showed them what he meant by cutting an enemy officer head among millions of soldiers.
So in a huge square, a thousand Ming soldiers, sabres in hand, bows stretched, surrounding a Mongolian prisoner, tied to a horse. The Emperor rushed in, and cut his head off in one blow. This was “cut an officer’s head among millions of soldiers”. Leaving aside if this guy was an officer, even if he was you’re fucking tying him. And this millions of soldiers are your soldiers. So the Emperor comes in and bahm, head cut in one blow. “You see, awesome huh? That’s why I’m a general. At least I can handle a sabre.”
Just fucking ridiculous. He died young after 10 years. The evil emperor left no issue, so they grabbed his cousin to succeed him. The Jiajing emperor. This one was even more awesome. A professional Daoist priest. He ruled for 45 years, second longest of the dynasty. He succeeded at 15, lasted 45 years. 30 years he didn’t attend court. What was he doing? Daoist alchemy! Elixir of immortality. All day making elixirs in the palace. One year worth of Alchemy ingredients was 200,000 silver taels. You can’t make elixirs burning wood, you gotta burn wax, white wax. All day making elixirs. When meeting his ministers he wore Daoist attire. You call him “Your Majesty” and he gets angry. They had to call him “True Man“. That made him happy.
He also didn’t bother with the government. In the rare case he did, nobody could understand his edicts. Why? Heavenly Script! The Emperor was a True Man. If you can understand what he says he’s not a True Man anymore. His edicts were all extremely short. If you could understand what it said, the Emperor thought your heart was in tune with the True Man. Why do you think in that era the great evil minister Yan Song grabbed power? That’s because he could guess what the Emperor meant.
For example there was a minister who received an edict from the Emperor. Said:” What do your teeth and virtue have in common?”. The minister was baffled. Oh damn what does it mean? What to do? Go ask Mr. Yan, he’s the only one who can guess this stuff. Of course Minister Yan doesn’t do it for free. He takes his translation fee. With these little fees he got to be immensely rich. Yan Song took a look at the scroll and said: “The Emperor is asking you who is the oldest of you and Wang De (德 De=virtue)”. Teeth being code for growing old.
Next day this minister goes to the Emperor and tells him the whole story of him and Wang De, who’s the oldest, who was born in what month and all that. The Emperor was very happy, hey, you can read Heavenly Script? Promoted! Why was he able to read it? Minister Yan taught me. Can he not be loyal to Minister Yan? That’s the kind of lousy emperor he was.
When he died, his son took the crown. Longqing Emperor, actually quite good, one of the few good emperors of the Ming Dynasty. Unfortunately he wasn’t lucky, after 7 years he died. The Wanli Emperor succeeded. The Wanli emperor got the throne at 10 years old, was 48 years ruling, longest emperor of the dynasty. The Ming Dynasty perished at the hands of Wanli. During 48 years he didn’t attend court for 30 years, and it is said he only left the Forbidden Palace once in all this time. Where did he go? Changping, the imperial tombs. He went to check his own tomb. A great heart he had. Generally speaking, the imperial tomb can’t be finished while the Emperor lives. If you finish it, it’s like the handing over of the keys, you can come in and live there. Not very appropriate. But the Emperor’s tomb was finished and he went himself, and took people to go see it! Very happy he was. “Very nice, very nice, I’ll live here then!” Then he had a massive feast in the palace. Very big heart.
He never left the palace, day after day hoarding money and fooling around with the concubines, arguing with the ministers. After so long he finally dies, and his son the Taichang Emperor succeeds. 29 days and he dies. Probably the shortest lived emperor in the history of China. He probably got too excited. “About time! My father took 48 years to kick the bucket. At last I get the throne. Let’s get to choose concubines, fast!”. Dead in 29 days. After he died, his son succeeded, the Tianqi Emperor.
Now this guy was something. Famous carpenter. Normally emperors go to court. He went to his workshop, saw and axe. The Emperor’s bed and throne were all made by himself. Helping reduce the burden of his subjects, day after day making models of the palace. It is said that his skills were so good, he once made a folding screen, very high quality one. He made it and called an eunuch, and ordered him to go out and sell it for 10,000 taels of silver, no bargaining. So the eunuch grabs the screen and goes out, in less than 2 hours he comes back with a note for 10,000 taels. Which means the stuff was real good.
So imagine if the guy is busy every day doing this sort of stuff, can he bother ruling the country? And so the great evil eunuch Wei Zhongxian grabbed power. He monopolized power, even killed the concubines of the emperor and their children. The Emperor didn’t give a shit, he was busy all day in his little kingdom of art.
When he died after 7 years, his brother the Chongzhen Emperor succeeded. The 17 years of Chongzhen were really hard. He skimped on food and sleep, sleeping at 12, waking at 3 or 4 to deal with governing the country. But as they say, when the building is falling, you can’t support it with one column. Later when Li Zicheng conquered Beijing, the Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself at Mei Shan, he was frustrated. “I didn’t deserve to see the dynasty fall! I’m not like Liu Shan of the Shu, or Yang of the Sui. I did all the best I could!” Well tough luck, it’s a pity he had to have all those son of a bitch ancestors he had. And so the Chongzhen Emperor, while doing his best, saw his dynasty fall, gathering the compassion of many.
If you’ve read the previous posts on this series, you will remember that the Ming Dynasty saw the strengthening of imperial power by abolishing the figure of Chancellor, giving the Emperor himself the duty to administer the government directly. Which surely must have fit Zhu Yuanzhang and his direct successors. But eventually some Emperors stopped bothering, and instead of having a proper government to fall back in, what happened is that a random minister or eunuch would grab power for himself. Which isn’t that different from having the Chancellor abuse his powers anyway. This tells you that the system doesn’t matter, the law doesn’t matter. As Moldbug said, a Constitution is either false, if it doesn’t reflect the actual working of government, or superfluous if it does. As it happens, all Constitutions are first superfluous, then false, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Now of course you might say that it doesn’t matter if monarchs are real or not, what matters is that having a monarchy, even if it’s a sham and it doesn’t hold real power, has X benefit because of the effects of the institution on the national narrative, promoting an ethos of loyalty or whatever. If you really think that you need to go for a trip to the UK. Or read the Daily Mail for a week.