Don’t believe the hype: learning Chinese is hard. Very hard. It’s not for every one. Pronunciation is hard, grammar isn’t as easy as often said, characters are insane, and every city has its own dialect or outright different language which makes it very hard to understand anything unless people actually want you to understand.
And what makes it harder of all is that there’s just so little interesting content in Mandarin. I know people who learned German to read Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer himself is said to have learned Spanish in his old age to be able to read Calderón de la Barca’s plays. Manga and videogames have motivated many to learn Japanese.
But what do you learn Mandarin with? Mandarin prose itself is quite recent, with 18th century Dream of the Red Chamber becoming an unofficial standard, which saw an explosion of creativity in the Republican era. But the Communists killed that movement right after assuming power in 1949, so the only decent literature in Mandarin is all compressed in about 30 years. Taiwan and Hong Kong have not picked up the slack, so decent content in Mandarin pretty much died. And it can barely be said to have recovered by now, even after 30 years of opening.
I eventually found my killer app (TV soap operas and Wang Shuo), and through them developed a deep appreciation towards the Beijing dialect. It has a bad rep with Chinese intellectuals for having a Manchu superstrate and being a language of idle vagrants and swindlers who can’t stop talk. But that’s the beauty of it, Beijing people talk a lot, talk fast, and they constantly spout classical idioms one after the other to compete on awesomeness.
Still, not living there and having more or less consumed all the decent content that I could found (content from the last 10 years has declined precipitously in quality), my Chinese had started to falter again. So I was extremely happy to find a new killer app with which to practice, one that also suited my more adult intellectual leanings. I found Yuan Tengfei. My Mandarin has improved 1 year worth of practice just by watching his clips for a week.
Mr. Yuan is a high school history professor in Beijing. He got famous when recordings of his classes went viral online. First because he’s hilarious and awesome at the same time. He explains Chinese and World history with superb detail while translating it to colloquial and humorous Beijing vernacular. And he is also opinionated and outspoken. His popularity went out of the roof when his lectures on the Mao Zedong era went public, where he openly calls Mao a murderous butcher, who has killed more Chinese than all foreign devils combined.
You’d think they’d grabbed the guy and sent him to a Gulag for good. For a while he went silent, and we all thought the worse. But not long later the guy came back, and on national TV! Saner minds prevailed and now the guy has his own show on national TV. And you can see he’s not having a hard time; since he got his new gig he’s gained at least 30 pounds.
He has more than a thousand videos in his Youtube channel, so there’s enough material there to keep you busy for years. I’ll like to show one of his most recent pieces, in which he briefly explains how life was the people in the power structure in Imperial China.
So let me translate the first clip: Chancellors.
Today we’re going to talk about how stressful is the life of a Chancellor.
The job of a Chancellor ain’t easy. Why? Well because in Ancient Despotism, the state is a family state. Who owns the state? The Emperor’s family. And that’s why the Emperor’s job is how to make sure he doesn’t lose his family’s estate.
The Emperor has to detect all potential threats to his rule, and cut them before they get big. Why are Chancellors a threat to Emperors? The position of Chancellor was started by the First Emperor of Qin after unifying China. The Han Dynasty also kept the Qin system in place. According to the history books, the job of the Chancellor was to assist the Emperor and help him in all matters. He’s in charge of everything!
And in the Qin and Han dynasties, there’s only one Chancellor, so he had a lot of power. He had the right to dismiss Imperial edicts! If the Chancellor didn’t agree with an Imperial edict, say he grabs the scroll and says: “Nope, I don’t agree with this”. He rolls back again and returns it. And he could also write his own opinions on the back of the scroll. Say, he gets a scroll and writes: “We need to have public healthcare, and the state should pay for old-age pensions. It’s not good that only civil servants have health insurance, the people might revolt.” So they got the scroll, write their own opinions and returned it to the Emperor.
Generally whatever the Chancellor decided had to be done, was done. And when the Chancellor went to court, like when the Emperor publishes his edicts in front of everyone, well then it’s just awesome. If you’ve seen the movie “Red Cliff”, when Cao Cao meets the Emperor, that’s quite accurate. The Chancellor had 3 privileges. He could carry a sword in court and wear shoes. Before the Tang Dynasty, people in China sit on the floor like the Koreans and Japanese today. The floor was covered by mats, so you had to take your shoes off. But the Chancellor didn’t; he wore his shoes and carry his sword.
Second privilege is the Chancellor doesn’t bow. The Emperor sits on his throne, everyone else is bowing down like this, but the Chancellor doesn’t need to bow. He can walk with swag. And the third privilege: he doesn’t call his own name. The ancient Chinese called their own name as a way of showing humility. You used your name with your teachers, your parents, with your boss. But if you call me by my name I’d beat you up. Won’t talk to you ever again. You can’t call me by my name, you have to use my courtesy name.
So most people when talking to the Emperor would use their own names, but the Chancellor doesn’t. He refers to himself as “minister”, and that’s it. That’s his special treatment. So the Chancellor had all this power, and this elevated treatment, so of course there were many “power Chancellors”, Chancellors who just want to grab power. Everybody knows the famous ones, Wang Mang, Cao Cao. Later during the Southern and Northern dynasties, it was insane. Every Chancellor out there was usurping the throne. If you were a Chancellor and didn’t grab the throne for yourself, the commoners would get worried. “What, no change of Dynasty yet? Come on, just do it, with a new Dynasty our salaries might rise, taxes can fall, at least an amnesty, right?”
So that’s why at the end of the Southern and Northern dynasties, the last usurper of all, Yang Jian, who was the maternal grandfather of the Northern Zhou Emperor, took the throne for himself and established the Sui Dynasty. Afterwards Yang Jian thought to himself: “Why did I get to be Emperor? Because I was the Chancellor. I had a lot of power. So we must make sure that this doesn’t happen again to my descendants. How? Well the problem is there’s only one Chancellor. So I’ll make a whole bunch of them. This way they can check and balance each other.”
And so he divided the government in three departments: the Chancellery. the Secretariat, and State Affairs. The chiefs and vice-chiefs of every department all had the treatment of Chancellor. Each department had a chief and 2 vice-chiefs, so 3 by 3, 9 Chancellors. Now the power of the Chancellors was scattered, so no chance of a rebellion. One Chancellor had become a bunch of them.
Later during the Song Dynasty, the Emperor started to think again. Yes we changed one Chancellor into a bunch, but they still have a lot of power. Why? Because they handle everything. Hop on a horse, lead the army, hop down form a horse, they lead the people. Generals outside, ministers inside. They also directed the wars! The cabinet is leading the army. That’s no good. So I’ll grab the most important powers, the military and the treasury, and take them away from the Chancellors. So we set a Ministry of Defence, and a Treasury Department, so the Chancellors can’t lead an army, and don’t have access to the Treasury either.
First the Chancellor was made into a bunch, then they took away the military and the money; so they had little left. That’s how little by little, the threat that the Chancellors represented decreased until they could never threaten anyone again. This system was already very good, but…
The Ming Dynasty founder, the Hongwu Emperor came up. Zhu Yuanzhang [his name], where’d he come from? Even worse than Liu Bang, at least Liu Bang had been a street patrol officer. But Zhu Yuanzhang during the previous Dynasty was a beggar! His name was Zhu Double Eight, his father was Zhu Five Four! His grandpa was Zhu New Year. Hear those names and you know what kind of cultural level the family had. So this man had come from the very lowest rung of society, up into heaven. This kind of man values extremely highly the power he has grabbed in his hands. It didn’t come easily.
So aren’t the Chancellors the biggest threat to the Emperor? OK, abolished, get out. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, there were no Chancellors. The Emperor assumed the office themselves. “I’m the Chancellor. All power in one person, I lord over my ministers.” Thing is this little fucker got exhausted. 300 issues to deal with every day. Do the math. So when some scroll came to court which was too long, he’d just beat the author. Thing he’s just too busy, can’t listen to everything. One time this official sent a scroll 17,000 letters long. “Who the hell do you think I am, is this a fucking novel or what. Beat him! So they started beating the poor guy while the Emperor listened to the text, which made a lot of sense actually. So after a while the Emperor called for the guy to be brought up, but they’d already wasted him.
Zhu Yuanzhang was so damn twisted, he didn’t trust anyone. He was exhausted. He’d just want everyone to stay put, nicely obedient, so everything would be easy. So he set up a spy operation, to spy on his ministers. They watched everything. One example: there was this official at the Ministry of Personnel, called Qian. One day the Emperor called him to court, and asked him: “What did you do yesterday night?”.
Qian answered that with he was playing cards with some colleagues.
“Cards huh. Who were you playing with?”
“Some colleagues, Mr. Yang, Mr. Sun, Mr. Yu, playing the 4 of us.”
“So who won then?”
“Thing is we were playing but then we realized that we were missing one card, so we couldn’t go on playing.”
Zhu Yuanzhang nodded, and said “Good, you’re an honest man.” Then he reached into his sleeve and took a playing card. “Is this the card you were missing?”
This was the middle of winter, but little Qian’s sweat was pouring out of his clothes. Now you don’t know which of the three playing pals is a spy! If during yesterday’s game someone said something critical of the Emperor, you’re a dead man.
So one of the tragedies of Chinese history is that the power of the Emperor constantly grew, while the power of the ministers constantly fell. Before the Song dynasty, the ministers discussed all matters together, and ruled as a group. But during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, autocracy become stronger, and the relation between the Ruler and his ministers became that of an Owner and his slaves.
When you watch historical soap operas, you can see He Shen (a famous Manchu minister in the Qing Dynasty), shouting when meeting the emperor: “Your Slave Heshen is here”. Such an important official, but he was still a slave.
So why did China fall into this tragedy? Perhaps it has to do with the ever tighter Autocratic system.
It’s interesting that European history is often taught as a linear narrative where autocracy little by little gives way to further division of power, culminating in the holy democracy where power goes to the people!
But Chinese history went the other way around, showing that there’s no historical imperative showing that power must be dissolved more and more as society progresses. The Qing dynasty was larger, stronger, richer and better governed than any previous one. Yet the Emperor had personal rule of all courtly decisions, and even his brothers had to refer to themselves as “slave” in his presence.
Next chapter is on civil servants, stay tuned.