Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Chinese Monarchy

The international Jewish conspiracy asks for more lectures from Yuan Tengfei, and more they shall have.

I started this series with the lecture on Chancellors, and followed with bureaucrats, because I thought it interesting to show how different the dynamics in China were from the West. China is *the* monarchy, they’ve had deified supreme emperors ruling over tens and hundreds of millions for millennia. Compared to that the monarchies of Europe are pretty much a sham. The Roman Emperors kept their pretenses of being Republican officers for centuries, until the Empire wasn’t even in Rome and didn’t even speak Latin. Later Medieval and Modern monarchs all had to constantly fight and appease their nobles, only to get their head axed, and those fortunate enough to win that battle would soon lose power to the bourgeoisie.

And that’s another funny one, municipal corporations with autonomy rights against the court.  The first Chinese to study European history must have scratched their head hard about that. Nothing of the sort ever existed in China. Nobles weren’t much of a problem even back in the First Empire, and when the Han Dynasty founder, Liu Bang did give noble rights to his brothers, it didn’t take much for his successors to kill them all and stop the experiment. And so the landholding nobility was never an important political force. The absolute power of the monarch was never in question.

Which doesn’t mean there weren’t any politics, despise Moldbug. The political tensions in Chinese history are mostly those inside the Court, that is, the soap opera-ish fights between the Imperial Family, the eunuchs, bureaucrats, generals, empresses, concubines, male relatives of the concubines, etc. There was enough debate, intrigue, backstabbing to make present parliamentary politics really boring in comparison.

But what were the emperors doing all this time? Let’s see Yuan’s lecture. This episode isn’t that good but I might as well do it first to get to the latter ones:

Today we’re gonna talk about: Being Emperor ain’t easy.

These days, many compatriots take their history knowledge from TV series. But these TV series aren’t always accurate. Now a lot of people enjoy these, especially those majestic scenes with the emperor reviewing his ministers. You can tell very easily if an actor has played an emperor or not. Those who have get this awesome feeling, everybody kowtowing at them. But was being an emperor so nice really?

Being an emperor ain’t easy. Since the First Emperor of Qin established that the emperor was the empire, well being the empire means that you 1 guy has to do everything. You think that’s an easy job? It’s extremely tiring. Without to mention those farther back, let’s just see the Qing emperors.

The Qing emperors had a very strict ritual for all they did. First, they woke up at 4 AM. So what if you don’t wake up? Hell I wanna sleep more, I’m feeling lazy today. What if I don’t wake up? You get an eunuch at your door yelling “The sun will soon rise, there is much to manage”. And you can’t just get out and punch the fucker. Yelling is his right given by your ancestors. He’ll go on yelling until you wake up.

So the Emperor wakes up, bathes, gets dressed, what then? Breakfast? Nope, who’s hungry at that time? So it’s reading time. The Emperor wakes up and studies. Kids today complain, Dad goes to work at 8, so he leaves me at school at 6 to study. Well the Emperors did that. The Emperors read first thing in the morning, and spent 2 hours. Reading what? What did the Qing emperors read about? The notes and stories of their ancestors.

Say, the Kangxi emperor. He has to read the stories of his ancestors, but he didn’t have that many. His father Shunzhi, died after 18 years of rule. He may have not spoken that much. But imagine the Yongzheng emperor. Then you’re screwed. His father ruled for 61 years. All he said every day, all the issues he dealt with. What about Qianlong? His father Yongzheng was a professional emperor. Yongzheng was the most hard working emperor in the history of China. The craziest emperor of them all. How crazy? Every year, he would only rest the day of his birthday. In 13 years of rule, he left 18,000,000 characters [divide per 3 and you get a rough equivalent in english words] of handwritten records. Do the math, more than a million characters per year.  More than me and I write best-selling books. And I’m a speaker, I speak and other write down and edit what I spoke. But the Yongzheng emperor was writing. 3-4k characters every day. A normal guy typing 4k characters on a PC gets tired. The Emperor wrote 3-4k with a brush!

You think the Emperor had time every day to think about this or that concubine? He didn’t have time for that. So when you look at the Qing palace and look at all those Travel Records of the Yongzheng emperor, pictures of him fishing, hunting, travelling, why did he had all those pictures made? He really envied that sort of life. He couldn’t do all that. So he got tired, got himself some Daoist potion of eternal life, and died of mercury oxide poisoning.

See? Being an Emperor ain’t easy. 4 AM wake up, then 7 AM there’s morning court session. Meet all military ministers, or any official he wants to talk to. At 9 AM he eats breakfast, 2 PM he has lunch, and that’s it, 2 meals a day. He might get some small bites at night. Every day of an emperor is full of stress, with little time for himself. The Emperor is seldom in his quarters, let alone going out and picking up the ladies. No way. The arrangements were very strict. Everything he did in a day was documented, every word he said was recorded by special bureaucrats.

And say the Emperor says something not very suitable and wants the recorded to omit it. Well he didn’t have that power. Every single word had to be recorded truthfully, to transmit to his descendents, so when his descendents take the throne, they can see how he handled things, step by step. So an Emperor’s day was always very busy.

In TV shows you can always see the characters talking about “going to court”. Now, going to court wasn’t a constant thing. In the Qing era there was court every 10 days. The Emperor didn’t go to court every day. And where was this court thing? Not inside the palace. Everybody’s been to the Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony isn’t that big, is it? All the ministers didn’t fit up there.

So what’d they do? In the Qing era, the Emperor presided over the court on the Gates of Heavenly Purity, outside. The Emperor sat down on the gate, the ministers at the square. So imagine a 35º sauna day. Why did they have court at 7 AM in the morning? Well they’d all die if they did it at noon. They’d boil in their own sweat. So Morning Court was cool in summer, but what about winter? 7 AM in the morning, -30º cold, those days there was no urban heat island thing, no global warming, so it was freezing.

So what’d they do? Just do it. The Emperor had lots of layers of clothes, nice leather coats with fur and stuff, and the ministers had to stay there and listen too. Bureaucrats in old China didn’t have expense accounts. They had to buy their own housing, all expenses had to be paid from their own pockets, including court attire. Nobody gave them to you. If you got money, you wore fur, if you didn’t have money, you wore cotton, if you couldn’t afford cotton we’ll you’re screwed. Anyway the Emperor had all those nice fox tails on him, and you had to be there too in court.

Usually it was 1 court every 10 days, but in the time of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, especially with Kangxi and Qianlong, they had court almost every day. I guess that their ministers didn’t have it easy either. Court every day, busy as hell. Being Emperor was really hard work, nothing awesome or romantic like those TV shows, with the Emperor constantly flirting with the concubines. Where there Emperors who did that? Well yeah. But those lewd Emperors in Chinese histories all had really bad endings. Chinese history has both tyrants and lousy emperors. The tyrants weren’t incompetent, they were quite capable, but used their ability to do bad things. But they did take care of government. Lousy emperors didn’t. Liu Bei’s son is the most typical one.


22 responses to “Chinese Monarchy

  1. Baker January 13, 2014 at 23:01

    > divide per 3 and you get a rough equivalent in english words

    You sure? Classical chinese character count is almost 1:1 to english word count. Even for modern chinese it is closer to 2:1 if I’m doing the translation.

    Emperors of Ming and Qing are abnormalities at the lazy and hardworking extremes. Ming got a bad reputation because it was the start of the steep decline of the Han China [Yuan dynasty didn’t count because it was not Han; IMO Song planted the seed of the decline]. But as a government it was not too shabby. For a centralized state where the Emperors were either peasant-tyrants or hipsters, it maintained a fairly large territory, had an okay military record over 2.5 centuries, and life quality while much worse than Song was better than Qing on average. It eventually fell to the Malthusian trap and corruption, but most long-lived dynasties fell that way anyway. The power dynamic of Ming government was a class of its own.

    Yuan Tengfei was but a high school teacher and has his limitation and bias.

    • Baker January 13, 2014 at 23:36

      Note that Yuan Tengfei made heaps of factual mistakes in his program. His program was optimized for commercial interest, and CCTV generally has a strong bias against Ming and towards Qing [a general phenomenon affecting China and Hong Kong since this is how the education materials are written]. I highly respect him as a brave teacher but he is not qualified to analyze history seriously.

      If you want to write more about Ming and Qing, I suggest you read about the problem of Qing censoring Ming history. eg

      [ source: ]

         这里首先要给一些不熟悉明史的博友补点基础知识。现行的二十五史虽是中国的正史,但以《明史》为最不客观,清代以来存世的明代史料也谬误百出。其原因和满清的皇帝搞文字狱愚民有直接关系。满清的皇帝来自关外,本是明朝的地方政权,但是趁明末一场前所未有的自然灾害,以及其引发的农民起义,这个地方政权的统治者入主了中原。因为建州女真最初人口很少,因此对关内为数众多的人民十分恐惧,于是一边搞剃发易服屠杀,一边搞史料毁灭。清粉们津津乐道的《四库全书》,号称收录的书籍浩如烟海,但史实是,为了编纂这本书,纪晓岚等反 动文人在清廷直接指示下,毁掉了天下大部分华夏典籍,并把剩下的典籍都进行了篡改,原本全部销毁。因此至今中国的中文、历史学者,还要到日本、韩国去找清代之前的史料,国家也不得不动用巨资整理《永乐大典》残卷等文献,费了老大的劲。

      • spandrell January 14, 2014 at 04:22

        I can guess his speaking style means he’s taking his liberties with the material, especially in this particular series. He also often criticizes the Communist government and its official history, which is something to praise.
        Guess I’ll check out this 毛佩琦 dude.

        On your link:


        Come on now. Am I to believe that the Ming didn’t suck and would have lasted 10,000 years if not for some totally contingent natural hazard?

        • James A. Donald January 14, 2014 at 06:48

          Haijin laws, and the collapse of the tax base, indicates that Ming did suck: They were taxing those that it was politically and administratively easy to tax at above the Laffer limit, which practice reliably leads to collapse.

          • spandrell January 14, 2014 at 06:51

            Haijin was motivated by the Wokou, which went on for centuries. The Song didn’t have to deal with that.
            But yeah it’s hard to find much redeeming about the Ming besides them being Han and stopping the Mongols for a while.

            • James A. Donald January 14, 2014 at 08:27

              Haijin was motivated by the Wokou

              The cure for piracy has long been known. Pirates need a pirate port, where they can buy and sell in the confident knowledge that rights to (stolen) property will be respected, where they can repair and refit their ships, where contracts will be enforced (usually with a short length of rope) where captains can choose new crew, and crew can choose new captains. (Pirate ports tend to be orderly, due in part to the extreme severity of law enforcement and the large number of law enforcers. A virgin carrying a bag of gold will have no problems in a pirate port provided she belongs to one of the pirates.)

              So, you send the navy to that pirate port, kill everyone, burn everything.

              That the Ming did not do this was weakness.

              • spandrell January 14, 2014 at 12:43

                Well the Ming had a tough enough time stopping the Samurai land invasion in the 16th century. Invading Japan to kill the pirates was out of the question.

                Even the Qing couldn’t field a proper navy, and commanded the draconian super Haijin, forbidding anyone from living 50 miles from the shore.

                • James A. Donald January 14, 2014 at 18:44

                  Invading Japan to kill the pirates was out of the question

                  To stop pirates, you don’t need to conquer the hinterland, just slaughter and burn the port and then leave.

                  And, if they did not have a navy, should have built one.

              • Baker January 14, 2014 at 19:07

                > To stop pirates, you don’t need to conquer the hinterland, just slaughter and burn the port and then leave.
                And, if they did not have a navy, should have built one.

                If it were that easy, they would have done it. The reason before Haijin was complex.

                During Ming, haijin was ocean-banning rather than sea-banning. Fisherman and shore traders was not much affected.
                Ming defeated Japan’s full scale invasion of Korea with only 1/3 of soldiers. It did have a working navy.

                • James A. Donald January 14, 2014 at 23:27

                  If it were that easy, they would have done it. The reason before Haijin was complex.

                  They had immensely more wealth and people than the pirates. In the past, they used to be able to build ocean going ships. What was stopping them?

        • Baker January 14, 2014 at 12:18

          > Come on now. Am I to believe that the Ming didn’t suck and would have lasted 10,000 years if not for some totally contingent natural hazard?

          What he meant was that the Manchurians would have had no chance of conquering China if Ming had not already been destroyed already. And if not for the drama kings 李自成 and 吳三桂, they would still have had a tough chance.

          Late Ming overlapped with the Little Ice Age which did have a serious impact on agriculture. For a dynasty already at the Malthusian limit with widespread corruption, this was enough to trigger a total collapse.

          • spandrell January 14, 2014 at 12:39

            Well shit happens. Obviously something had to happen for a bunch of Jurchens to be able to conquer the whole thing.
            Fwiw Yuan Tengfei is on the record for saying the late Ming didn’t deserve its tragic end, he just dislikes the imperial family as being uncouth.

        • Baker January 14, 2014 at 15:17

          毛佩琦 is a scholar. For easy reads, try 明朝的那些事儿.

  2. James A. Donald January 14, 2014 at 03:02

    Why did the emperor work so hard, when he could have spent his days lying on a pile of naked concubines watching a troupe of naked concubines dance and sing?

    Well, presumably because if he goofed off, an evil vizier would wind up doing all the work, and emperor would likely wind up dead?

    The extremely decentralized character of the early feudal western monarchies limited this problem. The king did not have too much work to do, and if his power was rather limited a bowshot from the palace, the power of his feudal lords was even more limited within bowshot of the palace.

    Looks like absolute power has a depressing resemblance to hard work.

  3. B January 14, 2014 at 09:59

    Pretty good.

    Running stuff is always hard work, especially when you have big shoes to fill and an audience. It is interesting that the Emperor voluntarily submitted to traditional constraints like not being able to edit the record or hit snooze on the alarm clock eunuch.

  4. Baker January 14, 2014 at 15:11

    Moldbug’s theory of secure king -> prosperity has the problem of not analyzing the side effect of trying to maintain that security, as Chinese history repeatly demonstrated.

    1. To maintain control you must actively execute controlling power -> you must manage everything yourself -> bad management.

    2. To remain powerful you must actively weaken others [strengthening yourself is much harder than weakening others when you are an inherited one in power.] -> social stifling.

    3. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    4. The larger the country and the longer the dynasty, the worse it becomes.

  5. Pingback: The Will To Not Power | Bloody shovel

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