Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Monthly Archives: June 2015

Swimming Left

Tim-Cook Ban the flag!

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 1.16.44 AM Yessir

Hey dude you just banned historical games which were trying to be accurate  b06df324-a94f-496e-9a6e-c4e8130c0960

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 1.16.44 AM (Gets he screwed up) : What?

These games weren’t making apology of slavery and you banned them for no reason. b06df324-a94f-496e-9a6e-c4e8130c0960

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 1.16.44 AM (Not wanting to take responsibility for screwing up) They had the flag! That’s evil man, what are you some racist?

Dude… come on, those were just historical games            b06df324-a94f-496e-9a6e-c4e8130c0960

Screen Shot 2015-06-27 at 1.16.44 AM(Smells fear in his rival and gets pumped up) Historical games about RACIST EVIL WHITES. Why are you trying to defend them huh? Are you RACIST too? Huh?

(Other workers around hear the word Racist and send disapproving looks at white guy)

2+2=5! We’ve always been at war with Eastasia!      b06df324-a94f-496e-9a6e-c4e8130c0960

Free Speech

So USG can subpoena website operators, and gag them for months, forcing them to unmask anonymous commenters.

The European branch has basically ruled the same thing: wreckers in your website must be handed out, or else.

And you better register your website with your real name and address, so they can arrest you easily.

We all know very well what happens when the Cathedral even slightly hints they don’t like something. Try finding a Confederate flag with your iPhone.

This can only get worse. Suspicions of wreckers will only increase as the economy declines, and the myriad Gaps stubbornly refuse to shrink.

Long term there’s only two choices. You can shut up. Online discussions aren’t crucial to one’s life. Hey, Big Brother isn’t so bad.

Or there’s exit. USG is powerful but it’s reach isn’t complete. I’d propose China, but Chinese internet control means that connections from outside are extremely slow.

I guess there’s Russia. How interested is Putin in harboring Western free speech? Any Russians in the audience?

Recent news

The fall of the Girondins on 2 June, helped by the actions of François Hanriot, the new leader of the National Guard, was one of Marat’s last achievements. Forced to retire from the Convention as a result of his worsening skin disease, he continued to work from home, where he soaked in a medicinal bath. Now that the Montagnards no longer needed his support in the struggle against the Girondins, Robespierre and other leading Montagnards began to separate themselves from him, while the Convention largely ignored his letters.

Marat was in his bathtub on 13 July, when a young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, appeared at his flat, claiming to have vital information on the activities of the escaped Girondins who had fled to Normandy. Despite his wife Simonne’s protests, Marat asked for her to enter and gave her an audience by his bath, over which a board had been laid to serve as a writing desk. Their interview lasted around fifteen minutes. He asked her what was happening in Caen and she explained, reciting a list of the offending deputies. After he had finished writing out the list, Corday claimed that he told her, “Their heads will fall within a fortnight”. A statement which she later changed at her trial to, “Soon I shall have them all guillotined in Paris”.  (…) At that moment, Corday rose from her chair, drawing out from her corset the five-inch kitchen knife, which she had bought earlier that day, and brought it down hard into Marat’s chest, where it pierced just under his right clavicle, opening the carotid artery, close to the heart. (…)

Corday was a Girondin sympathiser who came from an impoverished royalist family – her brothers were émigrés who had left to join the exiled royal princes. From her own account, and those of witnesses, it is clear that she had been inspired by Girondin speeches to a hatred of the Montagnards and their excesses, symbolised most powerfully in the character of Marat.[9] The Book of Days claims the motive was to “avenge the death of her friend Barboroux”. Marat’s assassination contributed to the mounting suspicion which fed the Terror during which thousands of the Jacobins’ adversaries – both royalists and Girondins – were executed on supposed charges of treason. Charlotte Corday was guillotined on 17 July 1793 for the murder. During her four-day trial, she had testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying “I killed one man to save 100,000“.


Marat’s assassination led to his apotheosis. The painter Jacques-Louis David, a member of one of the two “Great Committees” (the Committee of General Security), was asked to organise a grand funeral. David took up the task of immortalising Marat in the painting The Death of Marat, beautifying the skin that was discoloured and scabbed from his chronic skin disease in an attempt to create antique virtue. David, as a result of this work, has since been criticized as glorifying the Jacobin’s death. The entire National Convention attended Marat’s funeral and he was buried under a weeping willow, in the garden of the former Club des Cordeliers (former Couvent des Cordeliers). After Marat’s death, he was viewed by many as a martyr for the revolution, and was immortalized in various ways in order to preserve the values he stood for. His heart was embalmed separately and placed in an urn in an altar erected to his memory at the Cordeliers in order to inspire speeches that were similar in style to Marat’s eloquent journalistic skills.[10] On his tomb, the inscription on a plaque read: “Unité, Indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité ou la mort”. His remains were transferred to the Panthéon on 25 November 1793 and his near messianic role in the Revolution was confirmed with the elegy: Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles, priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against these plagues of the people. The eulogy was given by the Marquis de Sade, delegate of the Section Piques and an ally of Marat’s faction in the National Convention (there is evidence to suggest that shortly before his death Marat had fallen out with de Sade and was arranging for him to be arrested). By this stage de Sade was becoming appalled with the excesses of the Reign of Terror and was later removed from office and imprisoned for “moderatism” on the fifth of December.

On 19 November, the port city of Le Havre-de-Grâce changed its name to Le Havre-de-Marat and then Le Havre-Marat. When the Jacobins started their dechristianisation campaign to set up the Cult of Reason of Hébert and Chaumette and Cult of the Supreme Being of Robespierre, Marat was made a quasi-saint, and his bust often replaced crucifixes in the former churches of Paris.


Public speech is a bad idea


The Greeks and Romans dedicated much of their education to the study of rhetoric. It feels quite bizarre today, that people spent years studying the art of giving speeches and being persuasive, rather than trying to learn actual, real stuff.

But they had their priorities straight. Rhetoric is the art of public speech. And public speech is generally just a bad idea. If you must engage in public speech, you better study very, very hard, so that you have a shot at getting something out of it.

We of course have ignored this lesson at our own peril. And we have made public speech so much more open and pervasive. Which only works to feed the evil and the insane.

Some snippets.

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And the commissar comes down.


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Well if you don’t want to learn, you better get out of Twitter. Being on Twitter is like getting drunk and speaking your mind about the revolution in 1794 Paris. Note that Sam Altman is gay-in-tech, and that didn’t save them from criticism. Now you need to cross-dress for that. Soon they’ll require actually chopping it off.

Paul Graham, who’s not stupid, points out that if public conversations don’t work, private conversations will happen.

Well actually private conversations have been going on for quite a while. You noticed this blog has been slow? That other good blogs have either hibernated or disappeared altogether? You miss some old commenters who are nowhere to be seen?

Well guess where they are.

Hint: not on Twitter.

So if you want to have some private conversations, you can send me an email. I hear the guys at Hestia have something going on too. So if you like what those guys write, you can email them. If you prefer what I write, you can email me. Don’t do both, that’s just bad manners.


One of the things that strike when reading Chinese history is how everybody cries a lot. Not women; prime ministers, army generals, high officials are crying all the time. This is often used in historical shows to add dramatic flare.

When you ask people why is everybody crying, the answer tends to be “oh, they got emotional”. Emotion. What does that mean? It always struck me how this outbursts of emotion always happen when it’s convenient. See how all those Mandarins cry in front of the Emperor. Well that’s all they can do to express their will if the Emperor isn’t buying their arguments.

Think of a typical interaction. Emperor wants X, Mandarin doesn’t want X for whatever reason. Maybe he thinks it’s insane, and will bring disorder; or he think it will affect him personally and he doesn’t like that.


Emperor: I want X.

Mandarin: X is not a wise idea your majesty.

E: Shut up, I want X.

M: But your majesty, Confucius said blablablablanonXblablabla

E: Fuck that, I want X.

M: I brought 20 famous ministers to say that X is bad.

E: OK I’m getting pissed now, X or else.

What do you do now? Well you can accept defeat. Or you can cry. Fall to the ground and cry your eyes out.

M: Your majesty!! For the sake of the Sages of old, of the rules of your ancestors!! Please!!!

Now the point of crying, or “emotion” in general, is that it’s an involuntary bodily reaction, which signals that the person is so affected that usual brain operation doesn’t work anymore. It’s a way of calling attention to an emergency. This is serious stuff your majesty. I’m crying, you see.

For some reason outbursts of emotion are taken as some expression of a better, truer self. The brain is the rational, self-interested, scheming part, so when emotion takes over that’s by definition your not scheming, self-less, godly heart speaking.

But that’s crap, of course. Emotion is done in the brain. So by definition it’s computation. Your brain takes some inputs, analyzes them, and makes some output to further some purpose of yours. Sometimes the output says: Your majesty, X is not a wise idea. Some others, your brain judges that your purposes are better served by falling to the ground and crying our eyes out, while squeaking like a girl. Surely Emperors known to be merciful to weak people were more likely have people cry, while Emperors known for hating crybabies and flaying them alive didn’t have many mandarins cry at them.

This works of course for all other sorts of emotion. Anger only happens when anger is advantageous. See how everybody today soon gets filled with righteous anger at people who dare oppose gaymarriage, while 10 years ago nobody did. Opponents of gaymarriage are weaker now than 10 years ago, so being angry at them is advantageous. You get more of what you reward.

Same with offense taking. Offense used to be what rich aristocrats took when their reputation was questioned. Daring to suggest that a rich merchant was a crook made him really really offended, the more offended the more accurate the accusations. Also mere contact with low status commoners could make a high status person livid with offense. Today, offense is what women and protected ethnic groups feel when a white man dares say anything about them. Microagressions are felt because they are profitable for the microagressed.

Different emotional reactions depend on their perceived potential results, and that depends on the power relations. If you’re weak, you’re better off crying. If you’re strong, you’re better off getting angry. It doesn’t mean you’re faking it. Simply that everything happens for a reason. That includes your anger, your sadness, your happiness, and everything else you feel, especially when you express it to others.


The Inquisition

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People, get out of Twitter. You can’t win.

If Twitter weren’t full of racists and sexists claiming to be Moldbug’s followers, he wouldn’t have been banned from speaking.

By forming a community and going public, all you are doing is make it easier for the Inquisition to go against you, and to apply collective responsibility to anyone you claim association with, whether it’s true or not.

This is not always one’s fault; a retard like Mike Anissimov can always come out, steal your name, and say he’s your lord and savior.

The only way out is to refuse to identify with a group, get out of social media and do not, ever, address the mainstream. Your Tweets to Corporate twitter accounts trying to shame sponsors for banning Moldbug are not helping. The kids at GamerGate did that, and all they got was Intel coming out with 300 fucking million dollars to shower on every SJW out there.

Your community isn’t growing; it’s attracting retards. Your activism isn’t helping, it’s making things worse. If you think you’re cool because you claim to be a fan of Moldbug, go back and read his blog again. He explicitly called for passivism. Do not engage in politics, become worthy, and assume power when the time comes.

Well the time has not come. It most likely will never come. Let’s face it, Molbug was full of it. I understand the impulse to form a community. I really do. The world has gone mad, we feel vulnerable and lonely, we want people who we can relate for, who can confirm we are not insane. We want to speak our minds over beer without fear of being flagged for crimethink and made miserable.

Well then go to a bar and stay there. On Twitter you are but SJW fodder.

Giving the handle

My last posts were very well received. I guess there’s a market for the intersection between Chinese history and Ron Unz, so here’s another one.

Steve Sailer writes:

As you may have noticed, Ron has this wacky theory that a surprising percentage of our political leaders have, shall we say, compromising incidents in their past. He even speculates that perhaps having something to hide from the public might make a rising politico more attractive to those who make it their business to decide which of the ambitious to help climb the greasy pole of political power.

And he just had a new post on what he’s named the Unz Suspicion.

Mr. Unz is very right to suspect that much. But again Unz had to use all his powers of insight to come up with his idea. Which given his upbringing is quite impressive. And yet this has been common wisdom in China for thousands of years. A 10 year old in Kaifeng could have told you as much in 1034.

There’s plenty of examples of great leaders of bureaucratic factions, imperial prime ministers who purposefully surrounded themselves with crooks in order to be able to crack down on any defector with ease. It may sound counterintuitive, but the group is much stronger if everybody is a crook with something to hide.

None of this is surprising given that China has had a continent-wide centralized bureaucracy for longer than the rest of the world combined. And while the world has changed a lot since 221 BC, and China itself has seen a lot of variation, the dynamics of bureaucratic power are basically the same.

I’ll illustrate this point again with a 4 letter idiom, and one of my favorite stories, also from the first empire, the Qin Dynasty.. The idiom is 授人以柄 shou ren yi bing, which translates as “handing over your (sword’s) handle.

The idiom itself doesn’t come from this piece of history. It comes from the Three Kingdoms period, when some nobles were discussing strategy, and argued against one idea saying that it was equivalent to 倒持干戈,授人以柄, holding our swords in reverse and giving the handle to the enemy. Which is a nice metaphor for a suicidal idea.

The idiom later acquired a figurative sense, where you voluntarily hand your sword’s handle to someone, in order to signal your loyalty and lack of ambition. It’s a fairly profound point. Let me explain.

So it’s the late Warring States period, and the map of China is something like this.

Qin is by far the most powerful state, and has been so for decades. It’s generally just a matter of time until it decides to get rid of all the other states and unify the empire. In 247 BC a new king, Ying Zheng, rises to the Qin crown, and decides that it’s time to finish the job. They send gold around to soften up the ministers and delay their defense policies, and then send Qin armies to obliterate them.

By the 225 there’s only Chu and Qi left. Chu is in the way to Qi, so the decision is made to invade Chu first. But Chu is huge. It’s mountainous, and it’s full of people. It’s not gonna be easy, so the King of Qin calls his best generals, Li Xin and Wang Jian, and asks what do they think it will take to win the war.

The King asks Li Xin, who says he needs 200,000 men. Then he asks Wang Jian, who says 600,000 are necessary.

“Six hundred thousand men! That’s a lot of people. It’s almost the entire manpower of the state. Wang Jian, I get you’re old, but don’t be so cowardly. See here young Li Xin, brave and bold who can do more with less.”

And so Li Xin set forward to Chu with 200,000 men, in two columns. Wang Jian was so pissed that he actually quit his job and retired to a remote house in the mountains. Damn punk, 200,000 men huh. Right. What the hell do you know.

And what do you know, the Chu army plays a long game of retreat, retreat, retreat, Li Xin gets cocky, pursues too long, and bam, massive ambush, the whole Qin army is killed, Li Xin barely escapes with his life, and the Chu army starts to advance West with their eyes set on revenge.

The Qin King was furious, obviously. He had no choice but to go personally visit Wang Jian at his retirement home, and beg him to come out. Hey guy, sorry I called you old and useless. You were right. So go there and fight. Please.

“Ok, but 600,000 men.”
“Yeah, whatever, just go.”

So Wang Jian leads the biggest army perhaps in the history of mankind, and goes to attack Chu. The King escorts him personally to the border. Wang Jian asks him for lots of money, good farmland, mansions, women and treasure. It’s for my children, you see. I want to secure their future. The King laughed heartily. Of course, old Wang. Whatever you want. Just win this war.

While on campaign Wang Jian send a messenger to the court every single day, reminding the king that he wanted lots of good farmland, gold, women and treasure.  For his children. His entourage was getting embarrassed already. Come on general, since when are you so corrupt? Even if you are, just try to be subtle, this is ridiculous, you’re making us all feel bad.

“You don’t get it”, says General Wang. “The emperor is a suspicious man. He doesn’t trust anyone. Right now I have under my command 600,000 men, the entire army of the country. Every once in a while he must be asking himself: “What if this Wang Jian guy rebels against me?”. And even if he doesn’t ask himself, there’s always an annoying eunuch paid by a rival general trying to backstab me, saying that I am famous and honorable, and that the opposition might rally around me, that I’m too powerful and must be killed sooner rather than later. Only by openly displaying that I am a vile, corrupt character who only cares about money, can I make the king trust that I have no higher ambition.”

And so Wang Jian kept sending messenger asking for stuff, and the King never suspected his loyalty. He liked his pettiness. Wang Jian went forward to invade Chu, destroy its armies, capture his king, and annexed the country into the soon to be Qin Empire. He went back home, and very unusual in a famous general, died a peaceful death.

Sometimes you really have to hand over your sword’s handle.

To this day, “having a handle” means knowing the secrets, or having the means to control someone to your benefit. People without handles, i.e. good people, are regarded as undesirable associates, at least in politics.

And yes, having databases, or at least long lists with compromising information about government officials has been a staple of Chinese politics for centuries. It’s quite obviously the best way to keep a faction together. MAD, also, is a very old trick.

So nihil sub sole novum. Or in other words, 天下無新事 .

The cause of absurdity

My previous post has been understandably interpreted as an endorsement of the Dalrymple (echoed by Unz) theory that absurd ideas are made up on purpose to humiliate people and check who is really loyal to the power holders.

I should clarify that my point was not an endorsement, just an observation that absurdity as power-trip is a very ancient trick. The Chinese noticed 2200 years ago. I’m sure it’s happened a lot, in all countries on earth. Even in middle sized organizations it happens to a lesser degree.

But Western culture never noticed. Andersen got close, but didn’t get the actual point. Dalrymple, and now Unz, did notice by themselves, but it’s still not a common observation. The fact is Western culture has its own conception of power, a very naive construct that prevents us from noticing how things actually work. We seem to think people have ideas, and act because they believe those ideas, and power just comes out of the strength of those ideas. Call it faith in Christ, or Protestantism, or liberalism. Our conception of history is the history of ideas. Never we stop to think who comes up with this ideas, how they change, why some spread and others don’t.

Dalrymple and Unz seem to think that absurdities such as Communism or WWT are made up on purpose by a cabal of evil conspirators in order to show who’s boss, and check who’s on board with the program. Vladimir in last post had this to say:

While I agree that such stories provide useful opportunities for playing the “deer as horse” tactic to all kinds of ideological commissars and strivers for power, I don’t think it’s the right explanation for how such stories come into being and acquire great prominence in the first place.

What I see as the main driving force there is the inherent baseness and degeneracy of mass media reaching its consummation. Most people greatly enjoy lowbrow entertainment where they can lose themselves in some kind of imaginary fellowship with celebrities or fictional characters, getting a kick out of a delusional feeling that they’re somehow empathizing with them and participating in their personal dramas.

Until relatively recently, certain social norms were in place that were putting some limits on how far the media would go in exploiting this tendency: their output, however lowbrow and degenerate, still had to be plausibly framed as some kind of traditional performance art, and people were expected to maintain some minimal level of dignity in public appearances. Nowadays, however, the phenomenon of “reality TV” has broken with these restraints of genre, and celebrities are expected to give interviews in which they pour out their feelings and personal dramas in the most undignified and degraded way. This leads to a competition for the most extreme drama one can come up with, without any restraints of propriety and dignity — both for the media competing for public attention and by the celebrities competing for media prominence. Clearly, Jenner and his media handlers have accomplished a tremendous success in this regard.

It seems to me that this phenomenon has been brought about by sheer market and career pressures in the media industry, rather than ideological pressures. It’s always in one’s interest to try to push the envelope still further in the direction of exploiting these base urges of the masses. Of course, ideological pressures have had a decisive influence on the specific content of the prominent media stories we’re seeing nowadays. But as for the sheer level of stupidity, nonsense, and degeneracy, regardless of the specific content in which it’s manifested, I believe it would be reached sooner or later under any system that allowed free media competition for capturing the attention and devotion of the mass audience.


I think it’s obvious that say, Obama hasn’t called Vanity Fair and told them to put Bruce Jenner on drag. The media indeed need to make money, this shit makes a lot of money, so to some degree the media is producing degeneracy out of market considerations, working in auto-pilot. Now of course this auto-pilot has built in constraints. Basically political correctness. The fact is before WWT we had WWG, and before that we had feminism. Neither of those were invented by the media, even if they promoted it heavily. WWG was an academic and political movement, and only after it started moving did the media put a gay character in every movie and sitcom. Academics had been writing about how to solve the oppressions of those cross-dressers who really want to use female toilets years before prominent autogynephilics started getting on the news.

So while the media does promote degeneracy out of their own considerations, their agency is limited to whatever is politically acceptable. Coverage of ISIS brutality is everywhere in the news, and people love it. The TV stations could take from that and start covering domestic Muslims, how they are weird, ugly, wear strange clothes, have way too many children and are right-down scary. They’d make a lot of money that way too. But of course they can’t go there because it’s not orthodox.

Now back to the point, I do agree there is no Zhao Gao coming up with WWT in order to frighten the masses. Most absurdities arise spontaneously, from many different sectors of the Cathedral. Surely the media has come up with some new ideas that eventually were incorporated into the orthodoxy. Academia probably came up with most. Bureaucrats must have produced some. Some did come out of some small-scale conspiracies. Some just out of some sudden idea.

But coming up with an idea doesn’t guarantee it’s success. In order for an ideological tenet to be incorporated into the mainstream, it must be useful. And given that nobody can possibly care about whether some rich guy puts on women clothing or cuts off his dick, or whether the Holy Spirit comes out of the father or both father and son, or whether Mao is the eternal leader of the working class; it follows that the function of absurd ideas is to assess loyalty to the system. What do you think of Catlyn Jenner? What, you can’t spell her name? What are you, some kind of racist? Fired!

Note that humans are wired to constantly look for scapegoats to bully, even if there’s no actual grudge to motivate enmity. Ganging up on some defenseless chump when there’s no consequences is lots of fun. All human societies do that. Having a good excuse just makes it easier.

Which is why stupid ideas don’t die, even after they start to seriously affect performance of the group. The Soviet empire collapsed. I’m sure the leadership didn’t want it to collapse. Many perhaps new that the whole socialist thing was stupid. But you couldn’t touch it without wrecking the whole hierarchy, and their livelihoods depended on that hierarchy. Only when the hierarchy is disturbed by other reasons, say Stalin’s death, could people cut a bit of the madness, and say fire Lysenko. Or stop the Cultural Revolution.

So it’s a dynamic system. Humans have an agency bias, so people tend to search for people responsible for the whole thing. It seldom works like that. Ideas come up, they spread a bit, then another bit, they go viral, then they die. Different people are responsible for every different link, but everyone is committed once they have joined in.

The stage when ideas die is perhaps the most interesting. It usually requires a transition phase, when the hierarchy is shifting for internal reasons. Here’s where Handle’s “second test passers” come in. The people who have benefited but not abused the specific set of absurd ideas. I first thought they were a constituency to push back and stop the madness. But in the context of identity politics, I rather think they are a constituency for continuity. Say a woman that gets a job before of a female quota, but is chosen specifically because she isn’t a loud feminist and does not abuse her legal privilege. Will she ever abandon feminism? Most likely not. After all she owes her job to feminism, even if she had to take a second sanity test. But she has nothing to win, and quite a lot to lose from abolishing female quotas.

And so the racket goes on.

The purpose of absurdity

Ron Unz had an interesting comment at Sailer’s blog a while ago:

Actually, another suspicion I’ve often had is that much of that massively-promoted total nonsense like transexualism and Gay Marriage is meant to flush out and expose potential troublemakers potentially lurking within ranks of the elite before they can rise high enough to become a serious problem. In support of this hypothesis, the leading purge victims are usually found within the fields of popular culture, entertainment, celebrity, and the media, which constitute a crucial chokepoint in controlling our society. It’s obviously much easier and safer to detect and purge a future Mel Gibson while he’s just a rising young actor than after he’s spent a dozen years as Hollywood’s #1 star.

the reason the King walks down the street naked in his imaginary suit is to draw out and catch those people unwilling to say they see what isn’t there.

In an actual historical example, the Emperor Caligula appointed his favorite horse to the highest official government position in the Roman State. How better to break the spirit of potentially disloyal Senators and military commanders, and determine which of them might have independent thoughts.

Well put. But personally what struck me is that he had to come up with this by his own. A very intelligent man in his 50s had to personally realize this. When it should be a perfectly obvious point.

The very point of writing down history is to bring to make it easy for people to find out the patterns in human interaction, especially in politics, so that we can understand why things happen. Because the fact is that the same things happen all the time.

As I often say, all things considered,  the best historical tradition in the world is that of China. The imperial government has put lots of people and resources into writing history there for 3,000 thousand years. And one of the results of this emphasis is that they have left a lot of interesting stories about important patterns in political history, often in the form of neat 4-letter idioms.

By making them into tiny and neat idioms, you make them much more accessible to the public’s memory. Which is why any decently educated Chinese knows what 指鹿為馬 zhi lu wei ma means.

Letter by letter it is “point deer make horse”. It tells the story of Zhao Gao, one of the closest ministers of the First Emperor of Qin. The Qin Emperor died in 210 BC, and soon after the Chen Sheng rebellion (another good example of history as a mirror for government) started, which in a few years destroyed the first empire that the Qin house had spent centuries to achieve.

Qin was able to conquer all the other Chinese states and build a unified empire because it had invented royal absolutism. Back in the 300s BC, Shang Yang had reformed the Qin government, stripped the landed nobility of all its privileges, and set up a centralized bureaucracy to effectively transmit the will of the royal house. A rationalized system of punishment and rewards made the peasants into very effective farmers and soldiers, and soon the other traditional feudal states were swept away by the absolutist Qin armies.

The funny bit is what happens with the royal house. As I said this was perhaps the worlds first absolute monarch ruling over a centralized bureaucracy. Well a lot happened to the Qin house during the years, but let’s focus on the First Emperor. When he died in 210 BC, the crown prince, Fusu, was up in the army in the northern frontier. The emperor had died while touring the provinces, and with him was a younger son, Huhai.

Well the emperor died out of the capital, so nobody knew. The only ones who knew were his prime minister, Li Si, and his close minister Zhao Gao, who may or may not have been a eunuch. Well apparently Zhao Gao didn’t like the crown prince Fusu very much. He had reason to think that Fusu hated him, and would execute him as soon as he became emperor himself. So Zhao Gao gets Li Si and says “hey, dude’s dead, we’re the only ones who know. Fusu doesn’t like you either, so why don’t we get this kid Huhai and name him successor?”

Li Si took some convincing, as did Huhai himself. But eventually they got on the plan, and sent a forged imperial edict ordering Fusu to kill himself. Which strangely he did, even after opposition by his entourage. With crown prince Fusu out of the way, the three got back to the capital, and set up Huhai as Second Emperor of Qin.

Soon later Zhao Gao found some excuse and executed Li Si and all his family, and took his prime ministership. He obviously knew too much. Then he proceeded to execute all those little Schelling Points that were the emperor’s brothers and sisters, so there was no contest about who had the right title to the crown. Still after Huhai was secure in his thrown, he was starting to be a little uncooperative with Zhao Gao. The Chen Sheng rebellion had started, and the empire was having trouble suppressing it. The Emperor blamed Zhao Gao for the mess and he had a point. But Zhao Gao didn’t like that. He started to think that maybe they should have a change of emperor, but he couldn’t be sure he could pull it off.

So Zhao Gao brings a deer into the palace. Grabs it from the horns, calls the emperor to come out, and says “look your majesty, a brought you a fine horse”. The Emperor, not amused, says “Surely you are mistaken, calling a deer a horse. Right?”. Then the emperor looks around at all the ministers. Some didn’t say a word, just sweating nervously. Some others loudly proclaimed what a fine horse this was. Great horse. Look at this tail! These fine legs. Great horse, naturally prime minister Zhao Gao has the best of tastes.

A small bunch did protest that this was a deer, not a horse. Those were soon after summarily executed. And the Second Emperor himself was murdered some time later.

This story made it into the Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian, around 100 BC, through which it became part of common knowledge for Chinese intellectual life. From then on, everytime somebody tried to pull off a similar stunt, opposing ministers could say “you’re trying to say a deer is a horse, huh!”, which could get other lukewarm ministers to wake up and support you. Or get you killed with your whole family.

In the West of course we have Hans Christen Andersen’s tale about the kid and the emperor’s new clothes. The funny part is it’s fiction. And the story is just about a child, who having a pure heart, dares to say the truth against the powerful. The moral is that we should be ashamed of ourselves and aspire to be as virtuous as this child. But of course in reality this child would have been arrested and executed, alongside his parents. Which is obviously why nobody tells the king about his new clothes. They’re not stupid.

This says a lot about Western sensibilities.