Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

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 .

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13 responses to “Giving the handle

  1. Pingback: Giving the handle | Neoreactive

  2. Chuck June 6, 2015 at 08:45

    The Chinese seem to be good at backroom politics, but their official propaganda is almost laughably inept. Especially compared to sophisticated Western propaganda. Maybe I think this way because I’m a native English speaker so I naturally look down on anyone speaking English as a second language. But in that case the Chinese are at a gigantic disadvantage in a world where English is the lingua franca.

    • Karl June 6, 2015 at 09:42

      Well, but look at their results. These are impressive by any means. I’m not sure what propaganda you considered laughably inept, but it is an old and tested strategy to use (at least) two layers of propaganda. The first is recognizably inept; nobody believes it. The second layer is not inept; people will believe it because they know they are so smart that they have seen through the deception of the first layer. For example, the first layer may be TV or Radio Propaganda. The second layer may be rumors which say that the official propagnada is wrong (or exaggerating) and spread the real propaganda message.

    • spandrell June 6, 2015 at 10:06

      I find it retarded too, insulting even. So it’s not a language problem.

      But all politics are local; propaganda is addressed to the internal audience. And I’d say it’s not even meant for the population at large; but at the Communist party itself. There’s 80 million of those, so what you want is to control their speech, not necessarily everybody’s.

    • Vladimir June 6, 2015 at 16:53

      One thing to consider is that the English-speaking world has had a centuries-long tradition of mass literacy combined with propaganda and ideological warfare conducted through public discourse with mass audience and wide-participation. Memetic weapons that were selected for through this long historical period are far more powerful than anything the exists elsewhere in the world. This is probably the main reason why for many generations, the Anglospheric fashionable ideas of the day have been spreading through the world like wildfire wherever they weren’t being actively and ruthlessly suppressed (and often even that wouldn’t suffice).

      This is also why non-Anglospheric ideological propaganda looks so pathetic in comparison, even if it may be successful in its place of origin if it’s protected from outside competition. This is noticeable already in comparison with other European peoples. Hitler’s propaganda and public image were a smashing success in Germany, but in the English-speaking world he was seen as laughable (and anyone trying to copy his methods as a pathetic clown). The contrast is only more noticeable as one looks at more distant countries and peoples.

  3. Pingback: Giving the handle | Reaction Times

  4. thrasymachus33308 June 6, 2015 at 13:55

    Europeans do this, but they never name anything explicitly. In the same era the Vikings had “fostering” where you sent a son to be raised by a more powerful family and he had that father’s name with -fostr appended instead of -son.

    There were of course princesses exchanged more formally, and sometimes outright hostages, but in England it appears to me *school* served this purpose. Why send your young son away for most of the year to a school where he will be buggered by older boys, then when he’s older and bigger bugger the younger boys? Living with other elite boys of course they form lifelong bonds but the buggering isn’t even a bug, it’s a feature- everybody knows how dirty everybody else is.

    I don’t think expensive residential schools have this so much any more but boys are still boys and smoke dope and do bad stuff together, which bonds them even more and gives them the dirt on each other.

    Still I think homosexuality has served this purpose throughout the ages, at least in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures.

  5. Bruce June 7, 2015 at 04:19

    Strategically, they’re way ahead of the west; western progs facilitating and being setup for mass neo-colonization/hanculturalism:

    http://www.eurocanadian.ca/2015/06/alice-wong-or-when-china-came-to-canada.html

  6. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/06/07) | The Reactivity Place

  7. Alrenous June 12, 2015 at 14:55

    “It may sound counterintuitive, but the group is much stronger if everybody is a crook with something to hide.”

    It’s slightly more coherent. However, the cost of being a group of crooks strongly outweighs the coherence benefits. The comorbidities get you. If you’re relying on a crook’s pettiness to keep him out of trouble, there’s the obvious failure mode of pretending to be petty. Wang Jian knew this trick but happened to be fairly decent. If you know this trick but aren’t, what you do is take all the bribes and then murder the emperor anyway.

    For a metaphor, consider the broken window effect as applied to personality. This results in the paucity of specialist criminals – nobody breaks only one serious law, they break whichever ones are convenient for them. If you are made vicious in one way, one quickly becomes vicious in all ways. However, virtue is strength. As per Christian allegory, demons devour one another.

    I’ve said before that the West had, at one point, mastered the art of Wu Wei – ruling without directing. The iron fist is brittle cast iron. Blacks cannot be ordered to degenerate or to riot, yet it still happens where intended.

    Of course that’s decaying now. Proggies will clench the iron fist, and then it will shatter.

    • spandrell June 12, 2015 at 15:26

      You can’t murder the emperor if you’re full of shit, unless you have built a very firm shadow coalition. Which isn’t easy, to is seldom happened.

      What did happen is that Emperor A dies, Emperor B comes in, who has not been let on the joke that all Emperor’s A ministers are crooks for a reason, so he cracks down on them. The crooks would rather die fighting, so they unite against Emperor B.
      Other times Emperor A did explicitly tell Emperor B, so he did prepare himself for the backslash. They call that “reforms”.

  8. Graham Seibert June 19, 2015 at 07:04

    The idea that politicians can rise precisely because they are compromised also seems to operate in Russia. Here are two paragraphs from a review of “How Russia Really Works.”

    The second chapter is entitled “Kompromat,” an acronym for compromising material. The legal system in Russia and Ukraine is so confused that almost everybody can be found to be in violation of some law or another at any point in time. Moreover, just about everybody involved in business has to resort to questionable practices just to get things done. Compromising material can be indications of such semi legal business practices, sexual improprieties, hidden wealth, or anything else that might be embarrassing. The interesting thing is such material is relatively rarely used in public; instead it is used to coerce a person to some desired course of action.

    The third chapter is entitled “Krugovaya Poruka,” or circular support. The concept dates back 1000 years, to times in which it was easier for overlords to hold entire villages responsible for the behavior of individuals within them, and to assess taxes at the village rather than the individual level. This practice was ended, by degrees, in the last years of the czar, only to emerge in Soviet times among the more powerful. Everybody needed to keep their back covered, and in order to survive in the system when needed friends. This concept evolved into circles of friends, mutually compromised, and therefore in need of mutual support. There is a Russian expression “better 100 friends than 100 rubles.” In an environment in which everybody is in constant violation of the law, as the book expresses “temporarily out of prison,” one absolutely needs protection

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