Don't call it a spade
Monthly Archives: April 2016
Anyone interested in a short ebook with Chinese stories? Say, 80 pages for $5. Or 30 pages for $2.
The stories would come in two versions: one with fake Western names so you don’t lose track of the story while trying to pronounce Zhang Bangchang. And another with the actual names, and maybe citations of scholarly sources and that stuff.
So we left as the Jurchens conquer the Song capital of Kaifeng, empty the city of all its valuables, butcher most of the population, taking around 100,000 people as slaves. Among them the whole imperial family, 5,000 people in all, plus all their servants. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the emperor and all the nobility were taken as wives, concubines, or put to work as whores in the Jurchen official brothel. Those who made it alive to the Jurchen homeland, that is. Many died on their way.
Once the Jurchen destroyed the city of Kaifeng, they grabbed one Song minister, Zhang Bangchang, gave him some of the imperial regalia they had grabbed from the Song palace, and put him as emperor of the Great Chu. Zhang was supposed to set a court at Nanjing and rule as the puppet of the Jurchens, who annexed all land north of the Yellow River, but left most Chinese territory to this puppet court. The Jurchens had no intention of ruling China at all. They had invaded to punish the Song court for its treachery and to extract some booty to share between the Jurchen generals. They achieved those goals, and then some. Setting a government in China and finding a way to rule the peasants sounded like a lot of trouble, trouble the Jurchens weren’t interested in taking at all. The destruction of the Song Dynasty had also erased all public order in north China. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, killing landlords, public officials, Jurchen detachments and anything they could find. The Jurchen had enough men to destroy any Chinese army but it most certainly didn’t have the manpower to police the whole empire. So they were happy to leave that job to that wimp Song minister, and go back home to enjoy screwing the myriad imperial princesses they had kidnapped from Kaifeng.
Mr. Zhang wasn’t thrilled about this arrangement. Usurping the throne is the worst crime a Chinese minister can commit. It’s tantamount to death by one thousand slices together with one’s whole family. But what could he do? The entire imperial clan, thousands of men, had been taken prisoner by the Jurchens. Or not. There were rumors of a single imperial prince who was free, and had raised an army of 10,000 somewhere in the north. Prince Kang.
Huizong, our artist emperor, had had 143 wives, who had produced 38 sons and 34 daughters. Huizong didn’t know them all. If Dunbar is right he barely even knew most of his women. The thing with polygamy, that some overzealous manosphere bros tend to forget, is that in traditional society sex was only allowed inside marriage. If an emperor wanted to have sex with a woman, he had to made her his concubine and take care of her for life. That means giving her proper status as the woman of that man. You can’t just find her some smelly apartment in a project and give her 500 bucks alimony every month. The concubine of an emperor had to be treated as an imperial princess, and that didn’t come cheap.
Prince Kang was one of the 38 sons of Huizong. In 1127, when the Jurchens invaded, he was 20 years old. He was the only child of his mother, who Huizong apparently slept with once or twice and never bother seeing again. Prince Kang though was a talented kid, tall, strong and good at the classics. But his father never met his mother, meaning his father never got to know him. The only way most Chinese emperors got to know their sons was when imperial concubines gave their pitch after having sex. “You know our son? He can write 100 letters already!” If your mother was out of favor, a prince didn’t really exist. Of course he had his income as an imperial prince, and all the perks that entitled. Prince Kang at 20 years old had 4 wives, 1 son and 5 daughters.
When the Jurchens invaded China, they demanded the Song court sent an imperial prince as an envoy to discuss terms. Huizong discussed among his family, but of course nobody wanted to go. Prince Kang alone volunteered. He made quite an impression with the Jurchen generals; allegedly he was able to shot a bow so straight that the Jurchens thought the Song had tricked them. No way a Song imperial wimp prince could shoot a bow straight, this is a fake prince! Send us a real one! Prince Kang went back home, but later was sent again as an envoy during the second invasion.
While on the road to his diplomatic mission, a regional official told Prince Kang that the Jurchens weren’t joking his time, and persuaded him to abandon his mission and take refuge in the countryside. He did, but then a huge mob of local peasants came up to see what was going on. While doing so they found it was Prince Kang, alongside the Minister of War. The Minister of War yelled at them, telling them they were an imperial envoy. People found out who that guy was. They remembered it was him who had ordered to use scorched-earth tactics against the Jurchens. This guy had burnt their homes and harvests. Now he was here as a diplomatic envoy? What, he’s going to sell us out to the Jurchens? The peasant mob grabbed the Minister of War of the Song Dynasty and beat him to death right there. Prince Kang, 20 years old, barely escaped with his life.
Eventually Prince Kang raised a small army, and went around avoiding the Jurchens who had just conquered the capital and taken the whole imperial clan with them; including his mother, his infant daughters and most of his wives. He only had his son and the mother of his son with him. Some time later an envoy arrives from Zhang Bangchang, the puppet minister, who wanted out of that gig and offered him the crown. So Prince Kang went over to Zhang Bangchang’s fake court, and was enthroned as new emperor of the Song Dynasty, Gaozong. First order of business was to execute Zhang. He usurped the throne! Gaozong was nice and let him kill himself, and didn’t punish his family.
The Jurchens, sometime after or during the wild orgies they were having with the imperial princesses up in Harbin, heard that their puppet emperor had abdicated, and that one imperial prince had escaped capture and had been enthroned as new emperor of the Song Dynasty. They were furious. They had destroyed the Song Dynasty. They had no right to start again. The Jurchens again amassed their armies and sent a massive punitive expedition, codename “Search the top of the mountains and the bottom of the sea to capture Zhao Gou (the personal name of Gaozong)”. Using someone’s personal name in old China is tantamount to call him a smelly bastard.
Gaozong could only flee. Flee south. He fled to the Yangtze, stayed a while in Nanjing. The Jurchen armies rushed to catch him, and he had to flee further south, to Hangzhou. I guess I might as well put a map again.
During this time there was a military coup on his side, which lasted only short while, but in the process his only son, 2 years old, died. Soon afterwards the Jurchen armies crossed the Yangtze, captured Nanjing, and were soon to get to Gaozong’s court at Hangzhou. He had to get on a ship and flee south by sea. He spent weeks at sea avoiding the Jurchen armies, fleeing for his life. The whole escape was so sudden and traumatic that Gaozong had daily panic attacks. Apparently he became infertile. Traditional accounts say the Jurchen attack on Hangzhou scared him so much he became importent for life. He never produced an heir.
So it’s 1130 now, 3 years after the fall of Kaifeng. Eventually a Song army beat the overextended Jurchen armies, who retreated north of the Yangtze, and Gaozong returned to Hangzhou for good. He established his court there, and rebuilt the Song state apparatus in the south. Some great generals such Wu Jie, Han Shizhong and Yue Fei built strong armies who were soon able to beat the Jurchens in open battle. The Jurchens responded by retreating and setting a new puppet state in north China, headed by an old Song minister who had surrendered, Liu Yu. This guy actually liked the job, and put some effort into raising armies to fight the Song. Meanwhile the Jurchens focused on fighting in the West. China has always been unified the same way: a northern army invading Sichuan from the Xi’An area, and from there sailing down the Yangtze. The Jurchens tried hard but the Song armies held fast and blocked the Jurchen advance.
Meanwhile the Song armies were beating the puppet Chinese armies to the north. General Yue Fei was especially strong. His armies had found a way to counter the massive charges f the Jurchen heavy cavalry. He put his Chinese infantry in a sort of phalanx, with very long pikes, and had them cut the feet of the Jurchen horses as they run towards them. Now I’m simplifying a lot, but by 1140 Yue Fei was recovering more and more territory, and was close to recovering Kaifeng itself. But then his emperor Gaozong told him to stop it right there.
Gaozong had put a minister called Qin Hui as prime minister. Qin Hui had been captured by the Jurchens, and spent some time in the north. Nobody else ever escaped from capture, so there were always rumors that the Jurchens had sent him back on purpose as a spy. At any rate Gaozong was fond of the guy. Qin Hui’s position was that the war was hopeless. The Song had to reach an agreement with the Jurchens and make peace as fast as possible. The Jurchen emperor had just die, and the new guy was favorable to a peace agreement. Qin Hui would make it happen as long as Gaozong gave the order.
So Yue Fei was there with his ever victorious army at the feet of Kaifeng, ready to march, when a special convoy comes directly from the court with orders to retreat, immediately. Yue Fei couldn’t believe it. The work of 10 years lost in an instant! He argued once and again that they couldn’t retreat, victory was at hand! But the emperor wouldn’t have it. Yue Fei could only obey and resign his post.
Yue Fei is perhaps the most famous hero in Chinese history. He was the perfect man. Strong in arms, yet well educated. He was courteous, frugal, loyal and focused on his mission. He famously had a huge tattoo in his back with the letters 精忠報國, “utmost loyalty in service of the country”. Mandarins from the court sent him gold, women, presents of all kind, yet he never accepted any. He had a single wife, which is unheard of in important men in China. He disciplined his army sternly and without failure, making it by far the best army in China. But he was just too perfect. In China the way to make friends with the elite is by grabbing each other’s handle, sharing money, secrets, women, bad things. That way you know they will be loyal to each other; else they have something to use against you. Nobody had anything to use against Yue Fei. He was the perfect man.
That didn’t save him, though. While on an audience with the emperor, Yue Fei had the nerve to ask the emperor to choose an heir. Gaozong was predisposed against the army. A military coup had killed his only son. He then became sterile, so he couldn’t produce children. That indeed was a problem; what if he were to die? Yue Fei had good reason to ask him to resolve that problem. The whole imperial clan had been captured by the Jurchens, Gaozong should look for some other farther imperial relatives and create a new imperial clan. He eventually did, but that was no business of Yue Fei to ask. He was a damn general, and generals had no status in the Song Dynasty. Gaozong never forgot that slight.
Yue Fei also had the habit of saying he was fighting to expel the Jurchens from sacred Chinese territory, and push into their homeland to recover the two captured emperors. Well Gaozong wasn’t very eager to recover the two captured emperors. His father made him the favor of dying in 1135, but his brother and lawful emperor was still around. The Jurchens used to threat that if the Song didn’t stop winning battles, that they’d send the captured emperor on a boat straight to the new Song capital. How awkward would that be?
After Gaozong ordered Yue Fei to retreat in order to negotiate the peace treaty with the Jurchens, Qin Hui eventually trumped up charges of rebellion against Yue Fei, put him in jail and poisoned him. Other generals were furious against Qin Hui. One famously asked him:
Yue Fei was about to rebel? Nonsense! Is there any proof?!
To which Qin Hui laconically responded:
莫須有 (There doesn’t need to be)
So Yue Fei, most talented, loyal and virtuous man in the empire, was killed on trumped up charges. And the Song and the Jurchen signed the peace treaty. The treaty was beyond horrible. It was the most shameful thing any Chinese dynasty had ever signed. It stipulated that the Song emperor was to refer to himself as “your servant”. The Song emperor’s title was to be “granted” by the Jurchens, not self-declared. The border established was also a disaster. The Song had control over much of the central plains. They could have pushed to retain the Wei river valley (the Xi’An area) and much of the central plains. But Gaozong didn’t care. The border was set over the Huai river, a bit further north from the Yangtze, and that was that.
Millions of peasants who had been aiding the Song war effort were sold out and left in Jurchen territory. Many left all they had and rushed to escape into Song territory. Many didn’t make it. The Jurchens didn’t take it lightly.
Many wondered why the Song emperor hadn’t pushed further and tried to get a better deal. In 1141 everybody understood why. The Jurchen’s sent a carriage to the Song border. There was Gaozong’s mother, empress Wei. While Gaozong (then prince Kang) had evaded capture, his mother, wives and daughters were taken by the Jurchens to their homeland. Gaozong’s mother was 38 at the time. She was put in the Laundry House state brothel, where allegedly she was made to serve dozens of Jurchen soldiers every day. Allegedly she bore two children in the north. Gaozong had the records change to make her 10 years older, so that she would have been 48 at the time of her capture, thus officially unable of making Jurchen children. She died in 1159, officially 90 years old. Which isn’t very likely. Still, living to 80 years old was quite a feat given the time, and what she had been through.
Qin Hui had secured her release by the Jurchens, in exchange of which Gaozong gave away half his empire, the best army he had, and his reputation for all posterity. Gaozong is today regarded as a despicable traitor, a coward that shamed China for centuries. Yue Fei was made a folk idol, the patron saint of all Chinese armies since. Qin Hui was made into an iron statue along his wife, which became a tourist attraction. It is customary for people to visit and spit on it.
Gaozong also lived to old age. He died in 1187, 80 years old. To choose an heir he had to find a commoner which was a descendant of the founder of the dynasty. Remember that guy? The palace commander who rebelled, and then made sure his generals didn’t rebel against him? His younger brother murdered him some time later. Henceforth the imperial throne was transmitted through this brother’s line. Some people said that the first Jurchen emperor was the first Song emperor reincarnated, taking revenge on the descendants of his brother for murdering him. He certainly extinguished the whole line.
Gaozong’s successor, Xiaozong tried to fix all the damage his adoptive father had done. He killed Qin Hui, repealed the peace treaty, raised armies, and tried to get back the lost territory. It didn’t work. It never worked. The Jurchen ruled north China until 1234, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Jurchen state. When the Mongols started attacking north China, guess what, the Song made an alliance with them! And guess what, the Song breached the terms of the alliance, and the Mongols took that excuse to invade and destroy the Song. This time for good. To their credit the Song Dynasty held until 1279, until Genghis’ grandson, Khubilai, managed to conquer them. The Mongols ruled all China for 90 years.
And that’s the story of how the Song Dynasty fell and how it came back to life in the South, mostly because the emperor put more value on his mother than on 20 million of his subjects. When people like Hoppe say that Monarchs tend to govern well because they have a stake in their property, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Not everyone places much value on their property besides the minimum to keep their personal status. There’s an old saying, which I’ve heard in China and Europe too: “wealth lasts but 3 generations”. What the grandfather builds, the grandsons brings to the ground. Honestly I’d probably change 20 million people for my mother, too. And I’d be glad to have a sociopath like Qin Hui to help on that. Although personally I would have done something to save my wives and daughters too. Gaozong never asked for them. 2 of his daughters survived and were married off to Jurchen men. But Chinese culture was about filial piety, children were an afterthought.
As a bonus, let me finish by telling the story of Yelu Dashi. You may have noticed that there’s a light green blob in the map, way to the West of China, around what’s today Xinjiang and most of Kazakhstan. You know who that is? The Khitans! The Khitan commander who held Beijing against the Song invasion, Yelu Dashi, was eventually captured by the Jurchen once they came south to help the Song out.
Yelu Dashi was not only a great general, he was a very cultivated man. He spoke Khitan and Chinese, had studied the Confucian classics, and was in charge of the administration of the Chinese areas of the Khitan empire. Shortly after he fell to the Jurchen army, Yelu Dashi escaped with his retinue. He rode fast, evading the Jurchen pursuers, and reached what’s today northern Mongolia, which the Jurchen never controlled, and the Khitan had old ties of vassalage. This Khitan noblemen then raised a big army and rode to the West, conquered the Dzungar steppe, the Tarim Basin, went further West and built a huge empire that reached the Aral Sea! This new empire of Yelu ashi controlled for decades most of Central Asia, exerting its influence well into Persia. Imagine the life of this guy. He tried to raise armies to ride back east and attack the Jurchens, but it never worked out. He eventually learned to enjoy his new empire.
This new Khitan empire, called by historians the Qara-Khitai, is regarded by Chinese historians as a Chinese dynasty, the Western Liao. That’s why it’s painted in full color in the map. While it was a steppe empire ruled by Khitans, they kept the old Chinese-inspired administration, taught the Confucian classics, and kept many Han Chinese in the state bureaucracy. The Qara Khitai ruled Central Asia until… yes, Genghis Khan.
Now that Ross Douthat has run an article on neoreaction (no hyphen!) in the august New York Times, perhaps I should take back my previous statements about disassociating with neoreaction because they’re a bunch of retards of late. Bad timing! Before Anissimov comes back from his night job at a San Francisco bath-house, I shall proclaim myself Leader of Neoreaction and as such will negotiate with Mr. Douthat for any lucrative deal as the new edgy domesticated right. I have Catholic family too so I’m eminently qualified to deal with Mr. Douthat. He’ll need my friendship when God-Emperor Trump comes down to ask him to respond for his articles against the Trump candidacy.
Jokes aside, Ross Douthat is really missing the point. His article argues that neoreaction is racist and evil, but we are often right about many issues and so mainstream conservatism should listen to what we say in order to have something real to say once in a while. He brings up Nicolas Gomez Davila aphorisms as an example of non-evil reactionary wisdom.
But reactionary wisdom like that used to be quite common. Did mainstream conservatism listen to it back then? No. The insight of neoreaction isn’t that modernity and leftism sucks. Plenty of people have noticed that since before modernism even got running. Neoreaction explains why modernism happened even though it sucks. Why leftism gets progressively worse, and why conservatism, like the one Ross Douthat represents, is a complete joke. Mainstream conservatism are those few ideas which the left can’t outright prohibit at a given moment, because the leftist consensus hasn’t moved far enough. Mainstream conservatism was against gaymarriage because the Left hadn’t reached an agreement within itself. Once the Left decided on gaymarriage, opposition was outlawed, and mainstream conservatism summarily dropped the issue. The moment that a conservative takes even the slightest hint of reactionary ideas the Left will make sure he is not allowed to speak in public. Journalism isn’t about facts. Journalism is the state-run bullshit industry. And the left runs it very tight.
Mainstream conservatives themselves are part of the Left’s censorship apparatus. They volunteer to police their own because they want to keep their jobs. See like Douthat himself has dealt with Donald Trump, even though it’s increasingly obvious that Trump is a liberal fraud. See what National Review has become. Douthat is of course right that people are increasingly disaffected from mainstream conservatism, as it has moved to the Left much faster than the common people have.
Douthat complains that reaction on top is a set of piecemeal complaints about democratic politics, which the bottom it’s yet another nationalist movement based on racial grounds. The reason is obvious. The people on top have read their history and know that going back to the past is neither feasible nor desirable, that there are systemic reasons why the Left always wins, and that the signaling patterns that move modern politics are likely to spiral into complete madness until the whole thing collapses.
The bottom has neither the expertise nor the leisure to engage in historical and sociopolitic analysis. If all politics are signaling, the bottom needs to find a good signaling post to rally around and to fight back against the modern leftist establishment that is destroying the middle class and using foreign barbarians to intimidate them with state-approved violence. And for better or worse, the only set of ideas that can fight leftism today is fascism. Good old secular ethno-nationalism. That works. It’s working in France, it’s working in Germany, it’s working in Hungary. It just won the election in Austria. It may very well make Donald Trump the president of the United States.
If Douthat wants to keep his job in the bullshit industry he better listen to those fascists on the bottom, not to the highbrow reactionaries. Reading me or Moldbug won’t get you a job. Being friendly to the God-Emperor might. He doesn’t like it. To be honest I don’t like it either. But that’s the way things work. That’s the real message of the reaction.
So let’s continue the rise and fall of the Song Dynasty. Let me digress a bit and let me talk about the capital of the Song.
The borders of this map are contemporary China, but look at the topography. The Song Dynasty’s capital was in Kaifeng. Kaifeng is probably the most retardedly located capital of all 3,000 years of Chinese history. Up until the Song, the capital of China had been alternating between Xi’an and Luoyang. Xi’an is in the Wei river valley, which is fairly narrow and easily defended if you control the mountain passes that surround the valley. Luoyang is just east of the mountains from Xi’an, in the North China plain proper, surrounded by mountains and a large river. Southern Dynasties had their capital at Nanjing, which is just south of the Yangtze river which is huge and completely impassable without a navy. And of course Beijing has been the capital for long due to its strategic location at the northern edge of the central plains.
But Kaifeng? It’s in the middle of the damn plain! It has no natural defenses whatsoever. The only reason the Song capital is there is because the warlord who destroyed the Tang Dynasty 100 years later had his base there. Kaifeng is close to Jiangnan, the Nanjing-Shanghai area which is by far the wealthiest of the country, and the Grand Canal goes through there, so Kaifeng is well located to extract tax revenues from the rich areas. As such it had naturally grown to be a huge and immensely wealthy city, with over a million people. But military speaking it’s a complete failure.
The emperor Huizong hadn’t realized that, though. He was busy with his paintings, his zoo, his big fancy stones. His habit of bringing fine stones from the countryside had wrecked such havoc that just when the Jurchens were conquering the Khitan empire to the north, the Song had the huge Fang La rebellion which conquered the richest provinces south of the Yangtze. In fact the Song got to the invasion of the north 2 years later because they had to deal with so many peasant rebellions, all due to the fancy habits of our artist emperor.
Starting the war against the Khitans didn’t help that. The state had to raise taxes and confiscate supplies in situ to feed the armies going north. That also started several rebellions in the northern countryside, which again also required military force to suppress. When all that was over, the Song army finally attacked the Khitan, and puff, 150,000 soldiers disappear in a single night. When the Jurchens came down to help out, the Song had virtually no army to speak of.
And so negotiations begin. The Jurchens declared that given that the Song had not fulfilled their side of the bargain, that they would’t be giving away the whole territory they had agreed to. They gave to the Song about half of that. But well, what can you do. It’s not like China was in a position to argue. A treaty was signed according to which the border was to be sealed, and any fugitive that crossed it was to be returned immediately.
Remember that the Jurchens were at most 2,500 cavalry men. That they had been able to conquer the Khitan was because they had taken over most of the Khitan armies, especially those made by minority groups. When invading the Chinese parts, most Chinese soldiers and officers employed by the Khitan surrendered to the Jurchen. One Chinese general who had surrendered to the Jurchen, on seeing the Song army occupying his neighboring county, decided to rebel against the Jurchen and declare his allegiance to the motherland, Song China. The Song commander was stupid enough to accept it.
The Jurchens were livid. They immediately sent an army to reoccupy the county, and the Chinese general fled to the Song controlled land. The Jurchens then demanded that the Chinese hand over the guy. The Song commander then, taking pity on his countryman, beheaded him with a clean blow, and sent the head over to the Jurchens. The whole thing was a PR disaster. The Chinese were dismayed at how weak and dishonorable the Song army had been, giving away one of his countrymen after accepting his allegiance. The Jurchen swore that the Chinese would pay their breach of the treaty. You don’t mess with Jurchens.
In 1123, the founder emperor of the Jurchens, now the Jin Dynasty 金朝, or Gold Dynasty, Wanyan Aguda died. The guy had had his glory, defeating his enemies the Khitans and taking over their empire; so he didn’t press on the Chinese too much. But his successors wanted glory of their own. The Khitan empire was nice, but it was still a steppe empire. Not that much stuff in there besides sheep and horses. China, though, was rich and warm. And the Chinese were a bunch of lying bastards who deserved a lesson. The Song dynasty had been paying annual tribute to the Khitans in exchange for peace; the alliance treaty with the Jurchens stipulated that the Jurchens would inherit that tribute. When the Song failed to pay up in time, the Jurchens had had it. They decided to invade China.
This map reflects the situation in 1111, the Song in orange, the Khitans in green-blue. It’s 1125, and the Jurchens have effectively taken over the Khitan territory. In October 1125 the Jurchens rush south, and by February 1126 they are at the doors of Kaifeng. On their way they destroy everything they find, devastating north China. They reach the walls of Kaifeng and demand that the emperor, this Huizong they’ve heard about, respond for his treachery and breach of contract.
Now imagine our artist emperor must have felt. The guy had spent a life of carefree enjoyment of the most refined pleasures the earth had ever known. The best food, the finest silk, the best women, a personal zoo. Suddenly an army of savages from the forests of Siberia, two thousand miles to the north, is at the gates of the city asking for his head. Huizong panicked, wrote an edict blaming himself for all this problems… and abdicated on his first son. Then he made his luggage and fled to the south, where his ministers had promised he would be safe and could continue painting and playing soccer.
The son of Huizong, the new emperor, Qinzong (pronounced Cheen-tsong) apparently hadn’t realized the gravity of the situation. 80,000 smelly barbarians at our gates? Nothing to worry about. Let’s assault their camp during the night. And so the Song launched a massive assault to the Jurchen camp outside the gates. With the predictable result that the whole army was destroyed by the Jurchens. Who were now pissed. Very pissed. They demanded 5 million taels of gold, 50 million taels of silver, and the cession of the 3 border fortresses the Song had in the north. The emperor ordered the palace guard to search the whole city, house by house, for any valuables, put them together and handed them over to the Jurchens. They didn’t even have to sack the city: the government did it for them. The Jurchens were running short of supplies, and lifted the siege in early March.
The Jurchens went home, and the Song decided to hurry and build up defenses so that they wouldn’t come back again. Which sounds like the obvious thing to do. But you gotta be subtle. The Chinese were too damn obvious. First of all, the Chinese commanders in the border fortresses refused to surrender. They held up and forced the Jurchens to take over by force. The Song raised a new army and sent it up north to build up new defenses; meanwhile they sent diplomats to the remnants of the Khitan aristocracy to entice them to rebel against the Jurchens. All that in the few months after the Jurchens lifted the siege.
While the Song were obviously in a hurry to weaken the Jurchen; they just didn’t understand that they were too weak for that. The Jurchen took the fortresses by force. The Khitan aristocrats weren’t buying the Song offer of alliance. Those bastards! We allied with you once and you backstabbed us the moment we most needed your help. The Khitan handed the Song letter to the Jurchen emperor, which burst in rage. Those treacherous evil Chinese. These settled people have no honor. We’ll show them. In October 1926 the Jurchens marched again south against China. By December they were at the gates of Kaifeng.
The Song sent armies from all across the empire to lift the siege; they were destroyed one by one. After 40 days, in February the capital of the Song Dynasty fell to the Jurchen armies. They sacked it with abandon. Took all valuables, burnt whole quarters, raped all the women they found. They entered the palace city, and captured the whole imperial family. The emperor, Qinzong. His father, Huizong, was found on the way to his escape. All the princes, dukes, earls. Their mothers, sisters. The princesses, concubines. Everyone was taken. 15,000 people in total. Every single descendant of the second emperor, along their wives and servants was captured and sent to the Jurchen capital, one thousand miles to the north, in the freezing forests of Manchuria. Remember the climate chart? Huizong was going to live there.
Just so you get a picture of the whole thing. They went from Kaifeng to Harbin by foot. 1,500 of the prisoners died on the way. On arriving to the Jurchen headquarters, the women were auctioned by the Jurchen army. 11,000 women were taken. The emperors’ wives, daughters and sisters were given as concubines to the Jurchen generals. The others, if good looking were taken to the Laundry House, the public brothel of the Jurchen state, where they were put to service the Jurchen soldiery, day and night. The servants, the children, the ugly and the old were sold as slaves in public auction. We have good records of all these because plenty of court mandarins were taken prisoner too, and they kept detailed diaries of the whole process.
So our dear emperor Huizong, the brilliant artist,the bon vivant, the most consummate hedonist in the history of China, ended up the prisoner of smelly barbarians in the frigid forests of Manchuria. He spent 8 long years shivering at -20C temperature, while the smelly Jurchens, who 20 years before were just a small tribe of hunter-gatherers, spit on his face and laughed at him on sight, reminding him they were fucking his wives and daughters. Huizong died a broken man in 1135. His son Qinzong was not so lucky, he lived in ignominy until 1161. He died at 51 years old, of which he spent 34 in captivity, again watching his wives, sisters and daughters ravaged by his enemies.
And so the Northern Song Dynasty was destroyed. The war continued for some years, and eventually the Jurchens conquered the whole North China plain.
The Song managed to survive in the South. Their greed took them to betray their ally of 100 years to take a small piece of land in the north. They ended up paying with the destruction and loss of half the empire, and the lives and shame of the entire imperial family. All except one single man.
So we left the story at Song Huizong. Huizong was as I wrote a consummate artist and a famous bon vivant. He knew how to enjoy himself. That means he generally wasn’t interested in politics. Politics is generally very boring, pushing paper around, taking decisions about stuff you know nothing about. However Huizong was very willing to do politics if the topic at hand was interesting enough; interesting enough for such a consummate artist, that is.
There is one topic he did like to discuss, which was war. Artists tend to like war. The glory of fighting, thousands of men armed to the teeth and killing each other in mass pitched battles. There’s something aesthetically very striking about that and artists across the world tend to be very attracted to it. Huizong was no exception, he was very much into war.
The thing is the Song dynasty had been founded explicitly as a peaceful state. The Song founder had decided the army was more trouble than it was worth, so he instituted a meritocratic bureaucracy and let it run the state more or less unimpeded for 100 years. That results in unprecedented prosperity, the reign of the 4th emperor Renzong being regarded as the historical peak of Chinese government. That produced its own set of problems, though. While you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you. While the Khitans in the Northeast were quite honorable, the Tanguts caught notice that the Song had no army to speak of, so they started to harass the border in order to extract more money. The Song had to keep 1 million soldiers in the frontier, which weren’t easy to pay. And the tax revenue wasn’t getting any better. The commercial economy grew with the typical effects: rich getting richer, using their wealth to buy tax exemptions, the poor getting poorer, rising in rebellion every few years.
Things started to change when Huizong’s father, Shenzong ascended to the throne in 1068. The guy was 19 years old. If 3000 years of Chinese monarchy have produced any lesson, the lesson is that young monarchs are trouble. They always are. Young people are by definition inexperienced, so they tend to do stupid stuff. And generally, young men like to fight. They are eager to fight. It’s in their blood. Sometimes that turns out well, as Han Wudi who basically tripled the territory of China in 30 years and crushed every single army around it. But usually young emperors pick fights without thinking, and the outcome is catastrophic.
Huizong’s father was livid at how his dynasty was so small, so much smaller than the previous ones. Vietnam lost! The Northwest lost! He couldn’t stand those fucking Tanguts harassing the frontier. That won’t do. He had to punish them. By any means necessary. He started to come up with plans to fuck every goddamn tribe in the frontier. You give the reigns of power to a 20 year old kid and of course he wants war.
The mandarins weren’t having it, though. Your majesty, you see, we signed treaties with all these people. We can’t just go and attack them just like that. And you know, your great grandfather weakened the army for this and that reason. Please don’t be so rash. It’ll be ok.
But the young emperor wasn’t having it. If these mandarins didn’t want war, he’d find some who did. By this time the Imperial Examinations had been going on for a 100 years. And for all its benefits, the imperial examination system had been producing more grads than there were official positions available. There was a pretty big cohort of frustrated intellectuals who wanted a government position but couldn’t get that. Interestingly the court paid a salary to all examination grads, even if they didn’t have an official job. But that didn’t help morale either. They wanted to do something, to prove their worth. A textbook example of elite overproduction. Eventually the emperor found a mandarin who was willing to play ball. He found Wang Anshi.
Wang Anshi sent a letter to the emperor telling that he knew exactly what to do to beat the evil barbarians, and that all the problems had been caused by evil mandarins who only thought of themselves. Wang Anshi had a far ranging plan of legal reforms, which amounted to the invention of Socialism. Yes, the Chinese also invented Socialism.
Wang Anshi argued that the tribute to barbarians had caused an increase in taxes which was oppressing the peasantry, and that rich landlords were making all the money. He basically ordered the nationalization of everything. Agricultural loans were to be done by the state; a welfare system was instituted for the old and the poor, prices were fixed, wages raised, speculation and monopolies forbidden by law. The raised revenue were to be used to reform the army and beat the barbarians.
Young emperor of course loved all this stuff. But the mandarins were really not having it. It was against them that all these reforms were aimed to. Landlords made their money by scamming the peasantry, giving them loans to buy seed, then buying grain at bottom rock prices when the harvest came all at once. All those commercial monopolies were also owned by mandarin families. This reform basically destroyed their fancy livelihoods, and they weren’t going to go down that easily. An extremely harsh factional fight paralized the whole government. Most of the mandarinate just wasn’t enforcing the new laws. Wang Anshi responded by removing all traditional checks on power and basically setting a dictatorship, and putting his own people in all important positions, reforming the very examination system so that future grads would be on his faction by default.
But the policies were just not working. Farming loans were being done by the government; so now the local officials became the landlords, and made money under the table for themselves. Local officials weren’t usually people of the land, so they extracted money even more viciously than the landlords, who had to be minimally nice to keep their local reputation. Government loans were set up to be lower than what landlords used to charge; but officials were actually forcing peasants to take loans even if they didn’t need them! Bureaucrats had quotas to meet, you know. So grab this super-low 20% interest loan now, or else. Ah, socialism.
The conservatives of course also took care to sabotage everything that the government was trying to do. They were pretty fond of their privileges, mind you. Eventually a famine happened, the local officials botched it, and the conservatives took the chance to blame it everything on Heaven’s displeasure with the damn socialists. The army reforms also didn’t go anywhere. As the rest of the world learned 900 years later: socialism doesn’t work because government officials are also people. It could have worked out if Wang Anshi had an army of devoted followers and 50 years to implement the whole thing. But he didn’t; all he had was his good prose and the favor of a dumb emperor. The whole thing barely lasted 5 years.
What it did do was completely destroy the stability of government. The mandarins had been a fairly cohesive bunch, playing nice with the emperor and with each other, respecting the constitution, such as it was, and governing by consensus. The New Laws of Wang Anshi brought factional disputes to court and henceforth everybody was constantly shitting on each other, and making up stuff in order to curry favor with the emperor. And the Emperor was into war. Yingzong died, succeeded by his son, who then died and was succeeded by his brother, who is this Huizong I’ve been writing about. Obviously the children followed the policies of their father. Not doing so would imply daddy was wrong, and that’s unfilial.
Several wars against the Tanguts resulted in complete destruction of the Song armies. They kept trying, though, I guess arguing that China had population to burn, which it arguably did. In 1096 the Song started to get the upper hand, but then the Khitan came in and threaten to attack the Song if it didn’t stop. The Song could barely manage to bully 10,000 Tibetan herders in the desert, but it was no match to the Khitan nomads in the Northeast, and grudgingly accepted.
So there we have Huizong, who was probably painting in his palace, while some concubine played the harp, and his buddies were pouring drinks while casually talking about those damn Khitans who denied our empire of its glory. Some day we should go raise an army and kill all those fuckers, right your majesty? Damn right, pour some more wine please.
Then news come that the Khitans are collapsing. The Khitan emperor Tianzuo had been an awful monarch. He spent the whole time, literally every day out of the palace with his buddies hunting in the countryside. The administration and the army decayed with rampant corruption, and nobody took care to straight things out.
Now even if the Khitan ruling class were a bunch of corrupt slackers, the Khitan still should have had nothing to worry about. The Tanguts to their west was effectively a vassal state, they had them bought and controlled; and the Song down south were just not a threat. They hardly had a functional army. So the Khitans could have potentially kept being a failed state forever. Alas, they had trouble to their east.
Now to recap, the Khitans were a steppe people, and their language has been proven to be related to Mongol. So they were yet another tribe of Mongolian horse-archers. Let’s look at the map again.
The Khitans lived in the steppe just north of China proper, beyond the mountains that encircle Beijing today. East of that there’s the Manchurian plain, but that’s not steppe. That’s forest. You can’t herd livestock there. You can’t farm it either, it’s freezing cold. The Manchurian plain was the land of, well, the Manchus, but they were called Jurchen back then. The Jurchen came in many varieties, some more civilized than others. A branch of the Jurchen (called by yet another name) had established the Bohai kingdom way back, but the Liao had destroyed it back in the 920s. So all that expanse of land was now mostly Jurchen tribes, down to the border with Korea. The Khitans set up a series of fortresses to keep them quiet, and extorted regular tribute in form of fish, fur, falcons, and other local produce.
Again, the Jurchens weren’t herders. They were hunter-gatherers. Very efficient hunter-gatherers. They fished a lot. They hunted all the time. Steppe riders make strong armies because they are very good horse-archers. They ride all the time, and they hunt a lot. But Mongols hunt for sport, they eat domesticated livestock. They don’t really need to hunt. The Jurchens didn’t have a choice: hunting was how they good their food. They practiced every single day. The Jurchens were such good archers that the Khitans report being amazed at how a Jurchen man could shoot a target 200 meters away.
The Jurchens were a bunch of unruly tribes who hated each other, but in recent years the Wanyan clan had risen and subdued most of the Jurchen tribes in the area where today the city of Harbin is. Now, in normal circumstances the Khitan court shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. It’s easier to control a bunch of divided tribes than a unified ethnic group. The Wanyan clan worked case by case, sent spies and sycophants to court, raised the tribute sent to the Khitan aristocrats, and basically sold them that it was in their best interest that the Wanyan owned the whole area so they could better control the locals and produce fur and falcon more efficiently. The Khitan were very much into fur and falcon; you didn’t get far in Khitan aristocracy if you didn’t have a falcon to hunt. And the Jurchens also sent troops to help the court crack down on an internal rebellion by a Khitan rebel. And so the Khitan court stupidly look the other way while the Wanyan started what was in retrospect an obvious case of state formation of the Jurchen people.
Eventually the Jurchens founded a good excuse and rose in rebellion against the Liao. Remember the Jurchens were a hunting people. The rebelling army was at most 2500 men, while the Liao had hundreds of thousand of soldiers at their command. But premodern war isn’t a question of numbers. The Jurchens slowly grew by targeting other ethnic groups which were discontent with the Khitan. When the Khitan sent a 100,000 army to quash the rebellion, the Jurchen knew all about it. They assaulted the camp at night with 3,000 men, and killed everyone on sight, completely destroying the Khitan army.
Asymmetric motivation is a very powerful force in history. The Jurchens were few, but they were strong, and they were fighting for their people, to build a state and lord over others. They fought willingly because they had little to lose, and lots to gain. The Khitan soldiers had very little reason to risk their necks in fighting the Jurchens. Fighting China is fun, you get into China, kill a bunch of wimps, and get to grab their stuff. Silk, pots, gold, women! But fighting the fierce Jurchens? What are you gonna grab from them? Smelly leather boots? The Khitan were no match for the Jurchens, who in no time took over all the fortresses in the Manchurian plains, and were dangerously close of the Khitan capital.
News of the Khitan troubles got to China’s capital. Our artist emperor was of course ecstatic. At last! We should take advantage of that. All the sycophantic ministers proposed making an alliance with the Jurchens. Let them take all the barbarian land they wanted, in exchange of the Song taking back the northern edge of the Chinese plain and the mountain passes. The Jurchens agreed, but stipulated that the Song had to take the land they wanted by themselves. The Jurchens weren’t going to do the job for them. Thus a formal alliance was achieved.
The whole thing stunk. For better or worse, Song China and the Khitan Liao Dynasty had been in peace for 100 years. The Khitans could’ve kicked Chinese ass any time they wanted, but they respected the treaty. Now that the Khitans were in trouble, the Chinese didn’t wait a minute in betraying the treaty and stabbing them in the back. That wasn’t a very nice thing to do. It wasn’t very smart either.
Nobody told Huizong that, though, who was still having fun playing soccer and visiting hookers through his secret tunnel. In 1121 He ordered his closest eunuch, Tong Guan, who is famous as the only bearded eunuch in Chinese history, to command 150,000 troops and go straight to the southern capital of the Khitans, what is today Beijing. The Khitans in their steppe homeland were running from the Jurchens as fast as they could; surely they wouldn’t hold in the south very long either.
But the Chinese were still just no match for the Khitans. The Khitan commander in the south, Yelu Dashi, who was also perhaps the most incredible heroes in this story, held the walls, struck back at the Song forces, and destroyed the whole army. 150,000 men, gone. The whole Song army vanished in what was supposed to be a cakewalk. The eunuch commander panicked. He couldn’t just go back and say he didn’t take the land! They execute you for that stuff. So he sent an envoy to the Jurchens, saying: “Hey, we’re having some trouble here conquering the city. Why don’t you come down yourselves and take it, in exchange you can have all the booty: the gold, the women, the children, take them all. We’ll pay for all supplies you need. After you’re done you leave and we’ll take the land as agreed, right?”.
Well, why not. The Jurchens found it to be a good deal, so they came back through the mountain passes, and conquered Beijing in a week. Grabbed the gold and valuables, took the local women as concubines, took the children as slaves, sent them back to the Jin capital, close to today’s Harbin. Just in case you don’t know, Harbin isn’t a very comfortable place.
It was probably colder back then, and at any rate it was a wooden village. No gas heating. All the virgins of Beijing were going to be enslaved there thanks to the ineptitude of the Song armies. Ineptitude that didn’t go unnoticed by the Jurchen armies on the ground. Remember they were supposed to hand the land over to the Song authorities. The Jurchens started discussing among themselves. “This guys suck, they couldn’t take a single city that took us a week”. But the Jurchen emperor, Aguda, was a man of honor. “We had an agreement, we’ll stand by it. I’m not the kind of man that takes advantage of the weakness of others”.
But then he died.
1800: Oh, you still have slaves? I freed all of mine.
1860: Did you know they still have slaves in the South? My sons have enlisted to kill those evil slavers.
1920: You listen to classical music? I go to a Jazz Club, there’s a black musician who is so awesome.
1950: I have a black secretary.
1970: I have a black friend.
1980: I have many black friends. I even slept with one.
1990: I have a black child. Well, half black.
2000: I adopted a fully black child. Straight from Africa. Zero white admixture.
2010: I adopted two black children. One from West Africa and one from East Africa.
This past Sunday, my gorgeous wife – a white evangelical, like me — gave birth to our beautiful African-American triplet daughters whom we adopted as embryos. These sweet girls will hopefully soon be coming home to meet their 3-year-old African-American brother and 2-year-old biracial sister, both of whom we adopted as infants.
People forget that Christians invented holiness signaling.
As a friend said, hopefully liberals will see that they can’t compete with evangelicals and will move to the other side. If that happens I’ll salute Mr. and Mrs. Halbert for saving civilization.
People are asking for more Chinese history. I agree. Chinese history is great. It’s long, it’s well documented, and it’s documented in explicitly moralistic terms. Chinese thought has been always focused in how to achieve good governance, and histories are written as to contain parables of what good government is, and what bad government leads to. The most valued history book in China, the Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑒, written by Sima Guang in 1084, again explicitly states that it is to be an aid for emperors and mandarins to achieve good governance. Good government leads to nice things. Bad government leads to death and misery. That’s all Chinese intellectuals have ever cared about. I think it’s a good priority to have.
Sima Guang was a brilliant scholar, and it’s a huge pity that he finished his book just before the best story in Chinese history happened. The Jingkang Incident of 1127. Oh man, that’s such a great, great story. There should be more books about it. It’s perhaps the most compelling story in the history of mankind. It’s just so unbelievably simple, yet dramatic. It’s so good it seems fiction. But no fiction is this good. Anyway, let me tell you this story. It’ll probably take several parts.
So again, the time is the Song Dynasty, 960-1279. If you’ve been reading my posts on the Water Margin, you have some minimum background. The Song Dynasty was under many accounts the most wealthy and successful of all Chinese dynasties. Not to date; the best dynasty, period. Better than anything than came later. Richer, more urbanized, and arguably with better technology. The Song Dynasty had machinery that the Qing Dynasty didn’t have in the 19th century. The Song economy had huge foreign trade links, and the Song government in 1000 again had higher revenues than the Chinese government in 1900.
Some argue that that was the result of better governance. As seen in the previous post, the Song had solved an eternal problem of Chinese governance: how to deal with the military and the aristocracy. The solution they took was to screw them both, and put the government completely in hands of the bureaucracy. They set up their model civil examination system, reduced the number of eunuchs to a minimum, took care the armies in the provinces didn’t get too big, kept most of the imperial family in the capital so they didn’t develop territorial power. I wonder if urban life was also meant to keep them busy having fun while depressing their fertility. Not a bad research idea.
Anyway, of course the obvious result of all that is that the army sucked balls. The Song army sucked really badly. How badly? Well compare a map of the dynasties of China.
This is the first big Chinese dynasty, the Han dynasty, 202 BC – 220 AD. See it owns most of China proper, it also includes north Vietnam, north Korea, and the Tarim Basin, i.e. the Silk Road oases where today the Uyghurs live. It didn’t start like that; the imperial territory was extended mostly by one guy, the emperor Wu (156-87), who was a truly amazing individual. I should write his story some day, but you could also watch 漢武大帝 which is an awesome show.
Anyway the Han Dynasty fell mostly when the Roman Principate fell. Like Rome too it kinda recovered once, but then they started fighting each other and the northern barbarians took over one half of it. Oh, parallels. And people say there are no patterns in history.
Anyway, Rome never recovered its glory, but China did unite again. It took a while, until the Sui Dynasty, but the whole thing didn’t start working properly again until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Tang’s peak territory looks like this:
Look at that. The Tang owned all the Han did, and then some. The Tang owned the whole Mongolian steppe, Central Asia well up to the borders of Persia, not only north but a big chunk of South Korea. Now all that is, well, theoretical. The core Chinese land remained the same, everywhere else was populated by foreign peoples. But the Tang had beaten them militarily, every single one, and forced them to swear allegiance. It didn’t take much for that allegiance to disappear; in about a century the Tang lost of all of Central Asia, the Tarim Basin, Mongolia and Korea. But the Tang had managed once to crush everyone, fair and square. The Chinese still love to read about the great Tang Taizong and how he led the best Chinese armies ever to beat everyone up to Persia.
Let’s look now at the Song then.
The Song were beyond small. They were by far the smallest dynasty in Chinese history. They lost Vietnam, which is still around by the way. They let a bunch of quasi-Tibetan herders, the Tanguts, grab the Northwest, the path to the Silk Road, land that had been Chinese for a thousand years. And they even lost the northern edge of the Chinese heartland, the land around Beijing today. Look at this topographic map.
You see that Beijing is at the edge of a huge plain. That’s why the capital is there, to watch the mountain passes which divide China proper from the steppes at the north. You must control those passes, else the nomads come raiding whenever they want. Well, to be fair, the Song hadnt lost it, nor it lost Vietnam or all the others. All those lands were taken during the civil war after the Tang collapsed. The Song just failed to recapture them. The area of Beijing was taken by the Khitan, a dynasty of Mongolic herders, which as you can see in the previous map, was big, very big, and very very strong. The Song tried dozens of time but they couldn’t dislodge them, nor could they beat the Tanguts, who were at most a bunch of ten thousand of herders. The Song was by far the smallest and weakest of all Chinese dynasties.
They didn’t care though: they were swimming in money. Losing access to the Silk Road forced them to trade by sea: and surprise, maritime trade is much more profitable! The Song Dynasty had higher revenues in 1000 than the Qing dynasty had in 1900. Their technology boomed: by some accounts the Song had better machinery than the Qing 800 years later. Urbanization rates were also the highest China ever saw until the 20th century.
The Song were weak, but they were rich: they decided it was cheaper to pay off the barbarians than to keep an army to fight them. And it was true. What were the barbarians going to do with all that silver anyway? They naturally spent it in buying stuff from China. So the silver went away as tribute, and came back as trade. Better than to keep an army of uppity generals and risk that they stage a rebellion or blackmail the court every now and then. While a section of the bureaucracy was against such a dishonorable treaty, the smartest Mandarins knew that in order to keep running the government they’d better pay off the barbarians and keep the military from having any influence at court.
It was a massive diplomatic coup. It worked brilliantly. The Khitan were actually fairly civilized people. They were literate in Chinese, developed their own script based on it, run a fairly sophisticated state apparatus. The problem between nomadic herders and settled farmers is that nomadic life is hard. It’s hard to live off animal products only. Nomads also want grain, cloth, paper, tea, you know, nice stuff. The only way of getting it is to trade or to take it by force. But the Khitan managed to invade a small bunch of Chinese land. It was enough for them; they got their small territory of Chinese land, full of Chinese farmers to make grain for them, Chinese scribes to run their government for them. The Khitan kept their capital north of the mountains, enjoyed their hunting and herding, and as long as the Song kept sending silver and silk, they respected a peace that lasted a 100 years.
The weakness of the Song solved the Mongol problem, allegedly for the price of the tax income of a single province. The army didn’t like it, but the army could go to hell. At the Song it was the mandarins who run things. And they were doing a mighty fine job. The population doubled to more than 100 million people. Printing was invented and developed into a national industry, as well as gunpowder. Art and literature also developed beyond anything previous. It was a Golden Age. Some people say the Song were on the breach of undergoing a capitalist revolution.
And so we come to the reign of Huizong, the year 1100.
Huizong was a very refined man. Look at his face. He was a very skilled artist, and his paintings and calligraphy have survived to our time. Take a look at the link, they’re very impressive. His handwriting is regarded as one of the best in Chinese history, and I’m particularly fond of it. It must be fun to be able to write like that. I’d be writing stuff all day.
Being an artist and all that, the emperor wasn’t very much into government stuff. He was more into the joys of life. He liked painting, writing poetry, drinking with friends, playing football (they played Cuju, which sounds incredibly hard but apparently was very popular back then). He was into women too. He famously didn’t like the uptight hookers that got sent to his palace, so he had a tunnel built to go from the palace to the fanciest brothel in the capital so he could have fun like just any other aristocrat.
He was also into gardening. He had the fanciest stones in the realm be sent to him to decorate his garden. Stuff like this.
South China is full of this weird porous stones, and our emperor had a fancy for them. He had them brought from everywhere, and sent to the palace, rewarding who brought them with lots of gold. The thing is some of these stones were huge. China had canals all around its territory, so they could be relatively cheaply transported by water. But canals have bridges over them, and some of this stones just didn’t fit below the bridges. So what did they do? These are Imperial Stones we’re talking about. Rapacious bureaucrats who wanted to look good with the emperor had bridges demolished just so they could push the stones through to deliver to the emperor. The historical record is full of commoners wailing at the injustice. This is of course the time of the Water Margin and its peasant rebellions led by herodudes.
Huizong was also fond of weird animals. He had a part of his garden set up as a zoo, full with tigers, elephants and giraffes he had sent from Africa. In summary you’ll have noticed that the emperor of the Great Song after 1100 AD is a fairly extravagant fellow. But hey, the Song is rich, they could afford a fanciful emperor. What they could not afford though is a stupid emperor. Because just as Huizong was having fun watching pandas battle with giraffes for bamboo at his home zoo, probably accompanied by some hooker, at this very moment his Khitan neighbors were in trouble. Very serious trouble.
Another Chinese story.
Royal absolutism was invented by Shang Yang in the Chinese state of Qin, 360 BC. Of course absolute rulers had existed before, in the Middle East obviously you had plenty of god-kings; but Shang Yang’s governance was recognizably modern. It was planned on secular terms, it had a central bureaucracy, and it explicitly took power from the nobility in order to strengthen the authority of the central government. The way it was framed is that the King deserves to have all the power, that’s why he’s the king; and that the king having all the power will result in more Order and better government, as the people will have no power to resist and create Chaos. Later Chinese political thought changed a lot: Confucianism was explicitly against Shang Yang’s ideas (what came to be known as Legalism). In fact one could think of Confucianism as the revolt of the upper middle class against the centralizing legalists. A sort of English or French revolution dynamic. Happens they lost; Confucianism only somewhat won in a very, very diluted way 300 later under emperor Wu of Han.
But the idea that the power of the Ruler should be absolute absolutely carried the day in Chinese political thought. That contrasts a lot with the Western tradition which since the Greeks is obsessed with Tyranny and Despotism and basically makes it hell to run a cohesive government. Power has to be shared or else Tyranny! Much of that was the spillover from the propaganda war on the Persian wars, where Greece was the Beacon of Liberty against the Persian Tyrant. Henceforth to be Greek meant to be against tyranny, because Persians. Then the Romans take over and the Romans were even more paranoid about central authority. They also had this trauma about the foreign Tarquins. The Romans really went the whole way by having two consuls which changed every year! That’s crazy when you think about it. How can you get anything done? The only way the Roman state was able to remain cohesive is that the plebs were constantly agitating and salivating for the chance of slaughtering all the patricians, so the Senate must have been pretty cohesive.
An idea of the Western tradition of Liberty is that it was passed down from the old Indo-Europeans, who were a martial people. All men were soldiers, and men of arms tend to be very zealous of their honor and autonomy, if only in exchange of surrendering every time there’s a war. I don’t know how much that follows, though. The Chinese had their own martial tradition too; the Zhou order was a feudal order which started after the Zhou king distributed the empire’s lands to his army buddies. Maybe it has something to do with pastoralism; but look at the Mongols. Then again the Mongols had been surrounded by China for centuries so maybe they got absolutism from there. It certainly didn’t come naturally.
Anyway, China invented central bureaucratic government in 330 BC, but it only refined it in a strikingly modern way during the Song Dynasty, 960-1279. As I wrote in a recent post, the Song Dynasty was founded by the general of the palace troops, who staged a coup against his lord, presumably forced by his own troops. The first thing he did after assuming the throne was to gather one advisor of him and talk of the future. He asked him: “Since the great Tang Dynasty fell, we’ve been through 8 emperors already. Wars all over the place, the people suffering misery and death. Thing’s messed up, how did all this happen?”
Minister said: “Oh man I so love that you asked that question. You’re awesome my lord. The answer is quite simple: the problem is that the ruler has no power, but his subordinates have too much. The provinces are too strong. Take away their power, their funding, their best troops, and the very next day the realm will be in Order.”
So the great founder of the Song Dynasty gathers his generals, who remember had semi-forced him to stage a coup and become emperor. He stages a sumptuous banquet and tells them:
“Gentlemen, if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here as emperor. Thing is, I kinda miss being just a general. Since I become emperor I haven’t slept a good night’s sleep.”
His general buddies are startled, and ask: “Oh your majesty, how can you say that?”.
The emperor responds: “Oh come on. It’s obvious. Who doesn’t want to take my place?”
The generals stand up, befuddled: “But, the Mandate of Heaven is yours, the realm is in peace, who could possibly even think of betraying you?”
The Emperor put a stern face and said: “Who doesn’t want to enjoy glory and riches? Come on. Even if you didn’t want to; if someday your troops come up, put a yellow robe on you by force, could you even refuse?”
That’s of course exactly what happened to him. The generals were now speechless. Couldn’t come up with anything to counter that. That’s just obviously true. They got the message, started crying, kneeled down, and with their heads down shouted, sobbing:
“We are stupid for not thinking of that. You are right, please tell us how to solve this problem. Please let us live.”
You might have asked yourself why they were crying. Thing is, the traditional way of solving this obvious problem had been to execute the new emperor’s buddies one by one. The Han Dynasty famously did that with every single one of the generals who had conquered the empire for Liu Bang. The Song founder telling them this was not just logical argument. In normal circumstances this was the prelude for the emperor’s pretorian guard rushing in and beheading them all on the spot.
The Song emperor wasn’t that kind of guy, though. He told them:
“Life is short and hard as it is. Why not just grab some money, some land, fancy real estate to leave your children and grandchildren; get some fancy dancing girls to enjoy your old age. Spend the rest of your days drinking and laughing, without fights and grudges, isn’t that the best?”
You damn bet it is. The generals took the offer and spend their rest of their lives enjoying the pleasures of life. The Song emperor then established the most rational and orderly central government in China. The civil service exam was set as the only path to officialdom, it’s standards were raised, corruption was crushed. Exams were long, and hard. The answer sheets were anonymized; an army of scribes copied every exam by hand, so that the examiner couldn’t recognize the handwriting. The imperial relatives received no privileges, the emperor intermarried with mandarin families. The army was crushed and rearranged so that no single general could mass any amount of troops nor spend enough time to develop any feelings of loyalty with them. Chinese history had been plagued with military rebellions. The Song Dynasty solved that problem for good.
As a result, the Song army kind of sucked. But that’s a story for another day.
Mr. Taleb, welcome to the dark side.
I’d be interesting in his ideas about how to deal with the agency problem and rent-seeking. The straight-forward way of eliminating the agency problem should be obvious; although I don’t know if he wants to go there. As I’ve written a lot I’m also skeptical of the amount of skin that actual kings have in the game. Many, if not most, ended up not bothering.
As for rent seeking, the problem is quite intractable. As far as my knowledge of history tells me, rent-seeking is only reduced when a war (this includes civil wars, revolutions, coups) happens and the central authority does the necessary reforms to reduce sinecures and put all resources where they’re needed. Of course as a by-product you get a strengthened central government which tends not to be a good thing.
A while ago I wrote some posts on the classical Chinese novel, the 14th century Water Margin 水滸傳. The Water Margin is the story of 108 outlaws, in the original 英雄好漢, which literally translates as hero 英雄 yīngxióng and … 好漢 hǎohàn is very hard to translate. 好 means good, that one’s easy, but 漢 means, well, Han, the Han Dynasty, the Han race we know today. It also means man, today normally expressed as 漢子 hànzi. But not just man, that’s 男 nán. A 漢 is a real man, a strong, manly man, respected by his peers. You call someone a 漢子 hànzi as a compliment, to mean he’s a real man. Add 好 to that, and you have a good+real man. I’d translate it as dude, for lack of a better fit, and also because it fits with the whole LARPing atmosphere of the men in the Water Margin.
They’re just a bunch of outlaws, some with good reason, fleeing from the injustice of tyrannical government, some who lost their families to evil but connected people. Others though are just punks and hooligans; small time robbers, mountain bandits, drunkards, smugglers, that kind of people. That they spend the time calling each other great heroes is quite hilarious. Still, China has a long tradition of vagrancy and men doing their own thing, i.e. learning martial arts and forming gangs of bandits. Not everyone could pass the mandarin exam, you know. And those mandarins in the government didn’t have the resources to police the whole country, so there was always very easy to hide in the mountains and make a living of highway robbery. If you got very big, chances were the government would give up on arresting you, and would rather take it easy and give you an official position in the army or government. Once an outlaw became a Mandarin he was way easier to arrest or even assassinate as expedient. Never bet against the government.
There are tons of great stories in the Water Margin, and one of the most interesting is the story of Chái Jìn 柴進. Mr. Chai, or Lord Chai as he is usually called, is a very rich guy, who gets into the novel because he becomes the patron of many of the outlaws in the novel. He says he enjoys “meeting hero-dudes”, whom he houses and feeds in his compound for months at a time, while having them fight each other. Kinda like patronizing wrestlers in your house and have them put a show for you every now and then. Mountain banditry is fun, but there’s not always enough to rob, and the government is always trying to kill them, so they tend to look for wealthy patrons who can feed them during bad times, and protect them from the police, who won’t dare disturb wealthy aristocrats. Wealthy aristocrats also find it useful to have a bunch of goons at their disposal.
Lord Chai in the novel appears as a very high class, cultured man. He owes his position as his being the direct descendant of Chái Róng 柴榮, the last emperor of the Later Zhou Dynasty. The history goes like this. Remember that the Water Margin is based in the 1100s. Centuries earlier China had the Tang Dynasty, glorious apogee of imperial China from 618 to 907. After the Tang empire collapsed, China fractured in a dozen or so little kingdoms, constantly fighting each other, in an era called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. At the end of that big civil war, one of the big warlords started to get the upper hand, and founded the Later Zhou Dynasty. It’s second emperor was this Chái Róng, and he managed to conquer almost all of North China. Here’s a little map.
Chái Róng was a military genius, a real leader of man, and he appeared poised to conquer the whole of China and restore a unified empire. But then he died. 38 years old. Damn. He left a heir, a 6 year old boy, who of course had never left the palace, and was under the control of his mother and a bunch of ministers, eunuchs, sycophants and all that. The army wasn’t happy with having a bunch of bookworms and women running the show. Especially because the first thing that the new government did was send the garrison at the capital out to the war front, with the obvious intent of having them killed, so they could purge the capital and put new, loyal men in their place.
The head of the palace garrison, Zhao Kuangyin 趙匡胤, was of course very close to the late emperor Chai Rong, which is why he was in charge of the palace troops. The new regent government sent him out to the front to fight the Khitans, the Mongols of the day. He of course marched on, but on crossing the first bridge out of the capital, his troops mutinied. It went something like this, I translate very liberally:
“My general, it’s obvious that the new government wants you killed. Which is cool, but that means that all of us have to get killed too, and we’d rather not die, if you don’t mind.”
“What do you suggest then.”
“We got you a yellow imperial robe, so put this on and let’s go slaughter those eunuchs in the palace and put you as emperor.”
“Wow wow wait a minute. What?”
“Look, you can do it, or your brother will. He’s rather keen on the idea.”
And so General Zhao got his army, run back to the capital, staged a coup, and declared himself emperor of the Song Dynasty, which was to (mostly) reunify China, and last 319 years, 960 to 1279. Note that the events of the coup at Chen bridge are my personal interpretation. Officially he was drunk, his officers put the robe on him by force, he was reluctant but his officers didn’t leave him much of a choice. His brother is said to have “persuaded him”. I wonder how. He eventually murdered him and became the second emperor of the dynasty, by the way.
Anyway, General Zhao starts the Song Dynasty, which is the dynasty under which the events on the Water Margin unfold. Usually in China the founding emperor of a Dynasty leaves a set of ancestral rules, to be followed by all his descendants. One of the rules the first emperor of the Song Dynasty set was “Be nice to the Chái family.” Zhao Kuangyin owed all he had to the patronage of Chai Rong, but he had just usurped the throne from his 6 year old son. He had good reason to do so; but he understandably felt guilty about it. So he left it as Ancestral Law, that the Chái family were to given privileges in all eternity. They were given an Iron Plate, which basically said that government officials had no right to enter their house premises, nor could they be put to death or torture under any circumstances.
And 5 generations or so later we get to Chái Jìn, who is the holder of the Iron Plate, and uses it to make hero-dude friends, who love the extraterritorial privilege of their house. Ostensibly, Lord Chai uses his privilege to make friends with good, virtuous men, who have been oppressed by evil government. So his house is a refuge for good men, and eventually becomes a base for the virtuous movement against corruption and tyranny. Which is the point of the whole book, our 108 herodudes rebelling to clean the government from evil and corrupt ministers, and restore power to our great Emperor, who of course knows nothing about it. Nothing at all.
Anyway, eventually the uncle of Lord Chai gets into a fight with some punk in his town, and eventually dies of his injuries. Lord Chai gathers up his herodudes and goes beat the guy who killed his uncle, and they beat him to death too. But apparently that punk was no ordinary punk. Else he wouldn’t have dared touch the uncle of Lord Chai, of course. It happens that punk was the brother in law of the county governor. The county governor was of course livid at a relative of his beating beat to death. He mobilized the whole government forces, and went up to Lord Chai’s house with an arrest warrant.
But wait, doesn’t Lord Chai have the Iron Plate? Given by the imperial house itself? You can’t touch the guy. It’s against the law.
Well, as it happens the county governor was the cousin of Gáo Qiú 高俅, an imperial minister and very close friend of the emperor himself. Whatever the Iron Plate says, the county governor had a relative in high places. That means that he could do as he pleased. Yes, Lord Chai had the Iron Plate. But so what? News of his attacking an Iron-Plate holder will never get to the emperor, he’ll take care of that. And in the event that the emperor does get to know, what is he going to do? Go against his best friend because of some 200 year old law? To defend some guy he doesn’t even know about? No chance. Lord Chai was arrested and tortured alongside his whole family, and his large estate taken from him.
Of course the herodudes on knowing of this event rushed off to his rescue, conquered the whole county and killed all the evil officials they found, and then some. Lord Chai was rescued and joined the herodude fortress base at Liang Shan, where he realized how The Law works.
And how does the law work? The law is just a piece of paper, or in this case a piece of iron. It does nothing by itself. It’s power depends on people enforcing it, people with weapons. But why do people enforce it? Because it’s their job, you’ll say. But that’s not how it works, is it? Your job description is yet another piece of paper. Your real job, in any organization, is to keep your boss happy. To do that you’re often supposed to do what’s written in your job description. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be so. Sometimes your boss wants something else, and if you wanna keep your job, you better do what he wants.
That people generally are asked to do their job descriptions and not something else, depends on the fact that your boss likely has another big boss on top of him, and other fellow bosses alongside him, who compete with him on getting favor from the big boss. If your boss asks for you something that you’re not in theory supposed to do, some other middle-boss may tell big-boss about that, and then he’s in trouble. Unless big-boss is in league with the whole thing too, in which case it’s the squealing middle-boss is in trouble.
The law gets enforced because the people in power want in enforced. If they don’t want it enforced, it doesn’t. Border security is the law. It’s not enforced. Firing employees for being opposed to gaymarriage isn’t in the law. But it does get enforced. As Moldbug said of the Constitution, either a law reflects the will of the powerful, and it’s thus superfluous, or it doesn’t, and is then deceitful. It’s not that simple in practice: putting things to writing is not superfluous. It creates a small milepost, a Schelling point, which people can point at in order to use in their status competition. But it only works so far as people in power find it useful, or there’s a culture which upholds respect for agreements beyond their actual use.
China never developed any tradition of jurisprudence, because they understood this very principle of politics. I sometimes think that the Chinese were too smart and realistic for their own good. Delusion can be good. The rule of law is pretty great if it works. Europe conquered China, not the other way around. But again, delusions only last so long, and in the end reality always asserts itself. The rule of law is dying in a way that wouldn’t surprise the author of the Water Margin. Meanwhile China keeps being China. As Aldous Huxley wrote in one of his travel diaries:
I have seen places that were, no doubt, as busy and as thickly populous as the Chinese city in Shanghai, but none that so overwhelmingly impressed me with its business and populousness. In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life. Old Shanghai is Bergson’s elan vital in the raw, so to speak, and with the lid off. It is Life itself. Each individual Chinaman has more vitality, you feel, than each individual Indian or European, and the social organism composed of these individuals is therefore more intensely alive than the social organism in India or the West. Or perhaps it is the vitality of the social organism – a vitality accumulated and economised through centuries by ancient habit and tradition. So much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing – the spectacle of it inspires something like terror. All this was going on when we were cannibalistic savages. It will still be going on, a little modified, perhaps by Western science, but not much-long after we in Europe have simply died of fatigue.