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.