Don't call it a spade
The distribution of power
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.