Bloody shovel

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?”


Actual portrait of Zhao Kuangyin, founder of the Song Dynasty

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.


22 responses to “The distribution of power

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  3. Hurlock April 20, 2016 at 01:32

    “As a result, the Song army kind of sucked. But that’s a story for another day.”

    That’s the same army that got wrecked by the Mongols, right?

    • With the thoughts you'd be thinkin April 20, 2016 at 02:41

      Yes but they had alreadly lost the northern bits of China to other steppe people, first to the Liao dynasty who were Khitans cousins of the Mongols and then moreso to the Jin dynasty who were Jurchens (proto-Manchus).

    • spandrell April 20, 2016 at 02:56

      They actually put a pretty good fight against the mongols.

      • Hurlock April 20, 2016 at 03:07

        Really? I thought the Mongols had a relatively easy time conquering China. I am no expert of course. Maybe we should get a story about that too.

        Speaking of which, I gotta say I love your posts/anecdotes on Chinese history, they are great.
        I should collect them in a book and read them to my children one day for some valuable life lessons.

        “Tales of Fools, Eunuchs and Emperors” by Uncle Spandrell

        • spandrell April 20, 2016 at 03:44

          Heh. Thanks.
          Baghdad fell in 1258, the Song capital in 1276. Baghdad is far, far from Mongolia. They put a very good fight. The terrain helped too, of course.

          • Toddy Cat April 20, 2016 at 19:07

            Yeah, in their heyday, the Mongols were about as close to being unbeatable as any force ever has been, at least on even remotely open ground. But given that the Song put up a pretty good fight against an almost unstoppable force, why do you say their army sucked? I don’t know much about Chinese history pre-Yuan, and I’m genuinely curious…

  4. Rollory April 21, 2016 at 05:48

    This sounds a lot like what happened with the Roman emperor Aurelian.

    Aurelian became emperor towards the end of the “Crisis of the Third Century”, which was a period where emperors were falling like bowling pins and every new emperor’s first priority was to go around killing anybody who might get ideas about looking good wearing purple – in part because many of the emperors came up that way, as provincial governors or generals who revolted for example.

    The empire at that time was divided into three separate empires: Italy, the Balkans, and North Africa were Roman, the Near East and Egypt were ruled from Palmyra, while Gaul, Spain, and Britain were the Gallic empire. This separation was the result of a long period of chaos and infighting in Rome.

    The Gallic empire happened a lot like one of your Chinese episodes: the troops decided they wanted promotions, grabbed the nearest governor, and ordered him to declare himself emperor. So he did. The Palmyrene empire was a bit more intentional; a fellow named Odenathus put things in order, stopped paying taxes to Rome, and hey, I’m emperor now, why not. He had a wife named Zenobia who, when he died, simply kept running everything herself.

    Aurelian was a military guy. If I’m remembering things right, the first thing he did was slaughter the Praetorian guards who had murdered the previous emperor. No more of that crap. Then he set about reconquering all the lost provinces. The Gallic empire proved simpler than he probably expected: he got a secret message from the governor/emperor, saying basically “I can’t just surrender to you because my troops will kill me, but I don’t mind losing, can we work something out?” They did, Aurelian captured him, the Gallic troops gave up without their figurehead, and the west was reunited.

    Next, Palmyra. Zenobia wasn’t at all open to that sort of deal. Aurelian had to fight his way in, reconquer the eastern half of the empire piece by piece, finally cornering her in Palmyra and laying siege to it. When the city was about to fall, she escaped, headed for Persia in hopes of finding refuge there. His troops caught up with her on the banks of the Euphrates.

    Now, for basically any Roman emperor prior to this moment, there would have been one and only one thing to do with captives of this sort: executions, horribly torturous for the amusement of the Roman mob if possible. It just was not acceptable that anybody who had actually BEEN emperor before could be permitted to live, because they had direct experience of the perks and might want it back, and every emperor knew how horribly insecure the position was. (There is exactly ONE case prior to the Eastern Empire definitively losing control of the west where the imperial succession went father-son-grandson, that being the family of Constantine. It was incredibly unstable the rest of the time.)

    Aurelian’s take, though, was that they had both been emperor/empress, and knew what a bitchy job it was.

    He set up the guy from Gaul in a nice villa just outside of Rome, and stopped by for dinner a few times. Zenobia was brought back to show her off – “yeah, I got her” – and then set up with her own place; just a normal Roman matron, part of high society. Edward Gibbon reports that it was claimed her descendants still lived in Rome centuries later.

    Neither one of them ever gave him or anybody else any trouble.

    Aurelian himself got murdered by one of his soldiers who was afraid of being chewed out over a trivial matter, but the treatment of the ex-sovereigns seems to have set a precedent. Certainly when Julian was emperor and working to set the empire on an even keel for a bit, before he went off to get himself killed by the Persians, he handled things in a similarly relaxed fashion – he got wind of somebody having a full suit of purple made, investigated, found that it was an actor, and dropped the matter; and responded to pamphlets criticizing his policies quite severely by writing and distributing pamphlets of his own, rather than having the authors executed. The pattern of incredibly violent instability dissappeared from the succession, at least in the West. (In fact the succession to Aurelian stayed undetermined for the better part of a year because the army and Senate were each insisting that they were recusing themselves and didn’t want to overstep their bounds and it was properly the responsibility of the other group. Nobody tried to take advantage; everybody just waited for them to sort it out – which would have been unthinkable a decade earlier.)

    • Rollory April 21, 2016 at 06:11

      I should add that Julian himself was an example of the more forgiving attitude toward rivals. He was Constantine’s nephew; he and his brother were quite literally locked up in a tower for a dozen years after their father was murdered in a political struggle. The sons of Constantine, however, rather than treating them as unacceptably dangerous rivals, instead kept them around as spare heirs – which turned out to be needed when the older two had died. Even after Julian’s brother was caught plotting against Emperor Constantius (which pretty much left no choice but to execute him), Julian was pulled out of storage and given authority anyway.

    • spandrell April 21, 2016 at 09:40

      Yes, I was just thinking that the post-Tang civil war had a lot of similarities to 3rd century Rome.

      I remember the Byzantines being extremely brutal, though. So leniency towards the loser didn’t last that long.

  5. Erebus April 21, 2016 at 09:01

    “…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!”

    I don’t think that what you describe is a part of the Western tradition.

    To the Greeks, the word “tyranny” did not have the deeply negative connotations we presently associate with it. A great many Greek city-states were tyrannies — even Athens was governed under tyranny for generations, after the fall of its abortive experiment with democracy. (And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, its “democracy” was nothing we would recognize, as it only granted the vote to a fraction of its men.) What’s also interesting to note is that, as Aristotle put it, “The greatest number of tyrants have arisen as leaders of the people (demagogoi), so to speak, having won confidence by slandering the notables.” (Politics 1310b14) So it was the demos that tended to ask for tyranny in the first place!

    It is also worth mentioning that Rome reached the pinnacle of its power and influence under its despotic Emperors. And power was never shared equally in the Roman Republic; it was effectively a mixed Aristocracy/Oligarchcy — where descendants of Old Roman families, and the wealthy, were heavily privileged and prioritized in the census. As Cicero himself said, “the greatest number should not have the greatest power.”

    …That European men of the Middle Ages had no particular aversion to monarchy, and that it was by a tremendous margin the dominant form of government, should go without saying.

    The West’s present slavishly worshipful attitude towards “democracy” and “equality” is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, the exceptionally virulent modern strain of democracy-worship and “government by the people” — which the Ancients would be sure to call ochlocracy — barely goes back 100 years. It’s certainly not a part of our cultural heritage that you can trace back to Greece. (Quite the contrary, as the greatest Greek and Roman thinkers held that sort of thing in open contempt. Were society true to the Western tradition, our governments would look and function more like Monaco’s.)

    …Anyway, to echo Hurlock above, these posts on Chinese history are great.

    • spandrell April 21, 2016 at 09:47

      The English beheaded their king. The Hungarians were close to. The Carolingian empire lasted a generation. The Holy Roman Empire was a joke. The Roman republican was explicitly anti-monarchical, and the Empire had to play lip service to the whole thing, with real consequences. Even Byzantium 2000 years after the Tarquins didn’t have a proper succession mechanism. Doesn’t mean they were democrats, but the European tradition is definitely oligarchical.

      Medieval monarchies were also a primus inter pares affair; they had to gather the nobles in Parliament and beg for money every time they wanted to do something. The very idea of parliaments and chartered cities is unfathomable in China. The emperor rules all under heaven and that’s all there is to it.

      Thanks for the compliments, more to come.

  6. jamesd127 April 23, 2016 at 02:02

    Something odd here. The British were dismayed by General Cromwell taking power, even though he clearly saved the day and ruled well, and therefore instituted an army that was remarkably feudal, where each regiment was to a substantial extent the personal henchmen of some nobleman officered by his kinsmen, as a precaution against the military taking power.

    This was the absolute opposite of the Song solution, and it undeniably worked. The army operated like a coalition of bandits and warlords, but was absolutely loyal to the rightful king.

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