Don't call it a spade
Tales from the patriarchy
The way of properly learning a language is to do what languages are made for: use it. Ideally, live your usual life, do whatever it is you like doing, and just try to find a way to insert that language you’re learning into your daily routine. So if, say, you like movies, and you’re learning Persian, well, stop watching Hollywood crap and go pick up some Persian movies.
I get asked about books on Chinese history, and I tend not to know what to say. I haven’t read a lot of Chinese history books in English. Certainly not any general ones. I read China in World History by Adshead after Steve Sailer recommended it. It’s a fascinating book, not very accurate, but a fun read for beginners, so I do recommend it too. Generally speaking most English books on China are pretty bad, and badly written. With the exception of Frederick Wakeman’s, which are awesome.
What I often do to read up on Chinese history is watch a historical TV show, then stop anytime something bugs me and go check out the primary sources out there in Wikisource. If the thing is interesting I check out 知乎, China’s much improved version of Quora, where they have detailed explanations and book recommendations. If the topic is interesting enough I get the (Chinese-language) book.
There’s a recent TV show in China about 司馬懿 Sima Yi, one of the most important leaders of the Three Kingdoms period. The whole period, which lasted about 100 years, 180 to 280 AD, is the most written about in the history of China, mostly because of the sheer force of personality of the men of the time. Dozens upon dozens of great warriors and statesmen. Sima Yi wasn’t the most colorful of them, but arguably he was the guy who won the game. He was a quiet minister of the northern kingdom, Cao Wei, where he served and outlived three emperors. The guy was so good at anything he did, so influential that part of the imperial family decided to get rid of him, lest he took power for himself and made a puppet of the imperial court. He let the court take away all his power for 10 years. Then out of the blue he run a coup d’etat, where… he took power for himself and made a puppet of the imperial court. At 72 year old he executed thousands upon thousands of imperial kinsmen. Then he died. His soon took over, then died. Then his grandson decided to do away with the charade and took the throne for himself. He then started the 晉 Jin Dynasty.
So anyway, the show is pretty good. But it’s of course adapted to modern sensitivities. But not so much, I was very surprised to see a scene where he kills the whole family of his main rival in the coup, 曹爽 Cao Shuang. The usual penalty for treason in China was 夷三族, “leveling of the three families”. There are conflicting records on which three families this referred to, but basically it meant killing the whole extended family, clients included. So all wives, brothers, children, parents, uncles and aunts. All beheaded, if possible together. The scene in the series shows Cao Shuang’s 3 year old son, tied up in white clothes, in front of the beheading platform. They don’t show his head being cut off, of course, but the mere sight of a 3 year old boy in front of a beheading platform would get most housewives in the West calling for their smelling salts and yelling at social media.
Anyway, kudos for China for their accuracy in that front. Shame on China for their lack of accuracy in what remains, in my view, the still biggest and most encroached area of progressive influence in modern China. Women. I write a lot about how Islam is a better deal for Men than Western culture, which is why Muslim immigrants refuse to integrate, and in fact radicalize further in their faith after moving to the West. But if Islam is a good deal, old Chinese culture was the freaking lottery. Polygamy among the gentry in China was not only legal: it was expected. And there was no limit to the number of wives you could acquire. Girls were sold as property at 13-15 years old, and no self-respecting men would not get a new wife every 5-10 years if he could afford to.
Of course having too many wives was frowned upon. It was a sign of lack of seriousness. Women are something men like, but men should like other things more, manly things. Warfare and government. Reading and the arts. Women were entertainment, who also happened to produce children, which are always nice to have, as they make heirs, and daughters which you can give to you friends’ sons.
It is unconceivable that a man of the stature of Sima Yi would not have a handful of wives. And indeed he had, four of them in total. His first wife, Lady 張 Zhang, is said to have had a temper. That means that… she had a temper. In the TV show though, tailored to modern sensitivities, for commercial reasons if only, as most TV show viewers are women, Lady Zhang is a kung-fu master who accompanies her mild-mannered husband at war, does ninja work to help him in his conspiracies, and basically runs the household with an iron clit. Amazingly (progress!) the show has Sima Yi welcome a second wife. The show makes it look like the emperor forces upon him a second wife, Lady 柏 Bai to spy on him, and that makes his first wife, Lady Zhang, to flare up in outraged fury. How dare you get a second wife! A good 5 episodes are dedicated to this story. But she eventually accepts the fact and they get along together, the second wife being super smart or something.
Which I guess it’s great fun for modern housewives, who like soap operas of women fighting for status. But as a historical show, the whole premise is ridiculous in the extreme. First of all, Lady Bai was his fourth wife. That’s 4 women. Second, Lady Zhang was just some boring housewife with a temper, no super ninja. Third, while Chinese wives were indeed never happy about their husbands getting another wife, there was nothing they could do about it. Ancient China didn’t recognize divorce, but wives nagging about concubines was one of the few cases where it was granted. Lady Zhang, first wife, may indeed have given shit to Sima Yi about it, but only so much of it, and the idea that Sima Yi would be apologetic about it, that he would feel sorry about getting a younger and hotter wife, is just preposterous.
Don’t take my word about it though, the official history of the Jin Dynasty says it for me. The historian in charge was funny enough to add this piece of domestic life of Sima Yi.
Sima Yi spent more time with Lady Bai; Lady Zhang hardly ever saw him anymore. One day, Sima Yi was sick, lying in bad, and Lady Zhang went to see him. Sima Yi saw her and said: “You annoying old thing, why did you bother coming out?”. Lady Zhang was so angry and embarrassed that she stopped eating, and was going to kill herself. All her children [note: the elder, most legitimate heirs of him] stopped eating too. Sima Yi was startled and went to apologize, so she stopped (started to eat again). Sima Yi then left and told his men: “the old thing doesn’t deserve pity, what bothered me was my poor good boys!”.
This anecdote is not only funny today; it was funny even then, as it takes 3 lines of the 8 total lines that Lady Zhang, posthumous empress, got in the official history. I love how he called her, 老物, “old thing”. Plenty to comment here: wives being annoying in any time and any social stratum, wives using their children as weapons in order to get what they want. Human nature.
Sima Yi was a huge prick, unlike the mild gentle man he is in this TV show. In previous renditions he’s written more accurately. But hey, he founded a dynasty, he was the towering general and statesman of the most tumultuous and interesting era in 5000 years of China. Of course he was a prick.