Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There is nothing new under the sun. Even so, one reels with the shock of recognition when finding clear shadows of today in the pages of ancient history.
I’ve been fairly immersed lately in the Warring States period (475—221 BC) of Chinese history lately. That period and the Spring and Autumn era immediately preceding it (771—476 BC) were times of division for China. First there were five kingdoms vying for supremacy, and then one of the five split into three, leaving seven powers to fight as “Warring States.”
According to many historians, precisely because of division, these were also times of great intellectual ferment, so that these should really be considered China’s golden age. (This is a serious if surprising theory in Chinese historiography, that essentially this civilization has been in inexorable decline since 221 BC in a kind of long twilight.)
Confucianism and Daoism and all the other great schools of Chinese philosophy began in this time. Sunzi lived and wrote The Art of War in this time, as did other founders of the tradition of strategic thought. Chinese literature saw its first great flowering in folk poetry and ballads. Our contemporary image of China as one big country originated when the Warring States ended with one of the kingdoms, Qin (origin of the English word “China”), becoming a superpower and swallowing up the rest. But the preceding five and half centuries certainly contradict that image.
And as I reread much of this history, I find many of our contemporary issues already reflected in the debates and events from that distant time and place.
Race and Immigration
One oft-repeated adage used to justify xenophobia in contemporary Chinese discourse comes from The Commentary of Zuo, a text from the 4th century BC: “Those who are not our people necessarily have hearts that differ.” (“非我族類 其心必異.”) The maxim seems to justify both discrimination against racial minorities and distrust of foreigners.
But that’s not what the statement meant at all. First, the man who said it and the man he said it about are both from what is now the same country. Second, he wasn’t talking about race at all. The kingdoms at the time operated on a clan system, so that in any one kingdom, outside of the king himself, other royal kinsmen often held positions of power. This comment was saying, “We can’t trust people who aren’t our literal cousins.” Obviously it’s not useful advice.
Additionally, during that time of division, individuals who couldn’t get opportunities in one country naturally tried their luck in another, so that a great many statesmen of the time served kingdoms other than their native lands. Toward the end of the Warring States, King Zheng of the Qin, who would eventually unify the country and become the First Emperor (“Qinshihuang,” as we call him), decided that he didn’t like immigrants. He issued a deportation order against them. One immigrant named Li Si, as he was in the process of being deported, wrote to the king counseling him against this course of action. Much as today’s immigration advocates point out that Google was cofounded by an immigrant, Li argued that the foreign-born that King Zheng was sending away would now go and work for his adversaries. The king repented and rescinded his order. Not only that, but he also made Li his prime minister, and Li went on to help him conquer the other six kingdoms.
Hong Kong, NBA, and South Park
When King Zheng became the First Emperor, he set the example for future centralized rule. He built highways radiating out from his capital so that he and his armies could reach every corner of the country. While the Chinese language had diverged throughout the seven kingdoms, the First Emperor banned alternative writing styles and forced everyone to conform to one standard.
The same debate of unity vs. division plays out in today’s Hong Kong and perhaps tomorrow’s Taiwan. Why is it so important for Beijing to maintain unity and control? Well, the First Emperor made that the goal of all emperors to come. And there were those who opposed the First Emperor, rival statesmen and brave assassins who prized local independence or individual liberty over national cohesion. So similarly there are leaders and activists who oppose centralization today.
And as the Hong Kong protests became international news, the NBA and — of all things — South Park have gotten caught up in the debate. Americans are now watching with a degree of incredulity as their people and their institutions are suddenly under pressure from Beijing to toe the party line. But all of this sounds very familiar to one reading the history of the First Emperor.
Besides forcing everyone to write the same characters (the equivalent of standardizing spelling in English), the First Emperor also instituted content censorship. Books that criticized him or his government, or even presented alternative views, were banned and burned. And he decreed that their authors be buried alive. Today’s Westerners may wonder why Beijing is so sensitive, why it can’t take criticism from a sitcom aired in a foreign country. Well, as one of the world’s OG dictators, the First Emperor believed that the slightest dissent could grow into revolution. And just as the emperor’s authority extended to “all that is under heaven,” so today’s Beijing sees no reason not to ban criticisms against itself even in a distant country.
The Wall, and Its Destruction
I previously wrote about Trump’s proposed border wall and the Chinese example of the Great Wall. Just as the border wall will surely prove useless, so the Great Wall actually never stopped any of the great invasions in Chinese history.
And who originally ordered the Great Wall’s construction? The First Emperor, of course. Just as today the American border wall will cost billions of dollars, so the Great Wall, built by forced labor, cost possibly hundreds of thousands of lives.
Even so, after the Wall became a reality, it entered Chinese lexicon as a metaphor for something that helps to uphold our world or way of life. And there arose an expression: “To demolish one’s own Great Wall.” Still commonly used today, it refers to when someone foolishly destroys the very thing that has protected him or given him an advantage, thus undermining himself.
What is America doing today, in Washington and in the Middle East, if not demolishing its own Great Wall?
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."