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.
Wen Tianxiang has been on my mind from time to time since the November 2016 election.
If you’ve never heard of him, that’s okay, I didn’t expect that you have. But like Chinese school children in the seven hundred years before me, I grew up reading about him as the paragon loyalty and patriotism, virtues that today’s Americans can use. To me, he was a Chinese Boethius.
So imagine the frown on my face when I came across this description of him: “[H]e was too inflexible to be a great politician — passionate, intolerant, arrogant and a complete pain to work with,” whose refusal to surrender to the Mongols even after all was lost, even when he languished in prison, was “masochistic.”
But let me back up and explain. Wen was born in 1236 in the latter days of the Southern Song Dynasty. At the age of twenty, he qualified for and participated in the highest level of the civil service examination, which took place at the imperial palace. For his essay for the exam, he wrote a policy proposal for reforming the Song government. Reading it, the emperor personally named him top of the class. A political career followed. But in these same years, the Mongol Empire, now under Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan, was inexorably encroaching upon Song territory in the south. After years of bitter campaigning and much slaughter, Kublai’s army finally triumphed. Wen spent his entire private fortune on raising an army of resistance and led it until it failed, and he languished in a dungeon as the POW of a lost cause.
Kublai, knowing Wen’s reputation for brilliance, personally visited him in prison and offered him a high position in his government and a life of luxury if he would only bend the knee. Wen refused and asked for death instead. Kublai kept him alive for several years hoping to change his mind through time and privation. But Wen never wavered, even though his master, the Song emperor, had already surrendered and even came to prison to try to convince him to do the same. Instead, like Boethius writing The Consolation of Philosophy, he wrote some immortal poetry from prison, poetry that the same 700 years’ worth of school children have had to memorize. Finally, out of despair that almost matched that of his prisoner, Kublai executed him as a hopeless case.
The rather different assessment of the man I quoted at the beginning comes from Kublai Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China by the British historian and travel writer John Man. Man notes the enormous personal cost of Wen’s loyalty: “[H]is unwavering loyalty had caused the deaths of his mother and three children. His wife, two concubines and three other children were captured. His wife would be in detention for 30 years. One of the children died; two would remain in permanent exile.”
But Man is not unsympathetic to Wen’s moral choices: “For Wen... [s]uch high ideals were surely immortal.” Indeed, Man quotes Thomas Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome as comparison and illustration for Wen’s commitment:
And how can man die better
But ultimately, Man’s view of Wen is deeply ambivalent, a far cry from the unqualified admiration I was brought up to feel for him.
Why should I take Man seriously? He apparently cannot read Chinese, or at least not very well, and he makes numerous errors that I spotted upon first reading. He misspells the Khitan-Mongol statesman Yelü Chucai’s name as “Yelü Chuzai.” He describes a Song prime minister as “indulg[ing] a very strange hobby” of “set[ting] crickets fighting each other,” clearly unaware that cricket-fighting was a very common pastime in 12th-13th century China. He shows a photo of paper money that he says is from Kublai’s Yuan Dynasty, even though on its face, in very clear Chinese, the bill reads, “Legal Tender of the Great Ming [Dynasty].”
Would I take someone writing about American history seriously if that person does not read English? Would I take someone writing about American history seriously if that person misspells “Thomas Jefferson”? Would I take someone writing about American politics seriously if that person is unaware that football is a popular American sport?
Here we’re getting at the longstanding tension between “native” scholars of a culture and scholars from the outside. There are minutiae of a culture that someone native to it naturally knows that are very difficult for an outsider to pick up completely. On the other hand, there are inevitably received ideas passed down through the generations that a native would accept without skepticism to which an outsider can bring fresh perspective.
So why do I take Man seriously? Because he is, despite everything, a fresh pair of eyes. Maybe he has a point, and the kind of inflexible commitment to his values that Wen exhibited bordered on pathology. Or maybe Man is completely off base, and Wen was the paragon of true loyalty that history textbooks tell us he was. The point here is that Man has suggested to me an idea that I did not consider before.
Because in the reading of history, as important it is to get the details right and to understand context, it is far more important not to allow received ideas shackle our ability to understand things for ourselves.
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."