My last posts were very well received. I guess there's a market for the intersection between Chinese history and Ron Unz, so here's another one.
As you may have noticed, Ron has this wacky theory that a surprising percentage of our political leaders have, shall we say, compromising incidents in their past. He even speculates that perhaps having something to hide from the public might make a rising politico more attractive to those who make it their business to decide which of the ambitious to help climb the greasy pole of political power.
And he just had a new post on what he's named the Unz Suspicion.
Mr. Unz is very right to suspect that much. But again Unz had to use all his powers of insight to come up with his idea. Which given his upbringing is quite impressive. And yet this has been common wisdom in China for thousands of years. A 10 year old in Kaifeng could have told you as much in 1034.
There's plenty of examples of great leaders of bureaucratic factions, imperial prime ministers who purposefully surrounded themselves with crooks in order to be able to crack down on any defector with ease. It may sound counterintuitive, but the group is much stronger if everybody is a crook with something to hide.
None of this is surprising given that China has had a continent-wide centralized bureaucracy for longer than the rest of the world combined. And while the world has changed a lot since 221 BC, and China itself has seen a lot of variation, the dynamics of bureaucratic power are basically the same.
I'll illustrate this point again with a 4 letter idiom, and one of my favorite stories, also from the first empire, the Qin Dynasty.. The idiom is 授人以柄 shou ren yi bing, which translates as "handing over your (sword's) handle.
The idiom itself doesn't come from this piece of history. It comes from the Three Kingdoms period, when some nobles were discussing strategy, and argued against one idea saying that it was equivalent to 倒持干戈，授人以柄, holding our swords in reverse and giving the handle to the enemy. Which is a nice metaphor for a suicidal idea.
The idiom later acquired a figurative sense, where you voluntarily hand your sword's handle to someone, in order to signal your loyalty and lack of ambition. It's a fairly profound point. Let me explain.
So it's the late Warring States period, and the map of China is something like this.
Qin is by far the most powerful state, and has been so for decades. It's generally just a matter of time until it decides to get rid of all the other states and unify the empire. In 247 BC a new king, Ying Zheng, rises to the Qin crown, and decides that it's time to finish the job. They send gold around to soften up the ministers and delay their defense policies, and then send Qin armies to obliterate them.
By the 225 there's only Chu and Qi left. Chu is in the way to Qi, so the decision is made to invade Chu first. But Chu is huge. It's mountainous, and it's full of people. It's not gonna be easy, so the King of Qin calls his best generals, Li Xin and Wang Jian, and asks what do they think it will take to win the war.
The King asks Li Xin, who says he needs 200,000 men. Then he asks Wang Jian, who says 600,000 are necessary.
"Six hundred thousand men! That's a lot of people. It's almost the entire manpower of the state. Wang Jian, I get you're old, but don't be so cowardly. See here young Li Xin, brave and bold who can do more with less."
And so Li Xin set forward to Chu with 200,000 men, in two columns. Wang Jian was so pissed that he actually quit his job and retired to a remote house in the mountains. Damn punk, 200,000 men huh. Right. What the hell do you know.
And what do you know, the Chu army plays a long game of retreat, retreat, retreat, Li Xin gets cocky, pursues too long, and bam, massive ambush, the whole Qin army is killed, Li Xin barely escapes with his life, and the Chu army starts to advance West with their eyes set on revenge.
The Qin King was furious, obviously. He had no choice but to go personally visit Wang Jian at his retirement home, and beg him to come out. Hey guy, sorry I called you old and useless. You were right. So go there and fight. Please.
"Ok, but 600,000 men."
"Yeah, whatever, just go."
So Wang Jian leads the biggest army perhaps in the history of mankind, and goes to attack Chu. The King escorts him personally to the border. Wang Jian asks him for lots of money, good farmland, mansions, women and treasure. It's for my children, you see. I want to secure their future. The King laughed heartily. Of course, old Wang. Whatever you want. Just win this war.
While on campaign Wang Jian send a messenger to the court every single day, reminding the king that he wanted lots of good farmland, gold, women and treasure. For his children. His entourage was getting embarrassed already. Come on general, since when are you so corrupt? Even if you are, just try to be subtle, this is ridiculous, you're making us all feel bad.
"You don't get it", says General Wang. "The emperor is a suspicious man. He doesn't trust anyone. Right now I have under my command 600,000 men, the entire army of the country. Every once in a while he must be asking himself: "What if this Wang Jian guy rebels against me?". And even if he doesn't ask himself, there's always an annoying eunuch paid by a rival general trying to backstab me, saying that I am famous and honorable, and that the opposition might rally around me, that I'm too powerful and must be killed sooner rather than later. Only by openly displaying that I am a vile, corrupt character who only cares about money, can I make the king trust that I have no higher ambition."
And so Wang Jian kept sending messenger asking for stuff, and the King never suspected his loyalty. He liked his pettiness. Wang Jian went forward to invade Chu, destroy its armies, capture his king, and annexed the country into the soon to be Qin Empire. He went back home, and very unusual in a famous general, died a peaceful death.
Sometimes you really have to hand over your sword's handle.
To this day, "having a handle" means knowing the secrets, or having the means to control someone to your benefit. People without handles, i.e. good people, are regarded as undesirable associates, at least in politics.
And yes, having databases, or at least long lists with compromising information about government officials has been a staple of Chinese politics for centuries. It's quite obviously the best way to keep a faction together. MAD, also, is a very old trick.
So nihil sub sole novum. Or in other words, 天下無新事 .