LO KUAN-CHUNG — ROMANCE OF TEH THREE KINGDOMS — 1522 (1494) — C. H. BREWITT-TAYLOR — 1959 (2002)
This book is enormous. Two volumes with around 1,400 pages. It is a long saga, an epic some say, in a way a picaresque epic across the whole of China during the Han dynasty of the empire, when that empire was at risk because of internal strife and the incapability of the emperor to keep things under control, by his own fault (the own fault of several emperors one after another) and inability of building some kind of government that could be reliable, transparent and non-corrupted.
And that is where the book is amazingly revealing.
This empire is quite obviously a feudal empire. Power is in the hands of governors appointed by the emperor in each district. The governors are appointed for what these people did for the empire, particularly what they did militarily, and there the difference between serving the empire and serving themselves is not always clear. Ambitious people can climb to the top in no time and then impose their power.
The decomposition of this empire started when the various feudal lords or lordlings started considering the eunuchs, organized in a very close community and clan, who were provided by the emperor with the full control of the government because the emperor is lazy in many ways and looks for an easy way to control such a big empire, and because the emperor is incompetent technically (ignorance of a lot of things necessary for government) and psychologically (unfit to exercise such an enormous power). He then relied on the eunuchs of the empire, a clan of men — and their relatives — who had been castrated for any reason whatsoever, among others to become the top officers of the empire. The most famous eunuch along that line was Admiral Zheng He who had been castrated at an early age because he was a Muslim and he became the top man of the Chinese fleet before it was dismantled by the Confucian Mandarins when they took over around 1430.
These corrupted eunuchs encourage all kinds of outlaws to go around in the country and raid cities and farming areas to their own profit and to the shared profit with local supporters of the eunuchs. A rebellion came from the various local or regional lords who had the power and the means to raise armies. They united and finally succeeded in getting all the eunuchs eliminated and executed, but the main military force was in the hands of an ally of the local and regional lords, an ex-outlaw who shifted from raiding cities and farming communities to raiding the central government by taking control of it. The empire is then at stake because it explodes into rivaling cities and provinces and the central brigand controlling the empire spreads and increases his power by taking control of rebellious provinces.
This is typically feudal. Power is in the hands of the stronger person, of the stronger clan, and stronger means military force and nothing else. Then this power is only a way for those in power to loot the country by levying armed forces and taxes for their own profit. Then the emperor can even be chosen, within the Han line, but for how long? That’s the beginning of the saga but that explains the whole saga: feudalism was the real social and political architecture of the Chinese empire.
The main originality is that there was no spiritual or religious authority of any sort that could set some criteria and norms for everyone and keep the whole empire unified by some kind of spiritual allegiance, unity. That’s the main difference with European feudalism that was entirely controlled and governed by the Catholic church, hence by the Pope and his bishops and cardinals. Nothing like that in the Chinese Empire. So no Peace of God, becoming then Peace of the King in the various kingdoms, a movement that outlawed the use of military force within the limits of each kingdom and also within the limits of Christendom. That explained in part the crusades that started in the 11th century but it also explained the Teutonic crusade against the non-Christian Slavonic people in Poland, Ukraine and what they called Lithuania. War was directed to outside areas, officially non-Christian and to be Christianized. That started quite early after the fall of the Roman Empire and later on the fall of Charlemagne’s empire who only fought against the various Asian tribes or military forces trying to penetrate Europe from the East and against the mostly Muslim Saracens trying to do the same from Spain.
And the emergence of such a spiritual force took a lot of time. The book was written after the takeover of the empire by the Confucian Mandarins and we could wonder if it is not a reflection of this evolution in the 15th century that inspired the author to show how bad it could have been before when the empire’s unity was endangered by internal strife and its unity was rebuilt later on by the leaders of the three kingdoms. We have to think of the other great saga of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, a saga whose earliest extant copy is traced to 1592 and is the story of a Monkey that travels to the west to discover the famous Buddhist scriptures that found the Taoist approach of life that developed in China as the spiritual guideline of the empire and can be considered as the basis of the Confucian Mandarin takeover in the 15th century.
That is rather amazing to see this empire evolving from a purely feudal state with a marginal Taoist presence seen more like some witchcraft than anything else, though they carry the Chinese medical tradition and the ethical code of Taoism, the Chinese version of Buddhism in the making. Their final victory will destroy the Chinese fleet, the most impressive one in the whole world at the time, vastly centered on the China seas and the entire Indian Ocean and that would have been capable to defend the empire against the European invasion that was still to come when Admiral Zheng He died. The result was a total closing up of the empire onto itself, which enabled the Europeans to come and take control of the whole of the Indian Ocean and then of the China Seas. Closing up on itself made the Chinese Empire weak, particularly the tool of its power was destroyed: the various commercial routes known as the Silk Roads.
You will find all that in these books and it will make clear that the present commercial policy of China to reopen and redevelop the various Silk Roads is the only way for China to develop and recapture its past greatness. Will this policy re-establish some feudal state? Hardly conceivable. Will it establish some hierarchical centralized and unified system in the whole country and beyond? That’s also a dubious unrealistic view. China has to open itself to the world but that will not lead to the looting the English, the French and later on the Japanese tried to impose to China, but it may turn Chinas as the beating heart of the global economy, or at least one of the beating hearts of the global world using its commercial power rather than military force. That should bring you to wondering if the use of military force is not a feudal way of looking at the world and trying to dominate it. You may come to wondering if president Trump’s approach of the world is not a feudal way of looking at the problem in total opposition to and contradiction with the Chinese commercial approach of president Xi.
To conclude I will say that Chinese literature, old or more recent like Lao She’s books and plays, is always centered on this problematic of the whole world in development and the choice between three possibilities:
1- pure military force and a feudal system;
2- pure spiritual closing up onto themselves and their protected own resources: some Confucian hierarchical architecture;
3- a general commercial vision that brings economic development to the world: modern sharing resources via some global free but regulated marketplace.
Just get into this saga and enjoy the action and the treacherous ways of most of these feudal lords.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU