From Round to Square (and back)

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (5)

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12

Up the Down Staircase
[a] Examination tumult
Time flew by swiftly, as Chinese literary (para)phrasing has it—like a piebald colt galloping in a flash while glimpsed through a crack in the fence. Sima Guang had easily soared over the increasingly challenging hurdles of local, provincial, and national examinations, culminating with his success in the palace examination, the top of the scholarly mountain that many people worked toward all their lives. This gave him a secure position in Song dynasty administration from the age of twenty onward. The speed with which Sima achieved the very highest of degrees—the jinshi, or “presented scholar”—speaks to both his native ability and the focus he brought to his studies during his entire life. Still, the forces of bureaucracy were strong, even in the eleventh century, and Sima inevitably “advanced” from the highest honors in education one day to the middle ranks of the imperial bureaucracy on the next. From Yale Law Review to junior associate (you get the idea).

[b] "Cheating Shirt"
[c] Nineteenth-century examination cells
No matter how talented, a scholar-official would begin his career by managing middle-level matters—with options ranging from being “in charge” of small localities far from the capital to serving as a lower level functionary in bureaus close to the center of power. The former had the advantage of putting the young official “in charge,” with the concomitant disadvantage of being in the boondocks, where he often could not even understand the local dialect. The latter put him within earshot of power discussions, yet he was so low in the capital hierarchy that his physical proximity was wasted. Inside, but out; outside, but in—either way, even the young superstars (for that is how the jinshi were regarded) had to start over. It is a little like the NFL draft that way. 

For even the most talented scholars of their generation, a complex twenty-year process would begin to unfold from the moment they passed the palace examination. If things went well, they would have a chance for real influence in their mid-forties. And they had to be careful—their families were counting on them, and opportunities to move up the ladder of influence were regularly marred by factors they could never anticipate, such as being demoted because of an alliance with the “wrong” faction or annoying a superior. It happened to just about everyone at some point during the long climb.

[d] Song Imperial Garden
In the calm and refined waters of early Song dynasty government, these setbacks were usually relatively minor (it would not always be so, especially in the centuries to follow, when political misjudgments could mean death—sometimes for whole clans). In the more refined eleventh century, a misstep or two was often expected, and talented young officials would take two or three steps forward for every small step backward. Still, great influence at the court was beyond the reach of almost all officials, no matter how formidable their backgrounds.  Talent, an excellent record of service over several decades, and a smattering of well-timed good fortune was required. And there was still one more intangible that affected every career in one way or another—the requirement that every son, and hence every government official—retire from service to observe the “three years mourning” when his parents died. 

Throughout Chinese history, stories abound of officials on the very cusp of power, only to leave for their childhood homes to wear coarse cloth and mourn a parent, even as their rivals moved in swiftly to replace them. A few historical accounts note that it was unusual but not unheard of for an official to try to hold onto the influence he had leveraged over many years, and to skirt the requirements of the mourning period. This kind of unfilial conduct usually backfired, hurting a career  even more—not the least by labeling one a crass and disrespectful opportunist—than leaving office and starting back up the ladder in three years (several rungs down, but having maintained the respect of those who might be inclined toward rapid promotion).
[e] Northern Song China (960-1127)
A few very fortunate scholars in Chinese history had parents who, after relatively long and productive lives, passed on at times that were not especially burdensome for their sons' careers. Sima Guang was one of them. Crass though it may sound (and no proper scholar would ever admit to thinking along these lines, even though the historical sources are filled with allusions to this very matter), Sima benefited from almost perfect timing throughout his official career. By achieving “presented scholar” status before the age of twenty, he was already at least a decade ahead of most of his peers. 

He negotiated the byzantine pathways of state service with a deft touch, only being lightly scarred by a profound factional battle in 1043-1044, when he was still only beginning to find his stride in the bureaucracy. Even the requirement that he spend the better part of five different years (the requirement was actually twenty-seven months for each parent) in respectful sabbatical generally worked to his advantage. While it removed him from office, it gave him an opportunity (despite the mournful circumstances) to recharge himself intellectually, spending months reading, writing, and thinking that otherwise would have been devoted to the requirements of governmental management. I would go so far as to say that these self-imposed periods of relaxation from duty made it possible for the adult Sima to contemplate compiling a historical work that no one in a thousand years had been able to produce.

[f] Scholarship and Panopticon
Sima had traveled up and down the stairways of hierarchy and bureaucracy, and it was that experience every bit as much as the occasional “forced leisure” in his career that created the possibility of writing a truly great work of history…and management. He understood the work of government in ways that few historians ever have; all he lacked was time. Were he an accomplished scholar who never passed the highest examinations, it is possible that he could have devoted his life to historical study. Over the centuries, several fine thinkers from wealthy families did just that, and Sima was nothing if not talented and wealthy. The burdens and the opportunities presented by an official career were always at odds—those like Sima had the scholastic ability and drive to achieve great interpretive heights, yet there was almost no time to devote to monumental tasks that would take many years to complete. 

Instead, they worked for an hour here and an afternoon there. They had servants who would save their brief written reflections for them, tossing them into bags so that they could be compiled in "collected writings" when the scholars died. Short and to the literary point—essays, poems, paintings, and elegant “jottings” were the creative output of the best scholar-officials in imperial China. Magisterial histories covering almost 1,500 years, mining over three hundred original sources, and totaling many thousands of pages—less so. Imagine being bureau chief, senior vice-president, or academic dean. Now imagine spending at least a decade in continuous scholarly work. Nope. Nada. Ain’t gonna happen. This is one of the many reasons why before the Song dynasaty there were no historical works in China that linked dynasty after dynasty in a continuous chronological narrative. Not even committees succeeded.

[g] Song (Dynasty)
The chance opportunities of enforced “free time” were one reason that Sima Guang, in his mid-forties, was able to compile several brief historical works that gave a sense of his ambitions. In 1064, the Liniantu (Chronological Chart of Historical Years) gave an outline of the broad sweep of Chinese history, while two years later the Tongzhi (Comprehensive Records) stunned court readers by showing how deep and compelling a narrative Sima Guang was capable of accomplishing. It was a thorough account of an early period of Chinese history (403-207 BCE) in eight chapters. It was what sophisticated readers had been waiting for—for centuries. How would it ever be possible for one of the most successful and busy politicians in the empire to find the time to finish it? Eight chapters showed the depth and beauty of Sima’s skills (let us not forget that these same lines would be admired nine hundred years later by readers such as Liang Qichao and Mao Zedong). Eight chapters were also a very small drop in an immense bucket of Chinese history. Sima had been able to work on them in bits and pieces for well over a decade, including during his time in mourning, when he had no official responsibilities at all. He had written eight; how would it be possible for him to finish almost three hundred chapters while serving at the center of imperial power? He was forty-seven years old and nearing the height of power. How would he ever find the time?

Monday (3/28)—Outside Looking In (and Back)
Sima Guang had shown that he could write the great work that had eluded everyone else…in all of Chinese history. He was approaching the age of fifty, and had completed about one-thirtieth of what would be required to finish his history. Do the math, and examine the eleventh century actuarial charts. Consider the further news that he was almost surely going to be appointed the next chief minister (the highest civilian office in the empire). Something was going to have to change (for better or worse), or he would never finish the book. Something.

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