From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (6)

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

Outside Looking In

[a] Yingzong r. 1064-1067
Sima Guang was talented, highly educated, and a little lucky. By the 1060s, he was ready. After a long climb up the “ladder of success” in Song dynasty China—complete with reflective sabbaticals that deepened his skills and fulfilled his familial obligations—he was on the verge of greatness. Forty springs after he was said to have rushed from his books to save his little friend from a watery, cylindrical grave, Sima Guang found himself in another study—that of the emperor himself.  The immensely talented Sima held the prestigious position of chief tutor to the emperor Yingzong (r. 1064-1067). It was a sure route to the premiership—the highest civilian office in the empire. He had arrived, and he had a plan.

His official task was to explain the lessons of the past in a way that could help his listener function smoothly in difficult political and managerial situations. He could assume that his pupil was well trained in the classics, and he was asked to draw the lines, so to speak, between classical principles, historical examples, and current events in the mid-eleventh century. While there were no precise parallels in classical literature to the challenges he and Emperor Yingzong faced, he was confident that the lessons of history—framed by the teachings of antiquity—provided a road map to the present.
[b] The Comprehensive Mirror (fragments)
Forty years earlier, while explaining historical lessons to his own family members, he was said to have made such points quite effectively.  In fact, the following lines actually appear right before the “breaking the vessel” story in Sima’s biography. The full quotation from the Song Dynasty History explains it in the rich tones of hagiography:

When Sima Guang was seven years old, he already appeared to be a highly accomplished individual.  He would hear the classical histories recounted by the family tutor; he admired them, and explained their contents to his family, all the while highlighting the broad outlines and teachings for them.  From that day onward, he was never without a book in his hands—to the point that he paid no attention to hunger or thirst, heat or cold.
A group of children was playing in the courtyard when one child climbed onto a large, decorative urn.  His feet slipped and he fell into deep rainwater in the vessel.  The other children fled in fear and confusion, but Sima Guang grasped a stone and broke the vessel, saving the child’s life.[1]

[d] Letter by Sima Guang
Now, in 1066, a mature Sima Guang highlighted the broad outlines of the classical histories not for his family, but for the person known in China as the Son of Heaven.  He distilled the lessons from China’s tumultuous past as a way of commenting upon how government should be managed in the present. He argued for caution in governmental matters and concern for the welfare of the people through policies that were as unobtrusive as possible.  He had spent a lifetime in study, and throughout that life had constantly sought to translate those studies into meaningful results in the world around him. He felt that history left clues for managing self, state, and society, and that the best statecraft was guided by the past.  Even as an adult, it might be said—echoing the quotation above—that Sima was never without a book in his hands or a perspective on contemporary leadership in his heart.

[e] Plum Blossoms
He was what we call today a teacher-scholar; he instructed the emperor by day and worked on his historical project by night. He presented the five chapters of the Chronology just at Emperor Yingzong came to power, in 1064. Two years later, he brought forth the eight chapter beginning of the Comprehensive project. His student and "boss," Emperor Yingzong, was impressed with the work, and gave him the imperial command to compile a history of "events of rulers and ministers in successive ages." The Comprehensive Mirror was on its way—only 280 "chapters" to go.

As his biography makes clear, Sima Guang had been taught the great histories from an early age, and developed a lasting interest in their "managerial lessons" for the present. He wanted history to make a difference for rulers, and felt that the writings of previous dynasties was deficient. In particular, he considered the official histories written in imperial times to be hollow and bureaucratic documents. They were, he felt, a jumble of biographies and event-lists that were unable to convey the deeper meanings of the past, not to mention advice for the future. He wrote of his own goal with historical writing:

Since my youth, I have perused the various histories; it appears that in the standard historical form, the text's characters are diffuse—although learned specialists read them time and again, they cannot understand them as a whole.  It is still more difficult for the emperor, having myriad daily concerns but desiring to know comprehensively the gains and losses of past events.
[f] Henan
I have always desired to compile, roughly following the form of the classical histories a chronological account entitled Comprehensive Records beginning with the Warring States and continuing to the Five Dynasties [a period of almost 1500 years].  It would select from books other than the standard histories, and concern the state's flourishing and decline, with its consequences for the people's good and ill fortune.  It will include those events that it is necessary for rulers to know—good can then be emulated, and evil shunned.[2]  

This statement contains the essence of Sima Guang's historical writing: a wide use of sources, an eye cocked toward problems of government management, and an unswerving emphasis on traditional Confucian values—from protection of the people to the maintenance of heaven's mandate.  Emulating classical histories, Sima wanted his Comprehensive Records to furnish "models and warnings," taken from China's history, which would guide rulers toward virtuous government. He wanted to create a management text based on historical teachings.

[f] Four social virtues
So, on that day in 1066, Sima was the chief tutor of a still-young emperor who—in his mid-thirties—seemed to be just coming into his own under the guidance of the decade-older wisdom of Sima Guang. Even for the eleventh century, they were a youthful power-team that appeared to have a clear ruling path ahead of them. The challenges were formidable. The Song government was paying large amounts of silk and silver to northern powers that seemed poised to attack the northern territories. Agricultural income was unstable, taxation was uneven, and there was no sure resolution to the structural problems that caused them. The talented premier-to-be and emperor saw the coming decade as fundamental to the vibrancy of Song dynasty rule. They had a plan, and Sima was convinced that the state could regain stability and prosperity under his tutelage. All he needed was time to put the plan into action.

And then the luck ran out.

[h] Zhong Kui, alone and contemplative
In 1067, Emperor Yingzong died, and his eldest son succeeded him as Emperor Shenzong (r. 1067-1085).  Sima Guang’s message of careful reflection and slow growth had appealed to the new emperor’s father, but he quickly learned that he would have a difficult time convincing the twenty year-old son about his careful and methodical approach. The young emperor was now in charge, and intent on effecting rapid change in China’s society and economy.

Sima Guang redoubled his teaching efforts, yet it was for naught.  A year later, his influence was on the wane and his chief rival, Wang Anshi, was given the premiership over him.  Sima Guang, whose entire career had been marked by enormous success in all spheres, suddenly found himself on the outside, unable to convince the new ruler of his teachings.  He had used every argument he could muster, both publicly and privately, yet he had lost. Rapid reform was in the air, and Sima could only protest respectfully and step aside. Things had changed dramatically in the space of a year, and it was not his government anymore.

Monday (4/11)—Exile and Response
After a fortnight's break—and the development of many new "departments" on Round and Square—we will return to the rest of our story.

Sima Guang reluctantly left the center of power and began a life in self-imposed exile in the ancient capital city of Luoyang. The same situation that crushed his political dreams opened the opportunity to finish one of the world's greatest historical texts. Working with five assistants, the project would take the better part of two decades. All the while, Sima harbored a well-couched resentment that he channeled into the historical project. The Comprehensive Mirror can in some respects be seen as ten-thousand pages of "I told you so" aimed at his political opponents, in a book that leaders would read many hundreds of years after his time.

[1]  Songshi [336], 10,757.
[2]  Li Tao, Xu zizhi tongjian changbian, 208.2b. Italics mine.

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