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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (8)—Luoyang Longing

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
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 Click here for pronunciation help with "Luoyang."
April 2011

[b] Artisans of war
[a] Sunzi bingfa
This month's main entries (entitled “Breaking the Vessel”) will chronicle an author and a book—Sima Guang (1019-1086) and the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling, which was submitted to the (Northern) Song dynasty throne in what we in the West call January of 1085. I like to say that this book is the missing piece in management education, during which MBA students read carefully through translations of the Art of War and then seem to think that they understand Chinese management thought. (Good luck with that, pardner). I like to say that Sunzi (Sun-tzu) is “lunch” and the Comprehensive Mirror is “what comes next—it’s what’s for supper.”  It is essential reading for everyone at any level of management—from parent and foreman to ruler of the world (and everything in between). The problem is that it is 10,000 pages long (I am not kidding) and is in Chinese—“medieval” Chinese, at that. That is where I come in. I want to help you. 
Welcome. 歡迎. I have been waiting for you.

Luoyang Longing
[c] Capital, many times
Sima Guang’s strategy “worked,” but it required enormous patience and was filled with uncertainty. You see, only historians “know the future” of their subjects, and to be human is to have little idea how things will work out. Sima was a historian, of course, but he didn't know what his own future would hold. He left the capital at the age of fifty, not knowing if he would ever return. As Wang Anshi and Emperor Shenzong instituted their ambitious reform program, Sima returned to a life of reading, writing, and reflecting. He had a book to write. His afternoons in the 1070s and 1080s were not very different from those he spent in the 1020s and 1030s—with a book in his hands that (I sometimes think) he was ready to exchange at any moment for the rock that would destroy the reform program of his rival. From the perspective of Sima and his admirers, the “saving” that would take place was not that different from the one achieved at home as a young child. This time, as his poem hints, he would save the state.

[d] Broken dreams
For now, he would bide his time. In any case, he had work to do. Indeed, Sima Guang’s self-imposed exile in Luoyang over a fifteen-year period enabled him to remain clear of the most intense infighting of his day, and to complete the Comprehensive Mirror. He studied hundreds of historical works written many centuries before his time, and was even said to have invented a peculiar kind of log-pillow that ensured he would not get too much rest before returning to his task. This should not surprise anyone. It should already be apparent that Sima was anything if not driven.

[e] Storied capital
Still, he also was hardly alone in this storied city on the river. Many of the great intellectual and political figures of the day chose to seek refuge in the same area, and the city quickly became a thriving center for reactionary (I use the word in its precise sense) political and social life. It was a place of shelter, respite, and startling intellectual production. This is not the picture of a lone genius, reading in the quiet of his study while people of lesser abilities played all about him. No, Sima was surrounded by genius in Luoyang—a city that lacked nothing in comparison to, say, eighteenth century Edinburgh...or even Paris. Sima could easily have given Diderot a run for his money. Let us call it the Luoyang Enlightenment (and this playful title of mine has layers of nuance that we have not even begun to approach…yet).

[f] Ouyang Xiu, 1007-1072
That decade and a half in the 1070s and 1080s was a time of creation for some of the very best essays, poetry, treatises, and historical writing in all of Chinese history—rivaled by only a few comparable periods in a 3,000-year tradition of writing and scholarship. Among dozens of formidable scholars were the venerable essayist and historian Ouyang Xiu, the cosmologist Shao Yong, the natural philosopher Shen Kuo, and a formidable pair of…pairs of fraternal kin—the Cheng brothers (Hao and Yi) and the Su brothers (Che and Shi—the later already becoming known then as one of China’s greatest poets). 

For a comparison, cross time and space and think of the present. It was as though a large cross-section of great American minds (all agreeing on politics, more or less, and forming a kind of “think tank”) came together in Philadelphia (the ancient capital) for more than a decade of writing, repartee, painting, eating dainties, and drinking (in no particular order). Except that Luoyang was more beautiful.

[g] A fanciful Bo Juyi (772-846)
Luoyang was a city of endless gardens and flowers, a place with a rich veneer of shared memory—with echoes of the Duke of Zhou two millennia earlier and of the poet Bo Juyi’s “semi-retirement” amidst political controversy in the waning years of the Tang dynasty (618-906).  The varied historical sources for the late-eleventh century reveal a consciousness on the part of writers that they were composing in the literary shadow of the past. Even now, many centuries later, the documents give off a palpable self-consciousness. We sense that they knew they were forming another formidable layer of tradition on a place and time that would be remembered throughout history. And they were right. This kind of gathering of ideas only comes along two, three times in a millennium. They sensed this blossoming, and grabbed its fecund opportunities.

[h] Taking the Luoyang view of history
We know a great deal about these matters today because the scholars left thousands of writings, from “random jottings” and essays to some of the finest poetry of the age—a peculiar kind of rhyming narrative that mixed song and verse in sometimes startling ways. These lyrics rarely celebrated Luoyang’s temples, gardens, and grottoes as mere places. They were, rather, invoked as places filled with associations with those who had written about them many centuries earlier. It wasn’t just that a poet might admire a particular vista and set it to words in his own verse. Instead, he wrote of admiring the same scene that was admired by generations of famous writers and travelers. Luoyang was like that. Even today, cab drivers will acknowledge Ouyang and the Su brothers, Sima and the Cheng brothers as another of the many layers of hometown heroes. They will also tell you that Luoyang was the capital of twelve different dynasties (although this figure is somewhat challenged in terms of scale). No dynasty was housed in Luoyang in the eleventh century but, to this day, the Northern Song “anti-capital” has figured prominently in Chinese history.

[i] Luoyang Lushness
These same, rich source collections also speak of the pleasure of strolls through the city, finding out-of-the-way temples, or contemplating magnificent gardens. The “elder statesman” Fu Bi’s garden was a marvel among them, and this prompted one writer to note that “the man who had ordered the affairs of the empire now controlled even more absolutely the plan of his garden."[1]  Continuing with the varied temples, caves, and carvings, one could go on almost endlessly about the fascination Luoyang, and a life of relative leisure, held for its “exiled” inhabitants after 1070. 

Luoyang indeed represented for many officials a freedom from the burdens of office, and even from the constraints of a somewhat stern literati tradition.  The city’s Buddhist temples were prominent features, and many wrote of them—as well as the monasteries, intricate caves, and surrounding central “sacred” mountain—in what could be called a literature of enthrallment regarding their environment.  Many scholars, too, pursued studies of Daoist and other works that, several decades earlier, would have been regarded as unscholarly, at best, and heterodox, worst.

[j] Sima's sabbatical
But the city—and time spent drinking, painting, and conversing among friends—represented a problem for many exiles. As much as it was an opportunity for freedom from official life, it also blocked them from the positions to which they had spent their entire careers aspiring.  For older officials such as Fu Bi (he of advanced years and the capacious garden), Luoyang represented a somewhat bittersweet retirement after a lifetime of government service. For many younger officials, though, its beauty masked the painful reality of political ambitions extinguished in mid-career. This was Sima Guang’s situation, and no amount of log-sleeping and text editing could change the longing he felt for the rush of deadlines, budgets, flow-charts, and management with consequences. Sima channeled that frustration, and the Comprehensive Mirror would lay the foundation for those who—reading it in the future (perhaps on the back of a donkey)—would prepare to rule.

Sima wanted to advise the ruler, but instead, of necessity, he wrote. To use a Daoist phrase more current at the time in Luoyang than the strict, Confucian setting of the capital in Kaifeng, he became “one with the history.” A poem by Su Shi—composed just after he and others of the Luoyang group had returned to the capital in the mid-1080s—might as well have summed up the focus of those “on leave” for fifteen years—they became their work.
When Yu Ke painted bamboo
He only perceived bamboo—never people
Do I mean he saw no people?
So enthralled that he forgot even himself
He became the bamboo
Perpetually growing new fibers
The great and playful thinker Zhuangzi is no more
Who, then, can begin to grasp his uncanny ability?

[1] Michael Freeman, "Lo-yang and the Opposition to Wang An-shih: The Rise of Confucian Conservatism" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1973), 38.

(Wednesday, April 13)
Being the Text; Crafting a History
Sima Guang had work to do, and an agenda to keep. Luoyang was beautiful (as we have seen), but he didn't create almost three hundred chapters (and thousands of pages) by painting peonies and drinking plum wine. Don't forget the log pillow...or his lingering resentment. Tomorrow, we'll take a closer look at just what went into creating the greatest management book of all time—one that every student should read in every business school in the world. Sima wouldn't have had it any other way, and Mao probably wouldn't, either.

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