From Round to Square (and back)

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (1)

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
[a] Sima Guang
China’s Lesson Book
Thirty years ago, as a junior history major preparing for a seminar course in Chinese historiography, I began to read a passage from a book with a title that can be translated as the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling. I had already been assured by my professor and the authors of several articles that it was an exceptional text compiled in the eleventh century by a Confucian polymath with a “double surname” (司馬)—two characters for the last name and one for the first ()—and that it was one of the world’s first works of serious—even “scientific”—history.

I learned that many scholars felt that the text was a masterwork of historical research, and that it had been praised by readers from the time of its first presentation in 1085 until the twentieth century as one of the most significant works of history ever written. This was not anything like the usual kind of things people said about old books, which tended to be closer to “it has its uses” than “this is a masterwork.”  I was excited to pick up the two big volumes of translations. These tomes only covered about three percent of the Comprehensive Mirror’s contents, as I would later learn, but they still made up more than a thousand pages to carry across campus, as I carefully kept my eyes on the sidewalk and avoided the still-melting southern Minnesota snow cover menacing each of my steps.

Back in my room, I carefully opened the volumes—a translation by the eminent sinologist with a perfect “Round and Square/East Meets West” name. Achilles Fang had not only translated the Chinese characters for each passage of the Comprehensive Mirror, but had traced each passage to its earliest historiographical roots. I was in awe, and could not help but feel that Homer had been transported to early China as (heel protected) Achilles Fang masterfully retraced the course of Chinese history. 

The work was so involved, so painstaking, that the 1,300 pages of the translation and background only cover the years CE 220-265. Let us not be mistaken, though. They were formative years—a “heroic period” in Chinese history that is often said to lead students to score highest on these matters on all history exams. I was enthralled, not only by the events recounted, which are among the most famous in all of Chinese history, but by the evident mastery of material that an author in the eleventh century had when dealing with matters eight hundred years earlier. I could not help but think that my teachers and the writers of my textbooks were right. This was “scientific” history; this was masterful. 

I opened the first volume about a third of the way in. To this day, I believe that my whole career was set to this moment. Three more pages, and I might have come across a seemingly “objective” entry (“so-and-so invaded such-and-such in a certain year”). It didn’t work out that way, though, and that might be why (like the result of a butterfly flapping its wings over Singapore) I study things such as “do-overs” and “historical contingencies” today, rather than the facts of the past. 
[b] From the Nine Dragons Screen in Datong, Shanxi

As chance would have it, the first passage that caught my eye that March evening described the sighting of a dragon hidden in a well. Dragons—in Chinese, “twisting, turning water creatures.”  In the Comprehensive Mirror, initial disagreement over the dragon's "meaning" gave way to the emperor’s opinion that it was a sign being revealed to him for a reason. The constricted dragons, lodged in stone wells, pointed to this emperor’s inability to act forcefully and without interference from the meddling of others. It was a time of discord, and the emperor felt himself to be at the mercy of others.

          Spring, first month.
          Two yellow dragons appeared in a well in Ningling. Prior to this, 
          dragons frequently appeared in wells in other locations. The 
          officials considered them to be auspicious signs. The emperor 
          disagreed, saying, “Dragons represent the ruler’s virtue, yet those 
          that have been seen are not found in heaven above; when 
          discovered on the earth, they are not even found in fields or 
          clearings, but are frequently dug into wells—these are not 
          auspicious omens.” He composed a Hidden Dragon poem, which 
          his rivals regarded with displeasure.

I was intrigued, and wondered to myself what are dragons, of all things, doing on the pages of one of the world’s great works of history?  And it is not only once, and not only dragons. The pages of the Comprehensive Mirror—still, nine-hundred years after it was written, the richest single source available for many periods of Chinese history—are filled with omens such as eclipses, floods, drought, and infestations; hail as large as hens’ eggs and leaping white fish. It was a world of wonder side-by-side with a careful and reliable narrative of the events of Chinese history. I had never seen anything like it, and I wanted to know more. How was it possible that a great historian even thought to include a quotation about “imaginary” creatures?  What could be sophisticated or scientific about that?  I had much to learn. Still do.

Another question followed right on the heels of the first, and it was of a far more practical nature. “Why would an emperor identify with dragons hidden in a well?  How could an emperor feel boxed-in?”  I was young enough then to think that leaders—presidents and CEOs, perhaps, but emperors certainly—were, by the very power of their positions, able to exert their wills on their subordinates. They were in charge, weren’t they? They were head honchos, chiefs, master chefs, head coaches, and every other possible hierarchical tip-top-type I could imagine. They weren't just kings, either...they were emperors. All I could think of was Napoleon after he "crowned" himself and before that little detour into Russia.

But this text, with its strange array of portents, facts, and mystique, pointed to management challenges that I had barely begun to understand. I would soon learn more about the inability of leaders to lead (I had only to watch the news in the 1980s and pay attention to various administrators in college and graduate school), and I became even more interested in the lessons that I could learn from a Chinese historical text written long ago. A dragon in a well? Where was the “science?” An emperor boxed in? Where were “roles” and “hierarchy?”  I had much to learn. Still do. 

Tomorrow (3/22)—Through the Comprehensive Mirror Glass 
Why I have studied the Comprehensive Mirror for a quarter century, and how I began to see that this was not just a book of “dry” historical material.  It was far from being “bunk,” (Henry Ford) and was certainly not “just one damned thing after another” (Nietzsche). I saw that it was a formidable management tool, and the patterns of life and labor became clearer from that day onward.  

Breaking the Vessel 1         Breaking the Vessel 2         Breaking the Vessel 3         Breaking the Vessel 4 
Breaking the Vessel 5         Breaking the Vessel 6         Breaking the Vessel 7         Breaking the Vessel 8 
Breaking the Vessel 9         Breaking the Vessel 10       Breaking the Vessel 11       Breaking the Vessel 12

[b] Author's photograph.

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