Concubines and Character Assassination

It never fails to amuse me when commentators like myself get anguished over the Chinese Communist Party’s misrepresentation of history.   What Chinese dynasties don’t misrepresent history, demonizing their predecessors and building their own reflective edifices?  It’s a critical part of the Chinese historical tradition.

But when one reads Sima Qian, that smooth stylist, that master spinner of yarns, it is easy to forget that character assassination is part of the agenda.  Sima Qian was the Grand Historian of the Qin dynasty, employed by the Han, the successor state.  So, dwelling on the living edge of that yawning abyss of the post-Qin, Sima Qian curled up his toes, shuffled papers across a vast writing table, huffed towards beakers of light, boiled water, breathed deeply, and sat down to write, his eyes surveying an enormous sheath of paper filling up with words.

Many men became the target of Sima Qian’s linguid pen strokes, but one of the most important was Lü Buwei, the Qin prime minister who was said to be Qin Shihuangdi’s father.  Sima Qian portrays Lü as a somewhat unscrupulous merchant, a man obsessed with taking power in the state, a flatterer.  And modern cinematic depictions of Lü are not so different.  Think Dick Cheney, except Chinese in the 2nd century B.C., and if Dick Cheney were rumored to be, say, the father of the Bush twins as they ascend to power.

Yet Lü was a great scholar, and a compiler of Confucian thought.  He was no Li Si, the ruthless Legalist who sharpened Shang Yang’s codes of harsh punishments.  Lü was a lover of the written word and a connoisseur, one might say a merchant, of talent.  Having gathered a number of mercenary scholars about him — and this notion of the mercenary scholar, and competition between states for intellectual talent, is one that ought to be revived — Lü implored them to compile their own stories and experiences.  The compendium of wisdom that resulted was a 200,000 character classic: The Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei [吕氏春秋].

Incredibly, this Warring States classic was only rendered into English in the year 2000!

How superior can we Anglophones therefore be?  Is Clausewitz superior to Lü?  Was Sun Tzu “enough” for a sated West?  Somehow reading Confucius in a rather quaint way since the 1930s via James Legge is adequate for all of us?

How can we talk about the ineluctable cultural power of the Anglophone West when we have been bereft of a core classic text of Chinese philosophy and strategy until just nine years ago?

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll be assigning it soon at the Naval War College so the rest of us can forget about it.”

Right — but you forgot to mention the RAND Corporation, who somehow forgot to fund a translation of this masterwork when the U.S. was throwing trillions of dollars into fighting a war against Chinese (classical) agrarian socialism (radical monarchism).  And, as usual, let us also not forget that the Germans beat us to it by about seventy years.

So, to the text itself.

Book 19, Chapter 3 [上德], part 3 describes a heart-rending situation where a duke and the crown prince, his son, have a dispute over the love of a concubine surnamed Li [丽].  A conspiracy occurs: the prince sends Li to his father with some food which has been poisoned.  The son, being jealous, is attempting to kill his father, to exterminate his rival in love.  Li, being wise, warns the elder duke to have the food tested first.  A servant and a dog both taste it; they promptly die.  The conspiracy has only one actor when it needed two, and the young crown prince is confronted in his room.  Faced with shame and an angry father, the crown prince can only think of Li.  He therefore kills himself with a sword, but not before crying out: “君非丽姬,居不安,食不甘“,or, “If this prince is without Concubine Li, home has no peace, and food is not sweet.”

What language!  It is a pleasure to finally have the original at hand, with an English translation as a kind of crutch.  But the translators render the prince’s last words as follows:  “If my lord does not have Concubine Li, he will not live in peace and his food will not taste sweet.”  This is what as known as a more idiomatic translation that sounds good in English but loses much of punch of the original.  Literally, it’s: “Prince no Li concubine, home not peace, food not sweet.”   Just say it once aloud!  It feels good, and is more expressive to boot, to get ride of all of these nasty little modifiers and articles, the damned articles, with which the English tongue is so barnacled.

I can only approximate the ethos of these words, though far less noble, by referencing the spoken prelude to Ice Cube’s album, “Lethal Injection,” a flying verbal bodyslam of the U.S. justice system in the 1990s.  Faced with death, Ice Cube’s words are clipped and direct.  “F*** all y’all,” he says.  But there is no ewige Weibliche to whom Mr. Cube pins his soul!  If only more Ice Cube-figures were imbricated with Lü Buwei’s spirit and mercenary scholars could talk more freely about the Chinese Classics to death-row inmates as well as nobility.  I suppose that would be called democracy.

I cannot help but imagine that Lü Buwei’s own story is entwined with this particular tale, or that Sima Qian was aware of it, as it retains elements of the Grand Historian’s narrative of the background of Qin Shihuangdi’s own father and rivalry between he and Lü Buwei for the heart of a consort, Qin Shihuangdi’s mother.

Finally, the anecdote is surrounded by Lü Buwei’s descriptionsn of an ideal state, tinged with the familiar notion that the best state runs itself.  After all, he writes, “Severe punishments and generous rewards belong to ages whose government is in decline.”  Tell that to the North Koreans!

Lu Buwei Chamber of Commerce in Kaixian, Sichuan (outside of Chongqing) performs cultural program to celebrate CCP Party Founding Day, July 1, 2009
Lu Buwei Chamber of Commerce in Kaixian, Sichuan (outside of Chongqing) performs cultural program to celebrate CCP Party Founding Day, July 1, 2009

Coda: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) so often represents itself as a fundamental break with a feudal and humiliating past, creating an image of the CCP as gatekeepers to elysian fields of harmonious societies (note the plural here) of the future.  But they could still change their ways — after all, even the Kuomintang could dismantle a Chiang Kai-shek statue.  And the CCP itself had some knock-down debates in the interval between the slapdash constructive monumentalism of Mao’s sarcophogus and the 1982 Party Congress that called for a final historical verdict on Mao.  (Seven fingers good, three fingers bad, just like Mao had said about Stalin.)  If China is able to rehabilitate Qin Shihuangdi, anything is possible.


  1. Adam, Has the legendary Prince of Qin (that Sima Qian wrote of in 227bc regrading Prince of Yen bestowing a map), has his burial tomb ever been discovered?

    1. Hutton, to my knowledge, it has not. Once they crack open Qin Shihuangdi’s tomb (assuming they will do so at some point, having found it already), there may be some clues as to further tombs. But I haven’t heard anything about this particular story!

  2. your reading of the story between Jinwen’s father and Jinwen’s (half-)brother is absolutely delicious (and subversive)! this – as well as the rest of the entry and perhaps your other posts – suggests that this blog may be more aptly titled cynologistical.

    of course, shiji (and especially the Jin and Zhao chapters – Zhao Dun’s murder of one of Jinwen’s sons, for instance) is the gold mine for revisionist cynicism because sima qian broke free of the esoterism of court historians before him and openly suggested, albeit approvingly, that early confucian historiography had already aggressively altered the true accounts of what really happened

    1. Jiaqi, it seems immediately apparent from your “entering” this space that I am suddenly in the presence of a superior prose stylist as well as one whose grasp of the Chinese historiography may well be dimensions ahead. Which is all to say that I very much enjoyed your three sentences as an awakening scar across a now-revisited entry on a blog whose lack of intellectual discipline is, at least (and as you note correctly), compensated for by a consistent cynicism.

      1. ha, thank you for your flattering words.

        there is actually yet another hugely interesting question you raised in this post, though, namely that of translation. although i never met the accomplished burton watson, he who rendered all the exquisite translations of pre-Qin-Qin-Han literature, i once met a gentleman who collaborated with watson when he was still a columbia student, and the old gentleman told me back then one of their concerns in translating ancient chinese texts was actually how to tame the unnecessary edginess of the english tongue unjustified by the original phrasing in chinese, which is capable of such unambiguous and yet muted criticism of a disliked monarch. oddly, however, i don’t think this concern is at all incompatible with your insistence that we use the “choppiest” english to preserve the raw power of chinese recitatives (“Prince no Li concubine, home not peace, food not sweet”, ha! how can we beat that?! isn’t that “the task of the translator”?)

        but, alas, americans translate only in spurts. the likes of carnegie endowment, liberty fund, and rand would translate these texts only when policy makers put strategic and ideological weight behind such an enterprise. still, the political imperative of translating those chinese classics might become clear in this very decade, and the real money would ineluctably follow. but i wonder how average sinologists feel, caught in the diplomatico-military whirlwinds of the time.

        1. Jiaqi, fine point indeed about persistent policy brawn needed to fund long translation projects. German government unafraid to fund multi-year initiatives…I’m in the George Taylor papers recently (idealistic academic in 1930s Nanking/Yenching become Cold Warrior in 1950s) and recognizing indeed the power of the whirlwind…

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