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Facing the Monarch: Modes of Advice in the Early Chinese Court

Facing the Monarch: Modes of Advice in the Early Chinese Court

Martin Lavicka14 Aug 2014Leave a comment

Written by Oliver Weingarten

Olberding, Garret P.S., ed. Facing the Monarch: Modes of Advice in the Early Chinese Court. Harvard East Asian Monograph 359. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. viii, 290 pp. ISBN: 978-0674726710.

In both imperial and pre-imperial China, where other means of political consultation were generally absent, it was of critical importance to the functioning of government that ministers could tender their views to monarchs. Ideally, the insights of wise ministers served as a corrective to the ambitions and impulses of rulers who may be variously blinkered, megalomaniac, misinformed, too young or too distant from the state and society they were ruling to be able to exercise their authority efficiently, judiciously, and equitably. Yet, the gap in status and power between adviser and advisee was one of the most obvious impediments to a debate unfettered by considerations of etiquette or, indeed, worries over sheer self-preservation. “Speaking truth to power is a hazardous occupation”, as one of the contributors to this volume rightly points out (p. 31), and for political advisers from the late Warring States period down to the end of the imperial era to be able to effectively pursue their objectives, they had to steer clear of both flattery and savage denunciations.

Chronologically, the essays in this book span the time from the Springs and Autumns (722–481 BCE) to the Eastern Han (25–220 CE), a period when the role of the political adviser, be he officially appointed or of the itinerant kind, was still very much in flux. It is mainly from the contributors’ efforts to pinpoint and analyse such profound changes in the role of advisers in central decision-making processes that the volume derives its considerable interest.

David Schaberg traces the similarities between the speeches of textual specialists who may be tentatively called “secretaries” (shi史) and envoys (shi使) from the Chunqiu period. While the former were of relatively lowly status and possessed little political influence, the latter were noblemen who represented their rulers at diplomatic and ritual occasions. Both were noted for their expertise in allusive, archaic, and ritualised language that they used to devise official speeches, and envoys were to become the “versatile and powerful successors” to the secretaries (p. 40). Both, however, eventually disappeared as important speakers from the courts of the Warring States period when the haloed past ceased to be a model to be reverently invoked and eagerly emulated. In their place, we now find travelling persuaders who relied “on quick wit and adaptable rhetoric instead of the models of the past” (p. 41).

The essays by Su-ching Chang and Yuri Pines usefully complement each other in that they explore different modes of political advice characterised by varying levels of willingness on the part of the adviser to make allowances for the ruler’s wishes and exalted position. Chang distinguishes between “instructive”, “confrontational”, and “authoritarian” modes of advice. The first, mostly found in Zuozhuan 左傳 and Guoyu 國語, and possibly reflecting the rhetoric of the Chunqiu era, is characterised by a cautious tone intended to correct the ruler’s mistakes through well-crafted, allusive speeches with frequent references to past precedents. The potentially more alienating second mode of advice is associated with the rising shi 士 class of the Warring States (480–222 BCE) period, with the most notable examples of confrontational speeches to be found in Mengzi 孟子 and Zhanguo ce 戰國策. Lastly, Chang’s “authoritarian” mode of advice is in fact a little bit of a misnomer, since it does not refer to the kind of advice that reflects the authoritarian self-image of the speaker, but rather one that supports the sovereign’s unattenuated position of power, an attitude exemplified in Chang’s essay by the Qin minister Li Si 李斯 (c. 280–208 BCE).

Yuri Pines’s study investigates a similar set of problems but does so with a stronger emphasis on historical context. Taking his readers from the Zuozhuan’s “world of hereditary aristocrats” where the “ruler frequently was either primus inter pares or just a hapless figurehead” (pp. 79–80) to the centralised polities of the Warring States period with its waning hereditary privilege and, finally, to the Qin unification, Pines manages to link the changing role of political advisers closely to the transformations of internal power structures. While Chang emphasises decorum and caution as hallmarks of Chunqiu remonstrance, Pines demonstrates that hard-hitting criticism was a distinct possibility at a time when “[p]unishing a powerful minister was a dangerous gamble” (p. 79) for rulers who found their position threatened by mighty families with their own fortified cities and armed followers. In a bold interpretative move that conceives of criticism as a form of indirect affirmation, Pines surmises that some Chunqiu rulers were so weak that to be considered worthy of criticism “might have perpetuated the illusion of the lord’s power and might have even made the lord glad” (p. 80).

The Warring States monarch with his tighter grip on the reigns of power generally enjoyed a much more secure position than his embattled counterpart from the Chunqiu period, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, it is in this time that we find remonstrances liberally sprinkled with aggressive objurgations and borderline invectives such as Mencius’s famous codemnations of the kings of Liang 梁 (i.e. Wei 魏) and Qi 齊. Here, it was not the status of the remonstrants, as in the Chunqiu period, but rather the existence of “an interstate ‘market of talent’” that prevented a harsh backlash against outspoken critics (p. 87). Like Chang Su-ching’s essay, Pines’s too ends with Li Si, whose career is symptomatic “of the broader transformation of the members of the educated elite into a much more dependent stratum” (p. 97). But unlike Chang, Pines proceeds to the unified empire by way of Xunzi 荀子, whose “accommodating”  approach to remonstrance creates “a reasonable compromise” between fierce criticism and sycophantic praise and, in some respects, acted as a workable model for times to come (p. 99).

Li Wai-yee’s essay on riddles in persuasive speech takes up some of the themes and materials already discussed elsewhere by David Schaberg in an article on indirect remonstrance.[1] But Li does so with a stronger focus on the literary pleasures of enigmatic language and the emotional chords struck by acts of concealment and moments of denouement.

In his analysis of how ministers erred in early imperial China, Garret Olberding attempts to demonstrate that the most significant shortcomings were not mistakes of a factual nature, but rather lack of familiarity with matters under a minister’s purview, vagueness, and a readiness to exploit his understanding of the ruler in order to manipulate him.

Sarah A. Queen presents a detailed analysis of Dong Zhongshu’s董仲舒(c. 179–c. 104 BCE) responses to edicts by Emperor Wu武(r. 141–87 BCE) and Dong’s communications with Emperor Wu’s elder brother, the king of Jiangdu江都. As Queen’s interpretation shows, Dong’s communications presented a trenchant criticism of Emperor Wu’s hiring policies. The “prefatory wall of obsequious and self-demeaning verbiage” (p. 184), the “excessive ritual courtesies” employed by Dong may have helped to soften “the insult he is delivering” (p. 195); they might have served to “demarcate a linguistic safe zone” for harsh criticism that otherwise would have landed its author in hot water (p. 181). Such self-deprecating rhetoric thus allowed principled officials like Dong to opine fairly openly on contentious issues under the veneer of deference. The extant communications with the king of Jiangdu are of a different nature; “gone are the elaborate formulaic conventions that ensure the proper ritual space between superior and inferior” (p. 192). But here, again, Dong presents himself as an upright official, dousing the political ambitions of the king in criticism that is mediated by textual and historical allusions but none the less unmistakable.

Griet Vankeerberghen delves into the complexities of court politics and enatic influence through an investigation that puts the problematic relationship of “kingship and kinship” under the Han centre stage. Observing how, from the beginning, the Han kingdoms occupied a problematic position within the imperial power structure and system of dynastic solidarity that triggered a drawn-out tug-of-war between centre and periphery, Vankeerberghen investigates a legal case from 120 CE against Liu Chang 劉萇, the king of Lecheng樂成. The kings had lost any actual power they ever possessed more than two centuries earlier, but they still enjoyed a considerable reputation and material privileges that were due to them as members of the imperial clan. Tensions, however, between the central administration and the kingdoms persisted, yet attempts by officials to beat the kings in line through accusations of crimes and misdemeanors regularly ended with imperial pardons that mitigated their sentences in the name of familial compassion.

Liu Chang’s case follows a similar pattern but derives its particular interest from the fact that Chang’s appointment as king was part of a gamble for power in which the Empress Dowager Deng鄧 (81–121 CE) tried to establish a bond of familiarity and gratitude between her own clan and the nephews of her deceased husband, Emperor He和 (r. 88–105 CE). While Liu Chang got caught up in legal accusations which were most likely the outcome of political intrigues immediately after the Empress Dowager’s death, her plan was overall successful since “in the decades following Emperor He’s death, the imperial throne, rather than being passed from father to son, shifted back and forth between descendants of Emperor He’s brothers, with the powerful empress dowagers using these members of the Liu family to maintain and strengthen the family’s own grasp on power” (p. 220; see also p. 212).

The tentative, and sometimes hypothetical, reconstruction of such dynastic machinations and of the ways in which Liu Chang’s biography was intertwined with them takes up most of the article and will no doubt demand most of the reader’s attention. By comparison, the rhetorical analysis of the exchange about Chang’s case between an advisory official and Emperor An安(r. 106–125 CE) recedes somewhat into the background but nevertheless sheds light on how the emperor positioned himself toward both his kinsman and the power games of the late empress dowager (pp. 221–230).

In the last contribution, Michael Nylan subjects the final chapter of Yang Xiong’s揚雄(53 BCE–18 CE) Fayan法言 to a close reading, highlighting Yang’s strong criticism of expansionist military policies and his insistence on the ruler’s duty of care toward his subjects.

In sum, the essays of this volume offer a wealth of insights into the roles of ministers and advisers, the changing historical conditions under which they tendered their criticisms and recommendations, the aesthetic pleasures attendant on certain varieties of court rhetoric, and the language of communications with the ruler which, under the guise of a rigidly formulaic style, opened up unexpected space for critique and even irreverence.

Oliver Weingarten works at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences.

[1] David Schaberg, “Playing at Critique: Indirect Remonstrance and the Formation of Shi Identity”, in Text and Ritual in Early China, ed. Martin Kern (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2005), 194–225.

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