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Chapter XXVIII. On National Ills

(a) The Literati: No fault it is of the scholars that the worthiest among them find no employment in this state, but rather a shame to the authorities. A great sage was Confucius, but none of the feudal lords saw fit to use him. When, however, he had occupied a comparatively insignificant position in Lu but for three months, 1 he needed no orders to have things carried out and no prohibitions to stop malpractices. His beneficial influence was like unto the downpour of the seasonal rain causing the efflorescence of all things. How much more could he have done had he occupied an exalted position at the central court of the Empire and had been able to diffuse abroad the sonance of a sage Emperor's virtue and the balsam of his instructions? But you, Lord High Minister, for more than ten years you have been occupying an eminent position holding the reins of government over the Empire 2 ; yet you never have diffused any achievement or moral excellence over the world, but have been studiously belaboring the people. While the people are impoverished and in dire distress your own family has amassed a fortune estimated by tens of thousands of gold. Of such conduct was the Superior Man ashamed and such ones are criticized in the poem `They are felling the hickories.' 3 In former days when Shang Yang was Chancellor of Ch'in he relegated etiquette and courtesy to the encouragement of selfishness and greed, honored `head hunting' 4 [by his soldiers] and concentrated on conquest and aggression. He made no effort to propagate virtue among the people, but imposed severe laws and statutes on the country so that morals become more corrupt daily and the people increasingly complained. So King Hui was forced to boil and embrine his body in order to placate the Empire. At that time he also had no opportunity left to make his disquisitions on national affairs. Now you, our present authorities, resent the fact that the Confucianists, poor and insignificant, talk too much, but we 5 also have our worries occasioned by the many annoyances you create with your wealth and undue pre-eminence.

Woefully 6 the Lord Grand Secretary looked at the Literati and said nothing.

(b) The Cancellarius 7 : Now, now! Why can you not in discussing the administrative affairs of the nation and in discoursing on the policy of the authorities, expostulate with reason point by point, why wax vehement to such an extent? The Lord Grand Secretary considers it difficult to abolish the salt and iron monopoly not for the sake of his private fortune but out of consideration for the national expenditure and the needs of the borderland. You also, Doctors, in contending reprovingly against these state monopolies, are not working for yourselves, but in earnest wish to return to the practices of old and to entrench firmly altruism and justice. Both sides to this debate have their preferences but as circumstances change with the changing time, how could it be possible to stick fast to the ancient methods and deny the validity of modern ways? Furthermore, according to the Hsiao Ya, in criticising others, one must offer something constructive in exchange. If you, doctors, could devise however, means to give peace to the country or to subdue the distant lands, so that there would be no calamity from raids and attacks at the frontier then all the dues and taxes would be abolished for your sake, to say nothing of the salt and iron monopoly and the equable marketing system. According to your most esteemed precepts, a Confucian should treasure a retiring and complaisant disposition and treat all people in the proper way. Now in your vigorous debates and accusations, you have shown not the eloquence of Ch'ih and Ts'ê but demonstrated only your crude and violent manners, unheard of here. If the Lord Grand Secretary has gone too far, you doctors have also done so. It is only just that you should apologize to the Lord Grand Secretary.

(c) The Worthies and the Literati all arose from their mats and said: Benighted provincials that we are, who have seldom crossed the precincts of this great court, we realize that our wild and uncouth speeches may indeed find no favor here even unto offending the authorities. Yet, so it seems to us, as a medicinal tonic though bitter to the palate still is of great benefit to the patient, so words of loyalty, though offensive to the ear may also be found beneficial to mend one's morals. A great blessing is to be able to hear straightforward denial, it cheapens one to hear nothing but adulatory praise. As swift winds are raging through the forest so flattering words encompass the rich and powerful. After hearing daily at this court controlling myriads of li of territory nothing but servile aye-aye's you hear now the straightforward nay-nay's of honest scholars. `Tis indeed a great opportunity for you, Lord High Minister, to receive a well-needed physic and the benefit of stone and needle. 8

(d) The Lord Grand Secretary's countenance relaxed and with relief he turned his back 9 to the Literati and said addressing the Worthies: Difficult indeed it is to debate with men who, having seen little, offer arguments as devious as the crooked lanes in which they live. These Literati maintain a death grip upon vaporous talk; there is no hope they will ever change their views. We have already examined the precepts which held good for antiquity, but in viewing the problems of the modern world, we must rely on what our eyes have seen and what our ears have heard. With the changing generations, situations change. At the time of Emperors Wên and Ching and at the beginning of the Chien Yüan period, the people were simple and all followed the fundamental occupation [agriculture], while the officers were honest and self-esteeming. With abundance and superfluity everywhere, the population swelled and families became rich. Now, without any change in the administration or in education, why is it that society is becoming increasingly frivolous and morals are on the decline? The officers have little sense of honesty, the people, little sense of shame. In spite of the punishments imposed on the wicked, evil-doings do not cease. As it is currently said, the provincial Confucianists are inferior to the metropolitan scholars. The Literati, all coming from Shantung, seldom participate in important discussions. You, my lords, have been at the capital long enough to desire that administrative problems be intelligently analyzed and the pro and con intelligently discussed. It is but natural.

(e) The Worthies: The navel of the world is Shantung, the battlegound of distinguished scholars! When Emperor Kao [Tsu] took his dragon flight and soared up like a phoenix betwixt Sung and Ch'u, who but the youth of Shantung, men like Hsiao, Ts'o, Fan, Li, Têng and Kuan came to his assistance? Though it was indeed an age different from antiquity yet in it were found men that could be compared with none but Hung Yao and T'ai T'ien. From among the western Ch'iang came Yü, Wên was born among the I of the North, but in sagely virtue they towered above the world; in ability equal to a myriad men, they took upon their shoulders responsibilities no mortal could support. There are men, on the other hand, who come and go through the metropolis' teeming squares no one knows how many times every morn, yet finish their days as nothing more than stable boys. We humbly grant that not being born or raised in the capital, shaggy in talent and scant of wit, we are not qualified to discuss affairs of great importance, but we would like yet to report the tales told by the elders of our village communities. It is not so long ago, it seems, that the common people were clad in warm and comfortable clothes with no ostentatiousness and were perfectly satisfied in making use of crude and simple materials and instruments. These clothes sufficed to cover their bodies; these implements, to facilitate their work. A nag sufficed to serve their steps, a wagon to transport them. They had enough wine to make their meetings merry, but none for dissipation; sufficient music to set their hearts aright, but none for revelry. One heard of no wild banquetting in the home, of no pleasure-seeking excursions abroad. The itinerant went with their packs and bales; the sedentary hoed and weeded. Sparing in their needs, they abounded in wealth, cultivating the fundamental, the people were prosperous. Paying the last honors to their dead, they were sorrowful, never with pomp; in nourishing their living, meet, never extravagant. High officials were upright and not extortionate, those in authority tolerant, never harsh, so that the black-haired people found peace within themselves and all the officers security in their positions. Such was the state of affairs at the beginning of the Chien Yüan era when culture was exalted, moral excellence cultivated and the Empire was enjoying a well earned peace. Then, evil ministers one after another set their wily arts to work at the destruction of perfect government, monopolizing mountains and seas abroad and promoting various profiteering schemes at the court. Yang K'o [-shêng] instituted the `Income Reports,' Chiang Ch'ung regulated dress, the ta-fu Chang amended laws, and Tu Chou took charge of prisons. There were rigidly enforced regulations concerning penalties and redemptions drawn in minute detail and in incalculable numbers. The gangs of Hsia Lan carried out arbitrary arrests and Wan Wên-shu's posses, summary executions. Murderous officers-of-the-law sprang up in great number to the utter dismay and confusion of honest people. At that time no one among the populace felt his head secure on his neck and even among the rich and influential none could guarantee the safety of his family. Then the sage Emperor awakened to the realization of what was going on! Thereupon Ch'iang and his crowd suffered the extreme penalty and the murderous brigands were executed in order to pare off the resentment of those condemned to death and stop the odium of the Empire. Since then, everywhere among the settled people peace has been restored, yet the damage that had been done would take several generations to be repaired and the wounds and sores of the nations are not yet healed to the present day. Thus, there are still officials who practice the same methods of the murderous brigands and powerful stewards with hearts of revenous despoilers. High ministers, having exclusive control of great power, smash and break as they see fit, strong rascals form cliques and abuse everyone, the rich and prominent indulge in luxury and extravagance while the poor and humble take to rapine and murder.

Women's handiwork, so hard in making, is easily destroyed, carts and utensils, so difficult to complete, are easily broken. A cart lasts less than two years, implements are broken before the expiration of a twelvemonth. But a cart costs one thousand weights of grain, a suit of clothes, ten bushels. The common people use fancy goblets, painted tables, tabourets and mats, and well seamed and doubled garments. The serving wenches sport colored silk dresses and satin sandals, the plebeian has hulled rice and meat on his fare. Fashions in every village, factions in every association, spirited races on country highways and football games in beggars' alleys. Too few are those who grasp the plough and clutch the shuttle and personally engage in farming and weaving and too numerous those who squeeze their waists and studiously paint their faces with white powder and black pencil. Paupers play the part of opulence and the destitute boast extravagantly, with gay coats without lining, silk breeches over hempcloth underwear, elaborate funeral cortèges for the dead, while the living are not properly fed, patrimonies are wasted to provide sumptuous funerals, dowries by the cartloads for marrying daughters. The rich strive to surpass one another, the poor, to catch up with the rich, the former depleting their substance, the latter weighing (borrowed) goods. This is why the people become desperate and the need increases year by year. Poor, they have little shame; destitute, they have scarcely any honesty: this is the explanation to corruption not diminishing in spite of the punishment of wrong doers and the execution of the wicked. Thus it is that these manifestations of terrific nervousness in the country produce the ills of insufficiency [described] before. 10


1. The Shih Lei Fu reads: 常 居 小 位 相 魯 三 月

2. For the biographical sources relating to Sang Hung-yang, "Lord High Minister," cf. Discourses, chap. XVII, p. 106, note 1.

3. Poem in Shih Ching 國 風 , 魏 [Legge, Chi. Classics, Vol. IV, pt. I, Bk. IX, Ode VI, where t`an 檀 is translated as "sandal trees," as by Bretschneider. The sandal tree is tropical and hence could not be found in North China. Cf. loc. cit., note, p. 170, also p. 127 where Legge indicates that he does not mean the sandal tree of commerce.]

4. Cf. J. J. L. Duyvendak, The Book of Lord Shang. A Classic of the Chinese School of Law (London, 1928). See also Discourses, chap. VII and footnotes passim.

5. . . . 而 多 言 亦 憂 執 . . . Chang's ed. inserts the character 儒 between 言 and 亦.

6. Cf. the Erh Ya 而 雅 for the extensive use of binoms in the text here. Here again the author utilizes a particular work (? Erh Ya) in compiling this chapter.

7. Mr. Chun-Ming Chang, in CSPSR, XVIII, I, p. 5, has his own excellent translation of this passage. He makes the Yü Shih Ta-fu the "Grand Censor" rather than "Lord Grand Secretary" as in Discourses, though it is doubtful if the Censorate had yet been established.

8. The surgical simile is developed previously in Discourses, chap. XIV, esp. p. 88.

9. 謂 should be inserted between 也 and 賢. 面 mien should be taken in the unusual sense of "to turn the back on." Wang Hsien-ch'ien discusses the term at length in his note. Mr. Chun-Ming Chang translates "the Grand Censor's face broadened a little and looked at the Literati with uneasiness."

10. The foregoing paragraphs are of notable value as graphically describing in few words society in the early Han Empire.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia