Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Good Old Days

I've been thinking lately about something I read earlier this year in Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation, and a conversation inspired by it. It concerns how wars were fought in Zhou Dynasty China, and how later (but still ancient, from our perspective) Chinese generations looked back on them.

(The Zhou Dynasty is not what it sounds like to Westerners. It wasn't really a time when China was ruled by a series of emperors of the family Zhou. In fact, the Zhou Dynasty was a time when the land we call China was not and never had been ruled by a single government. It was a time when continental East Asia was composed of a patchwork quilt of kingdoms that were not unified, and more often than not were at war with each other.)

In the early part of the 295-year-long time in ancient history we call the Spring and Autumn period (771 BC - 476 BC), the land was ruled by local nobles who used their armed forces to vie for power with each other. No surprise here. But apparently, they conducted their military campaigns in an astonishingly civilized fashion. As Armstrong says, 'Warfare became an elaborate pageant, governed by courtesy and restraint'. (p. 175)

The [proprieties] demanded an external attitude of 'yielding' to the enemy, but they were generally performed in a spirit of pride and bravado. In this chivalric game, the sport was to bully the enemy with acts of kindness. . . . If its driver paid a ransom on the spot, a true [gentleman] would always let an enemy chariot escape. During a battle between Chu and Jin, a Chu archer used his last arrow to shoot a stag that was blocking the path of his chariot, and his lancer immediately presented it to the team in the Jin chariot bearing down upon them. The Jin at once conceded defeat, crying in admiration: 'Here is a worthy archer and well-spoken warrior! These are gentlemen!'

A nobleman lost status if he killed too many people. A prince once rebuked a warrior who was boasting that he had slain six enemy soldiers: 'You will bring great dishonour on your country. Tomorrow you will die -- victim of your proficiency!' . . . On one occasion, when two chariots were locked in combat, one of them turned aside and seemed about to retreat. The archer in the winning chariot shot, missed, and was about to take aim again, when the enemy archer cried, 'You must let me exchange my arrow for yours, or it will be an evil deed!' So without more ado, the first archer took the arrow from his bow and calmly waited for death. . . .

In 638 [BC], the duke of the principality of Song was waiting for the arrival of the Chu army, which greatly outnumbered his own. When they heard that the Chu were crossing a nearby river, the duke's vassals urged him to attack at once, but he refused. He also rejected the suggestion that he should attack the Chu while they were drawing up their battle lines. When finally the fighting began, Song was defeated and the duke badly wounded, but he was unrepentant. 'A [gentleman] worthy of the name does not seek to overcome the enemy in misfortune.' (p. 177-178)

It's no surprise this eventually broke down completely. By the final stage of what we retroactively call the Zhou Dynasty, the Warring States period (475 BC - 221 BC), there were no more rules and all of what we retroactively call Chinese states were savagely fighting each other, double-crossing each other, allying themselves with and then betraying each other, and generally behaving the way we would expect a bunch of kingdoms that share a continent to act. A battle became an occasion to try to kill as many of the enemy army as you could before they could kill you.

The great thinkers of this time, of whom Confucius was the first to emerge and is the best-known, thought this was a terrible state of affairs. (Technically Confucius came at the very end of the Spring and Autumn Period, but he lived in a violent world in disarray without the chivalric code described above, and he grieved for its loss.)

To be well-read meant you had a powerful sense of history. In the East Asian tradition, citing ancient precedent and telling parables about ancient rulers was how you made your point. It was thought that Mankind had declined, by this time, from the more civilized state it had been in before.

In other words, they were pining for the good old days. Which they had never actually witnessed, only read about.

While reading Karen Armstrong's book, I remarked to my wife that I was surprised that the 'most civilized warfare' period of the early Spring and Autumn period had existed at all. Of course it was going to break down at some point; what was shocking was that it lasted for as long as it did.

My wife, however, had a very different idea. She thinks it's far more likely that the scribes and the keepers of the records of the old Zhou-era kingdoms only wrote down in their Annals what they considered Right and Proper.

So after a bloody, chaotic battle, the official record-keepers would describe it for posterity as this elegant military engagement that followed all the rules. In a society where few people apart from royal scribes were literate, who was going to tell future generations any different?

In other words, the good old days that the social critics of the Warring States period were pining for, very likely never existed.

Take from that what you will.

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