Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Treason by the book

A few thoughts about China in the 1700s while reading this excellent book by Yale Professor Jonathan Spence.

First, note that China in those days was no backwater. It compared pretty favorably to any other place on earth at the time. In many ways it was blessed with some significant advantages over any other country:

  • The Emperor controlled a large empire very effectively, collecting and coordinating intelligence, dispatching troops, and making decisions that quickly affected people over thousands of kilometers.
  • Information traveled quickly and efficiently: a courier could go halfway across the country and back within weeks -- an impressive feat in a world of rough terrain and hand-built roads and bridges.
  • In the book there are surprisingly few women, particularly since the late Qing would be ruled by one.
  • The Chinese people and their rulers had great respect for education, with special rewards -- lifetime, easy employment -- for those who scored high on a standardized test system.
  • Book-writing was everywhere: publications were so ubiquitous that it wasn't practical to send all of them to the Emperor, even when it might matter to a treason investigation.
This was the early 1700s, during the time of Isaac Newton and a half-century before the American Revolution. Measured in military or logistics terms, China was at least as advanced as anything in Europe. This was an Emperor with the intelligence and ability, not to mention the assets and infrastructure worthy of a world power -- in fact, he was clearly ruling THE world power of his day.

But the Emperor also showed the weaknesses of a political system with so much power centered in a single individual. He made terrible mistakes, the kind of idiotic and juvenile actions that we find recognizable in amateur bloggers today:
  • Hurriedly rushed to publication a large book,  Awakening from a Delusion, whose only affect was to give a national audience to a man guilty of treason (the title of the book).
  • Lack of fact-checking meant third parties were misquoted, resulting in justifiable anger, and a lowering of credibility overall for the Emperor.

Even when counseled otherwise by all his advisors, this Emperor continued to insist on his own way of dealing with what, in wiser hands, would have never reached the precarious stage it did.

I'm sure other royals in other empires made similar gross errors, but China in this case was particularly harmed because of its greater consolidation of power. A misstep by a European royal would have merely given more power to a wiser Continental rival, but China's centralized government made all mistakes lethal on a much wider scale that required centuries for recovery.