Bad Elements8 min read

Robert Foyle Hunwick reviews Behaving Badly in Early and Medieval China

Behaving Badly in Early and Medieval China, edited by Harry Rothschild and Leslie Wallace, is a dirty baker’s dozen of essays featuring the kind of “impious monks, cutthroat underlings, ill-bred offspring, depraved poet-literati, devious scofflaws, and disloyal officials” needed for a broad study of medieval mischief.

The period under scrutiny is fairly broad, beginning with the violent unification of China by Qin Shihuangdi (221 BCE) to the more mellow vibes of the early Song dynasty (960 CE onward), allowing for some diverse and compelling accounts of what constituted bad behaviour in the bad old days, as well as meditations on feudal “cancel culture” – generally involving the loss of body parts, along with positions. The book is split into three, beginning with small-fry family infractions, ramping up to courtly misdemeanors and concluding with military massacres, torture and cannibalism.

We meet slovenly sons and sullen daughters, guilty of the kind of everyday iniquities that we might consider bad form rather than outright outrage (gossiping at funerals; baring one’s belly in public; copulating during the mourning period; serving your stepmother insufficiently warm soup). These faux pas nevertheless obsessed the medieval Chinese mind, with its tendency to focus on the harmony of the hearth as a bulwark against harsh realities outside. Even the most “culturally specific perversion,” such as the indelicacy of sleeping with one’s late parent’s wives, were less an urgent issue than an excuse to smear one’s neighbors: only the nomadic Xiongnu would stoop so low as to cuckold their own fathers, Han historians sniped, at least until the latter’s civilizing influence persuaded them to marry the concubines first.

The middle section, while populated by a fairly harmless crew of errant calligraphers, boozy bards, and impious sons, explores deviancy as a form of dissent – how violating norms was seen as a challenge to authority. One chapter, on ‘Alcoholism and Song Literati,’ offers a particularly refreshing antidote to the idolatry of alcoholically incontinent Tang literati such as Li Bai. Many of these hellraising poets, their correspondence reveals, were miserable, desperate for detox yet fearful of the “caustic contempt” directed at teetotallers even while battling varying stages of physical degradation and delirium tremens.

The last third completely lets the leash off, with chapters on “wicked” and “evil” monks (who turn out merely lazy or lecherous), the violent personal lives of the sixth-century elite, and “widespread brutality and rapacity in 10th-century China,” including behavior that might even get you kicked out of the Communist Party, if Xi Jinping hasn’t done so already.

Moral prescriptions were a moveable feast in medieval times”

There are recurring themes (which also occur in my own upcoming book on vice and crime in the People’s Republic, Red Sin Rising): bureaucratic intransigence, unfilial offspring, deadbeat aristocrats, sociopathic rulers, libidinous clergy, thieving mandarins. The spoiled brats we know today as fu’erdai (“second-generation rich”) were an irritant back then too, though marked by a fondness for falconry rather than Ferraris. The biographic entry of one Northern Wei prince “does not include many details about his life, but remarks that he was by nature vulgar and hasty and loved hawks and hounds” – as damning then as accusations of “discipline violations” are in modern Party-speak.

Why falconry? The theatrical sport managed to unite various disparate interests in their disdain for it, offending Buddhists (for obvious reasons) along with bean counters (deploring the waste of good arable land on royal hunting parks), but it mainly appalled those Confucian scholars who couldn’t abide the idea of fun for frivolity’s sake. (“Confucians yearn to do what they are sternly forbidden to do,” author Eric Henry notes elsewhere in one of the book’s many deserved burns, “though they do not admit this even to themselves.”) While hunting was grudgingly accepted as “appropriate and necessary,” falconry, with its specialized training required to “kill animals that could be killed more efficiently by other methods, was quickly deemed … superfluous [and] an excessive hunting activity par excellence,” reserved for the title figures of Leslie Wallace’s essay, ‘Wild Youths and Fallen Officials’ – an eclectic group of delinquents, disgraced officials and spare heirs united by a singularly hawkish passion.

Henry’s chapter, ‘Running Amok’, asks readers to consider the precarious status of the princeling class, and perhaps forgive some of their failures. Those lucky enough not to have been strangled in their crib by a jealous usurper (infanticide wasn’t even considered a crime in the Spring and Autumn period) could look forward to a life fraught with courtly anxieties: “The ability to make correct responses to ode singing at banquets,” notes Henry, was “one of the most important aspects of competence in the conduct of interstate affairs.” Only slightly more worrisome was the omnipresent danger of sabotage or assassination from one’s dining partners.

Like the Hobbesian existence of 17th-century England (poor, nasty, brutal and so short!), this world was “dark, chaotic, sordid, and clouded with terror and anxiety.” Its aristocratic inhabitants were prone to run off the rails, where “something in them snaps. They start behaving self-destructively and are quickly disposed of by their adversaries.” This volatility meant Confucian aspirants were often required to set aside gentlemanly ethics in favour of the strategies of Sun Tzu. A willingness to do a little murder was considered almost an asset; even the Sage himself was said to have a few notches on his noose, whether from executing bandits or allegedly killing some dwarves at a “conference”.

Moral prescriptions were a moveable feast in medieval times (while feasts themselves could be a death trap). One’s values were often whatever the current local warlord said they were. The concept of junzi, the classically virtuous man, was more a pleasant idea than a practical ambition – bad behaviour was less about whether one offended society than “where one stood on in an ever-vacillating political landscape.” What pleased this emperor might earn the undying enmity of his mandarins, or the displeasure of the next, and where one was situated on the big wheel could shift at the whim of a courtier. While these eras are typically remembered in broad-brush terms (the “golden” Tang, “civilized” Song, “brutal” Qin), it’s clear just how mutable their most cherished norms and ideals were.

We also learn about the familiar if never-ending struggle of Qin Shihuang, China’s ‘first emperor’ by uniting the warring states in 221 BCE, to stamp out graft in provincial politics, as well as the time-old tensions between central authorities and their regional administrators.   In that respect, Xi Jinping is cut from similar cloth, ruling with a style akin to Qin Shihuang’s – bureaucratically brilliant but ideologically intolerant, preferring to unite the feuding factions by crushing them all equally. Qin, an anti-intellectual who never met a scholar he didn’t want to bury, is still memorialized as one of China’s founding fathers, the daddy of the nation-state, despite his well-documented love of Legalism. The parallels with Xi, an old-school autocrat whose governing instincts seem closer to Mao Zedong than Deng Xiaoping, are not irrelevant.

In ‘Intransigent and Corrupt Officials in Early Imperial China,’ Anthony Barbieri-Low has us peer into the treacherous pit over which the era’s magistrates tip-toed. Much like today’s Party cadres, who require a senior member for nomination to the membership, and a patronage network or “protective umbrella” (baohusan) to shield and promote them, “a new Qin or early-Han period official had to be recommended for office by another official who personally guaranteed his competency and honesty.” The failure of one risked the downfall of all, and the risk was high. Magistrates were dispatched to bring bureaucracy to the boondocks according to a strict prescription: an upright official – and there were few enough of those to warrant books on the topic – could be punished for being too benevolent (“such Confucian inspired ideas were inimical to the Legalist state”) and was expected to be severe, without self-serving. When commoners practiced adultery, they risked hard labour, while molesters were punished with castration; but officials who slept with married women were prosecuted as rapists, and emasculated without regret (a Qin understanding of #MeToo dynamics?).

The 20th-century social critic Lin Yutang noted that “Chinese history can be conveniently divided into cycles of eight hundred years,” each beginning with “a short-lived and militarily strong [unifying] dynasty … [then] four or five hundred years of peace, with one change of dynasty, succeeded by successive waves of wars, resulting soon in the removal of the capital from the North to the South. Then came secession and rivalry between North and South with increasing intensity, followed by subjugation under a foreign rule, which ended the cycle. History then repeats itself and with the unification of China again under Chinese rule there is a new bloom of culture.”

This book covers most of the first and second cycles – during the Qin, Tang and Song dynasties – yet should a Qin dynasty courtier find themselves warped into the Xi dynasty, they might find its obsequious bureaucracy, need for self-censorship, and appetite for cruelty reassuringly familiar. This time traveller wouldn’t have to travel far outside Beijing to find medieval plague-prevention methods and a countryside beset with the same superstitions (ghost bride killers; sorghum worship; death cults; male mania) disdained by the Qin state, who condemned the “wicked local customs” that the Party abhors as feudal relics. 

If China’s legendary past is a harbinger of its inevitable supremacy, as some contend, why is there such a reluctance to reckon with that history, acknowledging its misdeeds and misfires? Support for the Qin dynasty petered out within months of its all-powerful emperor’s untimely expiry from ingesting too many mercury pills deemed as immortality elixirs. Having endured years of purges and executions, few were vested in its continuance. Will Xi’s uncompromising authoritarianism prove similarly treacherous? Only time, or perhaps an abundance of longevity pills, will tell. ∎

Behaving Badly in Early and Medieval China, ed. N. Harry Rothschild, Professor Leslie V. Wallace (University of Hawaii Press, August 2017).
Header: A Daoist temple mural depicting the Chinese folk religion concept of hell for sinner. (Creative Commons)