The Importance of Historians

I recently watched a BBC special about Confucius. As I don’t have a bean named Confucius, it would be wrong to focus on that, but I do have a bean named Szu-ma Chien. Last night, as I watched this program, I wondered if the world would even know about Confucius, if there would have been anything known as Confucian culture, if Szu-ma Chien had not been such a good historian and found so many important ideas in Confucius’ writing some 500 years after Confucius had lived. That’s a friend.

I haven’t really kept up with developments in Chinese culture in the interval since I got over my broken heart from having come back to the US in 1983, so, from time to time, I like to peer through a video window into today’s China. Last night I saw that Confucianism has been rehabilitated and has gone mainstream. I never really thought it had gone away. First it seemed to me that Communism and Confucianism meshed pretty well in the daily life area and then because the customs of Confucianism were, are, always have been — since the Han Dynasty — deeply engrained in the culture. Still, when I was living in China, Confucianism was barely awakening from the Maoist designation of it being one of the “Four Olds,” and a crime to practice.

The program opened with an actor sitting and writing with a brush on bamboo slats. He was portraying Szu-ma Chien. ❤

Yesterday, in The Dihedral, Carrot wrote about ethics. It was a compelling post and inspired me to write rambling incoherence in response, but you know, I go with my strengths. 😛

With this in my mind as I watched the program on Confucius I realized the Szu-ma Chien, in memorializing him so passionately and beautifully, and accepting castration rather than death as a punishment from “his” emperor, was making a desperate plea for ethical government. Confucius system is an ethical system, and whatever its nuances, it’s pretty simple. “Don’t do to another what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.” Seems a dark spin on the Golden Rule but I think, given human nature, less obscure.

I believe every society needs a shared ethical system that does NOT come from the top (as totalitarian Communism attempted) but which (as Confucius understood) is part of daily life and the rituals of ancestors, etc. Tradition. This weekend many Americans are doing just that “celebrating” Memorial Day. A society needs an identity that includes ritual observances and a shared ethical system. That — and his version of the golden rule — are pretty much the point of Confucius’ system.

The program made the point that Confucius believed he was a failure because, in spite of traveling all over the warring kingdoms he’d been unable to persuade any sovereign to follow his precepts. After some 14 years, he and his disciples gave up their wandering lives. Confucius was resigned, telling his students, “…A gentleman can cultivate his way, draw up principles, recapitulate and reason, but may not be able to make his way accepted. [If] your aim is not to cultivate your way but to please others, your ambition is not high enough.” In my opinion, that’s the essence of integrity, but also something I need to remind myself all the time as a painter and writer.

Of the prose and poet beans, Szu-ma Chien is doing the best. Of those who endured the cold, only two survived which means I have three viable bean plants, there is Tu Fu and Pearl Buck. I planted more seeds that have not yet germinated in place of the others. I guess this will give me more opportunities to look into Records of the Historian.

Of this Confucius said (via Szu-ma Chien) “A good farmer may sow by may not always reach a harvest…”

The featured photo is a Columbine that is blooming for the first time this year…

Szu-ma Chien, Scarlet Emperor Bean

I’m finally learning “who” these beans are. Four poets and a historian. Since plants are not ego-driven by identity and originality, welcome the return of Li Bai, Tu Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Ho. The fifth is the great historian, Szu-ma Chien. Wang Wei is still in the house as are his compatriots who are 20th century Chinese writers, including Pearl S. Buck. Why? you ask — reasons will unfold soon enough.

So who is Szu-ma Chien and why is he included now?

Sometimes when you’re involved in learning things you find a hero and as I was trying to figure out where in the world I’d been for a year in the People’s Republic of China, and reading all the history I could, I hit on Ssu-ma Chien and found him to be one of the most amazing, brave and noble men I’d ever “met.” So, what was his story?

I bought Selections from Records of the Historian on September 4, 1982, soon after my arrival in Guangzhou, probably at the Youyi Bingguan or Friendship Store. I don’t think I read it, though, until I got back to Colorado the next year. I bought it because the introduction said, “The Records of the Historian, written two-thousand years ago by Szuma Chien of the Han Dynasty, is the greatest historical work China has produced. Thanks to Szuma Chien’s rich experience of life, his enlightened approach to history and his brilliance as a man of letters, he was able to make a discriminating selection of material and to write a new form of history.”

So what happened to him that made him “noble” “brave” and so on? He offended the Emperor by defending a general who had “been defeated in battle and had surrendered to the Huns. For this he was punished by imprisonment and castration.” In Chinese culture castration was worse than death and most men would have taken their own lives rather than suffer the shame of castration; face was everything and a man without, uh, you know, male parts had no “face”. So why didn’t he kill himself? Because his recording of history was more important than his pride. Stopping work? No. He continued writing while he was imprisoned. The humiliation didn’t end there but in a paradoxical honor. In 96 BCE he “…was pardoned and appointed palace secretary, a post slightly higher than grand historian (his former post) but one usually held by eunuchs. Humiliated and distressed, he nevertheless went on writing the history and completed the work in 91 BCE when he was 55.” (Records of the Historian, preface by Wang Po-hsiang)

Szu-ma Chien inspired me to think about my own work seriously, to consider if I would accept such a horrible punishment and humiliation just to keep writing. Szu-ma Chien “told” me I should, that true history told with a living voice, is THAT important.

The book consists of reports and anecdotes of people important both to Chinese history in a large sense and in the smaller sense, to Szu-ma Chien’s time. Szu-ma Chien’s writing (translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Hsien-yi) is energetic, very alive and I think you’ll like it when you finally get to meet the heroic bean who bears his name. I’m going to enjoy looking into this book again!