19 September 2012

"The Three Philosophers" - by William Lailey

Long ago, about three generations after the death of Master Kung, during the Warring States Period, a nobleman named Wei Huanzi seized control of the feudal state of Wei, becoming in time one of the chief vassals of the Duke of Jin.  This was in a time of great confusion and perpetual war, when rulers like the Duke of Jin paid mere lip-service to their master, the Zhou emperor, while their own vassals likewise behaved as if they were independent. 
Under the Duke of Jin there were three major subordinate states ruled by feudal lords called marquesses – Wei, Han, and Zhao.  Wei lay at the center of the Jin kingdom, astride the Yellow River, alongside the Zhou emperor’s fiefdom of Luoyang; Han was situated to the south and Zhao to the north.  Thus, Wei was the geographical and political center of the Heavenly Kingdom, as China then was known.  In time, Wei Huanzi died, and his title and position in the empire were inherited by his son, Wen, who thus became Marquess Wen of Wei. 
            Being young and inexperienced, although well-educated, despite his power Marquess Wen sought the advice of more experienced, older men.  His tutor recommended that he consult with a wise man named Zi-xia about how best to preserve the state he had inherited.
            “Shall I summon him to Anyi, then?” Marquess Wen asked.
            “Oh, heavens, no, my lord,” replied the tutor.  “That would not be in keeping with filial piety.  Zi-xia may be a commoner, but he’s a scholar and an elder, and therefore commands your respect – you must go to him, at least at first.”
            Marquess Wen thus made a short pilgrimage to the home of Zi-xia, presenting himself to the venerable scholar as a humble petitioner with a question.  The scholar was touched by the young man’s devotion to Confucian ideals and at once agreed to come to Anyi to meet with the new Marquess.
            Anyi was situated in the northwestern part of the state, on a fertile plain between the Wei and Fen rivers, not far from where they joined the great Yellow River.  The city was ancient, having been one of the Shang capitals, and – reputedly – the seat and burial place of the Xia emperors as well.  For this reason, the main temple, the Tianing, was sacred to the deified former rulers of the Heavenly Kingdom, and was referred to as the Hall of Heavenly Kings.  Like his father before him, Marquess Wen often led processions to this temple to perform divinatory rituals honoring the royal ancestors and seeking their guidance.
            “Of all the philosophers, esteemed sir, Master Kung is the most respected among the feudal rulers,” Marquess Wen said when Zi-xia appeared at court.   “You are a learned disciple of Master Kung, and I would be honored if you would serve on my administrative council, and also teach me the principles of your master.”
            “Well, then,” Zi-xia replied, “the first principle you must master, then, is ren – which is the practice of humane altruism:  you must live not to rule, but to serve your people.  Selfless service is the very heart of Confucian doctrine.”
            Marquess Wen considered this for a moment, and at last said, “Excuse me… I must consult with the ancestors regarding this teaching.”
            Zi-xia made a low bow, touching his head to the floor, and Marquess Wen summoned servants to carry him from the palace to the Hall of Heavenly Kings, where he stood before a statue of his father, lit incense sticks, and said, “It sounds as if Zi-xia, Master Kung’s disciple, says I must rule as a servant, and not as a master.  Is this good advice?”
            To Marquess Wen’s dismay, the smoke neither wafted left nor right, but trailed straight up, toward the heavy, scarlet-painted wooden rafters under the glazed tile roof.  Scratching his head, the young lord returned to his palace and asked Zi-xia to continue his lessons.
            “The second principle taught by Master Kung was yi, or righteousness – justice.  This means protecting the weak against the strong, and also being fair.”
            “And the other principles?”
            “They are li – propriety and etiquette, which you have demonstrated already, my lord.  And zhi, or knowledge, acquired through observation and study.  Finally, there is xin, or integrity, which also can be thought of as self-discipline.  All of the principles combine and work together in the mind and heart of the truly just ruler who enjoys the Mandate of Heaven.  But it is not enough merely to think and hope:  you must act – you must actually do what you know is right.”
            Marquess Wen pondered the Confucian scholar’s words, as well as the fact that his attempt to divine the will of his father had failed… or had it?  Perhaps his ancestor had given him a clue?  That night, the Marquess consulted privately with his chief concubine, Zhang.  She had captivated him, initially, with her skill as a musician and her beautiful singing, but after he had elevated her to the status of concubine, she had demonstrated remarkable political insight.  Her advice, however, had to be sought in secret, for otherwise the nobles might start murmuring against him – that Wen was so weak he sought the counsel of a woman.
            “I think your father may mean that Zi-xia is neither right nor wrong,” Zhang said, as they lay together in the moon-bed, with their heads lying together on the same pillow.  “Perhaps he’s trying to tell you that every situation must be judged on its particular merits.”
            “But how?”  The young Marquess was perplexed.  “Which way is the correct way?”
            “Consult all the philosophical schools, my lord, and allow yourself to be guided by whichever one seems to have the best answer in each case.”
            The Marquess nodded.  “That won’t be easy.  The philosophers don’t like each other.  These scholars fight all the time.”
            “That is why you must never let on which one you prize the most,” Zhang smiled.  “Treat them as you do your women, my lord.  Leave them all guessing but hopeful, and throw them just enough rewards, now and then, to keep them competing.  It is only rivalry and hope of future reward that drive men and women to strive for excellence.”
*          *          *

            The Marquess Wen’s father, Wei Huanzi, had appointed a man named Li Kui to be Chancellor of Wei, and this official had presided over the administration of the state for nineteen years already.  Shortly after the Marquess Wen’s formal recognition by the thirty-first Zhou emperor, Li Kui appeared at court, having returned from a tour of inspection that had taken him to every county. 
            “My lord, I must discuss matters of great importance to the state, but the nature of what I have to say, alas, is such that it is best said privately.”
            “Leave us!” Marquess Wen commanded, dismissing his noble attendants, even his guards.  He looked carefully at the Chancellor, remembering that his father, Wei Huanzi, had always referred to the elderly official as his best and most useful ally.
            “Your father subdued the feudal lords when he conquered Wei,” the Chancellor began.  “The only way to assure that they will never rebel is to take power away from them and create a new administration solely dependent on you, my lord.”
            “But the people follow the noble families,” Marquess Wen replied.  “They defer naturally to them.”
            “That’s the problem, my lord.  These nobles have their own power bases, all over the country, and their own loyal followers.  My reforms, commenced under your father, have sought to replace noblemen with trained bureaucrats who will serve entirely at your will, who have no followers and no power independent of you, and no personal resources, either.”
            “You wish to continue your reform program?”
            “Yes,” the Chancellor nodded.  “A state governed by nobles may flourish if the nobles are good and talented, but that cannot be guaranteed.  Talent is not found in every generation, and thus an aristocratic state will wax and wane naturally, while a bureaucratic state remains stable because it systematically trains its ruling class and recruits the very best into the service of the state.  A bureaucratic meritocracy, in which the ruler favors talent rather than noble lineage, cannot help but be more stable than an aristocracy.”
            “What are your plans, Chancellor?”
            “Your father’s reign was squandered by warfare,” Li Kui sighed.  “This was a necessary evil, for new states are not established without bloodshed and strife.  Now, you must carry on the second stage of your father’s dream by consolidating control over Wei.  Your father, through his charm and cleverness, was able to ally himself with both Zhao and Han against our neighbor, the Duke of Qin, to the east.  To that end, Wu Qi was appointed to command the army, and he captured five cities of Qin after just three years of fighting.  However, now that there is no more threat from Qin, and now that the Duke of Chu has been defeated as well, Zhao and Han will turn against us.  It is not a matter of if, but when.  We must be ready:  we will need superior resources, which can be had only by  improving our agriculture, since we cannot expand our territories except by going to war with our own allies.”
            “So, you plan to increase the farmers’ yields?”
            “I have three plans.  First, have the county magistrates learn better farming techniques and teach these to the peasants in their jurisdictions.  Second, have the state purchase surplus grain, to be stored in warehouses throughout Wei, and released into the markets, as necessary, to prevent sudden fluctuations in price.  If the price falls too low, we buy, to bring the price up; if the prices start to rise too high, we sell, to drive them down.”
            “This makes sense,” Marquess Wen said – indeed, he was pleased by the Chancellor’s display of wisdom.  “What is your third plan?”
            “There is a promising young man I want to promote to be magistrate of Ye.  He has experience with agricultural improvement, and that is a part of the state where the people are very backward, but where vigorous governance could bring about great economic improvements.”        
            “So be it:  appoint your fellow to be magistrate of Ye County, and have him send a report within a month, as well as a plan of action for the administrative council to consider.”
            That night, when Zhang came to Marquess Wen’s chambers as usual, he told her about his interview with Li Kui, and about everything the Chancellor had said.
            “You must be careful of General Wu Qi,” she warned.  “When Li Kui recommended him to your father, he considered him to be brilliant, but risky.”
            “What do you mean?”
            Smiling, but also looking aside, very demurely, Zhang said, “He has a reputation as a womanizer.  He is a man of violent tastes and habits, passionate and inclined to be indiscreet.”
            Marquess Wen shrugged.  “Well, he’s not commander-in-chief of Wei’s armies because he has a pretty face:  I’m certain my father put him in charge of our troops because he’s a strong leader, and he wins battles.”
            “My master, the Daoist sage Yang Zhu, says that General Wu Qi is dangerous.  He has written a book, my lord, the Wuzi, which outlines his ideas.  General Wu Qi believes that the military should rule:  he would reduce everything and everyone to a state of subservience to the army.”
            Marquess Wen smirked, and looking closely at Zhang asked, “Who is this Yang Zhu, your master?”        
            “My guide – in the Dao, the Way.”  Zhang looked a little ashamed, but summoned her courage.  “My body belongs to you, my lord, and you have my loyalty, but my philosophy is that of Lao Tzu, and I have been initiated as a Daoist adept.”
            “I understand the principles of Confucianism,” Marquess Wen said.  “I even understand the Legalist ideas of Chancellor Li Kui, but I do not understand the Dao.”
            “It is the principle of nature,” Zhang explained.  “We learn to understand the ways of nature; and then we let nature take its course.  We try not to stand in the way of the natural order of the world.  We try to flow with the world’s natural energy – just as architects employ feng shui to construct palaces, like this one, that are in harmony with nature.”
            “The natural order of the world?”  The Marquess of Wen shook his head, but Zhang was so pretty he could not move himself to be angry with her, no matter how absurd some of her ideas might be.

*          *          *

            A month passed, and Marquess Wen received two reports from the Chancellor.  The first was written by Ximen Bao, the young administrator who had been sent to Ye to take over as magistrate there.  He had written, in beautiful lines of perfectly-painted characters, the following:

‘My lord Wen, Marquess of Wei, son of the honorable Wei Huanzi, I offer you my devotion and service as Magistrate of Ye, recently raised from obscurity to authority by your grace.  Greetings.  Upon my arrival here, I was told that the lamentable condition of the crops was due to a terrible flood of the Zhang River.  The peasants, ignorant and superstitious, say the river is a god, and to appease it they have murdered a young girl, who they say has been “given” to the river to be his bride and placate his restlessness.  In accordance with the dictates of reason and strict justice, I have dealt firmly with these fools, and have put an end to this ridiculous practice.  Furthermore, I have made a study of the river and its persistent flooding, and I have determined that a solution to this problem is possible.  I beg that you will consider my proposal:  First, that the many idle people in this part of the country be put to work, on behalf of the state, on engineering projects designed to control the river.  Second, that much of the water of the Zhang River be diverted.  At present, it flows, with little profit to us, into the Yellow River at Anyang; if the river can be made to flow into the Yellow River at Tianjin, instead, it will bring water to a vast, fertile but dry area, turning a near wilderness into a highly-productive province.  Thank you for receiving my humble petition, my lord:  I await your decision.’

            Having read this report to Marquess Wen, the Chancellor said, “I would advise you to approve Ximen Bao’s proposal, my lord.  It has great merit.  For too long the Confucian scholars have tolerated the ignorance and superstition of the masses because of their own blind acceptance of ritual.  Ximen Bao’s report indicates the extent to which this sort of delusional religiosity drives people to a state of barbarism and depravity.”
            “Let there be debate on this issue,” Marquess Wen said, turning to his Confucian advisor, Zi-xia.
            “The people are not accustomed to forced labor,” Zi-xia said.  “They will resent it as an act of tyranny, and there will be trouble, perhaps even a rebellion.  Ye County is close to the border of Zhao, and the Duke of Zhao might exploit such a revolt in order to attack us.  Moreover, as Ximen Bao represents you, my lord, his tyranny will be seen by the peasants as a sign that you are oppressing them.  In time, if such outrages are permitted everywhere, your house will lose the Mandate of Heaven.”
            “Oh, this is what the Confucians are always saying,” the Chancellor retorted.  “They always adhere to tradition, but the only way forward is to make actual changes even if people disagree with you.  Who should govern, learned men or a mob of peasants?  If you want to cook a meal, my lord, you must husk and boil the rice first, whether the rice likes it or not.”
            “Exactly how long is this scheme of Ximen Bao’s going to take?” asked General Wu Qi.  “He’s talking about carrying an entire river off into an artificial channel hundreds of miles long.  How long is it going to take him to dig such a monstrous folly?  He’ll need tens of thousands of laborers, and every man who works on this project is one less man to grow crops, one less artisan, and one less soldier for the army.  And we haven’t even begun to discuss the enormous expense involved….”
            The Chancellor groaned, hearing the General’s argument, and said, “What should we do?  If we do nothing, the river will flood no matter how many virgins they drown in it, and it will sweep away the people and their crops anyway.  Something must be done.  Sometimes the state must spend money for the long-term good.”
            “And sometimes you don’t get to have long-term results because the Duke of Zhao wipes you out while you’re dreaming about creating the ideal state,” General Wu Qi replied in an acidic tone. 
            “What would you do, then, General?” Marquess Wen asked.
            “Reduce the size of the bureaucracy, cut their pay, and transfer the resulting savings to the military budget,” General Wu Qi said, without hesitation.  “In the last extremity, my lord, the only thing standing between you and a very bloody death will be your army.”
            “Unless it’s the army that kills you,” said Zi-xia, with a prim smile.
            “Try not to be too cheerful, gentlemen,” Marquess Wen laughed, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt.     
            “Your soldiers are loyal,” General Wu Qi declared, glaring at the old Confucian scholar. 
            “As if soldiers aren’t subject to self-interest like everyone else,” the Chancellor laughed.  “My lord, people can be trusted only so far:  no one can be trusted to act against their self interest.  That is why we must lead men with rewards and the threat of punishment.  Some men respond to incentives, while others respond to fear.”
            “General,” Marquess Wen said, “if I were to reduce the bureaucracy, who would administer my country?  The noblemen?”
            “No,” the General said.  “The nobles are even worse than the bureaucrats.  Instead, train the officers of your army to be both warriors and administrators, and let them administer the state.”
            “In a word, my lord, that’s suicide,” was the Chancellor’s response.  “And speaking of soldier-administrators:  that brings me to my next report, which concerns you, General Wu Qi.”
            The Chancellor cleared his throat and produced the next memorial, which read:

‘Our Lord, honorable Marquess of Wen, we the undersigned leading citizens of Xihe County crave your patience as we bring to your attention the excesses perpetrated here by the Mayor that has been set over us, General Wu Qi.  Although the people of Xihe initially welcomed an illustrious warrior as their master, one who seemed to combine with his martial talents the wisdom of a scholar in the fine tradition of Master Kung, the implementation of his new order of things has been harsh and unsettling.  We must object, to begin with, to the introduction of corporal punishment for so many minor infractions of the law:  the cultured citizens of a thriving town like ours are not soldiers in the army, to be tied up to a triangle and flogged for offenses.  In the past, citizens were punished with fines and banishment, which was sufficient to guide most men onto the path of morality.  General Wu Qi, however, seems to believe he can lead men to gentlemanly conduct and filial piety through compulsion.  Moreover, he issues decrees constantly, so that no one can keep up with all the numerous changes in the rules that govern our town:  this has created confusion and lack of confidence, and many traders say they will take their business elsewhere, now, since they cannot be certain, from one day to the next, how things stand in Xihe.’

            Marquess Wen remembered what his concubine, Zhang, had said about General Wu Qi, and that night he went, disguised in a cloak, to the Hall of Heavenly Kings to consult once more with the ancestors there – not just his father this time, but any of the ancient emperors who might be present.
            “What should I do with General Wu Qi?” he asked.  “Shall he be executed?”  He threw the lots, but all three sticks fell out of the bamboo cup.  “Shall he be exiled?”  This time the long stick indicated the decision of the departed ancestors:  the General must go.  Relieved, Marquess Wen returned to his quarters, summoned the Chancellor, and said, “Order the second-in-command of the army to arrest General Wu Qi.”
            “Wise decision, my lord.”
            Retiring to his private chamber, Marquess Wen joined Zhang in the moon-bed and said, “My love, this spiritual guide of yours – this philosophical master… can you ask him to come to court?”
            “I will do my best,” she said, reluctantly. 
            “Is there a problem?”
            “There might be,” she smiled.  “He’s a Daoist, after all.”

*          *          *

            Yang Zhu, the Daoist guide of the concubine Zhang, could not be found anywhere in Anyi, and it took Marquess Wen’s lover several months to track him down.  He had gone away on pilgrimage to Mount Tai, apparently, without telling anyone where he was going.  When he eventually returned, however, he heard that Zhang was asking after him, and he made his way to the court, where the officials in charge of protocol admitted him only because they knew their young lord had asked to see the fellow.
            Dressed in rags and stinking of rice wine and sweat, wiping his nose on his sleeve, and barefoot, carrying only a long bamboo pole and an old leather pouch suspended by a length of hemp rope, Yang Zhu limped into the audience chamber where the counselors and officials had gathered around Marquess Wen to make their reports and discuss important matters.  He belched and scratched the side of his neck. 
            “We sent for you some time ago,” Marquess Wen said.
            “How was I supposed to know:  I wasn’t here,” Yang Zhu said, now scratching his chest.  “I thought Zhang wanted to see me.”
            “She summoned you on my behalf.”
            “She’s cute.  I don’t mind talking with her.  But you’re an idiot.  Can I go now?”
            “Master Yang Zhu!” cried the Confucian scholar, Zi-xia, “mind your manners – this is the court of Wei!”
            Yang Zhu glanced around and said, “This is a nice house, built by a successful murderer, inhabited by a murderer’s son, who is an idiot surrounded by idiots.  My manners hardly matter when fools like you pretend to govern the world.  Can I go now?”
            Marquess Wen held up a hand, restraining both Zi-xia and the Chancellor, who were about to launch into a tirade against the visitor.
            “Not many men have the nerve to hold me in such contempt to my face,” Marquess Wen remarked.  “General Wu Qi had command of all my troops, but when I turned on him, he fled the country in the middle of the night.”
            “So I hear,” Yang Zhu smiled.  “I understand he’s working for the Duke of Chu, now.  He’s in charge of everything, and making everyone there miserable.  Good call.”
            “I’m glad you approve,” Marquess Wen smiled.
            “My brother and sister Daoists in Chu call the General a warmonger, but surely complaining about a warrior who craves battle is like complaining about the rain because it’s wet.”
            “I am surprised you were away from home for so long.”
            “Home?”  Yang Zhu held up his bag and said, “My home is wherever this little bag is.”
            “What’s in your bag?”
            “This and that… it comes and goes; but nothing too heavy.”  Examining the beautifully decorated audience hall, he added, “You’ve got a lot of stuff.  Don’t you ever feel trapped?”
            “Don’t you have a job?”
            “No.  I ask people for money, and sometimes they give it to me.  If they don’t, then I go fishing.  And if the fish don’t bite, I go hungry until they do.”
            “Charming,” the Chancellor sighed.  “My lord – what is the point of this?  This man is an ignorant moron:  this is a waste of time.”
            “Perhaps,” Marquess Wen remarked, “but I am not yet persuaded that Yang Zhu is either ignorant or a moron.  I intend to find out.”  Turning to his visitor, the Marquess asked, “Why did you think you could come to the palace drunk like this?”
            “C’mon, it’s not like anything important is happening here,” Yang Zhu scoffed. 
            “Well, we’re shifting the course of the Zhang River,” the Chancellor said.  “It used to flood, almost every year, and now the villagers will be safe because there will be levees to protect them, as well as canals to bring the water to their fields so they can grow more crops.”
            “There,” Marquess Wen smiled.  “What would your Daoist brothers and sisters do, faced with a river that floods all the time?”
            “That’s easy.  We’d leave it alone and live somewhere else.  And if anyone was stupid enough to live next to the river, we’d say, ‘Good luck with that,’ because what else can you say to someone who just doesn’t get it?”
            “We can’t live somewhere else,” Zi-xia said.  “The best farmland in Wei is all located in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding, so we must build levees in order to help the people – to make the land productive.”
            “Why should the land be so productive?” Yang Zhu asked.  “Here’s what’s really going on:  see, if every family had just a little garden, and went hunting and fishing and gathering, we would all have enough.  But you people wouldn’t exist – none of you.  The only thing that makes you philosophers and courtiers possible is surplus production.  You force people to work harder than they need to, then you steal what they produce and call that taxation.  Well, the truth is this:  your entire civilization is unnatural, and you’re sitting here in this cavern made out of dead trees, trying to figure out why this river is destroying all your stuff when the answer is as obvious as could be:  you built your towns and cities and farms in the river’s way.”
            “And yet the levees have stopped the flooding,” Marquess Wen pointed out.  “More crops are grown, prices have fallen, people are happy, and more children are being born – the population is growing, and Wei is becoming stronger.  Our neighbors, who used to threaten us, are now respectful.”
            “Until the levees break, and they will break, because nature is not infinite; it’s finite.”
            “What do you mean?” Zi-xia asked, intrigued.
            “Every year when the rains come, the rivers around here flood:  they carry down so much silt they turn yellow – hence the ‘Yellow River’ – duh! – and what happens?  The silt builds up, and the more you dam and channel the rivers, the faster the silt collects.  Year after year, the bottom of the river rises, and eventually – give it enough time – the bottom of the river will actually be higher than the surrounding land on either side of your levees.”
            Marquess Wen furrowed his brow, following this.
            “Now, does the levee get thicker and stronger, toward the top?  No, it doesn’t, it gets thinner and weaker instead.  So what, inevitably, is the outcome of all this fuss and bother you’re going to?  You’ll have a flood on your hands ten times more catastrophic than anything you dealt with before you started this.”
            “But a ruler has an obligation to protect his people,” Zi-xia said.  “The ruler is the father-figure that all men look up to.”
            “A ruler can best protect people by teaching them not to be idiots, and he can do this best by not being an idiot himself.  As for being a father figure, for everyone, that’s nonsense – that’s just another nice little lie that people like you sell to keep yourselves in power.”
            “So, then, you believe that everyone is on their own?” Marquess Wen asked.
            “Exactly.  We’re all individuals.  To hell with the family, the community… the only thing that matters is personal freedom and happiness.  There are no ancestors in heaven because there is no heaven.  You get one life, and you either waste it or enjoy it, or you spend it making other people miserable.”
            “Boldly spoken,” Marquess Wen said.
            “You can be a slave, a free man, or a tyrant.  Your pick.  I choose to be free.  Most people lack discernment and courage, so they choose slavery out of fear.  A few lucky bastards like you get to be tyrants because you were born into wealth and power.”
            I am beginning to see what Zhang sees in this man, Marquess Wen thought.
            “Now, let me ask you a question,” Yang Zhu said, looking at the Confucian scholar.  “If that levee of yours breaks, and washes away the villages, what are you going to do?”
            “Well… help the people rebuild, of course, and take care of them.  The ruler is the servant and protector of the people, after all.”
            “And then you’re going to let them – or perhaps even encourage them – to rebuild their villages in the same place, where you know they will be wiped out again at some point in the future,” Yang Zhu replied, snorting.  He turned to the Chancellor, now, and asked, “What would you do?”
            “I would put the people to work,” the Chancellor said.  “I would not give them handouts for free:  if you don’t work, you don’t have a right to eat.  Anything else would make people dependent on the state.”
            Yang Zhu chuckled.  “That’s honest, but let’s face it, you’re not going to win any popularity contests with ideas like that.  Everyone’s going to think you’re an ass.  Actually, Chancellor, they already do.  I hate to be the one to have to say it, but everyone hates you.”
            “Well, Master Toss-pot,” the Chancellor snapped.  “You seem to know the common man:  you tell us, then, what the common people really want.”
            “Most of them want you people to leave them alone,” Yang Zhu said. 
            “And then what?” Marquess Wen asked.  “Let the country revert to anarchy?”
            “Why not?”  Yang Zhu shrugged.  “A natural order would emerge, in time, just as water seeks its own level.  Balance would be restored, if people just let nature take its course.  Can you really say that what you have to offer is better?  You have a system, based on constant toil and surplus production, a system that has to grow perpetually because if it doesn’t, it will collapse.  But the problem with that is that an infinitely-expanding society cannot exist in a finite world.  Eventually, you will run out of land, water, trees, animals… you will eat everything – literally.”
            “This is insane,” Zi-xia said.  “If we let these hedonistic, immoral Daoist ideas govern the world literally millions of people would die.  The destruction would be unimaginable.”
            “It is anyway,” Yang Zhu countered.  “You let the levees rise and the river rise until you end up with a flood more devastating and deadly than anything nature would ever throw at the people.  And then you Confucian scholars encourage the population to grow to such a size that it’s completely out of balance with the country’s resources, and millions of people starve if your little scheme to hoard surpluses and control prices fails.  And then, because you have governments, and taxes, and armies, and temples, you fight wars over scraps of strategic territory:  the armies devastate the countryside, burn villages, kill people, and cause all sorts of misery.  If it was just people, living on their own, doing what they needed to do, and nothing more, we wouldn’t have any of these problems.  All the problems in the world exist because of you – your pretentious governments, your wicked armies, your fake religions….  You know what I see in this room?  Parasites.” 
            Yang Zhu glared at them all, even Marquess Wen, and then turned around with a frustrated gesture, stumping out of the audience hall.
            “Should I arrest him?” the Chancellor asked.
            “No,” Marquess Wen sighed.  “He’s not right, either, but he has courage.  He said he wanted to be left alone, so I think we should give him what he wants.”

Historical Note:  The above story is based on the history of the state of Wei during the reign of Marquess Wen, c. 403-387 BCE.  All of the philosophers and officials mentioned in the story are historical figures associated with the Wen court except Yang Zhu, the Daoist libertine.  Yang Zhu is considered by Daoists to have been a real person of the same general period, but we do not have any dates for his life, nor do we know exactly where he lived.  The opinion of many historians is that Daoist figures of the Warring States Period often are composites created through the reduction and merging of multiple biographies.  As for General Wu Qi, although his administrative policies annoyed people in Chu just as much as they had in Wei, he proved to be loyal to the Duke of Chu, and sacrificed his own life in an attempt to save his master's corpse from being mutilated during his funeral rites.  All of the places, events, and projects referred to in this story are historical.      


1)      What does the above story teach us about the different philosophical schools during the Warring States Period, and how they tackled ethical problems?
2)      What does the above story teach us about the Chinese political system during the Warring States Period? 

© William Lailey, 2012

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