In this short series, lessons will be gathered from classical works on politics, and the parallels between ancient and medieval political texts and their modern contexts will be analyzed. The text is thousands of years old, and the meanings are not always clear, but the closest relevant meaning in English will be gleaned for application.

This will focus on the text, 群書治要, a collection of political wisdom compiled by political advisors in China for the emperors. A handful of quotes will be selected.

The first chapter analyzed is 微漸, wei jian, which interpreted, essentially could mean “doing things properly and by degree.”

Quote 298:


English interpretation:A cities moat and wall must be sufficient, or it will not provide protection, an army must be well supplied and brave, or they can not face the enemy when war comes, arable land must be sufficient, or a population can not be well supported. Thus a countries leaders too, must avoid decadence; if they are to lead a future, and not crumble under corruption, they must have a sense of morality and purpose.

Application:A country must have a purpose or defining set of values to distinguish its purpose, or it will lose its sense of right and will to exist, its very patriotism.

I recently heard a speaker who was concerned about the rise of nationalism, particularly in China and Japan in regards to the disputes over their mutual history, and territorial boundaries, and the summation by the speaker and the modern left is that nationalism, patriotism, and this constructed set of national identities is a negative force. The speaker argued that the concept of “nation” was completely imagined, not grounded in anything material, and that politics should be further devolved to the local level.

I disagree. I think that it can find value when the sense of a countries national identity is tied to a set of positive values that make the country unique. All forms of identity, from language and race, to nationality and moral values are entirely constructed; this does not reduce their value. The power of a nation, or even without a nation, simply a state sustained not by a notion of a common “people” but by common adherence to a set of values, such as America, India, or even the Soviet Union, has the power to effect immense social change and accomplish gargantuan feats of humanity. These feats are powered both by the collective strength of the nation and a larger political order, but more importantly by a shared sense of purpose that can only be driven by this set of unique values that build the social cohesion and will to sacrifice a share of individual or local goods for the sake of a group of others, within this same constructed community. Landing humans on the moon, defeating the Nazis, eradicating smallpox, these are the things that nations can accomplish when cooperating and when pushed, but the power of the national state, even when the nation consists not of a “people” but of shared ideas about citizenship, are what make such collective action possible. This is not to say that patriotism or love of ones country is always good, but to say that it has a purpose, and should not be seen as inherently bad. National identity may be the only thing that has kept Taiwan free up to this point.

The second chapter focused on is 風俗, feng su, which refers to social convention or custom.

Quote 301:

文言文:世治則小人守正, 而利不能誘也; 世亂則君子為姦, 而刑不能禁也。

English interpretation:In times of peace and prosperity, the common man follows the rules, stays calm, and helps maintain the peace. But when there is trouble in the land, and when officials start to dip into the pot, the law becomes meaningless.

Application:The critical idea here seem to be two fold: first, that in times of peace, the systems may seem adequate to prevent chaos, but in reality, once a country faces strife its systems will really be tested. This carries lessons for carelessness in administering the legal system in a country, and underestimating the possibility of judicial failure to fairly and properly administer the law. The second, and perhaps more important, is that government sets the example for society. When corruption begins to fester within an administration, the decay will spread to society like an insidious rot. In looking at the current administration within the United States, this rings true and is all the more disturbing. Congress’ toleration for Trump’s behavior, the notion that without “collusion,” that gross corruption, conspiracy to accept illegally obtained political dirt from a foreign adversary, repeatedly lying to the American people with impunity et cetera, these acts stain the office of the presidency and tarnish public respect and trust in government. America expects its country and government to be great. When the example set at the top is one of opportunism of the lowest common denominator, an utter lack of moral compass, and petty graft for personal gain, but then the administration expects calm and obeyance of the law from its people, the dissonance promotes chaos and starts to destroy the state from the inside out.

The third is 治亂, zhi luan, which means chaos in government.

Quote 312:


English interpretation:It was once said, the first step to overcoming a problem in government is truly understanding not only the symptoms of a problem, but its effects, its victims, and its root. Only then can the government and its people quickly take measures to resolve the issue.

Application:This is extremely poignant in modern American politics. So many complex social issues, such as immigration, the opioid crisis, chronic unemployment, are boiled down their essences in public discussion and leaders do little towards solving the root problems. A few dollars are usually thrown at enforcement of existing laws, and little is done towards attempting to understand or remediate the complex sources that drive these issues. The state and the media would to do well to try to tap into the core of complex issues, and aim for multifaceted solutions based on understanding instead of reactionary and harmful knee jerk reactions that may in fact exacerbate rather than solve political problems.

Staff writer: Ari B