Long March to Wisdom

Lu Buwei

Knowledge of the past helps explain the internal politics of China today, writes Jeffrey Riegel.

As much as one might admire Confucius, there is a need to convey to a Western audience that there is more to Chinese philosophy than a few pithy words in a fortune cookie. And because the philosophy of China's past is highly influential on today's values and institutions, those who want to understand China, for whatever reason, should gain some acquaintance with the old thinkers, especially those like Lü Buwei.

Lü was regent when the future First Emperor, aged 13, came to the throne as king of pre–imperial Qin in 239 BC. Many regard the transformation in post–Mao China to be equal only to the long–term changes that Lü and his emperor made two millennia ago.

The ancient sources tell us that Lü Buwei started out as a travelling merchant who bought cheap and sold dear, amassing a fortune of thousands of ounces of gold. Merchants were not held in high esteem and, had Lü not become politically prominent, he would never have been accorded a biography in an official history. As it was, Lü's political career was beyond anything that the other early philosophers might have imagined.

Lü engineered the succession of a minor prince to the throne of Qin and when that prince died after a few months on the throne, Lü became regent for his young son, the future First Emperor of Qin (Qin is pronounced 'chin' and is probably the source of the English name China). Lü was thus central to events leading to the unification of China.

Lü's efforts in assembling the vast number of scholars who laboured to produce The Annals of Lü Buwei, a philosophy of empire, brought the high culture and learning of the ancient Chinese heartland to the frontier area of Qin. In the West, we would regard Lü as a merchant–prince, a patron of culture and literature, an eminent statesman and wise counsellor, an equivalent of a Medici prince who influenced not merely Florence and Italy, but all of European civilisation.

Many passages in The Annals of Lü Buwei resonate with my experience of present–day China. Lü's reminder that the universe sets absolute conditions within which we must operate informs the palpable pragmatism of today's China. Surely, some of China's recent successes are traceable to the realisation that we should seek guidance from everyone and everything that has something to offer, a key element in Lü's philosophy for empire.

These successes are also rooted in the age–old insight, clearly articulated in Lü's Annals, that nothing is accomplished without effort. Opportunities come along but unless one works hard to take advantage of them, they will come to nothing. This lesson applies to everyone, from labourers in the fields to the ruling elite. The legendary sage–king Shun became Son of Heaven, Lü informs us, because he worked 'until his hands and feet were calloused'.

A passage in the Annals warns, 'Where there is unity, there is order; where there is duality, there is chaos.' Many people in China share this attitude, especially those who have benefited from the stability and prosperity of the last two decades. With respect to governance, what this philosophy has meant, in pre–modern times and still today, is that those on the inside of government are permitted to offer blunt criticism of the leadership as long as they do so in private. Public displays of disagreement have never been looked upon favourably by governments past or present. Those who understand this fundamental principle in Lü's philosophy will not expect tolerance of a formal opposition any time soon and will not be surprised to learn that most people in China might not find that turn of events particularly desirable.

There are other passages in the Annals that almost suggest a multicultural acceptance of different cultures and customs, remarkable in such an ancient source. But the attitude is circumscribed. During Lü's lifetime, the Qin Empire expanded its territories so that its borders were almost as extensive as contemporary China's. For the Qin, that presented the problem of governing populations that did not share their language and history.

The text asks what one does with people in the far reaches of the empire who have never known rulers and bureaucracies. Such people 'are like the deer, wild birds, and the beasts, in that the young order the old about, the old fear the able–bodied, the strong are the 'worthy', the violent and arrogant the 'honoured''. The solution to such a troubling situation was to provide government that would improve people's lives. But Lü recognised that this would work only as long as those in charge were incorruptible and willing to accept criticism of their errors and transgressions — a benchmark as high then as it is now.

Ten years since it was completed, it is easy to forget the intense labour the late John Knoblock — my co-author — and I devoted to the translation of The Annals of Lü Buwei. The original text is 120,000 Chinese characters in length. That yielded an English translation of about 600 pages. The classical language in which the text is written can be obscure and difficult and the argumentation is complicated and involved.

It is not therefore boastful to relate that when new friends and associates in China learn that I translated Lü Buwei's Annals, many are incredulous: some because they are aware of the text's difficulties but others because they cannot figure out why anyone would bother.

Professor Jeffrey Riegel is head of the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sydney. The Annals of Lü Buwei: A Complete Translation and Study, translated by John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel, is published by Stanford University Press, 2000