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The Sicilian Guide to Chinese History

I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to understand Chinese history. Confucius himself once said: “To know that you know what you know and that you don’t know what you don’t know, that is true knowledge.”

Later scholars in China’s history wrote insightful commentaries on this passage to assist future lao wai historians. All of which could basically be summed up as: “We have 5000 years of history. Call us when you realize you’re completely screwed.”

And it’s true. My colleagues who study American history have no idea how lucky they are to know exactly what is meant when a source refers to an honest “Abe,” a scheming “Judas,” a traitorous “Benedict Arnold” or an unfortunate soul pulling a “Nathan Hale.” They don’t have to check every obscure reference through 12 different dictionaries and encyclopedias each with arcane indexing systems, a preposterous chapter/page organization, and two different Chinese scripts.

And that’s nothing compared to the joy of asking my Chinese colleagues for help and watching them roll their eyes and say things like, “For the last time and the love of Buddha… Xuanzong was a Tang emperor, Xuanzang hung out with a monkey. How hard is that to remember?”

Sometimes it helps to use mnemonic devices to remember these kinds of details. I chose The Godfather.  I thought of this back in college when it was confirmed that Jiang Zemin would be Deng’s new heir apparent.  It all kind of made sense, right? First came Sonny, tough and crazy, then Michael, quiet and ruthless, ladies and gentleman let me introduce: Fredo. Hide the showgirls.

So without further ado, The Sicilian Guide to Chinese History:

In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.

There might be a lot of winners here but I’m dedicating this to the aforementioned Tang Xuanzong (685-762) whose curvy lady love Yang Guifei nearly toppled the Tang dynasty. She was…ahem…quite fond of a Central Asian fellow named An Lushan and the two of them convinced the aging Xuanzong to place the dashing young “Turk” in charge of all the defenses surrounding the Tang capital at Chang’an. Naturally, An Lushan launched a rebellion against the emperor because that’s generally how these things go. With his capital under siege, the Xuanzong fled town with Yang Guifei temporarily in tow. She didn’t get too far. The imperial bodyguards blamed the petulant and portly concubine for the disastrous rebellion and executed her.

I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.

To Mao Zedong’s “heir apparent and closest comrade in arms” Lin Biao, who parlayed his position as Minister of Defense into a game of “last man standing” during the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution and emerged on the other side of the 1960s as China’s leader-in-waiting. Then things began to go very wrong for Lin. Some feel that Mao–never big on sidekicks–began a plot against his “Comrade.” Others feel that Lin was just naturally paranoid. Whatever the reason, Lin launched a failed coup against the aging Helmsman and died in 1971 when his plane crashed in Mongolia during an ill-fated attempt to flee to the Soviet Union.

“But drugs, drugs is a dirty business…”

To Lin Zexu (1785-1851) whose principled stand against opium being smuggled into China led to his having the uncomfortable end of a British gunboat waved in his face. Lin even wrote a letter to London essentially accusing Queen Victoria of being a narco-baron. Too bad she never read it. The British blockaded a few ports and the Qing court showed how inept a military could be when the troops were all high. The Qing court blamed Lin of course because if you can’t win a fight the next best thing is to punish the guy who got you into the mess in the first place.

Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

To the Song dynasty (960-1276). The Song emperors were never able to match the territorial sweep of their Tang predecessors. Forced to cede control of large swaths of land on its northern and northwestern borders to non-Han peoples like the Khitan and the Xixia, the Song made a deal with both of these groups along the lines of “We’ll pay you money, you don’t invade us.” When a new power—the proto-Manchu Jurchens— emerged in the far north, the Song court saw an opportunity to get rid of the annoying Khitans once and for all by forming an alliance with the Jurchen. The Jurchen chiefs eagerly agreed, conquered the Khitan…and kept going. After a series of embarrassing military failures, the Song found themselves without a capital or the northern half of their empire. Undaunted by this debacle, the Song court later accepted an offer to get rid of the Jurchens…this time by allying with yet another group from the steppe: Genghis Khan’s Mongols. We all know how well that worked out.

“I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman; blood is a big expense.”

In the first Godfather, Vito’s big mistake was underestimating the desperation of Solozzo and just how violent would be the repercussions of the Don’s refusal to do business with him. Similarly, the Qing court under the Qianlong emperor didn’t realize how serious the British were when they dispatched Lord George Macartney to Beijing in 1793. The Macartney Mission traveled to the court of Qianlong to request a normalization of trade and the right to station an ambassador in Peking but the visit got off to a rocky beginning over the issue of whether or not the mission would make the customary bows to the emperor. Macartney is credited as saying, “I will get on two knees before my God and one knee before my king, but the thought of a gentlemen bowing to an Asiatic barbarian is preposterous.” You can imagine how well that went over with the Qing court. Qianlong responded with a nice note basically telling the British to keep buying tea and shut the hell up. For the record, Qianlong wasn’t half as clueless about the outside world as the British assumed and Macartney, allowing for interesting personality quirks, wasn’t quite the yutz later historians made him out to be.

It’s not personal. It’s simply business.

To the Young Marshall: Zhang Xueliang (born 1901).  The son of the warlord Zhang Zuolin, the younger Zhang was at the center of one of modern China’s most bizarre incidents. Apprehensive about an increasingly restless Japanese Imperial army to his north (who, by the by, had offed his father by bombing his train) and concerned that internecine warfare between the KMT and CCP was sapping China’s ability to defend itself, Zhang invited KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek to Xian in April of 1936. When Chiang arrived, he soon found himself the prisoner of Zhang Xueliang’s men and facing a forced sit-down with CCP consigliare Zhou Enlai. The price for Chiang’s release? An agreement to work with the CCP and form a “United Front” against the Japanese aggressors. Despite Zhang’s efforts, it didn’t take long for the United Front to completely break down. A decade and a World War later, Mao and Chiang were back at each other’s throats. Chiang, not amused by his temporary incarceration, had his erstwhile ally arrested for his trouble and even exported Zhang across the strait (along with several tons of priceless artifacts and what was left of the national treasury) when the KMT made their escape in 1949. Zhang Xueliang lived over half of his–very long–life under house arrest on Taiwan before finally being released in 1993. He died of pneumonia at the age of 100 and was buried in Hawaii. Seriously, the epitaph “It wasn’t personal” should be carved in giant block letters on Zhang’s tombstone.

Originally published April 23, 2007 on

7 Comments on The Sicilian Guide to Chinese History

  1. Gayan Balasooriya // May 25, 2007 at 8:28 am //

    I have come to ur blog and it seems kool.
    And please visit my blog —gayanOnLine— also.Thank You.

  2. Wow! All of my favorite greatest hits in one post. Thanks!

    Emily wrote about Xuanzong in one of our posts entitled Emperor Jonesing. Is the idea that he was in pursuit of immortality via consumption of mind-blitzing psychede… ahem… traditional Chinese medicine… a widely held notion? Just wondering.

    Oh, thanks for the link last week, too.

  3. 花崗齋之愚公 // May 25, 2007 at 5:16 pm //


    What a great post by Emily. I hadn’t heard that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    Many emperors (unsurprisingly when you have a lifetime job with nearly unlimited power and perks) experimented with different elixirs of immortality. One popular ingredient was mercury taken from cinnabar and there are accounts of several emperors in the Ming Dynasty dying young and crazy from mercury poisoning. The story goes that the mercury in quantity acted as a “preservative” so that even though the emperors died, their bodies stayed quite–fresh. This led the imperial alchemists to decide they were on the right track but just had to up the dosage.

    Needless to say this did not do wonders for Ming governance.

    Chinese history is full of “yěshǐ” (野史) or ‘unofficial histories’ that include many stories like the one about Xuanzong. It’s fascinating reading. Thanks for the link!

  4. “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”

    It’s my favorite line from the movie.

    I can’t think of anything off hand, but there must be some white terror/Dai Li/Green Gang/Huang Jinrong story that fits.

  5. 花崗齋之愚公 // May 26, 2007 at 9:47 am //

    That is a great line and I wished I could have used it. The column was originally published for China portal and there were…self-imposed limitations on which historical topics I could bring up.

    Clearly there are a number of candidates for that one. But I might have to give it to Song Jiaoren, the charismatic political leader who was knifed on a train platform apparently on orders of Yuan Shikai.

    Any other thoughts?

  6. 無名 - wu ming // May 29, 2007 at 12:46 am //

    my vote for “sleeps with the fishes” goes to qu yuan.

  7. 花崗齋之愚公 // May 29, 2007 at 5:50 am //

    Nice one Wu Ming. I suppose it depends on whether one is trying to follow the “letter” or the “spirit” of the original Godfather quote, clearly Qu Yuan tilts toward the former.

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