Continuing to blog the Arthasastra. Or now that I’m on the computer with good font support, Arthaśāstra.  Or अर्थशास्त्र.


(Unless something is in quotes, it’s a paraphrase.)

Today we’ll go over rules for cities, economics, and society. Often Kauṭilya will be describing things as he thinks they ought to be rather than they are; but it’s still a valuable indication of his values and knowledge.

Cities and economics

A city should have three north-south and three east-west boulevards, each four dandas wide (24 ft), with a gate at each entrance. (This is the same as a classical Chinese capital.)

The city should be laid out as in the above diagram. Burial and cremation grounds are located to the east or north, and heretics and caṇḍālas (untouchables) lived beyond them.

There are rules for houses— they should be well built, not too close to another house, and each must have its own dunghill, watercourse, and well. A mat should be placed on the roof to protect from rain, heavy enough not to blow off.

Inns are to be provided with perfumes or garlands of flowers. Also with spies, who will report on signs of wealth.  Innkeepers are responsible to their guests for the value of things stolen.

Fording a river is forbidden without a special pass, lest traitors get away.

Musicians should not provide entertainments that make use of weapons, fire, or poison. (There must be some interesting stories behind that rule.)

Vessels filled with water are to be placed at crossroads, and in front of royal houses. Beyond this, Kauṭilya suggests that fire be prevented by praying to Agni (the god of fire). In general Kauṭilya believes in piety, but he never gives a theological justification or sanction for his rules.

Debts are inheritable, which sounds like a recipe for trouble.

A useful table of wages for government employees, all in paṇas per year: top officials (including the prince and the king’s mother), 48000. Commanders, superintendent of the harem, collector-general, 24000. Ministers, 12000. Chariot driver, army physician, horse trainer, carpenter, 2000. Astrologer, bard, superintendents, 1000. Trained soldiers, writers, accountants, 500. Musicians, 250.  Carpenters, 120. Horse keepers, bodyguards, miscellaneous servants, 60. Spies, 1000 (but the spymaster only gets 250).

Low opinions

As in most ancient societies, trading was very low-prestige— except for long-distance trading, as unusual merchandise was highly valued. Traders, artisans, beggars, clowns, and other “idlers” are closely regulated as otherwise they “oppress the country”. Goldsmiths are considered to be generally fraudulent.

A list of “undesirable persons” includes thieves, gamblers, hunters, singers, and musicians. Very often entertainers (including musicians and dramatists) are discussed along with prostitutes— again, pretty typical for premodern societies.

There’s a warning about trusting in astrology to gain wealth. Kauṭilya points out that wealth begets wealth; the stars do not.

Various laws

Treasure troves go to the king, but the discoverer gets 1/6.  Or 1/12 if he’s a peon.

If a hermit is fined, he can do penance instead, one day for each paṇa of the fine.

Eunuchs, idiots, lepers, lunatics, the blind, and those thrown out of their class do not inherit.

The eldest son receives a smaller inheritance if he is impotent. (One wonders how this was checked.)

There are fines for wandering cattle.  (Presumably this was a lot easier to regulate in ancient times!)

If a priest dies after performing a sacrifice, his heir only gets 1/5 of his share of the fee.

There are fines for selling a leprous animal– or person. This must be claimed within six weeks for animals, or within a year for humans.

You can be fined for verbal abuse, including irony— such as saying that a blind man has “beautiful eyes”.

Defendants in a legal case have 3 to 7 nights to prepare a defense. (However, there’s nothing about lawyers.)

In cases of sudden death, the corpse should be “smeared with oil” and examined. Perhaps this made bruises or changes in shape more visible, because there follows a list of clues for identifying victims of strangling, hanging, drowning, beating, poisoning, etc. (Pro tip: someone with lots of bloodstains and broken limbs may have been beaten.)

As in China, judges could torture defendants for information. On the other hand, they could be punished for unjust fines or punishments, or for sloppy procedure (e.g. “tiring parties with delay”). A Brahmin was not to be tortured, but if convicted, he could be branded on the face. (For theft, the symbol was a dog; for murder, a headless corpse; for rape, “the female part”; for drinking liquor, a vintner’s flag.)

Some suspicious signs that someone may be a thief: excessive stammering; “watching the movements of others”; rubs or scratches or “signs of scaling heights”; freshly broken nails; body smeared with oil and freshly washed. Footprints could be checked against those made near the crime scene, as well as fragments of garlands, sandals, or clothing.

If you are hurt by an elephant that you provoked, you are liable.

A fine can be levied on anyone who becomes an ascetic without providing for his wife and sons.

More later…

I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.

In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation.  Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate.  They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.

Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.

(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)

How did the British take over?  It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.

In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.

Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).

The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government.  They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years.  Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.

At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.

As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).

I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.

A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties.  All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.

(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think.  More on that later…)

I just read the Baburnama, which is Babur’s autobiography.  No, not the elephant, you big wag, the Moghul emperor.


Babur (R) with his son Humayun

Doing the Mughals


A little refresher, for those who are shaky on their Mughals. This is the big late-medieval Indian empire; Babur founded it in 1526; his last descendant was knocked off the throne in 1858 by the British. The height of the empire was under the tolerant, inquisitive Akbar, Babur’s grandson, and it’s generally considered to have gone to hell under and after the unpleasant and zealous Aurangzeb. The Taj Mahal is the tomb of a Mughal empress (Mumtaz, wife of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan).

The Brits arrived when the empire was just a shell, the emperor in control of little more than Delhi. The East India Company used a strange little dodge to conquer India: it supported a claimant to the throne of Bengal, who granted it the government of the province in the name of the Mughal emperor.  It used the treasury and troops of Bengal to conquer the rest of India, under the legal fiction that it was operating under Mughal authority. I’m not sure if this really fooled anyone.

Oh, fun fact: Mughal is a form of Mongol, because of the Genghis connection. The Mughals didn’t actually call themselves that; they used Gurkani, after the title Gurkan ‘son-in-law’ Timur acquired by marrying into Genghis’s line.

Babur’s life

Babur was a descendant of Timur, known to the west as Tamerlane, a particularly brutal conqueror of Central Asia and Persia.  He lived in Chaghadai’s section of the Mongol Empire, which by his time spoke Turkish and accepted Islam.  He could not claim descent from Genghis Khan himself, but he married into the family, so his sons could.  He died in 1405 while planning the conquest of China.

During and after his reign the administrative and literary language of Central Asia was Persian. There was a rough division of nomadic Turks (the bulk of the army) and sedentary Persians (the administrators). Babur made the unusual choice of writing his autobiography in his native language, Chaghadai Turkish, though he was also fluent in Persian.  The Mughals in India continued to use Persian till the end, though they did forget Turkish.  (Fortunately, the Baburnama was translated into Persian for them.)

Babur was born in 1483, and Timur’s empire had collapsed into a scrim of usually warring emirates.  His father died when he was 10, and he was plunged immediately into a lifestyle of war and migration that would last till the end of his life.  His early conflicts were with the rising power of the Uzbeks, who were slowly taking out the remaining Timurids.

Babur’s early years remind me of the story of Liu Bei in Three Kingdoms. He has a way of getting a kingdom, making a move on another, and losing everything, but you just could not put that boy down; he counted his few remaining followers and was back on the board in a few months.  He gained and lost Samarkand (Timur’s capital) three times.

Finally he’s forced out of Central Asia entirely, but he regroups in Kabul.  He takes the city without a fight in 1504, and he’s a little vague on how this happened; Wikipedia fills in the key detail that he took over from a usurper who had displaced an infant ruler. He was still only 21.

He spends most of his life in Afghanistan, and it’s obviously his favorite place, the one he thinks of as his.  (He is buried there.)  For a time things looked up: he found new allies in another Turkish dynasty, the Safavids, who had just taken over Persia; they defeat the Uzbeks and he briefly holds Samarkand.  The Uzbeks then regroup the next year and decisively defeat both the Safavids and Babur.

With progress in that direction halted, Babur simply turned the other direction.  He had already raided Hindustan; now he turned to conquest.  He had an excuse at hand– Muslims had already conquered northern India a couple centuries before, and there were quarrels to take advantage of.  He defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1526 and took over in Delhi and Agra; the next year he defeated a Rajput (Hindu) army.

By his own account his army was no more than 12,000 or so, and Lodi’s was over 100,000. But in general Indian armies (no matter who was leading them) were never a good match for nomad-based armies from the northwest; by this time Babur was also skillfully using cannons and matchlocks.

He spent some time consolidating his conquest, and died in 1530.  He was succeeded by his son Humayun, who promptly lost everything.  But he got it back, with Safavid help, some years later.

The book

Should you run out and get it? Well, if you like history, sure. Not many emperors have written down what they thought they were doing. I’ll warn you, though: he tends to concentrate on what is least interesting to us: genealogies, long lists of who supported who, detailed accounts of long journeys, where the army camped each night, how they got across the rivers, when and where they stopped to drink or get stoned.  A lot of what we’d consider the good stuff is asides in the story he wants to tell.

(I should also warn you that he piles on the names. Honestly I skimmed over most of them.)

For instance, he makes side comments about mistakes he made, errors in strategy, who was a good or poor warrior.  Not surprisingly, he values loyal and brave supporters, but by his own account it was awfully difficult for a beg (lord) to resist the temptation to go off on their own, or to support a rival.  In these circumstances, the only sure way to keep your forces loyal and happy was to keep them with you, and to keep coming up with loot. (The first time he conquered Samarkand, the city was so impoverished that he couldn’t reward his allies: big mistake.)

From digressions and side comments, we also learn what he was interested in besides war. He’s very fond of poetry; when he gives a portrait of someone, he sometimes rather charmingly quotes a line of their poetry. He tells you where the best fruit and wine comes from all over Central Asia.  He really likes gardens, and he’s always constructing or reconstructing one, or introducing the custom of building them into India.  (The Persians always loved a walled garden– in fact, pairidaēza  ‘enclosed park’ in Avestan is where we got the word ‘paradise’.)  In the Afghan years he is constantly having drinking parties, or for a change he and his pals eat ma’jun, a mild chewable narcotic.  (Later on he abstains from alcohol… but sees no need to give up ma’jun.)

There’s not much about sex, though the most intimate detail is rather surprising: as a young man, he had a deep crush on a younger boy. He describes himself as so shy that he didn’t really do anything about it, but it’s interesting that he has no compunctions about putting this in the royal memoirs.  (Which doesn’t prevent him from condemning “pederasty” in others. Still, I gather that it’s like drinking: he only really disapproves of it when it goes beyond some ill-defined level from excusability into excess.)  He does enter into a love match with one of his wives, but he never says much about this.

He loves Kabul, but he has a poor opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry.  There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.

What he does like about India is pretty simple and direct: it’s fabulously rich.

He mentions the language barrier, but doesn’t seem to realize how deeply it affects his judgments.  He has a long section in praise of the cultural splendor of Herat (in Afghanistan), showing that he has a great appreciation for poetry, the Persian epics, calligraphy, painting, Sufiism, and Islamic law. His description of India talks only about the physical aspects of the place– especially its plants and animals. He doesn’t mention a thing about Indian literature, culture, or religion.

Babur is a pious Muslim– he always approves of someone saying their daily prayers, he gives alms, he undertakes fasts (sometimes while he was still drinking)– but doesn’t seem zealous, until he fights with the Rajputs.  Then he is suddenly conscious of fighting the Infidels.  As he’s spent his entire life fighting other Muslims, it is hard to take this temporary zeal very seriously.  He does destroy the idols in a particular location, but mostly because he wanted to make it into a garden.

His memoirs are often described as frank or honest; of course we don’t really know if they are or not.  I understand that other sources, such as they are, don’t contradict him. But I don’t think his self-presentation is entirely artless.  E.g., he describes taking action even when he’s ten or twelve, and even when he refers to his elders taking him in hand (e.g. to protect him from his rivals). His image of himself is always of a generous and loyal king, though occasionally mistaken or unlucky in strategy. And probably he was, most of the time. He has a detailed description of a campaign in India, where he is constantly reassigning fiefs, sending letters back to Kabul, playing a game of negotiation-or-war with the frenemy of the moment, the Bengalis.  By this time, in his forties, he had evident skill not only in war, but in the all-important people skills of keeping begs happy and rivals intimidated. His one great mistake was to die too early, leaving Humayun in charge at too early an age.

I should add, there’s a famous story about his death, which for obvious reasons isn’t in the autobiography: His son Humayun was sick, and the doctors despaired for his life. Babur prayed that the illness would take him instead. And indeed, his son recovered and Babur died.

If you do read it, I recommend Wheeler Thackston’s translation, which is not only lively and readable, but complemented by helpful maps and genealogical tables.

I’ve been reading about Pakistan and Islam recently, not least to spite the rather plentiful books on India which are either explicitly Islamophobic, or simply drop Pakistan after Partition.

A good short history of Islam, by the way, is Karen Armstong‘s A Short History of Islam. Despite the title, it feels meaty.  One of her theses is that Islam is focused on politics in the way Christianity is focused on theology. This is partly due to Muhammad ending up, unlike most religious founders, as a head of a burgeoning empire; also to the fact that the main religious schism within Islam was originally pure politics: whether Muhammad should be followed by his son-in-law Ali or by someone else. But in her telling, even from the beginning Muhammad was chiefly motivated by a desire for unity and equality among the Arabs of his time. So Muslims have always been worried about how to create an Islamic state, and always been bothered by injustice and inequality, the very things Islam was supposed to eliminate.

Tonight I finished V.S. Naipaul‘s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982).  I emphasize the date because books about Islam are often books about the decade they were written.  Naipaul was writing just after the Islamic revolution in Iran, a time when Muslims around the world were contemplating reform, revival, or revolution. He spends time in Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Naipaul is a good interviewer and portraitist– you get to know and like all the Muslims he meets. At the same time he is very much out of sympathy with their projects.  He appreciates Islam as a religion, but doesn’t think it has much to say about politics or development. Basically he thinks the countries he visits would do better to concentrate on economics, law, and technology; his informants seem to think that no particular programs or institutions are required, only prayer and piety. At the same time, he’s very good at teasing out, from each informant, just what they find bothersome about the modern world (or their country), and how they decided that Islam was the solution. So he sees that in Iran, religious revival was caught up with the eagerness to topple a hated dictator; while in Malaysia, it’s tied to nostalgia for the simple peasant life of the tropical villages, uncorrupted by colonizers and the influx of dismayingly successful Chinese.

He likes to tease out absurd ideas people have about the West, such as that it’s full of atheists who have sex in public, or that Britain is 60% homosexual. One Malaysian sees his pajamas, which he condemns as un-Islamic; Naipaul amusedly informs him that pajamas are a Persian invention.

Curiously, the one country he seems to really like and enjoy is Indonesia.  The local Muslims are (or were) more moderate, and less political (though at the time they were unable to do much politics, as the country was a dictatorship). He likes the fact that Indonesians had, at least till then, diverged from the stark rules and pieties of the Arabs, and incorporated their own cultural history.  One of the national pastimes was the puppet play, and the chief subjects were still the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata– though in the local version, the five Pandava sons represents the five pillars of Islam.

His basic method is clear from the book: rely on recommendations and chance meetings to find interviewees who, hopefully, represent the country’s mood. As a sampling technique, it’s likely to be biased– after all, his informants have to speak English, which eliminates most of the population, and they have to have time to spend a day or two with him, which would lean toward the more disaffected and underemployed of the Anglophones. Not that he doesn’t have a good eye… in Indonesia one of his contacts turns out to be a future president. Still, as a method, it’s only a few steps up from Tom Friedman interviewing his taxi drivers.

Especially in Pakistan, and despite growing up in Trinidad, he sounds like many an American visiting the Third World for the first time: why is there so much poverty and corruption, why aren’t they developing fast enough, why are they simultaneously angry at the West, fascinated by it, and dependent on it?  It’s not wrong to ask these obvious questions, but he doesn’t get too far in finding the obvious answers: it takes a lot of effort to go from subsistence agriculture to (post-)industrial, and these countries are doing it in fifty years rather than the three hundred the West took.

As a portrait of Pakistan, I preferred Anatol Lieven‘s Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), which goes far deeper into the institutions, regions, and conflicts of the country.  Pakistan worries people (Naipaul was worried too, and yet another book I’m reading, by Mary Anne Weaver, is also worried).  But Lieven makes a case that it’s far more stable and resilient than people think.  Which is good, because it’s subject to far more stress than most countries. (For instance, it’s #3 in the world for suffering terrorist attacks.)

His main point is that Pakistan’s institutions of government, inherited from the British Raj, are far weaker than its ancient, powerful, violent clan system.  Civil politics, in fact, is largely an extension of the clans– e.g. the PPP party is controlled by the Bhutto clan, and all the parties are weak on ideology, strong on handing out jobs and skimming off state money.  Many practices that outsiders and even Pakistani call “Islamic” are really non-Islamic clan custom, such as the tradition of settling clan disputes by trading extra daughters. Clan justice is preferred to state justice because the latter is inconceivably slow, distorted by bribes, and doesn’t satisfy local values. (A clan member might well complain, “the law has hanged my brother’s killer, but now who is to support my dead brother’s family?”)

All this gets in the way of state institutions; on the other hand, it helps make Pakistan far less unequal than it would be otherwise. Clan leaders maintain their power by largesse. If they have no money or jobs to distribute, they have no power.  And almost everyone has someone they can court for favors.

Outsiders worry about Islamism; here Lieven’s reassurance is that there are too many Islams in Pakistan for any one of them to dominate.  Sunni and Shia, Pashtun and Balochi and Punjabi, moderate Barelwis and severe Deobandis, radical Taliban and mellow Sufis– no one group can impose its vision on the whole country.  (This is also the reason that, since Bangladesh left, the country has held together despite its centrifugal tendencies for 45 years.)

The one state institution that works, and stands apart from the clans, is the military. (Of course it’s also the one institution that’s fully funded.) Naipaul was appalled at Pakistan’s periods of military rule, but as Lieven points out, the distinction between military and civilian rule doesn’t really mean what we think it does here.  When the civilian parties are essentially coalitions of clans who take the opportunity to persecute the opposition, a period of rule by the one competent institution in the country can be a relief, at least until it becomes evident that the army can’t really rule the whole country as it does itself.

Outsiders also worry about Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. A number of elements converge here:

  • The US and Saudi support for fundamentalist fedayin in Afghanistan starting in the 1980s to resist the Soviet occupation. One you release this jinn, he doesn’t easily go back in the bottle.
  • Pakistan’s longstanding grudge against India, and its perceived need for an allied state to its west.
  • The fact that the Taliban are Pashtun, the same people as the northwestern part of Pakistan.
  • The fact that, historically, neither the British nor the Pakistanis nor anyone else in the last centuries has ever really had control over the Pashtuns.

So, in brief, most Pakistanis like the Taliban because they were a known, friendly element in a strategically important neighbor; and they were not fond of non-Pashtun alliances or governments. They were much less fond of their imitators, the Pakistani Taleban.

Anyway, Lieven is perfectly aware of how dysfunctional the country often is, and yet the book comes off as more hopeful than most Western journalism.

The other important bit about Pakistan: it’s really very similar to India, and Sri Lanka for that matter. The clan system, the clan-linked political parties, the clashing ethnicities and religions that have lived together for centuries, the limited state institutions, all are South Asian rather than Pakistani realities.








I’v e been proofing China Construction Kit, plus incorporating reviewers’ suggestions.  It’s about time to print another proof; I think I’m still on target for a release at the end of the month.


Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, the de facto and disappointing late-19C ruler

But I find myself with a few opinions that didn’t get into the book. A few opinions made it in, but opinions take up a lot of room, you know, so I’ll put them here instead.

The biggest point is in reaction to William Rowe’s China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing.  He notes that scholarly tradition, in East and West, has been to divide the Qīng (Manchu) dynasty in 1842, with the first Opium War.  The preceding period goes with the rest of imperial China; the later period is part of modern history.  He describes his book as “revisionist”, incorporating a new overall picture of the Qīng, in which the Opium War is only one incident, and the Qīng were stronger and better than they looked.

He then spends the rest of the book basically showing, despite himself, that the traditional view is more or less correct.

Now, it’s not that he’s wrong, exactly. Early European visitors tended to be impressed with China, until the 19C when they suddenly saw it as backwards yet arrogant (and, more to the point, ready for plucking).  It’s hard sometimes not to just exclaim that 19C Westerners just sucked.  At the same time they were roughing up China, they treated Chinese immigrants, well, about like the West is dealing with Syrian refugees today– that is, with a maximum of ignorant fear and horror.  And when the West got around to the scholarly study of modern China, they were way too interested in the history of Westerners in China.

From a Chinese point of view, an answer to the burning question of why China was slow to modernize was: it came down to really bad luck.  A pattern going back two thousand years is that Chinese dynasties move from active and prosperous, to divided and chaotic. When a dynasty is started, a lot can get done: distribute land, expand the borders, establish internal peace, promote scholarship.  The dynamic period rarely lasts more than 150 years.  Large landowners start to take most of the land, which reduces the tax rolls, which leads to tax increases on the poor, which eventually leads to starvation and revolts.  Often later monarchs are dominated by the eunuchs (or in the Manchu era, their families).  The scholar-officials get bogged down in acrimonious debates, which bring down any serious reform movements. Finally everything falls apart.

The Manchus produced some especially fine early rulers, who lasted till about 1800… which means, the Westerners became powerful just at the worst possible time, after the 150-year mark when the dynasty started to decline fast.  From a purely internal point of view, there was more destruction caused by the White Lotus Rebellion and the Taiping Rebellion than by the wars with the West.

At the same time… well, the Manchu response to the West was pitifully inadequate.  But then, the same can be said of almost every other non-Western nation– it’s not a particular shame for the Chinese.  The Japanese ability to adapt Western ways with great speed is the real outlier.

Development is a tricky problem, and I’d venture to say that almost all the Western advice that China received, for a century, was useless. Not only did 19C Westerners not know how to develop a country, they didn’t even want to.  They wanted to trade, do missionary work, and if possible take over. If they couldn’t take over, they wanted local leaders who would guarantee stability and safeguard Western interests.  To the extent that the West had some good ideas about democracy, free speech, science, civil law, and free enterprise, they did their best to keep it to themselves.

Anyway, see the book for the actual course of events. I do try not to over-emphasize the West, though of course it has to be discussed in the modern period. So I’ve left out (say) what the British ambassador thought of China in 1793, something that tends to fascinate British authors.

And while I’m offering opinions, here’s another one: the Empire was better governed than perhaps any Western monarchy; but monarchy still sucks. This was realized, of course, in both East and West. The Western path was to limit the absolute power of the monarch– basically, in favor of the other power bases of Western society: the nobility, the church, and the towns. The Chinese way was to inculcate in both monarchs and officials an ideology of public-spirited rule.  Mark Elvin quotes some remarkable letters from Manchu monarchs expressing personal shame over reports of droughts and other poor weather. The teaching was that Heaven might show its displeasure with a ruler by bringing such catastrophes; one may wonder if the emperor 100% believed in what he was saying, but he obviously thought it worth saying, and it’s hard to imagine George III or Napoleon or Frederick the Great ever saying it. When the emperor was scrupulous, hardworking, and respectful of his officials, government was more effective than Westerners managed until very late in history.

But of course emperors could also be lazy or incompetent, or paranoid and vicious, or dominated by the court. And in between dynasties, you generally had warlords of varying ferocity. And worldwide, no one ever really achieved a better record with monarchy; see here for more.

(I know, we look at Donald Trump and things don’t seem much better.  But Trump is– thankfully, so far– an opposition candidate, and nothing about democracy guarantees that the opposition is any good.  When you really have a stinker of a president, you can get rid of him in 4 years; a bad monarch can afflict you for decades, and act much more opposite the interest of the masses.)





This week’s achievement is that I finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is Moss Roberts’s translation of 三国演义 Sānguó Yǎnyì, attributed to Luó Guànzhōng, one of the four great Míng novels. The Míng novelists had time on their hands and a dense writing system, so their novels are tomes; this one is over 1400 pages.

The title is a bit of a spoiler— the three kingdoms don’t settle down as such until chapter 98 (of 120). But the overall story is how the unified 汉 Hàn empire broke up, a dozen or more generals taking power in various regions, finally consolidating in a threefold division:


  • Wèi in the north, where 曹操 Cáo Cāo claimed to act for the Hàn emperor. His son Cáo Pī deposed the puppet emperor in 220 and seized the throne.
  • 蜀汉 Shǔ Hàn, declared in the southwest by 刘备 Liú Bèi the next year, claiming to continue the Hàn line.
  • in the southeast, where the cautious or indecisive 孙权 Sūn Quán did not declare himself emperor until 229.

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that the kingdoms don’t extend to the southern coast. The book has a wide geographical scope, but very little happens south of the Yangtze. This is because, at the time of the book, the far south was non-Chinese territory, unhealthy and occupied by barbarians.

For Western readers, the book is a little like all of these:

  • Herodotus’s account of the Persian war, concentrating on the intrigues and cruelties of dozens of monarchs
  • Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, where brawny knights ride around beating the hell out of one another
  • Lord of the Rings, which after all is the moralized story of a war, with light supernatural incursions
  • Shakespeare’s history plays— national drama turned into the literal kind
  • The Three Musketeers, also a story of a cunning but ultimately amoral prime minister, and a relatively lowly group which has sworn to defend each other and the King

What three kingdoms?

The book covers a span of 96 years, beginning in 184 with the rebellion of the Yellow Scarves; the emperor asks for assistance in putting down this bandit rebellion, and many of the later contenders for the realm were at first allies in this common struggle. It ends with Wèi’s conquest of the two southern states, and the usurpation of Wèi by the Sīmǎ clan, reuniting China under the 晋 Jìn dynasty. “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has even been,” the novel proclaims.

The novel is closely based on history, especially the Sānguózhì, written soon after the Jìn unification. But a thousand years had produced more histories and commentaries, and above all the development of legends and plays based on the Three Kingdoms. The novel is far longer than the Sānguózhì and, though it tones down the supernatural elements of the plays, retains what had become the received interpretation of the period: Cáo Cāo was a cunning traitor, Liú Bèi was virtuous hero and an ideal Confucian ruler.

(Why did popular culture, and thus the novel, favor Liú Bèi? He was a natural favorite of southerners, and this achieved a particular resonance during the Sòng dynasty, when the Jurchens had conquered the north and a valiant resistance from the south was a matter of Chinese pride. The Jurchens played along by favoring Cáo Cāo, which helped turn him into a villain.)

Now, how do you reduce a sprawling century of war and intrigue to a novel people can actually follow? Well, in part, you let it sprawl. Roberts’s notes include a list of “Principal Characters” that runs to 115 names, and there are literally hundreds more minor characters. Whenever there’s a major expedition, Luó doesn’t just tell you the generals, but their lieutenants and the defenders of key towns. It’s the opposite of most fantasy novels, which reduce a major war to no more than a dozen personalities, ideally all related. But it’s effective— you’re not going to remember all those names, but you get a picture of the immensity of the historical canvas that few other works can provide.

The novelist excels at lapidary little portraits of the characters. Though they’re mostly defined by action, you get a strong sense of personality from even the minor characters.  (I also have to say, not a word is wasted. The book is long but nothing is irrelevant to the overall story.)

Heroes and villains

But beyond that, to make the story manageable, you identify heroes and villains. The majority of the book concerns the developing struggle between Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi (who is normally called by his style, 玄德 Xuándé). As Roberts points out, the quintessential Cáo Cāo moment has him smiling coldly as he elucidates some point of strategy, or executes a rival; the prototypical Xuándé by contrast is weeping over the state of the kingdom, or the loss of a general.

Cáo Cāo in general continually moves up: at first one of many generals, he achieves a special position when he rescues the boy emperor Xiàn. He becomes prime minister, and makes the boy into his puppet; yet he retains till his death a scruple against actually seizing the throne himself. The novel always gives him his due as a master strategist; he’s often called a tyrant and usurper, but from his own point of view he is simply doing his best for the realm and reducing one rebel after another. He defeats his major rival in the north, Yuán Shào, and attempts to conquer the south as well— but never succeeds in doing so.

Xuándé, by contrast, goes through a series of elevations, betrayals, and reversals. In the first chapter he finds two allies, the lordly Guān Yǔ and the irascible Zhāng Fēi; they make an oath in a peach garden to support each other as brothers and to maintain the Hàn. Xuándé himself is a remote member of the Hàn imperial house, the Liú, though so long as there is an emperor he supports him. He gains and loses several cities— always being known as a just and kind ruler, but never quite as strong as his adversaries. In early years he is allied with Cáo Cāo, but the intrigues of the warlord conflicts pulls them apart.

Xuándé’s fortunes change— and the novel really hits its groove— when he meets 诸葛亮 Zhūgě Liàng, styled Kǒngmíng. At this point you may well ask, what the heck is a style? It’s an extra name given to males at the age of 21, normally by the parents. Men of the same generation would address each other by their style. In TK the style is used mostly for Xuándé and his associates, apparently a subtle way of indicating that they’re the good guys.

Enter Obi-Wan

A hero needs a wise, curmudgeonly mentor, and that’s Kǒngmíng. He’s living in a hut as a Dàoist, and Xuándé has to come three times to ask for him before Kǒngmíng even deigns to speak with him. (Cáo Cāo would never show that level of courtesy to anyone.) Fortunately they hit it off, and Kǒngmíng becomes his military advisor and eventually prime minister. One of the pleasures of the book is watching Kǒngmíng ply his tricks: an ambush here, a conflagration there, a seemingly vacated camp, a betrayal that it turns out the master has foreseen. Few epics are as concerned with the pithy details of military strategy.

(You’d expect the master to be an old bearded guy, but in fact Kǒngmíng was in his twenties when he met Xuándé.)

The first order of business is an alliance with Sūn Quán against Cáo Cāo. The latter had recently beaten Yuán Shào, consolidating his hold on the north of China; he advanced to the south with an army of 200,000 men. The southern general, Zhōu Yú, had about 50,000. To conquer the south Cáo Cāo had to cross the Yangtze; he had his men on ships, and as they weren’t used to the water the ships were bound together. An enemy commander approached with his fleet to defect. However, the defection was a ruse: his ships were dummies filled with oil and kindling. The sailors set them afire and escaped, letting the wind blow them into the fleet at Chìbì (Red Cliffs). The result was a disaster, and Zhōu Yú and Xuándé heavily harrasssed the retreating northern army. In history, this is a key battle (if you’ve read the PCK, I used it there), effectively ending Cáo Cāo’s hopes of unifying China. The novel improves it by having Guān Yǔ capture and disdainfully release the fleeing Cáo Cāo, and by having Kǒngmíng summon the winds which blew the fire boats into his fleet.

Next Kǒngmíng engineers a new territory for Xuándé— the city of Jīngzhōu. Technically this was part of Sūn Quán’s territory— Kǒngmíng explains that Xuándé needs to borrow it for awhile while they conquer Shǔ to the west, but this sets up a southwest-southeast conflict that would be fateful later. Xuándé proceeds to conquer Shǔ while simultaneously fending off northern attacks by Cáo Cāo. This is a little tricky inasmuch as Shǔ has a lord of its own, Líu Zhāng, a fellow member of the Liú clan; events are engineered such that Xuándé takes over the province without having to break with Líu Zhāng. (Not a few times, Kǒngmíng urges Xuándé to some morally questionable behavior. Though we’d all prefer virtuous monarchs like Xuándé, sometimes we also want a canny bastard like Kǒngmíng on our side.)

During this time, Cáo Cāo becomes more and more tyrannical, is named to higher and higher offices (finally becoming King of Wèi) and reduces what little power emperor Xiàn retains— even killing his wife when Xiàn attempts to incite a rebellion. Cáo Cāo dies in 220, and his son Cáo Pī finally deposes Xiàn and declares himself emperor of a new Wèi dynasty. In history Xiàn lived peacefully as a duke, but in the book it’s rumored he’s been murdered, which leads Xuándé to declare himself emperor of Shǔ Hàn.

History makes the novelist’s task difficult here… with a superhuman mentor, why shouldn’t Shǔ Hàn go on to victory after victory? The narrative dilemma is solved by having Xuándé ignore Kǒngmíng’s good advice— which is to maintain the alliance with Wú. The problem is that Wú had fought a war to get Jīngzhōu back, and during this Guān Yǔ is killed and a defector assassinates Zhāng Fēi. Xuándé feels he must avenge his oath brothers, and carries on the war without Kǒngmíng. It goes well for awhile, but then he loses a major battle and dies, just three years into his reign. That’s what you get for ignoring the master.


Now Luó has lost his main character and his main antagonist, and we’re only up to chapter 85. But he is seeking a thematic unity, so the book goes on, though the pace quickens. Xuándé is succeeded by his son Líu Shàn— who however inherits really none of Xuándé’s fine points, except for his deference to Kǒngmíng, who runs the government.

Kǒngmíng wages a major campaign against the Mán, the southern barbarians. This is a strange interlude. Westerns are sometimes purveyors of “Orientalism“— positing eastern states run by ugly primitive peoples who have a rude warrior culture, where the women are more sexually available, but who are easily mastered by Westerners. Well, the Mán are treated exactly that way. Theirs is a land of “rampant pestilence”; they have access to shamanistic arts and can control wild animals; women and men “mixed freely and coupled without parental prohibition”. In this section the novelist feels free to include more supernatural and fantastic elements on both Hàn and Mán sides. (It also features the only female warrior in the story.) Kǒngmíng has to capture the Mán king seven times before he submits.

(The Mán are not a real group— “蛮 Mán” is a geographical term, the barbarians to the south. The people to the south of the ethnic Chinese were, then as now, a mixed bag: Tai, Miao-Yao, Mon-Khmer, Austronesian. The campaign reaches into Yúnnán, which even today isn’t entirely sinified.)

He then makes several campaigns against the Wèi. He is full of tricks and victories, and yet makes two major mistakes. In one campaign he trusts a rash general who loses a major city (and with it the chance to threaten the Wèi capital). And in another he is outmaneuvered, becomes sick, and dies (234, or chapter 105).

As Liú Bèi is succeeded by a lesser son, Kǒngmíng is succeeded by a lesser general, Jiǎng Wǎn. He too attempts to conquer Wèi, meets with initial success, and fails to seal the deal. But things are not static in the northland. Cáo Cāo’s successors are each weaker than the last, and the general Sīmǎ Yì accumulates more and more power.

The end is anticlimactic, but thematically apt. A eunuch, Huáng Hào, was his favorite official, and he abandoned the careful and virtuous administration of Kǒngmíng. The realm is described as descending into poverty as corrupt officials rise and emperor Líu Shàn cares about little but pleasures organized by Huáng Hào. Jealous of the general, the eunuch succeeds in sidelining him. As a result, the Wèi are able to push into Shǔ Hàn, and a detachment takes difficult back roads to reach the capital, Chéngdū. Líu Shàn surrenders, in 264— chapter 118.

Now all that’s left is for the current Sīmǎ leader, Sīmǎ Yán, grandson of Sīmǎ Yì, to depose the last Wèi emperor, Cáo Hùan, in 265, declaring the Jìn empire. In 280 Jìn forces walk over the similarly declined kingdom of Wú, and China is united again.

The book thus makes a neat thematic circle: from unity to disorder to unity. Moreover, though the northerners triumph, the line of Cáo Cāo does not: as it had usurped power from the Hàn, it was in turn usurped by the Jìn.

(History marches on, of course. The Jìn did not last long— they lost northern China only thirty years later, and this time the period of disunity would last nearly three hundred years.)

Linguistic sidebar

Would it help if all these names had meaning?

Cáo is ‘class, company’, but mostly just a surname. Cāo is ‘manage’. Sīmǎ means ‘manage-horses’.

Liú has an old meaning ‘kill’, but it’s also mostly a surname. Bèi is ‘perfect, ready’; Xuándé is ‘deep virtue’.

Sūn is ‘grandson’, Quán is ‘power, authority’.

Zhūgě is ‘various-bean’ (possibly a transliteration of a foreign name?); Liàng is ‘bright’; Kǒngmíng is ‘great light’.

All right, maybe it wouldn’t help, but I thought it was interesting.

(Roberts occasionally translates names. E.g. instead of Shǔ Hàn and Wú, he has the Riverlands and the Southlands.)

It’s personal

For Herodotus, every political action in the Persian wars was driven by personal quarrels among the rulers. TK is almost as personal, but it has a greater awareness of logistics and statecraft. After conquering a city, the generals (even the villains) “reassure” the populace— they forbid looting, reestablish order, and confirm minor officials in their posts. The characters are aware that armies are supported by farmers, and that oppressive policies will ultimately undermine warmaking; Confucian morality also, of course, dictated that the virtue of the ruler translated directly into the strength of the state. Generals are very conscious of supply— Cáo Cāo wins his major battle against Yuán Shào by finding and destroying his grain supplies.

There’s a vivid depiction of the relationship between ruler (or general) and his lieutenants. Typically there’s a threat, scouts rush in with the news, and the ruler asks “Who will volunteer to ride out against them?” To lead a successful military action was a quick route upward; on the other hand, losing a battle was grounds for execution.

Or the ruler would ask for advice. If the ruler was truly undecided, it was safe to offer advice to make war or retreat or even surrender; but it was dangerous to offer advice the ruler didn’t want to hear. An advisor whose advice was continually rejected would sicken and withdraw— and that was if he was lucky; leaders felt free to execute someone advocating a contrary plan. (Other leaders could intercede for you and sometimes the leader relented. Xuándé and Kǒngmíng are unusual for listening to all sides without shouting for the executioner. Even they have to execute a few underlings, mostly for treason or inexcusable defeat, but they feel bad about it.)

One of the charming bits is the grandiose titles given to certain generals— e.g. General Who Conquers the South. The wordiness is not present in the Chinese: it’s just 征南将军 Zhēng nán jiāngjūn ‘conquer-south general’.

As TK depicts it, war consists of enormous armies marched to a spot and deployed, then champions riding out from the ranks and engaging in combat with lances. If your man won, your men would be jazzed and rush the demoralized enemy. I assume this is mostly for narrative convenience— as in Malory, personal bravery and strength counted for a lot, but most of the real battle undoubtedly consisted of lowly soldiers whacking at each other. But at least you get a lot of commanders, so it’s not just a personal struggle between the three kings.

Interestingly, it was an accepted principle that a general in the field could disobey his lord’s orders from afar. This undoubtedly reflected a premodern situation where the home base does not have adequate information.

Death and cruelty

Resisting the enemy to the death was highly admired— the enemy general might even bury you with honors. On the other hand, you could change sides honorably, especially if you immediately made a name for yourself by attacking your former overlords. To be caught doing this, however, was unhealthy— the leader would not only execute you but kill all your family.

There’s a fair amount of cruelty and butchery. The normal process for firing people is to behead them, but if the ruler is really annoyed he’ll have them carved up. One of the Cáo emperors, tiring of his empress, issues an edict “giving her permission to commit suicide”. As in Herodotus, I think these things are intended to shock the original readers as they do us. Chinese statecraft posited an absolute monarchy, but one mitigated by Confucian humaneness; tyranny was as despised there as elsewhere.

On the other hand, sometimes a different attitude comes through. One woman, in order to avoid a remarriage, cuts off her own nose and ear; her devotion is praised. Another woman, refusing to surrender to conquerors, bashes her head in against a pillar. There’s a very weird scene where a hunter receives Xuándé and, having no game at hand, butchers his wife. Rather than punishing this psychopath, Xuándé weeps at his sacrifice and rewards him. I don’t think any of these are intended as ‘normal events’— they’re above and beyond the call of duty. (You can of course find similar stories in Western tradition, such as the spy in Herodotus who cuts off his nose in order to make a feigned betrayal more convincing, and there’s a Catholic tradition of self-mutilation.)


There is not a huge role for women in TK, but there are some notable exceptions. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a courtesan who helps drive a wedge between a particular lord and his main lieutenant, by allowing both to think she would marry them; less conventionally, she does this out of patriotism, because the lord has taken over the capital.

Perhaps the most intriguing woman is Sūn Quán’s daughter, who marries Liú Bèi to seal their alliance. She’s depicted as devoted to the military arts, and her retinue of a hundred women are all armed. Liú Bèi is frightened to enter her quarters, but she’s actually rather loyal to him… till her father steals her back.

Lady Sūn doesn’t actually fight, but there is one female warrior, the queen of the Mán tribe— Lady Zhurong, who “had five throwing knives stuck into the gear on her back and an eighteen-span spear in her hand.”

Against kings

TK, while exalting the dedication of those who upheld the Hàn dynasty, makes a strong case against monarchy. Monarchy never works, really. In Chinese history, it’s fair to say that no dynasty succeeded in establishing peace and prosperity for more than 150 years, and even that depended on the luck to have a sequence of able rulers in that period. None of the Three Kingdoms managed it.

The novel (and the official history) blame the eunuchs for the fall of the Hàn. Emperors trusted the eunuchs, as they had grown up with them and they generally had no outside loyalties— so they made trustworthy officials and secret police. They are depicted as duplicitous and corrupt. Ray Huang suggests that the real problem was the landowners. Imperial China is the only nation which, for two thousand years, directly taxed individual peasants. There was never a permanent nobility which interposed between the peasants and the central government. But estates would be consolidated and rich landowners appeared. In theory they owed the land tax as well, but it was not hard for rich men to evade taxes, often with the aid of the eunuchs in the capital, their natural allies against the scholar-officials. (China operated with a very lean bureaucracy, and there was no real possibility of surveying land or even keeping track of changes of title.) The missing taxes would be levied on the remaining small peasants. Eventually the burden would be intolerable, you’d get peasant revolts and then warlords, and the dynasty would fall.

The most pathetic figure in the book is the emperor Xiàn, the symbol of the Hàn for which everyone is fighting. He’s placed on the throne at eight, and at one point has to flee alone from one of the warlords. Cáo Cāo rescues him— but there is little pretense that he will be allowed to rule. He reaches adulthood— he’s 39 when he is finally forced to abdicate— but he’s a prisoner in the palace, and even his empresses aren’t left in peace— Cáo Cāo executes two of them.

But Cáo Cāo’s own descendants end up in the same sorry state. And for that matter, Liú Bèi’s son is a disappointment, and Sūn Quán’s descendants squabble for the throne and weaken the kingdom to the point where a takeover is easy. The book makes a case that the successful ruler has to have the benevolence of Confucius and the canniness of Kǒngmíng— but that this combination is vanishingly rare.


(Edit:) A common trope in adventure stories is that the hero suffers some terrible loss, and that’s their motivation for saving the world.

Interestingly, TK inverts this. Liú Bèi does suffer a loss— the death of his oath brothers. And it arguably leads him to his worst mistake and the one that ultimately dooms his kingdom: he blames it on Wú and ignores the greater threat of Wèi. (This is what makes him ignore Kǒngmíng’s strategic vision.)

Summing up

Should you read it? Of course! I recommend starting with a general history of China, such as the one I’m writing. But the way things work is this: when you begin investigating China, even the dynasty names are exotic, and the individual personalities and events have little meaning. But then you start to make connections, and things start to get interesting. I read TK not because it’s history (a good fraction of it is invented) but because it’s a classic of Chinese literature. But of course it illuminates Chinese history. Names like Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi become touchstones of familiarity. Plus, the Chinese have been fascinated with this story for centuries— no less than 10% of the Yuán and Míng operas relate to the Three Kingdoms story— and you can now access it in movies, TV series, and video games.

Will you enjoy it? I think so, especially if you like any of the books I’ve compared it to: Herodotus, Malory, Dumas, Tolkien, Shakespeare. Or, so I hear, that George Martin guy.

One of the things China invented is the detective story, going back to Yuán operas and Ming stories, centuries before Edgar Allen Poe. The Chinese term is 公案 gōng’àn stories– gōng’àn can be translated “case file” and is also the source of the Zen term kōan– a koan was simply a case or story for monks to think about.

The judge pauses for thought.

The judge pauses for thought.

In 1949 Robert van Gulik published a translation of one of these, an anonymous 18C novel, as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. At least I hope he did. He went on to write a series of Judge Dee mysteries in his own name, and he translated at least one of them into Chinese, so could he have been elaborately pulling our legs? If anyone has proof that the text predates van Gulik, I’d love to know.

Anyway, the heroes of gōng’àn stories are not detectives but magistrates– officials in charge of a district, including tax collection, public order, and the legal system. Judge Dee is based on a real magistrate of the Táng dynasty, Dí Rénjié, who ended up as a high official for the empress Wǔ Zétiān (r. 690-705).

People can bring cases to the judge, or he can investigate suspicious incidents himself. He is all at once detective, prosecutor, and judge, can call any witnesses he likes, can torture them if needed, and there are no lawyers. There are checks on his power, though: his cases are tried in public, and the public could and would protest to his higher-ups. As these could be held responsible for his misdeeds, they had a motivation to keep lower-level magistrates in line.

This is not noir; Judge Dee is smart, scrupulous, and honest. In this book he deals with three cases at once: a traveling silk merchant who is found murdered; a woman who seems to have murdered her husband but denies it under torture; and a young woman who dies just after her wedding to a rich scholar-official. The cases are interleaved, which paints a more convincing portrait of the busy life of a magistrate than three short stories would.

Van Gulik tells us that gōng’àn stories often invoke the supernatural, and that he’s chosen this story to translate as it downplays that element. Judge Dee does get some help from a ghost, but this only confirms a suspicion, leaving him to find the evidence himself.

The judge is not above disguising himself to find out more information, but he also has four lieutenants. (The whole city administration reports to him, but they only do their normal jobs– his lieutenants can be assigned anything.) Rather as Kyril Bonfiglioli posited that you can’t get anywhere as an art dealer without your own thug, Dee’s lieutenants are mostly former bandits. They’re happy to work on the right side of the law, but they’re trained in martial arts and can mix with, or mix it up with, the bad guys.

The setting and different legal system make the stories intriguingly different, and I’d say they also work as mysteries. They’re solved with detective work, they’re pretty satisfying in plot and detail, and they offer a nice cross-section of imperial China. (The only case I didn’t quite buy was the poisoned bride. The solution is a clever but bizarre coincidence that doesn’t quite fit the reasonable naturalism of the rest of the book.)

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