23 Mar

Knowing I lov’d my books,
He furnish’d me from mine own library
With volumes that I prize
Above my dukedom.

William Shakespeare
The Tempest


Early in the year 1127 outside Kaifeng, capital city of China’s northern Song dynasty, the barbarians stirred. For years the empire had grown steadily weaker whilst the scholars who ran the system quarreled with the emperor. To the north the rustic kingdom of Liao had been held at bay with annual payments of 200 000 ounces of silver and 300 000 bolts of silk. In exchange for this treasure they promised not to invade.

In the early years of the 12th century a vassal state of the Liao kingdom Jurchens, the Jin had risen up. Finally, in alliance with Song China, and laid waste to the Liao kingdom. The problem was, in the event, the Jin did it all by themselves. Thru an accident of fortune they had, finally, not needed what feeble support the Song could’ve supplied. They came to realize that the Song Dynasty was weak and went after them next. After penetrating their border and laying waste to the land they put Kaifeng under siege.

What a terrible year to be a woman in Kaifeng. The Jin had invaded the country and brought the state to its knees and for months had demanded sums of gold that the empire did not have. Get us the gold they said and we won’t let our soldiers invade the city to do what they want. By January of 1127 the empire was out of time and gold and luck. The Jin demanded women instead. These were valued according to rank. A princess was worth a thousand gold bars. They reserved the right to pick and choose. They only wanted the pretty ones. By mid-February the invaders had well taken over, no bones. They held a feast and forced the emperor and his family to attend. When the Jin king’s son took a fancy to the Emperor Huizong’s daughter Fujin, Huizong protested that Fujin was already married. The king of the Jin replied that each of his guests could take two women each, whoever they chose.

To those of us safe on streets under the umbrella of American Imperium this is horror beyond comprehension. The Song dynasty lasted a little while longer moving to the south. But the Emperor was taken back to the Jin homeland in Manchuria where he was ritually humiliated, dying broken and forlorn in captivity in 1135. What a fall. The treasures of the Song palace had been a legendary catalog of cultured enlightenment. The library contained 8 489 scrolls on philosophy alone. Huizong was a devout Taoist, a composer of poetry and an accomplished painter whose work survives to this day in the Chinese canon. His artists’ academy demanded the highest standards. But his decisions in defense of the State were appalling. His interest in military matters, negligible.

It had been traditional in the Confucian capital for courtiers and lords to be accomplished poets as well as practitioners of the political arts. Given that the one seems to me to be the opposite of the other, to demand very different frames of mind, I have my doubts that many individuals can become accomplished at both. By the time the Emperor Huizong fell the catalog of treasures – calligraphic texts, books of classics and poetry, scroll paintings, jade, sculpture – filled books that had long numbered tens of thousands of pages. By the start of 1127 most of this was booty, stacked in the tents of the invading Jin.

Most of it is lost, no-one knows what happened to it.

In The Prince Machiavelli quotes Tacitus: quod nihil sit tam infirmum aut instabile quam fama potenntiae non sua vi nixa. Nothing is so weak or unstable as a reputation for power which is not based on one’s own forces. Believe it.

“Plum Tree and Birds”
Emperor Huizong (1082-1135)


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