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Old chinese State wisdom

Franz Kuhn made possible a translation of old chinese State wisdoms. In German, it is called: "Altchinesische Staatsweisheit". In the introduction to the book, he wrote the following (a lose translation will follow below):

"Wessen Erwartung nun auf eine Art chinesischen Macchiavell gerichtet ist, den mögen die folgenden Blätter (die Übersetzung) vielleicht enttäuschen. Zwar ist China auch auf dem Gebiete krummer Politik nicht ganz unbewandert, doch scheint in dieser Beziehung ein Bedürfnis nach östlichen Import nicht vorzuliegen, da Europa an Macchiavellismus selbst keinen Mangel leidet. Vielmehr sollte denjenigen Stimmen der Vorrang eingeräumt sein, die für das dissonanzgewohnte Ohr des Abendlandes recht eigentlich eine neue Botschaft bedeuten, die jenen warmen Hauch versöhnender Harmonie und Menschenliebe atmen den wir in der rauhen, gereizten Atmospähre unserer Tage so besonders schmerzlich vermissen. Möchte ein wenig von jener Wärme belebend auf unser abendländisches Kulturempfinden überströmen, dann hätte das Buch seine Aufgabe erfüllt!"

(Franz Kuhn, Altchinesische Staatsweisheit, Verlag die Waage, Zürich, Seite 14)

Significant is the time when his translation was published: 1933. He said in the preface that while Europe may want to hear Machiavellian like philosophical thoughts, this book shall disappoint, but then Europe itself is not poor in this kind of literature. Implied is what gives way to manipulative thought and use of the political lie. But much more rare is something he found in Chinese literature breathing a different tone due to a love for humanity. The book gives, therefore, space to reflections about another way to govern, in respect of justice and political wisdom.

For instance, in the book, one advice says in times of crisis when people are hard hit, the state should not spare on efforts and rather than reinforce hardships, should give people all the support they need. In that advice is added following after thought: people will give back double once out of the crisis, so that the state treasury will fill up again. Such an advice is certainly needed in these times when politicians like Schäuble from Germany or the Troika altogether insist Greece should save, save and again save at the expense of the common people. That it does not make sense when people are made unemployed, for how will they feed then their children and pay their bills, never mind pay the taxes, should be clear enough. But Europe seems to lack right now such state wisdom. In China it was handed down like a treasury by annals of political governance being kept over centuries, that is rare. Since state wisdom is something which cannot be taught, but more practiced by setting good examples, all the more important, if such a translation provides insights. Reading these examples shows what is meant by political wisdom.

For example, politics relates to the art of setting a horizon, so that people know what to expect in time. Equally laws which govern them are made to correspond as to what is called the heavens and what is in reality the rule from above. Since nothing is ever devoid from forces over which man has not absolute control, it matters how governance abides not only to the rule of law, but to laws of nature.  This is like a sensitive tracking device. People do know very well, if they are ruled justly or by someone who does not respect the kind of wisdom linked to honesty and justice. In the little story about 'criticism', it is made plain that ruler shall make mistakes if he refuses to hear criticism for then he will be surrounded sooner or later by only bad advisors. They will not tell him the truth so that he can avoid making mistakes, but praise or rather flatter him where he should be criticized. Only a ruler who respects criticism shall avoid being trapped by bad advisors who praise to conceal merely their curses behind his back. They would practice the slave language and never encourage good governance. People have hear many good indicators by which they judge for themselves how state affairs are run. For instance, good rulership is clearly visible when the jails are empty and people uplifted because the state is ruled on the basis of a high morality. All that contributes to being in good spirits when trying to do a job well, and not out of fear but in response to good criticism. (p. 101-6)

China depicted in classical literature meant that there was always an internal battle going on between honest and corrupt civil servants, with the latter devious and sly. Once they have come too close to power, they will start to keep out the onest ones, that is those who could challenge their bad practices.

There is a common term when bad governance takes a hold. It is called 'contrived reason' to explain why the state administration can become so easily vulnerable to all kinds of frauds and misdeeds. And always, so it seems, in Chinese history, it is first of all the poet who shall challenge in public what has become a common but negative practice. It signals a first outcry! Only then the public is prepared to follow these courageous words painted on the wall of the tea house. The latter is a highly symbolic act as it challenges the inofficial as well as official version of truth and therefore of censorship. At the same time, it shows how poetry and state wisdom are linked, insofar it is possiblea for a four line poem to depict the entire situation in so many words. More so, it can equally predict consequences, if the warning signals are not heeded.


Harmony with the infinite

Between heaven and people, there exists a certain relationship. It can be affected and accordingly turn into a reward or punishment. Natural catastrophies which ruin the fields, they happen once the ruler has strayed personally off 'Tao' (the righteous path). Then heaven will increase suffrage to remind him of his duties as a ruler. Or the reason resides within the government insofar as it has violated principles of justice and given up on common welfare. That is also the case when the civil servants do not set a good example for the people and, therefore, no longer uphold lessons of the righteous path (Tao). If so, then everyone ends up despising law and morality. All end up staying in an unlimited disorder. Once the heart of man is spoiled, the unity which should exist between him and heaven, shall be disrupted; for heaven is otherwise there to spend good will upon the people. Once that good relationship is suspended, heaven will heap instead misfortunes upon them.

Convinced by the truth of this noble lesson, once I hear that a natural catastrophe will soon hit one of the provinces, I start to reflect upon my personal leadership and try to discover possible bad practices which might have crept into the palace. From morning until evening I hover in humbleness and fear of an irritated heaven, and try not to make things worse by provoking heaven to become even more so angry.

For what could be possibily the purpose, if you call upon both good and bad spirits? To pray and to rely upon beseachments, in order to avoid misfortunates, insofar as you continue neglecting your duties, that is like wanting to take still water from the brook when you blockade its spring, or to do the irrelevant while forgetting the main things.

By nature heaven is disposed to safeguard us and to heap upon us blessings. Man has brought upon himself misfortunes. Once hit by catastrophes, the common people tend, not knowing and unable to reflect why it has come about, to give in to pain and despair; instead of turning towards themselves, they decide not to make any inner changes. Thus mistake upon mistake is made, while crime after crime is committed. All this intensifies misfortunes to the greatest extent, and destroys completely the harmony with heaven and forces upon man the greatest possible punishment.

Decree by Emperor Yung Tschong to the governors of the provinces (1735)

Translated by Franz Kuhn, (1954) Altchinesische Staatsweisheit, Zurich, Waage Verlag, p. 197-8. Translated into English: Hatto Fischer, Athens 2011



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