井底之蛙

2/16/2006

I won’t cry for the wasted years

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:58 am

Reading Mote’s Imperial China 900-1800 I came across an interesting quote (p.45)

On the (rather irregular) death of Emperor Zhuangzong of the Later Tang in 926 an ambassador was sent to Abaoji, ruler of the ethnically Khitan Liao dynasty to inform him of this fact. According to the ambassador…

Abaoji uttered a wail of grief, then speaking through his flowing tears he said: “I swore brotherhood with the father of that lord of Hedong Province; that Son of Heaven is Henan was my son, as the son of my dear friend….That my son should have come to such an end! It is so unjust! He wept uncontrollably.

It is a long account, and Mote mines it for a number of interesting things on Abaoji and his attempts to appear a good Confucian. I was struck by the tears. Did he really cry? He had no doubt heard that Zhuangzong was dead some time before (Abaoji was on campaign against the Bohai, so the ambassador took a long time to find him), so even on the off-chance that Abaoji really cared about Zhuangzong personally, it seems unlikely that this is what we would call a spontaneous reaction. I suppose the ambassador could have lied, but according to Mote this comes from a fairly private account, and that would only push the question back a bit, why would the ambassador think that the tears would reflect credit on Abaoji? That he would get credit for having a close friendship with Zhuangzhong makes sense, but why the tears?

Of course as an American male I am never supposed to cry, but as a historian I am well aware that this (men don’t cry) is a cultural construct that, if pressed, I would associate with the Victorians. I know that medieval white men cried, and that we don’t so it seems like blaming the Victorians should work. Certainly I try to teach my son (and daughter) to display their emotions in a socially appropriate way, which may mean not crying but certainly means not melting down in the cereal aisle when I won’t buy them what they want.

Abaoji was apparently raised to emote visibly in appropriate situations. I’m wondering if this is a Chinese thing. At least in the Secret History I don’t recall any displays like this from nomadic leaders, which Abaoji sort of is. On the other hand in at least some Chinese texts visible signs of emotion are signs of sincere emotions.

The one that pops to mind immediately is a Mock Contract between a Slave and His Master, a Han dynasty text reprinted (p.231) in Cho-yun Hsu’s Han Agriculture The story begins with a slave insisting that serving wine is not his job, and then having the master write out a long contract explicitly stating every duty a slave could possibly have. The document is a nice tour of the Han rural economy. It is a student favorite in part because of the slave’s reaction to having his duties spelled out.

After the contract was read, the slave was utterly speechless. In reckless agitation, he knocked his head repeatedly, and struck himself with both hands. Tears fell from his eyes and snivel from his nose hung down a foot.

Students of course love snot. The way I explain this is to say that given Chinese medical ideas about proper balance of the 5 elements and such any physical or emotional upset almost has to lead to visible tears and oozing viscera. The slave is emotionally upset, and you can see this in his losing control of bodily functions. (I’m not sure how accurate this is, but they seem to accept it.) Abaoji has to cry to seem really sad, so he does. I’m not so much saying he is putting it on as that he has been raised to emote visibly in socially appropriate situations. Is this a common thing in East Asia? When were Heian courtiers supposed to cry? Qing bureaucrats?

For a picture of Abaoji’s home town, go here

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