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

5 responses to “I won’t cry for the wasted years”

  1. bub says:

    Related to this is the idea of playing the part of the heavily grieved mourner at funerals in order to give the deceased a good send off. From Graham’s Zhuangzi; Qin Yi is criticised for not showing enough ritualised grief:

    “When Old Tan died Qin Yi went in to mourn him, wailed three times and came out.
    ‘Were you not the Master’s friend?’ said a disciple.
    ‘I was.’
    ‘Then is it decent to mourn him like this?’
    ‘It is. I used to think of him as the man, but now he is not. Just now as I came in to mourn him, there were old people bewailing him as they would wail for their sons, young people bewailing him as they would wail for their mothers. As to how he made them gather here – there were surely some who were saying what they had no urge to say, wailing when they had no urge to wail. This is to hide from Heaven and turn away from what we truely are..”

    And there’s the whole “hired mourners” thing that persists at extravagant funerals at least until the end of the imperial system.

  2. bub says:

    Looking at Google, I see ‘professional mourners’ were incredibly widespread; Ireland, Israel, Ancient Egypt… it seems that it really isn’t sincerity that counts. Unless you move it back a step and say that the family sincerely want to give the deceased a respectful sendoff.

  3. Sam says:

    But for Confucius (who I have always taken as a normative prescription not an empirical description of ancient Chinese society) sincerity does count:

    The Master said, ‘What can I find worthy of note in a man who is lacking in tolerance when in high position, in reverence when performing the rites and in sorrow when in mourning?’

    Lau [3:26]

  4. I agree with Sam that for a quick “normative prescription” the Analects is a good start.

    There is also Analects 7:10 “子於是日哭,則不歌.” “On a day when the master wept, he never sang.” (Leys, 31) and an interesting anecdote in Analects 11:10 “顏淵死,子哭之慟。從者曰:「子慟矣!」曰:「有慟乎!非夫人之為慟而誰為!」” Translated by Leys as “Yan Hui died. The Master wailed wildly. His followers said: “Master, such grief is not proper.” The Master said: “In mourning such a man, what sort of grief would be proper?”

    I’ve also heard somewhere that the shortest full sentence in the bible is: “Jesus wept.”

  5. John Franklin Sanders says:

    If my memory helds true, I recall several incidents in the Iliad where weeping at a friends death was very emotional. I also recall reading a story of a woman and her son going to meet her husband and the boy’s father, who was just returning from a Russian slave labor camp in Siberia. The woman and the boy bowed when they saw their him, and he bowed to them, after wards they walked to their home, not saying a word. I believe from the literature that Heian Japan was full of emotions at such times. Whatever it is worth, I suspect that any cultur over time may swing between showing emotional outbursts and restraining such public display.

    As a side note, I recently saw an NHK special where they were showing a crew in China interviewing local Chinese for a movie in a small village. They were looking for a small group of people that would cry in the movie, and they were interviewing and testing. There was one old man that was unbelievably good at crying, crying so well that snot came from his nose and hung, suspended from his nose, not having enough mass to fall to the ground. I guess it is something like “he laughed so hard he wet his pants.”

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