井底之蛙

10/23/2006

No need for Clever Speech

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:49 pm
No Need

It is recorded in the Han chronicles that when Emperor Wen visited his pleasure park he went to the area called Tiger Garden. There he questioned the official in charge of the park about the various animals. The official did not respond. The caretaker beside him, however, answered in great detail. Emperor Wen instructed Zhang Shizhi [an attendent] that the caretaker was to be given administration of the gardens because of his ability. But Zhang reminded him of Zhou Bo and Zhang Xiangru, who were virtuous with words to those above them in rank. Zhang advised that if Wen accepted the clever speech of the caretaker as a virtue and raised him in rank, the world must then bow to [the vagaries of] the winds. People will compete in clever speech and truth will become unimportant. The emperor agreed and the clever caretaker was not promoted. Gerhart “Tokugawa Authority ”Monumenta Nipponica 52.1 Story from Shi ji 102

This is sort of an odd story, since Han China is supposed to be the beginning of Chinese bureaucracy, which is supposed to be meritocratic. In fact this is a great story for illustrating Han ideas about slander and bureaucracy. Early Chinese rulers and thinkers were obsessed with slander, which is attacked over and over again in many texts. The problem with slander is that it is very effective. Particularly in times of social change you are what people say about you, and if they say bad things you are a bad person. Words create reality. The most important ability for a ruler is the ability to control how words create reality.

The message to the emperor here is that he needs to not be gulled by a clever tongue, but rather put his trust in the bureaucratic system, the established mechanism for the regulation of words. One of these guys outranks the other and there must be a reason for it. Don’t trust your ears, trust Human Resources. (Actually, don’t make any decisions at all.) Interestingly I found the story and the picture in an article on the Tokugawa Shoguns, so apparently this is one of the standard stories told to East Asian rulers, at least when they are trying to set up bureaucratic states.

7 responses to “No need for Clever Speech”

  1. A. E. Clark says:

    I’m groping for a sophisticated way to say, “This is nuts!”

    The caretaker was not attempting to gull anyone. He was doing part of his job — or possibly part of the job of the official at his side. To be caretaker of a zoological garden means, among other things, to be a docent. Nothing in the story suggests the caretaker was trying to undermine the official. He was just doing his job noticeably well. And it is implied that the official may have been doing his job noticeably poorly.

    That does not prove the caretaker should have taken the official’s place. But it suggests that the caretaker was worth a closer look, to check whether the system was using him to full advantage; and that the official was worth a closer look, to check whether he had already been promoted to his level of incompetence. If the only lesson contemporaries — and later generations — drew from this story was, “… there must be a reason for it … Trust Human Resources,” then there must have been a lot of wasted talent at the bottom (& deadwood at the top) of those bureaucracies!

  2. Sam says:

    “The problem with slander is that it is very effective. Particularly in times of social change you are what people say about you, and if they say bad things you are a bad person. Words create reality. The most important ability for a ruler is the ability to control how words create reality.”

    Lee Kuan Yu and the PAP party in Singapore are similarly obssessed…

  3. I suppose there’s also the quote from the Analects: 巧言令色鲜矣仁. I should probably defer to Sam on this, but I hardly think that Confucius meant this as “not listen to wise counsel” but instead to not let “sweet words” (i.e. bullshit) hide incompetence and a lack of virtue. Any thoughts, Sam?

    Is anyone else struck too by some of the 20th century parallels? I’m thinking especially of Mao’s mistrust of ‘expertise.’ Now, Mao might not have wanted to put his trust in a bureaucratic machine, but he might have agreed that, “if Wen accepted the clever speech of the caretaker as a virtue and raised him in rank, the world must then bow to [the vagaries of] the winds. People will compete in clever speech and truth will become unimportant.”

  4. Alan Baumler says:

    A.E. I agree that this type of thinking probably did lead to a lot of wasted talent, but selecting talent was only one of the jobs of the state. Part of it I suspect is an unwillingness to equate cleverness with virtue. The big point of the story, I think, is to warn rulers of the slipperiness of words.

    I’m not sure I’d equate “sweet words” with “bullshit” in the context of this story either. As far as I can tell the subordinate’s words in this story are supposed to be true, i.e. not bullshit, but they should still not make a difference. Suck-ups should never be rewarded -especially- when they are right.

    I suppose I should have explained the stories of the two guys they are compared to. Zhou Bo and Zhang Xiangru “were of notable virtue in the Han period during Emperor Wen’s time. They were men of few words and consequently there were never any complaints or misunderstandings regarding their speech or conduct.” I take that to mean they were not players in the game of bureaucratic politics and sucking up and thus were the type of people who should rewarded.

  5. Sam Crane says:

    I have a different take on this. Perhaps it is crazy or wrong, but let me throw it out there:

    There is a double interpretation going on here: a Tokugawa read of a Han interpretion of Confucian ideas. I am suspicous of the Han move to discipline Confucian thought to the Legalist practices of the state: thus the defense of bureaucracy and postion above all else. And I suspect the Tokugawa were even more interested in the defense of entrenched interest and power.

    With that said, I wonder if a pre-Han Confucian sensibility (if we can construct one)would be sympathetic toward the caretaker, assuming that he is speaking the truth. He is helping the Emperor understand that truth. On the other hand, the official is not necessarily doing anything wrong. Perhaps his “being in charge of the park” is a CEO type thing, more concerned with budgets and personnel than getting down with the animals themselves. His silence could be perfectly appropriate, since we should let out actions “speak” before our words. Indeed, the better argument would be that the official is to be rewarded because he has found and retained such a good caretaker.

    Bottom line: I think Zhang Shizhi is full of it. He is a Legalist apologist looking to rationalize state power with a Confucian gloss (I am starting to sound like Kim Jong-il!) While it might be right to suggest to the Emperor not to punish the official, the reasons given are a shallow defense of his, Zhang’s, own bureaucratic interest (he doesn’t want one of his underlings to talk their way into his position). The better reason for keeping the official is that he is doing a good job: the fact that the good caretaker is there and doing a good job reflects positively on the official. That is what Zhang should have said.

  6. […] There are some interesting discussions about an ancient Chinese story on 井底之蛙。 […]

  7. Timothy says:

    Excellent, love it!

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