From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human words to affect the onrushing course of events. Successful examples of bargaining, whether the fruits of deceit or of moral persuasiveness, swiftly found their way into fiction, poetry, and popular drama, and thus entered the culture of the country as a whole. Such tales formed both a respite and a satisfying coda to the otherwise unremitting records of violent warfare, as China’s earliest states battled for survival, or as the emperors—after the unification of China under a single ruling house in 221 BCE—fought to fend off foreign invaders or suppress internal rivals to the throne.
One such early text describes the ending of the war between the states of Chu and Song. Chu was pressing a savage siege on the capital city of Song, but the Chu ruler and his ministers knew that the Chu forces were down to their last seven days of rations, so that unless they could clinch a speedy victory, they would have to abandon their campaign against Song. Each ruler, to try to gauge the situation of the other, sent an emissary to hold a parley on the besieged city’s walls. As the two men met, the man from Chu asked how things were going in Song. Refusing to conceal the truth, the man from Song replied, “They are terrible. Our families are exchanging children so that they can eat them, and then splitting the bones to use as fuel. A lesser man might rejoice to hear of such sufferings, but I can see you are a man of honor, who would surely feel compassion.”
“You are right,” replied the man of Chu, “be tenacious in defense of your city, for our Chu armies have only seven days of supplies remaining.” And he bowed and left.
When his emissary informed him of this verbal exchange, the exasperated Chu ruler at first decided to press the siege with renewed energy. But after further discussions of the moral implications of what had taken place, the Chu ruler changed his mind. He ordered the Chu armies to withdraw, and Song was saved.1
Not, perhaps, a conventional battle story, but one with true resonance in the Chinese tradition, drawing its inspiration from an enigmatic couplet in the far earlier Book of Poetry, dating from around 800 BCE: “When a person is truly so fine/How can one respond appropriately?” In other words, when can early truthfulness pay off in desperate moments, and when can it lead to disaster? Much depends on the way people size each other up, and their relative openness to the forces of moral argument. The tension will always be there, and the chances for misreading the situation are always present. Thus for Chinese pragmatists, or those of more cynical disposition, it was generally better to try to…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.