What follows is an extract from The Ninja and the Diplomat, volume 2 in The Chinese Spymaster series. Some time ago, I published an extract that presented some inner monologue for the Ninja. This extract features the Diplomat; inner monologue is represented by passages in italics. But these are not the thoughts of the Diplomat. Instead, I have tried to present the thoughts of his students. How does one know what a group of people are thinking? Well, one hopes for some artistic license.
Former Minister Yu began the class. It was a course studying theories of the ideal state or society. This in itself made the students uncomfortable. No one wished to say that whatever state China was currently in was not ideal as any such discussion implied.
Yet Yu blithely continued to describe the syllabus that in the forthcoming weeks would take them through discussion of theorists like Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, before turning to Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong. He had chosen, however, to begin with Confucianism, a departure from orthodoxy that would have had the Red Guards screaming obscenities in a different era; it still seemed so old-fashioned. Worse, the assignment for the day had been the Dao De Jing, surely a book of riddles.
If the students at the “other school,” the China Executive Leadership Academy of Pudong in Shanghai, found out, they would surely laugh. Actually, there were five schools in all dedicated to the further training of middle and high ranking officials, but as commonly happens, rivalry was strongest between number one and number two.
“Who will begin our discussion? Does anyone have a comment on the reading assigned for today?” asked Yu.
This was another disconcerting aspect of the course, the professor always asks for opinions and comments. Doesn’t he know we are Chinese? Who among us makes comments?
Nonetheless, a brave soul ventured,
“I have heard that this classic proposes a way of life and thought that is obsolete. They say no person or state could live in such isolation as is recommended.”
“Very good. I myself thought that. Does everyone agree?”
The students murmured restively, realizing that the professor had set a trap for them. They could not agree because he would then criticize them for not thinking for themselves. But what should they say if they disagreed? This man is devious, everyone in the class agreed. Some rumors said that he was a princeling and had been a rising star in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If so, what was he doing here? Could it be possible that this school meant something in their party career.
“Weren’t the followers of the Dao often hermits who retired from towns and cities to work on wonder-making powers, including the drug to give man immortality?” persisted the lone voice.
Everyone else was sure he was a marked man, his name remembered. But what if he should be earmarked for special promotion?
Another voice was raised. “I have been told that the Monkey King was such a Daoist, perhaps even an Immortal himself.”
The students laughed with relief, as many of them had heard similar stories from doddering old men and women, their grandparents or family friends of that generation. Some of the stories, it had to be admitted, had reappeared in many computer games.
Yu remarked seriously, as if scolding the students for levity, “The Monkey King is a character from old literature. He did not seek a better state or society. He sought to gain more powers himself, and in the end, it was proved to him and his readers, that the Buddha’s power was stronger than any he exhibited. But I want to draw your attention to a passage that you might remember reading in preparation for today:
Though the next state can be seen
And its barking and cock crows heard,
The people of one state will age and die
Without having to deal with the other.
“In what way, if any, can this be interpreted as a statement about a social or political ideal?” asked Yu.
“I don’t have an answer but a question,” remarked a third student. “I don’t understand the verses just before these that you quoted. They suggest this society or state abstains from goods or weapons that it actually has. Is that because these material things were unnecessary or because they were not good enough?”
“Indeed, a thoughtful observation,” replied Yu. “Perhaps those verses about not using weapons, chariots or ships that they have are not unrelated to the notion of the ideal society or state.”
No, we will not say anything. The professor has the answer in his mind already. If we say anything, it might be right but most likely would be wrong. It is best to say nothing and do what we do best: We look inscrutable.
“Well, let me suggest a possibility to you. You tell me if you agree or not, and try to base your arguments on the text we have read,” Yu announced. “Let us say, the ideal state or society is one in which the inhabitants are not concerned with wealth or power. They remain poor or appear so to the states around them so no one from these other states wishes to conquer or even visit them.
“On the other hand, they are so well-governed, a fact that is not visible from outside the state, no one inside the state or society wishes to leave. Is that an ideal state?”
“Who would want to live in a poor state?”
“Who could govern the state so well that no one would want to leave?”
“You need power to govern well, and if you have power, why wouldn’t you use it to enrich yourself?”
Yu interjected an occasional question or remark that served only to keep the discussion rolling along. He grinned and waved at his visitors who prepared to leave.