Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Underlying Universal Political Forces of Later "Three Kingdoms"

For people interested in ancient Chinese history, the Three Kingdoms era (roughly the second to three century AD) is one of the most familiar portion.  The titular novel on the subject, romanticizing the heroes of the era, along with numerous movies, books, and video games based off their stories, have become hits across much of East Asia in the past decades.  However, most of the interest in the era focus on the earlier half of the era, when various warlords and generals make their historical debut from humble origins in their respective lofty goal in uniting China in an era of internal divisions.

Very little focus, however, is on the later half of the era, when the nation has almost been permanently divided into three kingdoms, and decades of comparatively stable and peaceful status quo replaced constant warfare and rise of new powers.  Much of popular literature on the topic only dapple briefly on this period of close to half a century that marked its start with Zhuge Liang's death at the Battle of Wuzhang Plains, which in turn ended a period of active and frequent military expeditions between the three states for sometime.

That is not to say that there has not been any active conflict among the three in the latter half of the era.  However, it become increasingly clear that external wars have become tools (and at the same time restricted by) internal political conflicts within each of the three states.  Recently, the author has come across a biography of Jiang Wei, the chief military commander of Shu in its final years.  Unlike most of the Three Kingdoms genre out there, this biography focuses almost exclusively on the last few decades of the era (when Jiang was active) and details some of the major events and actors.

The biography does an amazing job detailing the above mentioned internal conflicts that rage across all of the three states.  Chiefly, several forces shape those conflicts' frequency, brutality, and influence.  The first is the influence of extended family, or clan, politics.  In the first decades of the Three Kingdoms era, the main players rise out of commoners and peasantry, and succeed due to their talents and ability to lead.  Warlords themselves welcomed anyone, no matter how humble, who could have helped them achieve the goal of unifying the country.

However, the later decades, this has no longer become the case.  Each country has become dominated by second- and third-generations of those same talented generals of the same era, and the vying for power among these increasingly established political families become the norm.  This is especially severe within the Wu kingdom, where, unless others, the military consists exclusively of private family armies, bound together in allegiance to the royal family through a series of political marriages.  The state's very ability to defend itself militarily required fragile cooperation among the clans.

The establishment of powerful clans with hereditary political influence served to in turn create the second force: the emergence of governance structures dominated by one or a few men.  Unlike the earlier era, where power was unmistakably concentrated in the hands of warlords who personally led armies and selected their generals, the sons and relatives of the warlords who succeeded them (i.e. the kings) proved incapable of dominating their respective states due to lack of talent, age, or prestige among their generals.  This led to almost zero-sum competition among the clans for power.

The result is bloody coups within all three states where the losing clans are massacred, and power-wielding positions such as Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief became hereditary within a certain family.  The kings became figureheads who can no longer mount any challenges to these power-wielding families.  However, the fear of losing the kingdom to these external players kept the extended royal family and ambitious but less powerful families in the fray, creating increasingly unstable domestic environment for each state in ways that made sustained wars impossible.

And finally, in case of smaller Shu and Wu kingdoms, increasing regionalism played a key role in less aggressive behavior in the later era.  Both kingdoms are established as temporary home bases by warlords from other parts of China, seeking to use these regions simply as means to resupply the military for expeditions to their homelands.  However, as repeated expeditions fail, fewer of the original "migrant" population remained, giving rise to increased participation of power local clans in the polity.  Many regional families also underwent strong localization in their newer generations.

These local and localized clans have no reason to share the enthusiasm of the original migrant clans toward external military expeditions.  For them, they already have control over their own regions, and any expedition exist only to reduce the manpower and resources that can be devoted to developing their own regions.  The ideal of unifying China into a single country that characterized all major warlords in the earlier era is no longer the case in latter part of Three Kingdoms.  And the competition and hatred between migrants and locals only exacerbated internal conflicts.

With these political forces at play, it is easy to see why popular literature give so little focus to the later parts of Three Kingdoms.  While it is easy to romanticize wars when the ideal is straightforward (i.e. unify the country), it is extremely difficult to get most people with little understanding of political theory to understand, follow, and indeed be interested in the power plays that dominate the later political era.  Even when wars do occur in this time period, they no longer happen due to desire to unify the country, but to enhance and solidity power of certain clans with battlefield victory.

Similarly, the personalities of this era, unlike the earlier period, no longer rose to prominence through their military prowess or strategic genius that are easy for an external audience to understand and admire.  Most are born into established clans and rose to power through bitter political struggles that are not only complex and subtle but also do not particularly attract a feeling of heroism associated with fame through wars.  It become less possible for readers to relate to (and aspire to become something like those) prominent personalities as the era moves forward.

However, the later era, to the author at least, speaks much more toward the reality of the politics' harshness than the earlier era.  Chinese historiography has often focused too much on the talent (or lack thereof) and ideals of individual leaders as the main force to push historical development toward certain directions.  In times of constant wars (such as the earlier part of Three Kingdoms) this may still apply (to limited extent), but in times of peace (such as the latter part...or more importantly, today), that sort of historiography is really a stretch when applied.

Instead, historical development is shaped by political institutions (or lack thereof), prevailing ideologies, and resulting conflicts due to flaws and natures of these institutions and beliefs.  The latter half of Three Kingdoms, through the political forces as mentioned above, is much better reference for modern-day politics than the earlier, war-filled period.  Especially in the case of Chinese politics, hereditary control of political power through clans and resistance of regionalism are still very much real forces that shape both short-term political conflicts and long-term political development.  

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