»  National Review Online

September 28th, 2001

  Soothing the Barbarians


Lifting our eyes from the current crisis, and the fireworks no doubt soon to begin, let us ponder some more general lessons for the West. Here, to get us started, is the story of Shining Lady Wang, an actual incident from ancient Chinese history.

Shining Lady Wang was one of the great beauties of her time. Though of humble origins, she was chosen for the emperor's harem by those officials who toured the country looking for suitable material.

The emperor at this time was Liu Shi, tenth emperor of the Han dynasty (he reigned 48-33 b.c.) His harem was so big he knew few of them in person. When he wanted a bed partner, he consulted a book that contained portraits of all the harem women. Because Lady Wang refused, from pride and principle, to pay the necessary bribe to the court painter, that man drew a very unflattering portrait of her for the book, and so she was never chosen for the emperor's bed.

Liu Shi made a treaty with the Huns, a savage tribe who lived beyond the Wall. In return for peace, the King of the Huns demanded a Chinese bride. Browsing his harem book for a plain-looking woman he could spare, the emperor saw the portrait of Lady Wang, and ordered her to be given to the King of the Huns. Asked if she was willing, Lady Wang, who seems to have been a woman of some spirit, is supposed to have said: "Better to be a queen among barbarians than to waste away unnoticed in the emperor's harem."

At the presentation ceremony, the emperor actually saw Lady Wang for the first time. Dazzled by her beauty, he fell in love with her on the spot. However, he had promised her to the King of the Huns, and could not break his promise for fear of war, so off went Lady Wang to live in a tent encampment on the steppe, leaving the emperor broken-hearted.

I tell this story by way of illustrating a central feature of traditional Chinese statecraft. Imperial China suffered from a chronic geographical problem. Spread out across the great river valleys and coastal plains of East Asia, the empire was bordered at the north and west by limitless forests and grasslands. Roaming across this inhospitable landscape were wild tribes of nomads — Huns, Mongols, Turks, Kushans and Manchus.

The fat, lush interior of China was a constant temptation to these barbarous peoples. Illiterate and politically primitive, they could rarely unite for long enough to make a concentrated assault on the Empire; but the threat of such an assault was always present, and even in their normal state of tribal chaos, some bold entrepreneur among them, with a dedicated band of followers, could occasionally launch a devastating raid across the Wall.

The Chinese realized early on that there was no real hope of permanently subduing these savages. When armies were sent out to pursue them, the nomads retreated with their herds into the infinite steppe, melting away from sight, waiting for opportunities to ambush and encircle the advancing Chinese, as in the terrible defeat of General Li Ling in 99 b.c., described in chapter 7 of Maurice Collis's book The First Holy One. Chinese statesmen therefore developed policies for managing the barbarians: placating them with gifts like Shining Lady Wang, sowing discord among them, keeping them off balance.

The problem of the barbarians was one the Chinese were stuck with. They could never eliminate it, they just had to manage it as best they could, keeping the wild tribes quiet, or at least keeping their energies concentrated on inter-tribal quarrels, rather than against the empire. In the flowery, euphemistic language of the Imperial court, this was called fu fan (撫番) — "soothing the barbarians." Fu fan was about as successful as any other generalized diplomatic strategy: which is to say, it worked most of the time.

It seems to me that our statesmen might have something to learn from the ancient Chinese. Like them, we have a chronic problem. We share our planet with a number of, to use the currently favored euphemism, "failed states" — nations whose governments do not offer their citizens impartial justice, ordinary liberties, democratic representation, security of property and person, or fair opportunities of prosperity.

By modern standards, these nations are at a lower level of civilization than ourselves. Politically, in fact, they can hardly be said to be civilized at all, practicing as they do various styles of medieval monarchy, obscurantist theocracy, and Leninist gangster-dictatorship. Government that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed is not any part of their world-view, nor is it likely to become so any time soon.

There are rather a lot of these barbarian states. Every single Arab country; most other Moslem countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan); most of the nations of Africa; the remaining Leninist dictatorships (including, sad to say, China herself under her present thuggish rulers); a scattering of other places in Asia and Latin America.

Every one of these regimes is not only a blight on its own corner of the earth, it is potentially a threat to the rest of us, too, since governments that do not answer to their people are much, much more likely to start aggressive wars than are democracies. (There is a very good book about this: Never at War, by Spencer Weart.) Probably they are more prone to really big environmental catastrophes. They are also, of course, more likely to harbor terrorist fanatics.

What can we do about these barbarians? Like the ancient Chinese, nothing final or definitive. There is no real constituency in the civilized world for going in and taking them over, running a sort of MacArthur administration, or straightforward colonialism. The MacArthur administration only worked because we had just defeated Japan in a devastating war, and dropped two atom bombs on them. I doubt the West has the will for that kind of thing nowadays.

Nineteenth-century colonialism isn't a real option, either. It was only possible because the technological gap between the West and the others was so vast: "We have got / The Maxim gun, and they have not." That no longer applies. Never mind the Maxim gun: some of the barbarous states are technologically adept enough to make nuclear weapons.

We could probably do our descendants a favor by launching a massive pre-emptive strike, simply annihilating the barbarians with barrages of ICBMs. There is, however, no constituency in the West for such an act of mass murder; though in the event of, say, a really devastating bio-war attack on us, this might possibly change. Nope: for the time being, at any rate, we just have to manage the barbarians, and soothe them.

There are all sorts of ways to do this. Fear is good, of course, and I hope Colin Powell's famous predilection for "restraint" will not be the governing principle in the military operations now under way.

The willingness of barbarians to fight each other should never be under-estimated, either, and of course, the more of each other they kill, the less there is for civilized folk to worry about. From this point of view the Iran-Iraq war was a net positive for civilization — perhaps we could get it started up again?

Thomas Friedman has suggested a similar strategy in the New York Times: encourage the Leninist-gangster regimes to eliminate their own fundamentalist zealots. A crude approach might just be to say to Saddam Hussein: "Hey, bucko. Do us a favor, will you? Round up all your Islamic militants and massacre them, like your old pal Hafez al-Assad did at Hama back in '82. In return, we'll lift current sanctions and deposit a billion in your Swiss bank account." An unprincipled hoodlum like Saddam just might go for that.

Then there is the Shining Lady Wang option. We all know that Arab men go nutso for pale-skinned European blondes. Well, we have a good supply. Not many of them, under current social conditions, are likely to languish unwanted in a Washington harem, but there must be some subset that is sufficiently patriotic to sacrifice themselves in the interests of soothing the barbarians.

It's not such a bad fate: you get to be a queen, after all — probably more fun than being married to an investment banker. Shining Lady Wang actually proved to be a very good queen to the Huns. She taught them to weave, farm and play the guitar. (If you see a woman playing the guitar on horseback in an old Chinese painting, it is probably Shining Lady Wang.) When she died she was buried, by her own choice, on the barbarian side of the Wall.

All in all, Shining Lady Wang's life was more useful, more patriotic, better spent and very likely more interesting than yours or mine. Any volunteers?