Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama and Chinese Emperors

Oddly, since winning his election, Obama has twice reminded me of certain Chinese emperors. The first time was when his cabinet picks were termed by some journalists as a "team of rivals." The second was when I heard that the scale of his inauguration would be unprecedented, and that he was going to ride an inaugural train from Philadelphia to DC with stops along the route to receive people's cheers.

In the first case Obama is comparable to Li Shimin, arguably the greatest emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). No, Obama did not kill two brothers in his fight for the crown, like Li Shimin did, and his campaign language was admirably more civil (and smarter) than his opponents. What reminded me of Li Shimin was Obama's big heart in choosing Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

After Li Shimin killed his oldest brother, Jiancheng, the crown prince who had tried to poison him, Jiancheng's key advisor, Wei Zheng, was arrested and sent to be beheaded. Legend has it that, knowing how talented Wei was, Li Shimin tried to convince Wei to work for him in exchange for a pardon. Wei refused, citing the Chinese moral "a loyal minister does not serve two Majesties." Li Shimin was touched by his loyalty and, at the last minute, just before the executioner's blade fell on Wei's stubborn neck, pardoned him anyway.

Then Wei was touched and convinced he should serve Li, reasoning that, only a great emperor could forgive an obstinate rival advisor like himself. Wei became a key minister in Li Shimin's imperial court after that.

The Tang regime under Li Shimin has been hailed by historians as one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese history, and stories of Wei Zheng bluntly admonishing the emperor to abandon bad policies (and behaviors), at times again risking beheading, are very popular. There is a consensus among historians attributing the regime's success to Li's daring in using talented rivals such as Wei, and to the guidance of ministers like Wei who dared to speak up and give wise, at times harsh, policy advice.

As an emperor, Li Shimin had taken over a messy job from his predecessors. Before his crowning, a border war with the ancient Korea had been going on for years, and there were also large scale peasant uprisings. The country's economy was in a grim situation, and people's cries of discontent filled the street. Li Shimin followed Wei Zheng's advice and adopted the policy of "desisting from military activities and encouraging culture, education and the arts of peace." A series of admirable policies soon improved the economy and also served to pacify border disputes.

The situation Obama faces now is not unlike Li Shimin's, with the remaining mess of wars to clean up, and a huge grim financial crisis to deal with. It is a difficult time that calls to use the able, whether they are friends or rivals. We have already witnessed Obama's wisdom in using capable past rivals to fill key positions; we now also hear that Hillary Clinton, as reported in The Economist, "has forgone any ambitions for higher office, preferring to make her tenure as American's chief diplomat the pinnacle of her career." So that's good – it makes me feel Clinton is not the opposite character to Wei Zheng I'd thought she was. Still I'm not convinced she is nearly as wise; given her "cold war" residual way of thinking, she might not be the best chief diplomat to implement Obama's "soft power" ideas. This part, we'll have to wait and see.

By now you can see that I have been praising Obama by comparing him with Tang emperor Li Shimin favorably. My second comparison, however, is more ambivalent.

Now the scale of Obama's inauguration and the heavily publicized train trip remind me of Emperor Qianlong in Qing Dynasty (1611-1911). "Qianlong goes south of the Yangtze River" is one of the most popular emperor stories and movie/novel topics. During his sixty years of rule, Qianlong went six times on "southern inspection" tours by boat, each tour on a larger scale than the previous one. The trips "exhausted the people and drained the treasury," their costs far exceeding any benefits.

(image from

An earlier Qing emperor and Qianlong's grandfather, Kangxi, also made six "southern inspection" tours from Beijing. However Kangxi's trips were much simpler and less expensive. In contrast, Qianlong had very luxurious trips. Between Beijing and Hangzhou, thirty lavish "travel palaces" were built for him. His entourage included over a thousand sailboats. For his own use alone, five exquisite "dragon boats" were carefully manufactured. Everywhere he arrived, local officials and people gathered in huge crowds and shouted "Long live!" "Long live!" like rockfalls and tsunami.

CNN reported today that "In Baltimore alone, some 40,000 people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the cold to greet Obama as he stopped on his way to his Tuesday inauguration. His welcome was raucous and animated, as the sea of people cheered, waved and took pictures." His response was calm, but I don't know if he felt like an emperor.

Kangxi and Qianlong were hailed as the two greatest emperors of the Qing Dynasty. The difference is, the most prosperous time began with the thrifty Kangxi and ended with the luxuriating Qianlong.

In terms of his inaugural extravagance, Obama is more like Qianlong. I asked my American husband if such extravagance is really necessary, and Bob said "it is the tradition" that each US President has a bigger inauguration than his predecessor. However, are we forgetting the state of the economy? Even Chairman Mao stopped eating meat when he heard about the famine in the countryside, which he believed was caused by bad weather instead of his own bad policies.

One thing I know: the bigger the inauguration is, the bigger the expectations (and thus the potential disappointments) people might have. Such big promise might not be to a president's advantage.

Well, I have made the odd comparisons that are bound to meet some protest. If Obama is like Li Shimin, we might be heading for prosperity again. If Obama is like Qianlong, his term will be the end of the good times. If he's in between, well, then we might see a situation in between. Of course the comparison goes beyond Obama. Many of our political leaders are so caught up in their own parades they could easily miss what is happening to people.

This said, I must say I'm very much encouraged by the report that "Before getting on board the train in Philadelphia, the president-elect implored Americans to commit to a new declaration of independence -- rejecting ideology and bigotry -- as he acknowledged the nation faces severe challenges." (my bolding) .


Anonymous said...

I think this is a bad idea to compare Obama to the Tang emperor.

They are in fact 2 different peoples and personalities running with different philosophy, cultures and societies.

Not a very good post because you are looking for something that is not there.

Good / bad traits of each icon should be left to that individual alone.

Uln said...

Oh well. It is an interesting comparison, even if it probably won't take us very far in terms of political studies.

I bet every China blogger is busy now writing something about Obama and China for the inauguration and I foresee we'll wake up tomorrow to an avalanche of Obama-China posts. So good job Xujun for taking the lead :)

And if you excuse me, I am off to write my own China-Obama post of the weekend. Bye.

Magnus said...

Fascinating. I was wondering if there was some sort of comparison. I love the fact that there are two emperors that you compared Obama to... because China has too many emperors to just compare one guy to.
Seriously for the Chinese History ignorant person like many foreigners... this is a great little comparative history lesson! Thanks!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks Anonymous. No kidding the comparisons are between different peoples from different cultures. I hope you are not saying American presidents can only be compared with American presidents, or for that matter, a black president can only be compared with a black president. You might be surprised how much one can find in common when it comes to human nature, just like how much difference there might be between individuals. In our case, both are men and both are national leaders facing a difficult situation of a similar nature; even their key policies share a certain similarity. Oh by the way, I wouldn't call your comment a "bad comment" just because we disagree with each other.

Uln, I look forward to reading your new post!

Magnus, glad you find the comparisons interesting. Thanks for reading.


The Man Barack is going to make history because he is the first Half WHITE man ever elected to the office of President of the USA.
He is famous for nothing. He has a terrible record in the senate with making voting decisions and often never voted at all. He is afraid to take a firm stand on any issue. He specializes in no vote , absent, sick, resent as his vote. He didn't do shit as a senator. He promised the people of Illonoise he would complete his full term as senator serving the people of his state for his full term if elected. He LIED. He tries not to offend anyone because he is already starting to run for re election . He won't be able to make hard decisions because he he is afraid to lose votes. He is a LIAR!
Thats why he always so vague when he says anything. Never details, never firm statements. He only wants to make nice nice. Go to the senate voting history page and see his voteing record for yourself. Many senators are the same way. No wonder little ever gets done and what dos takes so long. We are all in big trouble!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Alpine Steve, I've heard those accusations before, but I guess I'm a bit more hopeful than you are. I voted for Obama and I like many of his ideas. Now we have to wait and see what he actually does.

judy said...

Thanks for the infomation about these emperors!Having grown up in the states during the 50's and 60's, with civil rights and equality being the overarching theme, I am delighted with the involvement with so many in this event. Clearly things will not be perfect, and there will be mistakes. However, unlike emperors, presidents can be voted out in 4 years.

expatriategames said...

Jeez ... you get more than your fair share of simple minded commentary Xujun. Makes me wonder if some folks actually read the entire post or if they understand what you have written.

Interesting parallels here, thought provoking I thought, but what the hell do I know?!

RC said...

Good piece. Actually, I have the same feeling, particularly the comparison of Obama with Qianlong. Qianlong was not a bad emperor, but he apparently painted himself much bigger than he actually was. Obama now is more and more often posing himself a picture bigger than life. The public expectations are high. I am afraid that if one tries to be a superman, it may impact his handling of serious issues.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Well said RC. That indeed is the danger, and the mainstream media is not helping.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Judy, you are right - fortunately there is a re-election every 4 years, which limits the extent of damage caused by a bad president.

EG, good to see you here again and thanks for the nice comment.

Rocking Offkey said...

Oh man, what a tall order you laid out for Obama. I'd happy if he achieve a third of what they achieved. He would be one of the best president if he simply does that.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hehe, Rocking, you crack me up. :-) Where did "one third" come from though?

Ritergal said...

Thanks for the lesson in Chinese history. I visited China last spring and became fascinated with this ancient civilization that has had so many ups and downs that totally eclipse anything we can imagine. You have so much history, it's staggering to consider it all, but there are obviously many lessons to learn

J B said...

Is the inauguration a big deal because Obama wants to outdo Bush or because people are excited? I disagree with your husband that there is any such tradition, and I don't think it's fair at all to hold him responsible for large crowds greeting him.
What exactly is the extravagance?
If Obama starts taking ultra-luxurious tours of the US at taxpayer expense as president, THEN you start comparing him to Qianlong. For now, at most he is just egotistical, a trait not limited to him and Qianlong among rulers of nations. Another recent Chinese ruler who also loved massive adoring crowds comes to mind...

Xujun Eberlein said...

Well J.B., a ruler who loves "massive adoring crowds" is exactly what I'm wary of, having grown up during the Cultural Revolution. I'm sure no one wants Obama to turn out to be the "recent Chinese ruler" you referred to. Mass worship seldom leads to good results and a good leader should deflect those energies to other ends IMO.

Is it completely true that Obama was "not responsible for large crowds greeting him"? I'm not so sure. He has provided conditions for such things to happen. See for example CNN's report While many of the festivities are paid for privately, the security seems to be a taxpayer expense.

J B said...

Are you seriously equating mass worship of Mao to people being excited about Obama? You are certainly better qualified to make that comparison than me, but I am incredulous. For now I'll assume you're just being hyperbolic and saying you're opposed to adoring crowds.
Is there any ruler who doesn't love massive adoring crowds? Indeed, is there anyone who doesn't? Most of us haven't had the experience, but I imagine for most people it would be intoxicating. The problem with comparing Obama to Mao on the basis of adoring crowds is that it is a common occurrence in history, shared by a diverse range of politicians. You could just as well compare Obama to Wen Jiabao or Castro or Deng Xiaoping or John Kennedy. In other ways Mao and Obama appear to be complete opposites. For example, Mao emphasized ideology over practicality, but Obama has gone in the opposite direction and has emphasized practicality over ideology. But then maybe it's just like Mao's so-called United Front, and when Obama is president for a few years he'll turn against the Republicans and put them in jail for disagreeing with him.
I did not, by the way, intend to compare Obama with Mao myself- my point was simply that you really can't compare politicians, whether it's Obama or Qianlong or Mao, on the basis of adoring crowds.
This comparison reminds me of how some non-Americans like to compare Obama to Hitler, as though they are the only two charismatic people in human history.
As for the costs of Obama's trip, I noticed there was no mention in that article of whether or not security is costing much extra. Anyway I imagine that security was just one of the things the people had to pay for during Qianlong's southern tours.
I don't know what you mean by saying that Obama has "provided conditions" for having adoring crowds. Are you saying he caused the nation to become desperate for a new leader? I doubt there would be this much excitement if Obama was following a decent presidency, like Clinton's, rather than a terrible one like Bush's. Or do you mean he shouldn't be so charismatic, another reason for his popularity? Or that he shouldn't be black, yet another reason for people's excitement?
In sum, I think this is a poor comparison because it only accounts for one phenomenon that isn't even really a reflection of personality or ruling style and is in fact not uncommon throughout history.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Wow, that's a long response. No, I wasn't seriously comparing Obama with Mao - I thought you were. You are right about one thing though, I am wary of big crowds. And I might actually have too high expectations for Obama.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go to the airport.