YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

To Silence the Song of a Phoenix

TREASON BY THE BOOK By Jonathan D. Spence; Viking: 300 pp., $24.95

March 25, 2001|DIANA PRESTON | Diana Preston is the author of "The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900."

Thought control is nothing new. In 1728, Yongzheng, third Manchu Emperor of China, had a problem: How could he "silence the song of a phoenix?" His "phoenix" was an obscure scholar, Zeng Jing, a man calling himself "Summer Calm, the Leaderless Wanderer of the Southern Seas." The ashes from which he had metaphorically risen were those of the Ming Dynasty, toppled some 80 years earlier by the non-Chinese Manchus from beyond the Great Wall. Zeng's "song" was a stream of treasonous charges against Yongzheng as a "bandit ruler" and Northern barbarian.

His accusations were also personal: The emperor, he contended, had practiced fratricide and took a psychopathic pleasure in killing; his sexual appetites were ungovernable; he had built sum1886680431must be deposed so China's ancient values could be restored.

"Treason by the Book" describes the emperor's astonishing response. Yongzheng believed, with Confucius, that "a nation cannot exist without confidence in its ruler." He feared that Zeng661856355the appropriate penalty. Instead, he chose a different path, superficially more merciful but subtly sinister at heart.

The emperor's first steps were conventional enough. He launched an exhaustive inquisition into the source of the rumors that had prompted Zeng's treachery. Jonathan D. Spence's vivid narrat1769366816recipients, who knew that their own reputations, perhaps their lives, depended on their skill in executing them.

They were ordered to arrest and question every individual mentioned by Zeng Jing. Sometimes they were given identikit portraits based on Zeng Jing's recollections to help identify suspects.541945714condemned criminals. Through a narrative crisp and tense as a detective story, we watch their relentless success. Though clutching at shadows, officials hunted down nearly every suspect-tracing the routes they traveled, the inns where they stayed, questioning local people about how the suspects looked and behaved, what they said and to whom.

We glimpse a world in which memories were long and rural people made good witnesses. Far from the seat of power and government, they mulled endlessly over the arrival of a stranger, dissected his appearance and habits, weighed his words and debated their significance. Rumors fed on rumors and subversive ideas rapidly took hold. The emperor understood this, and we feel his growing, almost paranoid, anxiety as his officials' reports flooded in. He knew that Zeng's accusations threatened the legality of his rule, not least because some-such as complicity in the death of his brothers-were true.

Spence leads us unerringly through Yongzheng's labyrinthine thought processes as he decided that salvation lay in enforcing ideological conformity. He made the Zeng Jing case a platform for demonstrating the legitimacy of Manchu rule in general and his own in particular. His mouthpiece would be the erstwhile traitor. A re-educated, penitent, rehabilitated Zeng Jing extolling the virtues of the Manchus would be more useful than an executed martyr whose memory and arguments would remain potent.

The emperor went to extraordinary lengths to re-educate Zeng Jing. Through intermediaries, Yongzheng confronted the erring scholar daily with floods of carefully honed reports confirming his innocence of any crime. He ensured that his virtues, his compassion and care for his people were drummed into Zeng Jing, who was quick to acknowledge his errors. For the first time in his life, this obscure failed scholar felt the focus of attention. The seduction of being noticed proved too much, and he relinquished his beliefs with barely a whimper. In the most intriguing twist of all, scholar and emperor, though never meeting face to face, then collaborated on a book-'Awakening From Delusion'-in which the scholar unequivocally disowned his dangerous and misleading ideas. Yongzheng distributed the book across China with a care and attention to detail that make the promulgation of Mao's "Little Red Book" seem casual. He dispatched teams of scholars led by the cream of recent winners of the most prestigious degree in China, the jinshi, to "problem" areas of China to read improving passages out loud to the populace.

For the rest of the emperor's reign, Zeng Jing lived a protected but highly controlled existence as a redeemed intellectual sinner. Of course, someone had to be blamed for leading Zeng astray. Yongzheng identified a dead scholar as the source of the subversive ideas and meted out posthumous degradation. That is not, however, the end of Zeng's story. Yongzheng's novel solution for silencing "the phoenix" did not appeal to all, and his measures failed to protect Zeng after his death. Yongzheng's son, the emperor Qianlong, while also an enforcer of ideological conformity, believed there was only one fate for a traitor like Zeng, death by slicing. He also ordered all copies of "Awakening From Delusion" to be destroyed.

Los Angeles Times Articles