What Should We Think of Cao Shuang's regme?

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What Should We Think of Cao Shuang's regme?

Unread postby Dong Zhou » Fri Apr 27, 2018 2:22 pm

So we know what the primary sources till us about his regime. Corrupt, full of excess, treasonous, replacing the good and honest with inept men, unsettled the empire with corrupt reforms, needed to be ousted by Sima Yi for the sake of the land. Likes of Sima Guang back up the Wei records and while some annotations might not 100% approve of every action taken, the "Cao Shuang bad and needed to go" remains.

Yet Western historians seem to disagree with this narrative. De Crepsigny in an essay overview of the era describes the Cao Shaung era as a time of intellectual brilliance, makes no claim of corruption, doesn't praise or criticise the regime's ability, does talk of how the likes of He Yan's behaviour on a personal level and philosophy went down badly, paints the gentry as doing it for their own interests. In a PDF version with annotations, he also notes
110: 10 Bala1$, "Nihilistic revolt," pp.234-5, and Holzman, Poetry and politics, pp.13-14, discuss the slanderous propaganda pre­sented by the Sima faction against Cao Shuang and He Van.


Daolun came across one of those sources "Donald Holzman, quoted from He Yan, Xuanxue and the Editorship of the Lunyu jijie by John Makeham. " and posted it on tumbler.
"All we know of the politics of this period and of the tendencies of the Cao Shuang and Sima Yi factions has been irreparably falsified by the historians who first described them under the strict censorship of the Sima. The partisans of Cao Shuang are shown as frivolous reformers, effeminate and profligate, with no understanding of political affairs and with a ruinous penchant for idle metaphysical speculation. The Sima clique, on the contrary, is shown as being made up of traditionalistic political realists who quoted the holy Confucian Canon in their speeches and followed more or less Machiavellian methods in their acts. We know almost nothing of the reforms the Cao Shuang group attempting to put into practice."


On the one hand, we have the primary sources telling us one thing, on the other hand we have western historians basically calling it lies and slander that make the histories false. Is there a way of judging the regime and it's men fairly? Do we go with the primary source and if so, what bits do we take as true enough and which do we dismiss as lies. Or can all we say is we will simply never know and can not judge them as a government and as officials?
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Re: What Should We Think of Cao Shuang's regme?

Unread postby Sun Fin » Wed May 02, 2018 4:55 pm

Churchill's quote 'History will be kind to me for I intend to write it' comes to mind. Sima Yi's faction certainly won and so they wrote the history of the period. That gives us a choice, read the sources we do have at face value or treat them with skepticism. I'm certainly in the 2nd camp but as there are no alternative histories it does make it difficult to know what is accurate. So to answer your question my response is to throw my hands in the air and proclaim ignorance! :lol:
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Re: What Should We Think of Cao Shuang's regme?

Unread postby CaTigeReptile » Tue May 08, 2018 4:44 pm

I tend to go with your last conclusion. It helps to take a look and see what kinds of tropes are used when describing the actions and character of Cao Shuang and his allies to see if they appear elsewhere in Chinese history (and they probably do). The histories are secondary sources, the primary sources of the time would be more like the poetry and commentaries on the classics left behind; records of military actions and the like. I think circumstantial evidence like that also comes in handy: there was not, in fact, that breakdown of society that you would expect to happen under a group described as Cao Shuang etc were described. Looking at how the Jinshu and other sources talk about Sima Yi, the kinds of things Chen Shou did not put in about him in other biographies that would possibly make him look bad, and looking at the context of the time it's reasonable to conclude that propaganda was involved. That being said, it more obscures what he did rather than prove the opposite - but it's worth looking at how those Western scholars came to their conclusions.

Somehow with all of that, Sima Yi still ended up with the reputation of being an ambitious traitor in fiction. It makes me think there is older Chinese scholarship that must have come to similar conclusions.
Last edited by CaTigeReptile on Wed May 09, 2018 2:50 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: What Should We Think of Cao Shuang's regme?

Unread postby DaoLunOfShiji » Tue May 08, 2018 5:13 pm

One thing I found interesting is while the reforms of Cao Shuang's cabal are said to have turned the gentry against him, apparently the Sima continued to put them into practice. But again nothing ever specifies exactly what these reforms were.

When the sources describe He Yan as only appointing his friends, we have Western scholars like Rudolf G. Wagner saying

He Yan tried to forge a coalition between the haozu clans and upstart families from the environment of the Cao court such as his own by appointing prominent members of the haozu clans such as Wang Bi to the shanshu under his direct tutelage.


We also have Cao Fang's SGZ biography that sites the men He Yan removed from politics were actually corrupting influences on the emperor, Cao Fang, and they were also members of Sima Yi's faction.

While the 'primary' sources criticize He Yan and the rest of the ministers for being extravagant and corrupt, we have proof from He Yan himself, as well as the Wang Bi Beizhuan of the two of them not only criticizing Cao Shuang, but also Cao Fang.

While philosophers such as He Yan, Xiahou Xuan and the young Wang Bi were engaged in crafting a new lifestyle for aristocratic youth that was to be followed and emulated for centuries, they at the same time brought their political philosophy to bear on the problems of the day. He Yan, apart from being the editor of the new Lunyu commentary for the zhenshi era, would write poems to criticize the extravagance of the court under the child-ruler, and Wang BI would go "several times" to Cao Shuang himself to "talk about the Dao," in other words, to give advice on matters of principle in government.


We know that in 249 the Wei court did become chaotic in some way, as the Wang Bi Beizhuan states that he withdrew from political life due to the political events surrounding Cao Shuang and He Yan in 249. He passed away not long after. Keep in mind the "political events" came before Sima Yi's coup, so whatever the WBZ refers to isn't known. I suppose one may say that it refers to the removal of the Empress Dowager Ming-Yuan to the palace, but Hu Sanxing point's out that this may have never happened due to every court document before the supposed move happened refers to her as being from said palace she was supposedly forced to by Cao Shuang's regime in 249.

Really it seems like the only time things were "bad" in Wei under Cao Shuang's regime was the time leading up to the coup. So one has to wonder if it is all lies and slander by historians that obviously would have an angle to present the Sima in a good light, just as Wei historians would have done for the Cao before.
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