166 – Don’t shoot the “rotten” compromise – it’s all we have! (Part II)

Posted on September 9, 2012 by

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In 165 I’ve shown how difficult it is to carry out a calculus of “human dignity” – we can’t compensate those who are being made worse off.

Let me explore now the operative meaning of “human dignity”. I’d argue that this concept is too vague to be of any use for political guidance. Let’s travel to one of my favorite historical places: China, better to understand this predicament.

The T’ang dynasty collapsed in 908 AD as turmoil spread. “Barbarian” invasions from the north – the Liao, the Tangut (Xia Xia), and the Jin (Jurchen) – alienated Northern China from the successor dynasty – the Song (960 AD – 1279 AD). The capital Kaifeng, in the central plain of the Yellow River, was overrun in 1127 AD. The “southern” Song withdrew to Hangzhou, well south of the Yangzi. The heartlands of China lay henceforth in foreign hands, and 40 million Han Chinese toiled under the rule of 4 million Jurchen. Several million Han peasants fled to the south.

In 1142 the Song sued the Jin for peace and accepted a treaty in which they declared themselves “insignificant state and henceforth paid “tribute” to the “superior Jin state”. The tribute was 250,000 ounces of silver and 250,000 bolts of silk yearly – enough to keep the Jin dynasty intact for almost a century, and a tremendous burden to the Song peasantry. Could we say that this compromise was “rotten”? In many ways, I’d say: yes. Looking at it from another angle, however: the Huai River was the “natural” border beyond which the Jin’s nomadic cavalry could no longer operate effectively. The compromise was hard on the Han – but it was stable.

Should the Song have held their ground? Some thought so. In 1178 Chen Lung pleaded for the Emperor to embark on the re-conquest of the central plain. Here his eloquent argument: “Your obedient servant ventures to suggest that only China – the standard energy of Heaven and Earth – is that which the heavenly mandate to rule endows, where the hearts of the people gather, where the ritual of civilization cluster, and that which kings and emperors have inherited for a hundred generations. Is it at all conceivable that such a country could be violated by the perverse energy of the barbarians? Unfortunately, it has now been violated; violated to the degree that we have taken China and civilization and lodged them in this remote, peripheral place.”[1] The Song tried in 1208, and they were forced to pay 300,000 ounces of silver and 300,000 bolts of silk yearly for their pains.

The Song survived the onslaught of the Jin for a hundred years, during which the Chinese tradition was reshaped and the country went on to create the highest level of civilization achieved anywhere at that time (or before). One may speak of a Chinese “renaissance”. During the Song rule a powerful civil government experimented with economic, tax, and monetary reforms. New technologies in agriculture, textile and ceramic production, iron refining, ship-building were created. Hangzhou was then the richest, largest, and most cultivated city in the world. Summing up: “a new self-consciousness and self-esteem took shape among the people who identified themselves as descendants of the Han Chinese”. (pg. 1) The “old world” of hereditary aristocratic families whose great achievement was under the T’ang was replaced by a competitive civil service system run along Confucian principles.

The Song succumbed to the Mongols in 1276. They had rejoiced when the Mongols liquidated the Tangut and the Jin. Reasoning from analogy they reckoned that barbaric nomads on the hoof could never invade successfully the paddy fields of the Yangzi. They failed to imagine that the Mongols could use artillery[2], foreign auxiliary troops[3], and Chinese defectors[4] to subdue the South. The last battle was a naval one, where the (nomadic) Mongols crushed the Song resistance. The Yuan dynasty of Khubilai was born through a shift in paradigm: “barbarians” invaded first, and then “civilized”. The Mongols first “modernized” – and then conquered. Their empire was to remain the largest the sun has ever seen.

I might argue that the treaty delimiting the border between Jin and Song along the Huai River was a “rotten” compromise that had severely diminished “human dignity” of the Han – in accordance MARGALIT’s definition. Would the Han elite have recognized it as such in any meaningful and operative way? I doubt it. There was too much confusion at the time for a clear-cut judgment à la MARGALIT. And even had they perceived it as such – what else could they have done, given their military inferiority? As it turned out, the Han under the Song were able to shoulder the double economic burden of funding their burgeoning civilization as well as the sinicization of the “barbarians”. What an achievement!

MARGALIT spends a lot of time in his book arguing that Munich was a “rotten compromise”. But was it? British policy toward Germany was bedeviled by the fact that many in the country thought Germany had been badly treated at Versailles in 1919[5]. Appeasing Germany would restore fairness – was the high-minded idea. Few people, nowadays, remember that Germany also had by treaty a right of regard over the fate of the Sudeten in Czechoslovakia – another heritage from Versailles. Hitler’s antics had some plausibility.

Munich cleared the deck of German demands. Henceforth, any further claims by Hitler were – for all to see – hegemonic[6]. Munich did not reveal the full potentiality of Hitler’s evil character – yet. It was simply prodromal. At the Evian conference in 1938 on the issue of accepting Jewish refugees, no country showed itself prepared to do anything significant[7] – no one could imagine the industrial barbarity of the Holocaust. Just as in 1914, when WWI broke out, no one could even imagine the ensuing butchery. MARGALIT’s judgment is inherently anachronism and hindsight.

At Munich the Western powers bought time for political and material rearmament. People understood for the first time that war might be necessary to quell what looked like Germany’s hegemonic ambitions, rather than mere revanchism. What was wrong with Munich, in my view, was not so much its content – a bitter necessity under the immediate circumstances – but the obfuscation under the hype: “Peace in our time”.

The binary division of “rotten” and “other” compromises is akin to drawing a line in water. For one, we cannot balance easily the gains and losses in “human dignity”. Nor does the judgment include the answer to the fundamental question: “what else is one to do?” – some compromises just must be endured. Compromises are thresholds between the past and the future; they always enlarge the horizon of the possible and are therefore inherently creative (and unpredictable). Cards are redistributed, and the game can start anew. As we implement the compromise opportunities emerge, which we either failed to see or to imagine. Some are unimaginably bad – as the Holocaust – and some are glorious – as the civilization of the Song.

More generally, history is not a granular sequence of discrete events, which we can blithely call “decision points and conclusively judge beforehand. History’s flow inevitably invalidates judgments of the past as distance increases. The best we can do beforehand is to remember the sign on history’s wall: Don’t shoot the “rotten” compromise – it might be all we have.


[1]           Dieter KUHN (2009): The age of Confucian rule. The Song transformation of China. Harvard University Press, Cambridge; pg. 79.

[2]           The Mongols employed Muslim siege and artillery technicians.

[3]           The troups were Chinese, Persian, and Uighut, and Koreans as well as Jurchens manned the navy.

[4]           After five years of battle, the Song commander at Xiangyang, Lü Wenhuan, defected to the Mongols. He later served as advisor and field commander.

[5]           At Versailles German-speaking Austria had asked to join Germany – what else was this rump of the multi-cultural empire to do? The principle of “self-determination” was suspended because Germany would have exited the war with more territory than it had at the beginning.

[6]           There was a sequel to Munich: the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. It was “appeasement” by commission, rather than omission. Stalin got rewarded for allowing Germany to have its will in Poland and fight a war against the Western powers without having to worry about Soviet threat. See: Timothy SNYDER (2012): Stalin & Hitler: Mass-murder by starvation. NYRB, June 21st.

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