Advice to Washington from Ancient China

Eliot Weinberger

In the second century BCE, Liu An, king of Huainan, asked the scholars of his court to prepare a book that would outline everything a wise monarch should know about statecraft, philosophy, and general world knowledge. The result was the massive 'Huainanzi', which runs to nine hundred large pages in English translation. Here are some excerpts, based on the translation by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major:

If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.

If the ruler ignores what he should preserve and struggles with his ministers and subordinates about the conduct of affairs, then those with official posts will be preoccupied with holding on to their positions, and those charged with official duties will avoid dismissal by following the whims of the ruler. This will cause capable ministers to conceal their wisdom.

If the ruler is frequently exhausted by attending to lesser duties, proper conduct will deteriorate throughout the state. His knowledge by itself will be insufficient to govern, and he will lack what it takes to deal with the world.

When those who hold the reins of government pander to their superiors and commit errors, there will be no way to hold them accountable. When those who commit crimes are not punished, the numerous officials will lapse into turmoil and disorder, and wisdom will not be able to resolve the situation. Baseless slander and unwarranted praise will spout forth, and enlightenment will not be able to clarify the situation.

When the people do not even have hollowed-out caves or wattle huts in which to shelter themselves, an enlightened ruler does not enjoy high terraces and multistoried pavilions, linked chambers, and lavish rooms.

The ruler should consider difficulties before they arise, prepare for calamities before they occur, guard against transgressions, be careful about small matters, and not give rein to desires. He should be straight and unswerving, pure and uncorrupted, competent in both civil and military matters. He should adhere to proper deportment. In promoting and demoting, he should do what is appropriate. He should dwell in quietude and stay centered.

A ruler’s words should not be spoken heedlessly; his actions should not be carried out heedlessly. He should select what is good, and only then pursue a course of action.

What is prohibited to the people must not be practiced by the ruler himself. If a ruler uses depravity to manipulate society, he will certainly fail.

What preserves a state is humaneness and rightness. If a state lacks rightness, even if it is large, it will certainly perish.

In an era of decline, those above love to seize power and know no limits. Officials decrease rewards and increase punishments. The people struggle angrily, and affairs exhaust their energy without achieving anything.

When those above are troubled and vexed, those below are unsettled.

The ruler, in regard to law, is unbiased in his likes and dislikes. He does not try to embellish what is ugly or make good what is false.

If one’s ability is appropriate to the task, accomplishing it will not be difficult. When those whom the ruler employs are appropriate, the country will be orderly.

When the ruler is sincere and upright, honest officials will carry out their duties, and wicked men will go into hiding. When the ruler is not upright, evil men will achieve their goal, and loyal ones will hide themselves.

In a well-governed country, those who discuss policy must be in accordance with the law; those who carry out official matters must be regulated. Superiors evaluate actual performance; officials carry out their work efficiently. Words are not permitted to exceed reality. Actions are not permitted to overstep the law.

In a disordered country, those who are praised by the multitudes are richly rewarded though devoid of accomplishments. Those who stick to their duties are punished, though free of guilt. The ruler is in the dark and does not understand. Worthies do not offer proposals. Officials form factions; persuasive talkers roam about; people embellish their actions. Those who are taken to be wise devote themselves to artifice and deceit; high officials usurp authority. Cliques and factions become widespread. The ruler is eager to carry out projects that are of no use, while the people look haggard and worn.

The ruler uses the wisdom of the world to make plans. His personal pleasure does not determine the granting of rewards. His personal anger does not determine the meting out of punishments. Thus his awesome dignity will be established, and his laws and commands will be clear and precise and not be considered harsh.

A country that can be said to be lost is not one without a ruler but one without laws.


  • 26 February 2018 at 7:41pm
    Graucho says:
    Beijing should blow the dust off this one too.

  • 28 February 2018 at 9:43pm
    Simon Wood says:
    “I've read hundreds of books about China over the decades. I know the Chinese. I've made a lot of money with the Chinese. I understand the Chinese mind.”

    Thus the Emperor writes in "his" book, "The Art of the Deal".


    Naturally one turns to one's copy of "The Art of War" for true leadership. Oh, what's this? A scrap of paper falls out with some tentative lines hastily scribbled in pencil by some lower-middling, scurrying clerk, half a poet, who lives in Camberwell of all places, between the worlds of, at the very crossroads of, pragmatism and magical thinking:

    "Remaining silent is the new activism."

    "When the Emperor visits our humble town, should we turn our backs? Or just not turn up?"

    "The trumpet of bravado echoes into oblivion on the cold wind of indifference."

    • 6 March 2018 at 10:24pm
      Julio says: @ Simon Wood
      Very interesting. May I suggest, in response to your description of "activism" - Compassion is the radicalism of our time. - H.H. the Dalai Lama

    • 9 March 2018 at 4:09pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Simon Wood
      First reality check. According to Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of Art of the Deal, it is doubtful if Trump has read even dozens of books about anything in his life, much less hundreds about China. He doesn't have the attention span necessary to sit down and read a book carefully, and he lacks interest in all writing that drifts away from consideration of his Own Magnificence. Second check. Because Trump refuses to divulge details about his businesses, earnings, debts, and taxes paid or contested, we have only his own (thoroughly unreliable)word that he had made "lots of money" from the Chinese. This isn't a case of "the emperor has no clothes", since all kinds of people have been pointing out how feeble his grasp of reality and how strange his understanding of "truth" are for years. It seems, rather, that a good number of his worshipful subjects have no brains.

  • 6 March 2018 at 5:25pm
    downstreamer says:
    "When the country falls into chaos,
    patriotism is born."
    Lao Tzu, Verse 18