restricted access The Civil Pursuits of a Military Man in Tenth-Century China
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The Civil Pursuits of a Military Man in Tenth-Century China

The dynamic interplay between the military (wu 武) and the civil (wen 文) is one of the most notable characteristics of the political history of late medieval China. The predominance of wu over wen has long been regarded as one of the major factors that led to the disintegration of the Tang empire (618–907) and the turbulence in the following decades known as the Five Dynasties and Ten States (Wudai shiguo 五代十國, 907–979).1 During the [End Page 7] period of division in the first half of the tenth century, warlords erected five short-lived dynasties that succeeded one another in the North China Plains and about a dozen of smaller autonomous regimes that occupied, though not concurrently, the rest of the country, mostly in the south. Only in the year 979 did the second emperor of the Song dynasty (960–1279) bring an end to political division in China proper through military conquest.2 Understandably, the military formed a vital part in the political tumult during this Tang–Song transition, in which the regional rulers of Five Dynasties—both in the north and in the south—relied on military capacity in building and maintaining their powers.3 As Song historian Ouyang Xiu 歐陽脩 (1007–72) remarked in the New History of the Five Dynasties (Xin Wudai shi 新五代史), “The rise [End Page 8] and fall of the regimes in the Five Dynasties emanated entirely from armaments” (五代為國, 興亡以兵).4 No wonder that a military governor of the day declared that, “Any man with sufficient puissant soldiers and fine horses can be Son of Heaven; pedigree is hardly necessary” (天子, 兵強馬壯者當為之, 寧有種耶).5 Under such circumstances, arrogant military men usually showed contempt for literati, some even purging them brutally, as represented by the notorious Zhu Wen 朱溫 (852–912, r. 907–912), the founder of the Later Liang 後梁 dynasty (907–923), who murdered more than thirty Tang civil officials at one night and trashed their bodies into the Yellow River in the incident known as “Disaster of White Horse” (Baima zhi huo 白馬之禍).6 Eight centuries later the eminent scholar Zhao Yi 趙翼 (1727–1814) indignantly commented that “All the governors were martial men who became capricious after seizing power; they often bullied the literati, sometimes even slaying them without just cause” (藩鎮皆武夫, 持權任氣, 又往往淩蔑文人, 或至非理戕害).7

Yet this image of tenth-century China does not tell the full story of the complicated relationship that existed between the martial men and the literati during this period known for its military dimension and the imbalance of wen and wu. Recent scholarship has pointed out that from the very beginning, as the military men without prestigious backgrounds rose in the eclipse of the Tang, they intentionally hired large numbers of educated men as advisors in their provincial military governments, and this trend expedited later as their military regimes achieved political stability with the support of literati in search of employment in the chaos.8 More explicitly, in the freshly [End Page 9] published volume 5 of The Cambridge History of China, Hugh Clark in his chapter dealing with the southern kingdoms of tenth century documents a shift from military prowess to political effectiveness as the chief measure of governance in the states whose rulers formed stable demilitarized governments with the help of civilian officials, arguing that these new recruits “began to change the character of their states.”9 While such examinations provide us a balanced understanding of the civil-military relations of tenth century, more in-depth reassessments of the interactions of the two groups are still needed, considering the undeniable great variety in the personalities of different rulers and the political cultures in the different regimes of the day. A great diversity, we may presume, existed in both the process of a specific martial ruler’s civil pursuits and the individual experiences of his literati recruits during their dynamic exchanges.

As an attempt to reveal the nuance and complexity of the attitudes and manners of military rulers in dealing with their civil aides and the literati’s responses in this transitional period, this article aims to explore the dynamics between the wen and wu by focusing on the case of Wang Jian 王建 (847...