Honey-Mouthed Politicians

Li Linfu, powerful chancellor of Tang dynasty China from 734 to 752, was renown for his devious ways and honeyed voice, evidently an early master of political correctness. Employing his skills to personal advantage, he ruled by backstabbing all potential competitors (which naturally included all patriotic officials intent upon serving their country) while his emperor focused on the development of new forms of music.

A couple centuries later, China’s great classical historian Sima Guang summed him up as:

Honey in the mouth; sword in the stomach. [ZJTJ, Ch. 214, p. 6853, yr 742.]


I would personally be inclined to read this somewhat unclear phrase as “Honey in his mouth; sword in your stomach,” as the rest of Sima’s paragraph—noting his proclivity for “sweet words but dark betrayals [甘言而陰陷]” makes clear. Indeed, the classical comment explains that the “sword in the stomach” means “intent to harm people.”

Here’s the whole paragraph:


Why is this perhaps despicable but hardly unusual behavior worth reporting? Tang was debatably the greatest era of China’s “5000 years of history,” as the Chinese endlessly put it, and, to the degree that individuals can ever fairly be blamed for anything that happens in history, Li is as responsible for wrecking it as anyone. That he managed to die just before the collapse in no way absolves him of blame, though had the Tang been a democracy, the voters would no doubt have forgotten his determined laying of the groundwork. Having spent his years in charge feathering his own nest by depriving his country of capable potential successors, three years after Li died, An Lushan (a central Asian in service in the Chinese government as a provincial governor and general) revolted and overthrew the corrupt but glorious Tang.

Honey, albeit a minor ingredient in Chinese cuisine, plays to this day a major role in Chinese politics, not to mention the politics of some other societies.



For a concise but fairly detailed English-language biography of Li Linfu, see Wikipedia. References to longer biographies of Li in any modern language (including Chinese) would be welcomed. Unfortunately, Vol. 6 (on the early Tang) of de Mailla’s 18th century French translation of a classical history of China based on the ZJTJ appears to be missing from the online version of that out-of-print classic. No other Western language translation of a classical source is, to my knowledge, extant. For a high quality summary of Tang history, see ChinaKnowledge.

For a moral tale about Li with a delightful English-language podcast, see Ancient Tales of Wisdom. A different rendition of the same story is available both in Chinese and English.


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