A time comes in every revolution when the distinction between moral positions and tactical alternatives blurs, coalitions split, friends become antagonists. That time reveals the true nature of the “heroes” combatting “injustice.” Do we grant our former allies the right to make their own decisions and go their separate ways in peace or do we demand obedience, punish disagreement with death, and launch the revolution down the path to its own repressive immorality?
In his historical novel about Li Zicheng’s peasant rebellion that caused the collapse of the Ming dynasty, Yao Xueyin captures the moment of truth when a trusted general decides to split with Li after a disastrous defeat by Ming forces and desert the revolutionary movement. Li must decide whether to take revenge against his subordinate and former friend or allow him to leave in peace.
A loyal soldier charges up to the revolutionary forces’ military HQ, leaps off his horse, and demands at the top of his lungs that Li punish the dissident general:
“放走不得！”許多聲音附和說。[Li Zicheng, Vol. 1, Ch. 14.]
“Charging King! [WM: Li’s Battle Name] Families have family rules; armies have military law. Considering that this guy Flag-Shaking Hao [WM: General Hao Yaoqi’s nickname], typically self-promoting and self-satisfied, is unwilling when he runs into trouble to support the group and quick to criticize, Charging King, your tolerance and forgiveness toward him have gone far enough. It is now obvious that he is rebelling and dragging others with their horses to run away; not to hinder him can in no way be considered by the whole army’s troops and officers to be a persuasive policy. Charging King, do not let Flag-Shaking Hao go!”
“Letting him go is unacceptable!” A multitude of voices repeated.
Emerging slowly from the door, Li quietly responds:
Flag-Shaking Hao was not originally one of our Old Unit Eight people; I cannot treat him the same as you. If we have now been defeated and life is difficult, even more we must intensify training and tighten security. Flag-Shaking Hao and his subordinate officers and men cannot endure and wish to depart, so let them go. I cannot talk to you in too much detail about this painful event; later, you will understand.
Zicheng’s expression and words were so sincere, so full of feeling that despite being only a few simple sentences delivered, moreover, in a low voice, they calmed by half everyone’s unquenchable anger. Despite still nursing a grievance, no one uttered a sound.
“We have all had a hard day,” Charging King said. “Those of you who are not on night duty go get some sleep. Come what may, tomorrow we will deal with it. Big-Cow Wang, don’t you want to take a break? Go ahead!”
And in the end, after Li had essentially destroyed the Ming but himself died and his rebellion had failed to seize power, the historical rebel general Flag-Shaking Hao rallied to the now-patriotic Ming cause of defending China against the invading Manchus, as Li Zicheng himself might well have done.