Helping a Desperate Flea

Should a state help a weak neighbor? In one of the first lessons in his history of China up to his day (Song dynasty), Sima Guang counsels, by implication : Certainly not for the neighbor’s sake, but still…perhaps it could be advantageous to one’s own agenda.

魏 庞 涓 伐 韩。 韩 请 救 于 齐。 齐 威 王 召 大臣 而 谋 曰:“ 蚤 救 孰 与 晚 救?” 成 侯 曰:“ 不如 勿 救。” 田 忌 曰:“ 弗 救 则 韩 且 折 而 入于 魏, 不如 蚤 救 之。” 孙膑 曰:“ 夫 韩、 魏 之兵未 弊 而 救 之, 是 吾 代 韩 受 魏 之兵, 顾 反 听命 于 韩 也。 且 魏 有 破 国 之志, 韩 见 亡, 必 东面 而 诉 于 齐 矣。 吾 因 深 结 韩 之 亲 而 晚 承 魏 之 弊, 则 可受 重利 而得 尊 名 也。” 王 曰:“ 善。” 乃 阴 许 韩 使而 遣 之。 韩 因 恃 齐, 五 战 不胜, 而 东 委 国 于 齐。

[司马光 (2012-11-23). 资治通鉴(1) (Kindle Locations 277-279). . Kindle Edition.]

When the Chinese Warring States period state of Wei threatened tiny Han, Han asked Qi for help. Strategist Sun Bin counseled the Qi king to wait until Han was attacked and turned in desperation to Qi, then to rescue it for the double purpose of enabling him to take revenge against Qi for personal reasons and to achieve fame (presumably for the state, though this is ambiguous). Exactly what kind of “fame” Sun Bin wanted to achieve by this duplicitious behavior may be questioned. By the same token, the purpose that Sima Guang had in selecting this historical vignette from among many for inclusion in his history is equally ambiguous. The sneering nature of the Qi counselors is indicated by their use of the word “flea” [蚤] to describe their Han neighbor.

Multiple lessons can be derived from the broader story, among which is a lesson taught by the personal story of Sun Bin. As a successful strategist in his later years for the state of Qi, he both helped his new state and took revenge for his personal mistreatment in earlier years as an official in Wei, revenge that destroyed the power of Wei. Let the powerful think twice before mistreating subordinates.

Note: This strategic analysis led to the Battle of Maling. For Sima Qian’s account, see the Sun Zi’s Biography in the Shiji.

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. Continue reading

de Mailla’s Translation of Zhu Xi’s History of China

The only Chinese history between the end of the Han and the Manchu era translated into a modern European language of which I am aware is Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi)’s T’ung chien kang mu (Outline and Digest of the General Mirror), which was translated by de Mailla as the Histoire generale de la China (Paris 1777-85) and reprinted by Ch’eng-wen on Taiwan in 1967.  Zhu Xi condensed Sima Guang’s earlier work, finishing around 1172.

As far as I can tell not only are the original Chinese version and original French version out of print (no surprise) but even the reprint is out of print, and the publisher apparently out of business.

Does anyone know differently or know where one might obtain a reprint of the original Chinese text or de Mailla’s translation?

Searching Ancient Historical Texts for Lessons

The more attention one pays to how humans are managing the contemporary world, the clearer becomes the message that we need to learn from history.  Unfortunately, many of the lessons of history are buried in ancient texts that are inaccessible to most of us because they are written in someone else’s language.  Even if you read the language, the text may be either long (Sima Guang’s Comprehensive Mirror, of which more later, is ten 900-page volumes) or unavailable outside of a rare research library.  I hope in this blog will stimulate the sharing of information on ancient histories –

* which to read

* excerpts of note

* where to find translations

* where to purchase a rare copy.


I have a particular interest in Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian [Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government] and would like to invite comments on editions and translations that may be available. 

Rafe deCrespigny’s translation of chapters from the Later Han sections, so generously posted on the Net, is a wonderful entre into the world of Sima Qian.  Are there others – translations, glossaries?


I personally will focus on classical Chinese texts but invite others to broaden the scope.

 Two questions for readers to get things started:

1. Where might I find a copy of a modern Chinese version of Sima Qian’s history?  One was published a few years ago in Taiwan but appears to be out of print.

2. Moving away from the Chinese histories with which I have at least a bit of familiarity, does anyone have any recommendations on pre-modern Persian histories that might teach us something of value for our lives today…and be available in a European language?