Confucius, the old master, is quite clear about how to tell good people from the bad. Gratitude, honesty, trustworthiness and loyalty are among the Eight Principles of People, the good ones, naturally. Opposing characteristics are bad. And all through its 4,000 years of civilisation, China has boasted many ruthless, lying and dishonest folk, and quite a few of them are fascinating – and really not all that bad or good.
Last Tuesday, Thammasat University’s Institute of East Asian Studies under the patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn drew more than 100 participants to an academic seminar: “The Villains in China’s History and Culture”. Some all-time-baddies, among them Cao Cao, Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, Wu Zetian and Wang Xifeng, were brought to the panel – though not the Kaifeng Court of Bao Zheng - for scrutiny and critical discussion.
Forget Confucius and his concepts. As the speakers started to reveal different aspects of each villain's life, history quickly convinced the rapt participants that good and bad tend to be very subjective and have a lot to deal with, well, qui bono. In short, one man’s villain is another man’s idol.
Cao Cao, the great Chinese warlord of the late Han Dynasty, is a clear example.
In the Three Kingdoms period, when China was broken apart into different blocs, Cao Cao ruled the northern Wei in Luoyang. To complete his supremacy over China, he marched against two other warlords - Liu Bei and Sun Wu, the commanders of the Shu Han and Eastern Wu blocs.
Cao Cao is famous, as he is one of principal characters in the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Occasionally, he is dramatised and romanticised in popular culture. Cao Cao is usually portrayed as a cruel and merciless tyrant yet he is also praised as a brilliant ruler and military genius. He kidnapped the emperor yet treated his friends like his own family. He is as skilled in poetry as in the martial arts. He is a lover and a philanderer.
“A genius warrior yet a crooked minister. A mean killer but a sensible poet,” says Assistant Professor Kanokporn Numthong. “In Chinese culture, Cao Cao would probably be regarded as a man suffering from a personality conflict.”
Chairman Mao was a major fan of the Wei warlord. In fact, Mao Zedong was so concerned about Cao Cao’s negative reputation appearing in the performance arts and literature, according to Kanokporn, that he suggested that artists should only reflect Cao Cao’s positive aspects. Following the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, bad Cao Cao became good Cao Cao.
“Chairman Mao had a lot in common with Cao Cao. He was a fine poet and dethroned the monarchy. Mao even had a relationship with a number of women,” adds Kanokporn. “And importantly, Chairman Mao wanted to make Cao Cao a revolutionist’s hero.”
If any woman is able to match Cao Cao in the baddy stakes, it must be Wang Xifeng, the cunning female in “Dream of the Red Chamber”, the classic tale of the Rongguo and Ningguo families, both members of the aristocratic Jia clan.
The drama involves lust, hate, love, jealousy, greed, infidelity, betrayal, immorality and murder, and, more often than not, Wang Xifeng is behind the scandals.
Like Cao Cao, Wang Xifeng is a machiavellian schemer. She has honey in the mouth and a razor in her girdle. For example, upon finding that her loveless, philandering husband has taken a concubine in secret, Wang Xifeng goes to the woman and says that she understands totally, and that the concubine should move in to her house, so they can all be friends. And then, in secret, Wang Xifeng slowly manipulates the girl into committing suicide, seemingly without remorse.
The author, Cao Xueqin, casts Wang Xifeng into the role of villain in direct contrast to the Chinese concept of a good girl. Wang Xifeng doesn’t show her husband respect, shows no obedience and proves herself to be more ruthless and powerful than he. In the end, though, Wang Xifeng also commits suicide,
The message from the author is clear, according to Redologist Thanad Suwathanamahad: a social misfit can’t walk away with pride.
Yet Wang Xifeng, also known as “Peppercorn Feng” for her hot and spicy character, is the central character in the “Dream of the Red Chamber” and despite, or perhaps because of her badness, she has many fans.
Villains may have no place in Confucianism. But, love them or loathe them, they have always existed in China and some have been major game-changers in the country’s history and culture.
Lin Biao accompanied Mao on the Long March, came up with idea of the Little Red Book and even chose the quotations. As the minister of defence and head of the People’s Liberation Army, he served Mao well as a brilliant military tactician, a superb propagandist and skilled organiser of the masses. For many years he stood in the wings as Mao’s handpicked successor. Then friend turned foe, and the successor became a traitor. Lin Biao plotted Mao’s assassination and failed. He died in a plane crash in Mongolia in 1971 while trying to escape. His mysterious death is a cold case and has kept conspiracy theorists around the world busy for decades.
Then there is Jiang Qing, a revolutionist groupie-turned-revolution runner. She was Mao Zedung’s last wife, and won the chairman’s trust to fly the flag for Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Jiang and her cronies organised the Gang of Four to manipulate the power inside the Communist Party of China. Following Qing’s power and campaigns, Chinese tradition was wiped out, and temples and old heritage sites were ransacked. Children all over China were forced to study Maoism. Jiang organised accusations against Deng Xiaoping, and arranged for him to do time in a re-education camp.
Jiang Qing is often described as the White-Boned Demon for what she did to China. Lin Biao, who also experienced highs and lows during the Communism campaign, is billed as the evil genius of China. Without them, 1.3 billion lives would no doubt have been very different.
There is nothing absolutely good or bad. It is the way people think that make it so. History tells us that an individual can be portrayed as a devil by some and an angel by others.
Wu Zetian is a shining example.
The ruler of China between 690 and 705, Wu Zetian was China’s first-ever Empress. To secure her power and the throne, Wu Zetian revealed her ruthless, cruel side, which included killing her newly born daughter. The empress, however, also showed great interest in religion, becoming a major patron of Buddhism. At the Longmen Grottoes, in Lauyang, Central China, there is one huge stone Buddha amidst the thousands carved into the sheer, stoned walls. The merciful-looking face of Buddha, it’s said, is inspired by Wu Zetian’s face. When visitors stroll by the cave walls, the Chinese tour guides love to quote Wu Zetian – “Good or bad, it’s not for me to decide. I leave it to the people living behind me.”
Wu Zetian’s tomb is somewhere in Xian, a former capital of China. Perhaps her badness – or goodness – is the reason why her headstone remains blank.