Partisanship and historical dramas

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  • Sunday, 20 Sep 2020

Diplomatic strategist: Zhu Gaochi as played by Liang Guanhua.

TODAY, to ancient China.

Two Sun Tzu quotes from The Art of War; the first paraphrased:

“Know your enemy, know yourself; a 100 battles, a 100 victories.”

I recently found myself reflecting on this second quote however, which stands rather in contrast:

"To win 100 victories in 100 battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."

I’ve been watching The Ming Dynasty. This 2019 TV series is based on historical fiction novel The Chronicle of the Six Eras by author Lianjing Zhuyi.

I’m about two thirds through the series, which is something of a mix between The Crown, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, set in 15th century imperial China.

The story follows some four generations of the Zhu imperial family, the first three of which are Zhu Di; his three sons Zhu Gaochi, Zhu Gaoxu, and Zhu Gaosui; and Zhu Gaochi’s son Zhu Zhanji.

A little after the halfway point of the series (spoilers ahead), Zhu Di dies while on a military campaign beyond the Great Wall.

His oldest son Zhu Gaochi ascends the throne, but brothers Zhu Gaoxu and Zhu Gaosui eventually stage a rebellion hoping to claim the throne.

Zhu Zhanji implores his father to let him fight his uncles on the battlefield, in order to achieve a military victory and settle the matter once and for all.

Throughout most of the series, Zhu Gaochi is often portrayed as a bit of a bumbling fat man, lacking in “martial bearing”, and certainly not a strong, imposing, striking leader. Many might consider him to be weak, indecisive, and completely lacking in the type of killer instinct that is often considered to be crucial in exercising effective control over a sprawling empire.

By the time he ascends the throne, he is also in poor health - which is aggravated by his son who is spoiling for a fight against his rebellious uncles.

Zhu Gaochi instead is insistent that they not resort to war, and seems to stubbornly opt to try and appease his brothers. At some point, he even offers to concede control of the new imperial capital of Beijing to them.

The series opened earlier with Zhu Di’s own violent uprising against his nephew in the Jingnan Rebellion. Angered when government officials refused to recognise his government, he ordered a widespread massacre.

This bloody start to an imperial era had long lasting implications, and Zhu Gaochi seemed adamant that his era not start the same violent way his father’s did.

His son Zhu Zhanji felt that this approach displayed too much weakness, and would lead to them being wiped out by his much bolder uncles.

When the conflict and gulf between father and son over this issue grew too wide, Zhu Gaochi banished his son from the capital to Nanjing, and would never see him again.

Zhu Gaochi dies from his illness, and his son is recalled to ascend the throne.

It is only around this time that Zhu Zhanji understands what his father had really been doing.

Zhu Gaochi’s refusal to wage open war was not mere inaction. Throughout the time he was making overtures of peace and invitations to surrender that were probably laughed at, he was in fact also pursuing diplomatic strategies.

Zhu Gaochi’s grand plan was to let his brothers beat their chests and their war drums, creating as much sound and fury as they wanted.

Their early military victories made them arrogant and overconfident, and their potential allies soon got a taste of the kind of high handed dictatorship they would experience should second brother Zhu Gaoxu become emperor.

Bit by bit, in a slow and painstaking process, Zhu Gaochi’s diplomatic agents chipped away at the support bases of the two brothers – performing the diplomatic equivalent of luring the enemy into overextending themselves into a trap.

In the end, as Zhu Zhanji faced his uncles’ armies on the battlefield, the rebel forces charge the imperial army, only to meet in friendship, rather than in battle (a scene perhaps inspired by the Irish charge at Falkirk in Braveheart).

Zhu Zhanji himself rides into his uncle’s gathered soldiers, and convinces them to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. Zhu Gaoxu attempts to fight, but is restrained and physically forced to the ground by his own generals, who know the battle has been lost.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”

“Democracy” in the world today has become conflated with elections, and elections today have descended into virulent, toxic competitions, filled with hate and endless mudslinging. We identify our compatriots as ‘enemies’, when the real enemies are poverty, greed, and injustice.

I agree that existing political parties have become stuck in this mud, and lack the kind of foundations necessary to evolve into the institutions and movements Malaysia need at this moment.

A running joke for the name of a new political party is “Party All Night”. Obviously, the word “party” in “political party” has a different meaning. In this context, the root here is similar to the root of “partisan”, which we can perhaps trace to the word “apart”.

In this sense, a political party could conceivably be defined as something that is inherently by nature meant to “part” people from one another.

A political party which includes everyone seems to be a contradiction in terms, unless perhaps we are thinking of institutions like the Communist Party in China.

This fundamental tension has played out in very real terms in Malaysia, as patriots struggle to find which is the best path forward. Conflict is unavoidable, but much as in the historical drama above, some paths create more unity than conflict, while others create more conflict (and carnage) than unity.

To be clear, I certainly agree that meaningful change must mean participating in our current electoral system, because there are only two equally unpalatable alternatives to this.

The first alternative is to rely on existing politicians and political parties, and allow them to continue to dominate governance, while the rest of us stay on the outside.

The second alternative for affecting widespread change would involve extra-constitutional and extra-legal approaches, which I see absolutely no benefit in pursuing.

So, is there a way to contest elections without forming an institution like the political party as we know it?

I believe there is. I’ve gotten too lost in historical dramas to elaborate here today, but Malaysia has gone through similar experiences before.

In the aftermath of May 13,1969, our leaders decided that the country did not need more bickering or partisanship, but more unity.

In that time, the solution manifested itself in a grand alliance of big tent politics, and this solution arguably got Malaysia out of a time that could have irreversibly ripped the country apart.

Fifty years later, we cannot use the exact same solution, and while many of the institutions involved then still exist today, they are not what they once were.

We cannot copy paste those solutions, but we can perhaps reproduce the spirit of those times, and innovate completely new ways to settle our differences, maybe even without waging open war and splitting the country further and further.

NATHANIEL TAN admires much of the spirit behind the newly formed Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), and wishes them all the very best! He reminisces about discussing stories with friends, and can be reached at

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