History Lessons

Even the most powerful arrow will fall from the sky

Emperor Wu

Henry Kissinger declared last year that China’s current rise will be harder for the world to respond to than Germany’s in the last century – because China is not just a country but also a civilisation, Kissinger said.

Certainly, China’s neighbours are having to adapt to a more assertive foreign policy outlook in Beijing. Diplomatic run-ins with various countries, especially Japan, and bellicose articles in the state-controlled press about the launching of “small wars” against smaller Southeast Asian neighbours, have upped the political temperature in the region.

By contrast, China often feels put upon by the current status quo, and displeased by US involvement in an area far beyond its own borders. That was highlighted again this week with sections of its domestic media expressing annoyance on news that the Obama administration will station 2,500 of its marines in Darwin, Australia.

Obama said the move was part of US efforts to “project power and deter threats to peace” in the Asia-Pacific region.

All sides might be served by looking back into the Chinese history books for advice on the limitations of the military option.

In 135 BC, Sima Qian recounted in his famous history, advisors to the Emperor Wu of the early Han dynasty quarrelled over how to deal with the Xiongnu, tribes who often raided the northwest fringes of Han territory.

The Xiongnu had approached the Han with offers of friendship. Was friendship or military subjugation the best option, the Emperor pondered?

One advisor, Wang Hui, proposed war. Barbarians couldn’t be trusted and the Han had the armies to subdue them, he said.

Another counsellor, Han Anguo, agreed that the Han were powerful but warned: “Qiang nu zhi mo (强弩之末),” or, ‘even the most powerful arrow will fall from the sky’.”

Even the strongest army risked defeat and conflict would only hurt the people at large, he said.

Han lost the argument, Cambridge University academic Michael Loewe records in his History of the Qin and Han Empires, 221 BCE-220 CE.

But a major military ambush against the Xiongnu failed and Wang was forced to commit suicide.

Han died eight years later – of natural causes, at least.

Today, the phrase has become a byword in China for caution, with the suggestion that the modest application of even great power is the wiser option.


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