Okay,the title of the post looks rather boring, but I hope the content isn’t! I had to write a final paper for history, as part of the exam. The topic was an imaginary conversation with an ancestor from five hundred years ago. And I thought questions like that were limited to primary school… :p Anyway, I enjoyed writing it. And perhaps someone would enjoy reading it… As usual, it relates in some way to thoughts on China, patriotism, and loyalty.
(I also have to write a rather interesting paper for American Politics, which I hope to post after the exam.)
(Note: the historyPad is an imaginary social network which allows one to connect with historic figures and people of the past. I am supposedly its inventor, though how I aquire such computer skills is a mystery to me.)
Journal Entry, Jan. 9, 2025. Interview with Kwang Fuk Yuen.
I have talked to various historic figures and several of my ancestors since developing the historyPad last year. For most of them, it took some time to persuade them that I was not an evil spirit or demon. Often times they settled for believing me to be an Immortal, and I usually left it at that since it was too troublesome to convince them otherwise. But Kwang Fuk Yuen, one of my Chinese ancestors from the late 1500s, had an amazing ability for believing, and I found talking to him to be most comfortable and rewarding.
As to be expected, it did take some time to convince him that I was a mere human, albeit one who lived in the distant future. To my great delight, it did not bother him that I, a female, was the developer of such an “awesome, if terrifying magic” (to use his words) which allowed the past and the future to communicate. Most times my Chinese forefathers would be disgusted at the fact that I was a capable woman who actually held some power in the form of “magic”/technology.
Kwang was a pirate in the South China Seas who occasionally ventured into the Bay of Bengal under the more respectable guise of a merchant. He had three small ships (small in comparison with the pirate empires others had built), and had made something of a name for himself. I was curious as to why he chose the route of piracy. But to be honest, I should have been able to guess. Kwang came from a family of humble farmers in the southernmost parts of China, not far from modern Guangzhou. His mother was young and beautiful, and the local landlord had long had his eyes on her. The landlord kept demanding higher and higher rent for the use of his land, and when Kwang’s family was unable to pay, he sent several goons to kidnap Kwang’s mother. Kwang’s parents resisted, which resulted in his father’s death while his mother was taken as a mistress by the landlord. Kwang was twelve at the time, and with nowhere better to go, he joined a small pirate crew, most of whom came from the same area. He then abandoned his family name of Pang, taking instead the captain’s name, Kwang, and truly becoming one of them.
I asked about piracy. It was much easier talking to people when they were not sitting across the room, but separated by an abyss of time and space. Kwang seemed somewhat amused by my bluntness and did not mind my questions much. He told me that he and his crew were as close as family, which brought to mind all the triad movies I have seen. It seemed that organized crime, in whatever day and age, always hid under the disguise of brotherly love. Kwang noted my skepticism, and explained that their mutual ties were not exactly a lie. “They took me in when no one else would,” he said, “and it’s the same story for everyone else.” There was indeed a practical incentive to things, Kwang admitted. After all, if a kid loved and respected you, he would give you his very best and would never stab you in the back. “But necessity does come to breed real emotions,” and Kwang spoke quite fondly of his “brothers.” I also asked how he rationalized robbing. Kwang shrugged, saying he was offered no other choice when the landlord destroyed his family, and now, it was simply his way of life. As merchants robbed the poor almost as much as government officials did, Kwang hardly felt sorry for their loss. He also stressed that he and his crew did not kill or harm those they robbed if they could help it. “After all,” he smiled wryly, “if we killed anyone, it would only give us a bad name and cause us more trouble. If we only took part of their cargo, merchants would not be as offended and tend not to send the authorities on us. They have bigger fish to catch.” However, Kwang also considered eventually leaving the life of piracy. He wanted to a start small business on the Mainland, and maybe even raise a family.
I then steered the topic slowly to patriotism. In the many Chinese books I have read, people were mostly loyal to the emperor – at least until the late nineteenth century – and I had always wondered if it was indeed so. To my surprise, Kwang told me that, if called for, he would give his life for the emperor without a second thought. How, I asked, did he reconcile that with his actions: the constant harassment of the local authorities? Kwang laughed, saying that he owed no loyalty to corrupt officials whom the emperor had no hand in choosing. In fact, was it not an act of loyalty that he taught a lesson to those who defiled the emperor’s name by using their given authority for their own greed?
But what if the emperor himself were corrupt? I asked as I made a mental note to look up which emperor was ruling in Kwang’s lifetime.
Kwang sighed. “He might well be,” he said, referring to the emperor, “but what else is there?” I did not understand his seeming helplessness. Surely, there was much more worth fighting for. “It’s like a family,” he told me. “One could discipline or disown his younger brothers or cousins, and in the most serious cases, he could do so even to the older ones. However, one is never allowed to turn his back on his father. Without the father’s authority, what is left of the household? And what would be left of the empire?” I detested such loyalty to a man who was probably not worth it, and yet, I thought I could understand a little of Kwang’s helplessness. He knew no other alternative. To love his nation was to serve the emperor.
But what of me, he asked. Did I not have an emperor? How, then, did I define my loyalties? I attempted to explain the concept of democracy, which was not as hard as I might have expected. I told him that, in theory, people voted to elect someone who would rule the country. It was similar to the emperor choosing the prime minister to run the nation, except that it was the people who chose. “Like the villages who choose their own elders,” he interrupted, “instead of the elders choosing their successors.” I agreed, but went on to say that China did not quite do that, and that in practice, it was still the “village elders” choosing their own successors.
“So you owe your allegiance to the elders?” Kwang asked. I laughed. No, I did not. In fact, I quite disapproved of our current “elders,” and would be rather happy to see them go. Instead, I suppose I was loyal to the people. After all, we shared a culture and heritage. I sought to serve my very big family, even if it meant occasionally going behind my “father’s” back.
Kwang laughed. “Then are you not worse than me?” he asked, “after all, I serve only one corrupt man. You serve them all, including those thieves clad in the clothes of authority.” But then he became more serious. How could I define my loyalty by “the people”? he asked. The very concept was vague and offered no clear guidelines or orders. Who was I to presume I knew what best to do? Under his questioning I came to realize the beautiful simplicity of having an emperor, of having a definite answer. I shrugged in reply to his questions, telling him that I had no clear-cut answers. I had no concrete guide for my actions, but merely muddled through life as best as I could, trying to do the most for my countrymen. After all, the welfare of an entire nation was certainly far more important than the comfort of a single man, even if he were the emperor. At the end of the day, I could only hope that what I did was worth something.
Kwang nodded thoughtfully. Surely, he of all people knew how rarely one came across black and white decisions, for the world was all merely varying shades of gray. I wondered if he would rethink his loyalties to the emperor, then felt a slight regret at shaking his convictions, if they were indeed shaken. After all, such simple loyalty was a great virtue, and who was I, a product of this age of infidelity, to question it?
I later learned that Kwang did settle down and raise a family. His son grew to be an ambitious and much respected naval officer, while his daughter, to his great disappointment but perhaps secret pride, married a merchant-pirate. The two young men later joined hands and served under Koxinga, banishing the Dutch East India Company from Formosa, modern day Taiwan, and defending it against the Manchurian invaders as the last foothold of “free” China until their deaths. Kwang, though he had originally joined his sons in their resistance, eventually caved to pressure and surrendered to the Manchurians, who made him governor of two provinces in return. I read that he was a good governor who cared deeply for the people, and that he never denounced his sons for their “disobedience” to the new lords of the land. Even now, I wonder at his understanding of loyalty. Did I cause the change from blind obedience to the Chinese emperor to serving his Manchurian overlords? Was it for the better, or for worse? Perhaps I will speak with him again someday, and learn a little more of loyalty.