|Chapter 1:||Inscribing the Past: A History of Chinese History|
The Perennial Dangers of Direct Criticism
The work of being a minister and engaging in political criticism was quite dangerous, and, like other courtiers, Ban Gu needed to structure his work carefully to alleviate some of the hazards of writing a history of the dynasty one lives within.28 Reflecting on the problems encountered by earlier ministers who directly criticized their rulers, Ban Gu notes that more savvy writers “therefore obscured their criticisms in their works and did not broadcast them, and thus they avoided the difficulties of their times” .29 Ministers used various strategies to protect and empower themselves throughout the Han, including circuitous speech, “subtle speech” (weiyan), and calling upon a higher power to speak on one’s behalf. Ban Gu’s History of the Han fits within the history of this antagonism in several ways. One way in which ministers attempted to protect themselves while rendering political criticism was by utilizing the allegorism commonly associated with the odes of the Shijing (Classic of Odes). Well-selected lines from this anthology of early poems were often invoked to render a circuitous or ambiguous remonstration.
In one early work, the Guoyu (Disquisitions of the States), one finds an example of a duke’s new wife trying to discern a minister’s partisanship by hiring a singer to recite a line from a popular ballad that would allude to her question.30 By reciting poetic lines understood to be attached to certain political allegories, or intoning songs circuitously intimating a topic one would not dare to raise openly, ministers could engage in criticism or inquiry while simultaneously avoiding direct statements. Mencius (372–289 BC) contributed to the idea that an author of historical records renders circuitous criticisms through his or her “subtle speech” when he suggested that Confucius (551–479 BC) wrote the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) to correct the decay of his era.31