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Ancient brain trusts can illuminate construction of modern think tanks

WANG PING | 2019-04-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


The painting portrays Tian Wen (Center), also known as Lord Mengchang, welcoming talent from different states. As one of the Four Lords of the Warring States, he was famous for hiring a large group of court guests (menke) and treating them respectfully and generously. Photo: FILE


In ancient China, zhinang meant literally “bag of wisdom,” essentially “brain trust.” On a case-by-case basis, zhinang were also called tacticians (moushi), strategists (ceshi), court guests (menke) and military counselors (junshi). They played an extremely important role in national development by offering advice on military and state affairs. An introduction to ancient Chinese zhinang can provide reference for the construction and development of think tanks in the contemporary era.

Zhinang in ancient China
In ancient China, zhinang had three meanings: tactical individual, brain trust or advisory system.
The phrase zhinang first appeared in the Records of the Grand Historian authored by renowned historian of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) Sima Qian. It refers to Ying Ji (different from King Zhaoxiang of Qin), a half-brother of Ying Si, known as King Huiwen of Qin or King Hui of Qin, the first monarch of the Qin state during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). Ying Ji was also known as Chuli Ji or Chuli Zi (ancient title of respect for a learned or virtuous man), named after his fiefdom of Chuli in modern-day Weinan, Shaanxi Province.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian, Chuli Zi was resourceful, dubbed a “zhinang” by people of the Qin state. Smart and tactful, he actively advised King Hui, helping him to achieve great results and lay a solid foundation for the later unification of China. In other words, the success of King Hui was inseparable from Chuli Zi.

Another notable intelligent figure in ancient China was Huan Fan, a minister, literary scholar and painter in the state of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280). Huan assumed multiple important posts during the reign of Emperor Ming of Wei, the second ruler of Wei. During the Zhengshi era (240–249), he was appointed as Minister of Finance, giving counsel to Cao Shuang, regent of the nominal emperor Cao Fang succeeding Emperor Ming.

In early 249, Cao Shuang was following the emperor Cao Fang out of the imperial capital Luoyang to visit the Gaoping Tombs when his co-regent, Sima Yi, used the opportunity to stage a coup. Huan Fan tried to persuade Cao Shuang to take Cao Fang to Xuchang to the east of Luoyang and rally all forces nationwide in the name of the emperor to confront Sima Yi. However, Cao Shuang didn’t take Huan Fan’s advice and made the wrong decision to surrender. Eventually, both Cao Shuang and Huan Fan were killed by Sima Yi.

Huan Fan was sagacious and called a “bag of wisdom” by Sima Yi, but Cao Shuang failed to discern this. The poignant ends of King Hui of Qin and Cao Shuang highlighted the importance of zhinang, or advisers.

The second type of zhinang was a brain trust, such as the group of court guests during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period, tacticians during the Three Kingdoms Period, and philosophical debaters in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420).

The group of court guests during the Warring States Period was represented by Wei Wuji, Zhao Sheng, Huang Xie and Tian Wen, dubbed collectively as the Four Lords of the Warring States. They tried every means to recruit talent and honor worthy men, serving their monarch wholeheartedly to resist aggression from the powerful state of Qin.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, Cao Cao and Sun Quan each had a strong team of tacticians, such that Liu Bei did not stand out even though he had high-caliber brain trust members Zhuge Liang and Pang Tong.

In the Eastern Jin Dynasty, philosophical debates prevailed. Statesman Wang Dao, a crucial governing figure of the dynasty during its first decades, was good at philosophical debate and directed his political views to consolidate the imperial power. Apart from Wang Dao, many bigwigs in the imperial court also advocated philosophical debate and turned it into a social activity, which contributed to stabilizing the Eastern Jin regime to a great extent.

Brain trusts masterminded plans and made attentive decisions, playing an irreplaceable role in stabilizing turbulent political situations.

The third meaning of zhinang is the advisory system, known as the Censorate in ancient China. Responsible for supervision and remonstration, censors were divided into supervisors and remonstrators. Supervisors were officials representing the monarch to maintain surveillance over the officialdom at all levels, while remonstrators were charged to point out mistakes committed by the monarch and persuade him to correct them.

The Censorate was most established in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), as censors boasted broad and great power, enjoying a high political status. Meanwhile, the Ming court imposed high requirements on censor recruitment. Candidates were evaluated strictly in terms of their political quality, moral character, previous official career, personality and scholarship. Therefore, the Ming Dynasty featured a good number of outspoken, dedicated and loyal censors, who made significant contributions to the political, economic and military development of the dynasty.

Learning from the past
Zhinang in ancient times were the embryonic form of think tanks in the contemporary age. Generally the two are similar, functioning as advice providers. But they are quite different if compared in more depth.

The first difference lies in their nature. Ancient zhinang were completely an appendage of the monarch who decided their status, future and even life and death. By contrast, modern think tanks are independent consulting and research institutions specializing in development studies.
Second, the forms of organization are different. The target of ancient zhinang’s service was simple, basically the monarch or members of the imperial household only. Upholding feudal rule was their overriding concern. Contemporary think tanks, however, are more diverse. There are government-related official think tanks and non-governmental ones. And a variety of think tanks have also emerged, such as semi-governmental, university, online, media, Party, political and military think tanks.

Moreover, they differ in research fields. The high dependency of ancient zhinang on the monarch determined their prioritization of the urgent needs of the monarch, mostly related to military and diplomatic affairs. Normally, the military was the primary research field, followed by foreign affairs, and occasionally the economy. On the contrary, modern think tanks research a wider range of areas, covering society, science and technology, culture, education, and people’s livelihood, in addition to military, diplomatic and economic issues.

The above comparison reveals that modern think tanks are independent, organizationally diverse and versatile. They are more complete institutions for cultivation of wisdom, with more positive influence on every facet of contemporary social life. Nonetheless, an examination of ancient zhinang will offer lessons to the construction of think tanks today. Modern think tanks must thoroughly understand ancient zhinang to absorb the good and discard the bad.

First, the construction of contemporary think tanks should focus on institutional improvements. It was not until the Ming Dynasty that a relatively well-established advisory system was brought into being. Zhinang prior to that dynasty were more in private relation with who they served. Without an established system, their function was substantially weakened.

Planning ahead for rainy days is vital. In ancient China, the role of zhinang was often neglected until problems arose, such as the constant warfare during the Spring and Autumn, Warring States and Three Kingdoms periods. Under such circumstances, both the monarch and zhinang were in a passive position, and it was difficult to achieve long-term and stable development. Therefore, modern think tanks should take precautions, analyze situations to discover and avoid risks, and make predictions for the future.

Although zhinang in ancient times had their limitations, a lot of masterpieces have survived till today, crystallizing the wisdom of Chinese ancestors, such as the Strategies of the Warring States, The Art of War and Thirty-Six Strategems, to name just a few. Scholars in modern think tanks must be able to draw inspiration from these masterworks and strengthen their ability to cope with issues.

Additionally, ancient zhinang generally were of high character and open mind. They were willing to devote their hearts and souls to the country and the people, which is worthy of study for scholars in modern think tanks, as well as for each and every one of us. 

Wang Ping is from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Northwest Normal University.

​edited by CHEN MIRONG