Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bad Emperor

The great thing about being done with grad school is the fact that now I can actually slow down and enjoy all of my reading. Instead of doing 100 pages a day, I can now slow down and do about 20. My first re-reading is Medieval Chinese Warfare 300-900 by David Graff. In my readings I came across Graff's description of the "bad last Emperor". On page 62 Graff describes how Chinese historians, mainly civil bureaucrats, would depict the "bad last Emperor" that would forfeit the Mandate of Heaven. The biased historian described the ruler Shi Hu as:

a man of enormous sensual appetites, addicted to the pleasure of the harem...[and his] 'actions were harsh and cruel'...He put vast numbers of peasant labor conscripts to work on his palace complexes...imposing great hardships on the people...[he] dug up the tombs [of ancient rulers] to find treasures that had been buried with them...When he quarrelled with the heir apparent, he had the young man, his consort, and his 26 children killed and buried together in a single coffin.

There are several general traits that are associated with a "bad Emperor". 1. the person loves sensual appetites. 2. Builds multiple and implied unnecessary palaces. 3. By doing 1 and 2 he imposes a great burden on his people, through taxes and labor. 4. He kills any possible threat to his rule, often in cruel fashion. Graff argues that historians may have exaggerated his "sins" in order to justify the violent rise of a new dynasty. This leads to point 5. That a historian's account of a bad ruler will take special pains to highlight the sins of the ruler. In the case of the Book of Mormon, a sinful ruler also forfeited his right to rule. Mormon acting as a historian would also take time to justify the Lords punishment of the individual and their loss of power. The case that jumped to my mind was that of King Noah. Mosiah Chapter 11 verse 2 starts the account:


2 For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.
3 And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed...
4 And all this did he take to support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines; thus he had changed the affairs of the kingdom...
8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;
9 And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things.
10 And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the atemple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass.
11 And the seats which were set apart for the high priests, which were above all the other seats, he did ornament with pure gold; and he caused a breastwork to be built before them, that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to his people.
12 And it came to pass that he built a tower near the temple; yea, a very high tower, even so high that he could stand upon the top thereof and overlook the land of Shilom, and also the land of Shemlon, which was possessed by the Lamanites; and he could even look over all the land round about.
13 And it came to pass that he caused many buildings to be built in the land Shilom; and he caused a great tower to be built on the hill north of the land Shilom, which had been a resort for the children of Nephi at the time they fled out of the land; and thus he did do with the riches which he obtained by the taxation of his people.
14 And it came to pass that he placed his heart upon his riches, and he spent his time in riotous living with his wives and his concubines; and so did also his priests spend their time with harlots.
15 And it came to pass that he planted vineyards round about in the land; and he built wine-presses, and made wine in abundance; and therefore he became a wine-bibber, and also his people....[And a prophet annouces the coming justice of the Lord in destroying the Kingdom of Noah and killing him]
27 Now when king Noah had heard of the words which Abinadi had spoken unto the people, he was also wroth; and he said: Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of him, or who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?
28 I command you to bring Abinadi hither, that I may slay him, for he has said these things that he might stir up my people to anger one with another, and to raise contentions among my people; therefore I will slay him.


As we can see in Chapter 11 of Mosiah, King Noah is depicted by Mormon as a "bad Emperor". He uses stark language to describe the sins of King Noah. These sins also match those of the "bad Emperor" Shi Hu in Chinese history- love of concubines, love of riches, grandiose building projects, and an insecure ruler who had any threat killed- and just as Shi Hu lost the divine sanction for his realm, so did Noah. Noah lived in "riotous" fashion, he had the threat to his ruler, the prophet Abinadi, burned at the stake, he chased out one of his priests that listened to him, he built many "spacious building" and a tower in a place of "resort".

In summary: The account of Mosiah matches the literary conventions of other ancient historians who sought to insert a particular moral lesson into their account. There are differences in the particulars of each account, but the salient points are incredibly similar. This does not cast into serious question the historicity of the event (since Noah could still have been all those things) but the bias of Mormon in his description of Noah adds authenticity to his status as an ancient historian and to the Book of Mormon.

2 comments:

Mormon Heretic said...

Wow! and you had no idea the BoM took place in SE Asia! (j/k)

Have you read much on Hugh Nibley? I've heard he shows many Oriental comparisons to the BoM.

Morgan Deane said...

I have read Nible, but did not remember any of them untill I read Olsen's Thesis (about the Malay setting for the BoM). And I had not read Olsen's writings or did I remember Nibley when I wrote this post. I just happen to arrive at the same conclusion as them and I only realized that after I wrote this. At some future date I will try to compare mine and Nibley's conclusions in greater depth.

But it does make sense that they would have Asian parrallels if they were located in South Asia. I was pleasanlty surprised that my studies match so well with another model. I was a little confused previously at how to justify including all of these Asian parallels because they seemed rather abritrary and from left field (but still cool).