The very point of writing down history is to bring to make it easy for people to find out the patterns in human interaction, especially in politics, so that we can understand why things happen. Because the fact is that the same things happen all the time.
As I often say, all things considered, the best historical tradition in the world is that of China. The imperial government has put lots of people and resources into writing history there for 3,000 years. And one of the results of this emphasis is that they have left a lot of interesting stories about important patterns in political history, often in the form of neat 4-letter idioms.
By making them into tiny and neat idioms, you make them much more accessible to the public’s memory. Which is why any decently educated Chinese knows what 指鹿為馬 zhi lu wei ma means.
Letter by letter it is “point deer make horse”. It tells the story of Zhao Gao, one of the closest ministers of the First Emperor of Qin. The Qin Emperor died in 210 BC, and soon after the Chen Sheng rebellion (another good example of history as a mirror for government) started, which in a few years destroyed the first empire that the Qin house had spent centuries to achieve.
Qin was able to conquer all the other Chinese states and build a unified empire because it had invented royal absolutism. Back in the 300s BC, Shang Yang had reformed the Qin government, stripped the landed nobility of all its privileges, and set up a centralized bureaucracy to effectively transmit the will of the royal house. A rationalized system of punishment and rewards made the peasants into very effective farmers and soldiers, and soon the other traditional feudal states were swept away by the absolutist Qin armies.
The funny bit is what happens with the royal house. As I said this was perhaps the worlds first absolute monarch ruling over a centralized bureaucracy. Well a lot happened to the Qin house during the years, but let’s focus on the First Emperor. When he died in 210 BC, the crown prince, Fusu, was up in the army in the northern frontier. The emperor had died while touring the provinces, and with him was a younger son, Huhai.
Well the emperor died out of the capital, so nobody knew. The only ones who knew were his prime minister, Li Si, and his close minister Zhao Gao, who may or may not have been a eunuch. Well apparently Zhao Gao didn’t like the crown prince Fusu very much. He had reason to think that Fusu hated him, and would execute him as soon as he became emperor himself. So Zhao Gao gets Li Si and says “hey, dude’s dead, we’re the only ones who know. Fusu doesn’t like you either, so why don’t we get this kid Huhai and name him successor?”
Li Si took some convincing, as did Huhai himself. But eventually they got on the plan, and sent a forged imperial edict ordering Fusu to kill himself. Which strangely he did, even after opposition by his entourage. With crown prince Fusu out of the way, the three got back to the capital, and set up Huhai as Second Emperor of Qin.
Soon later Zhao Gao found some excuse and executed Li Si and all his family, and took his prime ministership. He obviously knew too much. Then he proceeded to execute all those little Schelling Points that were the emperor’s brothers and sisters, so there was no contest about who had the right title to the crown. Still after Huhai was secure in his throne, he was starting to be a little uncooperative with Zhao Gao. The Chen Sheng rebellion had started, and the empire was having trouble suppressing it. The Emperor blamed Zhao Gao for the mess and he had a point. But Zhao Gao didn’t like that. He started to think that maybe they should have a change of emperor, but he couldn’t be sure he could pull it off.
So Zhao Gao brings a deer into the palace. Grabs it from the horns, calls the emperor to come out, and says “look your majesty, a brought you a fine horse”. The Emperor, not amused, says “Surely you are mistaken, calling a deer a horse. Right?". Then the emperor looks around at all the ministers. Some didn’t say a word, just sweating nervously. Some others loudly proclaimed what a fine horse this was. Great horse. Look at this tail! These fine legs. Great horse, naturally prime minister Zhao Gao has the best of tastes.
A small bunch did protest that this was a deer, not a horse. Those were soon after summarily executed. And the Second Emperor himself was murdered some time later.