Trunk Before the Branches
Through the use of natural, architectural, and medical metaphors Ouyang Xiu, in his “Essay on Fundamentals,” confronts the issues of lackluster policy and institutions in the Song and the ever-present threat, which he argues, Buddhism poses to the moral fortitude of the citizens in the Song Empire. Ouyang compares empires to trees needing a strong foundation, dynasties to broken-down dwellings, and Buddhism to a disease that plagues the people of the Song. Ouyang uses these natural, architectural, and medical metaphors to expose the need for a complete revamp of Song government and society through institutional reforms and the revival of ancient Confusion teachings.
Ouyang uses a natural metaphor comparing empires to trees in order to convey that an empire should have a strong foundation where certain policy and institutional matters are put first in order to support the rest of the empire. “The affairs of the empire have their trunks and their branches… The three kings knew well how to proceed from trunk to branch, knew what to put first and what after, and in doing this they had system and regularity.” (591) Ouyang has a clear idea of what tasks should be addressed first by those in charge. He provides five key responsibilities that need to be addressed first: revenue, soldiers, institutions, worthy men to delegate to, and incentives for them to accept employment. “Thus one equalizes revenues and controls troops, sets up laws to regulate them, delegates the preservation of the laws to the worthy, and honors fame in order to give the worthy incentive.” (591) It is these five things that all great empires prioritize above all other things. It is not that unsuccessful empires do not promote any of these five tasks, but may only focus on one or two. Ouyang says that the first two, revenue and soldiers, are “known to those in authority, but to three they have given no thought.” (591) In Ouyang’s eyes, it is not enough to focus on only a few of the five, each is needed for an empire to truly prosper. These together make the trunk that supports the branches.
So what happens when an empire fails to put these five things first? Ouyang gives a short depiction of the dysfunction of the empires during the Five Dynasties prior to the rise of the Song. Using an architectural metaphor, he describes the empires as broken-down dwellings where it is impossible to address every issue. “fix the main beam, and the corner gives way; repair the rafters, and the ridgepole falls down.” (592) If the empire is the dwelling then the five responsibilities Ouyang mentions would be the beams, rafters, and ridgepoles. “Thus soldiers were uncontrolled, revenue was un-spared, the nation was without laws and regulations; all was helter-skelter.” (592) In the second paragraph on page 592, Ouyang paints the Song as a thriving empire. In regards to the Song Empire, “one cannot say one la...