Sunday, November 20, 2016

No more fluff

"In 1375, the emperor received a memorial from Ru Taisu, a bureau secretary in the Ministry of Justice, that was 17,000 characters long. He had the memorial read aloud to him. When the lector got to the 16,370th character, Hongwu took offense at two harsh comments and had the man summoned and beaten at court. The following evening when Hongwu finally had the whole text read to him in bed, he decided that in fact four of Ru’s five recommendations in the memorial were quite good, and at court session the next morning ordered that they be carried out. He admitted that he had erred in getting angry, but blamed the victim for having left the substance of the memorial to the last 500 characters. Arguing that a truly loyal official should not trouble an emperor with 16,500 characters’ worth of fluff, he extracted the last 500 characters as a model of memorial-writing, added a preface explaining his distaste for florid prose, and ordered it distributed throughout the realm as a model of how officials should write.32 Clarity of communication mattered in the running of so vast a bureaucratic operation, though who knows whether he was successful in trimming the loquaciousness of his other officials down to precise prose."

Timothy Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China, 1998, Kindle loc. 656.