Strategies of Syncretism

Tang Dialogues

I see syncretism as an outcome of competing memes religions, cultures, arts, and ideational structures. I find  strategies identified in the military records of the Tang Dynasty. Of course these records had their origin in earlier dynasties I find that the redaction and revision of these strategies in the Tang Dynasty dialogues between Emperor Tan Taizong and Li Jing particularly useful.

There are seven classical military books in Chinese history. The Book of 36 Strategies is embedded and referred to in Questions and Replies between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong (唐太宗李衛公問對) is a dialogue between Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty and Li  Jing, a prominent general of that dynasty. Careful study of these records reveal strategies of syncretism. Although there are six chapters of six proverbs each making a total of 36 strategems, they fall into six basic categories that I have defined as:

Signaling, Competing memes will emit messages to either redirect, confuse, block, attract, or repel. Often memes will signal the host to assist in the killing, repelling, cooperation, or merging of competing memes. Syncretization occurs in the latter two functions. For example, when Buddhism and Christianity found themselves being hosted by the Tang Dynasty they signaled the hosting Emperor in a variety of ways. We have examples of each of these memes signaling the host that the other religion was inferior, illegitimate, possessing admirable attributes, or a partner religion. The Tang Emperor asked that they cooperate as when Prajna (Buddhist) and Jing Jing (Christian) were ordered to work together on translations of scriptures.

This is the same types of strategies that the Blue Group of Butterflies use. Most of the butterflies of this group will attack ants by secreting sugary substances from the sides of their head when in the caterpillar stage. The ants will tickle the catepiller, it emits a sugary substance and in return from providing this substance to the ants, the ants protect the caterpillar.

Some Tiger moths will emit a signal to block the radar of bats who would like to dine on them.

Examples of signaling strategy that increases survival among other competing forces and within the host are the following:  Stomp the grass to scare the snake (打草驚蛇/打草惊蛇, Dá cǎo jīng shé), Deceive the heavens to cross the ocean (瞞天過海/瞒天过海, Mán tiān guò hǎi), Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree (李代桃僵, Lǐ dài táo jiāng), Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy’s trust (苦肉計/苦肉计, Kǔ ròu jì),  Let the enemy’s own spy sow discord in the enemy camp (反間計/反间计, Fǎn jiàn jì), Make the host and the guest exchange roles (反客為主/反客为主, Fǎn kè wéi zhǔ)

Admittedly this is generally a type of passive syncretism: in effect keeping the enemy at bay while existing within the host the way some parasites live for years within their host.

mimickry, This is a strategy for syncretism by either repelling or acting as no threat to other memes or by appearing to be something else. Again this is another passive way to syncretize with the host and among other competing memes.

The Fritery butterfly has patterns like the Monarch butterfly that is poisonous to most birds. Birds will not attack the Fritery because it looks like the Monarch. This strategy both warns and appears to be something else.

Christians, Buddhists, Taoist, and Confucians borrowed language from each other to appear either benign or friendly to both their host and other competing theotic memes.

Examples of strategies that use mimickery are referenced in Tang documents: Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem (拋磚引玉/抛砖引玉, Pāo zhuān yǐn yù), The empty fort strategy (空城計/空城计, Kōng chéng jì),

camouflage, This is the use of disguise in order to infiltrate either the host or other memes or both. In the West we would call this the Trojan Horse technique.

One type of butterfly I observed and recorded in the Caribbean camouflages itself as a bee in the caterpillar stage so that bees will carry it off to their hive where the caterpillar feasts upon bee larvae.

This is a type of syncretism whereby one meme enters the competing meme in a symbiotic relationship by means of camouflage.

At Da Qin, where a Nestorian church was built on the compound of a Taoist monstery according to Martin Palmer in his book, the Jesus Sutras, this may have been a way for Christians to survive being hosted by a competing religion. It seems that Christians ised techniques of camouflage  by dressing and behaving as Taoist monks in such a way as to coexist.

Examples in the Book of 36 Strategems are the following: Kill with a borrowed knife (借刀殺人/借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén), Hide a knife behind a smile (笑裏藏刀/笑里藏刀, Xiào lǐ cáng dāo), Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul (借屍還魂/借尸还魂, Jiè shī huán hún), Slough off the cicada’s golden shell (金蟬脱殼/金蝉脱壳, Jīn chán tuō qiào), Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy’s trust (苦肉計/苦肉计, Kǔ ròu jì), Feign madness but keep your balance (假痴不癲/假痴不癫, Jiǎ chī bù diān), Deck the tree with false blossoms (樹上開花/树上开花, Shù shàng kāi huā)

Predation, Within a syncrenistic model the host prevents one or both memes from successfully attacking one another. Nevertheless the memes are living in a kind of passive synvretism by being prevented from complete predation.

We have records of Buddhist officials attacking the Christians by complaining to Tang royalty. This is an example of indirect predation by enlisting the host in its predatory attach. Empress Wu, the only female empress of the Tang Dynasty did participate in direct attack in the Christians.

Syncretism occurs when attacks produces enviromental factors that allow the the surviving memes to co-exist with predatory memes. Surviving memes do this either by reprogramming themselves with new defences, enlisting the host for protection, or adopting other defence techniques.

Some butterflies produce cyanide as a toxin they emit from their bodies to kill competitors competing for common food sources. Other strategies include sabotage, direct and indrect attack, and opportunism as can be seen in the following strategies from Tang records: Besiege Wei to rescue Zhou (圍魏救趙/围魏救赵, Wéi Wèi jiù Zhào), Leisurely await for the laboured (以逸待勞/以逸待劳, Yǐ yì dài láo), Remove the firewood from under the pot (釜底抽薪, Fǔ dǐ chōu xīn), Shut the door to catch the thief (關門捉賊/关门捉贼, Guān mén zhōu zéi), Replace the beams with rotten timbers (偷梁換柱/偷梁换柱, Tōu liáng huàn zhù), Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof (上屋抽梯, Shàng wū chōu tī), Watch the fires burning across the river (隔岸觀火/隔岸观火, Gé àn guān huǒ)

Attract, This is the most active form of syncretization whereby the memes cooperate with each other. The question is to what ends? It may be to enhance, neutralize, or predate the other meme.

Of course the host must allow either actively or passively the attraction of the competing memes to each other. One Tang emperor prohibited Prajna and Jing Jing to work together after the first translation they worked on together did not please the emperor.

Loot a burning house (趁火打劫, Chèn huǒ dǎ jié), Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat (順手牽羊/顺手牵羊, Shùn shǒu qiān yáng), Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair (調虎離山/调虎离山, Diào hǔ lí shān), Obtain safe passage to conquer the State of Guo (假道伐虢, Jiǎ dào fá Guó), The beauty trap (honey trap) (美人計/美人计, Měi rén jì), In order to capture, one must let loose (欲擒故縱/欲擒故纵, Yù qín gū zòng)

Redirect, This is an active strategy to keep the host or other competing memes from engaging in offensive and predatory behaviors. Redirection takes the attention off the primary purpose and function of the meme.

Christians in the Tang Dynasty would serve as masons, physicians, and military leaders. This took attention off their theotic presence which made them vulerable and subject to attack.

The Stinky Leaf butterflies and others look quite different when their wings are folded. When folded the Stinky Leaf butterfly looks like a leaf but when open they display beautiful colors that often attrack predators. When they close their wings it redirects the attention of potential predators.

Examples in Tang literature reveal: Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west (聲東擊西/声东击西,Openly repair the gallery roads, but sneak through the passage of Chenchan(暗渡陳倉/暗渡陈仓, Àn dù chén cāng)  Shēng dōng jí xī), Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbour (遠交近攻/远交近攻, Yuǎn jiāo jìn gōng), Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree (指桑罵槐/指桑骂槐, Zhǐ sāng mà huái)

and If everything else fails, retreat (走為上/走为上, Zǒu wéi shàng)

These strategies follow a biological model witnessed in everything from to butterflies and horses.


About daleinchina

Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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