Moral imagination is “an ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result from a given action.”1 If we examine this definition it involves at least two skills, one being able to creatively imagine many possibilities and their consequences and the other being able to morally and rationally evaluate the possibilities an third to empathically consider the consequences in the target population. Many of our problems in human society are the result of unintended consequences. With better moral imagination, we hope that many unintended consequences can be imagined and considered in the decision making process.
The moral imagination is invoked when society is challenged by new ideas, cultures, languages, religions, and technology. This is particularly true in mono-ethnic societies. During the Tang Dynasty China opened its doors to the world. Many cultures, languages, religions were welcomed into China during this period. Most Tang Emperors openly provided support to these guests. The capital of Xian was a place of refuge for a Persian prince and his family.
In 651 A.D., the Persian king Yazdgerd III was captured and beheaded by Arab invaders in what is today’s Turkmenistan. His son, Pirooz survived and fled east to China. In the Chinese capital, he encountered long-established Persian, Sogdian, and Bactrian merchant communities in China. He was accompanied into the imperial palace. Going through the long and beautiful halls. At last, he saw the Chinese emperor seated on a high golden throne wearing golden boots and robes. The little boy Pirooz knelt and prostrated before the emperor. The emperor then picked up the boy Pirooz and embraced and kissed him on the cheeks. He said: “You’ve come a long way. Have no more fears. For you are my brother and this is your new home.” With tears in his eyes, Pirooz knelt again and thanked the emperor. The emperor then allowed Pirooz and his people to settle in 38 villages and rebuild their communities. They were allowed to set up a mini royal court in exile.
Pirooz seems to have been a Christian. His son’s name, Narseh (Narsai), is a Christian name. Pirooz would have been called Abu Narsai. Also his antipathy against Muslims and Arabs make it likely he would have been of a pre-Islamic faith.
Pirooz was not just a Chinese guest and refugee. He was integrated fully into Chinese society.
Pirooz learned Kung Fu (martial arts) and grew up to be a general in the emperor’s court. Chinese armies still held military garrisons in areas of what are today’s Tajikistan, Afghanistan and parts of Uzbekistan. The Chinese emperor never allowed Pirooz to be stationed there because he knew that he would immediately cause trouble with the Arabs. However, Pirooz financed most of the garrisons there with his own money. When the Chinese emperor died, Pirooz and his son Narseh were allowed to be stationed on western border garrisons by the new Chinese emperor. Immediately, they started to clash with the Umayyad Arabs. They solicited the aid of Turkish tribes and fought border skirmishes against the Arabs.
Pirooz died sometime around 700 A.D. He was buried facing west. People in China today still don’t know where his resting place is located. Some say that he was buried atop the Pamir mountains so that he could be close to the spirit of his father and where he got killed by the Arabs. But, in the diary, Narseh says:
Pirooz requested only a simple burial and the Chinese emperor approved. The entire exiled court was in attendance along with the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor held Peroz’s shaking hands. Pirooz looked west and said: “I have done what I could for my homeland (Persia) and I have no regrets.” Then, he looked east and said: “I am grateful to China, my new homeland.” Then he looked at his immediate family and all the Persians in attendance and said: “Contribute your talents and devote it to the emperor. We are no longer Persians. We are now Chinese.” Then, he died peacefully. A beautiful horse was made to gallop around his coffin 33 times before burial, because this was the number of military victories he had during his lifetime. Pirooz was a great Chinese general and great Persian prince devoted and loyal to his people.
Narseh’s daughters and sons all married into Chinese royalty and aristocracy.
This is an example of syncretism in the braod sense in Chinese society. Syncretism requires a rich environment of moral imagination to occur. China’s moral environment was shaped by the poet’s of the Tang Dynasty. The Disciples of the Pear Garden pioneered new possibility and outlined both the dangers and joys of cultural syncretism. One of the great poets of the Tang Dynasty was Tu Fu (Da Fu) who perhaps did more than any other to shape the moral imagination. In the following poem Tu Fu challenges the limited Confucian morality of Confucian ethics whereby one’s social obligations are limited to one’s family. Tu Fu offered a broader moral view to one’s friends and a multicultural society.
By Tu Fu
Often a man’s life is such
that he seldom sees his friends,
like the constellations Shen and Shang
which never share the same sky.
If not this evening, then what evening
should we share this lamp light?
How long can our youth and vigor last?
The hair at our temples is already gray.
We inquire about old acquaintances
to find that half are ghosts–
shocked cries betray
the torment of our hearts.
How could I have known
that it would be twenty years
before I again entered
your honored home.
When we parted last
you were yet unmarried;
now your sons and daughters
line up in a smiling row
to greet their father’s friend.
They ask whence I have come
but before I can answer all questions
you chase them off
to bring wine and cups.
In the night rain, chives are cut
for the freshly steamed rice
mixed with yellow millet.
Saying how difficult it has been
for us to meet at last,
you pour ten cups in a row!
But even after ten cups
I’m not drunk, being so moved
by your lasting friendship.
Tomorrow we will be separated
by the peaks of mountains,
each of our worldly affairs
lost to the other’s sight.
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