Conflicting Loyalties

Geremie R. Barmé

'Picking Grass', by Li Tang of the Northern Song 宋李唐《採薇圖》
‘Picking Grass’, by Li Tang of the Northern Song 宋李唐《採薇圖》

The friend-enemy dichotomy mentioned in the Proem is no simple, immutable analytic tool. The ‘dialectics’ of Chinese politics has seen the relative weight of supposedly progressive and retrogressive forces change over time, and occasionally with considerable abruptness. Shifting alliances, political expediency, mutable alliances all mark the progress of the ever-victorious Chinese Communist Party and those in its thrall. The crude syllogism that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is often transmogrified into my friend is an enemy who I betray through friendship to achieve an alliance with an even greater enemy, one that I will eventually betray in the name of friendship.

Simon Leys summed up the complex nature of the dialectic in the hands of the Party Leader in the following way:

Dialectics is the jolly art that enables the Supreme Leader never to make mistakes — for even if he did the wrong thing, he did it at the right time, which makes it right for him to have been wrong, whereas the Enemy, even if he did the right thing, did it at the wrong time, which makes it wrong for him to have been right. [‘Creative Writing in China‘]

The friend-enemy binary can be just as mutable.

In Speaking to History, referred to in the How to Read section of this site, Paul Cohen tells us that he is interested in how the story of Goujian, King of Yue 越王勾踐, ‘has affected Chinese perceptions of their experience — a more interior perspective on the Chinese past… .’ Such stories can be regarded as ‘metaphors writ large’. Another such story, one that has resonated with, and been been disputed by, writers, artists and rulers for over two millennia, is that of the hermit/ martyrs Boyi 伯夷 and Shuqi 叔齊 (due to different conventions, these names are also given as Bo Yi and Shu Qi, as well as Po Yi and Shu Ch’i).

In the following essay, divided into sections, the story of Boyi and Shuqi is discussed with relevant links to relevant texts.


  • Refusing to Eat the Grain of Zhou 不食周粟
  • Doubting Righteous Loyalty 離經叛道
  • Standing Alone and Acting Independently 特立獨行
  • Turning History on its Head 顛三倒四
  • Hiding in Plain View 朝隱
  • The Second Kind of Loyalty 第二種忠誠
  • Ai Weiwei’s 艾未未 ‘Dumbass’ 傻伯夷