Defense Mechanisms

The Great Wall is presented to tourists as a story of ancient China’s great technological skill and power.  However, it’s just as much a story of ancient China’s great folly and paranoia.  Despite the epic amount of labor and resources that went into its creation, the Wall was never finished, and didn’t stop the Manchus from successfully invading and overthrowing the last Ming empire in 1644.  Furthermore, the opening for the Manchus came from class struggles within the empire: corrupt and powerful eunuchs excessively taxed the countryside, the peasants rebelled, and a peasant army captured Beijing. One of the Mings’ most trusted generals actually called the Mings’ Manchu conquerors over the Great Wall himself, requesting their help to defend Beijing from the empire’s own people.

In Freudian psychology, a defense mechanism is any tool that our conscious, rational selves use to diffuse tension between our pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding ids and the constraints, demands, and realities of an adult life in contemporary society.  Freud id’d the following defense mechanisms: “denial, displacement, intellectualization, fantasy, compensation, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, and sublimation.”

The military connotations of Freud’s phrase are no accident.  For Freud, an individual’s psychology is the site of an ongoing power struggle between contradictory impulses that recalls ancient China’s Hans, Manchus, and Mongols.  In addition to building walls (denial), China’s various emperors subjected the empire’s bureaucrats, or “mandarins”, to rigid examinations (intellectualization), commissioned the construction of ornate palaces (fantasy), encouraged arts and culture (sublimation), encouraged religion (projection, sublimation, and—the emperor being the son of heaven—rationalization), and more, in order to maintain their power, or the illusion of it.

When the defense mechanisms become so elaborate—in one’s life as well as in ancient civilizations—that they take on a life of their own, chances are that things are about to fall apart.  In the case of Ming China, the eunuch phenomenon began as a form of control as elaborate a symbol of the emperor’s power as the Great Wall: peasants castrated themselves to become male attendants (and the only men besides the emperor) in the Forbidden City.  As eunuchs, they would be physically incapable of threatening the purity of the emperor’s line.  Through the years, some eunuchs learned to leverage their access to the emperor for greater power and wealth, and eventually became more powerful than the mandarins.  The greed of corrupt eunuchs allegedly led to the revolts which led to the end of the Ming empire.

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