Calamity Is Like a Landslide, Not a Few Roof-tiles Coming Loose.
Disaster for a state is the collapse of its political power base, not the disintegration of its upper ruling stratum. The foundation of state power is popular allegiance and control of grass-roots society. “Collapse like a landslide” is a metaphor for political authority losing popular support, all of society crumbling precipitously and the people being driven to desperation and revolt. “Roof-tiles coming loose” refers to disintegration and splits in the ruling group, some struggling for power and others breaking the law and even plotting rebellion. Collapse means shaking the social and economic foundations of state power and denying its legitimacy and right to exist. It is thus something much to be feared. Disintegration, on the other hand, can usually be overcome within the existing framework and is not to be feared as much. This kind of political wisdom attaches great importance to the will of the people and governing grass-roots society. It is similar to the idea of “people first.”
- 天下之患，在于土崩，不在于瓦解，古今一也。……天下诚有土崩之势，虽布衣穷处之士，或首恶而危海内，陈涉是也。……天下虽未有大治也，诚能无土崩之势，虽有强国劲兵，不得旋踵而身为禽矣，吴、楚、齐、赵 是也。 （《史记•平津侯主父列传》） （国家的忧患，在于底层像土一样崩塌，不在于上层像瓦一样破裂。这是古今不变的真理。……如果天下真呈土崩之势，那么即便是平常百姓、穷苦之人，也会带头起事，危及全国。陈胜就是这样。……虽然没有达到天下大治，但只要确实没有呈土崩之势，即便作乱的人国力强大、兵势强劲，也会很快失败被擒，吴、楚、齐、赵的几位诸侯王就是这样。）
The greatest calamity for the empire is a collapse like a landslide, not a few roof-tiles coming loose. So it has been in the past as well as the present… If the empire is really about to collapse, even commoners and the poor will sometimes turn to evil and endanger the country. Chen Sheng was such a man… Although there may not be great order in the empire, as long as it is not actually about to collapse, it will be steadfast and not be conquered even when facing powerful states and strong troops. Wu, Chu, Qi, and Zhao were such states. (Recordsof the Historian)