Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of the Cambridge History of Ancient China

The Cambridge History of Ancient China, 1999, edited by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.                              
 
This is a history of China from the earliest times until the establishment of the first empire in 221 BC. 

First, a few words about sinology itself. The Western kind begins in the 16th century with Italians, Spaniards and Portuguese. The French were prominent in this field later, especially in the 19th century. It’s amusing to see such a small and arcane specialty reflect titanic geopolitical shifts. The largest Chinese-Western language dictionary today is Chinese-French, a legacy of earlier times.

Since Japan was one of WWII’s losers, you don’t often read positive things about Japanese endeavors during that period. But this book says that Japanese archeologists did a lot of work in China in the first half of the 20th century, especially in the 1940s.

The authors complain that Communists pushed the study of Chinese history in the Chinese-nationalist direction starting in 1949. This supports the idea that Mao was a Stalin-like nationalist, not a Lenin-like leftist.

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I was surprised by this passage close to the start of the book:

“...the evidence from the facial morphology of fossil and extant Asian hominids suggests that certain facial characteristics ... also unite early Asian Homo Erectus and extant Far Eastern populations.”

This is also interesting: 

“In the Upper Paleolithic period, among the inhabitants of the northern and eastern parts of Asia, the ancestors of both the Chinese people and many New World peoples, there was undoubtedly a common cosmology in which Heaven was rounded like a dome and Earth was square and oriented according to the cardinal directions, each of which had a name and a color.”

Agriculture began in China, both in the north and the south, at roughly the same time as in the Middle East, soon after the ice retreated. The main crops were different though - wheat in the Middle East, millet in North China, rice in South China. 

Agriculture was not invented in Africa, South Asia or Australia during the last Ice Age, even though they were warm throughout. But as soon as Ice Age survivors were confronted with a warm climate, at least two groups of them came up with agriculture independently of each other. Perhaps Ice Age conditions selected for intelligence, which was used in novel ways once the environment changed. 

In China pottery was invented at the same time as agriculture. In the Middle East it appeared several thousand years after farming. In Japan it was used “for at least seven thousand years before agriculture was adopted as a main strategy to sustain life.”

It’s a little misleading to say that the Chinese ethnicity, language, culture and state originated in northern China before spreading south. Actually, they originated in a pretty small part of northern China, namely the middle of the Yellow River valley.
 
The location of the Xia dynasty
 

Why? Most early civilizations developed on the banks of huge rivers between the 30th and 34th latitudes. Egypt, Sumer, China, the Indus Valley civilization. Apparently primitive agriculture was most productive in that kind of environment. This book mentions that the thick layers of silt deposited by the Yellow River over the centuries have concealed many Neolithic and Bronze Age sites from archeologists. That’s also true in Egypt. And this silt was beneficial to farming. 

It’s not surprising that a well-defined natural and economic region would produce an ethnicity and a culture of its own. During the first millennium BC the people of the middle Yellow River valley called themselves Hua Xia. Both elements of this word could be used individually. Both survived into modern Chinese. Hua can now be seen in the official names of the People’s Republic of China and of Taiwan. 

The earliest evidence of metal-making in China is from 2000 BC, later than in Europe and the Middle East. Some say that the Chinese developed the necessary techniques by themselves, others think that they borrowed them. This book does not take a side. 

“Urban societies arose in the middle Yellow River region during the first half of the second millennium BC.”

Traditional Chinese histories call this period the Xia dynasty. Chinese characters hadn’t been invented then yet, so we don’t know much about it.   

“About 1500 BC a major state formed and expanded outward to rule, perhaps only briefly, large territories.”

This was the Shang dynasty. The expansion is conjectured from the uniformity of bronze vessel styles in tombs over a wide area. This conquest spread metal working to the Yangtze River valley in what is now central China. 

It seems that a feudal breakup occurred soon after the Shang expansion. It’s not clear how much the later Shang controlled other polities in north China, partly because those polities did not leave any records of their own. 

The book suggests that the Chinese borrowed the chariot from peoples further west, perhaps the Tocharians. It appeared at the Shang capital fully formed around 1200 BC. There is no evidence of any wheeled vehicles in China prior to that point. Wagons are attested in the Western part of Eurasia from the 4th millennium BC. 

It’s uncertain how chariots were used in battle. They could have been “showy vehicles for commanders”. Archers could have fought from them.

Iron, which makes better weapons than bronze because it is harder, reached China in the 6th century BC, long after it appeared in Europe and Middle East. Iron was also more useful in farming than bronze. 

“Bronze tools did not increase agricultural or craft production so dramatically as to be a major cause of social change, indeed bronze may always have been too costly to be of much use for agricultural tools.” Not too costly to bury in the ground though:

“The Bronze Age of China is set apart from all others by the enormous quantities of metal it has left us. A single Anyang bronze vessel of about 1200 BC”...”weighs 875 kg; an Anyang royal tomb of the same date contained 1,600 kg of bronze (a tomb of the 5th century BC contained ten metric tons of bronze. Nothing remotely comparable is known elsewhere in the ancient world.)”...

You have to realize here that none of the tombs of the Shang or Western Zhou kings have been excavated intact. Most were never located. All of the known ones were robbed in antiquity. The stuff currently in museums, including more than 10,000 Zhou-period bronzes, was found in tombs of less important people. It represents a small percentage of what must have buried in antiquity. 

When you read about things like that it’s natural to wonder if anybody considered this a waste at the time. The answer is “yes”. There are records from the middle of the 1st millennium BC of people complaining about rulers squandering resources on their tombs. 

The number of vessels of specific kinds that a person was buried with was determined by his rank in the feudal system. This was regulated by law. 

“Geology must be the controlling factor which made metal scarce in the Middle East and common in China, for the necessary labor was available in both places. But in other civilizations the labor was mobilized for other enterprises.”

Chinese bronzes were usually decorated with pictures of animals, in contrast to other cultures. 

“In the ancient Near East, Egypt, Crete and the European tradition descended from them, the principal raw material of decoration has always been real or imaginary plant motifs.”

Another peculiarity is that in ancient China walls were usually made of rammed earth, not brick or stone.

In the Shang dynasty prisoners of war were slaughtered during funerals of kings and buried in their tombs. That practice stopped by the 11th century BC. Servants, concubines, chariot drivers and other retainers continued to be killed and buried with their lords for many centuries afterwards. Some of these people were buried with their own attendants, creating a hierarchy of human sacrifice. Horses were interred with their owners too. One tomb described here had 600 horse sacrifices. 

A jade dragon of the Hongshan period (4700 BC to 2900 BC) was found in a tomb of about 800 BC. This was not the only such find. It’s interesting to think about possible explanations for it. The coolest one is that these were family heirlooms of the elite. But they could have also been products of ancient grave robbing or archeology. The ancient Assyrians did perform archeological digs at about this time.

At the end of the 19th century, as the spirit of Western scientific skepticism spread in China, it became popular for Chinese scholars to dismiss traditional accounts of their ancient history as myth. Also, when Western power was at its strongest everyone wanted to emulate Europe. Looking for sources of pride in non-Western history seemed backward.

Around 1898 Chinese antiquarians became interested in “dragon bones”. These were sometimes unearthed by farmers, who ground them up and used them as medicine. People noticed that some of these objects, which turned out to be ox and turtle bones, had inscriptions in an unusual style. The source of these bones was eventually found by archeologists. More than 200,000 of them have been excavated to date.

The names written on many of the bones belonged to the kings of the late Shang dynasty, which were mentioned by traditional Chinese historians like Sima Qian from the 1st century BC. It turned out that many of these stories weren’t myths after all. The order of the kings and many other details check out.

The scribes wrote questions to the gods on these bones. Should the king go to war with such and such tribe? Will the harvest be good? The bones were heated until they cracked. The diviners interpreted the shape of the cracks as answers to their questions. I loved this bit of info: in the oracle bones the king occasionally referred to himself as “I, the one man.” 

The book says that there is no indication “that writing was imported into China from any civilization in western Asia or from anywhere else. On present evidence the Chinese writing system seems to have been invented not much earlier than 1200 BC and to have been entirely sui generis.”

“Inscriptions first appear on bronzes at about the same time they appear on oracle bones, a coincidence which favors the possibility that this was the first appearance of writing itself”. 

Other parts of the book throw some doubt on this. All Shang dynasty inscriptions that have been unearthed are from one site, Anyang, the capital of the dynasty. And they appear exactly when the capital was founded. Also, the writing system of the earliest oracle bones is pretty well developed. Could writing have been brought to Anyang from the previous, much less well-excavated capital? 

“Perhaps we lack evidence of writing from other cities or earlier periods simply because it was confined to perishable materials that have perished.”

Bamboo was likely one of those materials. The oracle bone texts contain a character in the shape of bound bamboo planks, which is identified with the later word for documents. No bamboo records from the Shang dynasty have survived.

Pottery shards from around 1600 BC with brief inscriptions, up to 12 characters in length, have been discovered at an archeological site in central China called Wucheng. But these inscriptions are too few and too short for decipherment.

It’s interesting that for the first two thousand years after the invention of writing in East Asia, it only existed there in one language, Chinese. When other peoples learned to write, it was after they were assimilated into Chinese culture. Eventually this stopped working. Vietnam was never fully sinicized. Korea and Japan retained their languages. The nomads of the steppe were incompatible with sedentary civilization. But the pattern of assimilation worked for an awfully long time. This is why most of East Asia is Chinese today.

From the start, things worked very differently in the Caucasoid half of Eurasia. Writing was invented simultaneously by two peoples who spoke completely unrelated languages - Sumerian and Egyptian. It was quickly picked up by Akkadians, whose language was very distantly related to Egyptian. Then Elamites, Hurrians, Hittites, Minoans, Mycenaeans and many others picked up writing from their neighbors. Dozens of languages belonging to at least half a dozen families were written in antiquity in West Eurasia. 

Perhaps the difference in conformity levels between the Mongoloid and the Caucasoid worlds was already present in antiquity. 

At the earliest stage of writing people drew pictures to represent objects and ideas. So every time that writing was invented from scratch, it involved thousands of complicates signs. But by 2000 BC Levantines simplified things by inventing an alphabet. Why didn’t this happen in ancient China? 

Just a guess: the Caucasoid world had many literate cultures. This provided space for experimentation. Eventually one of these cultures came up with the alphabet breakthrough. Diversity isn’t always a weakness. 

The Chinese might have come close though. The book mentions the hypothesis that “the set of twenty-two signs known as the “Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches”...”represents an exhaustive and non-repeating inventory of the consonants in the language.” These symbols are already present in the earliest inscriptions, from 1200 BC. But this did not lead to the development of alphabetic writing.

The Shang dynasty was replaced by the Zhou around 1045 BC. Shang oracle bone inscriptions first mention the Zhou as living in the Fen River valley. Later they relocated to the Wei River, on the western frontier of Chinese civilization. At the time of the Zhou conquest the material culture of that area was much simpler than that of the middle Yellow River region (the Chinese heartland) or of the Yangtze region (the south). 

However, the Zhou conquest was not a barbarian invasion in the usual sense. The Zhou adopted the writing system developed by the Shang instead of destroying it. In fact, inscriptions from the Zhou period have survived all over civilized China, not just in the capital, as was the case with the Shang. Originally the Zhou used relatively simple bronze vessels. After the conquest they adopted the more sophisticated Shang style. 

The Zhou justified their conquest by saying that the Shang lost the Mandate of Heaven because they became bad rulers. This idea first appears in documents written during the first generation after the change of power. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven persisted through the rest of Chinese history. Mencius, a philosopher of the 4th century BC is quoted here as saying that the mandate is “revealed not by an an explicit “voice of God”, but by the way people act - by the people’s tacit acceptance of the king’s authority, in a reign of good order and prosperity that seems to emanate from the royal person.”

The Zhou state was feudal. The territory that it conquered from the Shang and others was split into fiefs which were given to members of the Zhou royal family, allies and local potentates. The remnants of the Shang dynasty were given an area as well. The holders of these fiefs tended to subdivide them among their descendants. Eventually there were more than 150 states. The cohesion of the Zhou elite weakened as the genealogical relationships between the rulers became more distant. The amount of deference accorded to the Zhou kings, the dynasty’s main line, decreased with time.

“In the Chinese tradition, the Western Zhou (1045-771 BC)”...”was always regarded as China’s finest and most noble age.” This must have been partly because of the greater unity of China in this period than in the immediately preceding and following ones. I’m guessing that feudalism, with its attractive martial values, had something to do with it as well. The Chinese culture and economy became much more complex in the Spring and Autumn (771-476 BC) and Warring States (476 -221 BC) periods, yet those were still considered times of decline.

“Uncritical respect for the long-lost past continued to haunt China’a historiography; it was only exceptionally that a writer such as Wang Chong (A.D. 27 - ca. 100) could shake free of such inhibitions and express the view that in principle the present was not necessarily inferior to the past.”

In 977 BC the Zhou suffered defeat while campaigning in the south. The king was killed, along with a large portion of the army. Weakened, the dynasty survived. In 771 BC the Zhou court was driven from its Wei River homeland by a barbarian invasion. The king was again killed, but one of his sons set up court in a new location. This was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou dynasty.

The leaders of the southern states, which were in the process of being sinicized at this time, were not descended from the Zhou kings who conquered the Shang around 1045 BC. Yet they fully participated in Chinese feudal politics.

Occasionally conferences were held where the leaders of the states tried to work out common approaches to pressing problems.

“In an agreement signed in 657 B.C., Huan Gong had urged his allies: “Let there be no damming of irrigation water, no withholding sales of grain, no changes in heir apparents, no promotion of concubines to replace wives, and no involvement of women in state affairs.”

In 546 BC leading states agreed to limit the number of their war chariots. There was a similar agreement in 579 BC. I’m not aware of any pre-modern instances of mutual arms control in Europe or the Middle East, so I’m chalking this up as supporting evidence for the stereotype of East Asians being more concerned with social harmony than Caucasoids. 

Feudal lords lived in walled settlements which the book hesitates to call cities. They and their troops were called “the people of the state”, as opposed to the surrounding agricultural population, “the people of the field”. In fact, in the feudal period the term state mostly referred to state capitals.

It’s interesting that in both the Chinese and European feudal eras historical writing often took the form of annals. All of the major courts of the Warring States period maintained them. Only the annals of Qin survived though, because that state ended up conquering all others. There are stories of ancient Chinese chroniclers being executed for including criticism of their rulers in annals. 

Chinese chronology is continuously sound from 842 BC, though some events as far back as Wu Ding’s reign (around 1200 BC) can be dated to within a few years because of their approximate correspondence with lunar eclipse records.

I think about 99.9% of pagan Greco-Roman literature was lost during the Dark Ages. China has had more cultural continuity than that, but its losses were also substantial. 

“From the first of China’s bibliographical lists, a resume of the catalog of works preserved in the imperial library at the of the former Han period, it may be seen that we possess today no more than a small portion of 677 titles that are named therein.”

“...copies of texts that have been brought to light from tombs in comparatively recent excavations, and which cannot necessarily be identified with items mentioned in that list, suggest that the imperial library contained no more than a part, and perhaps a very small part, of the texts that were in circulation in the third and second centuries B.C.”

The complexity of economic and political relations increased continuously during the 1st millennium BC. In the 7th and 6th centuries BC feudalism began to give way to territorial states administered by paid professionals. The cities grew. Armies, staffed by nobility at first, began to recruit the peasantry. This made them much larger. Never-ending low-grade warfare morphed into periodic large-scale wars. States swallowed each other up. After a while only a handful of them remained. Then finally, there was only one.

The Chinese attitude to war was different from the European one:

“As against the pride vested in a brave stand against fearful odds, or a successful feat of arms, that runs through much of Greek and Roman civilization, in traditional Chinese terms warfare was regarded as an activity in which to engage only in the last resort and only when necessity demanded; no heroic view was taken of martial valor.”

Perhaps this is why no descriptions of battles have survived from the pre-imperial (before 221 BC) period in China. 

There was a tradition of rulers committing suicide after their armies were beaten and all was lost. More than 3,000 years after the last king of Shang killed himself East Asian politicians and businessmen are still more likely than Caucasoid ones to respond that way to failure and disgrace.  

In the 4th century BC the state of Qin conferred orders of honor on soldiers, “the degree of the order corresponding with the number of enemy servicemen that the recipient had killed.”

The population of the states was registered to improve taxation and military mobilization. By imperial times people’s place of origin, age, height and social status were usually recorded. Maps were attached to population registers. 

In Europe cavalry was most important during the feudal period. China experienced feudalism much earlier, when chariots were still dominant. In fact, the introduction of cavalry to the country in the 4th century BC coincided with the death of the feudal order in China. 

Mounting a horse can seem like a simpler task than building a chariot. You can’t use chariots in many types of terrain where horses are comfortable by themselves: fields of grain, rocky ground, swamps. So why did chariots precede horse riding? I’ve seen suggestions that it took time to breed horses big and strong enough to be mounted. 

As the feudal order retreated, trade became more important. This was resented by some. The book records a decree from the state of Qin that classified merchants as “inferior people”. It went on to forbid them to wear silk and ride horses. 

Coins replaced barter and cowrie shells. Initially they weren’t round, but in the shape of miniature spades and knives. When round coins appeared, they had holes in the middle, so that they could be strung together. While Middle Eastern and European coins were stamped, Chinese ones were cast. These serious differences suggest separate inventions. Governments began to use currency before merchants. 

At the time of Confucius the taxes paid by the peasants were “as high as” 20% of the crop. 

“Terms like “slave”or “freeman”do not appear in the Shang (or Zhou) records; nor are there records, or even traditions, of any person being bought or sold.”

Unlike central states, the ones located at the periphery of the Zhou “league” could expand into tribal, barbarian areas. This made them larger and more powerful. Eventually one of them, Qin, conquered all of China. It came from the same hinterland as the Zhou 800 hundreds years earlier - the Wei River valley.

The word for China in most of the world’s languages, including English, apparently comes from “Qin”. In modern Mandarin it’s pronounced something like “Chin”. It was the westernmost Chinese state from the 7th through the 3rd centuries BC, and therefore the most accessible one to Persians and to peoples west of them. 

The Shang and Zhou rulers held the title of “wang”, which is normally translated into English as king. The book suggests that this term could be related to a word meaning “emaciated”. Kingship may have grown out of shamanism. In cultures where that institution has survived to our days, shamans are thought to acquire their powers after overcoming serious illness, during which they come in contact with the underworld. 

As the main Zhou line declined, the royal title became less important. Other rulers began to claim it. The first of those was the leader of Chu, originally a non-Chinese state in the south. Its elite felt less bound by Chinese cultural conventions than the rulers of central states. 

Title inflation created a need for grander terminology. In 288 BC the rulers of Qin and Qi declared themselves to be the eastern and western “di”. Up to that point that word only described the chief God of the Chinese religion. When Qin united China in 221 BC, its ruler called himself the “huang di”. The huang were God-like rulers from Chinese mythology. The huang di title was retained by subsequent dynasties. It’s the one that’s normally translated as “emperor” into English. 

As feudalism declined, the elite became less martial. Consequently, the art that they commissioned became less severe, more playful and sensual. Personal ornaments gained in importance at the expense of ritual vessels. The same trends were observed when Europe moved away from feudalism centuries later. 

Intellectual activity blossomed. It’s amazing that Chinese and Greek philosophies developed at the same time. Confucius is considered the first Chinese philosopher. He died in 479 BC. His ideas were relatively simple, but things became more complex in the following two centuries, like in Greece.

These two philosophical traditions dealt with many of the same issues. Pacifism, universalism, anti-universalism (caring about one’s family first), altruism vs. selfishness, withdrawal from the world, criticism of such withdrawal, the theory of the political state, complicated arguments about the ways in which the mind interacts with the senses, questioning of assumptions about what one knows and how one knows it, classification of different types of arguments. 

Predictably, there were people making fun of the sophistry, BSiness of much of this stuff.

“To use a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as to use a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse.”

Confucius was a government official, but not an important one. None of the great philosophers were prominent in politics. Most of them came from the class of gentlemen (shi), descendants of the now-obsolete martial aristocracy. Confucius traced his line from the Shang kings, who are documented from 1200 BC, but likely ruled from roughly 1600 BC. Many modern Chinese claim to descend from Confucius.

No serious claims of descent from antiquity are made in modern Europe. The longest documented genealogies there only go back to the 6th century AD.

Like the Greeks, the Chinese wrote a lot of their philosophy in the form of dialogues. They were also interested in paradoxes and infinities.

“Everything is “One”; but (half-humorously) “the One and what I said about it make two, and two and the original One make three.”

“Simultaneously with being at noon the sun declines; simultaneously with being alive a thing dies.”

“A wheel does not touch the ground. [Possibly because a tangent to a circle is a point, without dimension]”.

“This kind of gamesmanship can produce extraordinarily important discoveries, in a philosophical tradition that becomes fascinated with it and savors such puzzles. In the West, it was to lead eventually to relativity theory in physics, to transfinite arithmetic, and to incompleteness proofs in mathematics. In China there were only short bursts of interest (there was another, in the third century A.D.) followed by centuries of disparagement, which ensured that any texts that might have given adequate explanations have either been lost or are usually badly garbled.”

The book says that the Chinese of this time had the data that could have enabled them to discover the precession of the equinoxes. Instead this information was interpreted in an astrological way.

In the late 4th to 3rd centuries BC the followers of the philosopher Mozi were interested in geometry, optics and mechanics. This was “related to their investigation of logical demonstration”. However, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, the Mohists’ “causal form of explanation” and the proto-scientific tendency that went with it were replaced by the practice of correlating most natural and societal phenomena with the yin-yang dichotomy and the Five Phases. These are water, wood, fire, earth and metal. Here’s an example: 

“One iatromantic section keys the occurrence of illness to the ten stems, and it is understood that the stems are correlated with the Five Phases: jia and yi with Wood, bing and ding with Fire, wu and ji with Soil, geng and din with metal, ren and gui with water. According to the almanac, when illness arises on a jia or yi day it is caused by one’s deceased parents and it manifests itself as an ailment (bing) on a wu or ji day; the principle is based on a conquest sequence of the Five Phases according to which Wood conquers Soil. A break in the ailment and recovery can be expected on geng and xin days because Metal conquers Wood.”

In the remaining parts of the conquest sequence water conquers fire, fire conquers metal, and soil conquers water, which is an optimistic vision for a culture that was born on the frequently overflowing Yellow River. 

They did have their rationalists though. The above-mentioned Xunzi “rejects the idea that strange natural phenomena are portents and regards prayers for rain, divination and so on as mere ritual embellishments to life without any other effect.”

Around the 3rd century BC Chinese medicine moved from blaming diseases on demons which had to be exorcised to blaming them on imbalances and blockages of vapors. 

“...when asked whether he believes in milfoil divination with the Yi Confucius replies, “Of one hundred divinations I have performed, seventy have been on the mark.”

Chinese philosophy was deeply concerned with morals, society and politics.

“...is there a single maxim that can be practiced throughout one’s life?” Confucius replies “Surely, [the principle of] consideration. What you do not want [done to] yourself, do not do to others.”

The Golden Rule. Another philosopher, a pacifist, is quoted here as saying that “suffering insult is no disgrace”, which reminds one of the Christian advice to “turn the other cheek”. 

Xunzi defended “the principle that the ideal king will take care of the disadvantaged - the blind, deaf, crippled, maimed: “The government should gather them together, look after them, give them whatever work they are able to do,... provide them with food and clothing.” Environmental protection will be a concern of the sage-king: “When plants and trees are flowering or putting forth new growth, no axes may be taken into the hills and forests, for they will destroy life and injure the growing things.” The guiding principle is always: “The ruler is the boat, and the common people are the water. It is the water that bears the boat, and the water that capsizes it”.

There are no signs of democracy in Chinese philosophy though. “...it is always taken for granted that the only way to be effective is to gain the ear and the confidence of a lord.”

A reformer of the state of Qin named Shang Yang promoted “the principle that, once established, the punishments for crime should be applicable to all members of the country irrespective of their status or position. The punishments should be neither administered nor suspended so as to accord with the arbitrary will of the ruler, whether to satisfy anger or indulge in favoritism.”

At the other end of the “would that sound normal now?” spectrum, under that same Shang Yang, the teachers of the heir apparent were punished for the crimes committed by their pupil.

On punishment in wartime:

“...if one member of a squad of five fled in battle, the other four members would also be punished, unless they captured their fleeing comrade or were able to offer the head of an enemy to redeem their guilt. In addition, if any squad of five killed no enemy, its chief was liable for execution”.

Group responsibility is a very East Asian concept. 

The philosopher Xunzi had a sensible view of the origins of ethno-cultural differences: 

“Where the lay of the land varies, so too must the tools needed to work it vary. For that reason the many lands of the Xia [ethnic Chinese] are subject to the [religious] duties of one and the same zone and share modes of behavior in common; but the lands of the Man, Yi, Rong, and Di [non-Chinese peoples, barbarians], while bearing duties of the same zone, are not subject to the same institutions of government.”

The Chinese states were surrounded on all sides by barbarian tribes. So naturally, they called themselves “central states”, Zhong Guo. This is now the most common Chinese name for China. It’s sometimes translated into English as the Middle Kingdom. 

There ARE ways of indicating the plural in Chinese, but they’re more like the ones in spoken French than in English. If you take a Chinese word out of context, it’s usually not going to have grammatical number. So “Central States” and “Middle Kingdom” are in fact the same term. 

The Hua Xia (ethnic Chinese) called the region to the south of them, in what is now central China, Yue (the beyond). At least some of its inhabitants spoke Austroasiatic languages like Vietnamese. In fact, the modern word Vietnam comes from the Chinese phrase “yue nan” (the southern beyond). 

The book says that the Yi barbarians, who lived at the same latitude as the Hua Xia, but to the east of them, on the coast, were probably also Austroasiatic. Chinese-language inscriptions from the state of Chu, in what is now central China, show a substrate influence from a language related to Tai. 

“Writing from the point of view of northerners who enjoyed the sophisticated standard of living of Luoyang [center of the ethnic-Chinese heartland] during the first century A.D., the authors of the Han Shu remarked on some of the characteristic features that distinguished parts of their empire, such as the vulgar music of Zheng and Wey, the uncouth religious rites of Chu, or the love of swordsmanship and cheap view of life in Wu and Yue.”

One author dismissed “as the product of a shallow mind, any idea that the men of Chu and Yue  could be expected to take part in types of worship suitable for those of the center.”

The Rong barbarians who lived to the west of the Chinese seem to have spoken Tibeto-Burman languages. This region is now very much a part of core China, quite far from Tibet or Burma. 

There is a widespread image of China being bordered on the north by fierce nomads. This wasn’t always true. Until well into the first millennium BC the area north of the Yellow River valley was agricultural. It wasn’t as densely populated as the Central States, aka the Middle Kingdom. This was at least partly because it was more arid. Animal breeding was more important there than in the ethnic-Chinese region. But northerners did sow crops and did live in permanent settlements. 

True nomadism only arose around 800 BC, in the heart of the steppe. It reached China’s borders centuries later. The book says that nomads were likely descended from farmers, although it allows the possibility that some hunter-gatherers could have become nomads by borrowing domesticated animals from agriculturalists. 

What pushed people towards the nomadic lifestyle? The authors can only offer guesses: overpopulation, drought, increased experience with animal husbandry, large migrations due to conflict. 

There are some suggestions here that true nomadism might have arisen in the western portion of the steppes, which was Caucasoid. At this time the border between Caucasoids and Mongoloids ran through what is now Mongolia. But soon after the appearance of nomadism it was practiced on both sides of the divide. In the eastern steppe it “may have started as early as the eighth century B.C.” Around 500 BC “the North Asian Mongoloid component of the population increased considerably and was associated with nomadic cultural forms.”

A particular type of art was common to nomadic peoples throughout the steppes. It’s called the Animal Style. The book says that Assyrian and Achaemenid art is “assumed to have played a role” in its evolution.  

When in 661 BC the Di barbarians invaded a Chinese state, a chronicler recorded a call for unity among the Xia (ethnic Chinese): “The alien peoples (Rong, Di) are wild dogs and wolves and it is not right that they should receive submission; the many Xia are closely related and it is not right that they should be abandoned.”

“From the frequent mentions of passionate appeals to all central states to unite against the Di, we can see that, militarily, they posed a threat that was perceived by the Zhou political community as being potentially more dangerous than the internal conflicts among the Chinese states. However, considerations of realpolitik often prevailed over feelings of cultural and ethnic brotherhood, and the Chinese states attacked by the Di were often left to fend for themselves.”

When the state of Qin unified China in 221 BC, it tried to redirect the country’s energies from internecine wars to the conquest and settlement of the north. The need to resist the Chinese caused the nomads of the eastern steppe to unify in turn under the leadership of the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu were likely ancestral to the Huns, though perhaps not linguistically.

The shockingly bloody collisions between the settled and nomadic worlds in East Asia are, however, a matter for other volumes in this series.