Monday, May 3, 2021

Watson’s selections from Ban Gu’s Book of Han


Burton Watson’s partial translation of the Book of Han by Ban Gu (and Ban Zhao), titled Courtier and Commoner in Ancient China: Selections from the History of the Former Han, is an interesting piece of scholarship and translation work. The primary focus of Watson’s scholarship was the Han historian Sima Qian, so it is illuminating to see his notes comparing the two scholars, as well as the actual material he translated. The Book of Han itself illustrates effectively the relations between the Han and the surrounding states, in particular the Xiongnu. Watson himself notes a tragic dimension to many of the biographies he translates, and this isn’t necessarily incorrect. But the Book of Han also highlights – despite the appeals to antiquity and the desire to create the appearance of continuity – the incredible degree of institutional experimentation that the Han Emperors and statesmen had to sustain in order to keep the new imperial state with its massive territory running.

Watson’s translation includes chapters 54, 63, 65, 67, 68, 71, 74, 78 and 97 of the Book of Han, all drawn from the Biographies section. The people treated include: Li Guang and Su Jian; the five sons of Emperor Wu; Dongfang Shuo; Yang Wangsun, Hu Jian, Zhu Yun, Mei Fu and Yun Chang; Huo Guang and Jin Midi; Jun Buyi, Shu Guang, Yu Dingguo, Xue Guangde, Ping Dang and Peng Xuan; Wei Xiang and Bing Ji; Xiao Wangzhi; the youxia; and several selected Empresses and Imperial in-laws. I really wish Watson had included Ban Gu’s biographies of Dong Zhongshu (chapter 56) and Sima Xiangru (chapter 57), albeit for different reasons. I would have loved to read how Ban Gu treated a literatus like Dong Zhongshu from a rival hermeneutical school (Dong Zhongshu was a New Text scholar; Ban Gu an Old Text scholar). And of course Sima Xiangru’s biography is famous for his illicit love affair and subsequent marriage to Zhuo Wenjun – it would be interesting to compare Ban Gu’s Confucian assessment of Sima Xiangru to the romantic image that is portrayed in later Chinese operas.

Speaking of romanticism… Watson floats an intriguing (although carefully-hedged) comparison in his introduction, between the histories of Sima Qian and Ban Gu on one side, and the literary movements in the early modern West on the other:
The Shih chi of Ssu-ma Ch’ien, because of the vast scope and richness of its contents, possesses a variety and excitement that are unmatched in all of Chinese historiography. Pan Ku’s work, dealing with the history of a single dynasty, tends to be less varied in tone and content, though at the same time it is more detailed. It moves at a slower pace, and much of its narrative is made up of lengthy quotations from edicts, memorials, letters, and records of criminal investigations, often sordid in the extreme. Lacking the verve and romantic appeal of the Shih chi, it has a grim realism and air of brooding grandeur all its own, and for this reason, and because of the incalculable influence it has had on later Chinese literature and historiography, it deserves to be as well known as its famous predecessor.

(Quick note: Watson’s translation uses the Wade-Giles Romanisation. Thus Ban Gu is rendered as ‘Pan Ku’, Sima Qian as ‘Ssu-ma Ch’ien’, Shiji as ‘Shih chi’, and so on.)

Ban Gu

Obviously, this is a bit of an anachronistic assessment, and even Watson himself treats it with the grain of salt it is evidently due. It would be ridiculously unfair – both to the ancient Chinese historians and their early modern Western literary counterparts – to characterise Sima Qian as the Han Dynasty’s Walter Scott and Ban Gu as its Honoré de Balzac. At the same time, the comparison does highlight a marked difference in style and preoccupation between the two authors. Sima Qian tends to involve and invest himself in his narratives, and Watson notes that he does not necessarily keep a distance from the people and events he describes. On the other hand, apart from the brief assessments at the end of each chapter, Ban Gu doesn’t really editorialise or insert his own views into the text, preferring to allow his subjects to speak for themselves – through direct quotes or recensions of primary source documents – whenever possible.

There are several other differences between Ban Gu and Sima Qian that are evident here, too. Ban Gu does not at all share Sima Qian’s positive assessment of the mercantile class, for example. Perhaps inspired by the Discourses on Salt and Iron, he sets up an explicit schema evidently already implicitly held by the Confucian scholars, wherein the primary occupation (farming) is morally superior to secondary occupations such as trade and handicrafts. Another difference is in his treatment of the youxia. Whereas Sima Qian tends to romanticise the youxia as heroes and rebels against government tyranny, Ban Gu prefers instead to portray them warts and all – both their admirable gestures of compassion, and their penchant for escalating private feuds into full-blown murder sprees. Sima Qian clearly sympathises with the youxia, but Ban Gu tends to see them as agents of lawlessness, disorder and predation.

At any rate, Ban Gu’s biographical portraits of these people from the Han Dynasty are well worth reading in part because they are so minutely-detailed and intimate, including actual dialogues, memorials and letters. The familial tragœdy of Huo Guang is particularly poignant. Huo Guang came from a prominent military family – his illegitimate half-brother Huo Qubing was a nobleman and a general who won distinction in the wars against the Xiongnu. He won the trust of Emperor Wu when, together with Jin Midi, he thwarted the assassination attempt by Ma Heluo. Huo Guang was therefore trusted by Emperor Wu when it came to looking after and acting as a regent for his designated heir, the Emperor Zhao. And he demonstrated time and again that that trust was well-deserved. He foiled a plot by Shangguan Jie and Sang Hongyang to overthrow Emperor Zhao and replace him with Liu Dan, the Prince of Yan. After the death of Emperor Zhao, Huo Guang oversaw the installation of Liu He, the Prince of Changyi – and then deposed him 27 days later when he proved to be unfit for the office. He then oversaw the coronation of Emperor Xuan.

Huo Guang continued to serve Emperor Xuan faithfully and give him good advice, but he was unable to regulate his own family, or indeed check his own secret ambitions for power. His wife Xian, looking to advance her daughter, had Emperor Xuan’s beloved Empress Xu poisoned – and when she revealed this plot to her husband, he quietly covered it up. Emperor Xuan then made Huo Guang’s daughter his empress. After Huo Guang died, word of his wife’s murderous plot leaked out, and the Huo family fled the capital and started a rebellion. Emperor Xuan ordered Empress Huo into exile where she would later commit suicide, and when the rebellion was put down, exterminated the entire Huo family.

Huo Guang and Emperor Xuan

It is interesting that Ban Gu contrasts this story with that of Huo’s ally and friend Jin Midi. Jin Midi was a Xiongnu who was captured and enslaved by the Han at the age of fourteen, along with his mother. He was set to work as a stable boy, and he later earned Emperor Wu’s favour by his politeness and circumspect behaviour, as well as his deft hand with the animals. He was always humble and self-effacing, and did not let the Emperor’s favour go to his head. When he caught his elder son fooling around in the Emperor’s harem, he killed the boy on the spot, thus demonstrating that his loyalty to the Han Emperor outweighed even his own familial loyalties. Ban Gu notes that, for all his years of selfless and devoted service, the Emperor gave him a virgin from among his ladies-in-waiting to marry, and that he even offered to make Jin’s daughter a concubine. Jin Midi accepted the lady-in-waiting as a second wife, but declined to offer his daughter to the Emperor – thus showing that he did not harbour designs on becoming an imperial in-law the way Huo Guang had.

Although Huo Guang and Jin Midi were close friends and comrades, Ban Gu has a point in placing their biographies together. On the one hand, he clearly wants to contrast how the two men thought of loyalty and power. Huo Guang allowed himself to get wound up in harem intrigues and a murder by marrying his daughter to Emperor Xuan; whereas Jin Midi not only killed his own son for going into the harem but also refused to enter his daughter there. On the other hand, Ban Gu also wants to show the classic Confucian dilemma of what one is to do when a family member is guilty of wrongdoing. This was actually a practical matter of Han Dynasty jurisprudence: there was a harsh legal penalty imposed on people who covered up crimes committed by family members. Huo Guang’s loyalty to his wife in covering up her murder, therefore, may have been ‘correct’ by a certain standard of Confucian conduct, but it also got his whole family killed. And even though Jin Midi was honoured and respected by the Emperor and his family prospered for seven generations, it came at the cost of his eldest son’s blood – and by Confucian standards, that’s far too high a price to pay.

Another interesting aspect to the Book of Han is that it reveals, as a subtle but persistent thread underlying the whole thing, the sheer difficulty of trying to manage the project of a unified Chinese empire, which was still an incredibly new concept during the time in question. (Remember that the Qin Empire lasted only from 221 BC to 206 BC!) Concepts relating to institutional structure and governance were adopted broadly not only from Legalism and Confucianism, but also from the Huang-Lao school of thought, the geomantic school, the agrarians and even the Mohists (here I’m thinking of Yang Wangsun, who insisted on being buried naked to spare expenses). The heyday of the zhuzi baijia was long since past, but their ideas were clearly still kicking around in the early Han, and given the relaxation of laws in the Qin-Han transition, that intellectual ferment was again allowed to grow.

It’s easy to see why the Book of Han was considered alongside the Records of the Grand Historian as kind of a template for all later Chinese histories. The breadth and depth of literary talent that the Ban family (Ban Biao, Ban Gu and Ban Zhao) all put into this work is spectacular. But it also delves deep into some of the perennial issues of Chinese statecraft and serves as a psychological study in several ‘types’ of Chinese statesmen. It is very much worth reading for these purposes as well.

Jin Midi

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa and the Silk Roads


For the fourth-grade class I’m teaching, as part of our mediæval Africa unit, I’ve been teaching about the life and Travels of the Moroccan Berber jurist and scholar ‘Abû ‘Abdallâh Muḥammad ibn Baṭṭûṭa. Now, ibn Baṭṭûṭa was a fascinating character in his own right: clearly quite the ladies’ man, and also unfortunately something of a snitch. And his travels are legendary, which makes it all the more heinous that he is so roundly ignored in both Western and (bafflingly) Muslim historiography. He travelled further than either Marco Polo or Zheng He. In his twenty-four year journey he got enough mileage – 75,000 miles, in fact – to circle the earth three times. But what is truly fascinating to me are the ways in which he managed to navigate both the overland route (at least in part) and the maritime route of the Silk Roads in his time. Ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s travels, in fact, were substantially aided by the trade routes between China and the Islâmic world.

To sum up the basics: ibn Baṭṭûṭa left his home in Tangier at the age of twenty-one to make the ḥajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is the duty of all Muslims who are physically and financially able. Although he set out alone across the northern coast of Africa, he quickly fell in with a merchant caravan, who were happy to have a trained jurist with them to settle disputes. He visited Alexandria and Cairo, as well as spending about a month in Damascus, before going to Baghdad, Medina and Mecca. This first jaunt of his to Mecca only whetted his appetite for travel. He took his next journey from Mecca travelling around the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the East African coast – essentially along the easternmost parts of the Maritime Route. His third journey, in an official capacity as a diplomat, took him through Anatolia, to Constantinople, northward into Russia and eastward along the Silk Road. He travelled through Astrakhan, Khiva, Bukhara, Balkh and Samarkand. He reached Delhi and, at the behest of the Sultân Muḥammad ibn Tuġlaq, again took a seaward journey from Calicut in Kerala to the Maldives (whose women he apparently appreciated immensely) and Sri Lanka, before moving on to Singapore, Canton and even Beijing. After he returned to Tangier, he spent some time dictating what he had learned on his travels to a learned scribe, and then took a fourth journey that took him around West Africa and to the great library at Timbuktu before he returned to Fez, where he spent the remainder of his life. He occasionally took small travels to southern Spain and Nigeria during his old age.


The written account of ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s Travels are an immense, encyclopædic volume of knowledge which it would be impossible to treat in a single blog post, let alone a series of them. But ibn Baṭṭûṭa did make frequent references in his Travels not only to the religious customs, manners, music, food and drink, and material cultures of the places he visited, but also to the trade practices of the Muslims he met in his travels. From this we can gain an appreciation for the world system that still prevailed in ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s time. Remember that his first voyage from Tangier to Mecca was mostly taken in the presence of a caravan across North Africa. It can be seen from the Travels that although Muslims dominated the Maritime Route, the Indian Ocean system truly was a globalised one. And although Christian and other non-Muslim traders were subject to certain restrictions along these routes, most of the œconomic exchanges on the Maritime Route happened – as ibn Baṭṭûṭa tells it, at least – on a basis of respect and some semblance of equality.

Perhaps indirectly, we can also see from ibn Baṭṭûṭa that Muslim powers did not enjoy a similar monopoly over trade on the overland Silk Road. The Mongols – who at that time were mostly either Nestorian Christians or Buddhists – were the ones who made up the terms of trade along the eastern stretch of that road into China. Ibn Baṭṭûṭa lived during the waning years of the Yuan Dynasty, and his interactions with China on behalf of the Indian Sultân were with members of the Mongol dynasty.

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa writes in his Travels as a scholarly and pious Muslim, and so his account must be read in such a light. However, he is remarkably astute and observant of the ways in which both routes worked. Along the Maritime Route, for example: while he was in Aden in Yemen on his second voyage, he saw Indian traders from Gujarat offloading Chinese silks and textiles, which were apparently a popular item of purchase. On his third voyage, Ibn Baṭṭûṭa also took note of the Chinese junks which made port at Quilon on the Malabar Coast of Kerala when he was shipwrecked there in the 1330s. The Indian Ocean trade seems to have been dominated by Arabic, Persian and Gujarati traders, who settled in the intermediate ports, took local wives and started families, and were some of the primary forces of the missionary impulse of Islâm along the Maritime Route.

Ibn Baṭṭûṭa’s visits to China proper were also incredibly informative, and today they can offer us a glimpse into how Chinese business and government operated at the time within the ambit of the older Maritime Route. He observed with interest and some degree of approbation the standard use of paper currency in Canton, and the effects that this had on Muslims who wanted to do trade in China (and who were permitted to do so only under some fairly constraining conditions). He also made note of the way the state monopoly on salt was managed. He was awed and impressed by his visits to Quanzhou and Hangzhou: the former being one of the busiest ports he had been in, and the latter being the largest and most beautiful city he had ever visited in his long travels.

Again, it’s been something of an education for me to learn more about ibn Baṭṭûṭa, since his name was not at all known to me before… and I’ve studied both Chinese history and Western history. That speaks rather to the neglect of his work in standard historiography in the West, I think. Even so, the degree to which his career also highlights the thriving commercial thoroughfare that existed along the Indian Ocean (and the one along land which was undergoing some transitions) merits a greater degree of attention in the modern time as this trade route again becomes ascendant in importance.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Four Eurasian scenarios and the genius of OBOR


Having been reading a lot lately about China’s history of engagement with powers westward over land and over the sea, having read biographies of China’s ‘westward’-facing great emperors Taizong and Kangxi, and having observed China’s recent engagement with Iran – I am coming to appreciate the strategic depth and flexibility of the One Belt, One Road project. As American observers, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the OBOR is set up merely to compete with us and to edge us ‘out of the loop’ of global trade. And to some extent, that’s a true perception… but it simply doesn’t tell us the whole story.

China’s manœuvre in building two roads – one over land and one over the sea – is aimed not so much as edging America out of the global market, as it is at looking toward a Eurasian future, and essentially hedging bets as to which of the two rising powers in the middle of Eurasia will become preeminent, and which of the two powers will be better-disposed to dealing with China in the long run. This analysis directly relates to my earlier post on the concept of li in antique Chinese discourse and how it influences modern gæopolitics.

I do think the Chinese strategists responsible for the two-track development of a maritime route and an overland route have already begun to consider the future development of Eurasia from a strategic perspective. They see the ‘polarity’ o f the continent as resting between China, Iran and Russia – and are already moving dynamically to hedge their bets. As a result, they are preparing for four possible futures.


  1. Eurasia United. From the Chinese perspective, this is the most ‘optimistic’ scenario, because it involves a peaceful (at least internally speaking) trilateral cooperation between China, Iran and Russia with more or less equal roles for Iran and Russia. In this scenario, the three ‘corners’ of the informal alliance are able to fend off threats from outside while being able to move goods and money between themselves with relative ease. This is in general the ‘win-win’ scenario that most Chinese strategists are taught to look for, and which of course serves Chinese national interests best. However, it is also metastable because it essentially relies on there being an outside threat in the form of the Triad (Washington-London-Tôkyô), possibly also joined by New Delhi.

    Œconomic features. First of all, both routes of the OBOR go full steam ahead. Iran and Russia both provide raw materials and energy to the Chinese market, and China is able to export manufactured goods to both countries. Chinese FDI becomes a major factor in both Iranian and Russian œconomies – for better and for worse. Industrial development and experimentation with non-capitalist modes of production in both Iran and Russia is primarily guided along the lines of the China model: with state-owned enterprises taking the lead. Space and nuclear technology becomes broadly distributed across Eurasia for mutual defence and clean energy. The smaller Central Asian states in the middle find themselves losing certain degrees of autonomy and œconomic clout to any or all three of the rising powers.

    Gæostrategic features. The obvious flash points from a ‘Eurasia United’ strategic posture would be in the Arabian Gulf, on the Indian subcontinent and on the Pacific Rim. Japan would find its relations with both Russia and China becoming colder than they are even at present. In addition, the Gulf States would probably find themselves pressured by an increasingly-assertive Iran, and India would find itself increasingly isolated and pressured from multiple directions. As I mentioned above, this strategic posture would only make sense in light of continued pressure on all three actors from the outside in the form of residual American imperialism and Western European intransigence. These factors are what drive Iran and China to find common cause with each other on realist grounds.

    Ideological features. Eurasianism obviously gains greater currency in both Russia and China, though it is more clearly and explicitly shaped by Chinese prerogatives and preferences. (Expect to see the name of Gong Zizhen become more prominent in Chinese ideological discourse as relations with Russia grow closer, as well as that of Abai Qunanbaiuly.) A general idea of ‘Eurasian values’ and ‘cradles of civilisation’ takes hold, stressing the commonalities and long histories of interaction between Chinese, Russian and Iranian cultures. Chinese thought begins to take on a more traditionalist-conservative tone than it does at present, even if it still presents itself within a Marxist, ‘socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics’ framework. Aleksandr Dugin’s ideas may be selectively adapted within that framework, which by the way would begin to take on a much more muted tone with regard to religious rights. However, the Chinese state would not yet begin to show a marked preference for one religious confession over the others.



  2. The Qing Strategy, aka ‘Russia in, Iran out’. If for some reason, Iran begins to decide that engagement with China is not in its best interests: expect to see China start to lean harder on its New Eurasian Landbridge and Mongolian Corridor initiatives, and emphasise cooperation with Russia. Energy cooperation and land investment initiatives will become more important. Coinciding demographic interests may also be stressed. And there will be an increase of interest in the historical contacts with Russia going back to the Yuan Dynasty and the Golden Horde.

    Œconomic features. China will begin to rely on Russia not only for energy but also as its ‘breadbasket’, as Russian production of organic food – particularly vegetables – grows not only to meet domestic subsistence demand but opens to a massive export market with a possible quick transit corridor. Chinese importation of American and Brazilian soy is therefore likely to fall off – not dramatically, but enough to continue to hurt both of the latter œconomies. Chinese-Russian cooperation will likely also have some interesting effects on the high-tech sectors in both countries. Look for alternative internet infrastructures to start popping up, as well as joint space ventures. In this scenario there is also a major stress on the development of the SCO and bilateral security arrangements.

    Gæostrategic features. There is probably going to be a concomitant development of Siberia, not least to accommodate agricultural and transport demands. Expect to see a new ‘wave’ of KVŽDists, with young unmarried Russian women prominent among them looking for Chinese grooms, and vice versa. (This was already a meme when Shıza came out, by the way.) The development of the ‘north’ of the OBOR in neglect of the south is likely to see Iran try to develop a concept of ‘Greater Iran’ in response, positioned in opposition to Russian and Chinese claims in Central Asia. Major flash points would therefore be in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Russia and Iran would likely directly compete for influence over the Levant as well.

    Ideological features. China would provide direct state recognition to Eastern Orthodoxy in light of reliance on an alliance with Russia across Northern Eurasia – much to the delight, I’m sure, of the Albazinians and Evenkis in China who currently practise Eastern Orthodoxy without state recognition. The greater interest in common history will likely mean a ressourcement of Yuan Dynasty history and an interest in the historical forms of Christianity particular to China – such as Nestorianism. There may be some resurgence of leftist interest in the early years of Sino-Soviet cooperation and a wave of ‘red nostalgia’ in both countries, but it is likely to be muted given the ambivalent attitude of both governments to the legacies of Stalin and Mao. Chinese Marxism is much more likely to show an interest in the confluences of Marxist thought with Daoism and the indigenous expressions of Christianity under this gæostrategic schema. Islâm on the whole is likely to be left out in the cold.



  3. The Ming Strategy, aka ‘Iran in, Russia out’. This was the dream scenario of at least some in the Trump Administration, and continues to be the strategy preferred by many traditionalists and conservatives in the West who want to ‘bring Russia in from the cold’ while keeping China out. In this scenario, Russia decisively pivots to the West and cuts its ties with China. The response will look much like the Sino-Soviet split of the 60s. China will likely begin to emphasise in its domestic history Russia’s ties to the imperialist Eight-Nation Alliance and begin revamping its commitments to the Non-Aligned Movement and the concept of the Third World. Its relationship with Iran will obviously be pivotal; however, it will continue to reach out to other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa in order to spearhead the Global South along the southern route of the old Silk Road and along the Maritime Road.

    Œconomic features. China’s œconomic policy will, first of all, begin to look more decisively ‘leftist’ and it will couch it in more radical terms. Iran, rather than Russia, will become China’s primary source of energy resources, and China will continue to invest its resources in Southeast Asia and within the Indian Ocean. Infrastructure projects will centre on developing China’s naval and coastal resources in the South China Sea as well as on China’s current close partners in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan.

    Gæostrategic features. There will be a New Great Game for Central Asia in this scenario – though this time it will be between southern Eurasia as represented by China and Iran, against a Westernised Russia in combination with the EU and the US. China is likely to double down its security game in Xinjiang and Tibet while at the same time easing up on restrictions to religious worship (see the ideological features of this strategy below). Maritime East Asia and in particular Hong Kong will continue to be a huge flash point in this scenario: because it will be correctly perceived by Western powers as an exploitable weak point in the staging for the NMR, as well as a beachhead (particularly among the current generation of student protesters) for white-supremacist and anti-Third World ideas.

    Ideological features. China will likely play up its historical links to Southeast and South Asia, with muted reference to the tributary system that prevailed in the Ming Dynasty. Wei Yuan will become the household name to watch for here. China will begin actively promoting Buddhism in order to shore up links with Southeast Asian countries on the Maritime Route. Although there won’t be as enthusiastic an embrace of Islâm by China in this scenario, China will certainly seek common cause with its Muslim communities and foreign allies, and crack down (harder) on Christianity within the country (citing foreign influence).



  4. The Caucasian Wall, aka ‘China out’. This is the doomsday scenario for China in Eurasia, one in which Russia and Iran form a north-south axis against both China and the West. It may be difficult to imagine how this might come about, but unfortunately there is some degree of precedent. In this scenario, Russia and Iran’s joint strategy will be to dominate energy pipelines in the same way that steppe peoples in past centuries tried to dominate and manage the historical Silk Road. China is likely to try to salvage what it can from the Maritime Route and leverage its current developmental and security links with East Africa.

    Œconomic features. A direct competition between China and both of the other Eurasian powers to its west will get fairly ugly fairly fast, but the smaller Central Asian states will find that they have a great deal more influence and diplomatic manœuvre space between the Russian-Iranian axis on one side and China on the other. For China’s part, they will quickly revert to a pure, doctrinaire Marxist œconomic policy complete with anti-religious, militantly-atheist features. Rather than expressing a Eurasian or Third World belonging, the China Model will be tooled to emphasise its distinctive features and stand in contradistinction to the other illiberal projects of civilisational realism and theocratic democracy in Russia and Iran respectively. China will also begin focusing much more strongly on development and œconomic linkages in the Pacific Rim.

    Gæostrategic features. Obviously, in this ‘doomsday scenario’, Central Asia will become a minefield of proxy conflicts and political gamesmanship, with Russia and Iran attempting to sway the loyalty of the Turkic and Iranian states along that corridor toward them and China doing the same. The Pacific Rim will also become strategically important as China is forced to develop its naval power projection. And even though the entirety of the overland New Silk Road project would be disrupted by what I’m tentatively terming the ‘Caucasian Wall’, China would still have enough logistical support in the Indian Ocean to attempt to bypass Iran and rely on its East African trading and strategic partners for security as well as development purposes. There’s a reason China has that base in Djibouti, and it’s not there just for decoration.

    Ideological features. As I said above, there is unfortunately some ideological precedent for this scenario. The Russian Slavophiles (despite Khomyakov’s stated sympathy with Qing China over-against British imperialism) pioneered the concept of iranstvo and the opposite concept of kushitstvo in order to distinguish themselves both from a culturally-Romanised West and a culturally-Sinicised East… and to establish a cultural continuity between the Russian state and the Iranian-speaking Scythian tribes of antiquity. The illiberal Russian and Iranian projects could conceivably both posit themselves as the pole of a confessional order in which religion takes a key public prominence, in contradistinction to the officially-atheist China. As a result, China’s ideological move would logically be the inverse of that: they would emphasise the militantly-sæcular elements of the Marxist tradition in an effort to justify their governmental model to the rest of Asia. Like I said, though: this would be the least-desirable scenario for China’s leadership. They do not want to be isolated by gæography and forced to compete with the United States directly in the Pacific.


I am looking at the full spread of possibilities; but obviously, I have my own preferences here. In general, if we care about Christians in Asia and desire their good on their own terms, the warmth of the China-Russia relationship (either on its own or in concert with Iran) is something to be valued. Certainly the native Evenki and Han Christians in China would appreciate that closer tie, and the resulting thaw in religious relations with the Chinese state that such would entail.

I’m also somewhat adapting here the Eurasianist idea – and believe there is some degree of support for it – that a tellurocratic strategy for China lends itself to both a more equitable distribution of goods (a more even development of inland and coast, as it were), and a more ‘conservative’ cultural posture. The first two scenarios, which will make full use the tellurocratic overland road for OBOR, will see China relaxing its anti-religious postures and attempting to utilise and encourage at least one of its own native religious traditions in concert with a paired religious tradition from elsewhere on the Silk Road: Confucianism/Perennialism in case of the Eurasia United scenario; and Daoism/Nestorian-Christianity in the case of the Qing Strategy scenario. In the third scenario, the Ming Strategy, China’s ruling party will emphasise Buddhism more as the semi-thalassocratic Third World linkages with Southeast Asia become more important, and its common history with nations professing Islâm. And in the Caucasian Wall scenario, China will emphasise the irreligious doctrines of Marxism, make more linkages with Western Marxist parties and organisations, and devote itself fully to thalassocratic dominance. I’m being somewhat Marxist myself in my analysis here, since I’m aware that Chinese government’s posture toward religious bodies is significantly dependent on material and strategic conditions.

As it stands, though, China is preparing itself at an admirable strategic depth for whatever scenario in the emerging multipolar order in Eurasia presents itself. This should not be surprising to anyone. It is a longstanding tradition for China’s leadership to read Luo Guanzhong’s classic novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and apply its lessons to strategic problems. They are fully aware that they are not the only power in Eurasia, and they are equally aware that the other two powers they share Eurasia with have their own agendas, interests, goals and ideological postures… which are never at any given moment fully in line with China’s. It is my belief that the structure and development of the OBOR project is neither a purely-reactive posture on China’s part, nor is it a purely-exploitative and -grasping project focussed only on material gain within China. Instead, it reflects a certain cautious strategic posture that is envisioning both best-case and worst-case scenarios in the middle- to long-term.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Tang Taizong, Chinese gæopolitics and religion

Emperor Taizong of Tang

My most recent read was Heavenly Khan, Victor Xiong Cunrui’s epic historical novel about the life and career of Li Shimin, the Taizong Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. This made for an interesting historical companion piece to Jonathan Spence’s biography of Kangxi, Emperor of China, which I blogged about late last year. The two historical personages, the great emperor of Tang and the great emperor of Qing, share a lot of the same attributes, and suffer from many of the same doubts and struggles. Examining their careers also brings up several of the same questions about the Chinese state’s relationships to its neighbours and its relationship to religion generally.

There are, after all, quite a number of parallels to be drawn. Emperor Kangxi was ethnically Manchu but was, we may say, reluctantly Sinicised in his outlook. Emperor Taizong was born to an ethnically-Xianbei mother by a Han Chinese father; he also married a Xianbei empress. Both men were great and accomplished military leaders before coming to the throne, but both men also prised learning and erudition among their advisors.

Their saving graces as leaders were somewhat different. Kangxi, as we can tell from his private writings, was deeply and thoroughly curious about all matters around him – including botanical and zoological, related to religion and philosophy, or related to statecraft. This curiosity and preference for direct firsthand experience led him to accumulate a broad and profound array of knowledge from which he could pursue an enlightened form of statecraft. By contrast, Taizong, though he may have had some curiosity about some things, tended to prefer book reading more than Kangxi did. Taizong’s saving grace was his willingness to listen to criticism, and his reluctance to punish those who spoke honestly – even with brutal candour – to him. Much of Heavenly Khan is invested in Li Shimin’s troubled but mostly respectful relationship with one of his most brutally-honest remonstrating councillors, Wei Zheng.

However, both men also seem to have had similar problems with their heirs-apparent. Both Li Chengqian and Aixin Jueluo Yinreng were very badly pampered, and their educations suffered from neglect. As a result, growing up within the palace, they behaved like spoiled little rich kids. Both of them spent more time on wasteful, riotous and decadent diversions than on their studies. Both of them dabbled in occult studies. Both of them kept homosexual lovers. Both of them surrounded themselves with cliques of yes-men and engaged in intrigue and conspiracy to try and off their brothers or officials who tried to remonstrate with them. As a result, both of them proved to be grave disappointments to their fathers. Li Chengqian was therefore overlooked in preference to Li Zhi (later the Gaozong Emperor of Tang), and Aixin Jueluo Yinreng was overlooked in preference to Aixin Jueluo Yinzhen (later the Yongzheng Emperor of Qing).

Another intriguing parallel is the tolerant attitude both great Chinese Emperors had toward Christianity. Kangxi was a devotee of the new learning provided to him by the Jesuit missionaries, and also showed mercy upon the Albazinian Cossacks who brought Eastern Orthodoxy to China. In a similar way, Li Shimin welcomed the Nestorian subdeacon Aluoben (rendered in Xiong’s book as ‘Abraham’) who came to proselytise China. Xiong provides an English translation of Li Shimin’s verse edict praising Christianity and allowing its practice within China:
The dao does not have a constant name,
Nor does the sage take a constant form.
The religion spreads wherever it goes,
The multitude of creatures reap the benefit.
From the state of the Roman Orient,
Came Archdeacon Abraham.
He travelled from afar with scriptures and portraits,
And presented them to the capital.
Examine its religious doctrine:
Mysterious, marvellous, and committed to non-action.
Behold its original purpose:
Nurturing life and promoting the essential.
Though its language is devoid of complex discourse,
Its reasoning has its share of trivialities,
But it benefits things and humans alike,
And should be allowed to spread among all under Heaven.

Even so, Xiong’s historical novel-slash-biography of Tang Taizong is structured in a very different way than Spence’s, and should be considered on its own merits. Although parts of it read like a historical chronicle, very dense with names and dates and important battles, campaigns, marriages, births and deaths, Xiong’s work does have an emotional core – and that is the relationships of trust that Li Shimin builds with his most trusted officials. Wei Zheng is the central, the most important of these officials – not least because he is willing to deliver harsh criticisms of the throne. He is so important, in fact, that he plays a central role in Li Shimin’s life and rule for years after his death. Not just Wei Zheng, but also people like the immaculately faithful and humble Xianbei Empress Zhangsun, and top officials like Fang Xuanling, Du Ruhui and Chu Suiliang, form a mirror for Li Shimin’s actions. The dramatic tension in Xiong’s novel derives from Li Shimin’s own struggles between honour and mercy, between decisiveness and deliberation, between rewarding loyalty and encouraging merit. In all, though, the portrait of Li Shimin that comes through is of a man who genuinely wants to be close to the people, and who deliberately seeks out criticism of himself so that he can improve. Someone probably should have given him better medical advice, though. (Pro-tip, kids: if you want to extend your life and get to a healthy and active old age, deliberately ingesting mercury is probably not the right way to do it.)

Another one of Li Shimin’s ‘balancing acts’ was between the ideals of wu (military prowess) and wen (cultural achievement). Obviously, Li Shimin got his start serving as a general under his father Li Yuan (posthumously, the founding Gaozu Emperor). Wei Zheng, on the other hand, was very steadfastly devoted to the wen principle and encouraged Li Shimin in that direction: he supported literary pursuits, administrative improvements, lowering restrictions on the peasantry, opposing wars of expansion. One of the challenges facing Li Shimin was making his new administration under the ‘Zhenguan’ government more wen and less wu, but this was a challenge he willingly undertook for the sake of binding the nation together and promoting prosperity.

Li Shimin’s ‘religious’ preferences clearly incline to Confucianism. We can see this in the way that he rules, his emphasis on humaneness and on learning; and we can see this in the way he treats the other two great faith traditions of China: Daoism and Buddhism. Although he has his preference he actively avoids trying to look partizan. He grants certain preferences to Daoism and Buddhism as needed, and of course he was the one who had the Christian Scriptures brought by the Nestorians translated into Chinese, recorded in the court library and disseminated among the people. However, his patience with religious freedom within China was not without limits. In several cases when Buddhist clergy began demanding too many special favours, Li Shimin was quick to pull funding from construction of new monasteries, and reduce the number of registered Buddhist clergy.

Chinese gæopolitics also come into focus here. We are reminded firmly that ‘Han’ is not identical with ‘China’, and ‘China’ is not identical with ‘Han’. Some of Li Shimin’s most loyal officers are non-Han (Xianbei, Tujue, Sogdians), and the Emperor himself gave voice to the (solidly-Confucian) opinion that ‘barbarians’ are first human beings, and that if they are properly educated there should be no difference between them and Han Chinese. On the other hand, we see that Han Chinese people during times of crisis or political chaos flee to and are employed by Tujue and Korean monarchs. We also see that there are troublesome, independent ‘oasis’ states like Gaochang, ruled for much of Tang Taizong’s rule by Qu Wentai, which are mostly Han in makeup. Some of these states, like the state of Liang, were sponsored by the Tujue as buffer-states against the Sui and Tang.

It is also during the opening years of the Tang Dynasty that the ‘Uighurs’, at first a subsidiary tribe of the enemy Tujue, first appear; and also the first encounters between Tubo (that is to say, Tibet) and the Tang state. Both of them would become tributary states of China under Li Shimin’s rule, and in fact many Tujue – and presumably Uighurs as well – would serve within the Tang state bureaucracy with distinction as military leaders and civil officials up to the fifth rank. The book in fact treats with the heqin (diplomatic royal marriage), originally refused by the Tang state, which was so important to the Tibetan ruler that he went to war with Tang over it. One chapter is dedicated to the brave and self-willed Princess Wencheng, a girl of the royal Li family who volunteered to marry the King of Tibet Songzan Ganbu, and took with her a massive material dowry and a number of Han Chinese craftsmen and literary talents besides.

Even the title of ‘Heavenly Khan’ (Tian Kehan 天可汗 – a title which was neither created nor appropriated by Li Shimin, but bestowed upon him by the Tujue) attests to the culturally cosmopolitan – that is to say, not narrowly Han – nature of his reign. The end of the novel has Li Zhi surrounded by fourteen statues, depicting ‘four Tujue [Turkic] khans, a Tubo [Tibetan] king, a Khotan king, a Gaochang king, a Yanqi king, a Xueyantuo khan, a Tuyuhun khan, a Qiuci king, a Linyi king, a Silla queen and an Indian king’: all of the monarchs of the tributary states that had sworn fealty to Li Shimin.

There are some blind spots in Xiong Cunrui’s biographical treatment of the second Emperor of Tang. For one thing, although he spends a good deal of time discussing the personal austerities, foregone luxuries and wen-ification of the Tang government, he barely mentions at all the fact that the Emperor actively redistributed land from the wealthy landowners to the poor and landless. This was one crucial piece of the reason the early Tang Dynasty saw that productivity boom which Dr Xiong hails and credits to Li Shimin’s policies, as many landless peasants suddenly found themselves smallholders in order to put unused land to the plough. At the same time, though, this is a crucial and creative introduction to the historical topic of the Sui-Tang transition. As with many Chinese historical epics, it can be a bit difficult to keep all the names of various Tang advisors and adversaries straight; for this reason Dr Xiong has helpfully included a fantastic glossary of names at the back, bolding the ones who are of particular importance to the Emperor’s career. I highly recommend this book to the readers of this blog.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Iran and China sign $600 billion, 25-year partnership


My first, and indeed only, reaction to this news story was: ‘Duhh!’ If this news story surprised you in any way, clearly you have not been paying attention. Quite frankly I am surprised that this deal, or one very similar to it, didn’t happen sooner.

Though I suppose that the current situation being what it is between China and the United States, this was probably as good a time as any. Our last bumblingly-inept president managed to piss off both Iran and China at around the same time - the first with the assassination of Soleimani; and the second with the whole trade war / ‘muh IP theft’ / student espionage / China virus fearmongering strategy for red-meat domestic consumption by mouthbreathing boomer conservatives. And now our current bumblingly-inept president, every bit as bad as our previous one, is both dragging his heels on renewing the Iran deal (which was one of his campaign promises), and continuing to ramp up the anti-China rhetoric for red-meat domestic consumption by mouthbreathing boomer ‘humanitarian’ liberals.

China tries cooperating with us for decades on trade, and gets little back but diplomatic abuse and snubbing. Iran tries cooperating with us on security and nuclear proliferation issues (in good faith: just ask the IAEA over the past two decades), and gets literally nothing back for its efforts, except the assassination of their scientists and generals by America and our allies. Not to be rude or anything, but what the FRACK did you all expect? Did anyone really expect that Iran and China would come running to us serving tea and dumplings after this kind of treatment? Of fracking course they’re going to start cooperating with each other more, and cut us out of the loop.

Iran gets pressured from the west by the unholy Salafi-Zionist alliance of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel (with props from America): they look east. China gets pressured from the east by the Five Eyes nations plus Japan: they look west. Not to mention the ideologically-motivated anti-China sniping by Erdoğan which has managed to push Armenia closer into China’s orbit. Both Iran and China find they have the same enemy on either side, and so they become friendly. This is how defensive realism works, folks. This is how gæostrategy works. Even if Iran and China, to put it mildly, do not see eye to eye on a number of ideological and religious issues, they are going to put these aside when national survival and vital interests are in play. Just ask the khaghans of Kazakhstan going back three hundred years, for crying out loud. Do you think they turned up a nose at heathen Buddhist Manchu assistance when they were being slaughtered by the Dzunghars? No. Or do you think that they turned down assistance from the Russians when the Qing in turn started to look too threatening?

So here’s the thing that the perpetually-clueless (because paid to be so) American journalists at WaPo and the NY Times (the latter of which literally lies about China’s motivations in allying with Iran) finally need to get through their skulls - or rather, what their readership does. As the great American folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown once famously put it: ‘This world ain’t what you think it is, it’s just what it is.’ America needs to learn the lesson fast (and honestly should have learned that fifty years ago), that the days are gone when we can just walk all over Asian folks with impunity without them teaming up, standing up and fighting back however they can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The belt and the inroads: China’s courtship of Armenia


When discussing the Artsakh conflict before on THAO, I remarked in passing that some of Armenia’s firmest friends in Washington were members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus: Judy Chu, Grace Meng, Ted Lieu, Barbara Lee, Tulsi Gabbard and Ro Khanna. This comradeship between Asian-Americans and Armenia is something I personally deeply appreciate. My immediate gut-level inclination was to attribute this support to a shared experience of being a ‘distrusted minority in a hostile neighbourhood’. I still hold to that to a certain extent; perhaps some of it may also be attributable to the Armenian-American constituency in California. However, I’m not here to talk about the sympathy that Asian-Americans have for Armenians. In any event, such a lede serves as something of a non sequitur that, at worst, plays into a stereotype that Asian-Americans behave in ways primarily serving the interests of their countries of origin, which I emphatically do not hold to be the case. Instead I want to point out the growing confluence of interests between the Armenian and Chinese states, a confluence which has grown much more important this past year.

It makes sense to take account of Armenia’s long history and its status as one of the very earliest Christian kingdoms – having been converted by the Persian clergyman Saint Gregory Phōtistēs. After the loss of its independence, Armenia has long been a troubled and politically-contested border region of various empires: Eastern Rome, Persia, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire. The Armenian people have a long history of being subalterns within these various empires. The fact of the longevity of Armenian language and culture is fascinating enough! But the status of the Armenian people within the Ottoman Empire in particular was a precarious one. The Medz Yeghern of 1915 and 1916, in which one and a half million Armenians perished from a policy of deliberate genocide, was a watershed moment in defining Armenian peoplehood. These events and these ties are necessary for understanding Armenian national interests.

But what does this have to do with Armenia and China? Well, for one thing, the ties between Armenia and China are ancient – and given the long history and long memories of both the Chinese civilisation and the Armenian state, these ties are nothing to sneeze at or write off as so much ‘old stuff’. Silk Road trade went through the Caucasus and Armenian merchants and kings benefitted from it. Armenia contributed medicinal herbs, wines, horses, valuable carmine dye and carpets to the Great Silk Road trade eastward; and one of the biggest mediæval fairs for Chinese silks in Central Asia was held in the Armenian city of Dvin. Armenian enclaves were present in China during the Song Dynasty. Chinese trade goods such as silk, celadon and porcelain appear in ninth- and tenth-century graves in the Armenian cities of Artsn, Ani and Kars. Armenian gæographers such as Anania Shirakatsi were not only aware of China and make mention of a ‘Chinastan’ in the written record, but even Armenian church art has been influenced by Chinese material culture and visual motifs: the Armenian Bible features images of the Chinese mythical beasts, the qilin and the fenghuang. Again – both Armenian and Chinese statesmen and historian are aware of these historical links and they play a defined role in modern diplomacy.


These links show that China has long been a significant trade partner of Armenia, and Armenia has often treated China as a source of luxury goods and patronage. Chinese trade and investment continues to be an important factor in Armenian foreign policy. The Russian Federation accounts for over 25% of both of Armenia’s export and import volume. However, China is Armenia’s second most valuable trading partner, accounting for 13% of Armenia’s imports. Armenia’s political class understands this reality quite well, which is why Armenia routinely sends its statesmen to attend events relating to Chinese commerce and industry.

However, security is rapidly becoming a much more prominent issue. Regional security cooperation is becoming far more common and important for Armenia, with the nation participating in joint military exercises with all three of Russia, China and Iran. Now it is necessary to understand how Armenia perceives its national interests and its external security. As a small state in Central Asia, it has to perform a balancing act between great powers, similar to the way that other small Central Asian states do to guarantee their own sovereignty and independence. This is simply a reality of the ‘neighbourhood’. Russia will always figure large in Armenia’s calculations, being the largest power nearby and one with whom Armenia has historically remained on fairly cordial terms: under the Tsars, under the Soviets, and with the Federation as a separate country.

That may be changing on account of recent events. Though they are grateful for the ceasefire and though the vast majority of Armenians still view Russia as a friend, the proxy war with Azerbaijan over Artsakh has impressed upon Armenia the limits of Russian cooperation in alignment with its own national interests. As can be seen from the joint military exercises, Armenia’s government had already begun exploring options to expand security cooperation with China. But recent events have served to drive home the urgency of this exploration and sped up some time tables in both Erevan and Beijing.


During the proxy war in Artsakh, it could easily be seen that Turkey was transferring its informal, VNSA proxies from Syria into Armenia. Among these proxies, who had been present and active in jihâdist groups in Syria’s civil war, were Uighur jihâdists from Xinjiang. During and in the wake of the war, these irregular Turkish-backed fighters in Artsakh, including Uighurs, have been carrying out atrocities including torture, mutilation and beheadings on the Armenians living there – very likely with the connivance or at least the blind eye of the Azerbaijani government. Western observers and commentators would be fools to underestimate the impact that the reports and videos of these atrocities are having on Armenian opinion, or the ways in which they will invariably be ‘spun’ by the Chinese state. Certainly, after the needed-but-unsatisfactory Artsakh ceasefire, ordinary Armenian people will be more sympathetic to the Chinese state’s stance on security issues, and Armenians will come to see China as the defender – albeit for realist rather than ideological reasons – of Christian communities in the Caucasus. And who is to say they are wrong?

Indeed, as Dr Benjamin Poghosyan of Armenia’s Ministry of Defence has already pointed out, Armenia’s interests would be best served by not only deepening trade ties with China, but also by revising Armenia’s strategic footing. He recommends, in particular, backing out of the ‘International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance’. Although Armenia had joined it specifically in the interests of protecting the material and cultural heritage of the Christian communities of the Southern Caucasus and the Middle East, the war in Karabakh showed that the primary signatories of this alliance – the United States in particular – had zero concern for these communities. Instead they planned to use this alliance to mobilise opinion against China. Poghosyan articulated the need for Armenian diplomacy not to be coopted into any such mobilisations. Armenia now understands Turkey and its proxies as a threat, as China also does. The realist logic holds: the enemy of my enemy...

On a related note, Armenia also recognises a certain gæopolitical reality relating to the OBOR. Among the nations of the Southern Caucasus, Georgia is (unfortunately) increasingly beholden to NATO and to the West, while Azerbaijan is increasingly beholden to Turkey. Neither arrangement suits China’s interests in building the OBOR very well, and Armenia understands therefore that its neutrality on great power issues places it at a decisive advantage in negotiations for investments.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Wakhi in Hunza – Sabine Felmy’s travelogue


I’m currently reading The Voice of the Nightingale by Sabine Felmy, a German woman who visited this remote mountain valley ‘at the top of the world’ in northern Pakistan, in the Ghujali region, in the early 90s. It’s a short, brisk read, and it makes no pretensions to any sort of objective or critically-analytical eye. However, her account of the people, architecture, agriculture and customs of the region is remarkably broad and – as the subtitle of her book suggests – deeply personal. She clearly grew to love the Tajik-speaking Wakhi people of this region, and her sympathetic portrayal of all aspects of their life, has the remarkable ring of truth-to-life that can only come from an observer who loves whom she observes.

Felmy starts her account of the Wakhi of Hunza with some personal narratives from the elderly people in the village she visits, whom she interviewed. The sketches she provides of the elders of the village, such as Musafir Khan, give us both a glimpse of the fundamental decency and fair dealing of these people, the troublous and often lawless settings which they inhabited, and the political troubles that scattered them from their native Wakhan Corridor (today the easternmost part of Afghanistan) into the three neighbouring countries of China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Because of this diaspora, it is clear that they would be considered political footballs in the contests between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in their ‘Great Game’. The British Raj imposed heavy taxes on these northernmost of their subjects. A folk lament recounted and translated by Felmy rather aptly encapsulates Wakhan attitudes toward the British rulers of India:
Naghdiv maz di pastor.
shuprem ghata da Jurghol.
ruchnerem ghate Siriqol.
Siriqoli lup diyor.
dushman angrez verspo avol.

In the night I am forced to move.
I reached Jurghol.
In the morning I arrived in Sariqol.
Sariqol is a big village.
The British enemy is responsible for all my troubles.
She goes over some of the larger-scale political conflicts in the region as well as some of their smaller-scale effects. She describes how Musafir Khan was compelled to settle in Hunza as a result of a trade deal that fell through – in part because of poor communications, in part because of feckless business partners, in part because of lax administrative capacity, and in part because of the atrocities committed upon the Wakhi by their Afghan and Turkic neighbours. (Much of this animosity is sectarian: the Wakhi are mostly Nizâri ’Ismâ‘îlis; as a result, they were often treated as slaves or almost as bad by their mostly-Sunnî neighbours.) The Wakhi people sought stability and political refuge with the Russians and the Chinese, but the revolutions in both countries created difficulties particularly in terms of movement. However, the Wakhi who moved there did find stability of a sort in Xinjiang.

Felmy then describes the daily life of one of her hostesses, whom she refers to by her initials, N.S. The daily lives of the Wakhi tend to be fairly hard. The men and children get up early in the morning to do agricultural work, while the adult women take care of the house. Wakhi houses are open-structured around a single room: this leaves little room for privacy, but Wakhi culture tends to privilege gregariousness. It also privileges politeness: Wakhi treat each other with great decorousness; when greeting others, one is expected to stand; when sitting together the Wakhi people take care not to turn their back on anyone else present; and when leave is taken they are amiable but a bit less formal. The Wakhi hospitality is renowned. Guests are treated first, to the best food, and are not permitted to work. (It was some time before her hostess was at all comfortable with Felmy helping her around the house, let alone in the fields.) Here is how one of the early British visitors to Hunza – General Sir Edmund George Barrow, in fact – described the customs of the Wakhi:
One great charm in travelling amongst the Tajik races is the unbounded hospitality with which one meets. They seem on the whole honest, truthful and religious, and there is a happy absence of fanaticism.
As Felmy describes, the Wakhi are physically very affectionate with each other. Hugs and kissing are common greetings among friends, and a common greeting among both men and woman is to take the hand of the person being greeted and to kiss it. People show that they care about you by asking you about your health and work, and those of the rest of your family. In this way news travels quite fast, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing and how.

Because Hunza is fairly remote, even the variant of Shi‘â Islâm practised by the Wakhi is fairly syncretic. Felmy describes among them khalifas (who are sort of informal holy men, often given the status of an imam even if they have no formal Qur‘ânic learning), fortune-tellers, and informal doctors – in particular chiropractors and bone-setters, who often have their work cut out for them when it comes time to harvest fruit: children often fall out of trees and break bones. Felmy is quite respectful and even deferent in describing these people and their expertise, with particular attention paid to a bitan, or fortune-teller, named Bibi Khand. Felmy describes how Bibi Khand accurately described the journey which brought her to Hunza, even if not all of her prognostications to her are recounted in full. However, despite this prevalence of folk religion, the neo-Platonic philosophy of Nâsir Khusrau is quite important to the Wakhis, and many of them have memorised or are at least familiar with his writings.

The diet of the people of the high mountains is, as one might imagine, heavy on meat and milk and their derivatives (particularly yoghurt and butter) – and the crops which are grown here are barley and wheat, with wheat mostly displacing barley in recent times. Bread is therefore also a common staple. Apricots and mulberries are the fruits grown here: apricots being particularly valuable as a nutritional supplement. Juniper – which seems to be somewhat overharvested – and white flour are both considered pure and holy, and are used in religious ceremonies. Salted milk tea is drunk, of course – though this drink proved more popular with the guests than with the hosts, who would usually drink water flavoured with apricot juice when thirst needed quenching.

Some attention is also paid to the sports played in the high mountains of northern Pakistan: polo and buzkashi. Polo is a sport of ancient provenance, though matches can be fairly brutal on horses and players both. (Passing references are made to horses killed in polo matches.) Buzkashi, which is also played in Kazakhstan, is an even rougher sport: bare-shirted horse riders scrum over a stuffed dead goat carcase. These events are quite festive, however: bands featuring drums and oboe stand on the sidelines and encourage the players.

She also goes into some depth describing the calendar and festivals of the Wakhi people of Ghujali. In February the Wakhi celebrate Kitithid, a custom similar to Groundhog Day in which the people symbolically celebrate the leaving of the cold and the welcoming of spring. On the last week of February the Wakhi celebrate Woth xak, the clearing of the channels, in which the trenches are dug out and the fields are prepared for sowing. Actual sowing, or Taghum, begins in early March. The second and third weeks in June belong to Wungastoy, a festival for the ‘marriage of the birds’, in which the Wakhi people celebrate wild bird life (and ask it to leave their crops alone). The main harvest festival, Chenir, takes place at the beginning of July. And the Wakhi finally celebrate the return of the animals from the pastures at the end of September and the beginning of October, in a festival called Kuchkhemak khudoi.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is when Felmy describes how readily the Wakhan people embraced literacy and particularly women’s education. As of the time she wrote this text, Felmy describes the dismal educational statistics and literacy which were endemic to northern Pakistan – and then goes on to note how the Wakhi are a happy exception to the rule… even if their literacy and educational abilities are in Urdu and Arabic rather than in their own Tajik tongue. (It is interesting that Felmy describes some of her female cohort, including N.S., being more comfortable in Urdu or standard Tajik than they are in Wakhi. The preservation of Wakhi language in written form has been aided greatly by the Russian linguists Aleksandr Grunberg and Ivan Steblin-Kamensky.) But the reason the Wakhi people seem to have this very progressive attitude toward women’s education is, in large degree, the encouragement of Âġâ Khân III, who encouraged the Mir of Hunza to begin opening schools for Wakhi children in 1946. The Diamond Jubilee schools opened by the Âġâ Khân tend to be upwards of 60% girls. Even the current Âġâ Khân, His Majesty Karîm al-Ḥusayn Šâh, says:
If a man had two children, one a boy and the other a girl, and if he could only afford to give education to one, I would say that he must give preference to the girl.
Unfortunately there seems to be a bit of a brain drain going on in Hunza at the time that Felmy wrote; she describes how educated couples tended to move to where there were jobs. At the same time, she expresses hope that the development projects, urbanisation and infrastructure engineering occurring on both sides of the Pakistan-China border would provide greater opportunities to the well-educated ’Ismâ‘îli men and women.

Felmy closes out her narrative by describing some of the Wakhi poetry and proverbs and riddles – the staples of any healthy folk tradition! She details the forms of poetry appropriate to men and women, with lyric and religious songs being the province of men and the bulbulik (or ‘nightingale’) form being proper to women. The triplet-based form is very evocative, often wistful and sad, sometimes couched in euphemisms. The proverbs that Felmy cites showcase the tight family feeling and emphasis on hospitality that are the proper feelings of the Wakhi, such as:
When there is harmony at home
that is a sign of wealth, of wealth.
When there exist discord and disputes
nothing but misery and misery prevail.
Also:
You can live without animals, but not without parents.
And (disapprovingly):
He promises a chiffon; he only talks about it to have something to say, without actually presenting it.
This book is a fascinating look into one of the more captivating minority cultures along the ancient Silk Road and the new OBOR, who live at one of the highest inhabited points in the world. It is not difficult to see why the people who live here tend to love peace and political stability. Being a minority which has historically been persecuted, and also maintaining a lifestyle which can be fairly marginal, having good neighbours suits them quite well. As said before, Felmy’s book may not have the sort of depth which one might associate with a scholarly anthropological study, but the love with which she presents the culture and people she describes makes this a fine ethnographical snapshot of a small ethno-religious community spread across four modern countries. I confess, I have a soft spot for the Wakhi and the Sarikoli that I tend to share with the similarly mountainous ethnic minority, the Carpathian Rusins of Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and the Ukraine.