Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Chiri Yukie and the Ainu Shinyôshû

I recently finished reading the Benjamin Peterson translation of The Song the Owl God Sang by Chiri Yukie. I was largely spurred to begin reading literature by and about peoples like the Ainu of Sakhalin, Hokkaidô and the Kuril Islands, as well as the Sámi of the Kola Peninsula and the northernmost reaches of the Scandinavian Peninsula, by the recent troubles in the Ukraine. Both groups of people have suddenly found themselves again the victims of geopolitical machinations between East and West (or, in the case of the Ainu, between East and further East).

The yukir tales of the Ainu, compiled and translated into Japanese by Chiri Yukie shortly before she died tragically of heart failure at the age of nineteen, are valuable in part because they represent the first written work in Ainu, by an Ainu person, written from an Ainu perspective. Chiri Yukie wrote the tales as she recalled them from the aunt and grandmother who raised her, in large part to honour them and the stories she felt were slipping away. Ms Chiri provides also this preface to her only work, which highlights her deep affection for her ancestors and for her land, and itself manages to tug rather hard at the old heartstrings:
Long ago, this broad land of Hokkaidô was a world in which our ancestors lived lives of freedom. Like children of unspoilt innocence, they lived their carefree lives in the embrace of mother Nature, whose beloveds they were—what happy people they must have been!

In winter, kicking aside the thick snow that covered field and forest, hunting the bear across mountain after mountain in defiance of the frost that froze all the world—on the summer ocean, in the cool wind, swimming the green waves, setting sail, under the cries of the white seagulls, in little leaf-like boats to seek fish—in the flower-filled spring, bathing in the gentle sunlight, singing along with the endlessly-warbling birds, plucking sagebrush and butterbur—in the red-leafed fall, splitting the ripe ears of grain, not extinguishing until midnight the salmon-fishing fires, hearing the deer cry to one another in the ravine, falling, beneath the round moon, into a dream-laden slumber. Oh, what a wonderful way of life it must have been! That tranquil state of mind is already a thing of the past, a dream torn apart by the passing decades, for this earth is changing quickly, with hills and meadows becoming villages and villages becoming cities one after another.

Somehow, almost unnoticed, the form that Nature had worn in ancient times began to fade, and of the people who once dwelt so happily in field and mountain, most are no longer to be found. The few of us who remain of our race do nothing but stare in astonishment at the way the world has gone. Yet what we see from these eyes is that the radiance of the beautiful spirits of our forebears, whose every gesture was ruled by a sense of the spiritual, has been burdened with unease, consumed with discontent, weakened, dizzied, become helpless, gone beyond the reach of outside help, a miserable sight, something doomed to annihilation… such is the name we have now—what a sad name it is that we now bear.

Our happy ancestors of long ago—it must have been impossible for them to imagine that in the end their native land would decay to this wretched state.

Time flows ever on, the world endlessly goes on changing. If from the worthless remnant who still exist on the site of our great defeat, there could someday emerge just two or three strong leaders, then perhaps the day when we catch up again with the changing world might not be far off. That is our true cherished wish, for which we pray morning and night.

But… the language that we use each day to share our feelings with our beloved ancestors has become worn with use. Even the beautiful words that have been handed down to us are mostly timid things, things which will surely be extinguished along with their weak, doomed users. Oh, what a heartbreaking thing—and almost already only a memory.

I, born an Ainu and living among Ainu speakers, in my spare moments, in rainy evenings and snowy nights, have put together with my clumsy brush just one or two of the very least of the tales our ancestors told for amusement. If it should turn out that this work is read by some who are kind enough to understand us, then I shall share with our race’s ancestors joy without limit, happiness unsurpassable.
Evidently the Ainu Shinyôshû was of remarkable interest both from an ethnographic-sociological perspective, and from a linguistic one. The Ainu tales that Chiri Yukie relates here, all concern the various kamui (spirits, gods or devils which inhabit animal forms like those of the owl, the fox, the otter, the killer whale or the mussel) that both inhabit their own world and interact with the human world and the world of nature in a way that irrevocably ties all three worlds together.

In the yukar, Chiri Yukie describes spirits both benign and malevolent, and the ways in which human beings are encouraged to exchange gifts with them (in particular decorated staves called inau and jars of sake) in order to ensure continued sources of sustenance in hunting and fishing. The picture that emerges from the yukar is one of a complex gift economy, in which the key demands are restraint and respect for the other living creatures in the ecosystem. Polluting the water by using walnut wood, for example, was considered a capital offense against the salmon and their young.

It is also of interest that even when the gods are referring to human beings as children or as ‘little’, playing with toy weapons and toy traps, the kamui are still held to account, often quite harshly, for their part in the cosmic balance. The yukar often take the form of ironic morality tales, in which the narrator transgresses some point of the agreement between Ainu and kamui, and dies ‘a pointless death, a horrible death’ as a result. And the human culture-hero in many of these stories, Okikirmui, exemplifies the virtues of modesty, temperance and reverence; though he usually gets one over on a kamui who goes too far, by acts of cunning or by cutting deals with other kamui (like Apefuchi, the goddess of the hearth) rather than by acts of individual bravery. Thus it seems there is already something of a Russian influence on Ainu folklore, as Okikirmui often exemplifies the virtues of a hero of Russian folklore: humility, simplicity, compassion for simple folk combined with a cunning that puts him one step ahead of those more powerful than him.

It’s truly a shame that Chiri Yukie died at the young age she did. This collection of Ainu yukar that she transcribed was supposed to be the first of many, coming out of her collaboration with linguist Kindaichi Kyôsuke. As it stands, this collection is barely enough to whet the appetite, a mere glimpse upon a culture and a mode of living that was already being killed off when she began to commit it to writing.

Likewise, this English translation by Benjamin Peterson is an intriguing look into a culture which has been badly understood by its Japanese conquerors, and even worse-understood by the Anglophone interpreters of Japanese sources on the Ainu. It also furnishes us with an intriguing and informative window into the world of Ainu shamanic literature and poetry, much the same as The Nisan Shamaness does. However, it is limited. I would have preferred it (and given the short length of the collection, this could easily have been managed) if Peterson had included a transcription of the original Ainu alongside his English translation, which would also have been truer to the intertextual project that Chiri Yukie herself completed between Ainu and Japanese.

I am looking forward to reading more about the Ainu and their way of life. As some among the non-aligned (and therefore considered unimportant in Western media) victims in another theatre of the Ukraine war, they deserve far better than to be forgotten.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Kazakhstan’s recent troubles

Before saying anything else, my prayers go out to Kazakhstan and its people. I do have something of a personal stake in this: I love both the country and the people very much, having lived for two months in a small village in the vicinity of Almaty. I utterly hate to see unrest and violence impacting people that I care about. I hope that my Kazakh and Russian acquaintance who live there are safe, sound and well. And I pray that Kazakhstan recovers quickly and returns to a more orderly and just mode of living.

There are, however, a number of angles to the recent troubles which, well, trouble and raise questions for me. I will attempt to sketch them with some analysis here.

First of all: Kazakhstan has long been under the hand of Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose policies could be summed up in the following way. Geopolitical non-alignment and strategic multipolarity. Papering over ethnic tensions between Kazakhs, Russians and others in favour of a multi-ethnic Kazakhstani identity. Neoliberal privatisation reforms making a small handful of his cronies ridiculously wealthy while leaving everyone else poorer than they were in Soviet times. And above all: do not question the Big Bread. This model worked, with its bumps, for the three decades he was in power following independence, but the inner tensions and contradictions were all too easily noticed by astute political observers: even sympathetic pro-Nazarbaev reformists like Orazaly Sabden.

So you had a society that, struggling as all post-Soviet republics did through the economic collapse and lawless years of the 90s, emerged with its outward face fairly clean. Kazakhstan began to rise in prominence and clout, with its skilful manoeuvres between Russia, China and the United States. Investment rose. Kazakh cultural traditions regained a certain pride-of-place. But the brutal neoliberal economic policies combined with the cult of the leader left – if you will pardon the simplification, dear reader – both a material and a spiritual lacuna: a massive, almost globally-unparalleled wealth gap combined with a lack of moral direction and clarity. These lacunae can be observed most poignantly in the films of Kazakhstani director Dárejan Ómirbaev: particularly Cardiogram, The Killer and The Student.

However, there were notable shifts even during Nazarbaev’s time. I already mentioned Sabden above. His book on the moral philosophy of Abai Qunanbaiuly clearly had the imprimatur of official approval. However, the final chapter of that book was a deep, incisive critique of contemporary Kazakhstani economic policy and political culture. Dr Sabden excoriated the government for allowing Kazakhstan’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a select few, as well for abdicating completely the field of spiritual and moral renewal and leaving it open to the depredations of fundamentalist Wahhâbi Islâm. Dr Sabden advocated a ressourcement of Abai Qunanbaiuly’s moral philosophy and poetic Sufî sensibility in order to revitalise the Kazakh sense of moral purpose. (Given the prominent placement of Abai’s portrait in the key scene of Ómirbaev’s The Student, I find it likely he would agree.)

The current president, Qasım-Jomart Toqaev, came into power with populist, Bernie Sanders-style promises to redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth, end bank bailouts, and make the rich pay their fair share. And indeed, he did carry through on at least one part of his economic-populist reform platform, to eliminate consumer debt for a significant swathe of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered working class. This evidently trod on the toes of some former Nazarbaev loyalists, because the reforms didn’t seem to really go anywhere after that.

But the current protests carry, at least in some degree, the flavour of dissatisfaction at precisely these failings of the Nazarbaev years, in which Toqaev himself – having been by necessity a long-standing Nazarbaev loyalist – is viewed as complicit. The demands for higher wages, price caps on liquefied petroleum gas and basic commodities, direct representation at the local level—these are responses to the crisis in material conditions. However, the lack of spiritual direction has also infected the protests. The protesters’ demand for Kazakhstan to break ties with Russia is almost certainly exogenous to Kazakhstani popular opinion and stinks of colour-revolution tactics. In addition, at least some of the protesters seem to be guided by appeals to radical Islâm, and indeed some of the street violence (like the brutal decapitations of two policemen) seemed to follow a modus operandi that Wahhâbi groups in Central Asia have tended to follow. This would seem to lend at least some credence to the government’s claim that ‘bandits and terrorists’ had infiltrated the protest movement.

So… I’m seeing some definite strands in both the protests and the response.

Among the protests, first and most prominently: there is an economic-populist dissatisfaction with living conditions and the wealth gap. Second: there is an element that has been coopted for geopolitical purposes and mobilised against the Eurasian bloc of countries. Third: there is an element that is guided by violent fundamentalist Wahhâbism. The first strand is worthy of support. The latter two are not.

And then the response by the government. Interestingly, there seems to have been a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes between Toqaev and Nazarbaev et al. Nazarbaev was stripped of his office on the Security Council, and at least one of his Otan diehards (former PM Kárim Másimov) was detained on charges of treason. The response by CSTO countries, sending in troops to restore order in support of Toqaev, seems to indicate that the new president is getting support from Russia and the other members of the security org.

The drastic and draconian nature of the state’s response to the protests is regrettable (with over 9,000 arrests so far reported), but there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Auntie Beeb reports that Toqaev has reiterated his pledges to reform the government and redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth to its neediest citizens. If Toqaev no longer sees a need to cater to Nazarbaev’s clique now that he’s out of the picture, he may in fact be able to move forward to meet some of the justified economic demands of the protesters – but it’s still very early days as yet. In the meanwhile: prayers from the bottom of my heart to God for those who have been killed, prayers for those who have been arrested, prayers for those who have lost their homes and businesses to the looting, and prayers for Kazakhstan’s orderly public life to improve.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

A mesmerising meander: The Tea Road

I had the pleasure, mingled with frustration, of reading Martha Avery’s The Tea Road recently. The subject of this book, which describes the history of the northern trade route that went across Siberia between Russia and China, is very much so worthy of interest. Indeed, the subject is quite near and dear to my heart. The Russian Mission in Beijing, today the Church of the Holy Dormition, was the place where I was chrismated into the Orthodox Church. I also lived in Inner (or ‘Front’) Mongolia for two years, and visited places like Pingyao that were integral to the Tea Road trade. What’s more, it’s clear that this subject is near and dear to Dr Avery’s heart! It’s clear she has put an enormous amount of time, effort and research into this volume. As with a number of other scholarly monographs on specialist topics of historical interest, however, I dearly wish she had hired a decent copy editor before it went to print.

At its core, The Tea Road is the story of how trade in this particular cash crop across Asia, which began in earnest about one thousand years ago during the Song Dynasty, shaped the way in which steppe empires rose and fell, the way in which both Chinese people and government do business with foreigners, and even the way in which the modern nation-states of Russia and China behave toward each other and toward their other neighbours. Dr Avery spends a great deal of time and emphasis in this book analysing the particular history of the Mongol people and state, and their particular rôle in shaping the land-based tea trade. Indeed, Avery’s general approach is basically to analyse the Tea Road trade from the perspectives of the people who lived in the middle of it or beside it, not necessarily the people on either end.

Eighteenth-century business office in Pingyao, Shanxi

This is very much to be applauded. The story of the Tea Road is not just a story about Russians and Han Chinese, after all – although the Treaties of Nerchinsk and Kyakhta are key to that story. The Tea Road also involved Tanguts, Turks, Tibetans, Mongols, Manchus, Arabs and Persians. And one of the strong points of this book is that Avery highlights a number of the intriguing characters that the Tea Road produced, even ones who were not rulers. Kublai Khan’s finance minister Ahmad Fanâkatî; Bosnian-Serb diplomat for Russia and fort-builder Graf Sava Raguzinskii; the founder of the first Chinese megacorporation Da Sheng Kui, Pedlar Wang; the ‘Mad Baron’ Roman von Ungern-Sternberg; and the Archimandrites Iakinf Bichurin and Palladii Kafarov… all show up prominently in the book. Avery for the most part allows their actions to speak for themselves and illuminate their characters.

I also enjoyed reading the nitty-gritty œconomic accounts of how the tea trade across Siberia actually worked. Avery goes into fine detail regarding the history of tea cultivation; the evolution of the Chinese government’s tea monopoly; the developments in tea processing and shipping that allowed for transcontinental transport; and the various forms of measurement and valuation (as well as price-gouging and subterfuge, like shaving the corners of tea bricks or mixing the tea with twigs) that merchants on the Tea Road used on each other. Avery provides vivid descriptions of how tea was stored, packed and consumed. The most popular form of tea was in hard-packed bricks of dried leaves, which were initially made by rolling tea leaves tightly together inside hollow segments of bamboo. These bricks would then be stored in horse-hide bags; when it came time to brew it, flakes would be chipped off the brick and ground with a pestle before being added to boiling water and served with milk. These bricks were even used as currency or as collateral. There were, as well, different grades of tea, with the highest grades coming from specific plantations in northern Fujian (as indeed they still do). To a tea fan like yours truly, these are some of the more interesting parts of the book.

The political aspects of this book will also be of interest to readers, and problematic for anyone who wants to draw a neat-and-clean version of North Asian history with clear victims and villains. The œconomic and political nature of the Tibetan lamaseries and their specific rôle in granting theocratic legitimacy to the Mongolian khans in their rulership over the northern Silk Road route is noted. As is the competition between the Dalai Lamas and the Bogd Khans in favour of their respective political favourites. This rather deflates the ‘Shangri-La’ mythology of a pure and otherworldly spiritual kingdom at the top of the world wantonly destroyed by Chinese invasion. Likewise, although Avery clearly does sympathise rather strongly with her Mongolian hosts, she doesn’t paper over their historical flaws or missteps, particularly when it comes to political organisation and interactions with their neighbours. The interactions between Mongols, Manchus and Russians on the Central Asian steppes, the Mongolian gobi and the Siberian taiga are intriguing, but they are far from flattering – indeed, cultural misunderstandings and miscommunications between the three are not just a comic aside, but indeed form a significant part of the story.

A map of the Tea Road route, showing Kalgan, Urga, Kyakhta and Irkutsk

However, speaking of which… Avery herself says this in her introduction: ‘History is more a layered montage than a straight story, and cultural history does not follow a straight line. This book follows suit.’ Although the first sentence is and ought to be true for any honest historian, it is still a historian’s job to attempt to sort the layers and provide an interpretive lens for the reader for them to make some sort of sense of that history. One of the weaknesses of The Tea Road is that its ‘loosely geographic’ and ‘loosely chronological’ format tends to be a bit too loose, and Avery tends to go on long asides and tangents that cause the reader to lose track of the thread before she picks it up again. In many cases, as can be clearly seen above, these asides and tangents can be informative, illuminating and diverting. But even some of the interesting ones – like Avery’s careful exposition of the variegated and colourful etymologies of place-names, titles and terms of art on the Tea Road – lack a broader justification for themselves. This was somewhat frustrating to me. Although there is indeed a thematic progression in the book that loosely follows gæography and chronology, the deliberate shapelessness of Avery’s narrative often leaves the reader, at least in my case, asking himself: ‘okay, this is all very interesting… but why is it here?

Even so, for anyone interested in the history of northern Eurasia, this book is a valuable resource. It’s clear to anyone who reads it that it was a labour of love. It also contains such a colourful wealth of detail that the reader will assuredly come out of it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places, cultures and historical strands it describes. It should also provide some needed context for understanding modern Chinese and Russian business practices. Despite my occasional frustrations with the lack of direction in Avery’s prose, it was still very much a worthwhile read.

Resurrection Cathedral, Kyakhta

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.