Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Russian Worker: a review


One of the books I’ve been reading on my own time recently has been the volume The Russian Worker: Life and Labour under the Tsarist Regime, edited by Victoria Bonnell. This volume is valuable because it presents—in both short-fictional and nonfiction forms—a series of sketches which trace out the life patterns, ideals, motives and travails of Russian industrial factory, textile and service workers. It presents the viewpoints, often highly personalised and partial, of five Russian authors who enjoyed a close degree of familiarity with the lives of the Russian working class, either by being part of it or by long-standing close observation: SI Kanatchikov, P Timofeev, FP Pavlov, EA Oliulina and AM Gudvan.

Several different political perspectives are represented in this volume. Kanatchikov was a member of the Social Democrats, and later the Communist Party—becoming a convinced Marxist over time. Timofeev, originally a Social Democrat, later drifted toward the populist and agrarian-socialist SRs. Pavlov, as clearly evidenced in his narrative, is a reform-minded liberal in the manner of the Kadets. Less is known about the ideological inclinations of Oliulina and Gudvan at the time they undertook their studies, but both of them maintained their positions and later continued their work under the Soviet government. One of the benefits of The Russian Worker, therefore, is that we get to see the worker’s position from several different angles.

One notices similarities between post-1880 Russia and other developing countries during the initial stages of capitalist development. Many workers, like Kanatchikov, travelled into the cities from the rural villages to look for work, or were sent there by their parents. Others, like the ‘apprentice’ salesclerks mentioned in Gudvan’s essay, were essentially kidnapped from their villages (around poorer northern cities like Yaroslavl, Novgorod and Pskov) by black-market ‘middlemen’, where they were bought by store managers and essentially used as slave labour. In either case, the conditions which the average Russian worker had to endure were dangerous, unhealthy, cramped, squalid and abusive.


Most Russian workers were former peasants who had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. However, emancipation did not bring with it freedom in anything more than a bare legal sense—they received neither land nor money upon being ‘freed’. The owners of the urban factories took full advantage of this precarious position. Workers who came in from the village were very often ‘on their own’ when looking for work, as Timofeev describes. Many times they had to depend on favours from others from their home village in getting work. And villages themselves often depended on remittance income from their urban workers to survive. As such, workers didn’t often have savings sufficient to take care of themselves or advance.

Workers could have their pay docked for mistakes by the owner or the foreman, and often were docked for petty and arbitrary reasons. Foremen also had the prerogative to beat workers with their fists. Owners often withheld even the promised wage, which ranged from 70 kopecks to 1 ruble a day for most workers. Many workers were put to machines that did not have safety guards, and injuries and loss of digits or limbs were common. Many workers only had one set of clothes which they wore through the whole week. They would work anywhere between twelve and fourteen hours, even though the Tsarist government had legally capped the workday at a maximum of eleven hours. Workers’ living space and bedding was not cleaned or washed unless they did it themselves (something prohibitively difficult after long days on the factory floor), and as a result, vermin such as cockroaches and bedbugs were common.

Even the more respectable factories in Russia usually housed their workers in quasi-military barracks, on bunks with practically no other personal space. If the worker had a family, the family would also be housed in these barracks on bunks. Meals were served from a communal kitchen by the married workers’ wives, with the money for food being pooled by the ‘elder’ (often elected) of the factory artel’, who additionally had quasi-religious functions like assisting the factory priest and deacons at Liturgy or keeping the icon lamps lit. (In Timofeev’s telling, Old Believer workers were sometimes passed up for eldership in the artel’ for this reason.)

The artel’ would occasionally serve the same functions as a labour union, but was more often an extension of the rural collective obshchina or mir—the antique grassroots-communal organisation by which the free Russian peasantry had survived since at least the 1600s (and possibly many centuries before). The factory artel’, however, had very little bargaining power against the factory owners or directors. In addition to this, Timofeev describes how there was a pre-capitalist class divide between skilled workers (masterovoi) and unskilled workers (rabochii)—which was already being dissolved by the owners who wanted to reduce the compensation of the skilled workers in the factories. It seems the owners quickly understood that they needed the distinction between skilled and unskilled in order to retain control, so although the masterovoi were still considered rabochii, the former rabochii were called ‘black-workers’ (chernorabochii).

The factory directors themselves were a motley bunch. Many of them were of French or German extraction—it’s implied that their forebears were among the transplants brought to Russia by Peter I or Empress Catherine. Others were among the lucky few who managed to play the system of favours among foremen and assistant foremen, and came into their director’s position through marriage. The Russian directors were rarely better than the foreign ones—and in some respects they could be worse. Timofeev mentions factories owned by a Russian director from a particular village, which would only hire new workers from their home village and shut their floors to anyone else. If you were fired from another factory or down on your luck, you could give such factories a pass completely.

The commonalities between the factory directors, however, were that they tended to be greedy and callous—many of them would refuse to pay their workers in a timely fashion, and had to be begged or cajoled into it—and poorly educated. Pavlov complains about the almost universally low degree of literacy among factory directors, ascribing it to the nepotism and chance by which they were elevated to that status, in addition to an attitude amounting to: ‘why should I read books? I’ve got a factory to run!’. He describes the attitude of an archetypical factory director when an inspector tries to speak reason to him about conditions in his factory. The director simply tries to blame the workers themselves for the conditions, or complains about the expenses involved in the upkeep of his own equipment.

The spiritual condition, such as it could be called, of most workers, wasn’t much better. Without hope of advancement, and without entertainments of a more uplifting sort, most workers—both male and female—resorted to drink for an escape. ‘Blue Monday’ was often observed: a ritual in which entire factories and shops would shut down on account of factory-wide drinking binges in which foremen and owners would partake as well as the average workers on the floor. Venereal diseases, particularly syphilis, were common among workers. And—not that workers had much to gamble with anyway—games of chance with cards and dice were also popular.

Women had it worse than men. Oliunina describes that Russian women began to be draughted into the factories during the Russo-Japanese War, though they had been working in textile mills long before that. Women worked for pay that was significantly less—often only half as much—as men working at a similar job. They also required (so owners thought) less living space. They were treated often little better than children who were put to work. Oliunina’s description of female textile workers is depressing enough. She says that most women in textile-work developed drinking and smoking habits by the age of 25.


And Gudvan’s descriptions of women’s fate in clerical work are even more harrowing. Most women who entered clerical professions, particularly in pastry and clothing shops in urban settings, were hired based on their attractiveness, at a young age. Bosses in these shops particularly went after young, pretty, unmarried women… and their first ‘qualification’ for such jobs was their willingness to perform sexual services for their employer. Bosses often refused to pay their female employees even the legal minimum wage, and when these employees asked for what they were owed, their bosses often told them to go for an ‘evening stroll’ in order to make ends meet. Gudvan accounts that, though the number of undercompensated clerical workers engaged in prostitution in Western countries rarely exceeded 15% (a bad enough figure as it is), in Russia that number was a horrific 45%.

However, Kanatchikov notes that a significant but seminal sliver of the workers—perhaps two percent—used what meagre savings and spare time were left to them out of their twelve-, thirteen- or fourteen-hour workdays, in order to acquire articles and books. Kanatchikov mentions that the Russian workers in his artel’ were often engrossed by tabloid press like the Moscow Sheet, but that they also enjoyed plays like Bogdan Khmelnitskii, and poetry by Dante, Byron, Pushkin and Franko. Sometimes, particularly in Moscow and Petersburg, the artel’ would organise trips to art museums for the workers. More importantly, these workers were curious about news from outside Russia. Many of them read history and political theory—and many of these educated workers tended to gravitate to the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

This was one particularly interesting point of the book: this highlighted difference between workers’ aspirations and the stupidity and complacency of the (both transplanted and native-grown) bourgeoisie. It is never explicitly stated by any of the authors, but I could reasonably see this as being one of the primary factors behind the success of Russia’s three revolutions (1905, 1917 and 1918). The Russian urban owner class was completely unprepared for the rage of Russia’s recently- and partially-urbanised working class, fuelled by a faith in Marxian theory which was only lately ingested.


Another interesting point raised by the book, is that a great deal of the desire for social reforms favouring the workers came from within the Tsarist government itself. Pavlov, interestingly, describes in semi-fictional form an encounter between a factory inspector (an agent of the Tsar) and the director he worked for. The factory inspector, it is strongly implied, was formerly a worker himself, understood the relationship of the worker to his workplace, and sympathised with the worker’s troubles. In Pavlov’s account, the Tsar’s inspectors were often the ones to push for improved living conditions, for increases to the minimum wage, for timely and regular pay, for reduction in working hours to the legal maximum, and for upgrades to the factory machinery to make them safer to use. Intriguingly, Pavlov, a Kadet-style liberal reformist, places this agent of the Tsarist autocracy to the left of himself in terms of favouring the workers… in his own account, Pavlov tries (unsuccessfully) to strike a compromise between the director and the inspector.

However, Pavlov, Timofeev and Oliunina are all in seeming agreement that the Tsar’s reforms, attempts at government intervention, and appeals to the courts were ineffective. Timofeev sums it up pithily with a borrowed Chinese saying: ‘God is too high, and the Tsar is too far away.’ The issue with the Tsarist government, in Pavlov’s and Timofeev’s views, was not that it was reactionary, tyrannical and overbearing, or part-and-parcel with the capitalist machinery that was crushing the worker. Rather, the issue with the Tsar was that even his well-intentioned social reforms to improve the lot of Russia’s workers were insufficiently and irregularly enforced, leading to a mismatch between the laws on the books ostensibly put in place for workers’ protection, and the situation ‘on the ground’ in most workplaces. This fed into the frustrations that workers already had with the plight they were in, prior to the First World War.

Again, Bonnell’s book doesn’t really purport to be an exhaustive study of the plight of Russia’s workers before the Revolution—however, as source material for understanding Russia’s working class from a worker’s-eye view, it is invaluable to the English-language reader, and I highly recommend it for that purpose. It’s a text that sheds a great deal of light on the conditions that led up to the Russian Revolution, and has helped me revise and clarify certain key pieces of my own perspective on the question of ‘why Russia was first’ to embrace Marx’s theories.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why Governor Denny Tamaki won


My sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Denny Tamaki, the hapa haole governor of Okinawa, who was handily reelected to his post this past week. He easily defeated his challenger, the mayor of Ginowan Sakima Atsushi, who was backed by the right-wing Lib Dems and Komeitô. Tamaki won on a mandate to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, not to a new location inside Okinawa, but outside of Okinawa or outside of Japan altogether. Tamaki won the gubernatorial post by pretty much the same margin as he did in 2018, by about 80,000 votes. Also notable is that Governor Tamaki succeeded the late right honourable Governor Onaga Takeshi, who selected Tamaki to succeed him before his untimely death, and also ran on the same platform of opposition to US Marines presence in Okinawa. This shows that the US Marines are deeply and perennially unpopular on the archipelago. In order to understand why this is, three historical facts must first be taken into account.

The first fact is that Okinawa used to be its own independent country, the Kingdom of Ryûkyû [Lûchû]. It had its own language, its own customs, its own government. The Okinawan people, or Uchinanchu, are broadly agreed to have descended, much like the Ainu people of Hokkaidô, from the ancient indigenous Jômon culture which inhabited Japan in prehistory—prior to the influx, or invasion, of the Yayoi [or Yamato] people from the Korean peninsula, who are the ancestors of the modern Japanese culture.


The Okinawan people were unified under the Shô Dynasty in 1429, which received aid in that goal from Ming Dynasty China. The Shô kings ruled Okinawa as an independent nation until 1872, when the archipelago was subjugated and conquered by the newfangled Empire of Japan—an unbroken independent rule of over 400 years. For comparison’s sake: Okinawa was already its own nation with a sovereign king and an established culture, nearly two centuries before the first Fujian settlers set foot on the island of Taiwan (which was of course already inhabited by Indigenous people—Indigenous people who, by the way, by and large do not support Taiwanese independence from China… but that is another topic).

Okinawa was subject to the same humiliating forced-assimilation techniques that were used on their Ainu cousins to the north. Japanese rule brought with it a public education system that systematically forbade the use of the Ryûkyûan language. Ryûkyûan dress was mocked and ridiculed as outdated, feudal, Sinitic. Schoolchildren who used their own native tongue were shamed by hanging ‘hôgen fuda’ placards around their necks while their teachers and fellow-students hurled abuse at them. Okinawa also bore the brunt of the Japanese Empire’s constant push to expand. The island archipelago was a natural staging ground for Japanese invasions of the Asian mainland. Conscription policies were harsher on Okinawa than elsewhere, and Okinawan society was flooded with militaristic propaganda and soldiers from the big island. At least 500 Okinawan women are recorded serving as ‘comfort women’ to the Japanese forces, alongside the much more numerous cohorts of Korean and Chinese sex slaves.


The second historical fact to be considered is that Okinawa has always borne the costs of war between Japan and its neighbours. Okinawa was the site of the only major land battle on Japanese territory in the Pacific theatre of WWII, and in that battle over 200,000 people were killed, including anywhere between 100,000 and 160,000 civilians. Throughout the battle the Okinawan civilian population was horrifically abused and slaughtered by both sides. The Allied forces treated the women of Okinawa in much the same way occupying soldiers treated the women of occupied territories throughout that war in each theatre. There were over 10,000 documented cases of rape committed by Allied GIs against Okinawan women during the 84 days of fighting. Many Okinawan girls committed suicide rather than be captured, tortured and bodily defiled by the Allies. But there, they had little choice: those who tried to surrender to the Allied forces were usually shot and killed anyway by Japanese soldiers who were embedded among the population. And the Imperial Japanese Army, shameless in their hideous brutality as they had been throughout the war, even against ‘their own’, had absolutely no qualms about using Okinawan civilians, including schoolgirls, as human shields against the Allies.

Even after the war was over, Okinawa still was forced to bear the costs. Despite FDR discussing with Chiang Kai-shek the possibility of Okinawan sovereignty in 1943 (either fully or in part under the Republic of China), Harry Truman immediately and unilaterally reneged on any such intentions. From 1945 all the way up until 1972, Okinawa was essentially a military dictatorship under the ‘trusteeship’ of the United States Army. (Japan’s sovereignty returned 20 years before, in 1952.) The Army dictatorship appointed governors for the island which (with one exception lasting all of five days) were drawn from the US Army brass.


Just as the IJA had done, the US Army used Okinawa as a military staging ground for its operations on the Asian mainland, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The US Army seized arable land from the local residents for the purpose of building bases, forcibly evicting as many as 250,000 Okinawans from their homes and farms during the 1950s alone. And once they were established on the islands, they behaved toward the local population exactly as the Japanese imperialists had done. Okinawans were treated as second-class. Although they lived in what was officially a US territory, they had no rights as US citizens or even residents. Neither were they allowed to travel freely between Okinawa and Japan without a special permit. The military bases in Okinawa brought increases in noise and crime (particularly sexual crimes against Okinawan women), and many of the evicted Okinawans, bereft of their means of subsistence, lived under conditions of starvation and intense economic deprivation.

The American military presence on Okinawa, the effects on the local population and the propinquity of the GIs led many Uchinanchu to protest and resist the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The global counterculture and anti-war movement distinctly touched Okinawa. The Koza Uprising of 1970 is one direct example of this. During this time particularly, music became a focus for asserting a distinct Okinawan identity, as well as voicing political protest. Many musicians in Okinawa, from Miyanaga Eiichi to Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, have engaged in peace activism and protests against military presence in Okinawa.


The third historical fact that must be remembered may be summed up in William Faulkner’s famous quip that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. The US bases in Okinawa are still foci of abuses and crimes against the Uchinanchu. There was one particularly gruesome incident in 1995 involving three US Marines assaulting and violating a twelve-year-old girl; and another high-profile rape-murder in 2016 committed by another former US Marine who worked on the base. But this is probably only the tip of the iceberg; according to The Intercept, between 2017 and 2019 the NCIS investigated eight separate incidences of sexual assault and misconduct by American servicemen—and then covered them all up, not reporting them to the relevant local or Japanese authorities, and not even reporting them to Congress as American law requires.

Okinawans are aware of, and justly incensed by, all of these incidents… which is why they keep electing anti-base politicians like Denny Tamaki. Governor Tamaki himself is the son of an Uchinanchu woman and a US Marine who left him and his mother before he was born: in his person, he symbolises much of Okinawa’s predicament and the way in which its history and identity have been shaped by occupation. Modern Okinawan artists like sanshin player Uema Ayano, and authors like Shun Medoruma, as well as the aforementioned Miyanagi Eiichi, Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, also give voice to the deep desire of Okinawan people for disarmament and peace with their neighbours, as well as the sense of anger that most residents of Okinawa still justly feel over their treatment over one and a half centuries of what they still justly consider to be foreign occupation. It is my hope personally, that Governor Denny Tamaki is given the opportunity to follow through on his proposals, and benefit the Okinawan people by the demilitarisation of his native islands.

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.