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