Tag Archives: China

Half the sky

February 1949 – October 1953

Chinese state patriarchy – the alliance of the Emperor and his officials with patrilineal extended families and clans and patriarchal authority, under the sign of Confucius – was extraordinarily resilient. Over the course of several thousand years, it bounced back again and again in the face of foreign invasions, and neutered potentially disturbing influences like Buddhism and Christianity and the growth of mercantile wealth. It was finally severely weakened, if not quite eliminated, in the twentieth century. Chinese intellectuals, including the student reformers of the May 4th movement, regarded the traditional Chinese family system as a source of backwardness, which would have to be overthrown for China to take its rightful place among the world’s powers. After the Chinese Communists took over in 1949, they promulgated a revolutionary new marriage law (1950), which stated, in part

The feudal marriage system, which is based on arbitrary and compulsory arrangements and the superiority of man over women and ignores the children’s interests, shall be abolished.

The New Democratic marriage system, which is based on the free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women and children shall be put into effect.

Bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the re-marriages of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriages, shall be prohibited.

Marriage shall be based on the complete willingness of the two parties. Neither party shall use compulsion, and no third party shall be allowed to interfere.

(The law, however, allowed traditional rules of exogamy to stand. These required people to marry outside their clan.) A campaign began, launched in 1953, to enforce the new law. The Communists in China would prove willing to use extraordinary violence to attack old ways, including a kinship system that stood in the way of new forms of state power.



We’re now doing one decade per day on the blog.

The Taiping rebellion in China began in 1850 and was finally put down in 1864. It was led by a former school teacher who discovered, after repeatedly failing his civil service exams, that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, destined to bring China over to his own brand of Christianity.

The rebellion was by far the most destructive conflict in the nineteenth century. It illustrates a general characteristic of Chinese history: Chinese wars were fewer but more destructive than European ones. China was unified for most of the past two millennia, governed by dynasties which established peace for long periods of time, among a huge population, over a vast area. But when things fell apart in China, whether from invasions (usually involving steppe nomads) or internal rebellions, vast numbers of people died. Here’s a chart comparing estimated numbers of war deaths for major wars Europe (red) and China (blue)  between 1 and 1800 CE. China’s population during this period was somewhat less than twice that of Europe, so even per capita, China’s military catastrophes were more demographically catastrophic than Europe’s.


The Taiping rebellion comes too late to show up on the chart, but cost the lives of about 20 million people.

After the plague


The establishment of the Mongol khanate resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (40 million is a common guess). There was some recovery in population once the empire was in place, and new opportunities opened up for trade across the Eurasian steppe. But, just as with the earlier trade involving Rome, China, and the Indian Ocean,, there were also new opportunities for microbes to spread. The Black Death probably killed even more of the world’s population than the Mongols. Western Europe, spared Mongol invasion, lost perhaps a third of its population to the plague in the fifteenth century.

In China, the plague probably struck Mongols even worse than Chinese, and coincided with the overthrow of Mongol rule and establishment of a native dynasty. The new dynasty, the Ming, was more authoritarian than the native Song dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Song state got most of its revenues from taxes on trade, internal and external, and was solicitous of mercantile interests. The Ming returned to the more traditional practice of getting most of its revenues from taxing the peasantry; it returned as well to the traditional Confucian distrust of merchants. State patriarchy in China had earlier resisted the disruptive influence of ascetic religion; now it resisted the disruptive influence of mercantile wealth.

In Eastern Europe, two states did well during this period: the Ottoman sultanate and Poland. The Ottomans expanded into both Anatolia and the Balkans. And Poland, which had been defeated, but not subjugated, by the Mongols, mostly avoided the plague somehow. It would go on to occupy a huge chunk of Eastern Europe. But below the level of states and empires, something else was going on. Aristocracies in Eastern Europe responded to the loss of population by intensifying serfdom, binding peasants ever more firmly to their estates. Eventually the “second serfdom” east of the Elbe would be far more intense than the first serfdom of the medieval West had ever been.

In Western Europe by contrast, the loss of population in the Black Death helped to end serfdom. At first, European aristocrats, like their eastern counterparts, tried to prevent workers from taking advantage of the law of supply and demand. The Statute of Laborers in England (1349-51) complained that

The servants, having no regard … but to their ease and singular covetousness, do withdraw themselves from serving great men and others, unless they have livery and wages double or treble of what they were wont to take … to the great damage of the great men and impoverishment of all the commonalty.

The Statute forbade servants and small-holders from taking higher wages. But these efforts largely collapsed by the end of the century, partly thanks to the economic and political clout of West European cities, which had no stake in seeing peasants tied to their lords. Aristocrats would continue to hang onto their lands and rents, but serfdom would largely disappear.

Homo hierarchicus


The Rajatrangini (River of Kings) is a history of Kashmir, dating to about 1150. A striking thing about it is that it is pretty much the only work in Sanskrit that clearly qualifies as history. Other material about the past in traditional Hindu India is heavily mythological, or limited to genealogies and chronicles, and contains virtually no dates. The paucity of historical works in pre-Muslim India is striking, given that the country has an impressive intellectual tradition, with important achievements in mathematics, linguistics, literature, and literary theory. Hindu India is very different in this respect from China, where there is a rich historical record and the study of history, and the lessons of history, has been a major intellectual concern for millennia.

Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has worked in Southeast Asia. He became curious about why some Southeast Asian societies seem to have been more interested than others in developing an accurate understanding of the past. His eventual conclusion, after reviewing evidence from many societies, is that historical consciousness is underdeveloped in societies with closed, hereditary systems of stratification. India of course is famously a caste society. True, there are scholars who argue that Indian caste-consciousness has been exaggerated by Western Orientalists bent on making the place seem exotic. But recent DNA evidence shows that high levels of caste endogamy have been characteristic of India for at least 1500 years. And in economist Gregory Clark’s recent analyses of surnames and social stratification in a number of societies, India is an outlier, with exceptionally enduring associations between surnames and social class, reflecting the caste system. (Kashmir may have been an atypical part of India in this regard.)

In societies with hereditary ruling elites and caste-like social stratification, according to Brown, history is an inconvenience. The preference (at least out in public – people may talk differently in private) is for mythological accounts of caste origins that link caste hierarchy to the order of the cosmos. There are other differences as well associated closed versus open hierarchies. Individual personality receives less attention in societies with closed hierarchies; behavior is explained by role, office, and social category. The art of biography is less developed. Closed societies are less interested in divination (presumably you don’t need a fortune teller to know what your future holds). The differences extend even to visual art: closed societies show less interest in realistic portraiture; artists depict types rather than individuals. In sum, there is a real difference, Brown argues, between historical knowledge and ideology, and caste-like societies generate more of the latter.

In addition to India vs. China, other closed vs. open pairs of societies in Brown’s review include Egypt vs. Mesopotamia+Israel, Sparta vs. Athens, Early vs. Imperial Rome, Medieval West vs. Islam+Byzantium, and Venice vs. Florence.

Donald Brown also wrote Human Universals, a book that argues, against a strong tradition of cultural relativism in anthropology, that there is a wide assortment of cultural universals.

And Donald Brown is also co-author of The Penis Inserts of Southeast Asia, a short book about the penis inserts of Southeast Asia.

A cycle of Cathay

The innovations which make their appearance in East Asia round about the year 1000 … form such a coherent and extensive whole that we have to yield to the evidence: at this period, the Chinese world experienced a real transformation. … The analogies [with the European Renaissance] are numerous – the return to the classical tradition, the diffusion of knowledge, the upsurge of science and technology (printing, explosives, advance in seafaring techniques, the clock with escapement …), a new philosophy, and a new view of the world. … There is not a single sector of political, social or economic life in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries which does not show evidence of radical changes in comparison with earlier ages. It is not simply a matter of a change of scale (increase in population, general expansion of production, development of internal and external trade) but of a change of character. Political habits, society, the relations between town and country, and economic patterns are quite different from what they had been. … A new world had been born.

Jacques Gernet. A History of Chinese Civilization, pp. 298-300

Scholars contemplating the sweeping economic, social, and political transformation of China under the Song dynasty (960-1279) seem compelled to draw analogies with later dramatic occurrences in Europe – with the Renaissance (as in the quote above) or with the Economic Revolution in England on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.

The changes are dramatic. Population roughly doubles, from about 50 million to about 100 million. Cities grow. Both internal and external trade boom. The division of labor advances, with different households and different parts of the country specializing in “goods such as rice, wheat, lighting oil, candles, dyes, oranges, litchi nuts, vegetables, sugar and sugarcane, lumber, cattle, fish, sheep, paper, lacquer, textiles and iron.” In a number of fields of technology – iron production, shipbuilding – China reaches heights which the West will not attain for many centuries.

With changes in the economy come changes in the relation between society and state. Taxes come to be mostly collected in cash rather than kind, Eventually revenues from taxes on commerce, including excise taxes and state monopolies, will greatly exceed those from land tax. A Council of State will put constitutional checks on the power of the emperor.

Yet Imperial China will ultimately follow a different, less dramatic developmental pathway than Europe. Some reasons why:

The nomad brake. By 1000, Western Europe has largely tamed its barbarians, folding them into a settled, stratified, Christian society. But the civilized folk bordering the Eurasian steppe, in Eastern Europe and continental Asia, are in for a rougher ride. During the whole Song period, China faces a threat from nomads to the north. In the Northern Song period (960-1126), the Khitan empire, founded by steppe nomads, occupies Mongolia, Manchuria, and part of northern China. In the Southern Song period (1127-1279), the Song lose all of northern China to a new barbarian dynasty, the Jin. Finally, the Song dynasty ends when all of China is conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his heirs, with the loss of about a third of the population. For all the wealth and sophistication of the Song, the succeeding native Chinese dynasty, the Ming, does not regard them as a model to be emulated.

Rice economics. Rice is the main food crop in southern China, the most populous and developed part of the country. Here’s a basic fact about rice versus wheat production (hat-tip pseudoerasmus): diminishing marginal returns to labor are less pronounced with rice than wheat. In other words, with rice, you can produce a lot more if you’re willing to put in a lot more work. With wheat, you more quickly reach a point where additional labor yields little additional production. This simple fact has far-reaching implications. Imagine an economy with two sectors, agriculture and manufacturing. And imagine that population expands up to a Malthusian limit. Under these assumptions, and given standard economic reasoning, it makes a big difference whether the principal crop is rice or wheat. With rice (diminishing marginal returns less pronounced), equilibrium population density is greater, output per capita is less, and more of the labor force is in agriculture, less in manufacturing.

So an economic model incorporating information about labor productivity of rice and wheat seems to account for some basic differences between China and the West. But rice cultivation may have more subtle implications.

Rice psychology. An older generation of humanist scholars was willing to generalize about Chinese thinking.

It is quite clear to all those who have been in contact with this world that it is quite different from the one in which we ourselves have been moulded. … China does not know the transcendent truths, the idea of good in itself, the notion of property in the strict sense of the term. She does not like the exclusion of opposition, the idea of the absolute, the positive distinction of mind and matter; she prefers the notions of complementarity, or circulation, influx, action at a distance, of a model, and the idea of order as an organic totality. … Chinese thought does not proceed from an analysis of language. It is based on the handling of signs with opposing and complementary values.

Gernet p. 29

Within the social sciences, sweeping pronouncements like this are suspect. To hard-headed materialists and quants they look hopelessly impressionistic and unscientific. To post-colonialist critical theorists, they reek of old-fashioned, condescending Orientalism. But there is now a substantial body of research demonstrating real differences in cognitive style across cultures, and between the West and China (and other East Asian societies), in line with the quotation above.

Of note here: there is also regional variation within China. Rice paddy farming requires high levels of cooperation, including joint work keeping up irrigation systems, and reciprocal labor exchanges. And research shows that there are differences in psychology as well between wheat and rice growing regions in China. Chinese from rice growing regions are more inclined to holistic, context dependent thinking. Chinese from wheat growing regions have a more independent, individualizing cognitive style. In other words, the expansion of rice cultivation in China may have reinforced some of its characteristic cognitive inclinations.

In conclusion: the history of the Song period poses in particularly clear form the “Needham puzzle” of why the Industrial Revolution did not originate in China. The answer, it seems, is complicated, combining (at least) political and social responses to external threat, the nature of agricultural economies, and more intangible (but still measurable) differences in cognitive style.

Plagues and peoples


Every day on Logarithmic History we cover an interval 5.46% shorter than the preceding day. From covering the first 754 million years after the Big Bang on January 1, we’re down to one century worth of history today.

And it’s a bad century for both Rome and China. Rome goes through an economic crisis, with a huge currency devaluation. Political life goes to hell too. From 235-284 there are 20 Emperors; 18 of them die violently. The Roman Empire experiences multiple, destructive invasions by barbarians. Previously under the Pax Romana, most of the cities of the Empire, including Rome, had been unwalled; now there is a spate of wall-building. The empire recovers toward the end of the century, but in a more heavily militarized and authoritarian form. And in China the Han dynasty disappears entirely after 220, to be replaced by three kingdoms of barbarian origin.

This coincidence of catastrophes may be more than just bad luck. Put it this way: If we look at the Big Picture, going way back on our calendar, and turning for a moment from human history to the evolution of life, we can summarize biological evolution since the Cambrian as:

but …

  • Now and then, a physical catastrophe punctuates the history of life, causing mass extinctions, from which living things slowly recover.

Returning to human history, we can summarize social evolution since the adoption of agriculture as:

  • A process of escalation, in which conflicts between rival groups (matrilineal and patrilineal kin groups, empires, and – we will see – major religions) are drivers of increasing social complexity …


  • Now and then, a biological catastrophe – in the form of an epidemic of some new disease – punctuates human history, causing major population losses, and often political and social collapse as well (i.e. the “germs” in Guns, Germs and Steel).

One such catastrophe contributed to the collapse of New World societies in the face of Old World diseases after 1492. But the Old World too must have had its own earlier catastrophes as the great killer diseases – the diseases of civilization that need a minimum population to keep going – established themselves.

Epidemic disease may have made a major contribution to the fall of Rome and of Han China. Rome suffered two massive epidemics, one from 165-180, another from 251-266. It’s plausible (and some day geneticsts will tell us whether it’s true or not) that these epidemics represent the arrival of smallpox and measles in the West. There is also evidence from the current distribution of tuberculosis strains that the expansion of the Roman Empire, and trade across borders, helped to spread this disease. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (Saturday, October 13). There may be a similar story to tell about China, also stricken by epidemics at this time. The opening of the Silk Road and of trade across the Indian Ocean allowed precious goods and new ideas to travel between civilizations. It also opened the way for lethal microorganisms.

In addition to “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a classic book here is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples. For the Roman empire, more up-to-date, and with a wealth of information, is The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire.

Enjoy it while it lasts

101-205 CE

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian [96 CE] to the accession of Commodus [180 CE]. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 3

Gibbon doesn’t include China in this assessment of the state of the world, but for that country too, under the Eastern Han dynasty, there was a period of stability and prosperity, lasting from the death of the usurper Wang Mang in 24 CE to the outbreak of the Yellow Turban peasant uprising in 184 CE. During this time, the Roman and Han empires so completely dominated their respective portions of Eurasia that they enjoyed relative peace. Toward the end of the second century CE, both empires had populations around 50-60 million; world population was perhaps 190 million. In the succeeding centuries both empires would experience major population declines and political collapse. As a result, the world’s total population may have declined as well.

Of course Gibbon’s view is a retrospective one, and didn’t anticipate the vast rise in standards of living that eventually followed the industrial revolution.

(After this I’ll give dates as numbers without the “CE”.)

Mirror empires

After centuries of division into warring states, China was united in 221 BCE, under the short-lived Qin and then the long-lived Han dynasties. (Here’s a dynamic map showing the process of unification.) Just a few years later, in 209 BCE, the nomads of the steppe north of China were united under the Xiongnu confederation.

China, like Rome, provides an instance of empire formation along a metaethnic frontier between civilized and barbarian peoples. But it also differs from the Roman case. The Roman frontier kept pushing into barbarian territory for many centuries. The descendants of Asterix and Obelisk would largely forget their identity as Gauls, and become Romans, speaking a dialect of Latin.


But in the Far East, the steppe north of China would not support agriculture, and the people who lived there would continue their nomad way of life and retain a separate ethnic identity. For centuries after 221 BCE, China held off the barbarians by a combination of military measures (notably of course the Great Wall) and bribery (poorly disguised as “gifts” from Emperor to subject). The Xiongnu held together as a centralized state because their ruler managed the flow of trade and tribute from China. In effect, Qin/Han and Xiongnu were “mirror empires,” facing off across the line between Sown and Steppe.


The way and the word, continued

Continuing yesterday’s post: What accounts for the differences between classical Greek and early Chinese intellectual traditions? Below are a few things that might be involved; this is hardly a complete list.

Non-degenerate limit random variables

Here’s a nice little puzzle involving probability:

Take a bag with two marbles in it, one red and one green. Draw a marble at random. Put it back in the bag, and add another marble of the same color. Repeat: randomly draw one of the (now three) marbles in the bag, put it back, and again add a marble of the same color. Continue, adding a marble every time. What happens to the frequency of red marbles as the number of marbles in the bag goes to infinity?

Answer: When you carry out this procedure, the frequency approaches a limit. As the number of marbles grows larger, you sooner or later get, and stay, arbitrarily close to the limit. Now carry out the same infinite procedure a second time. This time you also approach a limit. But the limit this time is different! The first time, the limiting frequency might be .23748… . The second time it might be .93334… . If you keep on doing the infinite experiment a bunch of times, you’ll approach a different limit every time, with the various limits uniformly distributed over the interval [0,1]. These are non-degenerate limits. This is different from what you get when you flip a fair coin infinitely many times. The frequency of heads will always approach the same “degenerate” limit, .50000… .

A chance element like this is probably involved in the intellectual traditions of major civilizations. The first few great thinkers to come along have a massive influence on the direction of intellectual life, just as picking a red or green ball on the first round makes a big difference to the final limit. So Pythagoras’ and Plato’s obsessions with numbers and geometry as the keys to the universe have a disproportionate influence on later Western thought. Subsequent thinkers have progressively less and less influence, just as picking a green or red ball when there are already a hundred balls in the bag doesn’t make much difference in the ultimate limiting frequency.


But there may be more systematic things going on. Daniel Freedman was a psychologist, white, married to a Chinese-American woman. While awaiting the birth of their first child, the couple found that relatives on the two sides of the family had very different ideas about how newborns behave. Freedman was sufficiently intrigued that he carried out an investigation of assorted newborns in a San Francisco hospital, including babies of Chinese and European origin.

It was almost immediately apparent that Chinese and Caucasian babies were indeed like two different breeds. Caucasian babies started to cry more easily, and once started they were more difficult to console. Chinese babies adapted to almost any position in which they were placed.. … In a similar maneuver … we briefly pressed the baby’s nose with a cloth, forcing him to breathe with his mouth. Most Caucasian and black babies fight this … by immediately turning away or swiping at the cloth. However … the average Chinese baby in our study … simply lay on his back, breathing from his mouth. … Chinese babies were … more amenable and adaptable to the machinations of the examiners. p. 146

This might seem like a minor curiosity, but it fits neatly with later work demonstrating East-West differences in adult cognitive styles. This raises the possibility that differences in temperament evident at a very early age might influence the evolution of intellectual traditions.


Coined money apparently initially appeared in Lydia, in Asia Minor, around 600 BCE. It was quickly taken up by the Lydians’ Ionian Greek neighbors. And it is in Ionia too that we find the earliest philosophers. In Money and the Early Greek Mind, Richard Seaford argues that these developments are connected. The monetization of the Greek economy accustomed Greeks to the idea that a common impersonal material measure of value, relatively independent of individual control, underlay the multifarious goods and services produced by the polis economy. This led in turn to the pre-socratic philosophers, who were obsessed with finding the one impersonal natural element – water, air, number – of which the whole heterogeneous variety of the natural world was made.

In Athens, the expansion of a monetary economy led to a curious insultopsophagos, or fish-eater. What made this an insult is that fish were sold in the marketplace. They were a mere commodity, free of the ritual and taboos that surrounded the sacrifice and distribution of animal flesh. The fish-eater was a rich man indulging the pleasures of consumption free from the constraints of tradition and decorum. And his conspicuous consumption offended not only tradition but the spirit of democracy. Better that he spend his wealth on the public good.

In traditional China, by contrast, coins, and later paper money, would challenge but never break the hold of state patriarchy. And Spartans too recognized the subversive potential of money. Sparta used iron bars for money, precisely because they were inconvenient.

The way and the word

387-256 BCE

Over the course of the mid to late first millennium BCE,, Greeks and Chinese developed impressive intellectual traditions that would profoundly influence later civilization. These traditions differed a lot. In content:

The fundamental concepts at play in Greece and China were strikingly dissimilar. The Greeks focused on nature and on elements, concepts that seem familiar and obvious to those educated in modern science.  They invented the concept of nature to serve distinct polemical purposes – to define their sphere of competence as new-style investigators and to underline the superiority of naturalistic views to … traditional beliefs. … Chinese investigators had a very different set of fundamental concerns, not nature and the elements, but the tao, ch’i, yinyang, and the five phases. Where Greek inquirers strove to make a reputation for themselves as new-style Masters of Truth, most Chinese Possessors of the Way, had a very different program, namely to advise and guide rulers. … To that end they … redefined existing concepts … to produce a synthesis in which heaven, earth, society, and the human body all interacted to form a single resonant universe.

Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin. The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, p. 241

And in style of engagement:

Ancient Greek culture encouraged disagreement in natural philosophy and science as in every other field; the Chinese emphasized consensus. Success in debate was how you made your name in Greece, in a way that has no analogue in China.

Ibid. p.  247

What accounts for these differences? A few thoughts tomorrow.