Tag Archives: China

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 just under 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. It recovers toward the end of the century, but in a 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. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (Friday, 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.)


Enjoy it while it lasts

99-204 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 eventually forget their identity as Gauls, and become Romans.


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.


State patriarchy and the Ancient City

677-539 BCE

The period leading up to historical times saw the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and maybe some transitions from matrilineal descent) across Eurasia. Different civilizations found different ways of accommodating these groups. In China, patrilineal clans go as far back as we have any historical records, back to the Shang dynasty. Confucius (551-479 BCE) in some ways represented a break with this past. He thought a wise prince should select ministers based on their ability rather than their lineage. But China could never be governed by bureaucrats alone, and Chinese states found themselves depending on extended families and clans to help rule the country. The Confucian state exalted filial piety, obedience to one’s elders, and ancestor worship along with obedience to the Emperor. When an official told Confucius “In my country there is an upright man named Kung. When his father stole a sheep, Kung bore witness against him,” Confucius replied, “The upright men in my community are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son. The son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” The resulting social compact – Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist of China calls it “state patriarchy” – was extraordinarily resilient. In days to come we will see how it kept bouncing back from one disruption after another, like one of those heavy-bottomed dolls you just can’t keep knocked over.

By contrast, the classical city-states of Greece and Rome went through a series of social revolutions early in their history where both kings and patrilineages lost their exalted position. This argument was developed back in the nineteenth century by the French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. In his book The Ancient City, Fustel showed how ancestor worship and clan loyalty gave way to civic institutions. For example in Athens the democratic reformer Cleisthenes (570-508) replaced old-style subdivisions of the populace based on descent with new subdivisions based on residence. For a time, the classical city-state commanded intense loyalty from its citizens, and displayed an exceptionally high level of military effectiveness.

China’s revolution against the old order of elders, extended family, and clan waited until the twentieth century, and took a horrific toll on the population. Even today some of the old ways persist. The putative patrilineal descendants of Confucius, more than two million strong, have recently been updating their genealogies.

The world at 1000 BCE

Logarithmic History today covers 1000-835 BCE. Here’s a quick look at the world around 1000 BCE

The world population is about 50 million.

The Bantu expansion is just beginning, from a homeland on the present Nigeria/Cameroon border. It will eventually cover most of Africa south of the equator. The expansion is sometimes told as a story of first farmers replacing hunter-gatherers. But, as with the Indo-European expansion, this now looks to be too simple. Other farmers and herders reached east Africa before the Bantu; traces of their languages survive as eastern Bantu substrates. So the Bantu had something extra – social organization? malaria resistance? – going for them.

Seafarers with roots in the Lapita culture have already reached Western Polynesian – Samoa and Tonga, previously uninhabited.

The Olmec are flourishing in Meso-America. A controversial find (the Cascajal block) suggests they are just taking up writing.

In China, the Mandate of Heaven has passed from the Shang Dynasty to the Zhou.

In the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, the Late Bronze Age collapse has opened up space for smaller states. Tyre and other Phoenician city-states are sailing the Mediterranean. Phoenicians using an alphabet that Greeks will eventually adapt. Further south, Philistines and Israelites have been duking it out, with Israelites gaining the upper hand under David* (king from 1010 to 970 BCE). The Iron Age conventionally begins now, with the widespread use of iron – more abundant and cheaper than bronze.

On the steppe, horses have long been domesticated, but people are now learning to make effective use of cavalry – fighting in formation and firing volleys from horseback. This is the beginning of 2500 years in which the division between Steppe and Sown will be central to Eurasian history.

* Everybody knows that David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17). However, according to 2 Samuel 21:19, Goliath was killed by Elhanan of Bethlehem. Probably the Elhanan story is the original one, and the whole David-and-Goliath story amounts to later resume-padding on the part of David at the expense of a subordinate. See The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero for this and other demonstrations of how we can recover likely truths from historical texts.

Half the sky

April 1946-February 1951

Chinese state patriarchy – the alliance of the Emperor and his bureaucrats 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. 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 Communist Party 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.


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.


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