Tag Archives: China

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.

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 between Rome and China, 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 Sung dynasty that preceded Mongol rule. The Sung 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 for some reason. 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 largely disappeared.

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 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 2000 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, showing 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.

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 (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 someday 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 (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

118-221 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.

(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. 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.