Tag Archives: empires

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”


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.

Inbreeding depression


“Let others wage war. Thou, happy Austria, marry” (a description of Habsburg marriage policy)

Human inbreeding has both a genetic side (which favors outbreeding, at least within the species) and a political side which may favor a balance between outmarriage (to make new alliances), and in-marriage (to conserve old alliances, and keep land and honor within the family). The Habsburgs played the political game adroitly, putting together an enormous empire, partly by war, but partly by astute dynastic marriages. The Habsburg domains were so unwieldy that after the death of Charles V in 1558, they were divided between two branches of the family. Both sections were huge. The map below doesn’t even show the Habsburg possessions outside Europe, in Spanish America and the Far East.


By 1700, however, genetics caught up with the Habsburgs. The Spanish Habsburg line ended with Charles II, who was grossly disabled, physically and mentally. He was also impotent, and left no heirs. A recent calculation shows that, as a result of generation of in-marriage, Charles II had a coefficient of inbreeding of .254. For comparison, a child of full sibling incest will have a coefficient of inbreeding of .25!

Here’s a recent journal article, and discussions by Ed Yong and Razib Khan.

The world in 1600


World population, about 545 million

Pangaea reunited. In the century after 1492, Europeans mastered the winds and currents of the world’s oceans. The shock to the rest of the world would be comparable in some ways to the earlier shock resulting from the spread of nomadism on the Eurasian steppes. In the Americas, the immediate results were devastating, with the loss of most of the population to introduced diseases, helped along by conquest and enslavement. But the spread of new crops and animals in both directions also helped fuel a population boom in the Old World.

Mega-empires. In Eastern Europe and Asia, the results of European expansion by 1600 were less dramatic. There the landscape was dominated by huge empires: Russia, the Ottomans, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ming China. These have sometimes been called “gunpowder empires,” emphasizing the role of cannon in establishing centralized power. But they could also be considered the aftermath of the Mongol conquests, either arising from the overthrow of Mongol rule (Russia, China) or claiming direct Mongol descent (Mogul India). In other words, these empires developed in centrifugal fashion, with power collapsing at the old Mongol center, and new states arising along the Mongol marches.

Charlemagne + 800. Another centrifugal process took place in Western and Central Europe, on a smaller scale, over a longer period of time. As the Carolingian Empire disintegrated, new states arose along its marches, in Iberia, in France, England and Scandinavia, and in Eastern Germany, and neighboring Slavic territory, while the Western Germany and Northern Italy remained fragmented. By earlier Roman or Asian standards, medieval states in Europe, even when they controlled large areas, were feeble things. The state’s power to collect taxes had more or less collapsed, and Medieval monarchs were forced to concede substantial privileges to their subjects in exchange for their support. By 1600, however, military competition had produced more powerful absolutist states. Medieval liberties survived best in countries where military threats had been less intense, on islands (England and Scotland), on an isolated peninsula (Scandinavia), in the mountains (Switzerland) or soggy lowlands (Holland), or just far from the madding crowd (Poland).

Empires and barbarians


The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later.

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.