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Were the Manchus nomads?


In a seminar last week, Martin Hall, my colleague here at Lund U, presented a paper on state-making among the nomads on the steppes of Central Asia. In the course of the discussion, Martin mentioned that “the Manchu were not nomads.” “What,” I said, “the Manchu were not nomads? Everyone knows the Manchu were nomads!” “No,” Martin insisted, “they were not.”

Why did I think the Manchu were nomads? Two reasons really.  First of all since I took it for granted that all the various peoples living to the north and west of China itself were nomadic. Of course there were some, such as the Xixia, Jin or the Liao, who formed states during the Song period. Since they formed proper states they must have been predominantly sedentary, but I always thought of this as a “sinification” of what originally were nomadic tribes. Secondly, and most importantly, since the Manchu emperors of China always invoked nomadic traditions in their rhetoric — horse-back riding, archery and all that stuff.

So was Martin right? Well, as so often it depends on how we define the terms. The word “Manchu” itself was invented only in 1636 — once the invasion of China already was under way — and it was a political rather than an ethnic identity. More than anything it was used as a way for the leaders to rally various groups of people behind a common cause. Ethnically speaking, the Manchu were predominantly made up of Jürchen. By the Chinese authorities, the Jurchen had always been divided into three separate tribes of which the Yeren Jürchen — known as the “wild Jürchen” — were nomadic and the other two tribes were not. The sedentary Jürchen lived in villages north-east of Ming China, but they seem to have been more occupied with trade — in pearls, fur, and above all in ginseng — than with agriculture. All three Jürchen tribes descended from the Tungus people who were “sedentarized” some time in the 11th century, but hunting and fishing remained important occupations for all of them. I guess there was no other way to survive on the steppe.

China, we should remember, was overrun by an army and not by an ethnic group. The army was referred to as the “Eight Banners.” It was based on cavarly and archers, and was organized — much as the Mongol army of Genghis Khan — with the explicit purpose of uniting previously feuding factions. There were a lot of Mongols in the Eight Banners, together with Koreans and various nomadic peoples of the steppes. In fact, there were Han Chinese deserters and frontiersmen in the army too. The “Manchus” were more than anything the name for this military force, and the new rulers always counted themselves as its descendants. When the Qing dynasty emperors claimed an identity for themselves, they would always refer to this military legacy, including its strong nomadic elements.

There is first-rate scholarship on all of this, including: Mark Elliot, Evelyn Rawski and Pamela Crossley. Btw, the photo above is from an amazing web page on Manchu archery.

Seminars are a great way to learn things. Especially if we make our points clearly and take the opportunity to disagree with each other.

Triumphs in Palmyra

It seems ignorance and barbarism are about to triumph in Palmyra. It makes sense. ISIS’s version of the caliphate will always be an outrage for anyone who knows anything at all about history. Not even the Almohad  Caliphate was this bad. Yesterday they destroyed the triumphal arches in Palmyra, Syria, erected by the Romans in the 2nd century CE to celebrate their victory against the Persians. Previously ISIS have destroyed temples dedicated to Baal, a god of pre-Islamic Syria, which they regarded as idolatrous, but the triumphal arches have no religious significance. In fact, if ISIS had known more about history, they might have realized that they and the Romans both have the Persians as their common enemy.

Today’s New York Times reports the story: “ISIS Destroys Triumphal Arches in Palmyra, Syria.”

A photo such as the one below reminds me of what it must have looked like when the Europeans destroyed the Yuanmingyuan. There must be a place in hell reserved for people who behave this way.

Stampedes in Mecca

Very distressing images from the pilgrimage to Mecca this morning — over 700 were killed in a stampede at Mina, east of the city.  More here.  The tragedy occured during the “stoning of the devil” ceremony which forms a part of the series of ritual events all pilgrims are supposed to perform. The ceremony commemorates Abraham, the patriarch, who in the Muslim tradition visited Mecca on a hajj, pilgrimage, and was tempted by the devil. The devil appeared three times and Abraham threw seven stones at him each time. Symbolically, the stones are thrown at any one who dominates and tempts us — a political leader perhaps, or our own unruly selves.

The problem with stampedes occur since the location where the ritual is to be performed is unable to hold the enormous crowds that gather and since tradition has it that the last stone throwing should take place immediately after noon on the last day of the hajj. Religious scholars insist, however, that this is not necessary. In recent years the Saudi authorities have widened the bridge from which the stones are thrown and replaced the pillars that originally served as a target with a wall which is easier to hit and which stops the stones from hitting other pilgrims. Clearly, these efforts are not sufficient. In 2006, some 346 people were killed and and in 1990 some 1,426 people died.

Look out, the Huns are coming!

Hungarian politicians have recently attracted international attention with their fierce anti-refugee rhetoric. Apparently it’s all a matter of “saving Christian Europe,” and so on. More here or here. What’s surprising about this rhetoric are the references to “hordes” that are “invading” Europe. Hordes that invade was, I always thought, what Hungary was all about.

The Huns were one of the many tribes that overran Europe at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. Most likely they came from the area north of the Caspian Sea, or possibly from Central Asia.  It was Attila the Hun who made a proper country out of the marauding tribes and Hungarian nationalists have always been happy to invoke his legacy. “Attila” is still a popular name in Hungary today.

The eminent French Orientalist Joseph de Guignes suggested in his Histoire générale des Huns, des Turcs, des Mogols, et des autres Tartares occidentaux, 1757, that the Huns may have descended from the Xiongnu Confederacy, a nomadic tribe of the Central Asian steppes that made life difficult for the Han dynasty in China. Guines believed it was the Xiongnu pushing into Europe which triggered off the entire period of Völkerwanderung, the period of migration. Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, picks up this theme. Modern historians, however, are far more skeptical about these connections.

What is certain is that the Hungarians, in the 10th century, made life insecure for people throughout Europe, repeatedly making incursions into Central Europe, the Balkans, Italy and even the Iberian peninsula. See map above. They indeed were “invading hordes.” No, they were not Christian either.

It would have been funny if Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, had accused the refugees of being “Huns.” Well, he came close enough.

Three magi from the east

Among the events celebrated at Christmas, the weirdest — apart from the virgin birth and the new star created for the occasion — is surely the sudden appearance of the three men bearing gifts for baby Jesus. in fact, the Gospel of Matthew, 2:1-12 — which is the only biblical reference to the event — doesn’t actually mention how many gift-givers there were, but since three gifts were involved, it has always been assumed three people showed up.

But who were they?  According to one tradition they were “kings,” but the only biblical reference here is from the Old Testament — Isaiah 60:3 — where it is said that the Messiah was “worshipped by kings.” What Matthew mentions is instead “magi,” a word derived from Old Persian maguŝ, which was the name of a priest in the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrian priests were great star-gazers, experts in astrology and, well, in all forms of “magic.” Hence it’s not surprising that they were guided to Bethlehem by a star.

Since the 8th century, the Magi have been named as “Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar,” but they have no names in the Bible itself. Among Syrian Christians they were instead known as “Larvandad, Gushnasaph and Hormisdas,” and that certainly sounds a lot more Persian.

The gifts they brought with them were “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” All three are clearly things you give to a man who already has everything.  Frankincese was a sort of incense used as perfume and myrrh was an oil used for embalming the dead body. Curiously, the Bible never tells us what happened to the gifts. Yet gold must have been quite a sensation for a poor carpenter’s family. Why didn’t Joseph use it to invest in some more lucrative business?

In fact, the Bible never tells us what happened to the magi themselves. They popped up unexpectedly and then they sodded off for ever. But apparently there is an oral tradition which says that they were baptized in India by St. Thomas, and according to another tradition their remains were taken to Europe after their deaths. This at least is the explanation they give in the cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where there is a “Shrine of the Three Kings.”

Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, is usually regarded as the day they appeared in Bethlehem, and appropriately enough in Spanish speaking countries this is when children get their Christmas presents. The festivals associated with the occasion all elaborate on the all-too-obvious Oriental theme. For the same reason the “Adoration of the Magi” was a favorite topos among Renaissance artists who loved to accompany the gift-givers with exotic animals and to dress them in outlanding clothes.

Yet it should be obvious that the three magi cannot have arrived as early as twelve days after Jesus was born. It must have taken quite a lot longer to travel to Bethlehem from Persia. In fact, the Bible acknowledges as much when it has Herod kill all children under the age of 2 when the magi tell him about the birth of Jesus. If the magi had alerted him to a recent birth, it would have been sufficient to kill all the newborns.

Considering how much Christianity has appropriated from Zoroastrianism — including the very idea of a “savior” and of an “end of all time” —  it is appropriate that Jesus’ first worshippers were Zoroastrian priests.  I like to think that the three magi are a subconscious way of acknowledging how much Christianity has borrowed from Zoroastrianism. historically speaking, Christianity is just a new Zoroastrian dispensation. Of course the Church would never quite put it like that.

Read more:

Unesco and the unity of mankind

Right after UNESCO — the UN’s cultural organization — was established in 1946, they planned to publish a book on the world history of science and culture which was to put an emphasis on the exchange between countries and civilizations, not their uniqueness. Spreading the word regarding the unity of mankind was thought of as UNESCO’s distinct contribution to the prevention of future wars.  Joseph Needham and Lucien Febvre were a part of the project and at a meeting in Mexico in 1947 they wrote up a draft of an outline:

The Scientific and Cultural History of Mankind

1. Humanity’s unity in diversity
2-3. Interchange and communication
4-5. Show what each part has received from the others — undo the “fiction” of a partitioned earth
6, Conclusions & synthesis repeating the above

Nothing came of the project in the end.  The only thing that materialized was a book by Febvre, “International origins of a civilization” (published in 2012 as “Nous sommes tous des sang-melés”). Another result, however, was an invitation from UNESCO to Lévi-Strauss to write about “race and history,” which he did.

Karine Chemla, a historian of science at NYU — most famous for her work in the history of Chinese mathematics — has done research on the UNESCO project, and also collected the various prefaces which Needham wrote to his magistral Science and Civilization of Ancient China, showing how Chinese traditions can be understood in the context of the scientific development of mankind as a whole.

No, we are not engaged in a project of quite this scale — and we are not comparing ourselves to any of these scholars — but we’e doing our little bit. E plurubus unum.

(Thanks to Magnus Fiskesjö for the information, and to Karine Chemla whose talk he listened to at NYU, Shanghai).

Stirred up over stirrups

Now this is a proper academic dispute. In 1962, the historians Lynn Townsend White published a book, Medieval Technology and Social Change, in which he argued that feudalism was introduced in Europe as a result of the introduction of stirrups. What are stirrups? We’ll they are this:

White’s point was that stirrups made it easier to control the horses and this made it possible for heavier cavalry to engage in more ferocious forms of combat. In order to reward the mounted warriors for their efforts, the Carolingian dynasty, in the 8th and 9th centuries, organized their land into a system of vassalage.  This is how feudalism, according to White, got started.

Other scholars are not convinced. While they agree that cavalry replaced infantry in Carolingian France, and that feudalism emerged at this time, they are skeptical regarding the technological determinism which White’s thesis implies. Cavalry had existed before stirrups, and, besides, there is no actual evidence for the thesis.  Modern reenactments of Carolingian military techniques give little evidence that stirrups made all that much difference.  It could have been that the introduction of the saddle made a bigger difference. The saddle, however, was introduced quite a lot earlier.

What’s interesting for our purposes is that stirrups seem to have been introduced from China already in the late 6th or early 7th century.  The people responsible may have been the Avars, a Central Asia nomadic people, which, together with so many others, pushed into post-Roman Europe.  An amazing archeological find, the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklós, consisting of 23 gold vessels created by the Avars was discovered in 1799. Incidentally, it was discovered by a Serb peasant, in the Hungarian part of the Habsburg empire which today is a part of Romania. The treasure itself is on exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Check this out:

The saddle too was invented in Central Asia, but a lot earlier, by the Scythians in the first millennium BCE.

Read more here:

Swedish mission in Xinjiang

In 1893, the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden — one of the “free” churches, not affiliated with the Swedish state church — started a mission project in Xinjiang, or what at the time was known as “East Turkestan.” The aim was to convert the Uygurs to Christianity by providing them with hospitals and schools and by printing pamphlets in the Uygur language. It was an uphill struggle for the Swedes and they made few converts. The political strife of the 1930s put insurmountable obstacles in their way and in 1938 the mission was abandoned.  What does remain, however — and this is remarkable — is a large archive of movies that the missionaries shot in Xinjiang.

At the Internet Archive there is also a large collection of audio interviews with the missionaries themselves, recorded in the 1960s. Someone Swedish-speaking should go through this material and write it up in an internationally accessible language. It would make a great MA thesis. (I’d do it myself if I wasn’t so busy writing these pages …)

One of the interviewees is Gunnar Jarring, one of Sweden’s foremost diplomats in the post-WW2 era and an expert on Turkish languages. He too visited East Turkmenistan in the 1930s.

Btw, Jarring donated his material on East Turkmenistan to Lund University! “It’s an extremely rich collection, possibly the biggest in the world,” says their web page. All that good stuff is just down the road from where I live! (and yet not as easily available as online …)

I taught a course on “human rights in China” in China

Reading Marshall Sahlin’s devastating critique of the Confucius Institutes which the Chinese government has been hard at work setting up since 2004, it is easy to get annoyed by the meekness of their Western directors.  “No,” they insist, “the Confucius Institute is not the appropriate place to discuss independence for Tibet.” The fact that these institutions are located at university campuses and integrated with on-going teaching and research, makes the meekness into something close to a crime. Universities outside of China cannot let the Chinese government have a say on how China should be discussed!

The irony is that in China itself there is often space to talk about these kinds of issues, at least in a university setting. The country’s dictatorship is more influenced by Groucho than by Karl Marx.  I used to teach a course at Shanghai Jiaotong University which had one week on independence for Taiwan and Tibet and another week on human rights. I used to ask my students if they ever thought Ma Yingjiu, the president of Taiwan, would become president of all of China?  That is, when will China come to have the kinds of competitive elections in which the leader of the KMT could win? “No,” said my students after some thought, “Ma is 64 years old, and he’ll be too old once we have free elections.”

And yet none of this was a surprise to my students.  I didn’t tell them anything about democracy or human rights — or about China for that matter — that they didn’t already know.  No one is fooled by the rhetoric and everyone is completely cynical.  Mind you, my students were all members of the

Nomadic political theory

When this book is finished, I’m going to write a book for CUP about “nomadic political theory.” Now what is that?

Reading about how the Mongols and the Arabs conquered the rest of the known world, it’s so obvious that they thought about most political concepts in an entirely different way than the Europeans. They were nomads, and nomads have their own view on borders.

Nomads need pasture where their animals can graze and they continuously move to places where they can find it. Grass grows naturally, it does not have to be planted, only carefully managed, and land has no meaning apart from what it can yield. Farmers, on the other hand, invest labor in their land, together with seeds and fertilizer, and they put up fences which limit access by outsiders in order to protect what they own. Fences, to nomads, is an abomination since they block their ability to move and thereby to feed their animals and themselves.

This understanding of, and relationship to, the land had implications for both warfare and trade. As nomads, the Mongols were interested in booty but not really in territorial acquisition. They would consequently take what they could get their hands on and move on. As a result they often had to reinvade land which they had invaded earlier. This is also why their empire left no monuments in the form of buildings. The Mongols did not build things since buildings cannot move.

This applies even to their own capitals. In fact, during Genghis Khan the Mongols did not have a proper capital. Instead Genghis would take his court and his advisers with him in a ger mounted on a cart which was pulled by a set of particularly strong horses. They toured the country, and the world, accompanied by their capital.

The only thing the Mongols built were bridges — to take their armies across rivers and to help merchants conduct their trade.  They were also experts at breaching walls. Indeed, siege warfare was the only field apart from horsemanship in which they made substantial technical innovations.

Bridge-building and wall-breaching are activities in which barbarians engage.  Barbarians want to break down barriers and force cultures to open themselves up to the rest of the world.  This is how — brace yourself for the contradiction! — barbarians help spread civilization.  Civilization, as opposed to culture, is not a feature of a particular society but of relations between societies.  This is what both Arabs and Mongols did.  The Arabs preserved the knowledge of the ancients and passed it on to the moderns; the Mongols supercharged the Silk Roads and facilitated trade.  In this way both Arabs and Mongols civilized the Europeans!

All of this becomes very interesting indeed once you realize that 21st century capitalism is a barbarian, but civilizing, force which operates in much the same manner.  Capitalism doesn’t have any respect for barriers either.  Capitalism breaks down walls and builds bridges.  Capitalism too conquers the world but doesn’t occupy anything.  Capitalism is destroying our cultures while making it ever easier for us to interact.

I can’t make up my mind about nomads.  Are they cool or just cruel?