Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When China contained the world   posted by Razib @ 9/09/2009 11:44:00 PM

The Tang Dynasty is to a great extent a contemporary favorite because of the norms of the modern day West. It was a notionally native dynasty which was also open to outside influences and was strengthened by its cosmopolitan tenor. The merit-based industry of the Song lacks scale and romantic glamor. The Ming withdrew from the world after the the voyages of Zheng He. And the Manchus were outsiders and so were more exotic than cosmopolitan. During the ancient Han Dynasty the Chinese were the world for all practical purposes.

This tendency of co-opting the Tang for modern needs, a case-study of China as a cosmopolitan empire, not only is flat and lacks nuance, but ignores other aspects of this period in Chinese history which Western moderns may find unappealing. The Tang were characterized by the dominance of aristocratic values, a cabal of elite noble lineages in the capital who for all practical purposes monopolized the bureaucracy. Its foreign conquests were often done via native proxies, and divide and conquer (sound familiar?). During the second half of the Tang period the dynasty was in decline, and was given to bouts of persecution of disfavored foreign religions (all except for Daoism), and massacres of foreigners. All this is not to say that the Tang were "bad." Or frankly "good." It seems that such judgments bear less fruit than a genuine descriptive examination of the history and culture of this distinctive period in Chinese history. That is what China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty does, even if the title naturally catches the attention of the typical Western reader.

I come to this with some knowledge of this region and period, having read works such as T'ang China: The Rise of the East in World History. A more accurate title for China's Cosmopolitan Empire might have been "China's Last Empire," insofar as I have pointed out before that the Manchu administered areas outside China proper differently from China for most of that dynasty's history. Of course the claim that the Tang are native, while the Manchu are foreign, is to some extent a matter of art. The Li family of the Tang dynasty likely emerged out of the milieu of partly barbarized borderland warlords who dominated north China after the fall of the Han. Likely they had Turk and Xianbei ancestors, and they maintained many of the customs and outlooks of these non-Han peoples. Emperor Taizong fought like a nomad when necessary with native skill. The early Tang developed symbiotic relationships with nomadic federations such as that of the Uyghurs to buttress their Empire and guard their borders, relationships cemented by the fact that the early Tang emperors could move with ease among the barbarians because of shared experiences, values and background. When Taizong broke the Turks he took upon himself a barbarian title in addition to his role as emperor of China, subsuming within himself what had previously been rival opposites. It is notable the early Tang apparently also practiced the horse sacrifice on occasion, a common feature of Central Eurasian societies.

Of course unlike the Manchu and the Yuan (Mongol) the Tang were not alien overlords despite their partial Central Eurasian provenance. The Li family claimed descent from Laozi, patronized Chinese high culture on a grand scale, and the emperors themselves were civilized aesthetes who produced original poetry. Unlike the Yuan and Manchu the non-Han populations which settled in China proper during the early generations of the Tang dynasty were not given a superior status to the natives, and on the contrary like the Li family themselves many of these individuals assimilated to a Han identity and constructed false genealogies to elide the fact of their foreign provenance. It would be wrong to suggest I think that the Tang produced a hybrid culture, rather, they fostered a cosmpolitanism with Chinese characteristics.

If you are reading this now likely you will have read my review of Empires of the Silk Road. It was fascinating to read China's Cosmopolitan Empire in the wake of that work because the intersection of concepts, facts and trends were palpable. The Tang dynasty was a period when China was a Central Eurasian power, operating in a three-way game with the Turks to the north and the Tibetans to the south. The scope of the Tang's reach is evident when one considers that in 751 Chinese proxy forces (there were very few Han in the notional Chinese force) were defeated by outriders of the Abbasid Caliphate along with their Tibetan allies at the river Talas. Up to this point Chinese and Muslim political and culture influence vied in the Fergana valley, which today spans parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is likely that the battle itself is important only in hindsight, but it marks a convenient turning point when Central Asia irrevocably shifted its focus west to the world of Islam, and lost its ancient connections to the east and China.

Those connections were not, and are not, trivial. The few generations of the Tang were at the tail end of what sometimes is termed the "Buddhist Age." During this period Buddhism served as a common cultural connection across much of Asia to the east of Persia. Though the city states of Central Asia were multireligious, it is arguable that Buddhism was the most prominent of those religions. It was from Central Asia that Buddhism arrived in China, and flourished in the centuries after the fall of Han. Though Buddhism was likely in decline relative to what we now term Hinduism in South Asia, it was still a relatively vital cultural force, and far more prevalent in what are today Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as in the east in Bengal. In Empires of the Silk Road Christopher Beckwith argues that many Indian concepts and institutions which came to shape Islamic culture during the Abbasid Caliphate were actually transmitted via Buddhism (it is clear that there were Buddhists in Sindh when the Arab armies conquered it). The Barmakid family which was extremely powerful during the early years of the Abbasids was of course from the Buddhist priesthood of Balkh. And just as ideas flowed west from Buddhist northwest India, so they flowed east from Buddhist Central Asia. Indian Buddhist eminences also took the route through Central Asia to China to spread their teachings or aid in translations. During these early centuries Buddhism was an exotic foreign religion in China, not indigenized, and the Silk Road was the vector via which came a stream of foreign sacred objects and texts from India. To the east the Silla kingdom of Korea and the Fujiwaras of Japan patronized Buddhism as part of their imperialistic project, resulting in several decades in which Buddhistmonks could take advantage of an international network which flowed uninterrupted from South Asia to Japan.

Of course very few Indian or Central Asia monks went to Japan. Rather, much more likely was that Indian, Central Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Buddhists would meet in Chang'an, the capital of the Tang which also lay at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Though India was the Jerusalem of Buddhism, China quickly became its Rome and Constantinople. The process of indigenization of Buddhism in China was lent a helping hand by the armies of the caliphs, as the 7th century progressed the Muslims pushed into Afghanistan and the marches of South Asia, and conquered the Buddhist and Hindu kings who patronized the great monasteries. Prominent Buddhists, such as the Barmakid family, no doubt converted to Islam. With the Tang withdrawal from Central Asia after 750 Islam totally absorbed the former Buddhist city-states. The international was broken, and China had to rely on its own resources. It is an odd parallelism that to a great extent the eruption of Islam, and its absorption of the lands from with Europe and China were evangelized in their respective dominant institutional religions, led to the rise of a self-conscious Christian West and Buddhist East. Europe was the faith, and the faith was Europe, because Islam and swallowed whole the domains of eastern Christianity. Similarly, as the centuries progressed the holy sites of Buddhism were to fall under the sway of Islamicized Turkish warlords (this dynamic was unfortunately on display with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan).

But the resources of Buddhism in China were many. The Tang era is generally thought to be the period when Buddhism was most powerful and esteemed as an institutional religion across the Chinese class structure. The anti-Buddhist Confucian Han Yu was speaking from a position of weakness in relative comparison to the disdain or contempt which later Confucian scholars would exhibit toward Buddhism. It must also be noted that Buddhism was not officially the most favored religion during this period, Daoism was. One of the ways in which the Tang ruling family emphasized their Chinese character was their descent from Laozi, and they tacitly tolerated attacks upon Buddhism as a debased foreign religion which was inappropriate for the Chinese by prominent Daoists. This is a contrast to what occurred during the reign of Khubilai Khan, who favored the Buddhists and forced the Daoists to cease their attacks. Nevertheless, this is a case where the Tang did not eat their own dog food; Buddhism was patronized extensively, given favor, and the monasteries accumulated great wealth. The similarities to medieval Catholic Christianity are manifold, as bequests by wealthy individuals were often a form of operational tax evasion, and Tang armies marched with the blessing of Buddhist abbots. Buddhist ideas spread across China, and stories were told of how ignorant individuals were sent to hell for sacrificing animals to native gods. The monasteries became so powerful that during the later years of the dynasty there was a great persecution which ultimately destroyed Buddhism's status as an elite religion, and reserved for it the role of the opium of the masses. When the first Jesuits arrived in China they dressed as Buddhist priests to assimilate, but found they received no hearing from the powers that be. They were dismissed due to their low status as clerics in a popular religion. That is, Buddhism (in later years the Catholic missionaries tried very hard to make their religion distinctive from Pure Land Buddhism).

By the end of the Tang Buddhism was no longer a foreign religion which held some glamor for the elite. Rather, it was an indigenized popular cult. Tang cosmpolitanism seemed to exhibit a tendency whereby the foreign transmuted and became native. Whereas earlier rebellions relied on Daoism, institutional Buddhism became a new avenue for secret societies and organizations of sedition. In fact, during the 18th and 19th century Hui Islamic revivalists had to use terms derived from Pure Land Buddhism in the course of fomenting revolt because symbolism from that sect had percolated into the consciousness of the general Chinese population to the extent of it becoming common semantic currency. One aspect of the later Tang that led to the emergence of the Song which might be of foreign provenance was the rise of military bands cemented by bonds of fictive kinship. This is not a novel idea, as it as occurred in several societies, but in light of the central role of real kinship in the Confucian order, and the strong Turkic influence on the Tang, one has to wonder if this is the Central Eurasian comitatus emerging in a Chinese context, totally extracted and now assimilated. But one must not make too much of this, even if the Song Dynasty arose in part propelled by traditions and customs which the Tang imported from the steppe, it became the civilian Chinese dynasty par excellence.

This deeper texture often renders characterizations of cosmopolitan or xenophobic trite. A simple narrative of the Tang is that the period between 600 and 750 was one of cosmopolitan expansionism, while that after 750 was one of slow long xenophobic decline. Descriptively this is not false, but it is not as if China was insulated from the rest of the world, and moved along an endogenous track. The Buddhist Age, in which Tang China was the preeminent state, gave way after 750 to what was operationally an Islamic Age, when the Abbasid Caliphs were for one century near a world empire, from the borders of China to the margins of the Atlantic. The inward focus of the Tang was partially a function of a collapse of a greater world order which had nourished them and against which they had tested their mettle. The trade routes which allowed for the Sogdians to flourish frayed, with the arc of the Caliphate expanding outward and cutting the ties which bound the older civilized centers together. Though I am cautious about a hydraulic metaphor, it seems not too much a stretch that the rise of Islam and the decline of the Tang operated in concert.

Obviously I've just skimmed some interesting points in this book. I haven't discussed literature, city planning, rural life or the nature of the mercantile cities of the lower Yangtze. It's all in there and all worthy of note, but, I want to get back to the point about cosmpolitanism. There were many foreigners in China during this period. Tang Guangzhou was a city dominated by foreigners, with Arabs being especially prominent. In much of northern China Uyghurs dominated money-lending. There are many physical depictions of people of western Eurasian appearance in artifacts from the Tang period. Where are these people's genes? I pointed out that one problem with an Indo-European origin for ancient Chinese in Empires of the Silk Road is that the genetic data seem clear that the Han people are very distinct from those to the west. And, that groups like Uyghurs are recent hybridization events between two distinct gene pools from western and eastern Eurasia. There are isolated cases of prominent generals in ancient China who were of reputed western origin who turn out to have genes which indicate that they were western. But the modern data from China show very little (if any) western ancestry.

One immediately wonders about the adequacies of the samples we have now. The HapMap had 45 unrelated Chinese from Beijing. The overseas samples are mostly from people whose families are derived from Fujian or Guangdong. But what about Guangdong? Where did the foreigners in Guangzhou go? The easiest explanation is that they were all massacred as is described in the histories. But could all foreigners in China have been massacred? Were they all recognizably foreign? As it happens Chinese speaking Muslims carry a significant western quanta of ancestry, even if it is the minority. The origin stories for this group all derive from men who arrived from western Asia, so this stands to reason. And, it shows that western ancestry does exist in some Chinese populations in China proper. So is there another reason that it is not evident among the Han? I will give a reason that Greg Cochran gave years ago for why the area around Rome is not dominated by Greek genes: the foreigners lived in cities, and the cities were demographic sinks. The cultural cosmpolitanism of Tang China had important long term historical consequences. But its genetic cosmpolitanism was less significant because the locus of that cosmpolitanism was centered around evolutionary dead-ends. The cities of yore live on in faded memory, but their blood has long gone extinct.

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