China is what you get if your civilization never gets amnesia

The author of Early China: A Social and Cultural History occasionally engages in asides which analogize his own domain of study to other societies and histories. In the process, he illustrates how China is in some ways nonpareil.

When discussing the emergence of philosophical thinking during the Spring and Autumn Period there is a connection made to the same process occurring in India and Greece. It is suggested that during this period the memories of the older Bronze Age world were fading, and in the chaos, new ideas and strictures were arising. The problem is that in fact there is no analogy between the Chinese recollection of their own past, and that of India and Greece.

Homer and Hesiod both lived in the period after the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted from about 1100 to 800 BC. Though the oral history did preserve important fragments of knowledge from the Mycenaean period (e.g., the importance of the Argolid and the distinctive boar’s head helmets), enough was forgotten that the Greeks were not entirely clear that the citadels constructed during the Mycenaean period were in fact constructions of their ancestors. The loss of literacy meant there was no institutional connection to the past, and when Linear B was deciphered most archaeologists were surprised that it was an archaic form of Greek.

For India, the connections are even more tenuous and vague. The Mycenaeans seem to have created a synthetic civilization, repurposing Minoan high culture toward their own ends. But, they were also clearly Greek, with many of their gods being the same gods that we recognize from the Classical era. In Early China the author implies that the people of 6th century India may have had some memory of the Indus Valley Civilization. Though it is likely some elements of culture were passed down from that period, no institutional memory seems to have persisted, in large part because of the likely cultural shock of the arrival of Indo-Aryans around 1500 BC.

The contrast with China here is strong. In Early China the author talks about the Doubting Antiquity School, which was skeptical of the veracity of Chinese historical memory before the Qin period 2,300 years ago. Today, due to archaeology, analysis of inscriptions on bronze vessels, as well as the famous oracle bones, it is clear that historians such as Sima Qian had access to cultural memory that went back at least 1,000 years. The Shang dynasty, once thought to be legend, clearly existed. Names of kings retrieved from the oracle bones matche those provided by classical sources, including their sequence of reigns.

We know that in 1046 the Zhou defeated the Shang. Because of a planetary alignment anomaly the month and date are even remembered.

Which brings us to the Erlitou culture. This archaeological culture flourished in broadly the same region as the Shang dynasty polity, but earlier. The author of Early China contends that this was likely the Xia dynasty. Though we will never be able to validate this in all likelihood, as there are no known forms of writing from this society, we can assume just as with the Shang the legends of the Xia probably have some basis in fact (eventually ancient DNA will accept or reject demographic continuity).

Though I’m not sure where I read it, though probably John King Fairbanks’ book, it has been asserted that China from the Han dynasty down to fall of the Imperial system in 1912 exhibited such a strong cultural continuity that an official in the Former Han might find the bureaucracy of 1900 comprehensible. But wait, there’s more here. As outlined in Early China many of the broad outlines of Han culture which crystallized under the Qin-Han, actually date back to the Zhou dynasty of 1000 BC. The Shang even earlier clearly prefigure the importance of ancestor worship in Chinese culture.

The contrast with the other end of Eurasia is stark. A book like 1177: The Year Civilization Collapsed has a hyperbolic title which totally ignores the fact that that date passed without much tumult in East Asia, where the Shang were ascendant on the plains of the Yellow river. In fact, the curious thing to observe is that the periodic phases of political disunity and cultural turmoil never resulted in a sharp and distinct rupture in Chinese self-identity. Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 outlines the argument that the difference between Rome and the post-Roman polities assembled by the Germans is that the latter lost control of taxation and so dissolved the bureaucratic state. The mature and more self-confident Europe of the High Middle Ages was very different from Classical Rome. It was created de novo. In contrast, Song China was not that different from Han China.

Perhaps a better analogy would be with the Byzantine Empire. Though it is hard to justify it being much of an “Empire” by 1100, in 1000 AD it was a powerful and expansive state, pushing into the Levant. Though very different from the Classical Empire, the Byzantines did engage in extensive preservation of that heritage (most of the humanistic works of the Greeks are preserved thanks to the efforts of 10th century Byzantine copyists). But Byzantium was eventually swallowed by the Turks. The institutional continuity with the ancient world of the West disappeared.

Some of the reviewers of Early China: A Social and Cultural History complained that there was too much discussion of Shang dynasty floor plans. That’s fair enough, but the sections on the Western Zhou and the Spring and Autumn are the meat of the book. I could have done without the precis on the Han, as that is covered extensively elsewhere. But this book definitely is an essential update to the scholarship on the roots of Chinese civilization.

22 thoughts on “China is what you get if your civilization never gets amnesia

  1. You can write what you wish Razib but I do not agree that Indians did not have a memory of their ancient past. This nonsensical belief is a legacy of the colonial tinkering with traditional understanding of Indian history.

    Indians clearly knew that their ancestors were builders of great civilizations as early as 3100 BCE. This memory still persists. And during the time of Alexander around 300 BC, Indians still had the memory of their 1st king who they believed lived 6451 years before Chandragupta i.e. around 6777 or 6800 BC. This 1st king – Dionysus as per Greeks but known as Prthu Vainya (Prithu, the son of Vena) in Indian tradition is credited among other things, is said to have introduced or taught agriculture to people for the 1st time.

    6800 BC is remarkably close to the dawn of the Neolithic and the fact that the Indians could preserve such old memories with reasonable accuracy clearly flies in the face of such notions that Indians don’t have a memory.

    Also, as I said earlier, Indians already knew that as early as 5000 years ago, their ancestors had a very advanced civilization as recorded in the Mahabharata. The British laughed at it thinking Indians were just bluffing since in the ‘scientific’ west of the 18th century believed that the 1st human, Adam, only appeared 6000 years ago. So the Brits thought, how the hell could Indians have such large advanced groups of people around 3000 BC, they surely are bluffing ?

    The Brits therefore proceeded to bring down all of these dates by several thousand years. Then in the mid 19th century they invented the fictional Aryan invasion with an even more fictional period of invasion in 1500 BC. Therefore all of the early events of Indian tradition were post-dated to after 1500 BC.

    But Indians were clearly right about their Bronze Age ancestors. We now know from archaeology that the Indus civilization was by far the most widespread Bronze Age civilization of its time with its influence stretching from Central Asia and Eastern Iran (Helmand & Jiroft civilizations) to the Eastern Arabian coast ( Magan & Dilmun) and into Mesopotamia and reaching the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Yet, the biased Western scholarship never bothers to acknowledge that the traditional Indian awareness of the advancement of their Bronze Age & earlier ancestors is being increasingly vindicated through archaeology.

    If you read traditional Indian historical accounts such as the Rajatarangini of Kashmir or the Royal accounts of the Kings of Nepal, you would notice that they start their history from the end of the Mahabharata war in 3100 BC. So there is clearly a continuity. The fact that the biased Western scholarship, due to their vested theoretical beliefs of Aryan migration chooses to ignore it is not the problem of Indians.

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  2. Seems pretty much true as far as I know, though the IVC (inception at least) is much older than Shang, so not totally 100% on that as comparison point (if Shang:IVC is comparison not Xia:IVC). Vedic period pehaps more comparable if comparing the “depth” of consciousness of continuity that has some archaeological validity, and the Vedas somewhat comparable with Chinese records? Though again those an oral tradition until much later and maybe as questionable as Xia Dynasty records.

    On China’s amnesia, I guess though we talk about Greece and NW India, also a contrast with West Asia, and about “self identity”.

    Within West Asia, we have voluminous material from multiple literate civilizations, and no break of literacy as such. But as new traditions (esp. religious) and identities emerged from essentially illiterate cultures, the shifts in writing systems and languages and identity made remembering ealier civilization as “their ancestors” and transmitting information about them accurately not a priority.

    The information was there, but the link with identity was weak, and until the emergence of a historical tradition more focused on knowing and less on proper ‘ancestor worship’ (of a sort!), and of modern nationalism, it was somewhat forgotten.

    In China, we have basically the survival of one line of the Neolithic-Bronze cultures that formed the population that is today Chinese, a line focused around a string of sites along the Yellow River, and essentially the rest of the groups that I would guess contributed seem basically forgotten. Bronze Age groups along the Yangtze Delta (e.g. Wucheng) of which we seem to have basically no knowledge.

    As that line along the Yellow River became *the* prestige culture and the militarily successful culture. Ultimately the fruits, I’d guess, of being in a sweet spot combining highly productive riverine agriculture leading to high population size, with direct military competition against a steppe which was demographically small, but militarily potent, and had access to innovations from West Eurasia.

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  3. In “Empires of the Word” China is compared with Egypt, another civilization which lasted a very long time (Egypt beginning earlier) and a language which spread more by natural increase than conquering new areas to convert more speakers. Because Oster is focused on language, his Egyptian story ends with the Arab conquest marginalizing the indigenous language to the liturgical use of Coptic in by the now minority religion. Would you say that event also disrupted the cultural memory in Egypt?

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  4. You can write what you wish Razib but I do not agree that Indians did not have a memory of their ancient past. This nonsensical belief is a legacy of the colonial tinkering with traditional understanding of Indian history.

    thanks for being succinct!

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  5. Would you say that event also disrupted the cultural memory in Egypt?

    the egyptians have the pyramids. they can’t unsee/forget that.

    but they were already changing with their conversion to christianity. the chinese actually continue some of the same practices religiously that they did 3,000 years ago.

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  6. In China, we have basically the survival of one line of the Neolithic-Bronze cultures that formed the population that is today Chinese, a line focused around a string of sites along the Yellow River, and essentially the rest of the groups that I would guess contributed seem basically forgotten.

    yes. chinese civilization today is basically descended from that society ~2000 BC.

    the modern iraqis are mostly descended from the ancient mesopotamians probably, or at least peoples closely related, but the language and religion and cultural self-identity is very different.

    india is a middle case. because of the lack of written validation it’s hard to what is and isn’t continuous, but most it probably is to 1500 BC. if i had to bet. so it’s comparable. the key is the indus valley civilization.

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  7. “The mature and more self-confident Europe of the High Middle Ages was very different from Classical Rome.”

    But, there are strong continuities. Medieval Europeans spoke Latin, albeit not in daily life, lived in Roman cities, worshiped in Roman churches, and were governed by Roman law. And some continuity with that world persist in the contemporary world.

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  8. In my opinion the continuity of China is more of accidents of history than the work of resilience of the culture. There are several events in Chinese history that could have resulted in radically different China as we know it.

    What if Subotai had his way and Mongols massacred all Chinese to make a way for pasture lands? What if Ariq Boke defeated Kubilai? I am being generous with other barbarian rules of China such as 4th-7th Century, Sui, Tang and Qing as their Sinification may be seen as inevitable, dictated by socio-economic reality.

    If you think about it, Rome almost made it. If the Germanic tribes were more civilized and more compatible much like Rome and Greece, Rome could have been a “continuous civilization that lasted 3000 years and still going strong”.

    And I am not sure that historians 1000 years later will see China as having preserved her ancient ways. Today Chinese dress in Western style clothing, speak English as their second language(or at least try to), live in Western style homes and have Western life styles in general. This is far more radical than even Koreans’ adopting Chinese ways of life.(of course you can say the same thing for the rest of the world as well, even Muslim countries)

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  9. What if Subotai had his way and Mongols massacred all Chinese to make a way for pasture lands? What if Ariq Boke defeated Kubilai? I am being generous with other barbarian rules of China such as 4th-7th Century, Sui, Tang and Qing as their Sinification may be seen as inevitable, dictated by socio-economic reality.

    the issue with the mongols is that i don’t see how they could have changed the yangzi river basin and south. so china had a ‘cultural reserve’. the genetics may eventually confirm that north china was repopulated from the south in fact.

    it may not be accident, but geography. china had more ‘strategic depth’ than rome. the roman empire was bound together by the mediterranean and had exposed flanks. if they had pushed to the vistula river they would have gone a long way to giving themselve’s china’s strategic depth.

    india is a civilization which also shows strong continuity, despite total conquest and hegemony by outsiders. it was transformed, but not as much as west asia was by the romans/greeks/arabs. or europe was by christianity and the fall of rome. so china could have had an india model if the barbarians were more clever…if timur the muslim had conquered china and islamicized areas like gansu and shaanxi.

    japan is another example of a society without rupture. and it is even more ‘protected’ than china.

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  10. But, there are strong continuities. Medieval Europeans spoke Latin, albeit not in daily life, lived in Roman cities, worshiped in Roman churches, and were governed by Roman law. And some continuity with that world persist in the contemporary world.

    a lot of this was ‘rediscovered.’ eg roman law. mostly that was for the church. customary germanic law took over in a lot of places. also, the city-based society in the west literally disappeared. rome was tiny.

    the europeans remembered the romans. and maintained some roman ideals. but they were not roman insofar as greek learning had disappeared, and bureaucratic gov. as well. they had retribalized.

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  11. I’m in the middle of reading Early China right now, just about to start on the Qin. What is striking is what obsessive documenters and record keepers the Chinese have been, and the continuity of language. My daughter, fully literate in Chinese, could read some of the characters written on the Shang oracle bones and bronzes without any special training when she was in primary school. Even I can read a few, and recognize others. And this was before the unification of language. No rosetta stone required. Nicholas Ostler emphasised the importance of the unifying nature and continuity of the written language in his magnum opus.

    I already knew this about the Chinese from my professional work – unlike the Japanese, the Chinese never understood the link between offshore earthquakes and tsunami, but their c.1900 years of earthquake records, including locations of epicentres, magnitudes and intensities, are certainly good enough to be used by modern seismologists.

    I am enjoying Li Feng’s exposition a lot (I didn’t see any problem with the Shang floor plans myself – he’s an archaeologist, after all), but the whole time I have been reading it, my mind has been crying out for the big missing piece – the genetics. How quickly I have come to take paleogenomics for granted. They should have no shortage of material to sample, although the preservational environment hasn’t been brilliant – warmer and wetter on the north China plain than now.

    I’m still fence-sitting on Erlitou = Xia (?). Seems to me the jury is still out on that.

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  12. You can write what you wish Razib but I do not agree that Indians did not have a memory of their ancient past.

    You left out a very crucial word: institutional.

    Recently, one of my children inquired about the origin of sugar. I explained the sugarcane trade in the Caribbean (also brought up the tobacco and slave trade in context), but then it occurred to me that I did not know where sugar was first recorded to have been processed from a plant.

    The answer was: India. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar

    Sugar has been produced in the Indian subcontinent[4] since ancient times and its cultivation spread from there into modern-day Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass.[5] It was not plentiful or cheap in early times, and in most parts of the world, honey was more often used for sweetening. Originally, people chewed raw sugarcane to extract its sweetness. Sugarcane was a native of tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia.[6]

    Different species seem to have originated from different locations with Saccharum barberi originating in India and S. edule and S. officinarum coming from New Guinea.[6][7] One of the earliest historical references to sugarcane is in Chinese manuscripts dating to 8th century BCE, which state that the use of sugarcane originated in India.[8]

    Incidentally, I also read that the English word candy comes from South Asia as well – qand. I thought, hey, that sounds a lot like Kandahar (in Afghanistan). I wonder if that means a city of sugar/sweetness since I remember a briefing about it having been a major marketplace for fruits and such?

    Indeed that is one of the theories:

    A folk etymology offered is that the word “kand” or “qand” in Persian and Pashto (the local languages) means “candy”. The name “Candahar” or “Kandahar” in this form probably translates to candy area. This probably has to do with the location being fertile and historically known for producing fine grapes, pomegranates, apricots, melons and other sweet fruits.[3]

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  13. What is striking is what obsessive documenters and record keepers the Chinese have been, and the continuity of language.

    I am not Chinese, but this applies notably to genealogy in general in East Asia. I can trace my ancestry very reliably with documentary evidence (including those maintained and passed down within my own clan) to the 13th century. The very first ancestor of mine to appear in history was the 7th century (though that is considerably hazier with some gaps in between). That’s close to 800 years of reliable documentation and over 1300 years of historically recorded lineage, all commemorated every year with ancestor reverence ceremonies and meticulous maintenance of descent records by first sons.

    My wife’s family fancies itself quite distinguished as it descends from an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, but its ancestral origin in Great Britain fades into darkness within a couple of hundred years or so. Her Bavarian and Swedish origins are even more obscure.

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  14. @Razib
    With Japan it goes both ways. Japan was protected by geography but geography also prevented her from civilization and the same also prevented her from influencing the rest of the world until modern times. Japan became even a moderate regional power after she imported a particular type of firearms from the West in the 16th century. She did not become a regional power house until the late 19th century.(though I grant that her modern success had its root in the 16th century when she actively began trading with the West.)

    I can understand that for those not familiar with East Asia pro-Japanese views are very appealing. But many of them are phony. Chris Beckwith among them. Whenever he dabbles into another field, such as linguistics, he is almost always wrong. He is actually rather comical. And his supposed expertise in history is deeply suspect as well.

    And in my opinion Mongols came quite close to conquering Japan, or at least having a foothold on the islands. If they listened to their Korean sailors a little bit more they could have avoided the disaster. In fact Koreans did not suffer all that much except the resources they had to expend on building ships out of Mongols’ extortion.
    And the heaviest loss was on the Chinese who Mongols wanted to get rid of anyway.

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  15. And in my opinion Mongols came quite close to conquering Japan

    The first Mongol landing was a shock for the Japanese and had the greatest chance of success. However, for the Mongols it was a reconnaissance-in-force mission only and they did not push far into the interior. Contrary to the stereotype as marauding horsemen, Mongols – being very few in number – were extremely careful and cautious in their aggressions and rarely, if ever, committed the bulk of their forces unless they had very clear understanding of the regions and the people they invaded (often using merchants as spies).

    The second landing attempt was an unmitigated disaster. The storms played a major role, but the Japanese were also much better prepared, having built numerous fortifications along the shore facing the mainland Asia.

    I can understand that for those not familiar with East Asia pro-Japanese views are very appealing. But many of them are phony.

    It’s not the lack of familiarity with East Asia that makes Japan appealing to many Westerners. It is the most economically developed nation in East Asia, has the lowest crime rate (intentional homicide in any case), and has the most orderly society (compare the noise level in a Japanese subway train as opposed to that in South Korea, let alone in China). It was the first to Westernize and become a major power, yet arguably also has retained its traditional culture the best. Put simply, it DOES have many appealing traits that are increasingly missing in the West, which has high rich-poor gap, greater instability, higher crime rates, declining civic sense, as well as erosion of traditions.

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  16. @Twinkie
    Wikipedia is a heavily biased, pro Japanese, academically nonsensical masturbation by Japanese hikikomoris and their weeaboo followers.
    I once tried to edit an article on the Battle of Baekgang and got jumped on by a horde of Japanese, European and American editors. I now know who “owns” Wikipedia.

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  17. Razib talked about China being repopulated from the south after the Mongol rule and it probably is largely true. In fact the Northern Chinese of this time called 漢人 were probably largely Sinized northern barbarians as Jurchens(Manchu), Koreans and even para-Mongolian speaking Khitans were often classified as them when they don’t get their own slots.

    Japanese revisionists claim, bolstered and aided by Western “Academia”(LOL), that Japanese fought far better than traditionally known. But this is based on typically American scholarship that views Koryosa and Yuan-sa as unreliable nationalistic garbage whereas Japanese records are totally reliable because Japanese are seen as noble and honest honorary White people whose rightful history is stolen by rabid nationalism of China and Korea.

    The traditional view based on Korean and Mongol-Chinese records has been that in both invasions typhoons played the biggest and the most decisive roles. Japan was more prepared and fought better in the second invasion but was just overwhelmed by the sheer number of Southern Chinese forces until the typhoon hit.

    Anyway this is a genetics blog so the most interesting thing is the aftermath of the failed second invasion.

    Japanese executed immediately all prisoners who were Koreans, Mongols, Northern Chinese that included Jurchens and Khitans. They spared the lives of 2-30000 Southern Chinese who had skills or could farm. And killed the rest. After the harvest season was over, many more were executed and the rest were taken as slaves. Only 3 returned to China.

    I am not talking about the genetic impact of the Chinese slaves; they were brutally treated and most of them died probably. But Japanese called them 唐人(men of Tang) and distinguished them from Northern Chinese, giving hints that even to Japanese they looked quite different.

    It is recorded that every single Mongol who was not an officer died, no one returned. Koryosa gives an incredibly accurate figure for the Korean casualty; out of 26989, 19397 returned and about 7500 died for various reasons. It was possible because they were able to insist that all Koreans should be under Korean commands and they staged a mini-coup, took all their ships and left their Mongol comrades. It must have been a small emotional victory as they hated the Mongols who tormented them to no end.

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  18. Razib talked about China being repopulated from the south after the Mongol rule and it probably is largely true. In fact the Northern Chinese of this time called 漢人 were probably largely Sinized northern barbarians as Jurchens(Manchu), Koreans and even para-Mongolian speaking Khitans were often classified as them when they don’t get their own slots.

    until we get DNA temporal transects we don’t know for sure. i’m just alluding to the historical tradition that this happened. traditions can be wrong.

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  19. Wikipedia is a heavily biased, pro Japanese, academically nonsensical masturbation by Japanese hikikomoris and their weeaboo followers.

    WTF is this nonsense? You should leave this “My Kung Fu school is stronger than your Kung Fu school” type inter-East Asian competition idiocy somewhere else and stick to the facts and analyses that are as objective as you can muster.

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  20. You should leave this “My Kung Fu school is stronger than your Kung Fu school” type inter-East Asian competition idiocy somewhere else and stick to the facts and analyses that are as objective as you can muster.

    lol. funny. let’s end this. i’ll close thread otherwise 🙂

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  21. Razib says “until we get DNA temporal transects we don’t know for sure…”.

    There is a Chinese embargo on DNA material from China. A few years ago all that was required was Chinese scientists as principal authors but they may have tightened the restriction since then.

    The only result I am aware of around this time is a Khitan grave. It was many years ago and only a crude analysis was available, no full genome or anything like that. The Y-Chromosome profile was rather too Chinese, not too many C2-M217 even though Khitans’s language is para-Mongolian.
    I think this is the link.
    http://www.cjcu.jlu.edu.cn/hxyj/EN/abstract/abstract14127.shtml

    At the time I thought Chinese doctored the result as they are very capable of that kind of thing but now I think it may reflect the fact that Khitans incorporated many sedentary farming tribes. Alexander Vovin even talks about Koreanic loan words in Khitan vocabulary. And not all O-M122’s are Chinese in origin, now we know.

    I hope Fu’s lab in China produces some results soon. She is the only realistic hope as old big timers like Li Jin are falling behind especially with respect to ancient DNA. Other younger scientists mainly focus on modern samples and have commercial interest by and large.

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