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).

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The Chinese eradication of extreme poverty in one generation

There have been write-ups in the media of the decline of extreme poverty due to a World Bank data release in the past few days. This is kind of a pretty big deal, and one of the reasons that books like Enlightenment Now are still worth writing: much of the American public is unaware of the “good news.”

But as made clear in the graphic in The Wall Street Journal, this is to a great extent a regional story. In particular, it is the story of the near eradication of extreme poverty among the ~20% of the world’s population that is Chinese.

As the chart makes visible, the “Third World” or the “Global South” or the “Developing World”, whatever you call it, is very economically diverse. Was very economically diverse. In 1990 most of the world’s extreme poor lived in East Asia. Overwhelmingly in China. Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa and South & East Asia extreme poverty, using this definition, was actually not that common. Latin America, the Middle East & North Africa, and the post-Soviet world suffered by comparison to North America and Western Europe.

People who traveled widely across the “Third World” knew this. In the 1980s and 1990s one of my uncles was an engineer, and later officer, for an Iranian oil tanker, and so traveled across the Middle East. He eventually wrote a peculiar book on poverty in Bangladesh after he retired, and in it he recounted how clear and distinct the differences in acute poverty were when he compared Iran with his homeland.

To give you a different general sense, I pulled the World Bank data and focused on a few large nations of diverse profiles. And, rather than looking at just the % below a very low poverty threshold ($1.90 per day), I increased the threshold ($5.50) and focused on the poverty gap. While the poverty headcount just tells you what % of the population falls below the threshold, the poverty gap is measuring the average distance below the threshold. In other words, it is measuring intensity of poverty.

What you can see above is that China went from having the highest poverty gap to the lowest in 25 years. But the story isn’t just about China. Fifteen years ago Vietnam had just as much extreme poverty as Bangladesh, but today it is in the same range as China. In the 1990s we talked a lot about the “Asian Miracle.” But that was minor leagues. The real miracle has occurred in the 21st century.

But it wasn’t really a miracle at all. Nations such as Vietnam and China (and earlier Japan and Korea) had relatively high literacy rates, and a tradition of meritocratic advancement, long before contact with European colonialism. Before Communism. With high native human capital resources to begin with, they were poised for lift-off before they ever made it down the runway.

My wife happens to know a Chinese man who is now a professor of science at an American Research I University. Because this is someone we know, aspects of his life history have slowly emerged. In short, he grew up in a very poor peasant household in rural China. And not one that had just recently fallen down the class ladder from what we can tell.

Today he is a professor doing rigorous science, who has achieved an upper middle class American lifestyle. My horizons may be narrow, but I have never met a South Asian in the United States who has come from an analogous background of such grinding deprivation. I know they exist. But in general South Asian peasants in deep deprivation, the children of landless laborers and the like, do not seem to have the opportunity or expectation that they could become researcher professors in the United States.

Finally, Communism. It is strange today, though perhaps not, that much of the younger populace of developed nations are beginning to look with eagerness toward some sort of inchoate socialism. And yet here you have more than a billion who sloughed off the dead hand of command socialism, and in the process eradicated extreme poverty.

I understand the qualms about Chinese authoritarianism. I’m well aware that some elements of China’s economic growth are unlikely to be sustainable. Perhaps there will be a correction. Almost certainly there has to be one. But we can’t forget what the very recent past was like. We shouldn’t shrug off the miracle of anti-poverty that has occurred in East Asia.

To Americans, and Mexicans as well, 1990 wasn’t a different land. But in the past generation nations like China and Vietnam have transformed themselves in ways that we can’t even imagine.

Diving into Chinese philosophy

Back when I was in college one of my roommates was taking a Chinese philosophy class for a general education requirement. A double major in mathematics and economics (he went on to get an economics Ph.D.) he found the lack of formal rigor in the field rather maddening. I thought this was fair, but I suggested to him that the this-worldy and often non-metaphysical orientation of much of Chinese philosophy made it less amenable to formal and logical analysis.

I recalled this when a friend of mine, from an Indian background, asked what I would recommend for him to learn a bit about Chinese philosophy. What I suggested was that he read A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, and then read The Analects and something like Confucius: And The World He Created.

As someone who lives in the West from a Hindu background, I didn’t think it was worth it for him to explore Chinese Buddhism, or even Neo-Confucianism, which emerged out of the reaction and accommodation with Buddhism.

Thoughts? Recommendations?

Henan, the heart of China

I haven’t posted on one of these in a while. Mostly because I don’t know what to say about Henan. Henan is where China began. As noted in Wikipedia four of the eight ancient capitals of China are located in this province, in the heart of the North China plain. Chineseness, as we understand it, coalesced in this province. The first historical dynasty, the Shang, had the core of their domains in Henan. Though we don’t have historical evidence of earlier legendary Chinese dynasties, many believe that they are likely recollections of the archaeological cultures which flourished in Henan before the Shang (e.g., the Eritlou culture as the Xia).

Originally a land of millet, Henan is China’s number one wheat producer. Whereas the staple of the south is rice, in the North China plain is it noodle.

The agricultural focus of Henan indicates its relative lack of development. In some ways, it resembles Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh in India, which were the core of South Asian polities at the dawn of recorded history, but are now backwaters. With 94 million people Henan is China’s third most populous province, but it turns out that more people in China have origins in Henan (103 million) than any other province. This reflects nearly 10 million migrants who work in other provinces, generally coastal ones.

Being the locus and origin of Han Chinese culture it is no surprise that the province is overwhelmingly ethnically Han. But curiously it also seems to have an overrepresentation of Christians compared to other Chinese provinces.

Anhui, in the shadow of Shanghai

Anhui is inland of the prosperous lower Yangzi river valley. According to Wikipedia this province is a recent creation, dating to the Kangxi Emperor. The northern part of the province is part of North China while the south closer to the Yangzi river valley regions.

It’s relatively poor in comparison to the provinces to the east and seems to be a mishmash of rural regions. But it has been close enough to cosmopolitan regions to be forward thinking in its political orientation.

Zhejiang, on the margins of Jiangnan

Zhejiang is the province to the south of Jiangsu, and the heart of Jiangnan, the lower Yangzi river area. As noted in my previous post this region is notable for its economic productivity and wealth, which dates back more than 1,000 years, and persists down the present. Like Jiangsu, Zhejiang is outside of the core area of the rise of Han civilization, but by the 1st millennium A.D. became a redoubt of Chinese civilization in the face of non-Chinese incursions into the north.

Zhejiang is also the location for one of the major centers of Christianity in China, Wenzhou. On the order of ten percent of this city’s population is Christian.

Jiangsu, from the margin to the center

When I was eight years old I memorized all the capitals in the world…because (well, because a friend had done the same). I’ve always been into geography. But there is one thing I’ve been guilty about for nearly twenty years: I can’t point to all the provinces of China on a map and name them. For example, I only scored 83% in 2 minutes 10 seconds on Seterra’s China province quiz. For comparison, on the African countries quiz I got 100% in 1 minute 59 seconds. Obviously the latter is “harder” than the former, so it indicates my lack of focus.

To make up for my lack of fluency, I’m going to be reading Wikipedia entries of Chinese provinces and putting my reflections into this space. Readers who know more can also chime in in the comments.

I’m starting, for no particular reason, with Jiangsu. The coastal province north of Shanghai, it is not surprising that this is a wealthy region in a Chinese context. Shanghai is administratively distinct, but it seems that it’s core “native” culture is really that of southern Jiangsu. Even without Shanghai in the mix, Jiangsu would have about the 14th largest economy in the world if it was a separate and distinct nation.

Since I read Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence about ten years ago I was not surprised at the fact Jiangsu was so economically vital. It had been the same in the 18th century when the lower Yangzi region became the heartland of Chinese economic growth and industry. But it seems that this region’s importance in trade and Smithian growth dates back at least to the Song dynasty, as the Grand Canal between north and south constructed during the Sui-Tang triggered development.

Originally Jiangsu was not part of China proper, as during antiquity it was inhabited by barbarian peoples. Of course, eventually, it was Sinicized, and when non-Chinese groups took over the North China plain Jiangsu and the Huai river served as a barrier to further southward expansion.

China’s wealthiest come from only a few regions

In Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy he argues that the difference in per capita economic wealth between Europe and China is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the major arguments he makes is that one has to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Comparing Northwest Europe to China is not apples-to-apples, but comparing Northwest Europe to the lower Yangzi Delta region of Central China is apples-to-apples. Using this measure Europe and China are roughly comparable up until 1800.

At least that’s the argument. Others make the case for much deeper and older roots for the differences between Western Europe and the rest of the world, most articulately in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms.

I don’t have a dog in this fight and am not decided, though I follow the field somewhat closely. Rather, I’ve always been curious about differences between Chinese regions, and how they never undermine national unity. I recall reading years ago in The Age of Confucian Rule that imperial examinations to determine candidates for the bureaucracy had quotas on candidates from the southeastern province of Fujian. They were simply filling up too many slots, at the expense of northern Chinese candidates.

The tension between social and economic orientations of different regions of China cropped up periodically. Basically, the Overseas Chinese community is derived from southern regions such as Guangdong and Fujian, the central government over the centuries attempted to stamp out these regions’ propensity toward international commerce. A figure like Howqua is typical, though he certainly would not be met with approval by stern Neo-Confucians such as Zhu Xi (also a southern Chinese born and bred).

With all this in mind, I was curious about the origins of the 20 wealthiest Chinese as of 2017. Below you see the results:

Name Net worth (USD) Sources of wealth Province Certainty
Wang Wenyin 14 billion mining, copper products Anhui  
Liu Yongxing 6.6 billion agribusiness Fujian  
Ma Huateng 24.9 billion internet media Guangdong  
He Xiangjian 12.3 billion home appliances Guangdong  
Yang Huiyan 9 billion real estate Guangdong  
Yao Zhenhua 8.4 billion conglomerate Guangdong ?
Zhang Zhidong 8.4 billion internet media Guangdong ?
Hui Ka Yan (Xu Jiayin) 10.2 billion real estate Henan  
Lei Jun 6.8 billion smartphones Hubei  
Liu Qiangdong 7.7 billion e-commerce Jiangsu  
Zhang Shiping 6.7 billion aluminum products Shandong  
Wang Wei 15.9 billion package delivery Shanghai  
Robin Li 13.3 billion internet search Shanxi  
Wang Jianlin 31.3 billion real estate, Sichuan  
Xu Shihui 21.1 billion solar power equipment Sichuan  
Jack Ma 28.3 billion e-commerce Zhejiang  
William Ding 17.3 billion online games Zhejiang  
Zong Qinghou 7.2 billion beverages Zhejiang  
Li Shufu 21.1 billion automobiles Zhejiang  
Guo Guangchang 6.3 billion diversified Zhejiang

A few of the individuals I’m not totally sure about in terms of where they were born, but I think I guessed correctly. Comparing representation on the list to national population by province, and you get:

Province Pop % On list
Guangdong 8% 25%
Zheijiang 4% 25%
Sichuan 8% 10%
Fujian 3% 5%
Anhui 5% 5%
Henan 7% 5%
Hubei 4% 5%
Jiangsu 6% 5%
Shanghai 2% 5%
Shanxi 3% 5%
Shandong 7% 5%

Zheijang-Jiangsu-Shangai is the core economic region highlighted by Pomeranz. About 12% of China’s population resides in these jurisdictions, but 35%, 7 out of 20, of its 20 wealthiest individuals were born here. Guangdong, as ground zero of the new economic revolution has clearly benefited.

Chinese metropolitan areas blanketing the earth

One of the fascinating insights from When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order is that since economic development occurred so rapidly in East Asia its cities lack the historic charm of European urban areas. The reason being that the organic accrual of construction and history over more than a century of economic development simply did not occur in much of East Asia. The modern nation-state of China is the most extreme case of this (of course one issue is that historically East Asians have used more perishable materials in construction, and not emphasized the importance of the permanence of great public buildings).

A photo essay in The Guardian, The great leap upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, then and now, illustrates this with images of rapid change in urban areas. But that reminded me to do something I’d been meaning to get to: compare the size of urban areas in China to those in the United States and Europe.

Below is a table I constructed of metropolitan regions. The data are from Wikipedia and I selected the administrative classifications which seemed the most equivalent. Using a cut-off of 5 million inhabitants you can see China has many more metropolitan areas than the United States already. I know an decent amount of Chinese geography for a foreigner, but I don’t even recognize 7 of the 22 metropolitan areas!

China   USA   Europe  
  population   population   population
Shanghai 24500000 New York City 20153634 Ruhr 13400000
Beijing 21500000 Los Angles 13310447 Istanbul 11400000
Guangzhou 20800654 Chicago 9512999 Paris 11200000
Chongqing 18384000 Dallas-Forth Worth 7233323 Milan 8247125
Chengdu 17677122 Houston 6772470 London 8200000
Tianjin 15500000 Washington DC 6131977 Amsterdam 7500000
Shenzhen 12357938 Philadelphia 6070500 Munich 6100000
Harbin 12000000 Miami 6066387 Berlin 6000000
Wuhan 10670000 Atlanta 5789700 Madrid 5600000
Suzhou 10349090     Frankfurt 5600000
Hangzhou 9018000        
Xi’an 8627500        
Shenyang 8255921        
Dongguan 8220937        
Nanjing 8216000        
Foshan 7197394        
Jinan 7067900        
Wenzhou 6642592        
Qingdao 6188100        
Quanzhou 6107475        
Shantou 5346708        
Changsha 5288800      

Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically important to remember that though Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.


* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.