Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us

Posts tagged as: series

Why Christians lose

Everybody in the blogosphere writes reviews of books by modern economists or academics, producing a lively discussion on the topics on vogue. That's also how people like Yglesias or Tyler Cowen get good money also. Well I'm not going to participate in that, and I'm not reading any of these trendy books, in part because my fellow bloggers have done all the digestion necessary for me to know what the book is about without contributing to their chalupas eating budget.

All this doesn't mean that I don't read any books at all. It's that what I read doesn't usually interest anyone else. But to hell with it, I've got a blog and I'm gonna do a book review too.

I just finished reading the 1971 book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, by Speros Vryonis Jr.

The Byzantine Empire is one of the most interesting polities in human history, for many reasons. For one, it was the Roman Empire! Or so they called themselves, Romania. It was a Christian bureaucratic theocracy in a time where most of Europe was divided in tiny fiefdoms by uncouth German knights. Humans generally have a fascination for continuity, and Byzantium was a miracle of continuity in a world of violent upheaval. It survived the Goths, the Slavs, the Bulgars. Even the Arabs, although they did do a lot...

Constantinople's suicide

I apologise for the frivolous intermede, and now continue with more serious matters.

Following up with the first post, I'll explain how big, rich and important Anatolia (Asia Minor) was for the Empire, and how the Empire basically let the Turks in by sheer incompetence.

The first chapter in the book is dedicated to bust the myth that Asia Minor wasn't Greek to begin with. It's been written often that the loss of Asia Minor was analogue to that of Syria or Egypt: the people were ethnically distinct from their rulers, and as a result didn't care being ruled by the Turks. Vryonis asserts with strong evidence that the population of Asia Minor, if originally distinct, had long been Hellenised, and by the 6th century was majority Greek speaking, Orthodox Christian up to Cappadocia (up to Sebasteia, modern Sivas). Further east the Syrian, Armenian or Kurdish element was more prevalent. Asia Minor had been spared the multiple invasions that Greece had suffered, such as the Germanic and Slavic invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. Besides some Arab raids after the rise of the Caliphate, Asia Minor had enjoyed a long peace, and was by far the richest part of the Byzantine Empire.

It also was the "spiritual reservoir"(Vryonis' words) of the Empire. Asia Minor was one of the earliest areas to be Christianised, and was "strewn with sanctuaries and cults of numerous saints"...

Where did all the Christians go?

So in the last post we saw how the Byzantine Empire thought that playing a soap opera style family feud was more important than the lives of 10 million Greek Christians in Asia Minor.

Vyronis tells how this crushing defeat woke up all the Greek nation to the danger of the Muslim Turks:

The strife between the generals and bureaucrats not only did not abate, but the very appearance of the Turks in Anatolia seemed to add a certain zest to the struggle as each side strove to outdo the other in purchasing Turkish military aid in a quest for power. This graphically illustrates how narrow and selfish political considerations outweighed all other factors, the Turkish danger included. By this time the true nature of the Turkish menace was apparent to all, to both bureaucrats and generals, but the desire for the imperial crown was overpowering.

Oh.  But the infighting topic is already getting boring, so let's talk about the new boss: the Turks.

I remember reading some years ago some smartass claiming that the Turkish conquest was a good thing, because the Byzantines had double taxes to pay for State and Church, and Muslims have it more streamlined. Yeah he really said so. Of course when one just sees the maps changing colors it doesn't seem like the change was more than just one boss going out and a new boss coming in. The old story of how feudal wars were a trivial business because...

The Byzantine Cognitive Elite

One of the funniest chapters of Vyronis' book tells how the Byzantine intelligentsia coped with the loss of the empire. The Middle Ages were the golden age of religion; everything was understood in terms of God and scripture, all matters big and small were referred to the local priest or bishop, which would use their theological training to explain to the flock how anything, from the local disease which decimated a village's livestock, to an earthquake that devastated a whole area, it was all God's will, chastening the people for their sins.

Well if an earthquake is a proof of God's wrath, the Turkish invasion surely meant God was really really pissed. How did the theologians deal with that? Muslims were as likely as Christians, if not more so, to credit God for their victories, and they surely seemed to have the upper hand in the God's with us business. So what was a Constantinople intellectual supposed to do? Accept God's message and convert? Hell no. People don't spend decades analysing the most intricate minutiae about the relation of the Father and the Son, the double nature of Christ, or the surface area of angels and pins, just to throw it all away and get in the business of hadith reciting. There's already enough competition there already anyway.

So Christian intellectuals chose to fight Islam in the realm of ideas. One funny thing about Muslims that is little acknowledged today, is that the people really think their religion is true, and do enjoy ta...

The Chinese Bureaucracy, 1

Don't believe the hype: learning Chinese is hard. Very hard. It's not for every one. Pronunciation is hard, grammar isn't as easy as often said, characters are insane,  and every city has its own dialect or outright different language which makes it very hard to understand anything unless people actually want you to understand.

And what makes it harder of all is that there's just so little interesting content in Mandarin. I know people who learned German to read Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer himself is said to have learned Spanish in his old age to be able to read Calderón de la Barca's plays. Manga and videogames have motivated many to learn Japanese.

But what do you learn Mandarin with? Mandarin prose itself is quite recent, with 18th century Dream of the Red Chamber becoming an unofficial standard, which saw an explosion of creativity in the Republican era. But the Communists killed that movement right after assuming power in 1949, so the only decent literature in Mandarin is all compressed in about 30 years. Taiwan and Hong Kong have not picked up the slack, so decent content in Mandarin pretty much died. And it can barely be said to have recovered by now, even after 30 years of opening.

I eventually found my killer app (TV soap operas and Wang Shuo), and through them developed a deep appreciation towards the Beijing dialect. It has a bad rep with Chinese intellectuals for having a Manchu superstrate and being a language of idle vagrants and swindlers...

Chinese Bureaucracy, 2

So in talking about how all states end up surrendering real power to the permanent bureaucracy, I thought it interesting to look at the example of China, which has the oldest and most well structured permanent bureaucracy of all. The previous post was on how the Chinese Empire started as a mostly hands-off affair where the Emperors let most daily decisions of government to their ministers, but little by little they assumed more power, until by the Ming Dynasty they assumed personal rule.

Next clip is about the lower levels of government. Who got to be a bureaucrat?

In Ancient China, if you wanted to enter the state bureaucracy, well at the beginning it was all hereditary succession. Which in common parlance means, dragon breeds dragon, phoenix breeds phoenix, and the children of rats dig holes. So that's how it was, the position was inherited every generation. The ruler was like that, and all officials were also like that. Get to the Spring and Autumn period, especially in the Qin state, they had this incentive system to motivate the commoners. If you tilled your land well, you could become an official. At war, those who killed more people could become officials. Those who cut the head of an enemy in the battlefield, would rise one level in the bureaucracy by every head they cut. One head, one level up. Another head, anot...

Chinese Monarchy

The international Jewish conspiracy asks for more lectures from Yuan Tengfei, and more they shall have.

I started this series with the lecture on Chancellors, and followed with bureaucrats, because I thought it interesting to show how different the dynamics in China were from the West. China is *the* monarchy, they've had deified supreme emperors ruling over tens and hundreds of millions for millennia. Compared to that the monarchies of Europe are pretty much a sham. The Roman Emperors kept their pretenses of being Republican officers for centuries, until the Empire wasn't even in Rome and didn't even speak Latin. Later Medieval and Modern monarchs all had to constantly fight and appease their nobles, only to get their head axed, and those fortunate enough to win that battle would soon lose power to the bourgeoisie.

And that's another funny one, municipal corporations with autonomy rights against the court.  The first Chinese to study European history must have scratched their head hard about that. Nothing of the sort ever existed in China. Nobles weren't much of a problem even back in the First Empire, and when the Han Dynasty founder, Liu Bang did give noble rights to his brothers, it didn't take much for his successors to kill them all and stop the experiment. And so the landholding nobility was never an important polit...

Chinese Monarchy, 2

So we've seen that in the eternal conflict between the Chinese Emperor and his Bureaucracy, slowly the Emperor took power from the bureaucrats and into his own hands. As a result the Emperors ended up being extremely busy, having to handle all imperial business by themselves.

But the Chinese Emperors had quite extensive harems, and many of them sired dozens of children. All of which was necessary for the continuity of the dynasty of course. So what happened with all those Imperial Princes? Did the Monarch use his family to control the bureaucrats? Did he enlist their help to run the business of government? Let's see Yuan Tengfei's take on the issue:

[I translate 王 as prince, following common practice. For more details see Wikipedia.]

Princes are Miserable

In Ancient China, the Emperor is boss. So the princes must be second in command. In today's soap operas, it's sorta the same way. If an actor can't get to play an emperor, well he can get to play a prince and enjoy it. All those Imperial Princes, very cool.

But being a Prince was actually quite miserable. First I must correct an idea that most people have. Who get to be prince? In my classes I always asked my students: who gets to receive the title of Prince? And they always say: "the Emperor's relatives". Wrong. His uncle-in law can? His sister's son?...

The Law

A while ago I wrote some posts on the classical Chinese novel, the 14th century Water Margin 水滸傳. The Water Margin is the story of 108 outlaws, in the original 英雄好漢, which literally translates as hero 英雄 yīngxióng and ... 好漢 hǎohàn is very hard to translate. 好 means good, that one's easy, but 漢 means, well, Han, the Han Dynasty, the Han race we know today. It also means man, today normally expressed as 漢子 hànzi. But not just man, that's 男 nán. A 漢 is a real man, a strong, manly man, respected by his peers. You call someone a 漢子 hànzi as a compliment, to mean he's a real man. Add 好 to that, and you have a good+real man. I'd translate it as dude, for lack of a better fit, and also because it fits with the whole LARPing atmosphere of the men in the Water Margin.

They're just a bunch of outlaws, some with good reason, fleeing from the injustice of tyrannical government, some who lost their families to evil but connected people. Others though are just punks and hooligans; small time robbers, mountain bandits, drunkards, smugglers, that kind of people. That they spend the time calling each other great heroes is quite hilarious. Still, China has a long tradition of vagrancy and men doing their own thing, i.e. learning martial arts and forming gangs of bandits. Not everyone could pass the mandarin exam, you know. And those mandarins in the government didn't have the resources to police the whole country, so there was a...

The Song Golden Age

People are asking for more Chinese history. I agree. Chinese history is great. It's long, it's well documented, and it's documented in explicitly moralistic terms. Chinese thought has been always focused in how to achieve good governance, and histories are written as to contain parables of what good government is, and what bad government leads to. The most valued history book in China, the Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑒, written by Sima Guang in 1084, again explicitly states that it is to be an aid for emperors and mandarins to achieve good governance. Good government leads to nice things. Bad government leads to death and misery. That's all Chinese intellectuals have ever cared about. I think it's a good priority to have.

Sima Guang was a brilliant scholar, and it's a huge pity that he finished his book just before the best story in Chinese history happened. The Jingkang Incident of 1127. Oh man, that's such a great, great story. There should be more books about it. It's perhaps the most compelling story in the history of mankind. It's just so unbelievably simple, yet dramatic. It's so good it seems fiction. But no fiction is this good. Anyway, let me tell you this story. It'll probably take several parts.

So again, the time is the Song Dynasty, 960-1279. If you've been reading my posts on the Water Margin, you have some minimum background.  The Song Dynasty was under many accounts the most wealthy and successful of all Chinese dynasties. Not to date...

The distribution of power

Another Chinese story.

Royal absolutism was invented by Shang Yang in the Chinese state of Qin, 360 BC. Of course absolute rulers had existed before, in the Middle East obviously you had plenty of god-kings; but Shang Yang's governance was recognizably modern. It was planned on secular terms, it had a central bureaucracy, and it explicitly took power from the nobility in order to strengthen the authority of the central government. The way it was framed is that the King deserves to have all the power, that's why he's the king; and that the king having all the power will result in more Order and better government, as the people will have no power to resist and create Chaos. Later Chinese political thought changed a lot: Confucianism was explicitly against Shang Yang's ideas (what came to be known as Legalism). In fact one could think of Confucianism as the revolt of the upper middle class against the centralizing legalists. A sort of English or French revolution dynamic. Happens they lost; Confucianism only somewhat won in a very, very diluted way 300 later under emperor Wu of Han.

But the idea that the power of the Ruler should be absolute absolutely carried the day in Chinese political thought. That contrasts a lot with the Western tradition which since the Greeks is obsessed with Tyranny and Despotism and basically makes it hell to run a cohesive government. Power has to be shared or else Tyranny! Much of that was the spillover from the propaganda war on th...

The Song Dynasty's Decline

So we left the story at Song Huizong. Huizong was as I wrote a consummate artist and a famous bon vivant. He knew how to enjoy himself. That means he generally wasn't interested in politics. Politics is generally very boring, pushing paper around, taking decisions about stuff you know nothing about. However Huizong was very willing to do politics if the topic at hand was interesting enough; interesting enough for such a consummate artist, that is.

There is one topic he did like to discuss, which was war. Artists tend to like war. The glory of fighting, thousands of men armed to the teeth and killing each other in mass pitched battles. There's something aesthetically very striking about that and artists across the world tend to be very attracted to it. Huizong was no exception, he was very much into war.

The thing is the Song dynasty had been founded explicitly as a peaceful state. The Song founder had decided the army was more trouble than it was worth, so he instituted a meritocratic bureaucracy and let it run the state more or less unimpeded for 100 years. That results in unprecedented prosperity, the reign of the 4th emperor Renzong being regarded as the historical peak of Chinese government. That produced its own set of problems, though. While you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you. While the Khitans in the Northeast were quite honorable, the Tanguts caught notice that the Song had no army to speak of, so they starte...

The Song Dynasty's Fall

So let's continue the rise and fall of the Song Dynasty. Let me digress a bit and let me talk about the capital of the Song.


The borders of this map are contemporary China, but look at the topography. The Song Dynasty's capital was in Kaifeng. Kaifeng is probably the most retardedly located capital of all 3,000 years of Chinese history. Up until the Song, the capital of China had been alternating between Xi'an and Luoyang. Xi'an is in the Wei river valley, which is fairly narrow and easily defended if you control the mountain passes that surround the valley. Luoyang is just east of the mountains from Xi'an, in the North China plain proper, surrounded by mountains and a large river. Southern Dynasties had their capital at Nanjing, which is just south of the Yangtze river which is huge and completely impassable without a navy. And of course Beijing has been the capital for long due to its strategic location at the northern edge of the central plains.

But Kaifeng? It's in the middle of the damn plain! It has no natural defenses whatsoever. The only reason the Song capital is there is because the warlord who destroyed the Tang Dynasty 100 years later had his base there. Kaifeng is close to Jiangnan, the Nanjing-Shanghai area which is by far the wealthiest of the country, and the Grand Canal goes through there, so Kaifeng...

The Song Dynasty's Surrender

So we left as the Jurchens conquer the Song capital of Kaifeng, empty the city of all its valuables, butcher most of the population, taking around 100,000 people as slaves. Among them the whole imperial family, 5,000 people in all, plus all their servants. The wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the emperor and all the nobility were taken as wives, concubines, or put to work as whores in the Jurchen official brothel. Those who made it alive to the Jurchen homeland, that is. Many died on their way.

Once the Jurchen destroyed the city of Kaifeng, they grabbed one Song minister, Zhang Bangchang, gave him some of the imperial regalia they had grabbed from the Song palace, and put him as emperor of the Great Chu. Zhang was supposed to set a court at Nanjing and rule as the puppet of the Jurchens, who annexed all land north of the Yellow River, but left most Chinese territory to this puppet court. The Jurchens had no intention of ruling China at all. They had invaded to punish the Song court for its treachery and to extract some booty to share between the Jurchen generals. They achieved those goals, and then some. Setting a government in China and finding a way to rule the peasants sounded like a lot of trouble, trouble the Jurchens weren't interested in taking at all. The destruction of the Song Dynasty had also erased all public order in north China. Gangs of bandits roamed the countryside, killing landlords, public officials, Jurchen detachments and anything the...