Sunday, March 20, 2016

Europe as China: Why Didn't It Happen This Way, Part II

For the original thought experiment from my alternate history alter ego, go here.

Alternate history thought experiments are useful for reversing the anesthesia of the familiar - mixing terms, switching coincidences, you start to see where things might have been accidents, and where other things were probably destined. Hence, the "sinization" of European history, combining Europe into a super-state, and the Europizing of China's. But it didn't happen that way. It's still interesting to consider how Europe would seem if shoe-horned into the patters of Chinese history and vice versa.

From a Chinese point of view, Europe is a just a Warring States Period that never ended; a China that never got conquered by one government. Several of the warring states dominate the picture. They are those which have access to coastline and historical political access to new territories, as well as those with good cultural institutions that serve them well in the industrial age; those seem to be states that lacked strong central control until recently, especially those which were not dominated by an empire outside Europe. Europe is a multiethnic continent that has never been truly united. We still remember the Roman empire 15 centuries after its fall because it controlled two-thirds of the continent's territory at one point. Europe is often divided into east-west (although most of the east is now in NATO and this line has seemed to waver in the space of decades); more enduring is the north-south division, created by the more permanent physical barrier of the Alps and their weather effects, which we can see in religious and other cultural divides. Other conquests from without have been averted: the Persians, then the Moors, then the Mongols, then the Turks, all of whom who got pieces of the proximate fringes of Europe. (Don't forget that western Turkey was settled by people we would recognize as Greek and they were ruled by the Persians and fought for Darius at the Battle of Marathon.)


On the other hand, China is just Europe that got conquered, and never re-fractured. Pick your unification point - a loss at the Battle of Salamis, and/or Alexander going west instead of East, or the Roman Empire never falling, or at least always having its territories inherited intact by future rulers. When the Qin took Guangdong (modern Canton), they were culturally and ethnically distinct from the people they met, who they described as bamboo-thicket dwellers barely more advanced than hunter-gatherers. (Many Cantonese people even today who self-identify as Han in fact are more genetically similar to Cambodians or other southeast Asians than they are to Han from the rest of China.) [Added later: I learned that the Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta wrote an account of the Sui Dynasty's reunification of China as a story of one kingdom conquering another - which, of course, it was.]

Miao women in traditional dress, from

A glance at the map shows the old kingdoms of East Asia - the old Warring States - and the briefest of research will reveal China's persisting multiple ethnicities - unsurprisingly in its interior (the Uighurs and Tibetans) but even much further east (like the Miao women above, or the recently migrated Hmong, and many others) - and many of these are finally today losing their cultural distinctiveness, long after losing their political autonomy. The parallels in my little essay are fairly obvious. In that world, there is no "China", there's just East Asia, a collection of belligerent ethnically distinct states with confusing alliances, and an unlikely overarching religion (Neo-Shivanism) from a very foreign place that somehow does not cause them to unify. The Persian state was the Qin, who didn't tolerate lots of chattering scholars either; the burning of the library at Alexandria was nothing. The Macedonian and Caesarean dynasties were the Han, and the Norse were the Mongols. In the alternative universe the East Asians have their own barbarians (the Xiongnu who served as mercenaries in the Han legions) and their Scandinavians, the Mongols and Manchus. In the alternate-history Europe, the last of the Huns and Basques are losing their dress and cuisine, while the Russians and Turks remain politically problematic. (Perhaps Vladimir Putin is the Dalai Lamasky in that world? Who knows.) If you find a Norse or Finnish dynasty unlikely, why, that's exactly what the Sung would've said about the Mongols, and the Ming about the Manchus.

So what are the answers to the questions posed by my alternate history alter ego? That is to say: why am I real, a German-descended person with a Hebrew first name living in a United States settled by the British and named after an Italian, and he's fictional? (I'm not debating whether I'm the real one. Don't get all Chuang Tzu on me.)

1. Why did the super-state of China unify so early to be ruled by one dynasty after another, with only brief periods of fracture, in contrast to Europe, which has only been half-ruled by one state and only for a few centuries at that? This one may be straightforward: geography. Most of eastern Asia is a warm fertile plain, and you could walk from Shaanxi to Guangdong, eating rice along the way - which is exactly what many armies have done. (You would expect that places with geographical challenges would resist incorporation. Within China, Shu, now Sichuan, developed a distinct culture, and of course Korea and the tropical-forested Southeast Asian countries were never absorbed.) On the other hand, Europe has an insanely complicated coastline, plains frequently interrupted by mountains, and a shorter growing season. Europe is harder to invade, harder to administer, and until relatively recently has been less of an economic prize than much of the surrounding world. This is why the Romans ruled Syria but not Denmark, why Alexander went to Egypt and not Rome, and why the Moors only half-heartedly pursued Europe beyond the Pyrenees. In particular, the ornate coastline of Greece looks like something an overenthusiastic ten year-old geography nerd would invent.

2. Why did religion in the West evolve such that it was synonymous with political power? Why is religion in the despotic East syncretic and tolerant of other traditions? I do not have a strong answer for this, but here are several speculations: a) a statistical-evolutionary one. More religions evolving means more natural selection, and therefore more that want to spread and hold power (ie, evangelical, politically-aggressive religions.) Therefore, if you're a state in contact with more religions, you're more likely to encounter politically aggressive religions. If you're in Europe this is the case; and the Middle East was also more closely connected to Europe than to China. (This is the same reason in biology that Eurasian/Mediterranean species are more likely to become invasive in the New World and Oceania than the other way around - a larger initial territory means more species competing, and by the time of the Columbian exchange, only the best-adapted ones were left in that Darwinian crucible, and they often overwhelmed the ecosystems they encountered.) b) Large, centralized absolutist rulers who are serious about staying in power do not tolerate flourishing ideas: hence, the purge of philosophers that occurred with the foundation of China. Who knows, maybe if the Mohists were still here today, they would have spawned something as intolerant as the Abrahamic religions? Plus, religions in an absolutist state where the head of state is not interested in religions are not in a position to develop into an ideology that tries to purge other ideologies.

3. Why did the technology and wealth of European states progress rapidly beyond that of China beginning just prior to the age of discovery? Economists and historians have put the most thought into this question, and one thing we do know is that the groundwork was laid well-prior to the age of discovery. That is to say: the answer wasn't just that Europe extractively colonized the world and benefited from the labor of non-Europeans (although that helped.) There is an argument that natural selection built states in Europe that were militarily successful, and that living in a state which was able to provide predictability and safety but was otherwise not authoritarian would tend to select at an individual level for values that would be useful in the late iron and industrial ages.

This immediately relates to current trends. If we are now in an age more dependent on administrative competence than military skill, China has the advantage. But if China's recent successes now come partly from implementing ideas and values the West has stumbled upon through natural selection, a continued strongly central authoritarian China would not be expected to keep producing such. And that by extension, a strong world state would be an absolute disaster in terms of cultural innovation. Ibn Khaldun, the Persian historian and observer of China, made an observation about this, just as relevant to China's initial unification as it is to the source of its continuing dynasties and ultimately the impact on civilization of the habitable world being entirely divided into states, as it now is. Why would the unifier of China be from Shaanxi, which even today is a bit of a backwater? Why did the first European conqueror not arise from Sparta or Athens, but from those upstarts Macedonia? Whether or not he was right, Ibn Khaldun thought there was an effect of outsiders on the frontiers of an empire coming in to take over the complacent inward-gazing capitals, at least in Chinese history, and he had the benefit of many additional dynasties' worth of data to make his argument than just the Qin. He was perhaps over-weighting the significance of the Mongol dynasty in power at the time he was writing. But what if there were no more clever barbarians on the frontiers, but only other states, operating in a cartel? I don't know, but some level of natural selection, and therefore the triumph of good cultural practices over bad, seems very likely to grind to a halt.

Europe as China: Why Didn't It Happen This Way?

Exposition from a real-world standpoint here. If you enjoy the alternate history aspect of this piece you should see What Do The Patterns in Alternate Histories Say About Us?, which also links to other thought experiments.

Look at a satellite image of Daria and eastern Eurasia. In some ways they seem quite similar: green, fertile places with large population centers. There the similarities end. One is a jumble of small competing states, the other an ancient kingdom. Why did things turn out so differently?

Daria was not always a single unified state so it is useful to review the first dynasty which controlled much of its modern territory. Prior to the Persian Dynasty, there was no Daria as such, but really just southwestern Eurasia, a collection of small city-states trying to hold on to the territories around them and constantly fighting; hence this is referred to as the Warring City-States Period (a term invented by a Darian historian during the Caesarean dynasty). Stretching back into the West Eurasian bronze age there are names of dynasties (the Hittite and Sargon) which I will neglect here because it is difficult to separate legend from fact. In any event it was not until the Persian king took Athens after the Battle of Salamis that a large portion of what we now know as Daria was unified. The officers of the Persian Dynasty wrote that the people living in Athens ("Greeks") were unique-looking, often with blue eyes and sometimes light hair, who worshiped a large contingent of gods headed by a triumvirate, instead of the Zoroastrian dyad that we all know today. Consequently we can infer that the people of Greece province, and probably Italia and Hispania, were culturally and ethnically distinct from the unifying Persians. (And here is our first question: why did the super-state of Daria unify so early to be ruled by one dynasty after another, with only brief periods of fracture, in contrast to East Asia - to the collection of belligerent states known collectively as "China" - which has only been half-ruled by one state and only for a few centuries at that?)

The armies of the Persian king (later emperor of Daria) then went on to conquer Macedon, stopping their northward advance in the wild forests of the Southern Balkans, as well as taking the Italian Peninsula and Spain - which again at the time were not Persian lands, but had people living there called "Punes" and "Romans". These people were also gradually absorbed by interbreeding with the soldiers and administrators who came to settle the conquered lands and by multiple waves of immigration from further east with the future dynasties, giving rise to the large ethnic majority who later spread north from Mediterranean Daria, calling themselves "Caesareans". Caesareans do not make up all of Daria, and today there are autonomous regions (often politically troublesome) set aside for Russians and Turks. Even in the Caesarean areas, travelers remark that there are still minorities with distinctive dress, ceremonies and cuisines in mountain areas that the Darians never fully absorbed, like the Huns and the Basques, but the reach of the modern government (and tourists) may be finally eroding these distinctions. Xerxes noted that the people of the unified continent had rich and chaotic modes of thought, some of which were debated in public, and multiple schools existed without state sanction, especially in Athens and Jerusalem. Consequently, the Persian king ordered the Purge of Philosophers. Some philosophies survived, like the Stoics, mingled with the syncretic and polytheistic belief systems that so bewilder us Easterners, but others like the Pythagoreans or Judaism are known only from history.

After infighting back in Babylon, the Persian Dynasty fractured in a mere decade, leaving general Mardonius in charge of Western Eurasia. Daria was finally reunified two centuries later when Alexander founded the Macedonian Dynasty, extending Daria past the Balkans and Alps to the Baltic; the Caesarean, Ostrogoth, Frankish, and Habsburg dynasties followed the Macedonian. Aside from a few fractures between geographically remote parts of Daria, most of the kingdom, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and the Indus to the Atlantic, has remained one nation ruled by the Caesareans to this day, although a different dynasty has come into power every 200-250 years, with the capital moving between Athens, Rome, Baghdad, and finally where it is today in Amsterdam. The Hindu scholar Brahmagupta noted that the new dynasties tended to come from the fringes of Daria, after the current dynasty had begun to ignore the world outside its borders and even outside the intrigues of its courts. The clearest such example was the Norse Dynasty, when the legendary men of the sea swept out of Scandinavia and up all the rivers of Europe, absorbing the peoples of conquered provinces until the gutters of Athens ran red with blood. (This is the reason for the famous inscription near the Matterhorn where the young Emperor and his advisor, last of the Justinian Dynasty, leapt to their deaths to avoid the ravages of the Northmen.) Despite two efforts, the Northmen were somehow never able to conquer the Maghreb, as their naval expertise did not apply in the desert. The Northmen famously conquered even India and the eastern regions of Russia, and there is a cottage industry of shuddering with horror at the thought of them sailing up the Irrawaddy and the Pearl and the Yangtze. And indeed, there is every reason to think that they would have wiped out the kingdoms of Qin and Chu and Jin, as in their one encounter, they made short work of the best forces East Asia had to offer at the time, the combined navies of Qi and Lu and Wu fighting side by side in the Hainan Sea. But in both cases, they turned around. Coincidence matters; both times when they were preparing to take the whole Pacific Coast, the death of the their high leader the Konungur called them back for an "Al-thing", a council discussion of succession. (Of course, some historians contend that their animals and war techniques and northern constitutions would not have done well in the damp summer heat of the coast.) When Mikl Konungur (which just means the Great Konungur in Norse) died, their great empire split into four pieces as fast as they had conquered it, with Olaf Konungur holding onto the prize of Daria.

And of course, any mention of the Northmen and in particular Olaf Konungur is the natural jumping off point for the history of the East's contact with Daria. East Asia had a very different history leading up to that point. While then Qin famously made several bids on the southern coast of East Asia, they failed; and of course the king of Shu created an empire, but coastal East Asia had little to offer in those days, so he went toward the places of culture and learning, the birthplace of the Buddha, going around the Himalayas to India, only stopping his advance at the Indus River when his men revolted and refused to march further west. And following this, the Han Empire whose legacy most shaped East Asia unified the coast for several centuries. Many books have been written on the rise and fall of the Han Empire (the classic being that by Nakayama) and many leaders have claimed to be building a new Han Empire (among them Yan Li, Chao Po, and of course generations of insufferable Japanese officials after visiting the ruins of the Han baths in Tohoku, just to name a few). But the fall of Han Empire certainly resulted from some combination of poor succession processes, complacence about the outside world, and increasing incursions by the Xiongnu and Turks who the Han increasingly relied on to fill the ranks of their armies. A much debated point is the role of the spread of Neo-Shiva-ism in the empire's decay, ever since Xao Ti's very public conversion and dividing the Han Empire into halves, with capitals at Xi'an and Shanghai. Of course the Xiongnu hordes took Shanghai one last time, and the Mongols took Xi'an, and after that East Asia was back to its natural state of multiple competing states: Shu, Jin, Han, Korea, Vietnam, Shaanxi, and all the rest. (As an aside: it is hard to square the two images we have in the East of the steppe people: the rampaging Mongols and Manchus, who seemed to suddenly settle down into well-run welfare states to make pop music and home-assembled bamboo furniture for the rest of us.)

It was from this fractured world, living in the shadow of the fallen Han (as we still do today) that Tu Pei traveled along the Silk Road as a merchant to visit the famed riches of Daria, at the time of Olaf Konungur's rule, just after the Northmen had conquered the ancient land. Kawashima Mirai's poem about Olaf's stately pleasure domes of Hamburg strike us as a bit over-romantic and even racist today, but this gives us an idea of the fantastic riches Tu Pei thought he might find. As Tu learned, our term Daria is actually the name that the Persian king Xerxes gave to his unified empire in celebration of his victory, naming it after his father, but ironically it derives from a state the only lasted a decade - which happens to be when Han traders started writing about it. Their literal term for themselves is the somewhat arrogant-sounding Ohrmazd-Land, or the Land of the God of Light. East Asian merchants (especially Shanghainese like Tu) were at the time frequent traders, but they knew only marginally more about the Occident than the man in the street. That they knew anything at all was partly a result of the Lingades, the series of bloody wars that resulted from East Asian Neo-Shivans taking back India, the land of their prophet's birth, from Buddhists; though disastrous, this revitalized the Silk Road re-established a middle class in the East Asian states that had not truly existed since the fall of the Han Empire. (This is the second question: why did religion in the East evolve such that it was synonymous with political power? Why is religion in the despotic West syncretic and tolerant of other traditions?) Scholars doubt how much of Tu's story can be taken at face value, but he accurately described many of the Darian landmarks he claimed to have visited, the Acropolis and Coliseum among them (it is a widely believed misconception that he saw the Great Seawall along the Baltic but this was not built until the Habsburg Dynasty, partly as a reaction to the invasion of the Northmen). Tu claimed to have been given a position in the local government of exotic Germany province (Tu had never seen snow or drunk beer) which seems strange unless we remember that the Northmen were warned by Darian advisors that the conquerors of Daria often found themselves absorbed, so they were in the habit of trying to avoid this by appointing foreigners. (In fact they even switched their administration's records from those based on the Phoenician script to one based on Irish Ogham runes, given the strange Norse affinity for the Celts through their brand of Neo-Zoroastrianism; but this did not spread beyond the Norse Courts.)

As we know, the Habsburgs replaced the Norse Dynasty, and indeed the gradual failure of the remaining Norse satrapies seemed to signal a decline not just of Daria but of West Eurasian in general in world affairs starting at that point in history. The Red Sea-Horde held on in India for a century longer (Eastern scholars have often wondered why India retains a tradition of despotism into the modern age when democracy has flourished in the rest of Eastern Eurasia). Even into the age of discovery, relations between East Asia and Daria largely remained those of trade. And the third outstanding question is why the technology and wealth of the East Asian states progressed rapidly beyond that of Daria during this era; the trends were underway well before Japan and Guangzhou began exploiting their colonial possessions. and while Japan, Korea and Guangzhou were colonizing the Two Eastern Continents, they certainly had designs on Daria but outright conquest of such a large and unified state, from a distance no less, was clearly impossible.

As East Asia began colonizing the planet in earnest, the Habsburg Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Finnish (although one Habsburg general did hold out on Mallorca for years). Much has been made of the complacency of the Darian emperor in rejecting the gifts of the Japanese merchant Ishizaki: "What could Japan have that Daria could possibly need?" Meanwhile, control of the islands of the Mediterranean was effectively ceded to one or another East Asian power. Very few West Eurasian states held out: Cromwells who controlled the British crown perhaps wisely remained closed, allowing the Koreans their trade base on the Island of Wight. (It is underappreciated that with help from Guangzhou, the British briefly built their own ships, crossing the Atlantic to trade with Mexico before the Cromwells declared the policy of isolation.) The independence of most of the East Asian colonies changed life very little in Daria, which became progressively more miserable under the Finns, with famine after famine and cession after cession. The East Asian nations began to cooperate to carve up spheres of influence. In most of East Asia, the civil war in the Japanese-speaking United States of Yuanshi was better known than the Napoleonic rebellion in Daria, led by a newly-converted Zoroastrian which resulted in many million more deaths and a near-miss for the fall of the Finns. In the end, it was the curious combination of neo-Han and Buddhist ideals that led to the establishment of the US of Y, and progressive constitutional freedoms in East Asian states, that spread to Daria. A graduate of an eastern-style medical school named Hans Reber took it upon himself to spread these ideas, so it was ironic that when the Finns finally fell, he was in Asia. The ideas of freedom did not take root easily, and the next several decades were filled with famine and unrest, opening Daria to a brutal occupation by British forces. The men serving competing ideals of how to structure the new republic held an uneasy truce while fighting the British. Of course the British withdrew after Yuanshian forces dropped atomic bombs on Manchester and Cornwall, and within a few years the Long March by Kovacs drove Dubois out to Mallorca, which remains de facto independent but claimed by the People's Republic of Daria.

What now? The Shaanxi general Yan Li famously said, "Daria is a sleeping bear, and we would do best not to wake it." It is now awake. After a disastrous first few decades, it has relaxed its policies and grown rapidly, surpassing the U.S.Y. as the world's biggest economy. The surrounding nations of West Eurasia like Ireland and Scandinavia have become quite nervous about the ambitions of Daria and have been driven somewhat into the orbit of the U.S.Y. and strenghtened military and economic ties with ANWEN (the Association of Northwest European Nations). Darian human rights are still an issue, although the Darian government points out the U.S.Y.'s and other Eastern countries' less than perfect record in this regard; candid moments with Darian officials and citizens also show a willingness to tolerate some oppression for the sake of growth, although of course the enlightened citizens of the East would argue that this tradeoff is unnecessary. The East's and in particular the U.S.Y.'s relationship to the wakened bear teeters between that of enemy and friendly competitor. But if Daria and the East want to remain isolated, that ship has already sailed. Eastern universities are filled with Darian students, some of whom remain and of some of whom return home with Eastern ideas. There are Darian restaurants in every city in the U.S.Y., which most Yuanshians would be loathe to give up out of misguided patriotism (even if they don't all know how to correctly use a spoon and knife to eat). But it appears Daria's growth is stalling, making its people again wonder whether this dynasty too has lost the mandate of heaven. The world has become a small place, and history is not over.

Mahesh Nekotani
O-shu, Gosaihama, United States of Yuanshi
Mind-integration physician, University of Gosaihama at Iwatani