Sunday, March 20, 2016

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


eofarabia said...

Geography? Luck? Here's a stab at it. China doesn't have Alps right in the middle, making it easier to unify the continent. They have two big river systems, the Huang Ho and Yangtse, right? And if you unify one, you have an empire that can overpower smaller states. In Europe you have multiple river systems, but none seems to unify a large enough area to naturally dominate, with the exception of the Danube, and nobody's ever made a Danubian empire (why?). The only pan European empire was based on control of the Mediterranean, a giant sea lane.

Also, China never really faced strong imperial competitors in the neighborhood, the way Europe faced the Middle East. If Europe had a barrier to the southeast, perhaps the Romans would have kept on going. They had to fight the Germans, the steppe barbarians, AND the Persians, whereas China only had to fight the steppe barbarians and the local southern people it conquered.

I love the historical similarities - soldiers revolting at the Indus, pleasure domes of Hamburg, etc. I think an East Asian writer might have made more of the fact that there was a Hunnish population in Europe, if the Xiong-nu actually conquered China, since the Huns were the Xiong-nu (right?). That would be like a Germanic population in China. Also, I think if the Norse were powerful enough to take India, with its tropical diseases and vast, distant territory, they could have taken the Maghreb. Most of the population of libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt live on coastal plains or on the Nile, easily accessible to the Norse. The remaining desert population is small enough to ignore. I think there are more populated inland areas in Morocco, so I can't really comment on Morocco.

Very fun post!

Michael Caton said...

Glad you enjoyed it! I agree although I think the geography part of the answer is more important than the closest strong-state competitors. Either way the central point stands, that a large flat fertile plain with easy river transport, plus Himalayas blocking the nearest states is a recipe for early unification of the area. I did have trouble coming up with a parallel to the "kamikaze" failed invasions that kept the Yuan out of Japan. In many parts of this, Japan is obviously England, but if the Norse were the Mongols, how hard would it have been for them to conquer Britain because a) it's closer to Europe than Japan to Asia, b) much has been made of Yuan-Mongol naval inexpertise playing a role in the failed conquest (the Yuan failed again in Indonesia) so I wanted a parallel blind spot in Norse warfare and c) the Norse did conquer much of Britain for a while in the real world.

You raise a good point about the Danube, which prompts the question, to what extent did that help the Ottomans control southeastern Europe?