井底之蛙

9/23/2012

Reconsidering Marco Polo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:07 am Print

“Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay….” Perry Anderson, LRB

MMA 2012 - China - Tang - late 7c - Camel and RidersI got an email from a student who found my blog post in which I make a highly critical case regarding the historicity of Marco Polo’s adventures. They wanted to confirm (since some data was lost in the latest HNN transition) that it was mine for citation purposes. I’ve been considering revisiting it for a while now,1 and this seems like a good time, because my views on the subject have evolved a bit since: I’m still highly skeptical of Polo, but more importantly, I think the very structure of the argument and nature of the sources makes it highly unlikely that the believers and skeptics will come to a consensus.

When I expressed my doubts, lo those many years ago, I was informed that there was still some life left in Polo’s tale. It turns out that there is so much scholarship on aspects of Polo’s text that there’s even a term for it — “Polan scholarship” and if there’s one thing Polan scholars can’t stand, it’s to have Polo’s work seriously questioned. All the errors are “honest”; all the omissions are “explicable”; all the unconfirmed and untranslated stuff are just waiting to be decoded if only we had better Chinese sources; and incomprehensible bits are the result of Polo listening to the wrong people. That’s the attitude going in, and it’s the same attitude coming out.2 There seem to be lots of Euro-centric scholars with strong attachments to Polo, but a lot of Sino-centric scholars were very dubious.3

Foreigners were involved in Qin construction, and travel in China was common and widespread: the idea that China was closed or that people never migrated are both vestiges of simplistic thinking rather than historical verities. Even the harshest critics of Polo’s historicity admit that he got some thing right, and must have had some valid sources. The question is whether he was an eyewitness and participant in the history and culture he described, and, most importantly, whether he can be considered a credible independent source for the study of Chinese history and culture. I think the answer is still “no.” The story is great, but even if you take it seriously, it’s fantastical.4

Still, having entered this fray, I feel an intellectual obligation to stay informed. So when I ran across a catalog blurb for Stephen Haw’s Marco Polo’s China: a Venetian in the realm of Khubilai Khan (Routledge, 2006), it piqued my interest; thanks to inter-library loan, I finally got hold of it. Only for a week, unfortunately, but it was an interesting ride.
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  1. You can tell by the dates on the articles linked here, this has been in draft for quite a while []
  2. there’s a lot of emotion in Polan defenses, though if I’d made a life’s work on a complex source and found a lot of scholars who hadn’t attacking it as fraudulent, I might be emotional about it as well []
  3. E.g. Obituary of John Larner, historian of Marco Polo. And “New archeological data highlights Polo errors.” []
  4. WaPo review of new Polo bio []

2/10/2010

China gets modern

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 9:39 pm Print

A nice photo essay from Financial Times on railways in Inner Mongolia.  Lots of nice pics, but the thing that amazed me was that the author was traveling with a  “coachload of well-dressed Chinese steam enthusiasts.” Needless to say they were there to ride one of China’s last working steam locomotives.  For those of you who don’t know, train nuts are at least as fanatic as comic book collectors or stamp people or whatever. As far as I am aware China does not yet have a Myles na gCopaleen,  but apparently they do have plenty of people who are nostalgic for the vanishing industrial past.

12/18/2009

Holiday reading: Murder, treachery and genocide

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:39 am Print

As I am half-heartedly getting ready for the Spring I am putting together some readings for my students. What survey would be complete without a chunk from the Secret History of the Mongols? So if you are looking to take a break from your preparations for Taiwan’s Constitution Day this is a good way to take a break.  I would like to claim that I have carefully studied the whole text and picked out the best bit to give you a picture of Mongol society, but that’s not really true. It is a good read though, if a little long for use in class.

from Chapter Four

After getting Ong Qan to come, Cinggis Qa’an and Ong Qan decided to move jointly against Jamuqa. They set out downstream along the Keluren River. Cinggis Qa’an sent Altan, Qucar and Daritai as vanguard; Ong Qan for his part sent as vanguards Senggum, Jaqa Gambu and Bilge Beki. Patrols were also dispatched ahead of these vanguards: at Enegen Guileni they set up an observation post; beyond that, at Mount Cekcer, they set up another observation post; and beyond that, at Mount Ciqurqu, they set up a further observation post. Altan, Qucar, Senggum and the others of our vanguard arrived at Utkiya. While they were deciding whether to camp there, a man from the observation post which had been set up at Ciqurqu came riding in haste and brought the news that the enemy was approaching. When this news came, without setting up camp they went towards the enemy in order to gain information. They met and gained the information: when they asked the enemy patrol who they were, it turned out to be Jamuqa’s vanguard consisting of A’ucu Ba’atur of the Mongols, Buyiruq Qan of the Naiman, Qutu, the son of Toqto’a Beki of the Merkit, and Quduqa Beki of the Oyirat. These four had been going towards us as Jamuqa’s vanguard.
Our vanguard shouted at them, and they shouted back, but it was already getting late. Saying, ‘Tomorrow we’ll fight!’, our men withdrew and spent the night together with the main body of the army.
Next day the troops were sent forward and when they met, at Koyiten, they battled. As they pressed on each other downhill and uphill, and reformed their ranks, those very same Buyiruq Qan and Quduqa, knowing how to produce a rainstorm by magic, started to conjure it up, but the magic storm rolled back and it was right upon themselves that it fell. Unable to proceed, they tumbled into ravines. Saying to each other, ‘We are not loved by Heaven!’, they scattered.
Buyiruq Qan of the Naiman separated from the rest and went towards Uluq Taq on the southern side of the Altai Mountains. Qutu, the son of Toqto’a of the Merkit, went towards the Selengge River. Quduqa Beki of the Oyir went towards the Sisgis River, making for the forest. A’ucu Ba’atur of the Tayici’ut went towards the Onan River.
Jamuqa plundered the very people who had elected him qan; then he moved homewards following the course of the Ergune. As they were dispersing in this way, Ong Qan pursued Jamuqa downstream along the Ergune while Cinggis Qa’an pursued A’ucu Ba’atur of the Tayici’ut in the direction of the Onan.
As soon as A’ucu Ba’atur reached his own people, he had them moved along with him in haste. The Tayici’ut A’ucu Ba’atur and Qodun Orceng arrayed their troops at Ulengut Turas on the other side of the Onan, and stood in battle order ready to fight.
Cinggis Qa’an came up and fought with the Tayici’ut. They battled to and fro incessantly until evening came; then, in the same place where they had been fighting, they passed the night right next to each other. When people [the refugees] arrived, fleeing in disarray, they set up a circular camp and also passed the night in the same spot, alongside their troops.  In that battle Cinggis Qa’an was wounded in a vein of the neck. He could not stop the bleeding and was in a great plight. He waited till sundown, then he pitched camp just there where the two armies had encamped right next to each other.
Jelme sucked and sucked the blood which clogged Cinggis Qa ‘an’s wound and his mouth was all smeared with blood. Still, Jelme, not trusting other people, stayed there and looked after him. Until the middle of the night he swallowed down or spat out mouthfulls of the clogging blood.
When midnight had passed Cinggis Qa’an revived and said, ‘The blood has dried up completely; I am thirsty.’ Then Jelme took off his hat, boots and clothes – everything – and stark naked but for his pants, he ran into the midst of the enemy who had settled right next to them. He jumped  on to a cart of the people who had set up a circular camp over there. He searched for kumis, but was unable to find any because those people had fled in disarray and had turned the mares loose without milking them.
As he could not find kumis, he took from one of their carts a large covered bucket of curds and carried it back In the time between his going and coming back he was not seen by anyone. Heaven indeed protected him!
Having brought the covered bucket of curds, the same Jelme, all by himself, searched for water, brought it back and having mixed it with the curds got the Qa’an to drink it.
Three times, resting in between, the Qa’an drank, then he spoke: ‘The eyes within me have cleared up.’ He spoke and sat up: it was daybreak and growing light. He looked and saw that, all about the place where he was sitting, the wound-clogging blood that Jelme had kept on sucking and had spat about had formed small puddles. When he saw it, Cinggis Qa’an said, ‘What is this? Couldn’t you have spat farther away?’ Jelme then said, ‘When you were in a great plight, had I gone farther away I would have feared being separated from you. As I was in haste, I swallowed what I could swallow and spat out what I could spit out; I was in a plight myself and quite a lot went also into my stomach!’
Cinggis Qa’an again spoke: ‘When I was in this state, lying down, why did you run naked into their camp? Had you been caught, wouldn’t you have revealed that I was like this?’ Jelme said, ‘My thought, as I went naked, was that if somehow I got caught, I would have said, “I wanted to submit to you, but they found out and, seizing me, decided to kill me. They removed my clothes – everything – only my pants had not yet been removed when I suddenly managed to escape and have just come in haste to join you. They would have regarded me as sincere, they would have given me clothes and looked after me. Then, I would have jumped on a horse and while they were astonished watching me flee, in that brief moment I would have surely got back! So thinking, and because I wished to get back in time to satisfy the Qa’an’s craving for drink caused by his parching thirst, thinking this and without so much as blinking an eye I went there.’
Cinggis Qa’an said, ‘What can I say now? In former days, when the Three Merkit came and thrice circled Mount Burqan, you saved my life for the first time. Now, once more, you restored me to life when, with your mouth, you sucked the clotting blood from my wound. And, yet again, when I was in a great plight with a parching thirst, disregarding your life, you went amidst the enemy without so much as blinking an eye; you quenched my thirst and restored life to me. These three services of yours will stay  in my heart!’ Thus the Qa’an spoke.

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5/6/2008

China’s Robinson Crusoe

I’ve been reading Wolf Totem and having a lot of fun doing so. The book, based on Jiang Rong’s time as a sent-down youth in Inner Mongolia. was a huge best-seller in China. Why is this book a Thing Chinese People Like? Nicole Barnes says that the book is nostalgic drivel aimed at Chinese who long for a world with fewer skyscrapers and more manliness and seek it in Mongolia. A lot of the novel is also nostalgia for the past. If you want to recapture the ancient knowledge of the East, Mongolia is apparently the place to do it. Our Chinese heroes spend a lot of time trying to keep wolves from eating the sheep, and learning about the symbiotic relationship between the Mongols, the steppe, and the wolves, and thus the foundations of Asian society.

Chen felt himself to be standing at the mouth of a tunnel to five thousand years of Chinese history. Every day and every night, he thought, men have fought wolves on the Mongolian plateau, a minor skirmish here, a pitched battle there. The frequency of these clashes has even surpassed the frequency of battles among all the nomadic peoples of the West outside of wolf and man, plus the cruel, protracted wars between nomadic tribes, conflicts between nationalities, and wars of aggression; it is that frequency that has strengthened and advanced the mastery of the combatants in these battles. The grassland people are better and more knowledgeable fighters than any farming race of people or nomadic tribe in the world. In the history of China—from the Zhou dynasty, through the Warring States, and on to the Qin, Han, Tang, and Song dynasties—all those great agrarian societies, with their large populations and superior strength, were often crushed in combat with minor nomadic tribes, suffering catastrophic and humiliating defeat. At the end of the Song dynasty, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan invaded the Central Plains and remained in power for nearly a century. China’s last feudal dynasty, the Qing, was itself founded by nomads. The Han race, with its ties to the land, has gone without the superior military teachings of a wolf drillmaster and has been deprived of constant rigorous training exercises. The ancient Chinese had their Sun-tzu and his military treatise, but that was on paper. Besides, even they were based in part on the lupine arts of war.

Millions of Chinese died at the hands of invasions by peoples of the North over thousands of years, and Chen felt as if he’d found the source of that sad history. Relationships among the creatures on earth have dictated the course of history and of fate, he thought. The military talents of a people in protecting their homes and their nation are essential to their founding and their survival. If there had been no wolves on the Mongolian grassland, would China and the world be different than they are today?
Jiang Rong p.99

Wolf Totem actually fits pretty well with the other book I am reading for fun at the moment, Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. Rose’s book was very well-received,which is not surprising as it is a very good look as what ordinary British folk read and what they got out of it in the couple of centuries before 1945. One book that was quite popular for a very long time was Robinson Crusoe. Like Wolf Totem it is a ripping yarn with extended didactic passages. Like Wolf Totem it is a story of civilized men outside the city. Rose suggests that Crusoe was popular in part because appealed to both members of the new middle class who were no longer able to provide what they needed with their own hands and to those who were still working with their hands and liked reading a book that represented what they did as important.

Wolf Totem has a lot of that as well. As a keyboard jockey I like books about places where everyone is doing something and it is clear exactly what benefit each thing provides. The is particularly clear in Wolf Totem, since Jiang goes through the workpoint value of each job a person can do and shows how each is perfectly calibrated to the exertion the work requires and its value to the group.1 Would you be willing to go without electricity to live in a world where every day you did things of real value and this was accepted by everyone around you, and sucking up and bullshit were totally impossible? Apparently some people in China would too.

More later (mabye) on ethnic politics in the book.

  1. I’m guessing that many of his readers have no memory of how the workpoint system actually functioned []

4/20/2007

Maps and Empire

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:52 pm Print

Maps have been an important part of empire in China for a long time. In the Warring States period spies were always trying to steal maps, and defeated states presented maps of their territory to the victors as a sign of submission. Geographic knowledge written down in books like the Classic of Mountians and Seas was avidly collected as a way of learning the universal patterns of the universe. Needless to say there has been a lot written in the last decade or so about how cartography connects to empire, as it fits in so well with whole postmodern power/knowledge thing. To map a place is to control it, and thus empire-builders were always interested in mapping. I have not found many better visual representations of this than this map of Russian cartography on China, found on the CHGIS site.

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1/15/2007

Bad History: Mongols good, US bad?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:35 pm Print

Jack Weatherford’s piece reprinted in the latest edition of (the increasingly inaptly named) Japan Focus argues that the US occupation of Iraq is a failure, while the Mongol occupation of Persia was a success, and that — and here’s where I have start to have problems — it must mean that the US can and should learn something from the differences. It’s kind of odd, actually, to see a Japan Focus piece which argues that the US should have been killing more people, more efficiently — “the Mongols perfected the list of who to kill in a conquered land,” says Weatherford — to produce a “better” result.

Let’s face it: if the US had followed a Mongol policy, as described by Weatherford — proxy armies, mass population displacement, “selective” massacres, blanket execution of leadership, etc. — Japan Focus and every other left or “progressive” venue would be seething with justified righteous rage. Moreover, a good deal of what Weatherford describes as the redeeming qualities of Mongol rule — secular government, low taxation, redistribution of government assets, harsh enforcement of law-n-order — are entirely in line with what the US has been trying to accomplish.

Ultimately, the difference seems to come down to the Mongols ability to monopolize force, not to some kind of superiority in their post-occupation planning, and the modern revolution in small arms and explosives and transportation has made that considerably less tenable. Additionally, the Mongols were not trying to be leaders on a world stage in which moral capital mattered; they were conquerers who cultivated an aura of death, and there were no neighbors with competing interests fomenting instability in their borders. It’s true that the US has used some restraint in responding to insurgent provocations, but then the US is not trying to create a colony with a figurehead scholar-governor, nor is it content to leave in place the kind of government which existed before, with its secret police, limited religious freedoms, etc.

It has been argued, I’ve argued it myself, that the US should have gone in with considerably greater forces than they did, in order to have a better chance at social stability and political reconstruction. But that’s hardly an endorsement of the slash-and-burn methods of 750 years ago.

5/9/2006

Tombs on Tuesday

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:06 am Print

It’s been a good week for archaeology in the news, it seems:

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