Tuesday, 29 November 2011

China - A History. By John Keay

China - A History

John Keay

Harper Press, 2009.

This is my introduction to a 'complete' history of China - beginning from prehistory and ending up in the 1970s, with a final brief nod to current events. The history is written in Keay's apparently usual style (see his 'India') - which means lighthearted use of the language, going through the facts at great speed, but trying to be as comprehensive as possible, a great many references and some analyses. Aa an introduction, the book is good, I suppose. But I don't think a China scholar would think much of it. I don't know why I think so, perhaps it is because of the writing style. The narrative appears unbiased - well, maybe there is a slight anti-western bias. But Keay does not shy away from the great cruelties Chinese inflicted on each other and on others. He is particularly condemnatory in discussing female foot-binding and talks highly of the communists for doing away with this practice. 

Before I sketch out the historical story line let me mention, as Keay explains in the first few chapters, that 'China', through most of its history, meant the middle eastern part of the present-day land area, essentially the area encompassing the two great rivers - the Yangtse (or Yanzi in the present day script) in the south and the Yellow river in the north. Thus Tibet, Mongolia, much of northern Manchuria, the western desert or steppe lands of Xinjiang (adjoining the 'stans' of central Asia) and even parts of the southern country, just north of Vietnam, were considered to be 'fringe' areas, either occupied by, or paying tribute to the central kingdom. Chinese history, at least according to Keay, is thus a list of kings, emperors and dynasties holding sway chiefly over this large and productive piece of land, called the 'middle kingdom' or Zhongguo in Chinese (which is also the present-day official Chinese name for itself), but not necessarily the fringe areas.  Here, then, is the list of dynasties. Mythologically there were five great emperors, one after the other, who are credited with the early origins of Chinese civilization. These and later empires and emperors were conferred legitimacy by establishing that they, and no one else, had 'Heaven's mandate' to rule 'All under Heaven'. The conferment of the mandate was indicated by the absence of natural disasters during their reign, and the presence of ‘good’ omens, as much as the loss of the mandate was indicated by the occurrence of such disasters, and ‘bad’ omens. (I suppose the mandate was assumed by the Emperor analogous to the way the ‘taking of silk’ was assumed at a specific time by lawyers in Victorian England.) The first of the more historical dynasties (kings now, rather than emperors) starts at about 2000 BC with Xia, followed by Shang and then the Zhou dynasties. The last one is most notable for a 'General Zhou' who put in a place a perfect administration in around 1000 - 250 BC, much admired by Confucius (ca 500 BC). These dynasties were during the bronze age, and China reached great technological heights in working bronze - presumably other stuff as well. The latter part of the Zhou dynasty overlapped with a period of confusion called the 'spring and autumn' period, followed by a period of the 'warring states'. At this time, there was no king clearly superior to the numerous dukes and other lesser nobles who ruled bits and pieces of the land. This period was followed by the first known imperial dynasty, the Qin dynasty, ruling a large portion of the middle kingdom. The first historically recognized emperor was Zheng Shi Huangdi (246 to 210 BC) who actually called himself 'the first emperor' expecting to be followed by the second, the third and so on. In the event he was followed by just two more. Huangdi has been credited with building the great wall of China, but the archaeological evidence says he built a small portion of it, at a location not identical to the present site, and using stamped mud as the building material, rather than the stone structure seen today. But the chambers of the 'terracotta army' (which has been identified as the tomb of Huangdi) discovered recently, and not yet fully explored or analysed, points to a sophisticated technology (armor made of jade stones!) and advanced administrative systems (e.g. a common examination in the classics - the writings of 'General Zhou' and Confucius, the 'I Ching'.... all of which literature is reliably dated to the first millenium BC or even earlier - for admission to the Emperor's administrative service, much like the ICS or IAS exams). The Qin empire suffered a period of decline and was reconstituted as the Han empire which lasted about 400 years until about 220 AD. The Han Empire is the first of the five great empires that define Chinese history. Thus, even today, the Han Chinese are the 'real' Chinese - others are minority ethnic groups  such as Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians, Uighurs, etc., etc. This period of great cultural and technological advances (carts, paper, printing, astronomy, bronze and iron working, irrigation, canal building) was followed by the so-called 'period of the three kingdoms' (Wei, Shu and Wu, each contending for supremacy, and the subject of a popular later - 17th century -  novel called 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms') followed in turn by a 'period of disunion' for about four hundred years during which 16 - 20 dynasties held and contended for portions of the middle kingdom, against each other and local chieftains.The second great empire, the Tang empire, followed from 550 to 907 AD, and was once again a period of great cultural and technological advances, especially in administrative structures, tax reforms, etc. The period is also notable for the reign, during a large part of it, by the Dowager Empress Wu Zetian, who ruled as regent in the name of her son, nephew and grandson. Buddhism also became more firmly established during this time, presumably the time Bodhidharma travelled from Kanchipuram (?) to the Shao Lin temple (?). From being the ‘greatest power in Asia’ during the early days, the Tang empire fell into bad times from around 750 AD. In the mid tenth century there was the usual period of confusion with five dynasties and/or ten kingdoms contending to be top gun. Among these were some from Manchuria and Mongolia (Jurchen, Jin) and the Song. This last named was considered the most representative of the lot and this period is identified with it. The period is counted as the ‘Golden Age’ of China, culturally and, again, technologically and administratively. This confusion yielded to rule by the Mongols. While Chengis Khan and his earlier successors were content to invade China (and other parts of Eurasia) and return to their homeland, the later sucessors overthrew the Song dynasty in about 1280 AD and established the Yuan dynasty, with Kubhlai Khan as its most notable Emperor. This dynasty was followed by the indigenous Ming dynasty from about 1375 AD. The Ming period is associated with the voyages as far afield as Africa of Admiral Zheng He, with the increase in trade between China and not just Asia but also Europe, the articles traded being now, more and more, tea and porcelain, rather than just silk, and again great technological advances, including sailing and navigation. The Great Wall worked on in bits and pieces over the years by various Kings and Emperors, was given its final shape in stone during this period. The great canal connecting the Yangxi and the Yellow rivers, was also rebuild, renewed and opened to a great deal of traffic and trade. The Ming period ended in about 1650, when the Manchus (from Manchuria) conquered China and started their own Qing dynasty. The kingdom was consolidated during this period, and slowly opened up to foreign trade, specifically European and American. It was in the Qing period that the British expanded their empire also into China, pushing opium into the country, as described by Amitav Ghosh in ‘River of Smoke’. Other powers were not far behind in humiliating and overpowering the remanants of the Qing dynasty. The dynasty lingered on until the early 20th century with the ‘Last Emperor’ Pu Yi memorialized in the Hollywood movie of the same name. The mandarins (‘IAS’ officials) did much of the actual ruling – Commissioner Li (described in ‘River of Smoke’ being one of them). China was parceled out between the Europeans, the Americans, the Japanese and a huge number of warlords, each a King or the ruler of his piece of land, and constantly bickering with the neighbours. This went on until the Nationalists under Sun Yat Sen and, later, Chiang Kai Shek united large portions of the empire to form a republic. The Communist party was slowly building up its strength under Mao, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao and others. After first joining the Nationalists to push out the foreigners,a nd in particular the Japanese, they took over the country after the famous ‘Long March’ and established the People’s Republic of China, still called the ‘Middle Kingdom’ - Zhongguo - in Chinese.

In brief: Five Mythical Emperors – Xia, Shang, Zhou – the first empire Qin (Huangdi) – Han – the three kingdoms – Tang – Song – Ming – Qing – Europe – PRC. 

Perhaps I looked forward to too much, but the book fails to explain or give some rational lead up to China’s current status as a poor, developing country, albeit developing very fast. With India, firstly there was never such high technological development, secondly our history of being a colony, and thirdly  the sub-continent was never, or only very rarely, one integrated nation, fourthly the caste system, and fifthly the existence of tens of different important language groups and hundreds of different languages, many with their own literature and mostly with their own culture – these may be used to plausibly explain the state of our economy and our polity. None of these factors apply to China. Technology was far in advanced of the Europeans hundreds of years before them, as was their culture, and most importantly they had in place a terrific administrative system a couple of millenia before such things were thought of elsewhere. They have had a continuous ‘Chinese’ culture extending back 4000 years to the second millennium BC. And yet, and yet…..For example they knew gunpowder, they knew bronze and iron working – why did they not make cannons and guns? They knew shipbuilding, they knew navigation, they had adventurers – why did they not cross the Pacific? They knew bureaucracy, administration, accounting – why did not not build colonies? Why did they not colonize even their neighbours Japan and Korea, let alone India, Europe, America, Africa? My reading of this book raises these questions in my mind, but I do not find any answers to them in it. Except one. Both India and China did not have western democracy (communism is after all a post-feudal democratic order, also imported from the west) until recent times. Maybe that is what kept both of the peoples behind.

Before I read the book, I thought Chinese history would more or less parallel India’s, and there are indications in the book that Keay thinks so, even after all his research. However, I think there are real differences. I think China has been, as a civilisation, far in advance of the rest of the world. At least that is the sense I get from this book, though Keay himself seems to notice nothing particularly remarkable. So even though the book itself narrates the history as one king after another, and one dynasty after another, the meta message I got is the one I have stated above. However reading the book again would probably be a bore.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

River of Smoke. By Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke

Amitav Ghosh

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2011

This is the second part of the triology, following Sea of Poppies. As I have said many times to my friends in describing these two books, and also as said in some of the reviews, this is more history than fiction, kind of fictionalized history. The individual characters and their stories are fiction, but the major events and the background are historical. The first book, Sea of Poppies, brought together at its end a diverse set of characters all going away from British Calcutta around 1835 in a ship which meets up with a severe storm. The characters include a lady fleeing from sati, the lower caste lover who rescued her, a former zamindar who has been cheated by the British govt. (actually the East India Company govt.) of his wealth, a half-French half-Indian young girl, and so on. In the confusion caused by the storm, some of them escape. The present book starts more or less after the storm, and traces the careers of some of these characters. One of the main protagonists of River of Smoke is Bahram Modi, a Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, who sails to Canton with a ship load of his merchandise. Also coming to Canton is a botanist from London,  in search of rare flower, and who is accompanied by the half-French girl. Most of the action takes place in Canton. The underlying history is that of the opium wars that the British conducted against China. The two-fold horrors perpetrated on both India and China is what Ghosh wants to expose, apparently. The British forced Indian farmers to grow poppy in the fields in Bihar and Western UP, instead of food crops, and then bought that crop at a pittance, thus driving the farmers into wretched poverty. The poppy seeds were processed in Calcutta into opium, and shipped to China to be sold there. When the Chinese government, fearing the wholesale corruption of their entire population, acted to ban the sale of opium there, the British brought on their warships and forced the Chinese to revoke the ban. Obviously, this is reminiscent of what happens even now - Pepsi, various drugs, GM seeds, SUVs and so on, though Ghosh does not even faintly indicate the parallels. 

The book is written in a scholarly fashion. It is rather emotionless, perhaps deliberately so, for one can nevertheless sense the underlying rage against the depredations of colonialism. Some portions seem laboured. The opening sequence, for example, is apparently intended to be a kind of introduction, based on the previous book, to what happened in the story till then. However, even for those, like me, who read the previous book, it is somewhat confusing. But the book picks up after that. It chiefly follows the doings of Modi, mainly in Canton, up to his  ultimate downfall, upon which the books ends. It also tells the story of Paulette, the half-French girl, and her attempts to get a sample of a rare orchid; and of several other characters. One of the ideas behind this book and the the previous one is to explore the different forms the English language assumes in different circumstances. In Sea of Poppies, we are introduced at great length to English as spoken by the Englishmen who have spent almost all their lives in India (i.e. it is full of Hindi and Bengali words and usages). We are also shown the English spoken by the shipboard lascars, who come from a variety of different countries and end up communicating with each other in their own version of the language of their bosses. In the present book we are made familiar with the pidgin English spoken by and between all those involved in the opium trade in Canton.

Despite the lack of emotion (or perhaps because of it) this is a good book to read, as a novel, as fiction. It is gripping, except, as I said, for the introductory sequence. The language, of course, is marvelous. The next and perhaps last book of the series promises to be even more like a history textbook. Most of the stories of the characters from the first book have been  completed in the second one. It is hard to see how Ghosh can continue from here. Maybe he will go back to the end of the first book, and follow the lives of some of the characters from there who are not mentioned in detail here. That is, the trilogy will not be linear, 1,2 and 3, but will split into 2 and 3 at the end of 1. We may have to wait a few years to find out.