This week’s achievement is that I finished the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This is Moss Roberts’s translation of 三国演义 Sānguó Yǎnyì, attributed to Luó Guànzhōng, one of the four great Míng novels. The Míng novelists had time on their hands and a dense writing system, so their novels are tomes; this one is over 1400 pages.

The title is a bit of a spoiler— the three kingdoms don’t settle down as such until chapter 98 (of 120). But the overall story is how the unified 汉 Hàn empire broke up, a dozen or more generals taking power in various regions, finally consolidating in a threefold division:


  • Wèi in the north, where 曹操 Cáo Cāo claimed to act for the Hàn emperor. His son Cáo Pī deposed the puppet emperor in 220 and seized the throne.
  • 蜀汉 Shǔ Hàn, declared in the southwest by 刘备 Liú Bèi the next year, claiming to continue the Hàn line.
  • in the southeast, where the cautious or indecisive 孙权 Sūn Quán did not declare himself emperor until 229.

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that the kingdoms don’t extend to the southern coast. The book has a wide geographical scope, but very little happens south of the Yangtze. This is because, at the time of the book, the far south was non-Chinese territory, unhealthy and occupied by barbarians.

For Western readers, the book is a little like all of these:

  • Herodotus’s account of the Persian war, concentrating on the intrigues and cruelties of dozens of monarchs
  • Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, where brawny knights ride around beating the hell out of one another
  • Lord of the Rings, which after all is the moralized story of a war, with light supernatural incursions
  • Shakespeare’s history plays— national drama turned into the literal kind
  • The Three Musketeers, also a story of a cunning but ultimately amoral prime minister, and a relatively lowly group which has sworn to defend each other and the King

What three kingdoms?

The book covers a span of 96 years, beginning in 184 with the rebellion of the Yellow Scarves; the emperor asks for assistance in putting down this bandit rebellion, and many of the later contenders for the realm were at first allies in this common struggle. It ends with Wèi’s conquest of the two southern states, and the usurpation of Wèi by the Sīmǎ clan, reuniting China under the 晋 Jìn dynasty. “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has even been,” the novel proclaims.

The novel is closely based on history, especially the Sānguózhì, written soon after the Jìn unification. But a thousand years had produced more histories and commentaries, and above all the development of legends and plays based on the Three Kingdoms. The novel is far longer than the Sānguózhì and, though it tones down the supernatural elements of the plays, retains what had become the received interpretation of the period: Cáo Cāo was a cunning traitor, Liú Bèi was virtuous hero and an ideal Confucian ruler.

(Why did popular culture, and thus the novel, favor Liú Bèi? He was a natural favorite of southerners, and this achieved a particular resonance during the Sòng dynasty, when the Jurchens had conquered the north and a valiant resistance from the south was a matter of Chinese pride. The Jurchens played along by favoring Cáo Cāo, which helped turn him into a villain.)

Now, how do you reduce a sprawling century of war and intrigue to a novel people can actually follow? Well, in part, you let it sprawl. Roberts’s notes include a list of “Principal Characters” that runs to 115 names, and there are literally hundreds more minor characters. Whenever there’s a major expedition, Luó doesn’t just tell you the generals, but their lieutenants and the defenders of key towns. It’s the opposite of most fantasy novels, which reduce a major war to no more than a dozen personalities, ideally all related. But it’s effective— you’re not going to remember all those names, but you get a picture of the immensity of the historical canvas that few other works can provide.

The novelist excels at lapidary little portraits of the characters. Though they’re mostly defined by action, you get a strong sense of personality from even the minor characters.  (I also have to say, not a word is wasted. The book is long but nothing is irrelevant to the overall story.)

Heroes and villains

But beyond that, to make the story manageable, you identify heroes and villains. The majority of the book concerns the developing struggle between Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi (who is normally called by his style, 玄德 Xuándé). As Roberts points out, the quintessential Cáo Cāo moment has him smiling coldly as he elucidates some point of strategy, or executes a rival; the prototypical Xuándé by contrast is weeping over the state of the kingdom, or the loss of a general.

Cáo Cāo in general continually moves up: at first one of many generals, he achieves a special position when he rescues the boy emperor Xiàn. He becomes prime minister, and makes the boy into his puppet; yet he retains till his death a scruple against actually seizing the throne himself. The novel always gives him his due as a master strategist; he’s often called a tyrant and usurper, but from his own point of view he is simply doing his best for the realm and reducing one rebel after another. He defeats his major rival in the north, Yuán Shào, and attempts to conquer the south as well— but never succeeds in doing so.

Xuándé, by contrast, goes through a series of elevations, betrayals, and reversals. In the first chapter he finds two allies, the lordly Guān Yǔ and the irascible Zhāng Fēi; they make an oath in a peach garden to support each other as brothers and to maintain the Hàn. Xuándé himself is a remote member of the Hàn imperial house, the Liú, though so long as there is an emperor he supports him. He gains and loses several cities— always being known as a just and kind ruler, but never quite as strong as his adversaries. In early years he is allied with Cáo Cāo, but the intrigues of the warlord conflicts pulls them apart.

Xuándé’s fortunes change— and the novel really hits its groove— when he meets 诸葛亮 Zhūgě Liàng, styled Kǒngmíng. At this point you may well ask, what the heck is a style? It’s an extra name given to males at the age of 21, normally by the parents. Men of the same generation would address each other by their style. In TK the style is used mostly for Xuándé and his associates, apparently a subtle way of indicating that they’re the good guys.

Enter Obi-Wan

A hero needs a wise, curmudgeonly mentor, and that’s Kǒngmíng. He’s living in a hut as a Dàoist, and Xuándé has to come three times to ask for him before Kǒngmíng even deigns to speak with him. (Cáo Cāo would never show that level of courtesy to anyone.) Fortunately they hit it off, and Kǒngmíng becomes his military advisor and eventually prime minister. One of the pleasures of the book is watching Kǒngmíng ply his tricks: an ambush here, a conflagration there, a seemingly vacated camp, a betrayal that it turns out the master has foreseen. Few epics are as concerned with the pithy details of military strategy.

(You’d expect the master to be an old bearded guy, but in fact Kǒngmíng was in his twenties when he met Xuándé.)

The first order of business is an alliance with Sūn Quán against Cáo Cāo. The latter had recently beaten Yuán Shào, consolidating his hold on the north of China; he advanced to the south with an army of 200,000 men. The southern general, Zhōu Yú, had about 50,000. To conquer the south Cáo Cāo had to cross the Yangtze; he had his men on ships, and as they weren’t used to the water the ships were bound together. An enemy commander approached with his fleet to defect. However, the defection was a ruse: his ships were dummies filled with oil and kindling. The sailors set them afire and escaped, letting the wind blow them into the fleet at Chìbì (Red Cliffs). The result was a disaster, and Zhōu Yú and Xuándé heavily harrasssed the retreating northern army. In history, this is a key battle (if you’ve read the PCK, I used it there), effectively ending Cáo Cāo’s hopes of unifying China. The novel improves it by having Guān Yǔ capture and disdainfully release the fleeing Cáo Cāo, and by having Kǒngmíng summon the winds which blew the fire boats into his fleet.

Next Kǒngmíng engineers a new territory for Xuándé— the city of Jīngzhōu. Technically this was part of Sūn Quán’s territory— Kǒngmíng explains that Xuándé needs to borrow it for awhile while they conquer Shǔ to the west, but this sets up a southwest-southeast conflict that would be fateful later. Xuándé proceeds to conquer Shǔ while simultaneously fending off northern attacks by Cáo Cāo. This is a little tricky inasmuch as Shǔ has a lord of its own, Líu Zhāng, a fellow member of the Liú clan; events are engineered such that Xuándé takes over the province without having to break with Líu Zhāng. (Not a few times, Kǒngmíng urges Xuándé to some morally questionable behavior. Though we’d all prefer virtuous monarchs like Xuándé, sometimes we also want a canny bastard like Kǒngmíng on our side.)

During this time, Cáo Cāo becomes more and more tyrannical, is named to higher and higher offices (finally becoming King of Wèi) and reduces what little power emperor Xiàn retains— even killing his wife when Xiàn attempts to incite a rebellion. Cáo Cāo dies in 220, and his son Cáo Pī finally deposes Xiàn and declares himself emperor of a new Wèi dynasty. In history Xiàn lived peacefully as a duke, but in the book it’s rumored he’s been murdered, which leads Xuándé to declare himself emperor of Shǔ Hàn.

History makes the novelist’s task difficult here… with a superhuman mentor, why shouldn’t Shǔ Hàn go on to victory after victory? The narrative dilemma is solved by having Xuándé ignore Kǒngmíng’s good advice— which is to maintain the alliance with Wú. The problem is that Wú had fought a war to get Jīngzhōu back, and during this Guān Yǔ is killed and a defector assassinates Zhāng Fēi. Xuándé feels he must avenge his oath brothers, and carries on the war without Kǒngmíng. It goes well for awhile, but then he loses a major battle and dies, just three years into his reign. That’s what you get for ignoring the master.


Now Luó has lost his main character and his main antagonist, and we’re only up to chapter 85. But he is seeking a thematic unity, so the book goes on, though the pace quickens. Xuándé is succeeded by his son Líu Shàn— who however inherits really none of Xuándé’s fine points, except for his deference to Kǒngmíng, who runs the government.

Kǒngmíng wages a major campaign against the Mán, the southern barbarians. This is a strange interlude. Westerns are sometimes purveyors of “Orientalism“— positing eastern states run by ugly primitive peoples who have a rude warrior culture, where the women are more sexually available, but who are easily mastered by Westerners. Well, the Mán are treated exactly that way. Theirs is a land of “rampant pestilence”; they have access to shamanistic arts and can control wild animals; women and men “mixed freely and coupled without parental prohibition”. In this section the novelist feels free to include more supernatural and fantastic elements on both Hàn and Mán sides. (It also features the only female warrior in the story.) Kǒngmíng has to capture the Mán king seven times before he submits.

(The Mán are not a real group— “蛮 Mán” is a geographical term, the barbarians to the south. The people to the south of the ethnic Chinese were, then as now, a mixed bag: Tai, Miao-Yao, Mon-Khmer, Austronesian. The campaign reaches into Yúnnán, which even today isn’t entirely sinified.)

He then makes several campaigns against the Wèi. He is full of tricks and victories, and yet makes two major mistakes. In one campaign he trusts a rash general who loses a major city (and with it the chance to threaten the Wèi capital). And in another he is outmaneuvered, becomes sick, and dies (234, or chapter 105).

As Liú Bèi is succeeded by a lesser son, Kǒngmíng is succeeded by a lesser general, Jiǎng Wǎn. He too attempts to conquer Wèi, meets with initial success, and fails to seal the deal. But things are not static in the northland. Cáo Cāo’s successors are each weaker than the last, and the general Sīmǎ Yì accumulates more and more power.

The end is anticlimactic, but thematically apt. A eunuch, Huáng Hào, was his favorite official, and he abandoned the careful and virtuous administration of Kǒngmíng. The realm is described as descending into poverty as corrupt officials rise and emperor Líu Shàn cares about little but pleasures organized by Huáng Hào. Jealous of the general, the eunuch succeeds in sidelining him. As a result, the Wèi are able to push into Shǔ Hàn, and a detachment takes difficult back roads to reach the capital, Chéngdū. Líu Shàn surrenders, in 264— chapter 118.

Now all that’s left is for the current Sīmǎ leader, Sīmǎ Yán, grandson of Sīmǎ Yì, to depose the last Wèi emperor, Cáo Hùan, in 265, declaring the Jìn empire. In 280 Jìn forces walk over the similarly declined kingdom of Wú, and China is united again.

The book thus makes a neat thematic circle: from unity to disorder to unity. Moreover, though the northerners triumph, the line of Cáo Cāo does not: as it had usurped power from the Hàn, it was in turn usurped by the Jìn.

(History marches on, of course. The Jìn did not last long— they lost northern China only thirty years later, and this time the period of disunity would last nearly three hundred years.)

Linguistic sidebar

Would it help if all these names had meaning?

Cáo is ‘class, company’, but mostly just a surname. Cāo is ‘manage’. Sīmǎ means ‘manage-horses’.

Liú has an old meaning ‘kill’, but it’s also mostly a surname. Bèi is ‘perfect, ready'; Xuándé is ‘deep virtue’.

Sūn is ‘grandson’, Quán is ‘power, authority’.

Zhūgě is ‘various-bean’ (possibly a transliteration of a foreign name?); Liàng is ‘bright'; Kǒngmíng is ‘great light’.

All right, maybe it wouldn’t help, but I thought it was interesting.

(Roberts occasionally translates names. E.g. instead of Shǔ Hàn and Wú, he has the Riverlands and the Southlands.)

It’s personal

For Herodotus, every political action in the Persian wars was driven by personal quarrels among the rulers. TK is almost as personal, but it has a greater awareness of logistics and statecraft. After conquering a city, the generals (even the villains) “reassure” the populace— they forbid looting, reestablish order, and confirm minor officials in their posts. The characters are aware that armies are supported by farmers, and that oppressive policies will ultimately undermine warmaking; Confucian morality also, of course, dictated that the virtue of the ruler translated directly into the strength of the state. Generals are very conscious of supply— Cáo Cāo wins his major battle against Yuán Shào by finding and destroying his grain supplies.

There’s a vivid depiction of the relationship between ruler (or general) and his lieutenants. Typically there’s a threat, scouts rush in with the news, and the ruler asks “Who will volunteer to ride out against them?” To lead a successful military action was a quick route upward; on the other hand, losing a battle was grounds for execution.

Or the ruler would ask for advice. If the ruler was truly undecided, it was safe to offer advice to make war or retreat or even surrender; but it was dangerous to offer advice the ruler didn’t want to hear. An advisor whose advice was continually rejected would sicken and withdraw— and that was if he was lucky; leaders felt free to execute someone advocating a contrary plan. (Other leaders could intercede for you and sometimes the leader relented. Xuándé and Kǒngmíng are unusual for listening to all sides without shouting for the executioner. Even they have to execute a few underlings, mostly for treason or inexcusable defeat, but they feel bad about it.)

One of the charming bits is the grandiose titles given to certain generals— e.g. General Who Conquers the South. The wordiness is not present in the Chinese: it’s just 征南将军 Zhēng nán jiāngjūn ‘conquer-south general’.

As TK depicts it, war consists of enormous armies marched to a spot and deployed, then champions riding out from the ranks and engaging in combat with lances. If your man won, your men would be jazzed and rush the demoralized enemy. I assume this is mostly for narrative convenience— as in Malory, personal bravery and strength counted for a lot, but most of the real battle undoubtedly consisted of lowly soldiers whacking at each other. But at least you get a lot of commanders, so it’s not just a personal struggle between the three kings.

Interestingly, it was an accepted principle that a general in the field could disobey his lord’s orders from afar. This undoubtedly reflected a premodern situation where the home base does not have adequate information.

Death and cruelty

Resisting the enemy to the death was highly admired— the enemy general might even bury you with honors. On the other hand, you could change sides honorably, especially if you immediately made a name for yourself by attacking your former overlords. To be caught doing this, however, was unhealthy— the leader would not only execute you but kill all your family.

There’s a fair amount of cruelty and butchery. The normal process for firing people is to behead them, but if the ruler is really annoyed he’ll have them carved up. One of the Cáo emperors, tiring of his empress, issues an edict “giving her permission to commit suicide”. As in Herodotus, I think these things are intended to shock the original readers as they do us. Chinese statecraft posited an absolute monarchy, but one mitigated by Confucian humaneness; tyranny was as despised there as elsewhere.

On the other hand, sometimes a different attitude comes through. One woman, in order to avoid a remarriage, cuts off her own nose and ear; her devotion is praised. Another woman, refusing to surrender to conquerors, bashes her head in against a pillar. There’s a very weird scene where a hunter receives Xuándé and, having no game at hand, butchers his wife. Rather than punishing this psychopath, Xuándé weeps at his sacrifice and rewards him. I don’t think any of these are intended as ‘normal events’— they’re above and beyond the call of duty. (You can of course find similar stories in Western tradition, such as the spy in Herodotus who cuts off his nose in order to make a feigned betrayal more convincing, and there’s a Catholic tradition of self-mutilation.)


There is not a huge role for women in TK, but there are some notable exceptions. Perhaps inevitably, there’s a courtesan who helps drive a wedge between a particular lord and his main lieutenant, by allowing both to think she would marry them; less conventionally, she does this out of patriotism, because the lord has taken over the capital.

Perhaps the most intriguing woman is Sūn Quán’s daughter, who marries Liú Bèi to seal their alliance. She’s depicted as devoted to the military arts, and her retinue of a hundred women are all armed. Liú Bèi is frightened to enter her quarters, but she’s actually rather loyal to him… till her father steals her back.

Lady Sūn doesn’t actually fight, but there is one female warrior, the queen of the Mán tribe— Lady Zhurong, who “had five throwing knives stuck into the gear on her back and an eighteen-span spear in her hand.”

Against kings

TK, while exalting the dedication of those who upheld the Hàn dynasty, makes a strong case against monarchy. Monarchy never works, really. In Chinese history, it’s fair to say that no dynasty succeeded in establishing peace and prosperity for more than 150 years, and even that depended on the luck to have a sequence of able rulers in that period. None of the Three Kingdoms managed it.

The novel (and the official history) blame the eunuchs for the fall of the Hàn. Emperors trusted the eunuchs, as they had grown up with them and they generally had no outside loyalties— so they made trustworthy officials and secret police. They are depicted as duplicitous and corrupt. Ray Huang suggests that the real problem was the landowners. Imperial China is the only nation which, for two thousand years, directly taxed individual peasants. There was never a permanent nobility which interposed between the peasants and the central government. But estates would be consolidated and rich landowners appeared. In theory they owed the land tax as well, but it was not hard for rich men to evade taxes, often with the aid of the eunuchs in the capital, their natural allies against the scholar-officials. (China operated with a very lean bureaucracy, and there was no real possibility of surveying land or even keeping track of changes of title.) The missing taxes would be levied on the remaining small peasants. Eventually the burden would be intolerable, you’d get peasant revolts and then warlords, and the dynasty would fall.

The most pathetic figure in the book is the emperor Xiàn, the symbol of the Hàn for which everyone is fighting. He’s placed on the throne at eight, and at one point has to flee alone from one of the warlords. Cáo Cāo rescues him— but there is little pretense that he will be allowed to rule. He reaches adulthood— he’s 39 when he is finally forced to abdicate— but he’s a prisoner in the palace, and even his empresses aren’t left in peace— Cáo Cāo executes two of them.

But Cáo Cāo’s own descendants end up in the same sorry state. And for that matter, Liú Bèi’s son is a disappointment, and Sūn Quán’s descendants squabble for the throne and weaken the kingdom to the point where a takeover is easy. The book makes a case that the successful ruler has to have the benevolence of Confucius and the canniness of Kǒngmíng— but that this combination is vanishingly rare.


(Edit:) A common trope in adventure stories is that the hero suffers some terrible loss, and that’s their motivation for saving the world.

Interestingly, TK inverts this. Liú Bèi does suffer a loss— the death of his oath brothers. And it arguably leads him to his worst mistake and the one that ultimately dooms his kingdom: he blames it on Wú and ignores the greater threat of Wèi. (This is what makes him ignore Kǒngmíng’s strategic vision.)

Summing up

Should you read it? Of course! I recommend starting with a general history of China, such as the one I’m writing. But the way things work is this: when you begin investigating China, even the dynasty names are exotic, and the individual personalities and events have little meaning. But then you start to make connections, and things start to get interesting. I read TK not because it’s history (a good fraction of it is invented) but because it’s a classic of Chinese literature. But of course it illuminates Chinese history. Names like Cáo Cāo and Liú Bèi become touchstones of familiarity. Plus, the Chinese have been fascinated with this story for centuries— no less than 10% of the Yuán and Míng operas relate to the Three Kingdoms story— and you can now access it in movies, TV series, and video games.

Will you enjoy it? I think so, especially if you like any of the books I’ve compared it to: Herodotus, Malory, Dumas, Tolkien, Shakespeare. Or, so I hear, that George Martin guy.

One of the things China invented is the detective story, going back to Yuán operas and Ming stories, centuries before Edgar Allen Poe. The Chinese term is 公案 gōng’àn stories– gōng’àn can be translated “case file” and is also the source of the Zen term kōan– a koan was simply a case or story for monks to think about.

The judge pauses for thought.

The judge pauses for thought.

In 1949 Robert van Gulik published a translation of one of these, an anonymous 18C novel, as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. At least I hope he did. He went on to write a series of Judge Dee mysteries in his own name, and he translated at least one of them into Chinese, so could he have been elaborately pulling our legs? If anyone has proof that the text predates van Gulik, I’d love to know.

Anyway, the heroes of gōng’àn stories are not detectives but magistrates– officials in charge of a district, including tax collection, public order, and the legal system. Judge Dee is based on a real magistrate of the Táng dynasty, Dí Rénjié, who ended up as a high official for the empress Wǔ Zétiān (r. 690-705).

People can bring cases to the judge, or he can investigate suspicious incidents himself. He is all at once detective, prosecutor, and judge, can call any witnesses he likes, can torture them if needed, and there are no lawyers. There are checks on his power, though: his cases are tried in public, and the public could and would protest to his higher-ups. As these could be held responsible for his misdeeds, they had a motivation to keep lower-level magistrates in line.

This is not noir; Judge Dee is smart, scrupulous, and honest. In this book he deals with three cases at once: a traveling silk merchant who is found murdered; a woman who seems to have murdered her husband but denies it under torture; and a young woman who dies just after her wedding to a rich scholar-official. The cases are interleaved, which paints a more convincing portrait of the busy life of a magistrate than three short stories would.

Van Gulik tells us that gōng’àn stories often invoke the supernatural, and that he’s chosen this story to translate as it downplays that element. Judge Dee does get some help from a ghost, but this only confirms a suspicion, leaving him to find the evidence himself.

The judge is not above disguising himself to find out more information, but he also has four lieutenants. (The whole city administration reports to him, but they only do their normal jobs– his lieutenants can be assigned anything.) Rather as Kyril Bonfiglioli posited that you can’t get anywhere as an art dealer without your own thug, Dee’s lieutenants are mostly former bandits. They’re happy to work on the right side of the law, but they’re trained in martial arts and can mix with, or mix it up with, the bad guys.

The setting and different legal system make the stories intriguingly different, and I’d say they also work as mysteries. They’re solved with detective work, they’re pretty satisfying in plot and detail, and they offer a nice cross-section of imperial China. (The only case I didn’t quite buy was the poisoned bride. The solution is a clever but bizarre coincidence that doesn’t quite fit the reasonable naturalism of the rest of the book.)

No, not the drugs forum, the real one.  I just read a book about it, Silk Road: A new history, by Valerie Hansen.


There’s been a lot of archeological research in the last fifty years, and it overturns much of the received wisdom about the Silk Road. E.g., let’s take the summary from Wikipedia:

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, and Arabia, opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies, as well as diseases, also travelled along the Silk Routes. […]

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent.

The major edit: strike the focus on “trade”. Thanks to the dry conditions in the Taklamakan desert, we have extensive written records from certain cities and periods, and trade was– if you’re picturing huge, constant caravans– underwhelming. The size of a party was generally under 10 persons. Only a third of the parties had horses. Groups arrived and departed less than once a week. (We have these records because trade was taxed and regulated. To move within China you had to have a document listing the people and animals in your group and the cities you intended to visit.) It was also incredibly slow: if you made 20 miles a day you were doing pretty well.

The biggest actor in the height of the Silk Road (the first millennium CE) was the Chinese government. It was the major source of product (silk bundles used both as cloth and as currency), of coins, and of demand (what it mostly wanted was horses). When the Tang lost control of the Taklamakan, trade declined greatly.

Also strike “Romans”. The silk route was essentially a line of contact between China and Persia, with an important spur down to India. Quite a few Persian coins have been found in China; no Roman ones. (By contrast Roman coins are easily found in India.) However, the Byzantines got in on the action. The Romans had silk, but most of it came from India or the island of Cos.

And don’t picture people traipsing from Antioch to Xīān. Most trade was local– a merchant would make a circuit of 500 miles or so.

Once you accept the scale and nature of the trade, I’m afraid Hansen ends up undermining her own point. She emphasizes over and over that “merchants” are rarely mentioned in official documents, that full-time traders were small beans, that pilgrims, Chinese garrisons, and official envoys were more important economic factors. Well, yes, that means that goods were traded. The people doing the trading might not have called themselves traders, but large amounts of materials were entering and leaving the region.

It’s well documented (and not neglected in the book) that religions traveled along the silk road– especially Buddhism, but also Zoroastrianism (the old Persian religion), Islam, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. And again, by her own account, there was a Central Asian community in Xīān, and a Chinese stereotype of Central Asians as rich merchants. These point to a fairly intense level of contact– China was influenced by people and ideas coming from Central Asia far more than those coming from, say, India. (E.g. the Indic writing systems and Theravada Buddhism reached Southeast Asia but not China.)

Plus, don’t underestimate local-scale trade. There are Shāng dynasty tombs from about -1000 containing Central Asian jade. This was long before there was any military presence in the Taklamakan; but jade was increasingly valuable the farther you got from its origins, so it could migrate east in small steps. The major long-distance trade items on the silk road were things like spices, silk, paper, jade, and sal ammoniac– items that were lucrative even in small volume. Thanks to the magic of geographic pricing, the silk road could move items a long way without any individual travelling its whole extent.

Finally, the total tonnage transported might have been low, and mostly inessential luxury goods, but, well, what else would you expect? Large-scale trade in staples like grain existed, but within empires (Egypt to Rome, south to north China). Luxuries are big motivators– the European rush to reach the East was driven by a taste for spices and other Asian goods.

For my book, I just read Robert Temple’s The Genius of China (1998), which is a popularization of Joseph Needham’s decades-long project to recover and inventory the science and technology of China.

A drum roll for... the dromon

A drum roll for… the dromon

Now, I’m 90% satisfied with the book. For most of its history, China was not only ahead of Europe– which wasn’t that hard to do– but ahead of the Mediterranean and Middle East. It had more intensive agriculture, more sophisticated government, a more inclusive religious atmosphere, and a jump start on any number of technologies: paper, porcelain, gunpowder, printing, the wheelbarrow, the spinning wheel, canal locks, watertight bulkheads, cheap cast iron, the compass, even mathematics and equal temperament in music.

Nor is this, as a general principle, surprising: you’d expect the planet’s richest and most populous civilization to be its most advanced, and so it was. It’s not a bad bet that in a few centuries, when we finally enter galactic civilization, we won’t be known as Terrans but as Dìqiúrén.

But sometimes I want to ask… did anyone check over Needham’s work? To support the idea that the Chinese had man-lifting kites, Needham cites the alchemist Gě Hóng, writing in the 4C:

The Master said, Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion. Others have had the idea of making five snakes, six dragons, and three oxen to meet the “hard wind” and ride on it, not stopping until they have risen to a height of forty lǐ [13 miles]… This account comes from the adepts and is handed down to ordinary people, but they are not likely to understand it.

Needham concedes that we have no evidence of the sort of machines Gě describes, but as for the kites, he thinks “there would have been really nothing to prevent it.” Reeeeally, Joe? That’s the sort of dodge you use when you really really want to believe something. Temple helpfully provides a picture of a hang glider to help the claim sink in.

Surely flight is one of the things attributed to sages all over the world? The Siberian shamans and Castaneda’s Don Juan were supposed to be able to flit about using the spirit world; TM dudes are said to levitate; witches fly on brooms; the Monkey King could jump 108,000 lǐ at a time. In Matthew 3, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain tall enough to see “all the kingdoms of the world”. Gě Hóng goes on to support his notion of a high gale by appealing to how dragons fly. Reading an alchemist literally is generally not a good idea.

In other cases my question is, if you pored over the Western and Arabic historical record, mightn’t you find a large number of surprises? The Greeks and Romans were loquacious on their philosophy and politics, tight-lipped on their engineering. E.g. knowledge of the Antikythera gear work was lost for millennia.

A few pages after the hang gliders, Temple remarks “For most of history, Europeans used ships which were drastically inferior to Chinese ships in every respect imaginable. They had no rudders, no leeboards, no watertight compartments, single masts, and square sails…” Which is simply wrong. Roman ships had rudders and multiple masts. The Byzantine dromon, shown above and used throughout medieval times, had multiple masts and triangular sails.

Needham often suggests that any particular Chinese discovery must have found its way to the West. This is frustrating, as in fact science is full of multiple independent discoveries. Now, sometimes he has good clear evidence: e.g. he has a 1787 quote from Ben Franklin suggesting that mail ships be built with watertight bulkheads “after the Chinese manner”. But the monogenesis of ideas is a terrible heuristic.

Temple’s cheerleading gets tiresome at times— e.g. the last section, on warfare, says “No nation in the world could match the Chinese expertise in warfare for two millennia.” Except, you know, China was conquered twice by northern nomads, and northern China several times more. And China, for all its might, was remarkably unsuccessful at expanding into Korea and Vietnam, despite multiple tries. I think the problem here is that Temple confuses invention with mass deployment: they had land mines! burning gas! cannons! repeating catapults! Well, yes, but it’s far from clear that these were manufactured in sufficient quantity, or used with sufficient skill. Everything in China was at huge scale, but so were the logistical problems. So far as I can see, China’s government was always underfunded, and its army was subpar for an empire its size (not least because its elite was– unusually for the premodern world– not drawn from the military).

(And yes, I’m aware that for some of those conquests, the nomads used Chinese troops and engineers.  On the other hand, the Sòng, back when they controlled all of China, were completely unable to get the Sixteen Prefectures back from the Khitans, which doesn’t say much for Temple’s claim of unbeatability.)

Anyway, it’s still a fascinating book.  As I say, I don’t have problems with 90% of it.  It’s just that a few bits rang my skepticism meter.

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately; this is a bit of a teaser.

Reading about the 19th century is embarrassing: it was one reverse for China after another, starting with the first Opium War in 1839-42. China had been trading with the West for a few centuries. The West wanted various things– silk, porcelain, tea, carpets– while about all the Chinese wanted was silver. But Britain had recently come up with a new product: opium, grown in India. This was a winner, though immoral.

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century. It was her fault, in part

The Chinese understandably objected, and sought to ban the trade. Britain responded with war, and trounced China. The price was high: an indemnity; extraterritoriality; Hong Kong Island; opening several treaty ports, and of course allowing the opium trade. This was only the first of many humiliations.

Which raises many questions: Didn’t people realize what was at stake? Why didn’t China modernize, when Japan managed it so fast that it became one of the Great Powers oppressing China by 1894? For that matter, how could Dèng Xiǎopíng do it a hundred years later?

There is no one answer, but a constellation of factors:

  • It was a huge, sudden adjustment. The 18C in China had been a huge success. China had never had a larger empire; it was stable and prosperous; it was largely peaceful at a time when war between the Western powers was near-constant; it wasn’t troubled by Western problems like religious wars and aristocracy. As late as 1800, the Chinese could feel that they were the most civilized nation on Earth, and see little around them to contradict this.
  • If you’ve been on top of the world, it’s hard to grasp that things have changed. This is a lesson we might learn today. In a hundred years, people will have as many questions about us as we have about the Qīng: Why did they ignore climate change? Why did they persist with a government structure that obstructed itself? Why did they ignore the domination of the 1%?
  • It didn’t help that China wasn’t run by the Chinese, but by the Manchus. As a foreign conquest dynasty, their chief priority was hanging onto power, and their basic attitude was conservative.
  • Yet the Manchus were perhaps too flexible. For millennia Chinese policy was to both fight and appease the barbarians, as seemed appropriate. You gave way a little in order to buy time and lessen threats; most likely the barbarians would all sinify sooner or later anyway.
  • Peasant rebellions, especially that of the Tàipíng, were far more destructive than the Western incursions, and till the end were more of a preoccupation to the elite.
  • China’s civil service examinations produced an elite defined not by wealth or blood, but by their shared achievement in mastering the Confucian classics.  The scholars could not embrace any educational reform that would eliminate their achievement and their status. In the 1870s there was a program to send Chinese students to US universities. It was controversial— and was canceled—because the students were being deprived of the opportunity to take the Confucian examinations.
  • The government was not well structured to address either development or foreign affairs. Much of the work that was done, including setting up factories and even fighting wars, was left to local officials.
  • China had long had merchants, but little of the underpinnings of capitalism: banks, insurance, civil law, an effective administration, bourgeois self-government.
  • The Western nations (including the US) had all protected their native manufactures by high tariffs; this was forbidden to the Chinese by the unequal treaties.
  • There was no real model to follow— contrast Dèng, who without even leaving the Sinosphere could contemplate Táiwān, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Curiously, there was a precedent for the unequal treaties, only a few years before. Chinese power in Xīnjiāng, 3500 miles from Běijīng, had to be excercised with a light hand: the local population was Muslim, and were best ruled indirectly, through their own leaders. Kokand, in modern Uzbekistan, just outside Xīnjiāng, demanded extraterritoriality for its merchants, and fought a war to get it (1826-35).

Things did get done— after the first few wars, there was something China wanted very much: rifles and steamships.  It built arsenals, steelyards, shipyards.  It should also be noted that the service firms Westerners dealt with (‘compradors’), essentially their local partners, became huge enterprises that sometimes became richer than the Westerners they dealt with.

As for why Japan could modernize— just forty years after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853 it was able to win a war with China— I’d point to some key differences:

  • Japan had less than a tenth of China’s population; smaller nations are easier to control and change.
  • It was used to borrowing ideas and institutions from abroad, whereas China had not really imported anything major after Buddhism.
  • Japan’s modernization required a coup d’état; but once this was done it had an effective government— when orders were issued, things got done. The Manchus never had that guarantee.
  • There was no scholar-bureaucrat class. The samurai elite defined itself militarily, and had less trouble embracing Western science and technology.
  • The Japanese had a stronger mercantile and maritime focus,which seems to offer a leg up on development— it was Britain and the Netherlands that led the way to modern capitalism.

Things started changing in 1911… but then everything fell apart.  But that’s a story for later.

I just finished The History of the Renaissance World, by Susan Wise Bauer. The subtitle is From the rediscovery of Aristotle to the conquest of Constantinople, which means it’s about what most people would call the Middle Ages.

The major subject

The major subject

It’s a weird mixture of new and old style history. It’s worldwide, so you get fairly good coverage of China and India, and sporadic chapters on Africa and Native America. But it’s also all about personalities– almost nothing about culture, literature, technology, economics.  Which means it’s mostly stories about kings.

Condensed into one worldwide narrative, the story of human monarchy gets distilled to its essence: it sucked.  Srsly, all over the world, it worked about the same way, and that was “badly”.  The whole theoretical advantage of monarchy is that it avoids succession disputes.  Only it doesn’t– no matter how sacredly the king vows that his successor shall be his well-beloved son, some cousin or uncle or general or duke is likely to object once the old man is laid out.  Plus, of course, a new king is often a child, or at best inexperienced and dominated by his elders; very often this becomes institutionalized in some way.

Japan in this period provides a nice example. It became customary for the emperor to abdicate in favor of an infant relative– becoming the Cloistered Emperor, a position where he could wield the power while the child did all the onerous ceremonies. Only the military took over the actual administration of the country, producing the shogunate.  Only the shogunate was hereditary, so there was a problem of infant shoguns… no problem, an older relative became the shikken, the shogun’s protector.  For a time all four levels of this ridiculous hierarchy perpetuated themselves. (Nor did this prevent the country from being fragmented between senior and junior lines of the imperial family.)

If you did get a strong king, that often just meant that he had the resources available to spend his entire reign at war, or that he was enough of a sociopath to stop rivals before they could get going– usually by murdering them.

Elective monarchies in theory could choose only strong candidates, but of course the electors normally had little interest in electing anyone who would restrain their own freedom.

The other theme in the book is the ever-broadening idea of the crusade. It didn’t exactly start off as a noble idea, but it steadily worsened, soon being used against heretics and then anyone the Pope had a quarrel with.  The last chilling echo of the crusades was the Pope’s blessing of the Portuguese slave trade. For all that, the crusades, like all of the Papacy’s secular schemes, were a self-defeating failure. The popes, like certain right-wing politicians, just never understood the difference between how they thought the world should work and how it did work. They constantly overreached, never learned from their mistakes, and eventually destroyed what unity the church had.

The multiculturalism of the book is refreshing, but also jarring– you’ll bounce from France to China to Sri Lanka to Egypt to Africa, in chapters that are only a few pages long. This makes longer-term stories (like the papal schism or the Hundred Years war) hard to follow. Plus it’s still Eurocentric: there are 54 chapters on Europe and the Middle east, 32 on India, China, and points east, and just 8 on everywhere else.  And because of the focus on kings, regions only appear once they have some royal history– so e.g. Scandinavia doesn’t get any coverage till chapter 86.  The chapters on Mexico and Peru are barely worth having.

I have some quibbles over names. Bauer mixes pinyin and Wade-Giles for no good reason. She insists on calling France “Western Francia” until the realm of Philip II, which is weird.  (If it’s to underline that the king in Paris had little control over the territory until that time, that’s no less true of the kings of Germany.)  She also uses English names for all the European kings– this is traditional, but with the short chapters it would be a lot easier to keep the kings apart if the local names were used.

I didn’t know it when I picked it up, but the book is the third in an ongoing world history. I can about 3/4-heartedly recommend it.  It’s very readable, and presents quick, vivid portraits of a slew of kings, queens, and hangers-on. And the worldwide focus means that at least some of the stories will be new to you.  But it has almost no interest in culture; you get very little about how these nations differed, or what anyone below the elite was doing, or about any non-kingly story that was going on: what scholasticism actually taught, courtly love, early capitalism, what the alchemists were doing, the windmill revolution, how exactly the Central Asian nomads adapted to ruling China, how the Arab scientific mindset stalled, how military tactics evolved.  And even stories it focuses on, such as the English-French wars, are often better told elsewhere.  Still, it’s a fun and fast read.





This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.


Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

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