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REVIEW: Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, by David A. Graff
Medieval Chinese Warfare, 300-900, David A. Graff (Routledge, 2002).
I have a secret confession to make. Late at night, when Mrs. Psmith and the Psmithlets are all tucked away in their beds, I like to stay up in my study and fantasize about…the end of the world. But not just any end of the world, because most apocalypses are very boring. For example: “AI unleashes killer nanobots that turn everybody into paperclips.” Yawn. How dull. Where’s the drama in that? No, like all disordered fantasies, mine are fun, and ever-so-conveniently constructed to push the bounds of plausibility while still being technically possible. I’m mostly fantasizing about apocalypses where almost everybody dies, but where one dashing and well-prepared man with pluck and determination and a giant pile of book reviews can restore an island of order and civilization. Hey come on, it could happen!
Most apocalypses would be awful — we would all die instantly, or else we would all die slowly and painfully, but somewhere perfectly balanced in the middle are the apocalypses that would be very exciting, and those are the emotional driver that lead me to engage in a mild degree of prepping. Now like all potential addicts, I have some hard and fast rules, clear lines that prevent me from spending all my family’s savings on refurbishing an old missile silo. My main rule is that any prepping I do has to have a dual use in some less exciting but more likely scenario.
So I store a lot of water in my basement because, look the US government tells me it could be useful in the event of a regional or local disaster. We have emergency bags pre-packed that include a list of rendezvous locations a day’s walk from our house because, hey, there are all kinds of reasons we might need that, okay? I own this tool so I can shut off my gas in the event of an earthquake and totally not because it looks handy for bludgeoning feral packs of marauders, so stop judging me. I have precious metals buried in the ground in a secret location because, uhhh…it’s good to have a tail-risk hedge in your portfolio, all right? What’s that? Why is there ammo in there too? Look, a good portfolio should be anti-fragile…
I think all of this is why I like Chinese history so much, because it’s just way crazier, bloodier, and more apocalyptic than the history of most other places. In Western Europe civilization collapsed once (okay fine, twice (okay, fine, three times)), and we’re still ruminating over it and working through this unending cultural psychodrama like some civilization-scale therapy addict. Meanwhile, in China, civilization collapsing is like Tuesday. The history of China is an endless cycle of mini-apocalypses in which the entire political, economic and moral order gets razed to the ground and Mad Max conditions prevail for a few decades or centuries, until somebody gathers enough power in his hands to establish a new dynasty and all is peaceful and harmonious under heaven. A few hundred years later, that new regime grows tired and old, the Mandate of Heaven slips away, and the cycle repeats.
This book covers one and a half full cycles of Chinese state formation and dissolution — including the final years of the Jin dynasty, the centuries of anarchy and barbarian rule following its collapse, the reunification of the empire under the glorious Tang, the apogee of their rule, and the decline of the Tang with the An Lushan Rebellion. By the way, have you ever heard of the An Lushan Rebellion? Exact numbers are contested, but the upper end of estimates is that 36 million people died, which would have been roughly 1/6th of the population of the earth at the time. As I said, Chinese history don’t mess around.
This whole period often gets referred to as the “Chinese Middle Ages,” and unlike the European Middle Ages1 it’s been scandalously neglected by Western historians (with the exception of some of the Tang stuff). This is a shame, because so many of the most important themes of Chinese history got their start during this period, I'll mention two of them here.
The first is the polarity between North and South or, if you want to sound pretentious, between “Yellow China” and “Blue China.” “Yellow” represents the sandy but fertile yellow loess soil of the North China Plain and the Yellow River valley, heartland of traditional Chinese civilization. But “yellow” is also the ripe ears of grain that grow in that soil, because the North is a land fed by wheat rather than rice. “Yellow” also, by extension, refers to the mass irrigation projects required to make the arid North bloom, to the taxation and slave labor required to dredge and maintain the canals and water conduits, to the sophisticated and officious bureaucracy that made it all happen. And since there is no despotism so perfect as a hydraulic empire, “yellow” is absolute monarchy, centralization, and militarism. But “yellow” is also the military virtues — plain-spokenness, honesty, physical courage, stubbornness, and directness — the traditional stereotypes of the Chinese Northerner.
Far away, across the wide blue expanse of the Yangtze, lay the wild and untamed South. A land of rugged mountains and dense rainforest, both of them inhabited by tribes that the waves of migrating Chinese settlers viewed as both physically and spiritually corrosive. So those intrepid colonists built their cities by the water — clinging to the river systems and to the thousands of bays and inlets that crinkle the Southern Chinese coast into a fractal puzzle of land and sea. And thus they became “blue.”
“Blue” are the blue waters of the ocean and the doorways to non-Chinese societies, blue also is the culture of entrepreneurship, industry, trade, and cunning that spread from those rocky harbors first across Asia and then across the world. The Chinese diaspora that runs the economies of Southeast Asia and populates the Chinatowns in the West is predominately made up of “blue” peoples — the Cantonese, the Hakka, the Teochew, the Hokkien. “Blue” is independent initiative and innovation, because beyond the mountains the Emperor’s power is greatly attenuated. But “blue” is also corruption of every sort — the financial corruption of opportunistic merchants and unscrupulous magistrates, and the spiritual corruption of the jungle tribes and other non-Chinese influences. “Blue” is pirates and freebooters who made their lairs amidst the countless straits and islands and seaside caves. “Blue” is also unfettered sensuality — opium came to China via the great blue door, and more than one Qing emperor took a grand tour of the South for the purpose of sampling its brothels (considered to be of vastly higher quality).2
If you know nothing else about the geography of China, know that this is the primary distinction: North and South, yellow and blue.3 But this neglected period, the “time of division” after the collapse of the Jin, is when that distinction really started. Settlement of the South began under the Han Dynasty in the first couple centuries AD, but it was still very much a sparsely-populated frontier. What changed in the Middle Ages was that after the collapse of central authority and the invasion of the North by nomadic barbarians, a vast swathe of the intelligentsia, literati, and military aristocracy of the North fled across the Yangtze and set up a capital-in-exile. For the first time the South became really “Chinese,” but the society that emerged was a hybrid one that retained a Southern inflection.
It wasn’t just courtiers and generals and poets who fled to the South: millions and millions of ordinary peasants did too, which finally displaced the jungle tribes, and also altered the balance of power between North and South. For the first time in Chinese history, the South had more population, more wealth, and an arguably better claim to dynastic legitimacy. So when the North emerged from its period of anarchy and foreign domination and looked to reassert its traditional supremacy, the South said: “no.” The Southern dynasties, chief among them the Chen Dynasty,4 were able to maintain an uneasy military stalemate for almost two hundred years, thanks to the formidable natural barrier of the Yangtze River, and to the fact that Southerners were better versed in naval warfare and thus able to prevent any amphibious operations on the part of the North.
This only ended when the founder of the Sui Dynasty learned to fight like a Southerner, and assembled a massive naval force in the Sichuan basin, then floated it down the Yangtze gorges destroying everything in his path. The backbone of this force were massive ships which “had five decks, were capable of accommodating 800 men, and were outfitted with six 50-foot-long, spike-bearing booms that could be dropped from the vertical to damage enemy vessels or pin them in positions where they would be raked by close-range missile fire.” After breaking Southern control of the great river, the Sui founder assembled an invasion force of over half a million men and crushed the Southern armies, burned their capital city to the ground, and forcibly returned the entire aristocracy to the North.
Two centuries of émigré rule had changed the South forever, but the North had also changed, which brings me to the second great theme of Chinese history to emerge in this period: the polarity between settled farmer and nomadic barbarian. This has always been viewed as a sharp dichotomy in official imperial historiography, but as I discuss at length in my review of The Art of Not Being Governed, the reality was that it was always more of a spectrum. When times got tough, or when state capacity waned, formerly loyal peasants had a tendency to migrate to the peripheries and start lynching nosy census-takers. In fact, this probably accounts for many of the seemingly vast swings in population that China has had over the centuries.5
But this time it wasn’t just Chinese peasants moving around and changing the way they lived. For the first time in recorded history, the Chinese civilizational heartland of the Yellow River valley was invaded and occupied by a massive number of non-Chinese people. It’s an extremely sensitive and difficult to discuss topic in China, but there is genetic evidence of substantial steppe admixture in Northern Chinese lineages, and it seems likely that this is around when it kicked off. Meanwhile, remember that huge numbers of Northern Chinese were migrating to the South at around this time. Our best guess from both ancient DNA and linguistic6 evidence is that the modern Southern Chinese are pretty close to what the Northern Chinese were a couple thousand years ago, while the modern Northern Chinese have a good amount of Turkic and Mongolic ancestry.
The thing is you don’t even need to look at the genetics, it’s also quite apparent from the literary, artistic, and military record that over time a hybrid aristocracy emerged in the North with influences from both the old Chinese nobility and the invaders. The change is visible in everything from fighting style (suddenly Chinese armies are using cavalry), to fashion (pants!), to preferred hobbies (suddenly a lot more archery and falconry). It was this mixed-blood elite that finally reunified North and South China, and eventually gave rise to the glorious Tang dynasty.
This may have been the most shocking fact I learned from this book. I’d always thought of the Tang as the most quintessentially Chinese of all Chinese rulers (and moreover the real beginning of “modern” Chinese history). Chinese people tend to think that way too — “Tang” is a still-used archaic ethnonym for the Chinese ethnicity (the same way that it's recently gotten trendy in the West to use a different archaic ethnonym, also the name of an ancient dynasty, “Han”).7 The idea that the Tang actually represented an intrusion of alien Turkic influences into Chinese society is not at all the mainstream view within China, but it’s pretty much the Western scholarly consensus, and Graff lays it out convincingly.
There’s a lot more to say about the great Tang, and this book has a lot of details on their expeditions past the Tarim Basin into Central Asia and their battles with Arab armies. But all of that is getting back into the well-covered part of Chinese history, the part that you can read about anywhere else. And I’ve gotten all the way to the end of this review while neglecting the most important part: were there preppers in the Jin dynasty, and if so how did they deal with the total breakdown of society followed by two centuries of anarchy?
Were there ever. While most of the country fell prey to bands of marauders and tribesmen who roamed the land committing unspeakable crimes, there were a few village headmen and petty aristocrats who constructed fortifications, stockpiled food and weaponry, and carved order out of chaos. There, in their redoubts, they kept the flame of civilization alive and sheltered their people against the long night. If you ever run into me at a party, there’s even odds I’ll quote this passage at you:
When his home was threatened by troops of one of the princely armies in 301, [Yu Gun, a minor official] led his kinsmen and other members of the community into the high country to the northwest. “In this high and dangerous defile, he blocked the footpaths, erected fortifications, planted [defensive] hedges, examined merit, made measurements, equalized labor and rest, shared possessions, repaired implements, measured strength and employed the able, making all things correspond to what they should.” On several occasions when bandits threatened his hilltop sanctuary, he was able to deter them simply by deploying his armed followers in orderly ranks.
There’s so much that’s beautiful in this passage, I feel like I could write an entire book about it. One thing I love is the way it embodies Joseph de Maistre’s aphorism that “contre-révolution ne sera point une révolution contraire, mais le contraire de la révolution.” Yu doesn’t just oppose strength with strength, he battles the insanity and entropic forces raging outside his walls by creating hierarchy, tranquility, and harmony within. His “armed followers in orderly ranks” are a military manifestation of the “making all things correspond to what they should” that preceded them. And there’s something very profound and very true in the image of the forces of disorder recoiling from his little island of civilization like a vampire faced with a crucifix.
But note that this is also a bit of a rebuke to the dominant strain of prepper fantasies, such as those I began this review with. Prepper fantasies are most fundamentally fantasies of agency, dreams that in the right crisis the actions you take could actually matter, and that in the wake of that crisis you could retvrn to a Rousseauian condition of autonomous activity freed from the internal conflicts engendered by societal oppression (whether that oppression takes the form of stifling social convention or HRified bureaucratic fiat). It’s obvious how the prepper fantasies relate to the great survival stories like Robinson Crusoe, or to the pioneer dramas of the American Westward expansion. It’s a little less obvious, but just as deeply true, that they’re connected to stories of rogues, rascals, and reavers like those by Robert E. Howard or Bronze Age Pervert. All of these stories, fundamentally, are about how a man freed from external restraint and internal conflict can apply himself to better his condition.
The thing is these stories are totally ahistorical — the best that solitary survivors have ever managed was to survive, none of them have rebuilt civilization. As Jane notes in her review of BAP, the sandal-clad barbarians have generally been subjected to a “tyranny of the cousins” even more intrusive and meticulous than the gynocratic safetyism that Bronze Age Lifestyle offers an imaginative escape from. And as for the pioneers, Tanner Greer notes that:
Many imagine the great American man of the past as a prototypical rugged individual, neither tamed nor tameable, bestriding the wilderness and dealing out justice in lonesome silence. But this is a false myth. It bears little resemblance to the actual behavior of the American pioneer, nor to the kinds of behaviors and norms that an agentic culture would need to cultivate today. Instead, the primary ideal enshrined and ritualized as the mark of manhood was “publick usefuleness,” similar, if not quite identical, to the classical concept of virtus. American civilization was built not by rugged individuals but by rugged communities. Manhood was understood as the leadership of and service to these communities.
It would be too easy to end the review here, with the implication that the prepper identity is a fantasy of radical individualism and like all such fantasies, kinda dumb. But the thing is, the prepper world has by and large absorbed this critique and incorporated it into its theorizing. In contrast to the libertarian fantasies of the 1970s, second-wave prepperism (reformed prepperism?) is constantly talking about community, the importance of having friends you can trust, of cultivating deep social bonds with your neighbors, etc.
What Yu Gun reminds us is that this is still totally ahistorical, but this time in a way that indicts not only the preppers, but also a much broader swathe of our society. A man without a community is unnatural, but so is a community without leadership, hierarchy, and order. The prepper version of community is a vision of freely contracting individuals respecting each others’ autonomy while cooperating because it’s in their best interests. This is also the folk version of community that motivates much of our economic and legal regime. Scratch an American “communitarian”, and underneath it’s just another individualist.
If you hang out on prepper forums, a recurrent mantra is to “practice your preps,” that is to start living on the margin as if the apocalypse had already occurred. The purpose of this is to gain experience in the skills you’ll need after the end, and to work out the kinks in your routine now, while it’s still easy to make adjustments. Originally this meant practicing getting lost in the woods, using and maintaining your weapon of choice, eating some of your food stockpile, or whatever. In second-wave prepperism it means all that, plus a bunch of new stuff like hanging out with your neighbors, attending community barbecues, and whatever else it is that freely contracting individuals like to autonomously do while temporarily occupying the same space.
But for we third-wave preppers, it has to take on a very different meaning. Greer’s essay that I quoted above is mainly about how leadership and service in local-scale organizations served as training for leadership and service in much larger groups aimed at problems with much higher stakes. In other words, they were practicing their preps. One of the great secrets of leadership is that following and leading are actually closely related skills, and that practice at one of them transfers well to the other. This is difficult for we Americans to see, because an aversion to hierarchy is built into our national character, and consequently we operate with impoverished models of what it means to be in a position of authority or of subordination.
Long ago I read an article contrasting Western and Korean massively-multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Even if you know nothing about computer games, you probably know that in most of them you are the hero, the chosen one, the child of destiny. Talk about fantasies of agency! MMORPGs thus have a tricky needle to thread — somehow all the thousands and thousands of players need to simultaneously be the chosen one, the child of destiny, etc., etc. And they mostly accomplish this by just rolling with it and asking everybody to suspend disbelief. But this article claimed that Korean MMORPGs are different — when players join these games, they’re randomly assigned a role. A tiny fraction might become kings or generals or children of destiny, with the power to decide the fates of peoples and kingdoms, but most are given a role as ordinary soldiers or porters or blacksmiths, and toil away at their in-game mundane tasks, without much ability to affect anything at all.
We like to imagine that after the bombs fall and the smoke clears we will emerge as the new Yu Gun, apportioning merit and assigning tasks. And perhaps you will indeed be called upon to do that, so you should prepare yourself to step up and do it. That preparation will involve some practice commanding others and some practice obeying others’ commands, because the two are inextricably bound together. But in life as in Korean video games, there’s isn’t very much room at the top. Far more likely, when the stage of history is set, we will be cast in a supporting role, like the Korean gamer assigned to role-play as a peasant or like Yu’s followers standing in orderly ranks. Let us not turn our noses up at this vocation, the poorly-behaved seldom make history.
The Chinese Middle Ages and the European Middle Ages aren’t actually contemporaneous — “Medieval China” generally denotes a period just before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
“Blue” China is also the origin of a different sort of disordered sensuality — the culinary sort. Almost from the dawn of Chinese history, Northerners have been horrified by the gusto with which Southerners will eat anything. Scorpions, animal brains and eyeballs, you name it, Southerners are constantly upping the ante with each other. Northerners have also generally been horrified by the sadism that attends some Southern culinary traditions, with many animals being eaten alive, or partially alive, or after prolonged and deliberate torture. One usually unstated Northern view is that a lot of these customs were picked up from the jungle tribes that lurk in the Chinese imaginarium like the decadent ancestor in an H.P. Lovecraft story.
Confusingly, in the context of modern Hong Kong politics, “yellow” and “blue” represent the pro-sovereignty and pro-China factions respectively. This split is almost totally orthogonal to the one I’m talking about in this book review, and to the extent they aren’t orthogonal, the sign is flipped.
“Chen” is the most quintessentially Southern surname, but I’ve never been able to figure out whether that came before or after it was the name of the most famous Southern dynasty.
Yes, alas, this means some of the death tolls parodied in the “Chinese history be like” meme are almost certainly exaggerations. When the census says 160 million one year and 120 million the next, it’s possible that a ton of people died, but it’s also possible that it just got a lot harder to take a census.
All the high mountains and sheltered valleys in Southern China mean it has massively greater linguistic diversity than the North, but many of those languages actually turn out on closer inspection to be snapshots of Northern Chinese languages at some much earlier point in history. It’s more evidence, consistent with the genetic evidence, that repeated waves of migrants have entered Southern China from the North, and then stayed fairly isolated.
The word in Chinese for overseas Chinatowns literally translates as something like “Tang people street.”