Saturday, August 21, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (3): barbarisms, real and imagined.

This is the third part of my review of Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Part one is here and part two is here.

The modernist assault
Once the Silk Road system was destroyed by the conquest of the last steppe nomad states by peripheral empires (Romanov Russia and Qing China), the history of Central Eurasia became the by-product of events elsewhere. Particularly the various radical modernist revolutions, as Beckwith labels them—the 1911 Chinese Revolution and, after the disaster of the First World War (made more disastrous, Beckwith points out, by its peace treaties) the the Russian, German and Turkish Revolutions. Such disturbances spread to Central Eurasia, with the only bright side being Tibet achieving 50 years of independence (Pp266ff).

With the destruction of the First World War, the economic punishments inflicted on Germany and Austria, the closing of the Soviet Union to world commerce (and the shrinking of the Soviet economy under Stalin’s command economics):
it is not surprising that the Great Depression, a worldwide economic recession worse than any previously known, struck at the end of 1929 (p.273)
and persisted for years. A sense of the existing order being hopelessly corrupt, to be redeemed only by war and/or revolution was pervasive (Pp273-4).

Then came the Second World War, which started with Japan’s aggression against China. Apart from the crushing Soviet victory of Nomonhan (Khalkhyn Gol) against the Japanese, eastern Central Eurasia was largely spared conflict until the successful Soviet conquest of Manchuria at the end of the War. Western Central Eurasia was caught up in the titanic Soviet-Nazi struggle, with ethnic groups who welcomed the Germans as liberators from brutal Soviet oppression then being brutally punished by the triumphant Soviet regime (Pp278-9).

India achieved independence as did Pakistan, a creation that ensured regular war and dispute thereafter (P.280). The success of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War brought the second Chinese Revolution. Its armies suppressed the Eastern Turkistan Republic and then Tibetan independence while many non-Han in Inner Mongolia fled across the border. Under Maoist rule, Chinese settler colonialism made non-Han people—notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans—minorities in their own countries (Pp280-1). Part of a process that had been a long-term trend in Chinese history.
The Tibetans rebelled and were brutally suppressed:
The terror imposed on the innocent, peaceful people of Tibet by China was unprecedented in the modern history of Central Eurasia (p.282).
But it was part of a larger trend where:
The extreme Modernist terror of the Cultural Revolution (ca. 1966-1976) in China devastated especially Tibet, East Turkistan, and Inner Mongolia (p.282).
In Iran, Pahlavi rule meant that:
By the early 1970s, the country had far surpassed all the nations around it in prosperity, stability and the speed of its growth (p.283).
The power of the hyperconservative Shi’ite clerics over the previously illiterate masses was threatened by such change, while the authoritarian rule of the Shah offended rising educated aspirations (Beckwith notes the former but slides around the latter) leading to the Iranian Revolution. The rule of the ayatollahs meant that:
religious fundamentalists ruthlessly eliminated all those who opposed their rule, clamped down on the merchant class that had foolishly supported them, and isolated Iran from the civilised world (p.284).
Maoism and its derivatives devastated large parts of Asia, a range of bitter wars (often civil wars, but with extensive foreign involvement) were also fought as various forms of modernism fought for dominance:
When radical socialism (communism) swept across Eurasia like a new Black Death, it infected all the cultures it touched. Central Eurasians were forced to give up their traditional life-styles, dress, culture, everything. Some changes were good—the spread of hygiene, education in the sciences, secular government, and so on, is surely to be applauded. But too much was destroyed (p.287)
Central Eurasian culture suffered the most of any region of the world from the devastation of Modernism in the twentieth century (p.288).
This leads into Beckwith’s passionate critique of modernism and its effects, previously discussed. But, precisely because he is an historian of Central Eurasia, Beckwith can see the patterns more starkly, for there the destruction of any elite culture, with its striving for perfection (or, at least, excellence) and sense of harmonies ultimately derived from the inherent structure of things to be found and celebrated has been most complete. It seems a bit odd for Beckwith to talk of “the terrible wars of the nineteenth century” (p.290) in analysing the military, industrial and urban changes that moved power away from aristocratic elites, but disasters such as the Taiping rebellion dwarfed the limited wars of C19th Europe.

One of the great ironies of Modernism is that, however much it may be rhetorically based on elevation of the ordinary humanity, it produces aesthetics that most of its alleged beneficiaries dislike or even despise. But, of course, it does not actually represent the abandoning of elite claims, just the shifting to a form anchored in nothing but its own pretensions.

The particular tragedy of the Central Eurasians is that they experienced modernism as totalitarian colonialism, imposed by outsiders wielding overwhelming power and largely out of the sight of the wider world:
Because Modernism was not so much a philosophy or movement as a total world-view, it was applied to all aspects of life … The destruction of almost all aspects of traditional culture, including material artifacts, by the despotic Russian and Chinese communist rulers, though resisted by the Central Eurasian peoples was ultimately successful (Pp300-1).
The result was much more thorough in its devastating effects than, for example, in Western Europe:
In Central Eurasia … only a few famous monuments were not destroyed , and only a tiny percentage of the once vast numbers of old books were preserved. By the end of the twentieth century, the evil done in the name of Moernism and “progress” left Central Eurasians bereft of much of their past (p.301).
Hence an historian of Central Eurasia being such a passionate critic of modernism and all its effects.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought independence “suddenly and quite unexpectedly” (p.305) to the Central Eurasian republics. Rapid economic growth in the new European Union spread to China, India and Russia as they adopted “capitalist” (i.e. pro-commercial) policies. But Central Eurasia remained mired in poverty. Culturally, religious communities and buildings revived, while full artistic modernism spread to the newly independent societies and the triumph of political modernism was complete since (with a few isolated examples) all the politics claimed to be democracies, even though they were mostly dictatorships or oligarchies (Pp304ff).

The originating region
But Beckwith does not wish merely to rescue the past of Central Eurasia, or even to make outsiders more aware of it. He wants us to understand how much our civilisation derives from it and its achievements. For modern culture does not derive from the Nile, Mespotomian, Indus or Yellow River valley cultures:
It comes from the challenging marginal lands of Central Eurasia.
The dynamic, restless Proto-Indo-Europeans whose culture was born there migrated across and “discovered” the Old World, mixing with the local peoples and founding the Classical civilisations of the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Indians and Chinese. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance their descendants and other Central Eurasian peoples conquered, discovered and investigated, and explored some more, creating new world systems, the high arts, and the advanced sciences. Central Eurasians—not the Egyptians, Sumerians, and so on—are our ancestors. Central Eurasia is our homeland, the place where our civilisation started (p.319).
What Central Eurasia’s prospects now are, is a very open question.

The barbarians
A huge barrier to acknowledging Central Eurasia as the heartland of civilisation and progress is the concept of “the barbarian”, particularly the brutal and destructive horse-archer barbarian. In his epilogue to Empires of the Silk Road, The Barbarians, Beckwith savagely critiques the concept of “the barbarian” (Pp320ff).

Living in marginal lands, in contact with lots of different cultures, the Indo-Europeans “possessed a powerful dynamism” (p.320) that they passed on, sometimes by direct conquest. Leaders need to support their sworn warrior band with luxurious gifts created a commercial dynamism. Steppe states had commercially-minded warrior classes and rulership.

A hardy and dynamic warrior class becomes, in the histories of the peripheral empires, a people of natural, but brutal and violent, warriors. This becomes their central defining features even though any violence by Central Eurasians can be precisely matched by equivalent violence by “civilised” peoples (Pp322-3). But the former is “defining”, the latter is “particular happenstance”, even the “triumph of civilisation and order”.

What Beckwith is attempting to do is to enable us to see the steppe cultures as being ones of trade and order, not chaos and violence. In particular, the notion of “needy” steppe nomads who had to get various necessities from “civilised agrarians” is fiction. All the steppe states either incorporated or were based on stable relations with agrarians based on trade and taxation. The steppe peoples were generally bigger and healthier than peripheral agrarians. They were also highly productive, producing:
their own everyday clothing, jewels, tools, wagons, housing, horse gear, and weapons and were skilled metalsmiths (p.325).
The Chinese attitude to the nomad peoples, for example, precisely paralleled their dismissal of the European “barbarians” and—this is Beckwith’s point—we should pay the former no more credence than we do the latter.

Indeed, Beckwith is able to point to centuries of references by people from the peripheral empires—from Romans, Chinese and others—which acknowledge that the life of the steppe nomads was easier, freer and more prosperous than that of the peasants of the agrarian peripheral empires. The urgency of control of the frontier for peripheral empires was not raids from the nomads (though such did happen) but to control trade and block the loss of taxpayers. Given the enormous cost of such walls, raids were hardly enough to justify them. Add in controlling trade, stopping loss of taxpayers and holding acquired lands, and the enormous engineering effort the walls represented become much more plausible propositions (Pp332ff).

Beckwith points to the infrequency of serious nomad conquest of peripheral empires and how, when such did happen, it was typically due to internal division (Pp334ff). No doubt “barbarian” rule was offensive and “unnatural”, but it was also infrequent.

Even raids were probably far more common during periods of division, since they were also periods when trade goods were far less available.

There is a contrast to be made here with Middle Eastern history, where patterns of nomad conquest were much more frequent. But this is a product of geography: the river valleys of the Middle East were far more surrounded by pastoralist peoples—walls, for example, where not a practical option. This made it far easier for agrarian rule to decay to a point of vulnerability: hence ibn Khaldun’s cycles of history.

When we look at Roman, Iranian and Chinese history, it is division and weakness within these empires that create the danger to outside conquest. When the Empires were united, they were far more a danger to the steppe peoples than the reverse. Indeed, a pattern of predatory contempt continuing when relative power could no longer sustain it marks the lead up to serious problems with steppe “barbarians”. Such as Roman mistreatment of the Goths prior to the crushing Roman defeat at Adrianople and Song dynasty of the Mongols prior to the Mongol conquest (a process that took 45 years).

Over the longer term, the territory of the steppe peoples shrank from the middle of the first millennium BC until its final disappearance in the C18th (p.338). The steppe nomads had various critical weaknesses, including small populations, the vulnerability to bad seasons (due to difficulty in storing food), the consequent disaster involved in losing major battles or herds and that the urban and agrarian areas were on their periphery and so vulnerable to capture, as well as the greater power of well-organised infantry armies (Pp.339-40).

They were not “needy” nomads. Central Eurasia included considerable towns, cities and agrarian areas. They were, however, over the longer-term, vulnerable. Hence the long-term history of the shrinkage of Central Eurasian system and the advance of the peripheral agrarian empires (Pp341ff):
It seems to be widely overlooked that the act of unilateral establishment of a border (invariably far beyond the previously established border), construction of fortifications to hold the new frontier (the unilaterally proclaimed “national territory” of the aggressor), and closing the border and cutting off trade relations with those outside it, are overt acts of war (Pp343-4).
Trade was useful to peripheral empires, it was vital to steppe peoples. To cut off trade was an act of war, and interpreted as such. But the aristocratic/scholar classes of the peripheral empires combined anti-commercial prejudices with the “barbarian” stereotype to turn the behaviour of steppe nomads into mere brutality and violence while the actions of the peripheral empires was the advance of “civilisation”. (That many of the inhabitants of the realm of “civilisation” might prefer the life of the “barbarian” was even more offensive.)

The division of social existence into “civilised” and “barbarian” is one of those irregular constructions—we are civilised, you are barbarians. Given the problems with the distinction, Beckwith argues forcefully that historians should stop using it (Pp356ff).

Since the steppe nomads were so vitally interested in trade—particularly trade with market towns—classing them as beyond the process of “city-isation” (which is what ‘civilised’ literally means) does not seem a reasonable division. Classing brutality, aggression and violence by them as defining—and that by peripheral peoples as “civilising happenstance”—is, if anything, even more offensive.

Literacy might be a bit more of a division (though there was plenty of literacy in Central Eurasia). It was also true that “barbarian” rulers did not always know how to make what they had conquered work as well as previously. But peripheral ignorance (and, even more, arrogant indifference) to how and what made Central Eurasia work was even more total. Non-literate “barbarians” may have created dark ages in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age and in Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but they are extraordinary conjunctions of circumstances, hardly the normal product of steppe peoples—as the longevity of the peripheral empires, the cultural glories of Central Eurasia and steppe empires promotion of trade all attest.

Chinese “centre of the universe” arrogance marches with European memories of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, hence historians’ readiness to interpret Chinese sources on the steppe peoples as if the Chinese framings are reliable. If we consider them as xenophobic, status-protecting, self-justification (a sort of more elegant Pravda), things may look a little different. Particularly given the long history of Chinese massacres of steppe peoples.

Beckwith may overreach at times—he may, for example, downplay the issue of nomad raids more than is justified. He also has some extremely unfashionable opinions. Nevertheless, Empires of the Silk Road is a much needed corrective. Indeed, that it so usefully puts European commercial imperialism in context as a by-product of its analysis illustrates just how enlightening it is.


  1. Definitely have to download this one to my Kindle. Thank you for your exhaustive review.

  2. My pleasure and yes, happy to recommend the work.