Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nomad power

Understanding the rise of pastoralist nomads (from the Scythians to the Mongols) is central to understanding the long run patterns of Eurasian history. Our understanding of the origins of nomad society is still very much in flux. Nicola di Cosmo’s Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History provides a fairly comprehensive treatment of current information.

Di Cosma attempts to integrate written and archaeological evidence to understand the interaction between China and its nomad neighbours. He builds up a picture of each reacting to the other.

I completed reading Peter Turchin’s book while still reading di Cosma, so I began to read di Cosma’s analysis in the light of Turchin’s. It was a fruitful context. For example, di Cosma’s discussion of instability in royal clans within nomad polities (due to increasing numbers within said clans) comes very close to Turchin’s demographic model (and is compatible with it).
Similarly, Turchin’s suggestion that China’s much stronger long term tendency to unity than other civilisational centres in Eurasia was due to nomad pressure also got a certain amount of support from di Cosma’s analysis. Di Cosma argues strongly that the wall building (most famously, the Great Wall itself) was not, originally, a defensive measure but a means of protecting expansion into pastoral land, which is also compatible with Turchin’s analysis. A China that occupied pastoral land is a China with much to lose from disunity. This does not guarantee unity, but it does provide a big pay-off if it can be managed—that is, the returns from unity were greater and more widely dispersed socially than in other civilisational centres.

Chinese payment of tribute to stop nomad raids seemed to have been much less disastrous than the Saxon experience with Danegeld. But Chinese tribute was paid largely in goods. Tribute paid in goods is less fungible than tribute paid in silver pennies so perhaps less likely to come back as better equipped enemies. And the relative size of the flows and resources may have been somewhat different.

In the end, the Chinese moved from buying peace to military expansion to weaken the Hsiung-Nu nomad power. The problem was that tribute was not actually buying peace—they were still getting raided. It does not appear that the nomad rulership had sufficient control over its various sub-kings.

The broader political implications of tribute-paying is worth thinking through. Dispersion of tribute meant that the centre purchased loyalty on a reward-and-punish basis. Consent for taxes means that the “political nation” purchases government services: a rather different exchange.

The book provoked thought about other pastoralist conquerors. The Ottomans and (to a lesser extent) the Manchus managed to ensure continuity of their state in a way that neither the Seljuk Turks nor the Mongols did. The Arabs started well then fell into the same disintegrative pattern. But the Ottomans were, in a sense, inheritors of the relatively stable state pattern of the Eastern Romans as the Manchus were of the Chinese. The centre dominated wealth extraction more, so was both able to better repress attempts to secede and, in turn, political effort was more focused on controlling the centre.

Even though di Cosma’s prose was somewhat pedestrian, I enjoyed the book. It was an area and a time period I was not particularly knowledgeable in, and I liked his approach of linking written and archaeological sources.

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