Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ouch, My Mortality: Part I, The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

A Brief Introduction

The Middle Kingdom was always hard to pin down. Just for fun, I've done some basic analysis on the lifespan of the rulers of China. For the sake of readability, I'll provide a few different, fun visualizations along with some color commentary to keep you engaged. We'll work through the various dynasties first, and afterwards we'll discuss the totality of what was found. At the end of the post, I'll include an upload of the actual data I used. The majority of my data came from a wonderful set of web pages put together by Dr. David K. Jordan, professor emeritus of Anthropology over at UCSD. Thanks, doc. Here's a link to that. This will likely be the first in a long series of posts examining the dynasties of China from this dataset I've put together, and the dataset itself will be refined as time goes on and I get more information from various sources.

Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

Looking at the oldest recorded history (which definitely did not occur in any real way), we get some folks who lived an absurdly long time. The first period of China's history is known as Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors (三皇五帝) and deserves its own post at some point in the future. Complaints about its inclusion in this dataset would be fair, so they will be left out of further analysis once we've gotten through the dynasties.

The first thing you'll notice is that for a period known as Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, there are more than eight total people/beings. This is a not uncommon feature of ancient Chinese history, and one that delights me to encounter.

Depending on which data source you consider for this period of Chinese ancient history, you'll get a different number of god kings. Sometimes they're called August Ones, sometimes they're called Emperors, and sometimes they're called Sovereigns. One feature that many of them share is that they ruled for a comically long period of time.

We're going to be using the Records of the Grand Historian, or 史記, in our discussion/analysis here. So, to start with, I'll give you a nifty visualization of the Three Sovereigns first, and next we'll look at the Five Emperors.

Three Sovereigns, or Three August Ones

What group of three rulers you end up with depends on your source. As I said, I'm using Records of the Grand Historian. The Three Sovereigns, as listed there, were The Heavenly Sovereign (Fuxi), The Earthly Sovereign (Nüwa), and the Human Sovereign (Shennong). Here's a handy dandy graphic to show you just how long their respected reigns lasted as per our source material:

Here's another cool graphic to help you visualize their rule:

As you can see, they all ruled for a long, long time. Some basic backstory on these three: Fuxi, along with his sister and/or wife Nuwa, are credited with the creation of the human race. They're gods. Depending on the mythological text you're checking out, they're either human-like or half serpent/dragon. Fuxi is credited with the creation of Chinese writing, fishing, hunting, cooking and sometimes animal husbandry. Nuwa fixed the Pillar of Heaven (it was broken beforehand). Also, it may have been the case that there were tons of God-tier humans before a giant flood that only Fuxi and Nuwa survived.

Shennong was, arguably, cooler. He not only introduced the Chinese - and, by extension, all of humanity - to farming, he also taught everyone to take drugs. He was the first herbalist. As one can see, he lived for a very long time. He spent a lot of that time going around eating different random plants and fungi, and his superpower was that he almost always didn't die from eating random things he found in trees or on the ground. Sadly, he ate one too many bad things and ended up dying as a result. Thanks for the drugs and medicine, Shennong. 

Next, let's check out the Five Emperors. Here's another handy-dandy graphic to help us get a sense of how long they reigned over the various and sundry territories of the Middle Kingdom:

Again, here's another cool graphic to help visualize their rule:

We're getting closer to reasonable rule lengths, I'd say. To be fair, I don't actually have a sense of how long an ancient ruler should usually rule for it to be believable - this is partially why I'm undertaking this absurd project in the first place. That being said, it's highly suspect that someone would rule a country for almost a century, but we are in the period of Chinese mythology here. Now for a little background on the Five Emperors.

The Yellow Emperor, also known as the Yellow God or by his pinyin Huangdi, was not a human per se. He's famous for many things, but two of his accomplishments stand out above the rest in terms of Chinese history: he created China and he's the ancestor of every single Chinese person as per the surrounding lore. He also invented a lot of things, many of which were largely useful to people living in the Yellow River Valley. Three cheers for the progenitor of the Chinese! Fun fact: the Yellow Emperor died after meeting with a Phoenix and a Qilin. There are very culturally important reasons why these two things showed up when it was time for the Yellow Emperor to cast off the mortal coil, but that's too much for here.

Zhuanxu was the grandson of the Yellow Emperor. He took his people and moved them to Shandong, and he might have killed an ancestor of one of his Grandpa's biggest rivals. Some sources say that he didn't actually ever become an emperor, but those sources are probably written by the other ancestors of the Yellow Emperor's rivals. As the ancient phrase goes, "they hate us 'cause they ain't us."

Emperor Ku was also related to the Yellow Emperor, which I won't mention from here on out as it would be in front of almost every single person we discussed going forward. He had a good number of wives and ruled for a while. Some people ascribe magical god powers to him, too. There's debate as to whether he existed at all, as is the case with pretty much all of the Emperors we've talked about.

Next in the order is Emperor Yao. He apparently lived for close to 120 years, and was known for being a very cool guy. He's considered a sage by many early Chinese writers. Most importantly, he invented Weiqi, known in the west as Go. If you think that Chess is a difficult game, try playing Go on a 19x19 board. 

Last up in the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors Saga is Emperor Shun. Among many accomplishments, he was likely the first creator of what might be recognizable as an orchestra today. He really loved music and travelling, but due to being an emperor his travel was largely limited due to the constraints of ruling. He gave up power to Yu of Xià when he was old, deciding it was finally time to do all the travelling he'd been thinking about. As soon as he started his travels, he fell ill and

died. His wives carried him over to the banks of the Xiang river and cried over his body so much that they turned the waters red, which explains where all that spotted bamboo came from. They then killed themselves in the river.

More visualizations will be forthcoming. The next dynasty we will be examining is the Xià (夏).

More Data

As promised, here's the dataset. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions you have here. I'm going to be discussing cause of death where I can, which will become more believable as time goes on. In the dataset I'll be writing down the cause of death as well as their estimated age at death (which will also, by nature of the data we have, give us age of ascension). This will all be coming in future posts. Hope you've enjoyed this so far!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Stick to the Middle

Pyrrhus of Epirus

What's in a name?

Michel de Montaigne begins his essay Of Cannibals with a discussion of King Pyrrhus and his recollection of encounters with the Romans.

“Je ne sçay, dit-il, quels barbares sont ceux-ci (car les Grecs appelloyent ainsi toutes les nations estrangieres), mais la disposition de cette armée que je voy, n'est aucunement barbare.”

Roughly translated, that sentence comes out to this:

"I don't know, he says, what kind of barbarians these are (for so the Greeks called all the strange nations), but in the disposition of their armies that I see, there is no barbarity whatsoever."

To boil down the essence of the French essayist into a few words only is a difficult task, but Pyrrhus demonstrates the meat of Of Cannibals thousands of years prior to its original penning by an old french man. There’s a danger in ascribing barbarism or simplicity to a people that are not much known or known poorly within your group. Pyrrhus went on to be absolutely demolished in the course of his victories against the Romans, so much so that his name is associated with a type of victory that every military general has avoided ever since.

The Chinese have a history of mischaracterization outside of China. Take the word China itself as an instructive example, which is murky in its origins. Many westerners use the term sino or sin- in its root form to refer to things that are Chinese or related to China. The earliest use of this particular term is in an ancient Greek periplus showing all the hot trading spots for the adventurous sea or land trader. Essentially all of what is now called China was given the title θίν, or Thin, as if that was a real country and not something totally made up. We've also got the still popular word Sino, which traces its roots to both Latin and Ancient Greek, with a little Sanskrit or Arabic to spice things up. All of these different possible roots are interesting as a side note, but if you look them up in any respectable dictionary you'll get something along these lines:

THINAE (Thinai, or Sinai, Ptol. 7.3.6, 8.27.12), or THINA (Thina, Arrian, Per. M. Erythr. p. 36), a capital city of the Sinae, who carried on here a large commerce in silk and woollen stuffs. It appears to have been an ancient tradition that the city was surrounded with brazen walls; but Ptolemy remarks that these did not exist there, nor anything else worthy of remark. The ancient writers differ very considerably as to its situation. According to the most probable accounts it was either Nankin, or rather perhaps Thsin, Tin, or Tein, in the province Schensi, where, according to the accounts of the Chinese themselves, the first kingdom of Sin, or China, was founded. (Cf. Ritter, Erdkunde, ii. p. 199.)

Cool. So Ptolemy introduced the western world to the Chinese and, in effect, set us up to describe things as Sino this or Sino that. At this point, an astute reader will ask the most important question: who gives a hoot about why the Chinese are called Chinese? The reason I chose to describe the first encounter between the Romans and Pyrrhus is an instructive one: the barbarians had their own name.

China, for westerners, has often existed as little more than a novelty. When the Romans and Greeks were trading for silk from the far east, it was comically difficult to get an answer as to where the silk actually came from. The people buying silk that had originated from China often knew that it was from far away, but having traded hands many times before getting to the merchant they had only the most general sense of where it came from and who those original creators of the wonderful substance were. The ambiguity found in the etymological roots of the word China are not an accident, but rather the result of genuine confusion about where and what these people were.

Stubbornness prevails, however, and after centuries of repetition the name China stuck in the mind of westerners. Maybe, it is posited, the original westerner or middle easterner who met a Chinese trader or delegate met someone who pointed at himself and said Qin, referring to the dynasty he lived under. That, however, is not the same as saying what your country is called. To understand the comical level of misunderstanding that may have happened, it would be the equivalent of the Chinese referring to the Romans exclusively as the Julius people.

Still, though, the question can be posed: who cares what they're called? We all know what we mean when we say Chinese. First, I doubt that many people do understand, and second, it's generally considered nice to call someone by their actual name rather than something you misheard them say one time. To go on calling them that thing you heard them say one time for over two thousand years is, to say the least, rude.

Stuck in the Middle with You

What, then, do the Chinese like to call themselves? The answer is complicated, largely because China is both very large and has existed in some form or another for quite a while. Let us consider a few of the different names the people of China have gone by in the past, and ultimately come to what they call themselves now.

You've probably heard of the most common title for China: the Middle Kingdom. This is an important word for a few reasons, but first we will check out how it looks:
Culture Trivia Question: The Chinese refer to their own country as "Zhongguo". What does Zhongguo literally mean?
Neat. The pinyin for that is Zhōngguó. It's made up of two characters, as the discerning individual might have guessed. The first means central and the second means state. This can be (and normally is) translated as middle kingdom. Don't get ahead of yourself here, though, because there's a bit more backstory on what that means and when its been used. The short story is this: that particular term has been used for a long time, but often the ruling state (there were multiple, sometimes many, states at any given time) would just tell everyone to call the country they were in the name of the dynasty. This leads to things like the Qin, Tang, Xia, and more dynasties being talked about. I don't want to get into the nitty gritty too much on the entire history of the Middle Kingdom or the infinitude of names it has had, but suffice to say there were many over the last few thousand years. 

The CPC, known in the west as the CCP, named the country Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó. The new guys, in an effort to distance themselves from the old guys (who also were bad and, according to Mao Thought, dumb), made it clear that the Middle Kingdom was now the Middle Kingdom People's Republic. The west, refusing to call the Middle Kingdom the Middle Kingdom, changed that to the People's Republic of China. In all honesty, it is baffling to me that we're all still collectively referring to China as China, seeing as Zhōngguó really isn't that hard to pronounce - and, if we're collectively unwilling to pronounce hard and different languages, I'm all for moving towards calling them the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom really just sounds a lot better, and it's also literally what they call themselves. 

Who Cares?

If you genuinely don't care at this point, I've failed in what I thought to be a fairly simple mission. With all the hubbub surrounding the rise of China, it seems that we still don't take the Middle Kingdom seriously. If the west is unwilling to know - or incapable of knowing - the most basic facts about what is shaping up to be the most important nation of the century, we're probably fucked. If the west is unable to understand the name of a place, how can it hope to understand the actions of that place?

This is just the first of what will likely be quite a few short posts on the Middle Kingdom. Hope you liked it. 

Ouch, My Mortality: Part I, The Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors

A Brief Introduction The Middle Kingdom was always hard to pin down. Just for fun, I've done some basic analysis on the lifespan of th...