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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Does One Drop of Water Moisten the Field? Exploring Instructive Mythology

The Instructive Hero

I can't say anything with complete certainty, but many, if not all, great nations and societies have some form of instructive hero to teach their children basic moral and political lessons. For the Roman Empire, there was Aeneas; for the modern religious west, there is Jesus Christ; for modern China, there is Léi Fēng. The first two are likely familiar to anyone who was born in the west and has received formal classical education, while the latter is almost certainly unfamiliar. Before I explain who Léi Fēng is, I want to discuss the importance of instructive heroes for societies generally. This wont be a full philosophical treatise on the necessity of moral and political education for a healthy society, and the topic itself will be revisited time and again over the course of my writing.

In the most general terms, a society is only as strong as its body politic. When considering the health of a society, one of the key indicators of societal sickness is political disengagement by the citizens. I use citizens here to refer specifically to that class of people within a society that have the ability to determine the outcome of events on a local or national level - so for the Romans, this would have originally only encompassed the elite aristocratic caste and eventually included the plebeians, while for America it originally only encompassed white property and horse owning people and has come to encompass all people who are over the age of eighteen and fit the current requirements for citizenship. In a society like modern China, the group of people that actually have a say in the national or local governance is substantially smaller, as a percentage of total population, than either of these two societies once they loosened their citizenship requirements. I will go ahead and  respond to any complaints about historicity when describing the foundational myths of America and the Roman Empire by asking you to bear with me - what I miss in historical substance I will try to make up for with moral and political teaching.


The picture above would stir the heart of any good Roman citizen. Pictured is Aeneas, fleeing the forsaken city of Troy after the Danaan forces had overrun the interior thanks to the cunning of Odysseus. On his back he carries his father and the household god, and he holds the hand of his young son. Aeneas, through many trials and tribulations, would go on to settle the land that would eventually come to be known as Rome, having been established by Aeneas' descendant Romulus. Aeneas typified the perfect proto-Roman: he was concerned with the well-being of his family, his state, and his gods. 

There is a Roman concept that encompasses this mentality - pietas. This word is badly translated into English in almost all of its forms, but can be understood when seeing a few of the possibilities together: filial piety, duty, religiosity, devotion. Aeneas so fully encompassed these virtues that he is very frequently referred to as Pius Aeneas. This is not an accident, as the book where Aeneas is described (aptly named the Aeneid) was written far after the events described would have taken place by a man named Virgil. Virgil was hired by Emperor Augustus to write the work, both in order to establish the legitimacy of his family as rulers and to mythologize the essential Roman virtues in a foundational character. When children were too young to understand why they ought to be good rather than bad in their daily life, they were already hearing the stories of Aeneas saving his family and household gods from the destruction of Troy. 

Good Romans were expected to conduct themselves according to pietas, and the story of Aeneas only served to further this behavior. Three spheres of Roman life are encapsulated in this one word: the family, the state, and the gods. For those uninitiated in the mystical history of Rome, this is a good way to begin understanding them from a moral standpoint. Familial piety was prized highly, as was the duty one has to the state, both in terms of civilian respect for governance and military service. 


Pietas can be connected to the Confucian virtue xiào (孝). Xiào, in essence, can be understood as the Confucian virtue of filial piety. For a better understanding of this particular virtue, I'll quote a bit from an English translation of a famous, old Confucian text called Èrshísì Xiào (literally, twenty-four filial piety, but translated more poetically as the Twenty-four Exemplars of Filial Piety). In the text, twenty-four short stories are given to establish the conduct expected of a child with regards to their parents. I've selected one in particular - a story about a boy stealing oranges - for good reason: it highlights some cultural differences between Chinese and Western (Christian) understandings of morality pretty well. The following is a translation of the text cribbed from this link.

Stealing Oranges To Take Home For His Mother: Lu Ji
In the Later Han Period, a young boy of only six years old showed a deep filial regard for his mother. He traveled with his father to visit the Chief Minister of Nan Yang, named Yuan Shu. Elder Yuan Shu saw how precocious the young boy was, and ordered his butler to bring a dish of oranges to offer to young Lu Ji. The boy saw the delicious, large fruit, and immediately ate two . He waited until nobody was looking, and secreted three oranges away in the sleeve of his robe. When it was time to say good-bye, along with his father, little Lu Ji raised his hands up in salute. Unexpectedly, the three oranges came rolling out, and fell to the floor in front of Lu Ji.
Yuan Shu saw the oranges and laughed: "Little Brother, you're my guest today. How come you stole your host's oranges?" The little boy replied, "Pardon me, my mother likes oranges best of all. Because we don't have any money, it's hard to provide oranges for her. Today I enjoyed two of these ripe, sweet, oranges, and I could not resist taking a few of them back for Mother. She likes them so much."
Minister Yuan Shu was impressed by the six-year-old's concern for his mother's happiness. He told his staff to give the entire plate of fruit to Lu Ji for his family.
A verse in his honor says:
Filial love and brotherhood made nature "Heaven-True",
Most rare in a boy just six years old.
He hid three oranges in his sleeve, as a gift for his Mom,
Just a token to repay her kindness without end.

If you grew up in the west and lived with the unavoidable influence of Christian moral teaching (it's still there in predominately atheist societies, whether you believe it or not) then this story might be striking in its seeming non-judgement on the act of thievery. While it was noted and joked about by the minister, once he learned that the young boy meant to bring the oranges to his mother all was forgiven - in fact, he was rewarded for this act. If you're interested in understanding filial piety, the Èrshísì Xiào is a great place to start. 

The focus on xiào here was twofold: I enjoy highlighting the similarities and the differences between cultures, and I think xiào does a fairly good job at this for westerners. The further connection between pietas and xiào can be had in the extension of the familial piety (which is, as stated, the generally accepted English translation of xiào) to the state. In the Xiaojing, or the Classic of Filial Piety, of Confucius, the connection between filial piety and piety to the ruler is made explicitly clear. 

"As they serve their fathers, so they serve their mothers, and they love them equally. As they serve their fathers, so they serve their rulers, and they reverence them equally. Hence love is what is chiefly rendered to the mother, and reverence is what is chiefly rendered to the ruler, while both of these things are given to the father. Therefore when they serve their ruler with filial piety, they are loyal; when they serve their superiors with reverence, they are obedient. Not failing in this loyalty and obedience in serving those above them, they are then able to preserve their emoluments and positions, and to maintain their sacrifices. This is the filial piety of inferior officers.
It is said in the Book of Poetry: Rising early and going to sleep late, Do not disgrace those who gave you birth."

Here's a link to a translation of that text that can be accessed alongside the traditional Chinese. As one can see, there's a definite through-line between these two separate old-world concepts of pietas and xiào.

Stories as Morality for Children

Throughout all of history and in all places, children have been raised to act properly through stories. In ancient and modern China, stories describing xiào are still known widely among the general population. In America, where a majority of the population identifies as Christian, the parables of Christ are taught and known widely among virtually everyone. The degree to which the stories are studied in a scholarly setting is an interesting datapoint to consider, but the fact of the diffusion of such stories among the population is undeniable.

Children have historically been believed to be incapable of moral judgement or reason more generally. Aristotle goes so far as to frequently name the two populations most incapable of moral judgement or action as children and brutes. This idea, popular in many cultures throughout the world, might be totally wrong (see this 2009 study on how children appear to consider intention when judging the morality of actions), influences the way that people have raised their children throughout all of recorded history. Often, believing children incapable of understanding "simple" concepts such as right and wrong, stories are told to ingrain the moral lessons a society believes necessary for their continued success. This, when implemented across a population, gives a shared understanding of morality that allows a shared understanding of how to exist within the world. In turn, this shared understanding of how to exist in the world promotes unity and stability among the people of a given place, region, or country. If all children of a place are taught the same virtues - be it pietas, xiào, or Christian goodness - you will ensure that an entire generation looks at the world through a similar lens.

Léi Fēng

The above poster can be translated like this (thanks, partner): "Learn from Léi Fēng, the good role model - study hard the Marx-Leninism and Mao Thought." Now, we will talk about who Léi Fēng was and why he's both cool to know about and can be used as a lens to understand a particular period of Chinese thinking. We will first talk about what place he has in modern China from the perspective of a child living in the People's Republic of China.

If you're a young person in China, you learn about Léi Fēng in Chinese class. He is always referred to as a real, historical figure. Born on December 18, 1940 in Wangcheng (the old capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty), Léi Fēng had one of the worst early childhoods imaginable. According to a documentary put together for the state-owned and state-run China Network Television, Léi Fēng lost all of his family in ways that set him up to be the perfect Communist Party of China posterboy. His father, was killed by invading Japanese when Léi Fēng was only five, his older brother died because of child labor exploitation, and his mother committed suicide after being dishonored by a landlord.

Léi Fēng, perhaps spurred forward by the wrongs committed to his family by landlords, corrupt business owners, and the Japanese, joined up with a communist youth corps at a very young age. He would later join the People's Liberation Army at twenty, and only two years later he would die in an unfortunate accident where he was crushed by a pole.

All told, Léi Fēng didn't live very long or, until after his death, have any fame to speak of. The account of his life that is given to us comes directly from the Communist Party of China, then under the august eye of Mao Zedong, and most of what we know of his personal thoughts were transmitted to us by Lin Biao, a man pivotal to the PRC's victory over the previous government of China. Lin Biao began what can be reasonably thought of as a propaganda campaign a year after the supposed death of Léi Fēng, where excerpts of Léi Fēng's diary were presented to the people in leaflets, posters, and official radio broadcasts. I'll provide some examples directly from the Communist Party of China to give you a sense of the lessons to be learned from Léi Fēng's service:

People who are too arrogant are ignorant. He doesn't know his real capabilities. He doesn't realize he is only one drop in the ocean.
If you only have the people and not yourself in your heart, you will achieve honor and prestige.
I feel that a revolutionary should put the revolution's interest first. Contribute his all for the party's enterprise. It is the happiest thing.
If you were one drop of water, do you moisten the field? If you were a ray of sunshine, do you brighten the darkness...
Plainly, this orphaned child turned revolutionary was, along with being a devoted believer in Mao Thought and the mission of the party, quite the poetical soul. One might rightly suspect that the historicity of Léi Fēng is doubted by many - but it is worth noting that officially, Léi Fēng is recognized as a historical figure by the Communist Party of China and is taught as such to children in schools. In fact, the importance of Léi Fēng is further enshrined by the national holiday Xué Léi Fēng Rì (Learn From Léi Fēng Day), where schools and groups across China take part in community service in the style that the folk hero was supposed to have done. It should be noted that recently, interest in Léi Fēng has diminished and skepticism about him has grown, though mostly in the chorus of those already critical of the Communist Party of China.

Concluding Remarks

Léi Fēng is a tool to instruct the populace how to behave rightly, as Aeneas was for the Roman Empire. Not unlike Aeneas, the person of Léi Fēng is debatable, and the figures have both been propagated by a ruling class looking to instill virtues favorable to themselves and the smooth running of society under their control. The lessons of Léi Fēng are a sort of extreme filial piety, taken not as merely for the parents themselves but to the entire society as one. The individual is not to be counted above the collective, and the good citizen in China is to be almost stripped of identity sans party.

I wanted to write this partly to introduce the west to Léi Fēng as a folk hero of modern China, and partly to wonder out loud whether the west finds itself lacking the same sort of cultural touchstone in modernity. Who do we learn about in primary education - barring Christ for Christians - that instills a sense of moral uprightness or correct political behavior? I don't want it to appear that I am suggesting we need to begin religious education in schools - in fact, I think that would be damaging at this time - but rather to suggest a need for western society to examine its education of children. We largely lack instructive heroes in modernity, which many may find to be a good thing. 

I can imagine people scoffing at this article, existing in their post-modern and post-structuralist academic worlds, and stating that we need no heroes. Instead, they might suggest, we should examine the evil and wrong that our societies in the west have committed, and teach our children never to commit the same atrocities again. They might say further that western society is not worth saving, and that any attempts to solidify or unify a western world is anathema to post-modern good and evil (good being the other, evil being us). To them I say only this: while the west actively and happily pulls itself limb from limb like some leviathan turned mad, the illiberal world is unifying itself in opposition to us. Before you blindly accept that the illiberal world is consummately better for merely being other, examine their societies. Examine what they value - for example, the ablation of the individual and the creation of the hive-mind - and weigh it against the taught virtues of western society. Look at the intention and the actions taken by the west, not merely the acts deemed (or actually) horrible. For some, this is an impossible calculus, and those people are likely destined to intellectual destruction regardless of anything they might read.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Chinese Dynasties and Data: Part II, the Xia

Short Discussion of Methodology

This is the second part of the series I've begun recently on Chinese history. In this post we'll cover the basics about the Xia.

The first thing one needs to know about the Xia is their historicity, or rather their possible lack thereof. While multiple texts including the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals discuss the Xia in detail, there is no definitive archaeological evidence to support the specific existence of a the Xia Dynasty. As will be a common theme in this blog overall, I'm going to weave the ancient and the modern - not to mention blending many different academic and artistic disciplines - in order to paint a full picture of what I wish to discuss at the time.

Here I want to introduce you all to a project initiated by the People's Republic of China. In 1996, a team of researchers were tasked with determining the location and dates of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. The head of the project, Li Xueqin, is considered a titan in the field of ancient Chinese history and archaeology. Li Xueqin, born in 1933, has  experienced China through massive social change. He sits as the Director of the Institute of Sinology at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Having been tasked with discovering the locations and dates for the three earliest Chinese dynasties, he assembled a team of over two hundred multidisciplinary scholars to accomplish the task. The project released preliminary results in 2000. I will present the findings - both dates and locations - below for the non-academic public to enjoy, and will include the traditional chronology as well for comparison. I'll look at the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project in depth in another post.

I've put this together as best I can to show the differences between the two different dating methodologies. I'll go into depth on why they're so vastly different in an upcoming post on the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, and dating methodology in general.

So, there are a few obvious things that jump out from the comparison between the two systems: first of all, only one includes the named rulers for the dynasty. The traditional chronology is based on books like the Records of the Grand Historian and the Bamboo Annals, both of which go into some depth on the individual rulers of the dynasty and, thus, make for good reading. Interestingly enough, the dynasty receives a different time period based on which of those two books you use, with the Bamboo Annals suggesting an even later start and end date for the Xia. We're showing the date derived from the mystical numerologists exploring the Records of the Grand Historian in the traditional chronology timeline on the left. For transparency's sake, and in lieu of the upcoming post on the dating methods used for the earliest dynasties, it should be noted that the dating for the traditional chronology is not written within these original texts, but calculated later based on small tidbits of information within the stories. the Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, on the other hand, makes a point of not including any rulers that cannot be verified through archaeological records or something equally convincing to the modern man.

The second obvious difference is in time. The traditional chronology suggests that the Xia existed from 2207 BC to 1766 BC, while the XSZCP suggests the Xia lasted from 2070 BC to 1600 BC. The total year counts are listed in the figure, and its clear that while there is some difference in total length it is not in any real sense substantial. There are some interesting questions one might ask about whether historians and archaeologists should reasonably expect for a timeline to match up that closely in both length and period, but we'll discuss that in the upcoming post.

For our second bit of data I'll include the suggested region of where the Xia dynasty might actually have been. Here's a short quote from the Records of the Grand Historian describing the last of the Five Emperors, Emperor Shun, having to deal with some minor flooding:
After Yao's death, the Emperor Shun asked the presidents of the four mountains, 'is there was any one who can perfect and develop Yao's undertakings, and can be employed in an official capacity?' They all said, 'There is lord Yu, the Minister of Works; he might perfect and develop Yao's labours.' Shun said, 'Ah yes! you, Yu, have regulated the water and the land, but in this office you must exert yourself.' Yu did obeisance with his head to the ground, and would have declined in favour of Xie, Prince Millet, or Gaoyao, but Shun said 'Go and attend to your duties.'
 Yu will become important very quickly in our story. The astute reader of visual aids will see that the first emperor of the Xia is named Dà Yǔ.

Not to get caught in the weeds, I'll actually show the data on where the mythical Xia were supposed to have lived:

That gives you a sense of where they were in China, which is nice to have. The capital (and general region/size of dynasties) will change hands many times over the course of this series. I'll start including cool geographic data in future posts, as it will be fun to visualize the change over time that China has experienced in what it considered to be the homeland.

Now we can move on to the fun part, which is discussing the rulers in some detail. We'll go chronologically using the traditional chronology as our guide, and we'll discuss some fun facts for each ruler as we go along. This will also give a nice overview of what was happening in the Middle Kingdom, and what the people cared about. Without further ado, let's jump into it with Yu the Great.

The Xià Rulers

Before we begin, here's another neat visualization of the length of rule for each separate ruler of the Xia - these are broken down into years with the total length of the dynasty, as per the traditional chronology, printed below the dynasty title.

We've got a list of eighteen separate people to discuss this time, and not all of them were, apparently, very important. We'll start out with the head honcho, the creator of the Xia, the water-controller - Yu the Great.

Dà Yǔ (Yu the Great)

Dà Yǔ  was the first ruler of the Xia. He was minding his own business being the Minister of Works when Emperor Shun called upon him to help solve a problem for the people of Xià: namely, the massive amounts of flooding that were killing off crops and drowning folks. As a fun aside, scientists discovered evidence of massive flooding happening around the time of the legendary Xià dynasty. The evidence, found by a geologist named Wu Qinglong from Nanjing Normal University, was dated to around 1900 BC, which lands towards the last quarter of the traditional chronology or the middle of the XSZCP. This only shows that a big flood did, in fact, occur, but it's always nice when old stories seem to ring true.

Yu the Great, who at the time hadn't yet earned his honorific, set about doing the task admirably. He left his house for thirteen years while working to fix the flooding, and achieved the task by bringing along a massive workforce and achieving one of the earliest country-wide infrastructure projects. He widened channels and built dams where appropriate, and ultimately was able to control the flooding. The story of this chapter of his life is  known as Dà Yǔ Zhì Shuǐ, approximately meaning Yu the Great Controls the Waters. If you ask a random person who grew up in China and learned even a little about Chinese history, they'll probably know about this story. To give you a taste of the sort of praise Yu gets, here's a little snippet about how virtuous and hard working he was during this time from the Records of the Grand Historian:
Yu was quick, earnest, and diligent, not deviating from virtue, kind, and lovable; his word could be depended on, his voice was musical, and his body, like a balance properly adjusted, moved unweariedly and solemnly in accordance with certain fixed rules.
That could, viewed from a certain perspective, be describing a kindhearted robot. After he controlled the flooding and allowed things to get back to normal, he came back home. Relating back to something I referred to briefly above, Yu had actually passed his house three times during his infrastructural machinations. Each time, his family begged him to come in and stay with him, but Yu, being virtuous in a distinctly ancient way, refused to see his family until the rest of the country was spared from the floods. Also, if you trust the Bamboo Annals (and who does, honestly), Yu killed a ruler in the north named Fangfeng at the request of Emperor Shun around this time.

One last story prior to Yu receiving his honorific is worth mentioning. Yu convinced Gaoyao, the Minister of Laws for Emperor Shun, to prefer admonishment to punishment. In essence, he convinced the minister to tell people not to do the bad thing again at least once before cutting off a body part or seizing titles from the offender. Here it is related again in the Records of the Grand Historian:
Gaoyao therefore, respecting Yu's virtues, bade the people carry out as a rule his plan of preferring admonition, but also made use of punishments. Shun's virtues were very clear.
What a cool guy. Emperor Shun decided, after all the cool things that Yu had done, that he should be the heir to the throne of Xia. Yu accepted the position, and remembering how level-headed Gaoyao had been in his prior dealings, recommended he be promoted to Minister of Affairs. Gaoyao accepted graciously and then promptly died.

From this point on, Yu apparently did very little of note. To be fair, he didn't really need to do much after stopping biblical-level flooding and reforming the penal code for an entire nation, but I am surprised that every single achievement made by Yu was prior to his ascension to the throne. Yu is said to have reigned for ten more years before dying during a routine inspection of the east. Now for the purposes of having a full and fun to use dataset, I'll note that the historical text Yue Jue Shu suggests he died from an illness of some sort. This seems perfectly believable, as Yu spent much of his life bandying about in the muck and water, likely without proper protection from bacterial infection. All told, Yu the Great was a great ruler.

Oh, one last thing: Yu created the nine tripod cauldrons, which were very large, from a bunch of metal he was gifted by a loyal subject. These nine tripods were used in ceremonies for a long, long time and are still thought of as culturally important details to Chinese history.

The next emperor is Qǐ. His history in the Records of the Grand Historian is far smaller than his father Yu's, but he did kill a guy. I'll let the only story about him in the aforementioned book speak for itself:
As the lord of Hu would not submit, Qi attacked him, and there was a great battle at Han. Just before the engagement the speech at Gan was delivered to the six generals, who were summoned together; Qi said, "Ah! ye who are engaged in my six armies, I have a solemn announcement to make to you. The chief of Hu violently sets at naught the five human relations, and idly casts aside the three obligations of duty. Heaven will on this account oppose him and cut off the span of his life, and I am now but reverently executing the punishment appointed by Heaven. If you on the left do not do your work on the left, and you on the right do not do your work on the right, it will be a disregard of my orders. If you, charioteers, do not observe the rules for the management of your horses, it will be a disregard of my orders. You who obey my orders shall be rewarded in the ancestral temple, but you who disobey my orders shall be slain before the altar of the spirits of the land, and I will destroy both you and your children." He thereupon destroyed the chief of Hu, and the whole nation went to the court of the Prince of Xia.
Nice job, Qǐ. He dies, and his son Tài kāng takes over.

The Rest of Them

From here on out the story goes very quickly for the remaining rulers, at least within the pages of the Records of the Grand Historian. Things got pretty bad, and people became unhappy with the rulers. Here's the entirety of the remaining text (don't worry, it's not long):

Taikang died, and his brother Zhongkang the second came to the throne. In the time of the Emperor Zhongkang, Xi and He, indulging in wine and dissipation, neglected the seasons, and let the calendar get into confusion (No rice this year). Yin went to punish them, and the 'punitive expedition of Yin' was composed.*
Zhongkang died, and his son Emperor Xiang came to the throne. Emperor Xiang died, and his Son Shaokang came to the throne. Emperor Shaokang died, and his son Emperor Chu came to the throne. Emperor Chu died, and his son Emperor Huai came the throne. Emperor Huai died, and his Son Emperor Mang came to the throne. Emperor Mang died, and his Son Emperor Xie came to the throne. Emperor Xie died, and his son Emperor Bujiang came to the throne. Emperor Bujiang died, and his brother Emperor Jiong came to the throne. Emperor Jiong died, and his Son Emperor Jin came to the throne. Emperor Jin died, and Emperor Bujiang's son Kongjia, that is Emperor Kongjia, came to the throne. Emperor Kongjia was fond of enquiring into spiritual matters, and indulged in dissipation, and the virtue of the princes of Xia having degenerated, the chiefs rebelled. Heaven sent down two dragons, a male and a female. Kongjia could not feed them, and could not obtain a dragon-keeper. After the decline of Taotang (Yao) one of his descendants, Liu Lei, learnt to train dragons, and he was chosen out of the dragon-keepers to wait on Kongjia, who gave him the title of dragon-tamer, which was inherited by the descendants of the Shiwei. The female dragon died, and he served it up as a meal for the Prince of Xia, but the latter having sent some one to look for it, he became frightened and ran away.
Kongjia died, and his son Emperor Gao came to the throne. Emperor Gao died, and his son Emperor Fa came to the throne. Emperor Fa died, and his son Emperor Lu Gui, that is Jie, came to the throne. Regarding the reign of the Emperor Jie, ever since the time of Kongjia the barons had frequently rebelled. Jie of Xia did not strive after virtue, and the wars injured the people. Unable to endure their wrongs they summoned Tang to their aid, but he was imprisoned in the tower of Xia; being afterwards released. Tang cultivated virtue, and the princes all went over to him, so Tang led an army to attack Jie of Xia. Jie fled to Mingtiao, and was eventually driven out and slain. Jie observed to someone, 'I regret that I did not take the opportunity of killing Tang in the tower of Xia, and then I should not have been brought to such a pass.' Tang, being seated on the Imperial throne, superseded Xia, and gave audience to the people. Tang enfeoffed the descendants of the Xias. Until the time of the Zhou dynasty they held the principality of Qi.
 That's about all there is to say regarding the Xia. Most of their legacy stems from the glory of their first ruler, Yu the Great. After his son had a rather successful though arguably terrifying military career, things went downhill fast.

As we move into the next post, where I discuss the methodology of the different dating systems in depth, I'll be providing more data and visualizations for your entertainment. For now, that will do for our quick historical account of the Xia.

* Note from the Significant Other: It was pointed out to me that this may not make sense to westerners. The Chinese use the lunar calendar, and one of the rather interesting requirements of this system of dates is that each year, a team of specialists must recalculate the times when seeds are to be scattered, harvested, etc. Here is a quote from her to elucidate the import and quality of the lunar calendar:
"There is a day called the descent of the frost - Shuāngjiàng... and after that day, bok choy..." She pauses for dramatic effect - "... is no longer tasty."

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Chinese Dynasties and Data: 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 foreign 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. 

Even the Flowers Shed Tears: A Selection of China's Campaigns, 1947-2018

Note: This was originally written as an academic research paper. I'm copying the full text onto this blog for posterity's sake, give...