Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China

[This post is one of two I wrote in November 2014 and then queued, expecting to be cutting down my backlog sooner than I actually have. I still think they’re worth posting, but they have ‘legacy issues’. I’ve gone through to try and update the references to what was then my current work and teaching but may have missed a few. Try to read it in the past!]

Birmingham, as you already know by now, is very keen on its global history. Even its medievalist historians are as many or more non-European in focus than European, so that while I was there I was essentially the only pre-900 European teaching cover outside of English, Drama and American and Canadian Studies and Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, where the Late Antique and Byzantine people hang out. What this means, apart from anything else, is that the medieval outline courses have quite a spread, and thus it was that in November and December I found myself teaching China and the Silk Roads for the first time. As you can imagine this took a bit of a run-up, and in that run-up I was reading, among other things, Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history. Now this is a book that would make many a historian fairly sceptical about world history, although it was apparently written as a riposte to another book even more of that kind.1 It is also, however, very clever, and it made me think.

Cover of Samuel Adshead's T'ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

Cover of Samuel Adshead’s T’ang China: the rise of the East in World History (London 2004)

First the scepticism, just to get that out of the way. Using what seems to be a quite old-fashioned narrative of political coups and the successes and failures of the succession of Chinese rulers with achieving peace or reform,2 the book attempts to make the case that T’ang China was the leading world power in its day, and it is deliberately and extensively comparative (including, in the introduction, to the modern USA). The terms of this assessment are unapologetically Whiggish: the ultimate goal is a developed state apparatus and national consciousness and this is assumed good for so much of the book that it makes my hippy protestor personality quite cross; the whole thing is an assessment of various states against an unquestioned standard of patriotic liberal bureaucracy and commendation of their progress towards that or condemnation for their inability to do so. And yet even within this the cleverness: why is that the good? Because it enabled peace, Adshead at one point implies as if it’s self-evident, and to maintain that peace required a well-resourced and flexible state.3 Well, we could argue about that, but it’s a case, and he doesn’t require this state to be unified: as he sees it some decentralised configurations of both China and the comparators worked better.4 His criteria for comparison are very carefully chosen, though possibly also too broad to be useful and much narrower ones seem mainly to be deployed for most of the detailed analysis. I will write more about this, but just now it’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to question the idea of a world system on which the whole thing rests.

Map of the 8th-century world from Wikimedia Commons

The world we’re considering as a system, in a not-too-bad map of the 8th-century situation from Wikimedia Commons; click through to their big version. The Maori probably shouldn’t be in New Zealand yet, everything in Africa or the Caucasus really massively overstates our knowledge, but it gets the general idea across. Mostly, note how far even this expanded China is from everything else…

Again, this is certainly something Adshead has thought about; in fact, the whole first chapter is a point-by-point takedown of the idea of world system as propounded by his opponent and its substitution with a subtler, better-featured one that accommodates more variety and different causal factors. But it still rests on the idea that everywhere was connected; otherwise, we are just holding these various powers up to an artificial standard, since how can their competition be historical if the competitors knew nothing about each other? To get round this, Adshead firstly makes great use of the power of coincidence, rises and falls and ideas whose time comes in two or more places in roughly the same era, and indeed invokes Kondratieff-like ideas of cyclical social development without ever explicitly identifying his thoughts with them (and indeed lampooning his opponent for doing so too much).5 But he also ramps up every possible mention of contact and connection, often to a quite improbable degree: whether or not the various Christian communities that left the Byzantine Empire eastwards after Chalcedon can all be classed as Nestorian (hint: they cannot) they can only really have constituted a persistent cultural network if they remained connected, which there is no hint that they did. And so on. (I don’t honestly see why Adshead uses the term ‘Nestorian’ at all, except that it is widely done; he would get as much mileage and more accuracy just from ‘Christian’.)

The famous 'Nestorian Stele', a Christian monument of 781 found in the seventeenth century at Daqin

For example, here is the famous ‘Nestorian Stele’, a Christian monument of A. D. 781 found in the sixteenth century at Daqin. Christian it plainly is, albeit customised to be understandable in Buddhist or Taoist and even Manichæan terms; but what makes it Nestorian? It doesn’t actually mention, you know, Nestorius, and the Trinity is not discussed in the kind of detail that would let one assign its author to a Christological position. It is obviously linked to Syria: not only does it say that’s where its ‘Illustrious Religion’ came from (though excitingly it references Xuanzang for details of what and where Syria actually was, quite fantastic) but it is also lettered down the sides in Syriac. But it’s not like Nestorians was the only Christians ever to leave Syria…

Adshead is far from alone in this, of course; it’s the core assumption of global history that there is a world in the first place, rather than many different areas joined only by mostly-uncrossed oceans, and it’s one of the problems in conceptualising a Global Middle Ages, as we’ve seen, that the Middle Ages doesn’t easily fit that requirement. But the problem of exaggerating contact goes on at a smaller level: it is for example the core of the argument between scholars like Michael McCormick, arguing that the early medieval economy was articulated by long-distance trade and its development, and Chris Wickham arguing that long-distance trade was always economically marginal and that long-range connections are not historically causative in the early Middle Ages.6 McCormick arguably ignores agriculture, Chris arguably downplays plague to non-existence, but the problem is still at the point of quantifying connection, because arguably we can’t.

The sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province

An example of connection which many would find inarguable, the sixth-century sarcophagus of Yu Hong from Jinyuan in Shanxi province, evidence because of how extremely Persian its hunting scenes look. But we’ve seen that somewhere else, no? And so what is the connection, what was moving? People, carpets, metalwork? And how far, and over how long? Had anyone involved in this actually been to Persia? It is not established

When I find myself in these arguments, which given my collaboration with Rebecca Darley I tend to, I am mostly ready to accept the minimalist point of view, though I will sometimes attempt the saving argument that long-distance trade may have been marginal but it really mattered to those in political charge.7 The trouble with that is that it only works where those rulers are very small-scale, otherwise landed revenue and the proceeds of office far escape whatever political leverage the monopoly on shiny things from abroad can give such people, and it’s telling that I mainly instance sixth-century Western Britain because nothing larger would work.8 But occasionally I remember an argument that Mark Blackburn, may he rest kindly, used to use about tenth-century England and Scandinavia.

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum

Anglo-Saxon coins on display in Stockholm Royal Armouries Museum, including a really lovely Æthelred II ‘Lamb of God’ type, but I digress, dear reader, I digress…

You may know that there are vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon coin of the reigns of Æthelred the Unready and Cnut in Scandinavia, which is traditionally associated with the fantastic amount of Danegeld paid to Viking seamen during those reigns.9 You may also know that by that time the English coinage was periodically renewed, so that we have quite a tight chronology for its various issues. That means that we ought to expect that the preservation in Scandinavia would privilege the issues in circulation when the Danegelds were taken but actually they don’t, there is no difference in those years’ coins’ presence in the hoards. Mark saw no other explanation than that there was enough other traffic of coin across the North Sea, despite the political climate, that the huge Danegelds, which it used to be argued must have stretched the country’s resources to its limit, don’t even register in the greater flood.10 And presumably it wasn’t either one-way or just Scandinavia, but anywhere else that Anglo-Saxon coins wound up coming into kingdoms, they would have been melted down and restruck as local issues so we just don’t see it. And sometimes I wonder how true that could be in other spheres, with perishable or consumable goods, labour rather than goods travelling, and so on.

Map of the various Silk Routes

The trouble with mapping disconnection is that it looks so much like connection until you realise how few people if any we can show ever went the full length of that long red line

For my immediate purposes, however, the question is probably one of scale. (Isn’t everything?11) England to Denmark is not very far. Byzantium to China was. If lots travelled the short distance, it does not magically make those long distances shorter. Given that we now pluralise Silk Roads precisely because what was once seen as an arterial routeway is now seen as a mostly-contiguous series of shorter-range connections along the whole of which almost no-one probably ever travelled, this seems a very germane concern. But it does great damage to the idea of a world system (or, in Adshead’s initially preferred terminology, a world order) if contact over that distance was attenuated. You can go and say things like:

“Though ongoing world institutions, and with them world history, only began in the thirteenth century, they were preceded by temporary, non-enduring world institutions whose coexistence created world orders… One such institution was T’ang cosmopolitanism: the intense interest in things and people foreign exhibited by the court at Chang’an, which, along with the attractions of China, brought an unprecedented influx of non-Chinese to the Middle Kingdom, both from other parts of East Asia and from Western Eurasia…. It was rooted in the intellectual register but it had repercussions in politics, economics and society. It was accompanied by military interventions by Chinese forces in territories beyond East Asia: in northern India, Persia, Transoxiana, the Himalayan interface, and parts of Southeast Asia still more Indianized than Sinified. Chinese consumer goods, notably ceramics, reached the eastern coast of Black Africa [sic!]. Chinese accidental voyagers may have travelled along the Kurosiwo current via the Aleutians and the north Pacific drift to the pre-Columbian America, though no Chinese Columbus returned to report on the Inside Passage from Juneau to Seattle. T’ang cosmopolitanism reached out to the world to an extent only paralleled in Chinese history by what has been happening in post-Maoist China….”12

… it does mean that the critical historian is entitled to ask, “Maybe, but what difference did it make?” I am already getting the idea here that China being outward-looking was quite a big deal when viewed with Sinological hindsight, not least because of the implication that if the centre could cross its own national borders then, like al-Andalus, it was probably in good enough shape to actually exert itself there for once, but because so much of its subsequent history has been seen as a defence of Chineseness against any suggestion that anything foreign could be as good or beneficial, an assumption which when challenged by the colonial powers finally brought down much of what such historians recognise as China.13 But really, if all but a tiny fraction of populations in any of the polities involved did not know that these other places and peoples existed, had never seen goods or people from them and would certainly never go there, then the places that they had heard of and did know from such travel of persons or objects must be a whole order of magnitude more likely to have any impact upon them. Adshead’s claim for the T’ang, once explored, is no more than that, for a very short time during their wider ascendancy, they pushed Chinese influence out far enough to actually touch several parts of the rest of the world. I don’t dispute (all of) the contacts, but those contacts were nonetheless very weak, surely too weak to bear the weight of a world order in which what any one part did might affect some or all of the others. What Adshead seems to mean by world order is actually precedence, but again, although this may be European isolation from the East speaking, the implied competition seems like one that the competitors hardly knew existed, let alone put any interest into.

1. S. A. M. Adshead, T’ang China: the rise of the East in world history (London 2004), written mostly vs. Andre Gunder Frank, Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley 1998).

2. My first reading for this course was Bodo Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History: from ancient times to the Revolution of 1912, transl. Mary Whittall (London 1975), because I happened to have bought it on sight in 2008 because of suspecting I might some day have to teach China and now that day had come, and although obviously since Adshead has more detail since he is covering in a book what Wiethoff covered in part of a chapter, the basic narrative of rise, contacts, barbarian pressure and civil disconnection, fall and coups is not substantially different. I don’t know if a newer story is told by anyone else, however.

3. Adshead, T’ang China, p. 51:

“Ennin portrays a well-ordered bureaucratic state: permits and permissions were required, but officials were reasonable and courteous if hidebound by red tape. China was definitely one country, though the northeast enjoyed devolution. There was little endemic social violence from bandits or local bosses and, until the transient persecution of Buddhism and foreign religions in 845, no state-induced totalitarian violence… China was still a superpower. All in all, by the middle of the ninth century the political system had reached a new equilibrium. Contracted in space but expanded in sophistication, it still provided the most advanced government in the world.”

4. Ibid., pp. 52-55, culminating in p. 55:

“Here, though the comparison is with China, it is not thereby assumed that the Chinese ideal of a single, bureaucratic imperial state is the criterion of political progress in all circumstances. More pluralistic paths of development may be more in accordance with the propensities of other milieus or with the imperatives of modernity.”

5. Ibid., p. 19: “Here, it may be observed that Frank goes beyond the views of Kondratieff himself….”

6. Michael McCormick, The Origins of the European Economy: communications and commerce AD 300-900; Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005).

7. This is a very Western materialist perspective of course, basing kingship’s power on its ability to control a flow of shiny things to its followers, but better scholars than me have used it, including Guy Halsall, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge 2007), pp. 311-319 & 357-368 or Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monographs (Edinburgh 2003), pp. 83-93.

8. Tintagel is the key here: huge by sub-Roman British standards, with connections stretched over hundreds of miles, and about the size and importance of any ruinous caravanserai in Arabia or hillfort in Eastern Europe. Still cool though; see Charles Thomas, Tintagel, Arthur and Archaeology (London 1993) and now Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey & Christopher Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 (London 2007).

9. See D. M. Metcalf, “Large Danegelds in Relation to War and Kingship: their implications for monetary history, and some numismatic evidence” in Sonia Chadwick Hawkes (ed.), Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford 1989), pp. 179-189.

10. Annoyingly, I don’t think Mark actually published this, but some hints towards it can be found in D. M. Metcalf, “The Fall and Rise of the Danelaw Connection, the Export of English Coins to the Northern Lands, and the Tributes of 991 and 994” in Kenneth Jonsson and Britta Malmer (edd.), Sigtuna Papers (Stockholm 1990), pp. 213–223.

11. Julio Escalona, “The Early Middle Ages: a scale-based approach” in idem & Andrew Reynolds (edd.), Scale and Scale Change in the Early Middle Ages: exploring landscape, local society, and the world beyond, The Medieval Countryside 6 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 9-29.

12. Adshead, T’ang China, p. xiii.

13. I get my perspective on al-Andalus here from Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991); for China I’m still working with Wiethoff, Introduction to Chinese History, esp. pp. 71-167.

11 responses to “Musing on connectivity and world systems apropos of T’ang China

  1. Pingback: Towards a Global Middle Ages I: going global in the first place | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  2. Allan McKinley

    In reference to your (reasonable) views that a worthwhile number of people had to be aware of a place for it to have importance, I’d be inclined to offer a corrective from literature. Throughout the middle ages there existed literature about distant, generally mythical, lands. Although I’m not sure if anyone has proven how widely these stories were known, they were certainly known in the vernacular which implies easy access. Less people had presumably (unless we’re very wrong…) had any contact with the kingdom of Prester John or the land of the dog- headed men than with T’ang China but these places certainly were known. Cathay (or whatever other name was used) was as much part of the medieval world view as anywhere else and generally as accurately reported, but to limit the assessment of contact to material knowledge may underplay the question.

    • Fair enough, but while I wouldn’t want to say that the stories of Prester John or Cathay never gave someone in the West ideas about how things might be done differently and they certainly inspired some people to go and look for them, it’s still not two-way or reactive contact except at a very derived level. The Wonders of the East are, in that respect, so often actually the Wonders of Really Old Western Stories. So Cathay is part of the medieval world view but that doesn’t mean that China as it existed impinged upon it much!

      • Allan McKinley

        It should be pointed out that two-way contact is not necessarily a concept that covers even the exchange of ambassadors or long-distance trade, which are perhaps better seen as intermittent contact often through a number of mediums; that is also, I guess, how you’d describe any authentic tales about distant lands at the time which were incorporated into tales and legends. And maybe this is the issue here – whether a global society can truly be said to exist when contacts are in bursts and often relayed rather than direct. T’ang China may have had reach and influence (although not enough for any recognisable tales from there to surface in Europe or Syria that anyone has mentioned) but it couldn’t be a world power because the state was unable to manipulate this reach and influence; the intermittent nature of contact meant this was not power – to get all Foucault on this, even where China was able to intervene militarily they were coercing, rather than exercising power over, the victims.

        To sum this up then, I would suggest that the nature of medieval contacts limited the ability to exercise power on a global stage. Maybe the Mongols briefly managed it through mobility, but even they rapidly became localised as they tried to exercise power rather than coercion or tribute taking. But all contacts and knowledge within much of medieval society was too fractured and passing through too many hands to allow much exercise of any long range power, or as various popes, emperors and caliphs might tell you (probably in the only contact for 10 years, or through 6 intermediaries) even maintaining a relatively local hegemony.

        • I can only applaud all of that, which puts a lot of my objections to the concepts in play here better than I so far have. Although, next post will have some more, which I wrote a year ago, so who knows whether I’ve now forgotten already having thought that… but it seems unlikely. Once again I find myself in grudging agreement with citation of Foucault and one step closer to going and reading some some day.

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