Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.


The Greatest Gap Year Ever: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

A Hajj – you got to look good when you’re this holy.

You get a lot of talk nowadays about living a connected world. We’re connected by social networking and connected by globalisation and connected by a shared fear of how exactly how much of our Internet history the American government can find out. Connectivity is a good thing (I’d say “We’re better connected” but I’m not really a fan of shameless advertising unless it gets me free texts) but everyone bands it about like it’s a totally new thing. As if the people 100, even 500 years before us wouldn’t go as far as to leave their little villages to see if the beer really was sweeter over in the next hamlet. In this post, I’m going to try and disprove that idea by foraying into one of my rare (but fun!) articles about one person’s life. It’s usually difficult to get a sense of the holistic with a biography, but with this guy…well, you’ll see. Because the person I’m going to talk about was, for about 400 years, the most well-travelled man in existence. In fact, would be right up until the 1800s, when steamships and railroads made his journeys possible in less than a lifetime. This is a guy who crossed three continents and four seas, saw the Mongol Empire at its peak and Constantinople in its final days.  He saw every great holy site of Islam and met everyone who was anyone in an extraordinary world of sultans, khans and imams. His name, to use the heavily shortened version, was Muhammad Ibn Battuta. And his story is the best testament to a connected, global history that you’re ever going to find.

To concur: One lifetime. One freaking lifetime.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304 – Tangier’s that pointy northern bit of Morocco and pretty much as far west as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. He was a devout Sunni Muslim and a trained judge of Sharia (two misconceptions here: it’s not Sharia Law, because Sharia is Arabic for…well, law. It’s also not as evil and bigoted as the Daily Mail might have you believe and for most of the medieval era it was much fairer to women, peasants and nonbelievers than anything the Christians came up with. As ever, it’s the way it’s interpreted that can lead to the ridiculous Taliban stuff and its application to the modern world). So, at some point in 1326, Ibn Battuta began his Hajj – his obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, which would take him all across Northern Africa and along Arabia. Travelling was slow and so he stopped at famous towns, settlements, and sights along the way. But something in that awoke a travelling bug in young Muhammad, and he promised to spend the rest of his life travelling through the rest of the Muslim world – and some countries beyond it, too. In fact, he was to travel three times the distance of his contemporary Marco Polo, seeing Greece, Iran, Egypt, Arabia, even India and China, and some of Indonesia. He would go on to record stories, memories of people and places in his literary masterpiece, “A Gift to Those Who Appreciate the Wonders of Cities and the Joys of Travelling”, or, for short, “The Travels”. It’s a book that – translated and shortened, admittedly – I own myself, and it’s that which I’m going to talk about (with geeky joy, naturally) from here on.

Islamic Turkestan? Been there, done that, played the newfangled horse game.

There’s a lot to love in The Travels. It’s perfectly balanced between Ibn Battuta’s boundless enthusiasm for new things and his endless bigotry that only the Muslim things are really the best things. He’s essentially a massive geek about his religion – he goes to Egypt but states that he didn’t have time to visit the Pyramids or the Great Library of Alexandria because he was too busy looking as mosques. He goes to Jerusalem, where the Dome on the Rock is, in his words, “endowed with a plentiful share of loveliness”, while the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (the one partially ruined in the Syrian Civil War earlier this year) is “the most exquisite in beauty, grace and consummate achievement” in the world. It’s not just the architecture he finds extraordinary – his travels through India introduce him to the rhinoceros, which he thinks has a hilariously large head but is basically, when it comes down to it, just a new sort of elephant. In Uzbekistan, he is introduced to watermelons, which in his words “have no equal in any country of the world”, and he proceeds to order melons wherever he goes. Of course, as a conservative Muslim scholar, he also looks down on the practice of everywhere and anywhere “pagan” – he can’t pass through a village in India without making reference to “idol worshippers” and in Mali, he’s shocked to fainting by the women with their chests uncovered and – even worse – without veils on their heads. By far the most adorable part (if that’s really possible for a 700-year old man) is when he finds one of his heroes, a great ascetic holy man. The man tells him that he will bless Battuta and pray to God for his one strongest wish. By this point, Ibn Battuta has been lost, robbed, abandoned and mistreated countless times across the globe. But all he can wish for is more travel. It’s that passion, that enthusiasm to see and do and feel every continent known to man, that makes The Travels such a good read. It’s not, however, the only reason to study Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Islam: Generous doesn’t even cover it.

Ibn Battuta also manages – intentionally or not – to stumble across some of the most important figures of his day. He flits between the courts of Sultans, Khans and Emperors, impressing them all with stories of travel in exchange for food and board. He finds a job working for the Sultan of Dehli, who calls himself slightly presumptuously “King of All the World”. He meets the Byzantine Emperor in his home and travels with his daughter to marry her to the Khan of the Mongols. He also meets the Emperor of freaking China. He gives one of the best impressions of the world as it was at that time – from his point of view, a huge Muslim expanse of bazaars, mosques and traders, covering a route called the Silk Road that ran all the way from Constantinople to China. The Silk Road was for about 1000 years the most important road in the world. He sees Indian Ocean trading at its height and how the same spices can be grown in the Maldives to be sold in markets in Mecca. He sees the devastating effect of the Black Death as it crosses the steppes of Asia to infect Europe and the Middle East, returning at one point to his home town to see it ruined and half-empty from the plague. But everywhere he goes, he sees faith and goods and kings and peasants who wouldn’t look that out of place in his home in Morocco. He goes to China and meets Muslim families willing to take him in. He goes to Indonesia and sees the same dried fish and nuts that he saw sold 10,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean and the same silk he saw in the Silk Road. To paraphrase the man himself, he went to the land of the Christians, but the girls were still pretty. That is the legacy of Ibn Battuta – of connectivity all across the world centuries before the telephone and the internet. And, of course, of travelling for the love of it, without knowing where to go but liking where you end up. So there you have it – Ibn Battuta, proprietor of possibly the best gap year in history and one of the few people who might actually have had a girl in every port (seriously…90 wives, following an odd custom to marry your daughters to important-sounding guests). He’s not likeable but he’s loveable, a slightly stuffy old cleric with an admirable taste for travel in a world that’s all at once varied and familiar. You don’t have to like him but his legacy – of travel, and of interconnectivity – is one you should never forget.

Pyongyang vs. Gangnam: Korean History, and How to Live Through It

“History never looks like history when you’re living through it.” – Gerald W. Johnson

It’s a famous quote from a great historian and probably the best response to that modern belief that history, or at least the interesting part of it, is over. It’s difficult to see the things around you as pages on some GCSE textbook, sure, but that doesn’t mean that nothing worth studying is happening right now, and it definitely doesn’t mean that all the ups and downs of the past are becoming irrelevant. In this post, I’m going to try and prove it by jumping into contemporary history, to talk about a place where legacy of the past is still perfectly clear and a place where history is obviously still in the making. It’s extraordinary, it’s interesting and it’s much more relevant than you might give it credit to be: ladies and gents, the history of Korea.

joseon i choose you

Joseon, I choose you!

Like a lot of Asian nations, Korea’s history stretches so far back that its history gets intertwined with its myth. There’s a little archaeological evidence for some of it – Koreans seem to have lived on the peninsula for 10,000 years and went through a stone age, bronze age, iron age process at a similar rate to Japan – but I’m still waiting on evidence that the kingdom was founded by a mystic bear who was turned into a woman by the god of the sky. From there, Korea (well, Joseon at the time, but you know) began splitting up into smaller kingdoms, then larger ones, then smaller ones again – all filled with the kind of imaginative naming that you would expect from history, like the “Three Kingdoms Era” and the “North/South States Era”. Korea was unified for what many must have believed to be the last time in 918AD under the banner of the northern kingdom, Koryo. You will never guess how that translates into English.


What’s the Korean for B.A.M.F.?

Korea did quite well out of trade with China and Japan, those being the two states in the area capable of trading – and ended up sharing aspects of their language and culture with both. The kingdom developed a reputation as a polite and reserved country (polite, reserved kingdom, north-south divide…I’m resisting the urge to compare Korea to England). They also got really good at defending themselves – as a peninsula with mountains to the North and a badass navy – I mean, fire-breathing impenetrable tank boat badass – so managed to remain independent for the best part of 1,000 years. But that could never last, because come the 20th century Korea came into the sights of the world’s newest Asian superpower. If you’ve read this, it might seem rather familiar.

Japan was in its western-style industrial age when it started its diplomacy with Korea, and as such wanted to gain control of Korea in a western sort of way – flood it with treaties, concessions and gunboat diplomacy. Korea, probably being much more used to full-on war, was annexed completely in 1910. The following decades under Japanese rule would bring statism and fascism to Korea, all under the premise of “co-prosperity” rule, and finally dragged it into something that would change the course of its history forever. Specifically, the Second World War. More specifically, the losing side. By 1945, the Axis had unilaterally surrendered. What was left of them was split between the victorious powers – Hungary and Romania were occupied by the USSR, Japan by the US, and Germany split four ways, then unhappily consolidated into two. Korea was left until the last minute and split between the USA and USSR – the USSR, naturally, taking the north nearer to its border and the USA taking the south nearer to occupied Japan. Then, in 1947, two years into occupation, the frosty relationship between the two occupying powers got colder.

capitalist communist

…but which is the Capitalist Dictator (Park Chung-hee) and which is the Communist Dictator (Kim Il-sung)? 

Where Germany was split between East and West, Korea was split between North and South. The South installed Syngman Rhee, a liberal Christian reformer with strong ties to America. The North installed Kim Il-Sung, a communist freedom fighter with a taste for Stalin’s personality cults in Russia. Kim Il-Sung is still technically in charge of North Korea, despite the minor complication of his death in 1994. As “Eternal Leader”, he always will be. The Korean War was an attempt by the North to bring Korea back together again, and quickly became the first true armed conflict of the Cold War as the USA rushed to the South’s aid, but the attempt failed and the two states were left refusing to accept the other as legitimate – they still don’t. Then, in the 1960s, democracy in South Korea fell to the military government of Park Chung-Hee, laissez-faire dictator, and the South became simultaneously more and less like the impoverished North as its freedoms diminished and its economy boomed. In the late 1980s, the South won back its freedom to vote and the North lost out on its USSR funding. Then, in 2006, North Korea gained its first nuclear weapons.

shelling 2010

North Korea attacks a disputed zone as Southerners stand by. In 2010.

Korea might be just as famous at the moment for its most well-known characters – one ridiculous camp man with an internet following and another ridiculous camp man with a country – than its open hostility and instability, but the fact is that Korean history is far from resolved and developing even today. Not only are they a direct continuation of that great historical conflict, the Cold War, that’s happening right now, they’re hugely related to and influenced by their past. They’re still divided between the USA and the USSR’s politics – and the latter doesn’t even exist any more. They’re still named after ancient unified kingdoms – the North even calls itself Joseon. North Korea’s leader is the grandson of the dictatorial Kim Il-Sung. And South Korea’s is the daughter of the dictatorial Park Chung-Hee. Korea’s story, like every country’s, is still immersed hugely in its past and almost certainly has troubles to come. Either the South will suffer under Communism, or the impoverished North under capitalism, or one of the world’s most homogenous cultures will stay split forever.  Gerald W. Johnson lived through two world wars and still couldn’t see the history around him. Aspire to do better.

For more on Korea’s current affairs, I really recommend this. 

The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 2: Shinobi and Sakoku and Japanese Ambition

A real ninja. Note the lack of teenage, mutant and turtle qualities.

Constant war. Divided families.  Larger armies than had ever been seen before. And that most famous of Chinese imports, the musket. I’m not going to make a huge, arching generalisation here (…even though that’s exactly the sort of thing I do here) but it’s fair to say that brilliant combination can lead a country to turmoil. It near-destroyed the idea of a unified Japan. It near-destroyed the Shogunate, as even the greatest of warlords was suddenly susceptible to assassination or backstabbing.  And it near-destroyed the samurai system, as warlords moved towards the gun-toting mercenary class’ antidote to the honour and brashness of the warrior class – the ninja. If there’s one symbol of the Sengoku era that works better than any other, it’s the ninja – for a start, they never existed at any other point in Japanese history. Their success was based around the pragmatism of the war, and the (temporary) abandonment of all that was noble about feudal Japan – the disguises, poisoning, espionage and often just plain arson would be unthinkable outside of those desperate times. And on the other hand, they also show what was to become the height of Japanese technology for centuries – amazing military philosophy and technology that would make them icons of a strong and innovative Japan in later years. They are also, it must be mentioned, fucking cool – some of the jut su (techniques) wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a James Bond film. But they were not a permanent change, and as the Sengoku Era reeled to a bloody stop under the military genius of Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and the economic genius of the Portuguese firearms trade, the ninjas disappeared just as they had lived – quietly.

European trade had saved Japan from endless civil war – the cheap and high-tech firearms from Portugal and Spain in return for Japanese finery allowed the Shogunate to speed ahead of its protectionist neighbours and reunite Japan.  But the good, peaceful times were not to last. Because with each trade, the Europeans brought more and more of a commodity that the new Shoguns would find more terrifying than any other…Christianity.

Japanese Christians

Excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about our lord Jesus Christ?

It’s often just plain weird where the biggest decisions in history originate from. Arguably the biggest decision in Japanese history was made by a small Basque man in the crypt of a small French church. The man was called Ignatius of Loyola (because you can’t go down in Spanish history without a damned cool sounding name) and he’d just created a society to spread Christianity around the newly-discovered world outside of Europe – the Evangelical-Catholic Jesuits. You’d think Christianity and Japan would never mix what with Japan not being Christian in the modern age and all, but the Jesuits were actually really successful in the East – in under two decades 200,000 new Catholics were counted in the Japanese population. To the Shogun, this was a threat – fearing invasion as much as some mystical figure called the Pope – Japan needed a way to destroy the supposedly corrupting monotheistic influence before the country fell into another hundred years of bloodshed. The solution was pretty much the most drastic foreign policy idea in history. Japan completely closed itself off from the world.

If I only get one message across to you with Holistic History, it’s that the world is built on connections – trade routes and warpaths and migration patterns and the spread of ideas along any and all of the other three. So when a country closes its borders so completely, makes the punishment for attempted emigration death, goes to far as to bore holes every ship in the navy so the boats can’t reach a certain depth of water…that was more than unusual, that was unprecedented. It was also…successful. Sort of. It protected Japanese trade and culture at a time when even China, the freaking workshop of the world and birthplace of most inventions ever, was beginning to be threatened by Western ambition. But it also meant that, wile the world moved on around them, introducing industry, colony, new nations and new philosophies, Japan was completely oblivious.

Then, after around 250 years of self-imposed isolation, entered a final foreigner who would shape Japan forever. He hailed from a country at the other end of the world – the far west, a strange democracy on the other side of the Pacific. The man was called Matt Perry. And no, he wasn’t that one.

Disregard flag accuracy! Acquire Westernisation!

Commodore Matthew Perry (sadly without First Mate David Schwimmer or Admiral Matt le Blanc) was sent to explore the unknown island of Japan, and open up its borders to foreign trade. Because of a loose understanding of diplomacy, America’s attempt involved cannons, ironclad warships and state-of-the-art rifles. Japan was still using katana. I guess it goes without saying that the Japanese conceded pretty quickly, so Japan opened up its borders for the first time in centuries. And then the full force of the Victorian Era flowed into Japan. Samurai had their swords confiscated. The Shogun was usurped, the actual Emperor installed. The Meiji Restoration – kind of the industrial revolution at double speed – began a wave of technology that rapidly put Japan on the world stage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the good ideas from the rest of the world that Japan picked up. As time passed, and Japan’s nationalism became ultranationalism, an insatiable desire amongst many Japanese people for the empire they missed a chance to get. Military power grew, but not foreign relations. Technology exploded in its power, but pacifism didn’t. During the 1920s and ’30s, one final European influence arrived in Japan. It was called fascism.

If it's not love

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

In 1937, fueled by a war economy and the pressures of nationalism, the Japanese experienced something that their Yayoi ancestors would have found unthinkable. They invaded China. In fact, they invaded China really successfully; they turned the north into their puppet before going on to take over Korea, Taiwan and a good number of islands in the Pacific. But it was not without cruelty that they did it – their attack of Nanjing in China, for example, has’t gone down in history as a conquest or a heroic victory. It’s commonly just referred to as The Rape. But as more and more nations joined a growing war, Japan lost its bearings. On the 6th August 1945, while the Imperial Government were discussing the terms of their surrender, one of those new nations delivered its ultimatum. It came in the form of two atomic bombs, and the loss of 200,000 civilian lives.

Post-war, Japan was given the choice between democracy and…well, there wasn’t another choice, which is kind of ironic when talking about democracy. Japan, while it kept its ex-fascist emperor, was rapidly reformed into one of the fairest political systems around today, while a succession of reconstructionist presidents created something now called the Japanese Economic Miracle. It was kind of a big deal. After its 2,000 years of existence, Japan had seen Seven Ages – a Prehistoric Backwater, a Chinese Vassal, a Feudal Idyll and then a Feudal Disaster, an Industrial Autocracy and a lasting Democracy. The new calendar is still young. The question now is where it will go next.

Holistic History Extra: F*** Yeah, Ninjas

Goddammit, ninjas. I devote a full paragraph to how awesome you are and weeks afterwards I’m still finding out that yes, there is more to say and yes, people reading this are definitely interested to hear it. This is Holistic History Extra – the first one, if you’re keeping track – and it’s going to be where all the useless (but still interesting) facts go. This time, it’s the Jut Su (techniques) of the Ninja – in particular, the amazing feats and strange tactics that made their mercenaries a symbol not only in pop culture, but in Japanese history. They’re amazing, they’re a little bizarre and I’d like to think I’ve picked out the best for you here:

Kageshin – “The Quiet Mind” technique should probably be known as the “badass clause”. The idea is that the body can only reflect the mind, so a nervous mind makes for a loud and obvious body. If you want to stay hidden, the idea is to keep yourself at Alan Rickman levels of excitement, and, as important research has shown, keeping a straight face while you’re doing your dirty work does make you look like a bit of a badass.

Ryohebi no jutsu – The “Serpent Crawl” doesn’t sound too dramatic: you crawl on all fours with your stomach to the ground. What’s amazing is the speed – this is actually supposed to be faster than walking, and almost as fast as running. On all fours. In the dark. Completely silently. Now discuss for a moment why some warlords would find the idea of ninjas so terrifying.

Dobutsujutsu – The imaginatively named “Using Animals” technique does what it says on the tin, but this goes a little further than riding horses and using sniffer dogs. I quote as my example the Bee Bomb – a pouch of venomous bees that you literally keep around your belt, then shake, open and throw at an enemy. It’s a grenade, but it can see you and sting you. Mostly used for distraction, using animals might be the first example of allergen warfare.

Hitsuke – The “Arson” technique was maybe a little more basic. Want to sneak into one village? Light a fire in the next one along, and the people run there to put it out. You’re left with an abandoned village and free reign…if not a clear conscience.

Hensojutsu – Finally, the technique of “Disguise”. And it’s probably the most diverse and important, because different occasions needed different disguises. The ninja had seven – for example priests who could cross borders freely, samurai who were the ruling class and commanded respect, farmers who…well, who paid attention to lowly farmers in the 1600s? It extended even further than people – my favourite on the list are “Rock disguise” and “Duckweed disguise” because making a person look like either one is a success in my book. And if your footprints need covering? Wear flat-soled shoes…flat soled shoes that leave the impression of wolves’ footprints to scare off anyone tracking you.

So the ninjas in conclusion. Long-lasting? No. Iconic? Sort of. And creative?

I think that’s a yes.

The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 1: Feuds, Feudalism and Chinese Submission

Japan seems to be synonymous today with the ultra-high-tech, the futuristic and the progressive. Its 6,000 islands house the largest city in the world, a sprawling metropolis that put even Beijing and Delhi to shame, as well as an electronics industry to rival California’s and the nearly the best life expectancy on the planet. Even their dates look ultramodern – the western world counts from a date some 2012 years ago in a year that technically didn’t exist. In Japan, it’s the year 24, one of the only countries in the world where the majority of the population are older than the calendar. For centuries, it endured a reputation for isolation, for independence and nationalism at the very eastern edge of the world – never invaded, never conquered, never fully understood by outsiders. While that was true for a remarkable 250 years, the result of a foreign policy decision that preserved Japan as a peaceful and medieval country until the 1860s, the other 1500 or so years of recorded history paint a different picture. Japan was never conquered by war, but the infectious cultures of China, South-East Asia, and later Europe would prove to shape everything we think of as Japanese. Japan was never split between smaller nations and eventually united, but it was constantly and bitterly divided – between daimyo and shogun, shogun and emperor, emperor and parliament. It’s been the ancient empire and the feudal backwater. It’s been the symbol of enlightenment philosophy and it’s been the greatest threat to democracy the Eastern Hemisphere’s ever known. And, most important of all, it invented the freaking ninja and the coolest military tactics since some guy crossed the Alps on elephants. And, best of all, Japan screams of holism all the way.


A Yayoi settlement – the early masters of Tower Defense.

I guess the best place to start is in the 300AD, with a migration, because…well, everything about Holistic History seems to start with a migration, be it the Celts, the Polynesians or, as in this case, the awesomely named Yayoi. The Yayoi were a collection of tribes from Eastern China who, thanks to China’s so-ahead-of-its-time-it’s-just-not-fair credentials (they were a Roman Empire style superpower by then) brought with them bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. Now, I’m not going to grossly generalise here, but if I had to name four things that turned a prehistoric tribal society into a classical civilisation, it would be bronze, iron, religion and foreign trade. That and military might, at least, and – what do you know – the first tribe to master that became Japan’s first imperial warlords, the Yamato. The Yamato, in an ironic twist for the founders of a nation that would go on to be so vastly different from them, loved the Chinese, and in a series of incidents somewhere in-between diplomacy and spying managed to steal Chinese technology, systems of government and law in one fell swoop. They even converted to Buddhism and started paying tribute to the Chinese – although one of the largest and richest armies in the world may have had something to do with the latter. In short, Japan had gone in only 300 years from a collection of stone-age tribes to a fully-fledged and powerful empire. Ironically, that empire would go on outlast its Chinese counterpart – a Yamato emperor still rules today.

This explosion of imported culture national unity brought Japan a Golden Age. Military leaders called Shogun became heroes, conquering the islands and mountains that divide Japan. Art and culture was developed, and the idea of being Japanese grew ever stronger. Europe’s dark ages never affected Japan (or, indeed, anywhere outside Europe), and it created a vastly different – and if anything more successful – society. Which makes it even stranger that it developed in such a similar way.

Onna Bugeisha

Onna Bugeisha, who apparently co-existed with photographs. But we’ll get to why later.

By the 1100s Japan was no longer a centralised, peaceful empire. It was something else entirely, something oddly European despite a complete lack of contact between the two cultures: Japan was feudal. It wasn’t exactly the same as their occidental counterparts – instead of the organised Christianity and god-given rights, Japanese feudalism was based on a secular philosophy called Confucianism which, amongst other things, installed a system of government that was somewhere in-between the Chain of Command and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – the Emperor was at the top, then his advisors, but then farmers because food was the most important resource, then craftsmen because they did honest work. At the bottom of the chain were the merchants, who were not deserving because they only moved and sold other people’s wares to make money. The urge to make a joke about merchant bankers in our time is almost killing me, but there’s history to do. Anyway, the system created a whole new class-system in Japan, and no-one would change Japanese history more than the newly-created warrior class – the Samurai. The Samurai were the semi-nobility of Japan, about 10% of the population, and guided more than anyone by Confucian philosophy, following Bushido – the Way of the Warrior. This combined art and killing, justifying the warfare with haiku poetry and calligraphy, the examples of honour and wisdom. They even allowed women, in a lot of cultures at the time the “weaker sex” to join their ranks – troupes of female samurai caught the attention of foreigners as a terrifying prospect. And samurai were the brute force behind the introduction of the longest lasting era in Japanese history – the Bakufu, or feudal dictatorship.

mongols japan

Good at horses, bad at boats. The Mongols should really consider getting a Targaryen girl.

As the emperor relied more and more on the feudal lords for power under the new system, those lords became more and more influential. The top post was that prestigious military job – the Shogun, supreme commander of the kill-you-then-write-you-a-poem samurai. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when you have so much power over the military in a feudal system, you get so much more power in the government. The Emperor was reduced to a kind of figurehead status – the real rulers of Japan became the Shogun and his advisors, the Bakufu. With their strong military focus, the Bakufu saw off Chinese aggression, Korean attempts at invasion, even the onslaught of the Mongols with the help of a typhoon that was promptly subbed the “Divine Wind”. But the system was unstable to its very core. The lords fought constantly to try and install their own family members to the Bakufu, even Shogunate, and the constant conflict combined with a series of earthquakes and even an ice age (There was a mini ice age in the 1400s. Seriously.) plunged Japan into a Civil war that would last almost two centuries. It would isolate Japan from the world once again as it engulfed the country in bloodshed, but from it would emerge its most famous exports – ninjas, poetry, and the government that would truly define what it was to be Japanese.

In the midst of the war, the best was yet to come.

Tartar Source: Mongols, Might and Meritocracy

are we even

“Hold on, are we even the exception?”

If I had to condense 4,000 years of early human history into a sentence – Bronze Age to Middle Ages, Caves to Castles, that sort of era– I would say that it was a struggle between nomads and settlers. The ones who hunted, gathered, moved constantly and lived healthily and those who stayed put, lived in close proximity with each other, became more susceptible to disease and social dysfunction and – wait, how come us settlers won again? Oh, right, we invented beer. Anyway, in terms of the great Nomads of Settlers debate the Mongols look like a bit of an afterthought l’esprit d’escalier, that great point you only come up with once the argument’s long gone. In this case, one last proving of nomadic power in the middle of what we settlers were calling the Middle Ages. But saying that isn’t Holistic History. Saying that is ignoring the massive effect the Mongols have had on the world, on purpose and by accident. Saying that is ignoring the largest land empire the world has ever seen, carved from some of the world’s most powerful countries and within the lifetime of one man. Saying that is ignoring the fact that, when you look at it, the Nomads never really lost at all. This is a story of wrath, rape, religion and riding. This is the story of an empire simultaneously brutal and benevolent, one that created lasting peace in a continent that really wasn’t built for it and one that will never, ever be forgotten. This is the story of the Mongols. The story of the Mongols starts with Genghis Khan in about 1200AD because the Mongols themselves start with Genghis Khan in about 1200AD. I mean that literally: before then, they didn’t exist. Not in a “summoned out of thin air” kind of way (although it must have felt like it for some of the civilisations they conquered), rather that the idea of a single, Mongol identity was created then from previously competing tribes that formed a kind of Mongol federation. Genghis Khan – or Temujin Borjigin Khan, because Genghis Khan just means “Fair King” or “Strong King” – was the one who created this federation, and so was the first one to really prove what a unified Mongol tribe could do. Here’s a spoiler: They could do a freaking lot.

emperoers hate him

Emperors hate him! Find 10 top tips to increase the size of your nomadic confederacy today.

Need some perspective? As per usual, you’ll need to look at a map. When the federation was formed (1206) they owned…well, Mongolia, as you could probably have guessed. By Genghis’ death (1227), it would stretch from the Caspian Sea to Korea. And at the height of his grandson’s reign (1279), it would have stretched to encompass China, Iran, the ‘Stans, the Kievan Rus and even parts of the Himalayas. They had gone from the infertile grassland of Northern Asia to the ridiculously varied Most of Asia, and all in three lifetimes. Since that tends to look good on a civilisation’s CV – I mean, it gets you 7 Units in Risk, for god’s sake – it’s definitely worth me talking about how they did it. See, the Mongols weren’t like any other tribe before them. For a start, they allocated positions – band leader, local chief, all that sort of thing – based on your skill, not your ancestry. For the first time in the steppes, tribes weren’t unhappy to be absorbed, because they kept their old leaders and fought for a much more powerful version of themselves. That lack of antagonism? Pretty damn useful .They were also absolutely brutal – Genghis’ men were legendary in their brutality and, to be honest, if you’re not converted by Mongol culture you will be by the threat of having your head top one of their trademark skull pyramids. Finally, the Mongols were surprising in that they were tolerant. Their religion – Tengriism – says that there is no one true path to God and that all religions are tolerable, so when they conquered, say, the largest Islamic Empire at the time, or the seat of the Christian Orthodox Church, they weren’t too hurried to convert. This made them, if not popular, acceptable, and allowed them to build an empire across a population that was as huge as it was diverse. The Mongols were top dog in a continent that seemed to be built for them. That, in a weird way, is why they fell apart.

muslims defeat mongols

The Golden Horde, being the first of two successor states to convert to Islam, actually allied with the Muslims of Egypt at one point against other Mongols. It’s Mongols on the left here.

See, the Mongol Empire had two threats, each inspired by how powerful the bloody thing was. There was a weird alliance of Crusaders and Mujahedeen (that’s Christians and Muslims working together, IN THE 13TH CENTURY) who were scared of being having their power taken away, and there was a clash of successor Khans who were scared of not inheriting their power in the first place. In the end, the constant conflict brought about by the Holy and Civil War waging split the empire into four parts: The Golden Horde in Russia (remember them?), the Chagatai Horde in Central Asia, the Ilkhanate in Iran (who later got invaded by Timur the Lame in a sizzling piece of Mongol-on-Mongol action and became the Timurids) and the Yuan Dynasty in China. Each really deserves a Holistic History to themselves, so for now I’ll just say they all followed a similar pattern of decline – adopt local religion and stay powerful for a little while, piss off every non-Mongol in the vicinity, get invaded like there’s no tomorrow and up a long chapter in a local history book. It’s sad if you think the Mongols were romantic empire-builders, but because they didn’t have good PR guys like the Brits, people generally don’t.

gee thanks

Gee, thanks, horrific disease!

What’s important about the Mongols is how different world history would be without them. Because they razed cities like Baghdad and Kiev and Kabul, they shifted power away from those areas and caused a lasting poverty that can still be seen today. Because they brought better Asian trade and, with it, the Black Death, they inadvertently destroyed the feudal system in Europe  – higher prices for peasant labour because…well, fewer peasants resulted in a lot of countries developing proto-capitalist systems. But then the disease also killed 30% of people in Europe, so it’s not exactly win-win. Because they left their subjects alone, even encouraged their religions and culture, they ensured the survival of civilisations that would otherwise have been swept away by a more evangelical invader. That confusing mix of good and bad, of tolerant and bloodthirsty, is what makes the Mongols so interesting – no, what makes history so interesting as a whole. There are no black and white morals, but a hell of a lot of shades of grey. That’s something we’d do well not to forget.