Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History


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Change Language. Google :. Copy URL. Tags : China-History-to B. This book is part of a new wave of revisionist scholarship made possible by recent, important archaeological findings in China, Mongolia, and Central Asia that can now be compared against the historical record. This comprehensive history of the northern frontier of China from to B.

The narrative is clear and readable, and the author's arguments are based on dependable and transparent research. Di Cosmo does not hesitate to defy generations-old theories, as he does for instance in his brilliant and provocative explanation for the construction of the Great Wall see below , but he is careful not to overstretch his sources and to leave certain questions open for further research.

He masterfully synthesizes broad range of archaeological, textual and, to a lesser extent, epigraphic sources, employing whenever needed an impressive amount of secondary materials, which include, aside from works written in Chinese and Western European languages, also studies in Japanese, Russian and — at least in one case — in Mongolian. The first two chapters of Ancient China and its Enemies deal with the first appearances of nomads in the Inner Asian steppe in general Chapter 1 and in China's Northern Zone in particular Chapter 2. These are the less innovative parts of Di Cosmo's research, and the discussion here is largely based on a synthesis of recent archaeological discoveries along China's boundaries and beyond.

Di Cosmo briefly surveys major theories that have tried to explain the rise of the nomadic way of life, concluding that there is no single key to this crucial question. The emergence of nomadism may be rather explained as a combination of environmental, technological and social factors.

Thus, advances with respect to horse-riding and, probably, chariots were crucial in allowing a shift from part-time pastoral economy to full-scale nomadic life. This development was apparently paralleled by the appearance of warring aristocrats who learned to utilize the advantages of their superior mobility and martial abilities. This class in turn played a crucial role in the centralization of nomadic peoples and their further military expansion.

Nicola Di Cosmo — Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Yet Di Cosmo is careful not to impose this model automatically on the early nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures of China's Northern Zone and he emphasizes that 'one cannot see, in the Northern Zone as whole, a linear evolutional continuum' pp. Instead, it is possible that several parallel pastoral societies were emerging in northwestern, north-central and northeastern sub-zones, inter-acting among themselves and with their semi-pastoral and sedentary neighbours. What is possible is to outline, as Di Cosmo does, basic trends of developments in the steppe region to the north of China proper; but much more archaeological research is required before we can restore with sufficient clarity the sociopolitical dynamics in this area prior to the entrance of the steppe region into the orbit of Chinese history.

In analyzing the rise of the nomadic way of life, Di Cosmo laudably avoids simplistic linear schemes, and his caution invites the reader to consider further possible explanations for the advent of nomadism. Among them one could expect more emphasis to be given to climatic factors, which are mentioned only in passing p.

Ancient China: Selected full-text books and articles

This is regrettable, because the field of paleo-climatic studies has developed dramatically in recent years and much relevant data is now available. In the second section of his book Di Cosmo shifts from archaeological to textual evidence. The third chapter focuses on the intriguing issue of early Chinese attitudes toward the aliens. Heretofore this topic has never been systematically explored in Western research, resulting in sketchy and often highly misleading accounts of the origins of the 'Sino-Barbarian' dichotomy.

Scholars often cite selected passages from pre-imperial texts out of their context, to prove that the Chinese viewed the aliens as inferior, marginal and insufficiently human. Different, and at times contradictory, doctrines co-existed among ancient Chinese statesmen with regard to the proper treatment of the aliens: proponents of aggressive conquest and incorporation of the 'barbarians' were opposed by supporters of a peaceful policy, while harsh statements about the aliens' 'bestiality' did not prevent Xia 'Chinese' states from trading, allying and intermarrying with their neighbours.

East Asian History

This diversity of approaches reflects not only a complex political situation, but also a deeper cultural reality. Di Cosmo's observation that the 'boundaries between presumed cultural communities in the Eastern Zhou BCE period appear to have been drawn ad hoc, according to ever-changing political circumstances' p. Indeed, pace Han dynasty thinkers, Chinese statesmen of Chunqiu 'Springs and Autumns', BCE and Zhanguo periods were much more preoccupied with the struggle against their 'brethren' who shared a similar written and ritual culture, than with repulsion of the 'uncultivated' aliens.

Di Cosmo's contextualization of Chinese views of the aliens in contemporary political dynamics could have been even more insightful, had the author not confined himself exclusively to the relations of the Xia with their northern neighbours. This limited perspective derives primarily from the author's desire to reach and discuss topics which became relevant in the Han period, when thinkers and statesmen were debating the proper policy toward the Xiongnu.

This teleological selection, however, comes at the expense of an in-depth discussion of the other flank of Chinese world, which was by far more important, politically and militarily, throughout most of the Chunqiu period, namely the Southern and Southeastern frontier. The brief hegemony of two 'semi-barbarian' southeastern superpowers, Wu and Yue, at the end of the Chunqiu period was a shocking experience for ritual purists, but in the long term it supplied the Chinese with a model of cultural interaction with militarily superior but culturally inferior powers — a model that was to remain highly relevant for future Chinese history.

Diplomatic and military needs encouraged the rulers of Wu and Yue to adopt aspects of Zhou ritual culture, and even forge a favourable pedigree that would further legitimize their hegemony. Large-scale use of advisors of Xia origin further facilitated the erstwhile barbarians' adaptation to Zhou ways; and eventually southeasterners were adopted, even if reluctantly, into the Zhou world despite their preservation of significant traits of non-Zhou indigenous customs. This example of acculturation from a position of power and not of weakness may be largely irrelevant to the Xiongnu of Han times, but it became highly important in later centuries.

The fourth chapter, which deals with the first contacts between the Chinese and the 'real' nomads, the ancestors of the Xiongnu, is one of the most novel and daring parts of the whole book. Di Cosmo tries to resolve the riddle of the sudden appearance of the nomadic menace after centuries of limited and largely peaceful relations across the then still indistinct Northern frontier.


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Conventional wisdom, based on Han period stereotypes, holds that the nomads' inherent belligerence encouraged them to invade and plunder their southern neighbours, who in response built protective 'long walls'. Di Cosmo completely refutes this thesis. His careful reading of historic records, and combining them with archaeological evidence brings him to a radically different conclusion: namely, the walls were not built to 'protect the sedentary civilization', but, rather, to protect the recently conquered nomadic territories.

Ancient China and Its Enemies The Rise of Nomadic Power in East asian History

The nomads were not the belligerents; it was the 'cultivated' Chinese who invaded nomadic pastures as a part of the process of territorial expansion characteristic of the Warring States era. Zhanguo walls, just like their heir, the Qin Great Wall, did not mark an ecological boundary between the steppe and the sedentary realm, but rather were built deep inside the original nomadic territory. Far from being beast-like war-mongers, the nomads were victims of Chinese expansionism, which came as a direct consequence of the previous occupation and incorporation of the lands inhabited by the Rong and the Di tribes.

Di Cosmo's convincing reconstruction of the early stage of the Sino-nomadic encounter raises the question of the reasons for the sudden Chinese expansion into the fringes of the steppe in the late Zhanguo period. One possible answer may be the advent of iron technology, which allowed lands that were previously unsuitable for agriculture to be turned into arable fields.

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All major Zhanguo states were preoccupied with reclaiming the wasteland, both within and beyond their boundaries. The northward expansion of the states of Qin, Zhao and Yan was part of this process; and the conquest of new territories was usually accompanied with settlement activities. It might have taken some time before the Chinese learned that most although not all of the Northern Zone is largely unsuitable for agriculture and gave up the idea of incorporating it fully into farmland; in the Zhanguo period.

However, the hopes of establishing a viable agricultural base in the southern part of the steppe belt might still have been high, which explains the aggressive policy of the Chinese states. This policy culminated with Qin incursions against the Xiongnu in the Ordos area in BCE, which resulted in the erection of a large section of the Great Wall, which became the hallmark of Qin military achievements. Qin massive aggression against the Xiongnu had unexpected consequences for Sino-nomadic relations. The Xiongnu reorganized and used the opportunity of the collapse of Qin in BCE to renew military pressure on China's boundaries; subsequently, Han military setbacks changed once and for all the nature of China's relations with the peoples of the Northern Zone.

These events are discussed in the fifth chapter. Scholars have long been fascinated by the almost simultaneous rise of two unified empires — Qin-Han and the Xiongnu — on both sides of the Great Wall, and have proposed numerous explanations for the connection between Chinese empire-building and the consolidation of the nomads' power.

Di Cosmo observes that many of the past theories cannot be adequately supported by historical evidence, and suggests an alternative model; the nomadic organization was a response to the crisis engendered by Qin incursions deep into Xiongnu territory. The resultant militarization of nomadic society brought about the emergence of a military aristocracy, which sought to maximize its power through limited political centralization on the supra-tribal level, and continuous extortion of Chinese goods.

This model, which turns both Chinese and nomads into active players and takes into account dynamic changes in Sino-nomadic relations, fits not only the Xiongnu case, but also many of the later establishments of nomadic empires, by Qidans and Mongols among others. The sixth chapter of Ancient China and its Enemies deals with the well-known narrative of the collapse of the Chinese policy of peaceful coexistence with the nomads the so-called 'kin harmony' policy, he qin.

Why did the accommodation policy collapse? Di Cosmo suggests that it was impossible in the long run to maintain peace with nomads due to the incompatibility of the political structures of the Han empire and of the Xiongnu confederation. While the Han generals strictly observed the peace terms, the unmanageable Xiongnu chieftains frequently defied the agreement terms and invaded Chinese territory, emptying he qin policy of value.


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This novel observation adds an interesting dimension to our understanding of the reasons of the breach of the agreements by the Xiongnu: actually, their leader, the chanyu or shanyu could not impose his will with the same efficiency as a Chinese emperor could. The explanation is ultimately valid, even if it slightly exaggerates the degree of Chinese imperial authority in the border areas. It was the Chinese understanding of the impracticality of peaceful coexistence with the Xiongnu that led to the implementation of an assertive military policy in the age of Han Wudi r.

The explanation is entirely functional; namely, the campaigns were undertaken due to the improvement in Han military technology, particularly the increasing use of cavalry.

Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History
Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History Ancient China and its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History

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