23 October 2015

Some Thoughts on Books I read in 2015 - Part 1

Around the same time last year, I decided to talk about real books for once. I initially wrote it as a change of pace from usual manga topics, but I realized it was a nice way to refresh my memory of books I enjoyed. So I'll do the same for books I've read this year. I was planning to do all of the books in one post, but I just realized I've already wrote almost 4000 words just to talk about 3 books, so I'll stop for now and write another post in November and December. Once again, these are all non-fiction as I get my dosage of fiction from anime, manga, and movies. For book lovers without a good local library, this site is your friend.

*P.S. I've also been thinking of starting a separate history blog, so as to keep these kinds of posts separate from this site, which was intended to be mainly for manga content. If any of you are up for this, or would rather have me keep all of my Some Thoughts posts on this site, let me know.

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt
If history subjects for kids were superheroes, then ancient Egypt is motherfucking batman (Harappa is sadly Aquaman. Sorry, India). Everything about it seems so iconic. The mummies, pyramids, hieroglyphs, statues, and even their sword, the khopesh. Maybe I'm projecting here, but I think any kid interested in history at least had a passing interest in it. But as easily as mummies and pyramids draw kids in, three millenia of dynastic history pushes them out. It's hard to stay focused when your eyes begin to glaze over at all the different dynasties come and go. But if you're now an adult or in your late teens and looking to rekindle that interest in ancient Egypt as I was, there's Wilkinson's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.

It's a medium-length overview that straddles the line between pop and academic (think 1st-year uni level) and it gives you a narrative rundown of all the dynasties up to the Roman annexation without being too dry. Still, it's not without its flaws. There're some click-baity remarks about the "dark side" of Egypt (thankfully not very much), which essentially amounts to ancient Egypt being a typical monarchy in an age before liberalism. Lives of peasants weren't sacred? Violence was a common means of communication? Who'd a thunk it? Not exactly hard to imagine even in our current "liberal era," what with how little of a fuck the US gov. gives about the lives of Middle Easterners. There's also a few anachronistic remarks boasting about how ancient Egypt gave birth to the concept of a nation-state, as if this "Egyptian" concept was the one that made a huge impact on the world in the early modern era. But these are extremely minor complaints, considering it's such a small aspect of the book.

The real weakness of this book is that it's too narrative-heavy, which is an unfair complaint, as that's sort of the objective, to lay down the dynastic history on us in an engaging manner. But with a formulaic title like "Rise and Fall of [insert topic]," I expected some sort of analyses on why Egypt rose and fall multiple times even before the Persian period. That's not to say Wilkinson forgoes this completely, but it's the typical mention of "weak king → decentralization." While I don't doubt that that wasn't a factor, it'd be nice to have more discussion with regards to institutions or state policies. For instance, I'm convinced that it's impossible to have an adequate explanation on the decline of both Han and Roman empires without an explanation of how the military (e.g., organization, recruitment, financing) and taxation (e.g., types, assessment method; how was it collected, from who, and by whom?) systems changed over time. You certainly won't come out with a concrete grasp on the military, fiscal system, or really, any single aspect of Egyptian state, society, and culture after reading this book. The strictly chronological arrangement of the book gives little room for in depth analyses as they're always competing for space with what Pharaoh A did, and what his successors did. As a fan of military history, I would have loved even a brief analysis about how an army organization adopted by a dynasty shaped its fortunes, like how the usage of Turkic mercenaries profoundly impacted Egypt in its Islamic period. I feel like there's a similar argument you could make about the impact of Nubian or Greek mercenaries for ancient Egypt. But I'm really just asking too much out of a general history book here.

In a way, it's the exact opposite of the History of the Imperial China series, which barely touch upon narrative history in favour of separate analyses of law, administration, religion, family life, etc. Still, for a book setting out to do a chronological narrative of ancient Egypt, it does a great job. Plus, there's a fantastic end-note and bibliography section that directs you to the books if you want to start delving into the nitty gritty aspects of ancient Egypt. The book's worth getting for those sections alone, I'd say. Alternatively, The Great Courses' audio-lectures on ancient Egypt by the enthusiastic Bob Brier is an excellent overview as well, which I'd recommend if you have long commutes like I did 2 years ago.

God's Playground
If I were to recommend a book about Polish history to someone not from Poland, I think a pretty common response would be, "Why would I give a fuck about Poland?" And if I were Polish, I would angrily respond that Poland was a great power in Europe prior to the 18th century. But as I'm not Polish, I wouldn't convince you like that. I'd simply say the oft-repeated advice, "Learn to analyze mistakes." A coach of a successful sports team isn't going to just show highlight-reel videos of successful goals. He's going to analyze plays that cost his team a game. Business students aren't just going to learn about Google or Apple. They're going to have case-studies about Kodak and Motorola. And that's exactly how you should think of Polish history up to the 3rd partition in 1795. A case-study of a failed state which once possessed vitality and promising hopes for the future.

That's where Norman Davies' God's Playground vol.1 comes in. It gives a detailed survey of Polish history from its origins to the tragic loss of its sovereignty at the close of the 18th century. Although the title might make you think you're in for a millennium of strictly Polish history, the bulk of the book focuses on the PLC (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) after the Union of Lublin joined these two states, so it's really a book about the PLC. At over 500 pages (almost 600 with end-notes), it's definitely not a pop. history book meant for the general reader, and the organization certainly reflects that. By that, I mean there's about 200 pages in the middle of the book analyzing PLC's state and society, which assumes the reader is already familiar with the general political history, which I definitely wasn't and was thus thrown off by. But after that section, Davies returns to giving you the political history from the PLC's birth to its death. I honestly had to skip ahead to the political history section, then go back to the middle section so I wasn't confused by all the events and names. Honestly, a much better way to organize the book would have been:

1) origins ~ birth of PLC   2) political history from PLC's birth to end of Vasa period
3) analyses of PLC's state and society    4) political history to 3rd partition

But putting aside the organization, PLC's history lends itself to a fascinating case-study of when the restriction of monarchy and centralizing forces can be disastrous. If you live in an English-speaking country, chances are you've been through a history class that taught you the Magna Carta was a crucial first step towards the evolution of a representative government, which was more effective and robust than a typical monarchy. While the Magna Carta was undoubtedly quite important to English history, to claim that a simple restriction of the monarchy's power was what led England to gain an edge and become a major power is a foolishly simple theory that one can easily see from PLC's case. There, you can see how the Golden Liberty that the nobility was so proud of left the state unable to pursue a consistent grand strategy and consolidate its vast holdings at a time when all the regional powers were slowly centralizing. Of course, this is just a tip-of-the-iceberg explanation as to PLC's ultimate decline, and Davies makes sure to give his insight on other contributing factors, like the stagnant economy, increasing entrenchment of serfdom, and the downsides posed by the religious tolerance which may otherwise trigger a knee-jerk positive reaction from today's highly liberal reader. My favourite passage is from his analysis on the reasoning behind PLC's unique form of government in chapter 10:
The assumptions which governed constitutional life in the Republic were mirrored in the realm of public law. In Polish eyes, the Law, like the constitution, was too precious a commodity to be left in the hands of the executive authorities. In the world of perfect freedom, the threat of injustice was thought to be greater in the long run from the mindless impetus of organized institutions than from the intemperance of individuals. Hence, the law was not to be enforced by the state. Justice was to be exacted by those whose wrong had been recognized in the courts, and on occasion by the nobility acting in unison, but never by the magistrates, or by royal officials. If this meant that the law was frequently defied in particular cases, the evil was judged to be small, and temporary. To this way of thinking, those countries which appointed law-enforcement officers responsible to the state, were trading the minor advantage of smooth, legal administration, in exchange for a permanent threat to the liberty of their citizens. For this reason, in Poland-Lithuania, there was never any Star Chamber; there was no Oprichnina on the Muscovite model, and no one who might have introduced it.
From our modern perspective, it's easy to attribute the mistakes of our predecessors to them simply living in a less educated and more superstitious era. Things like the the Jacobite fervour for public voting during the French revolution or the nobility of the PLC's insistence on unanimous, rather than majority, consent in passing legislation just makes you scream, "No wonder things went fubar!" But really, it's not that these people made bad mistakes because they didn't know better. They made them because they lived in a different culture that came with priorities we no longer have. For instance, it wasn't just the radical Jacobites who supported public voting in their desire to browbeat opposition. Plenty of intellectuals (John Stuart Mill being one famous example) during the 19th century firmly believed public voting was a superior system compared to the secret ballot, a "strange" system which had only really been tested in Australia (hence its nickname, Australian ballot). Why? Because it forced the voter to think that the right to vote wasn't given to him because he was a special snowflake, but rather his acceptance of the responsibility to think of the public good. A secret, anonymous vote was thus seen as vulnerable to people being careless, selfish, or arbitrary with their votes, whereas public voting checked those weaknesses through social pressure. This made sense in a society that was still at an early stage in the transition from aristocratic oligarchy to mass democracy, when the ruling elite was concerned if the general public could really be trusted to vote. Did women, blacks, or even non-land owning males really have the mental prowess to be trusted with such great a responsibility? Nowadays, it's a given that all citizens are free and have the right to vote in a democracy, so protecting the right to assert their individual beliefs via secret ballots is seen as an inseparable feature of democracy.

To get back on track with the PLC's principle of unanimity, which made it so hard for the sejm to do anything of real importance, it's easy for us to attribute this to stereotypes of a lesser developed Eastern Europe, but the above quoted passage reminds us this was a logical consequence of what the ruling elite prioritized in the pursuit of justice as defined by their distinct culture. Davies also makes a good comparison of the attitudes found in PLC's noble democracy to that of the gentry in the 18th-19th century Southern United States, but I felt he didn't go far enough with that line of logic. You could really bring up the heightened numbers of the aristocracy (at least 10% of the population, which is one of the largest competing with the nobility-obsessed Castilian culture) enforcing even stricter notions of an honour-based culture (as opposed to the dignity-based culture we live in today's West, or should I say, "did"). Consequently, it makes perfect sense for an honor-based society to prefer that the executive power must remain within the individual and not to a central authority, since to give up that right is to admit one is incapable of defending one's own honour.

All in all, it definitely was worth getting adjusted to the crazy Polish names to get through this book. As you might expect from the title, there is a vol. 2, which deals with Polish history from the loss of its sovereignty to the present day, but I'll probably take a short break from Poland for now and read that next year.

The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History
Around 2 years ago, I read the Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia to get in a good mood to start translating Yokoyama's Chinggis Khan. It was a solid, though dense, read that gives you a good overview of the transient Eurasian khanates prior to the Mongol Empire (seriously, go read it if you're interested in steppe nomads), but if there was one flaw that I had to point out, it's that the Qara Khitai were only cursorily mentioned. I'm sure if the Khitans were still around in the modern-day, they'd angrily post on internet forums that the fall of the Liao to the Jurchens wasn't the end of Liao, much like Byzantophiles point out that the fall of the Western Roman Empire wasn't the end of the Roman Empire. So I really gotta hand it to Michal Biran for his concise, but highly informative book on the Qara Khitai, which was a lot more interesting than I expected for such a short-lived polity.
Light Green: Qara Khitai 
For those of you unfamiliar with steppe history, the Khitans were a nomadic people from Western Manchuria who founded the Liao empire in the 10th century, which stretched across Mongolia, Manchuria, and Northern China. After they got their asses kicked by the Jurchens (another Manchurian people), a Khitan noble travelled all the way West to modern-day Kyrgyzstan to continue the Liao, hence its alternate name, Western Liao. The first half of Biran's book covers the political history from this great Western migration to it's end at the hands of the Mongols. Although this spans only a period of less than a century, two things leapt out at me.

The first was how quickly Qara Khitai were able to establish themselves as the major regional power. To be fair, the previous power in Central Asia, the Qarakhanids had split into Western and Eastern khanates, and both of them were second-rate compared to the new nomadic menace that had taken the Middle East by a storm, the Seljuk Turks (8/26, 1071, NEVER FORGET ;_;). Still, only 3 years after capturing the Eastern Qarakhanid capital of Balasaghun, the Qara Khitai had delivered a significant defeat to the Western Qarakhanid, who then requested aid from its overlord, the Seljuk Turks. When the Seljuks finally came with a huge army 4 years later to show the Khitan upstarts that Central Asia was still firmly within their sphere of influence, the Qara Khitai achieved a stunning and unexpected victory against the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Qatwan (any victory the Crusaders achieved gainst the Turks were small-time compared to this battle). So within a single decade the Khitan Gurkhan decided to migrate West, the Qara Khitai shook up the entire power balance of the Middle East by sending the Seljuks in a downward spiral they wouldn't recover from as well as vassalizing Khwarazm dynasty and the two Qarakhanid khanates to become the preeminent power in Central asia.

But the second and more interesting point I've been thinking about is the general migration trend in the Eurasian Steppe. It's usually the expansion of a strong nomadic polity in the East towards the West, which drives weaker tribes even farther West. To throw out some examples, the Xiongnu driving the Yuezhi West into Baktria, Huns driving any tribe in their path West into Central and Western Europe, Göktürks driving Avars West to Pannonia, Khazars driving the Bulgars West into the Balkans, the Oghuz Turks driving the Pechenegs West into the Russian steppe, who in turn drove the Magyars West into Pannonia, or the Cumans later driving some Oghuz tribes West to the Pontic steppe. Now I'm not saying that steppe nomads didn't expand East, which is patently false as powerful khanates expanded both ways, but I think it's safe to say the weaker tribes who had to choose either migration or subjugation at the hands of these powerful khanate tended to head West. So if this is the case, then the question is why?
from the paper, "Unified China and Divided Europe"
I think the Westward migration trend on the Eurasian steppe is another solid piece of evidence for the popular theory that nomadic states formed in relation to sedentary states. Like I said before in my post about Chinggis Khan, nomadic societies tend to be unstable because most of their wealth is tied to their livestock, which can always die in a bad year, and the land they live on is too scarce in resources to lend itself to surplus production which can serve as the foundation to a stable state (e.g. fertile crescent's role in giving birth to civilization). As a result, nomads need rich sedentary neighbours to trade or plunder from in order to give them that initial kick into forming powerful states. Given that rich sedentary neighbours were more likely to be found East of the Eurasian steppe, due to the rise of China, instead of the West, where much of Russia and Ukraine remained poor for most of human-history, the Westward migration trend makes a lot of sense. So while historians can use the varying proximity to the Eurasian steppe (see above pic) to explain the differing trajectories of sedentary civilizations on the East-West axis (not going to get into this now, maybe later), the vice-versa also applies. That is to say, the varying proximity to sedentary civilization zones can explain the trajectories of nomadic civilizations on the East-West axis.

Returning back to Biran's book on the Qara Khitai, the second half focuses on its culture and institutions. The thing that really impressed me in this part was the financing of the army. More often than not, army funding was decentralized for most states prior to the modern era. In Europe, you have the classic feudal model where the king gave away land to nobles so they could manage the lands to fund/hire troops instead of a central authority claiming the sole right to collect taxes and pay for troops. Even in the more "centralized" states like the Sassanid or early imperial Chinese dynasties, there still existed either a system of appanage or giving governors the means to raise and pay for troops, which could have disastrous effects when elites either did not respect or recognize the legitimacy of the emperor. The Gurkhans of the Qara Khitai, however, chose not to give fiefs to their military commanders, which was unlike the system practiced in Liao or the Islamic world in the 12th century. They instead chose to maintain a professional standing army led by salaried officers, which was disciplined enough to refrain from wanton pillage, an extraordinary feat for a nomadic army whose soldiers usually fight for the entire purpose of plundering. Moreover, this standing army was kept wherever the Gurkhan was so as to ensure the loyalty of the troops and officers didn't drift away. The military superiority of this system seems to have been so clear to the Gurkhans that they never felt the need to abolish the titles of their vassals (the Khwarazm sultans and Qarakhanid khans) nor restrict their ability to raise their own army, as long as they paid the tribute to help finance it. Thus you had a strange system where the Qara Khitai established a very decentralized empire that granted high autonomy to its vassals, but kept in line with a highly centralized military system. Very odd indeed... (if someone points out that the combination of decentralized administration and professional troops was also practiced in early modern European armies or late Islamic slave-soldier armies, I will in turn respond to that these armies were more foreign mercenary-based which seems to be a little different from Qara Khitai's case, but maybe I'm wrong)


  1. Very interesting. Please keep doing these history posts on this blog.

  2. I appreciate the posts myself, since I'm training to be a martial arts instructor, and that means reading A LOT of good history books, and have been tempted to do my own reviews of stuff like this too, it's all fascinating stuff (I say this as someone who previously thought she had zero interest in this kind of thing but oops turns out it's great). Tho if you ever want recs for stuff related to that (it winds up crossing over with a lot of war history, even outside of Asia, which is what I specialize in) I'm down for talking about it.

  3. Hello, I appreciate your effort, please keep the book-recommendations going. (i read every book from your last year post and i enjoyed reading them all)

  4. thanks for the recs! i've got that one byzantium book now. as a reader, i like the all-in-one blog, but do as you will. i'm hazy, tho - is it only european and asian histories? i just read "the comanche empire".