27 December 2015

Some Thoughts on Books I read in 2015 - Part 3

With 2015 coming to a close, it's time to wrap up my thoughts on the books I read this year. As one poster requested, I've made a goodreads account that has most of the books I've read in the past 2-3 years. I'm not gonna go back any further than that to add all the comic books and fiction I've read, as I'm planning on using it as a non-fiction shelf that I can refer to when my memory gets hazy. I don't really intend on writing out reviews there (though I will rate them), as I prefer making these Some Thoughts which gives me more room to post longer, sometimes meandering, posts on whatever came to my mind while reading.

P.S. Sorry to the folks who'd rather see me talk about manga than history. My next Some Thoughts post will be for Sangokushi, and I'll try to talk about it more of as a manga than for its historical aspects.

China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia
What do Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan have in common with each other? There are, of course, many answers to this question, but none intrigues me more than the trivia that they all border China. Why? Well, I've always thought of China as the premier representative of East Asia (whether geographically or culturally), so it's odd to think that it borders countries whose -stan suffixes denotes their Perso-Islamic heritage. And this fact is even more fascinating once you realize that this "Western" side of China historically spent more time being outside the control of Imperial Chinese dynasties than being in it. While the Han and Tang had fleeting ventures all the way out in the Tarim Basin (god, I wish there were more books available in English on this topic), it's really the Qing, the last of Imperial Chinese dynasties, who succeeded at permanently bridging the Far West to China proper. So why did the Qing succeed where even the Han and Tang (two of the most militarily successful Chinese dynasties) had failed? There are some who brush off the importance of this question by simply pointing to the nomadic origins of the Jurchens, the founders of Qing, as if to imply that the expansion of a nomadic polity across the Eurasian steppe is so common as to not warrant a proper investigation. But the Jurchen Jin dynasty of 12th century came nowhere close to their descendants' success in the 17th~18th centuries at conquering Mongolia and the Far West. And even the famous Mongol Yuan dynasty couldn't last a century before collapsing. Additionally, the Jurchen tribes can't really be classified as steppe nomads either, as many tribes lived in either purely sedentary societies or as semi-nomads at best. Thus the question of Qing's permanent conquests of their frontiers is an important one that should be on the mind of any fan of Chinese history. And for an English-speaker, Peter Perdue's brilliant China Marches West is probably the best single-volume work on this topic.

Exhaustive is the best word to describe this book. Although the author humbly states that there are vast numbers of documents he has not adequately accounted for in his book, in terms of framing the topic, calling it exhaustive is quite apt. By this, I mean that this book does so much more than recounting the military campaigns of Qing's conquest of Central Eurasia. In part 1, before telling readers the how of the conquest, Perdue starts off with the important who and why. Why did Muscovy and Qing conquer much of Central Eurasia at almost exactly the same time? Why did Muscovy alone of all the successor states to the Chinggisid legacy succeed the most at conquering Central Eurasia? Similarly, why did Qing alone of all Chinese dynasties succeed at permanently taming their frontiers? After this introduction of the important players in the Central Eurasian stage and the significance of their origins, in part 2, we get an account of the political and military struggles that originally started off to tame the Mongolian tribes to the North of the Great Wall, but which quickly expanded in scope as the hostile Zunghar Khanate expanded West into the Tarim Basin and frequently intervened with Tibetan politics (quite fascinating if you weren't aware of how intricately Mongolian tribal politics were connected with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism). Part 3 then takes a different turn by examining the colonization and economic policies required before, during, and most importantly, after the conquests in order to properly integrate these new regions so that the hard-won gains would not become a temporary one. The final two parts, 4 and 5, then examine how the Qing dynasty consciously chose to record and interpret these conquests in the historical records and how this has later been attacked or defended by Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese scholars in the 20th and 21st centuries working within their nationalist agenda.

I know that for many Chinese history fans, the Qing comes with a bad taste for their unfortunate role as the sick man of Asia and humiliating defeats at the hands of European powers and Japan in its last years (even actual historians were subject to this if you look at Qing historiography). But reading this book will perhaps give you a new-found appreciation of the Qing as sui generis among all the Imperial Chinese dynasties in the aspect that they had accomplished what no other dynasty before them could: the closure of the steppe. It's a shame that not enough people seem to realize just how monumental this was. One may draw parallels to the completion of U.S.' Westward expansion, which set the base for U.S. as a major power that could project power across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But the Native Americans, as troublesome as they were, never really posed an existential threat for the U.S. Meanwhile for China, the steppe had for millenia, since the warring states period, represented an existential threat to native Chinese dynasties. As strange as it may sound, in terms of national security, one might say the end of the Cold War and communism as a credible threat for Americans might be more comparable to what the Qing did. That this dark abyss from which fearsome horse-riding raiders emerged to plague China could be plugged at last is a landmark transition like no other, which is exactly why I think this is a must-read book for Chinese history fans.
War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe
Anybody interested in world history will know that one of the most widely talked about question is why Europe came out on top. And if you've read into this topic, you'll also know that historians almost always use Europe's uniquely competitive environment of moderately sized states to explain the evolution of more effective governments, militaries, economies, etc. But if that's indeed the case, next comes the question of why and how Europe fostered this multi-state environment. This is an interesting question not just for historians, but for specialists in international relations, as it involves a deeper analysis into what factors makes the famous "Balance of power" or "Hegemonic stability" theories work, which has come under new criticisms and interpretations in the current uni-polar post-Cold War era we live in.

If the above paragraph piqued your interest at all, I highly recommend Victoria Tin-bor Hui's excellent comparative analysis of state formation of Early Modern Europe and Ancient China. As an IR scholar, Hui challenges traditionally held assumptions of a divided Europe and a united China as being the natural status quo by outlining the surprising similarity of Ancient China (656-284BC) and Early Modern Europe (1495-1815), and then investigating the responsible factors for their divergent trajectories. These dates were chosen as they specifically mark a period in which each region was filled with diplomatically linked, de facto sovereign states all seeking to maintain or increase their security; in other words, periods in which the balance of power applied to a multi-state environment. Thus, 656 BC is chosen for China as it marks the formation of the Qi-led Northern alliance to contain Chu, while 1495 is chosen for Europe as it marks the formation of the League of Venice to contain France.

[Spoilers ahead]
To explain how Qin managed to end the multi-state system of China that had lasted for centuries, a feat that no European power could replicate, Hui rejects arguments based on geographical determinism (ex. China's geography made it inherently easier to unite than Europe) and instead turns to the development of state capacity in 3 key areas: administration, fiscal structure, and military. In administration, whereas leading European powers relied on effectively heritable sales of offices to staff their emerging bureaucracy, successful Chinese states increasingly relied on fixed-salaried officials selected more on meritocratic standards rather than aristocratic lineages. In fiscal structure, most European states heavily relied on tax farming to private contractors and short-term high-interest loans while their tax bases were increasingly undermined by tax exemptions to the privileged, which decreased the % of gross national income a state was able to capture. Meanwhile, successful Chinese states directly collected land and poll taxes by salaried state officials and sought to increase their tax base at all costs rather than undermining it by granting privileges. In military, European states heavily relied on private military entrepreneurs to recruit expensive (though not very loyal) mercenaries which made the establishment of a professional standing army prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the Kabinettskriege of Early Modern Europe was marked by mostly indecisive battles as states only pursued limited goals. On the other hand, Chinese states increasingly militarized their whole society by turning to greater and greater numbers of conscript-soldiers while their sovereigns and military leaders didn't hesitate at pursuing increasingly cut-throat methods such as mass-slaughter of defeated armies that could decisively cripple foes. In short, Early Modern Europe saw states leasing out their administrative, fiscal, and military aspects to quasi-independent power-holders for temporary short-term gains, which inhibited the strengthening of state capacity; Chinese states oversaw monopolization of these 3 aspects to steadily increase state capacity for permanent, long-term gains.

It's important to highlight that these 3 factors of state capacity were highly linked and could create positive or negative feedback-loops. For instance, Europe's poor administrative and fiscal structures mentioned above were needed to finance the prohibitively expensive mercenary armies, which in turn made the pursuit of decisive wars difficult, making many European sovereigns rely on even greater number of venal offices, high-interest loans, tax farming, and the like to keep this system afloat. Meanwhile in China, increasing the tax base and widening military service went hand in hand, and as Chinese states gained more absolute control in their extractive and coercive powers, they could afford to undermine the traditional aristocracy and appoint officials on meritocratic principles, culminating in stronger states that could pursue more aggressive and decisive foreign policies. After establishing this critical difference in state formation pattern between Europe and China, Hui investigates why powerful European states engaged in these self-weakening behaviours whereas powerful Chinese states adhered to self-strengthening ones. She attributes this to Early Modern Europe's greater monetization, the presence of two additional powerful orders (burghers and the Church) in addition to the aristocracy which inhibited state monopolization of extractive/coercive powers, and the dimension of naval power which freed European powers to expand overseas as an easier alternative to expanding within Europe.

Despite the fact that Hui tends to repeat herself a bit too many times for my taste, this book is still a brisk and highly enjoyable read. A must-read if you're interested in any of these 3 areas:
1) State Formation  
2) International Relations theory  
3) pre-Imperial Chinese history (god knows there's a dearth of political narratives of the Eastern Zhou period for the average English-speaker)

Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context volume 1 & 2
Alright, last fucking book to cover. Or should I say books, since they're a set of two volumes. This was my longest read of 2015, as the two volumes come out to just under 1400 pages. This book is so long and exhaustive that the author opted to post his bibliography online rather than including it in the book, as it would take up 140 pages! (there are great footnotes included throughout, however, which are highly worth reading) I've put it off for so long precisely because of its length but thanks to my tablet, I managed to chip away this beast over the course of this past month and a half (50 pages per day is quite easy to do). ...So was it worth it?

Unless you're blessed with photographic memory (though I'm told it doesn't exist), you're probably not going to remember all the books, movies, comics, etc. you read. This fact can be more upsetting for history fans like myself because no matter how many books we read, it's very difficult to retain most of the dense information found in history books (one reason why I've taken up writing these posts). But even if this hobby can seem Sisyphean at times, the truly enlightening nuggets of knowledge in the best non-fiction books are those that simply offer a reference frame, a perspective through which to view all information. For me, at least, Victor Lieberman managed to achieve this in Strange Parallels. For all its dense information (we're talking Nisekoi levels of dense here), the book is surprisingly tied together through an easy-to-remember lens of comparative analysis.

In its most rudimentary level, Strange Parallels can be seen of as compilation of historical overviews for mainland Southeast Asia, maritime Southeast Asia, France, Russia, Japan, China, and India. So if you ever wanted a brief historical overview of any of these regions told mostly in the lens of the "trends and forces," this book will be adequate (seriously, this book is NOT meant for anyone who needs great people in history books). But the real brilliance of Strange Parallels, as its title implies, is to see parallels for regions across Eurasia that have long-been treated in isolation. Although nationalist historians like to promote the uniqueness of their history, and Eurocentrists in the "West vs. the Rest debate" emphasize Europe's exceptionalism, Lieberman (a specialist of mainland Southeast Asian history) asks readers to see past the minute differences and realize that these Eurasian states, separated by vast distances, nonetheless displayed surprisingly coordinated periods of integration and disintegration. This coordination he refers to is that all the regions examined in his work showed a chaotic period of disintegration in the late 13th/early 14th centuries, rapid state formation in the 15th century, another period of disintegration in the late-16th/early 17th centuries, even more rapid state formation in late 17th/early 18th centuries, and one more period of disintegration in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. And in every region, each successive period of disintegration became shorter, while each successive period of integration reached new heights of state formation. Why would places as dissimilar as France and Burma, or Russia and Siam nevertheless show similar trends at roughly the same period in time?

In investigating this question, Lieberman takes readers through a broad strategy of consolidation that all examined Eurasian states took part in. And by consolidation, I mean consolidation of administration, economy, military, and religion/culture. I personally found the vertical (across social classes) and horizontal (across regions) cultural consolidation aspect of his argument the most interesting as I'd previously given it little thought. It's often easy to forget how foreign the past is, in the way that citizens constructed their identities. Cultural unification, even in overwhelmingly mono-ethnic regions like the Japanese islands was a long and arduous process.

What I've said so far barely scratches the surface of all the ideas contained in this book and I'm not going to bother summarizing all of it, especially since Lieberman does it himself in both the introduction and conclusion sections of volume 2. Instead, I'll end with my strengthened belief in the values of comparative history: 

It seems to me that most armchair historians on the internet pick a few countries (I'm guilty of this too!), usually related to their cultural roots, and tend not to venture outside of it. So while it's not hard to get a discussion going about WW2 or ancient Rome and Greece with Westerners, it is much harder to discuss Islamic or Indian history. This isn't a knock against Westerners, because I've found it even harder to discuss Dutch or Spanish history with Asians. If your answer to "Why read history?" is that it offers wider perspective for one to make better judgments, then why limit yourself to just one or two ancient perspectives? Although I perfectly sympathize with wanting more in-depth knowledge in a few topics than surface-knowledge of many topics, by reading the histories and experiences of different cultures, I've often found I've come to a greater appreciation and understanding of the cultures I once hesitated to stray from. 


  1. Thanks a lot for these posts dude, they're single-handedly responsible for getting me into reading history books.

  2. Ditto, I haven't been interested in a scanlated manga of yours since you finished Ashita no Joe (thanks for that, btw) yet I keep on checking your blog for your various musings on books. Happy new year, while we are at it :)

  3. Incidentally, "War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe" took quite a bit of effort to source due to being a university press. It still surprised me how many of these books can cost $60-80 easily, not counting shipping.