夷-Barbarian: The ‘Others’ outside of the Empire

Continuing from the last point in the previous post on the Eurocentric viewpoint on the concept of ‘Barbarians’, I want to explore this wholly contentious and still rather taboo subject from the Chinese worldview.

The Chinese ethnic race, while known as the originator and developer of some of the most culturally-transcendant philosophies and thinking in history (Taoism, the 兼爱 or universal love/pacificism of Mohism, Chinese Buddhism…), are hardly the race-blind and race-tolerant people some would like to make them out to be. In fact, the Chinese may be amongst the ancient world’s earliest and staunchest race chauvinists and advocates, and throughout it’s many centuries of existence as a ‘civilization-state’ (as opposed to the western Westphalian concept of nation-states), the Chinese as a state, civilization and race, has refined this concept of Difference and Distinction (and yet also that of Inclusion, ie. Sinicization) between themselves and all Others to a fine degree. An introduction to this idea may be undertaken here, the Hua(華)–Yi(夷) distinction (or Sino-Foreigner/Barbarian dichotomy).

In a recent discussion with old friends on this old debate (we must have had this discussion hundreds of times already over the years), I referred to the semiotic analysis of the Chinese concept of Otherness and Barbarians undertaken by Professor Lydia Liu (Columbia University) in her 2004 book, The Clash of Empires: the Invention of China in Modern World Making.

Prof Liu makes very interesting and on the whole, very compelling points in her book, especially the chapters on The Semiotic Turn of International Politics and my favourite chapter in the book:
The Birth of a Super-Sign [ie. the birth of the chinese word, 夷 or Barbarian]

Prof Liu’s main contention in her book is that there had been a lamentable mismatch of the Chinese conception of the word 夷-Foreigner/Barbarian (which had been in use for nearly three thousand years in Chinese consciousness) and the Western world’s interpretation of the word, especially in light of the use of the word on themselves (see the disastrous encounter in 1793 between the Qing emperor Qianlong and the British Ambassador Lord Macartney), which ultimately led to the Opium Wars, the subsequent spate of ‘unequal treaties’ and the hundred years of humiliation.

Prof Liu in the final section of her book and in application of her theory of the semiotic mismatch, then undertook a line-by-line redacted comparison of one of the most infamous letters of correspondece between Britain and China in the 19th century (between the original letter and the British ‘xenophobic’-slanted translation):
Admiral Lin Zexu’s letter to Queen Victoria on the opium trade
[Indeed, Prof Liu hinted that the seemingly incomprehensible stubborn insistence of the 19th century British translators to take the translation of the word 夷-Foreigner/Barbarian to it’s extreme and xenophobic meaning, was simply that of the British seizing upon any justification for their subsequent hardline militaristic engagement with China.

I am currently rereading Lydia Liu’s book (amongst many other books! Glorious references and recommendations born of delicious discussions with esteemed old friends) and at some point, would like to place some quotes here.


A Humanocentric Perspective: Unity in Diversity (and of maps, RTK, and Yang Xiu)

This post was started/written in early October as an accompaniment to the previous post (ie. China’s Trade Surplus…) with the Gunder Frank quotes.

I now have about two dozen half-written posts in the wordpress draft folder (not including the already-published-but-empty [PiPs] !!!), and even more ideas and entries from my private journals which I judged suitable for the theme of this site, waiting to be ‘transmigrated’ and published here.

I was wearied by this choked-up state of affairs and was of half a mind to simply freeze this site in-situ and let it die a slow and peaceful death.

But a Reunion of sorts with old friends and meeting of new ones at a gathering and Retreat over the last two weeks, sparked off rather intense discussions over topics as diverse as culture, work, money, Life, the Universe and Everything… It’s as though we rolled back the decades and were schoolboys once again, indulging in our dead poets society.

And when I raised some of the issues mentioned on this site, especially of childhood schooltime memories and the recent ‘distorted lens’ postings, it touched off very passionate discussions on these issues and beyond and most delightfully, references to writings which were erstwhile unknown to myself.

I am more than a little rejuvenated and am eager to clear the backlog of drafts and posts, just so to allow the new thoughts to come through.

So, first things first, clearing the backlog…

Andre Gunder Frank, in the introductory first chapter to his book, ReOrient: Global economy in the Asian Age (1998), begins with a quote from Immanuel Wallerstein:

The expectation of universality, however sincerely pursued, has not been fulfilled this far in the historical development of the social sciences… It is hardly surprising that the social sciences that were constructed in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century were Eurocentic. The European world of the time felt itself culturally triumphant… Every universalism sets off responses to itself, and these responses are in some sense determined by the nature of the reigning universalism(s). … Submitting our theoretical premises to inspection for hidden unjustified a priori assumptions is a priority for the social sciences today.

–Immanuel Wallerstein (1996b: 49,5160,56)

Frank then states his book’s objective and its approach towards world economic history, to offer a more balanced viewpoint encompassing the world’s diversity, and as far as possible, an unbiased “humanocentric” perspective.

Holistic Methodology and Objectives

My thesis is that there is “unity in diversity”. However, we can neither understand nor appreciate the world’s diversity without perceiving that unity itself generates and continually changes diversity. We all have to live in this one world in which diversity must be tolerated and could be appreciated in unity. Of course, I refer to toleration and appreciation of diversity in ethnicity, gender, culture, taste, politics, and color or “race”. I do not accept acceptance of inequality in gender, wealth, income, and power without struggle. Therefore, we could all benefit from a world perspective that illuminates […] This book proposes to offer at least some basis in early modern world economic history for a more “humanocentric” perspective and understanding.

On the art of writing histories, and ‘imagined’ boundaries:

The European but exceptionally worldly historian Fernand Braudel remarked that “Europe invented historians and then made good use of them” to promote their own interests at home and elsewhere in the world (Braudel 1992: 134). This statement is revealing in several important ways. First, it is not really true that the writing of history was invented by Europeans, not even by Herodotus and Thucydides. History has also been written by the Chinese, Persians, and others. Moreover, Herodotus himself insisted that “Europe” has no independent existence, since it is only a part of Eurasia, which has no real internal boundaries of its own. Perhaps Braudel had in mind a generation of historians who wrote long after Herodotus. Yet even they invented Eurocentric history long after Arab historians, chroniclers, and world travellers of such fame as Ibn Batuta, Ibn Khaldun, and Rashid-al-Din, who had already written Afro-Eurasian history which was much less Arab- or Islamocentric.

On the art of cartography, or map-making:

Indeed, Europeans seem to have invented geography as well, for “Eurasia” itself is a Eurocentric denomination, albeit one invented on a distant marginal peninsula of that land mass. … Marshall Hodgson (1993) denounced maps drawn according to the Mercator projection, which makes little Britain appear about as large as India; and J. M. Blaut (1993b) has shown how Eurocentic the mapping of the “march of history” has been. Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen (1997) refer to The Myth of Continents. One example is that against all geographical reality Europeans insist on elevating their peninsula to a “continent” while the much more numerous Indians have but a “subcontinent” and the Chinese at best a “country”. The relevant geographical and historical unit is really Afro-Eurasia. However, that could more appropriately be called “Afrasia”, as Arnold Toynbee suggested and the former president of the World History Association Ross Dunn recently recalled. Even this syllabic order still fails to reflect the real orders of geographical and demographic magnitude and historical importance of these two continents. Europe, of course, is none of the above.
[Heh… Frank is, of course, being a little ornery here. Still, he’s right.]

******Start Digression (on maps, RTK, and Yang Xiu)******
[And this influence on map-making can be seen pervading far beyond academia:
As children playing the popular board game RISK, my friends and I have long noticed the anomalies in the Continental and Country representations in the game, especially the arbitrary demarcation of ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ along the Ukraine-Urals-Afghanistan-Middle East boundary lines. And because of this peculiar and rather forced mapping of ‘Continents’, we discovered that a certain strategy and gameplay used, consistently outplayed all others, and which gave a definte edge to those in the ‘know’. In the end, we had to alter the game rules to account for this ‘edge’ discrepancy, one of the many revisions/handicappings we made/used to augment the original rules.

And later, when RISK became available as a computer game, I reused the childhood strategies which still worked against the game software’s crude algorithms. I remember that the strategies worked well against other computer opponents set at ‘Dumb” mode, and even better when they were all set at the toughest levels. The strange thing was, my edge was smallest when the computer opponents were set at a mixture of the lowest to highest proficienty levels. It was the middling-level opponents who make ‘crazy’ decisions which make no sense and are completely non-rewarding, that always ‘screw up’ my gameplay.

I remember that the game software offered many other maps for gameplay beyond the traditional world map; there was one of an imaginary colossal Pangea continent with well over a hundred bounded areas to campaign over! Playing this map usually takes the better part of a day, or more…
Sometimes, I like to just set this map on accelerated auto-play, with the maximum number of players, and on shaded filter mapview: the bright colours crashing back and forth, as they battle to dominate, subjugate and propagate, is exactly like watching a Game of Life simulation.

Am not really a computer/video game buff, but there was one computer war-game which I really enjoyed playing in the 80’s/90’s, the antiquated Romance of the Three Kingdoms (or RTK) game series. This old game had rather limited graphics capability and was essentially a statistics-based game, but that was exactly why it was so enthralling:
the limited graphics and interface allowed the player to engage the game’s historical references and material in his own mind and probably more richly than even the best graphics can deliver. And the historical period the game refers to, is of course the dramatic and folkloric military history of the Three Kingdoms period.
It was a delight playing the different scenarios depicting the historical events (some real, some more literary), and selecting from and managing hundreds of real characters (from administrators to generals, advisers to warlords), each with his unique set of attributes and statistics — Intelligence, War Ability and Charm. I had so much fun pitting historical characters against each other, and my favourite characters, in decreasing order of excellence (my opinion): Zhuge Liang, Zhou Yu, Cao Cao, Guan Yu, Zhao Yun, Xu Shu, Huang Gai, Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, Xiahou Yuan, Lu Bu, Wei Yan…
(Those who recognize the characters will know that I am taking ‘heroes’ from all three Shu, Wei and Wu kingdoms; I care not for the labels history pins on these men and kingdoms:
‘Villanous’ Cao Cao of Wei, ‘Righteous’ Liu Bei of Shu, ‘Opportunistic’ Zhou Yu of Wu… Only capabilities matter :) )

And I actually mentioned the Three Kingdoms period earlier in this post Of kingdoms, brothers and beans. And the following empty [PiP] post Military Dream Team (which these fanciful thoughts on RTK really belongs belatedly to), would of course include many on the shortlist above.

But one candidate I had in mind for my dream team (who if I remember correctly was rated poorly in the RTK games and who had always been overlooked by chinese historians), and who for me, may even rival the great Zhuge Liang in the Intelligence score department, is the ‘overly-clever’ and enigmatic Yang Xiu.
History has long painted him as a brilliant strategist who made only one crucial mistake: outshining and irritating his lord, Cao Cao and thus inviting an early death. But I think this interpretation is simplistic and doing a disservice to both Yang Xiu and Cao Cao. Another view suggests that Cao Cao valued his adviser Yang Xiu tremendously, but the esoteric and jaded Yang was tired of the three-way tussle for the realm between the three kingdoms and wanted to retire. But both men knew that in the political and military climate of the times, Cao Cao could not let a valuable asset like Yang, simply leave: in the end, the death sentence on Yang was ordered with much anguish by the one, and accepted with equanimity by the other.

(BTW, Cao Cao, in the RTK game, came in second with a 99 in the Intelligence score, behind only the great Zhuge Liang who topped everybody with a perfect 100.)

What a major but utterly enjoyable digression.
And now, back to Andre Gunder Frank.
******End Digression******

On historiography basically being biased, nation-funded, navel-gazing cheerleading exercises:

Latter-day historians, it is true, have preponderantly gazed at their own European navel. That might be excused or at least explained by the social, cultural, political, and economic support they have received to do so. After all, historians received much support to write “national” histories in ideological support of European and American “nation-states” and to serve the ideological, political, and economic interests of their ruling classes. However, these historians also went beyond the confines of their own “nations”, to claim that “Europe” or “the West” was and is the “navel” (indeed also the heart and soul) of the rest of the world. If thye gave any credit to anyone else, it was only grudgingly with a “history” that, like the Orient Express on the westward bound track only, ran through a sort of tunnel of time from the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, to the classical Greeks and Romans, through medieval (western) Europe, to modern times. Persians, Turks, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese received at best polite, and often not so polite, bows.
[Remember Amartya Sen’s reading of the Western approaches towards India (and the rest of the world): the Exoticist approach (ie patronising: Om Zen Chi is so quaint), the Curatorial approach (ie: Interesting cultures, but long-dead and fit only for a museum), and the most lamentable, the Magisterial approach (ie: not seen as equals, and thus fit for subjugation, slavery, colonising, killing, abuse etc).

Other peoples like Africans, Japanese, Southeast Asians, and Central Asians received no mention as contributors to or even participants in history at all, except as “barbarian” nomadic hordes who periodically emerged out of Central Asia to make war on “civilized” settled peoples.

I commented on one such novel elsewhere which took the above Euro-centred-civilized view on Barbarians, the Italian writer Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe.

I tried to engage this inward, empire-centred viewpoint from the outside perspective, by responding to a book review of Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, with my own reading of J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.
Coetzee, in his Waiting for the Barbarians, with his typical laconic and yet loaded and very intense style, ‘continues’ where Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe ends. Coetzee, by avoiding giving names, either to the barbarian people or to the empire or even individual characters, and by avoiding dates and placenames, was really trying to expose Imperialists (everyWhere and in any Time) for their self-righteous justifications, empty bravado and hollow bluster. Coetzee himself of course, unwillingly and with clear eyes, was part of this ‘imperialistic’ tradition, as an Afrikaner living in the midst of South African apartheid.

My old comment reads:


Perspective is a fascinating thing. And the different ways in which we may grind our lenses of perspective (Spinoza may agree) can produce hints of subtle shifts in views, or reveal startling insights of vastly different panorama.

Time (or at least one of its facsimiles, that is, the numbered sequencing of events), is one element which can alter or color our lenses while looking at the same object. I read J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians before Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe; and thus may never be able to see from the eyes of a young Drogo (with his conflicting hopes and fears of anticipating yet dreading the barbarian hordes just beyond the steppe), without the spectre of Coetzee’s jaded and weary old Magistrate hanging heavily, and with the latter’s resigned knowledge that the darkest enemy lies not yonder, but within.

[Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, in a way picks up where The Tartar Steppe ends; with the old Magistrate more or less having come to terms with his own existence (with hints of a younger Drogo-past), after spending his entire career guarding his frontier town against the ‘unimaginable’ barbarians. The enemy finally arrives, but from within (the empire), forcing an excursion from the mundane but familiar routine into the dreaded frontier-lands.

The battle with the barbarians may finally be joined, but is it in the way as had always been imagined — dignified imperialists defending their rightful lands from the menacing barbarian horde? Or as self-righteous barbarians once again disappropriating the lands of a diminishing indigenous people, to feed the appetite of an always-expanding empire…]

As a trader, my first objective is profit and success and indeed, am perhaps no different from earlier profit-seekers adventuring across oceans and continents in the name of “God, gold and glory”. But there may be cause for some self-examination, and a tempering of appetites will not hurt.