Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

September 20, 2018

The Chinese eradication of extreme poverty in one generation

Filed under: China,Economics — Razib Khan @ 4:45 pm

There have been write-ups in the media of the decline of extreme poverty due to a World Bank data release in the past few days. This is kind of a pretty big deal, and one of the reasons that books like Enlightenment Now are still worth writing: much of the American public is unaware of the “good news.”

But as made clear in the graphic in The Wall Street Journal, this is to a great extent a regional story. In particular, it is the story of the near eradication of extreme poverty among the ~20% of the world’s population that is Chinese.

As the chart makes visible, the “Third World” or the “Global South” OR “Developing World”, whatever you call it, is very economically diverse. Was very economically diverse. In 1990 most of the world’s extreme poor lived in East Asia. Overwhelmingly in China. Outside of Sub-Saharan Africa and South & East Asia extreme poverty, using this definition, was actually not that common. Latin America, the Middle East & North Africa, and the post-Soviet world, suffered by comparison to North America and Western Europe.

People who traveled widely across the “Third World” knew this. In the 1980s and 1990s one of my uncles was an engineer, and later officer, for an Iranian oil tanker, and so traveled across the Middle East. He eventually wrote a peculiar book on poverty in Bangladesh after he retired, and in it he recounted how clear and distinct the differences in acute poverty were when he compared Iran with his homeland.

To give you a different general sense, I pulled the World Bank data and focused on a few large nations of diverse profiles. And, rather than looking at just the % below a very low poverty threshold ($1.90 per day), I increased the threshold ($5.50) and focused on the poverty gap. While the poverty headcount just tells you what % of the population falls below the threshold, the poverty gap is measuring the average distance below the threshold. In other words, it is measuring intensity of poverty.

What you can see above is that China went from having the highest poverty gap to the lowest in 25 years. But the story isn’t just about China. Fifteen years ago Vietnam had just as much extreme poverty as Bangladesh, but today it is in the same range as China. In the 1990s we talked a lot about the “Asian Miracle.” But that was minor leagues. The real miracle has occurred in the 21st century.

But it wasn’t really a miracle at all. Nations such as Vietnam and China (and earlier Japan and Korea) had relatively high literacy rates, and a tradition of meritocratic advancement, long before contact with European colonialism. Before Communism. With high native human capital resources to begin with, they were poised for lift-off before they ever made it down the runway.

My wife happens to know a Chinese man who is now a professor of science at an American Research I University. Because this is someone we know, aspects of his life history have slowly emerged. In short, he grew up in a very poor peasant household in rural China. And not one that had just recently fallen down the class ladder from what we can tell.

Today he is a professor doing rigorous science, who has achieved an upper middle class American lifestyle. My horizons may be narrow, but I have never met a South Asian in the United States who has come from an analogous background of such grinding deprivation. I know they exist. But in general South Asian peasants in deep deprivation, the children of landless laborers and the like, do not seem to have the opportunity or expectation that they could become researcher professors in the United States.

Finally, Communism. It is strange today, though perhaps not, that much of the younger populace of developed nations are beginning to look with eagerness toward some sort of inchoate socialism. And yet here you have more than a billion who sloughed off the dead hand of command socialism, and in the process eradicated extreme poverty.

I understand the qualms about Chinese authoritarianism. I’m well aware that some elements of China’s economic growth are unlikely to be sustainable. Perhaps there will be a correction. Almost certainly there has to be one. But we can’t forget what the very recent past was like. We shouldn’t shrug off the miracle of anti-poverty that has occurred in East Asia.

To Americans, and Mexicans as well, 1990 wasn’t a different land. But in the past generation nations like China and Vietnam have transformed themselves in ways that we can’t even imagine.

September 9, 2018

The education the people of Tianzhu

Filed under: China — Razib Khan @ 10:39 pm

Someone on Twitter mentioned that there were references to Shakespeare in the recent ruling to decriminalize homosexuality in India. This is reflective of the fact that some of the ambition to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” did succeed. The English-speaking South Asian elite is not Western, but they are part of a broader conversation, a republic of letters, which is focused on the West. A public intellectual like Arundhati Roy is integrated and influential in the broader community of international, Western, intellectuals.

And yet looking at the trade numbers for India, you see that China has surpassed the United Kingdom. I have stated on this weblog that India has to deal with the fact that China is already the Asian hegemon. And this hegemony will only wax over the coming decades.

The Westernization of aspects of Indian culture is probably not going to be reversed in the 21st century. Indian English is now a native language. Cricket is the national sport. But Indians also have to look to Chinese culture and civilization, and not just economic statistics, because the maturation of the two states and societies over the next few decades is going to entail some level of interaction and exchange.

Too often conversations about comparative history that I have on this weblog entail comparisons between the West and India (Islam). There is an unfortunate lack of knowledge on Chinese history and civilization.

Fix this forthwith!

September 7, 2018

Perhaps India is not special in resisting Islamicization

Filed under: China,Islam — Razib Khan @ 12:29 am

I have posted my thoughts as to why India, unlike Iran or Central Asia, resisted total Islamicization, before. It seems to be a phenomenon that demands an explanation.

And yet does it?

As I read F. W. Motte’s Imperial China 900-1800 I am struck by Han civilization’s resilience and absorptive capacity. What does that remind us of?

With some hindsight, perhaps I was asking the question because I constrained my dataset to West and South Asian societies, where India, in particular, seemed exceptional. But if you add China to the mix, then India’s robustness seems less incredible.

Timur died en route to China because he was keen on invading it. Many Muslims believe that Timur’s death prevented the Islamicization of the Han. After reading Imperial China I believe that this is false. Even if Timur conquered China, the Chinese would be resistant to Islam, and likely throw off the conqueror’s successors in short order.

Those conquest dynasties, such as the Manchus, who were successful in China underwent total assimilation. Those, such as the Mongols, who ultimately refused to kowtow to the verities of the Chinese, were expelled.

Taking this comparative perspective it is less surprising that so many South Asians became Muslim. Indians, “Hindus”, were ethnoculturally diverse and distinctive from each other in a way that Han Chinese never were. Muslim conversion of some elites and the targeting of oppressed castes was possible because Indian society was fractured in a way that the Han never were.

Of course, the Persians become Muslim in toto. But the Persians never had an identity to match the Han.

September 4, 2018

Complementarity in the 21st century

Filed under: China,international relations,science fiction — Razib Khan @ 6:41 pm

The late Gordon R. Dickson wrote a series of books in a (mostly) future history termed The Childe Cycle. I’ve read a substantial number of the books in this series, and it’s rather uneven. On the whole, I would say that the earlier books are better than the later works. Dickson died before he could complete the series, but I don’t think that’s really that big of a deal, because the books are only loosely connected. I read the novels and short stories of the series all out of order, and it wasn’t a problem.

One of the interesting aspects of the universe is that there are separate human cultures/ethnicities that inhabit different planets and specialize in different economic tasks. If you look closely, the system doesn’t make economic sense, but that’s OK, we’re talking a setting for space opera.

Of the “splinter cultures,” two of them inhabit planets very close to each other in the same solar system, Newton and Cassida. Newton is home to pure scientists, while Cassida is a world of applied engineers. In Young Bleys it is stated that the engineers of Cassida admire and envy the scientists of Newton.

My point in posting about this is to a great extent I imagine that the United States of America will be the “Newton” of our world for a while longer. But, other nations will be will Cassida (you can guess which), and others the Friendlies. I don’t know who the Exotics or Dorsai might be, and the analogy might breakdown there.

July 18, 2018

The Insight show notes: Episode 29, The Genetics of China, Han & Beyond

Filed under: China,Genetics,History,science — Razib Khan @ 3:39 pm

This week Razib and Spencer discussed the genetics and history of China on The Insight (iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play).

Chinese history looms large in the podcast, and there are many books one can read on the topic. In particular, John King Fairbank’s China: A New History is one of the rest comprehensive treatments. To understand what’s going on in China today it’s probably good to have at least one survey book or course of its past under your belt!

For the purposes of this episode though, you can just check out a list of Chinese dynasties, if you just want a visual outline of the timeframe and period which Razib and Spencer covered in the podcast.

In relation to the genetics alluded, for genome-wide patterns of relatedness across Chinese regions: Genetic Structure of the Han Chinese Population Revealed by Genome-wide SNP Variation. This 2009 paper uses 350,000 markers from 10 provinces to perform exploratory analysis of genetic structure within China.

More recently, A comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group — Han Chinese, is a preprint that utilizes whole-genome sequencing to assemble an even larger dataset.

For maternal mtDNA, Large-Scale mtDNA Screening Reveals a Surprising Matrilineal Complexity in East Asia and Its Implications to the Peopling of the Region. For Y chromosomes on the paternal side, Y Chromosomes of 40% Chinese Descend from Three Neolithic Super-Grandfathers.

To get a sense of how China’s population has grown genetically, see Robust and scalable inference of population history from hundreds of unphased whole-genomes. The figure to the left shows the “Out of Africa” bottleneck, and then demographic expansion in the last 50,000 years. “CHB” represents Chinese sampled in Beijing. Along with “GIH”, who are Gujuratis, and “CEU”, a Northern European American cohort from Utah, the Chinese exhibit explosive growth in the last 10,000 years.

There is extensive discussion of the environment and geography of China, and how it related to agricultural expansion and migration southward. The Retreat of the Elephants by Mark Elvin chronicles this process of the expansion of rice farming into the jungles of southern China through natural history and human geography.

Though most people are aware of the Mongols, fewer are cognizant of the interregnum between the Han and Sui-Tang, when many steppe nomads settled in China, Buddhism took root, and many elite Han lineages migrated from the north to the south. For those curious about this period, China Between Empires: The History of the Northern and Southern Dynasties is an excellent introduction accessible to all.

Finally, there was extensive discussion about the future of Chinese science. For a deeper exploration of that that, see A Chinese Province Is Sequencing One Million of Its Residents’ Genomes and China Has Already Gene-Edited 86 People With CRISPR.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight show notes: Episode 29, The Genetics of China, Han & Beyond was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

History and genetics of the Han

Filed under: China,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 3:14 pm

About 20 percent of the world’s population lives in the People’s Republic of China.Taking their name from the Han dynasty of ancient China, they are the core ethnicity of the People’s Republic of China: making up about 90% of the total population. When the imperial system was overthrown by a republic in 1911, China was founded as a union of “five races.” They were the Manchu, who had previously provided the royal house, the historically important and ethnically distinctive Hui (Muslims), Tibetans, Mongols, and of course, the Han: who provided the common language of Chinese society and dominated its culture, civil administration, and military.

Shang Dynasty Chariots

The origin of the modern Han traces back to the mists of antiquity and prehistory. Chinese history is highly periodized; with a sequence of legendary dynasties which gave rise to those which were textually attested. This thematic arrangement of time is not a matter of conjecture or externally imposed frameworks, but rather it emerges out of the rich and elaborated native historiography. Like the Greco-Romans, the Chinese produced native annalists and observers galore.

China, as we understand it, began more than 3,000 years ago. During the Late Bronze Age, the centuries before 1000 BC, the Shang dynasty emerged as the paramount military group in the middle reaches of the Yellow river basin. With a ruling caste of chariot-riding aristocrats, the Shang seem much like the barbarian ruling houses of the Mycenaean world in lifestyle and outlook. Much of what we know about them can be ascertained only through archaeology or the commentaries and critiques of their successors: the Zhou. Because of their use of oracle bones as a form of divination, the Zhou still provide the first evidence of a state deploying literacy in East Asia. The distinct writing style of the modern Chinese has its roots in this place and time.

Eventually, the Shang fell to the Zhou. Originally a semi-barbarian state on the western fringes of the Shang state, the Zhou needed to be more cultivated than the Shang because they were arrivistes. The Zhou left a more substantial literary record as transmitted by their cultural heirs. It is from them that many concepts central to later Chinese civilization are inherited, such as the emphasis on the Mandate of Heaven in determining who ruled and who was ruled. The benevolent and upright character of men such as the semi-historical Duke of Zhou served as exemplars for Chinese elites for nearly over 2,500 years!

It was through Confucius and his acolytes that the influence of the Zhou echoed down through the generations, even into the 20th century. The imperial bureaucracy was steeped in a philosophy, which esteemed the Zhou as having presided over a Golden Age of righteousness and rectitude.

The First Emperor’s terracotta army

As the Zhou dynasty collapsed as a military power in the course of events over the first millennium BC, hundreds of philosophical schools proliferated across the landscape. Men who would have otherwise wielded the sword in service to their masters, took up the brush to paint and write out their thoughts. Martial codes of honor were transformed into rules to live a more pacific life by. These men, the shih, were the prototypes of the civilian scholar-officials who served as the model for the Chinese gentlemen throughout the whole period of the imperial system, from around 200 BC down to 1911 AD.

A class system, often honored in the breach, emerged in China during this period. The rulers and scholar officials were on top, and just below them were farmers: the producers of wealth. Under them toiled the the artisans, merchants, and soldiers. Strangely, this may reflect aspects of deep history.

While in much of the other half of Eurasia over the past 5,000 years has been characterized by the explosion of a few paternal Y chromosomal lineages, the Chinese population shows evidence of more gradual and consistent expansion; beginning with the rise of agriculture. Though the Shang ruled their domains from chariots, these tools of war came late to the East, and the Shang ascendancy was short-lived. The deep and broad growth of Y chromosomal lines across China suggests expansion from a small core group of agriculturalists, until the full expanse of North China was dominated by people speaking the Chinese language and practicing the Chinese culture.

As documented in a preprint from last year, a comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group — Han Chinese, modern genetic variation within the People’s Republic between the Han of different regions is strongly conditioned on geography. Most of the variation is from the north to the south; far more than from the east to west. This may reflect the fact that until the Tang dynasty, between 600 and 900 AD, much of China south of the Yangzi river was inhabited by minority groups, such as the Dai and peoples related to the Vietnamese and the Hmong.

Meanwhile in the heart of early Chinese civilization, the Yellow river basin, many of the people exhibit the hallmarks of genetic influence from the people of the steppe, like the Mongols and even Western Eurasians. Between 200 BC and 200 AD, China was ruled by the Han dynasty: a culmination of the first period of Chinese cultural and demographic expansion and consolidation. After the Han collapse, however, much of North China was occupied and ruled by groups from the steppe. A mixed aristocracy of horsemen arose, and it was from this class there emerged the men who eventually reconquered all of China, from north to south, culminating in the Tang dynasty.

Buddhism flourished in China during the Tang dynasty

In the centuries before 1000 AD, the Tang pushed the center Chinese civilization from the north down to the Yangzi basin; engaging in reclamation projects and encouraging the planting of superior varieties of rice. If the people of northern China are the scions of the Han, those in southern China are children of the Tang.

As the second millennium after Christ began, the Chinese civilization and state occupied the broad expanse of eastern China that we know of today, from Korea along the edge of the sea and down to Vietnam, and deep into the interior. Whether noodle loving people in the north, or rice farmers in the south, they all spoke a dialect of Chinese, and were united by a written language. Though differences of region and class persisted, the meritocratic regime of scholar officials promoted by the new Song dynasty that succeeded the Tang bound the nation together, and took strength from a a revived Confucianism, which synthesized aspects of Buddhism — which had been introduced from the western regions.

But just as the Song were on the cusp of bringing shape to the China we know today, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors first conquered the North China plain and later the Yangzi basin — and even the far South. The edifice of culture the Song built, the Mongols destroyed. China under the Song had promoted a meritocracy, and the Mongols placed themselves at the head of an ethnic a caste system determined by blood; where Muslims from Central Asia operated in the middle ranks as intermediaries above the subordinate Han majority. The Mongol rule was not for long, but after their expulsion and the reemergence of the Han under the Ming dynasty, the Muslim presence in China continued on as a long-term reminder of that era.

Hui Muslims

Today the descendants of these Muslims, the Hui, resemble the Han physically, and speak the Chinese dialect of the region in which they live, but practice Islam and eschew pork. Their East Asian physical appearance is a testament to the assimilative power of the Han, who absorbed various steppe peoples each in turn, though the cultural distinctiveness reminds us that China has long been connected to the rest of the world, and has changed with impact, from Buddhism to the Mongols and finally the adoption of Communism in the 20th century.

On the eve of the modern era, Jesuit astronomers were advising the Ming court, and the Chinese were conquered again by outsiders. Manchu people from the far northeast swept down and took city after city, until the last Ming emperor hurled himself into the South China Sea. And yet, just as captive Greece conquered Rome culturally, so the Manchus became for their Han subjects exemplary Confucian autocrats. The apogee of Imperial China came under the Qianlong Emperor, who presided over a decades long “Indian summer” of Han civilization in the 18th century… unaware of the specter of European colonialism on the horizon. Over the centuries, the Manchu separation from the Han majority became less and less a matter of reality (as opposed to a polite fiction). Today China is home to millions of “Manchu,” but the vast majority are difficult to distinguish from the Han of the north.

With more than a billion citizens today, China is a massive “natural experiment” in human demography. Hundreds of millions are on the move from the heartland to the glittering (and grimy) cities: mixing marrying with people they would otherwise never meet. Though lacking in the rich and deep genetic diversity of Africa, China makes up for it in raw numbers and a newly found focus on scientific advances — backed by a dynamic economy. The Chinese were expert chroniclers of their own history, so genetics will shed only so much new light beyond that. We already know the broad narrative because the Han remember and record.

Rather, the large potential upside of Chinese population genetics is in medical traits. The shock of the modern world and its consumer lifestyle, intersecting with the genetics of peasants farmers. Though specific results in China may not always be generalizable to the whole world, to some extent China is much of the world. The history of the Chinese past is vast and fascinating, but the possibility of the Chinese science of the future is tantalizing.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


History and genetics of the Han was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

July 15, 2018

India vs. China, genetically diverse vs. homogeneous

Filed under: China,China genetics,Human Population Genetics,India,India Genetics — Razib Khan @ 1:50 pm

About 36% of the world’s population are citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China and the Republic of India. Including the other nations of South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.), 43% of the population lives in China and/or South Asia.

But, as David Reich mentions in Who We Are and How We Got Here China is dominated by one ethnicity, the Han, while India is a constellation of ethnicities. And this is reflected in the genetics. The relatively diversity of India stands in contrast to the homogeneity of China.

At the current time, the best research on population genetic variation within China is probably the preprint A comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group – Han Chinese. The author used low-coverage sequencing of over 10,000 women to get a huge sample size of variation all across China. The PCA analysis recapitulated earlier work. Genetic relatedness among the Han of China is geographically structured. The largest component of variance is north-south, but a smaller component is also east-west. The north-south element explains more than 4.5 times the variance as the east-west.

Click to enlarge

Another dimension of the of the variation is that different parts of China are character by different levels of admixture between the Han and other groups. In Northwest China, there is gene flow from West Eurasian sources. In all likelihood, this is through proxy populations, such as Mongols, who are about ~10% West Eurasian. Also, during the period between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the rise of the Sui-Tang Dynasty much of northern China was dominated by barbarian groups from the steppe, and these groups settled down and were absorbed. In Northeast China, the source of admixture is from Siberian and Tungusic group. Again, this makes geographical sense.

In contrast in South China, the gene flow is from indigenous Chinese national groups, such as Dai. This is in keeping with the historical record, whereby South China became Han in the period between 0 and 1000 AD through migration, intermarriage, and acculturation.

Click to enlarge

I have my own small private dataset of Chinese individuals. Some with provenance. Some without. But using known populations I was able to divide China along the north to south cline.  Individuals from Guangdong in the south, those from Shaanxi in the north, and from Zhejiang to Sichuan in the center.

Using Punjabis as a West Eurasian outgroup I was able to plot these individuals on a PCA. If you click to enlarge you will see that a substantial minority of the Han_N sample is shifted to the left of the plot. This is toward the Punjabis. This is not because they have Punjabi ancestry, but because Punjabis are reasonable proxies for West Eurasians.

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More importantly, I want to compare South Asia to China. To do that I created a small dataset that merged the Han with representative South Asian groups. The first PC, 1 and 2, illustrate the contrast. All three Chinese groups, sampled from the north to the south, occupy a very tight cluster, while the South Asians span PC 2. The Bengalis are shifted a bit to the Chinese, but most of the variance is due to within-South Asian genetic differences.

Click to enlarge

I ran PCA to 10 dimensions. Only at PC 10 did the Han Chinese separate along the north-south access. Most of the earlier PC’s separated out specific castes (e.g, Patels because if their large number in the Gujurati sample were PC 3). Here are the eigenvalues: 53.0682, 2.5641, 2.31876
1.97058, 1.90652, 1.88879, 1.7935, 1.69375, 1.61516, and 1.54207. The large value for PC 1 is what you’d expect, it’s a continental scale difference. PC 2 differentiates South Asia from north to south. It’s much more modest. The other PCs get progressively smaller, but within the data, it’s clear that the continental size difference is the big one. The variance between north and south China is a small one in a South Asian scale.

Click to enlarge

Pairwise Fst is more ambiguous. That’s probably because most of the South Asian samples have structure within them. Merging them into one pooled population just confuses the issue.

Using a South Asian dataset where groups are disaggregated makes a lot more sense, and you see the structure between the different groups.

Click to enlarge

Running Treemix gives similar results. The South Asian groups exhibit a fan-shaped topology, where the Han cluster tightly together. Since I removed Bengalis from Treemix adding migration edges doesn’t do anything between the two clusters, so I omitted those results.

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Finally, of course I ran some admixture analysis. Using South Asians + Han Chinese, I thought K = 4 would be reasonable. Even if you don’t enlarge, the results are straightforward: the Han Chinese have very little diversity in unsupervised mode. A small South Asian-like component, which has affinities with Punjabis, is found in northern Han. This confirms other results with other methods that the northern Han have some West Eurasian gene flow.  Some of the southern and central Han have an affinity with one of the South Indian clusters. I think is artifactual, due to deep structure within Eastern Eurasian populations and affinities between those groups that the Han absorbed as they moved south.

This post doesn’t really shed new light on anything we didn’t know. Rather, it’s just a review of what jumps out at anyone who works with genotype data: there is not very much genetic diversity in China and there is a great deal of genetic diversity in India. Why? These are not questions genetics can really answer directly, though it can give us clues and support certain models over others.

Anyone who has read much about Chinese history knows that the cultural ideal of meritocracy is deeply ingrained, even if it is honored in the breach quite often. Chinese civilizations has been characterized by the domination of extended pedigrees (e.g., the Xianbei-Han ruling faction among the Tang), but those pedigrees never become ethno-religious castes. The exception occurred during the Yuan (Mongol) period where Kublai Khan entered into a divide-and-rule policy. But that was a short period which had no longer term cultural consequences.

In contrast, South Asia is characterized by long-term endogamy. This is not surprising to anyone who knows anything about South Asian history. The genetic evidence suggests that modern jati-barriers emerged around ~2,000 years ago. Not only do South Asian groups differ a great deal in biogeographic ancestry (deep ancestry), but historical endogamy has resulted in further drift between these groups.

March 21, 2018

Diving into Chinese philosophy

Filed under: China,Chinese philosophy,philosophy — Razib Khan @ 11:59 pm

Back when I was in college one of my roommates was taking a Chinese philosophy class for a general education requirement. A double major in mathematics and economics (he went on to get an economics Ph.D.) he found the lack of formal rigor in the field rather maddening. I thought this was fair, but I suggested to him that the this-worldy and often non-metaphysical orientation of much of Chinese philosophy made it less amenable to formal and logical analysis.

I recalled this when a friend of mine, from an Indian background, asked what I would recommend for him to learn a bit about Chinese philosophy. What I suggested was that he read A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, and then read The Analects and something like Confucius: And The World He Created.

As someone who lives in the West from a Hindu background, I didn’t think it was worth it for him to explore Chinese Buddhism, or even Neo-Confucianism, which emerged out of the reaction and accommodation with Buddhism.

Thoughts? Recommendations?

Henan, the heart of China

Filed under: China,Henan — Razib Khan @ 11:43 pm

I haven’t posted on one of these in a while. Mostly because I don’t know what to say about Henan. Henan is where China began. As noted in Wikipedia four of the eight ancient capitals of China are located in this province, in the heart of the North China plain. Chineseness, as we understand it, coalesced in this province. The first historical dynasty, the Shang, had the core of their domains in Henan. Though we don’t have historical evidence of earlier legendary Chinese dynasties, many believe that they are likely recollections of the archaeological cultures which flourished in Henan before the Shang (e.g., the Eritlou culture as the Xia).

Originally a land of millet, Henan is China’s number one wheat producer. Whereas the staple of the south is rice, in the North China plain is it noodle.

The agricultural focus of Henan indicates its relative lack of development. In some ways, it resembles Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh in India, which were the core of South Asian polities at the dawn of recorded history, but are now backwaters. With 94 million people Henan is China’s third most populous province, but it turns out that more people in China have origins in Henan (103 million) than any other province. This reflects nearly 10 million migrants who work in other provinces, generally coastal ones.

Being the locus and origin of Han Chinese culture it is no surprise that the province is overwhelmingly ethnically Han. But curiously it also seems to have an overrepresentation of Christians compared to other Chinese provinces.

January 29, 2018

Variation with the 1000 Genomes data set in China

Filed under: China,Human Population Genetics,Human Population Genomics — Razib Khan @ 10:09 pm


I have mentioned before that the 1000 Genomes Chinese are heterogenous. Many of the ones sampled in Beijing are North Chinese. But there is structure within the South Chinese samples as well. The PCA above shows it. I’ve pruned some of the data for clarity (it’s probably a cline really, with cut-offs and breaks happening because of variation in population density)

Nothing surprising in the Fst matrix. The two South Chinese groups are close to each other, while the North Chinese are shifted toward the Koreans, who are shifted toward the Japanese.

Admixture analysis shows that the two South Chinese groups can be modeled as a mix of North Chinese and the Dai people of southern China, who are ancestral to the Tai people of Southeast Asia. The “South China 2” cluster is somewhat more Dai than the “South China” cluster proper.

The Miao/Hmong samples from the HGDP are very similar to the South China cluster in admixture analysis (and less Dai than the South China 2 cluster). This is not surprising, as the Miao/Hmong are relatively recent migrants into Southeast Asia from China.

What does Treemix say? Basically, the two South Chinese clusters seem to differ mainly in their Dai proportions (as admixture would imply).  They could be on the same cline, and the perception of structure might be an artifact.

January 27, 2018

Anhui, in the shadow of Shanghai

Filed under: China,Province — Razib Khan @ 10:34 pm

Anhui is inland of the prosperous lower Yangzi river valley. According to Wikipedia this province is a recent creation, dating to the Kangxi Emperor. The northern part of the province is part of North China while the south closer to the Yangzi river valley regions.

It’s relatively poor in comparison to the provinces to the east and seems to be a mishmash of rural regions. But it has been close enough to cosmopolitan regions to be forward thinking in its political orientation.

January 11, 2018

Zhejiang, the heart of Jiangnan

Filed under: China,Zhejiang — Razib Khan @ 2:47 pm

Zhejiang is the province to the south of Jiangsu, and the heart of Jiangnan, the lower Yangzi river area. As noted in my previous post this region is notable for its economic productivity and wealth, which dates back more than 1,000 years, and persists down the present. Like Jiangsu, Zhejiang is outside of the core area of the rise of Han civilization, but by the 1st millennium A.D. became a redoubt of Chinese civilization in the face of non-Chinese incursions into the north.

Zhejiang is also the location for one of the major centers of Christianity in China, Wenzhou. On the order of ten percent of this city’s population is Christian.

January 10, 2018

Jiangsu, from the margin to the center

Filed under: China,Jiangsu — Razib Khan @ 2:50 pm

When I was eight years old I memorized all the capitals in the world…because (well, because a friend had done the same). I’ve always been into geography. But there is one thing I’ve been guilty about for nearly twenty years: I can’t point to all the provinces of China on a map and name them. For example, I only scored 83% in 2 minutes 10 seconds on Seterra’s China province quiz. For comparison, on the African countries quiz I got 100% in 1 minute 59 seconds. Obviously the latter is “harder” than the former, so it indicates my lack of focus.

To make up for my lack of fluency, I’m going to be reading Wikipedia entries of Chinese provinces and putting my reflections into this space. Readers who know more can also chime in in the comments.

I’m starting, for no particular reason, with Jiangsu. The coastal province north of Shanghai, it is not surprising that this is a wealthy region in a Chinese context. Shanghai is administratively distinct, but it seems that it’s core “native” culture is really that of southern Jiangsu. Even without Shanghai in the mix, Jiangsu would have about the 14th largest economy in the world if it was a separate and distinct nation.

Since I read Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence about ten years ago I was not surprised at the fact Jiangsu was so economically vital. It had been the same in the 18th century when the lower Yangzi region became the heartland of Chinese economic growth and industry. But it seems that this region’s importance in trade and Smithian growth dates back at least to the Song dynasty, as the Grand Canal between north and south constructed during the Sui-Tang triggered development.

Originally Jiangsu was not part of China proper, as during antiquity it was inhabited by barbarian peoples. Of course, eventually, it was Sinicized, and when non-Chinese groups took over the North China plain Jiangsu and the Huai river served as a barrier to further southward expansion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 28, 2017

The Elephant, dragon and eagle

Filed under: Asia,China,Economics,India — Razib Khan @ 12:24 am


The relationship between China and India is clearly one-sided: India is obsessed with a China which is approaching lift-off toward becoming on the verge of a developed nation within a generation (certain urban areas are already basically developed, albeit not particularly wealthy in comparison to Hong Kong or Singapore).

Often when I see interviews with regular Chinese about their opinions of the other country the fixation is upon the manifest Third World nature of India, which seems to be changing much more slowly than their own nation. For me GDP is less important that vital statistics like child mortality or life expectancy. And it is in these sorts of statistics where you see the gap opening up between the two nations. India is developing…. but China is leading, and converging faster with developed nations.

It is in this context that this piece in The New York Times jumped out at me, Amazon, in Hunt for Lower Prices, Recruits Indian Merchants:

While Amazon.com has sellers hailing from many countries, Mr. Cheris said that India and China are the two most important places for Amazon to recruit new merchants since both nations are sources of cheap manufactured goods.

Unlike China, where local companies dominate e-commerce, India is also a huge domestic market for Amazon. Although most of India’s commerce is conducted offline, Indians are coming onto the internet at a rapid clip through their smartphones. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, views India and its 1.3 billion residents as vital to his company’s future, and he has vowed to spend at least $5 billion building up his India operations.

a, I was aware that Amazon really hadn’t gotten any traction in the Chinese market. I did not know that Amazon was so competitive in India, though Flipkart is still dominant there.

The story outlined seems to be part of a bigger trend whereby India is on a very different path from China in its relationship to the rest of the world. China’s economy is big enough and insular enough that it sees the world as either an export market or a source of commodities. It is quickly taking back its place of old as a lumbering hegemon. India, in contrast, seems to be developing a more integrative relationship with large economies such as the United States, despite its command and regulatory economy legacy.

Of course, the India-USA relationship is nothing like “Chimerica” in terms of magnitude, but the Sino-American relationship strikes me as very transactional. Despite the recent tendency of Indian society to espouse a stronger Hindu nationalist line, which is at odds with the West, it seems that there is more cultural exchange between elite Indians and Western societies in the deep sense of values, than has occurred with the Chinese and the West. And, yoga and aspects of spirituality notwithstanding, most of the cultural exchange seems to be toward cosmopolitan elites Indians assimilating to global values which draw from the mode of the West.

Ultimately all of this seems to have geopolitical implications. I’m assuming smarter people than me are keeping track of these trends….

November 2, 2017

China’s wealthiest come from only a few regions

Filed under: China — Razib Khan @ 10:53 pm

In Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy he argues that the difference in per capita economic wealth between Europe and China is a relatively recent phenomenon. One of the major arguments he makes is that one has to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Comparing Northwest Europe to China is not apples-to-apples, but comparing Northwest Europe to the lower Yangzi Delta region of Central China is apples-to-apples. Using this measure Europe and China are roughly comparable.

At least that’s the argument. Others argue for much deeper and older roots for the differences between Western Europe and the rest of the world, most articulately in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms.

I don’t have a dog in this fight and am not decides, though I follow the field closely. Rather, I’ve always been curious about differences between Chinese regions, and how they never undermine national unity. I recall reading years ago in The Age of Confucian Rule that imperial examinations to determine candidates for the bureaucracy had quotas on candidates from the southeastern province of Fujian. They were simply filling up too many slots, at the expense of northern Chinese candidates.

The tension between social and economic orientations of different regions of China cropped up periodically. Basically, the Overseas Chinese community is derived from southern regions such as Guangdong and Fujian, the central government over the centuries attempted to stamp out these regions’ propensity toward international commerce. A figure like Howqua is typical, though he certainly would not be met with approval by stern Neo-Confucians such as Zhu Xi (also a southern Chinese born and bred).

With all this in mind, I was curious about the origins of the 20 wealthiest Chinese as of 2017. Below you see the results:

Name Net worth (USD) Sources of wealth Province Certainty
Wang Wenyin 14 billion mining, copper products Anhui  
Liu Yongxing 6.6 billion agribusiness Fujian  
Ma Huateng 24.9 billion internet media Guangdong  
He Xiangjian 12.3 billion home appliances Guangdong  
Yang Huiyan 9 billion real estate Guangdong  
Yao Zhenhua 8.4 billion conglomerate Guangdong ?
Zhang Zhidong 8.4 billion internet media Guangdong ?
Hui Ka Yan (Xu Jiayin) 10.2 billion real estate Henan  
Lei Jun 6.8 billion smartphones Hubei  
Liu Qiangdong 7.7 billion e-commerce Jiangsu  
Zhang Shiping 6.7 billion aluminum products Shandong  
Wang Wei 15.9 billion package delivery Shanghai  
Robin Li 13.3 billion internet search Shanxi  
Wang Jianlin 31.3 billion real estate, Sichuan  
Xu Shihui 21.1 billion solar power equipment Sichuan  
Jack Ma 28.3 billion e-commerce Zhejiang  
William Ding 17.3 billion online games Zhejiang  
Zong Qinghou 7.2 billion beverages Zhejiang  
Li Shufu 21.1 billion automobiles Zhejiang  
Guo Guangchang 6.3 billion diversified Zhejiang

A few of the individuals I’m not totally sure about in terms of where they were born, but I think I guessed correctly. Comparing representation on the list to national population by province, and you get:

Province Pop % On list
Guangdong 8% 25%
Zheijiang 4% 25%
Sichuan 8% 10%
Fujian 3% 5%
Anhui 5% 5%
Henan 7% 5%
Hubei 4% 5%
Jiangsu 6% 5%
Shanghai 2% 5%
Shanxi 3% 5%
Shandong 7% 5%

Zheijang-Jiangsu-Shangai is the core economic region highlighted by Pomeranz. About 12% of China’s population resides in these jurisdictions, but 35%, 7 out of 20, of its 20 wealthiest individuals were born here. Guangdong, as ground zero of the new economic revolution has clearly benefited.

September 6, 2017

Chinese metropolitan areas blanketing the earth

Filed under: China — Razib Khan @ 4:40 pm

One of the fascinating insights from When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order is that since economic development occurred so rapidly in East Asia its cities lack the historic charm of European urban areas. The reason being that the organic accrual of construction and history over more than a century of economic development simply did not occur in much of East Asia. The modern nation-state of China is the most extreme case of this (of course one issue is that historically East Asians have used more perishable materials in construction, and not emphasized the importance of the permanence of great public buildings).

A photo essay in The Guardian, The great leap upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, then and now, illustrates this with images of rapid change in urban areas. But that reminded me to do something I’d been meaning to get to: compare the size of urban areas in China to those in the United States and Europe.

Below is a table I constructed of metropolitan regions. The data are from Wikipedia and I selected the administrative classifications which seemed the most equivalent. Using a cut-off of 5 million inhabitants you can see China has many more metropolitan areas than the United States already. I know an decent amount of Chinese geography for a foreigner, but I don’t even recognize 7 of the 22 metropolitan areas!

China   USA   Europe  
  population   population   population
Shanghai 24500000 New York City 20153634 Ruhr 13400000
Beijing 21500000 Los Angles 13310447 Istanbul 11400000
Guangzhou 20800654 Chicago 9512999 Paris 11200000
Chongqing 18384000 Dallas-Forth Worth 7233323 Milan 8247125
Chengdu 17677122 Houston 6772470 London 8200000
Tianjin 15500000 Washington DC 6131977 Amsterdam 7500000
Shenzhen 12357938 Philadelphia 6070500 Munich 6100000
Harbin 12000000 Miami 6066387 Berlin 6000000
Wuhan 10670000 Atlanta 5789700 Madrid 5600000
Suzhou 10349090     Frankfurt 5600000
Hangzhou 9018000        
Xi’an 8627500        
Shenyang 8255921        
Dongguan 8220937        
Nanjing 8216000        
Foshan 7197394        
Jinan 7067900        
Wenzhou 6642592        
Qingdao 6188100        
Quanzhou 6107475        
Shantou 5346708        
Changsha 5288800      

August 3, 2017

Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

Filed under: China,Chinese History,Tibet — Razib Khan @ 10:35 pm


In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically an important from China in that Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.

 

* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.

July 25, 2017

On the precipice of the Kali Yuga

Filed under: China,History — Razib Khan @ 2:04 am

The idea of decline is an old one. See The Idea of Decline in Western History for a culturally delimited view. But whether it is Pandora opening her box or Eve biting the apple, the concept of an idyllic past and the ripeness of imminent decline seems baked into the cake of human cultural cognition. It was always better in the good old days.

Of course there is the flip side of those who presume that the Eternal City will continue as it always was unto the end of time. Meanwhile, cornucopian optimists of our modern era, such as Steve Pinker, are the historical aberration. But they are influential in our age.

Tanner Greer has a profoundly pessimistic post up, Everything is Worse in China, which is getting some attention (as I’ve stated before Tanner’s blog in general is worth a read). Rod Dreher has two follow up posts in response. First, A: Confucius, Basically, which is somewhat an answer to Tanner. And then an email from Tanner himself. It is here that he suggests to Rod’s readers Xunzi: The Complete Text. That is all for the good (for a broader view, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy).

Readers can probably read between the lines that I have been gripped somewhat by Sinophilia of late. I am rather pessimistic about the state of American culture and the prospects for the American republic as we have known it. I don’t see any of the major political factions offering up a solution for the impending immiseration of the middle class.

So I look to the east. Much of the history of the world has been a history of Asia, and it seems we are going to go back in that direction. If we are pessimistic about China, to a great extent we are pessimistic about the world.

Perhaps then we need to abandon the idol of the nation-state, or in China’s case the nation-civilization. Rod Dreher has the Benedict Option for orthodox Christians* But we need to think bigger. Men and women of civilized inclinations may need to band together, and form secret societies shielded from the avarice of the institutional engines which channel human passions toward inexorable ends. We need a strategy for living as civilized people in an anarchic world, an archipelago of oligarchy in the sea of barbarism. Sooner, rather than later.

History comes at you fast.

* I mean here Trinitarian Christians of a traditionalist bent, not Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Christians.

May 24, 2017

Across the chasm of Incommensurability

Filed under: China,Epistemology,India — Razib Khan @ 11:23 am

The Washington Post has a piece typical of its genre, A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash. It’s the standard story; a student from China with somewhat heterodox thoughts and sympathies with some Western ideologies and mores expresses those views freely in the West, and social media backlash makes them walk it back. We all know that the walk back is insincere and coerced, but that’s the point: to maintain the norm of not criticizing the motherland abroad. The truth of the matter of how you really feel is secondary.

Tacit in these stories is that of course freedom of speech and democracy are good. And, there is a bit of confusion that even government manipulation aside, some of the backlash from mainland Chinese seems to be sincere. After all, how could “the people” not defend freedom of speech and democracy?

Reading this story now I remember what an academic and friend (well, ex-friend, we’re out of touch) explained years ago in relation to what you say and public speech: one can’t judge speech by what you intend and what you say in a descriptive sense, but you also have to consider how others take what you say and how it impacts them. In other words, intersubjectivity is paramount, and the object or phenomenon “out there” is often besides the point.

At the time I dismissed this viewpoint and moved on.

Though in general I do not talk to people from China about politics (let’s keep in real, it’s all about the food, and possible business opportunities), it was almost amusing to hear them offer their opinions about Tibet and democracy, because so often very educated and competent people would trot out obvious government talking points. In this domain there was little critical rationalism. One could have a legitimate debate about the value of economic liberalization vs. political liberalization. But it was ridiculous to engage with the thesis that China was always unitary between the Former Han and today. That is just a falsehood. Though the specific detail was often lacking in their arguments, it was clearly implied that they knew the final answer. I would laugh at this attitude, because I thought ultimately facts were the true weapon. The world as it is is where we start and where we end.

Or is it? From the article:

Another popular comment expressed disappointment in U.S. universities, suggesting without any apparent irony that Yang should not have been allowed to make the remarks.

“Are speeches made there not examined for evaluation of their potential impact before being given to the public?” the commentator wrote.

“Our motherland has done so much to make us stand up among Western countries, but what have you done? We have been working so hard to eliminate the stereotypes the West has put on us, but what are you doing? Don’t let me meet you in the United States; I am afraid I could not stop myself from going up and smacking you in the face.”

Others were critical not of Yang’s comments but of the venue in which she chose to make them.

“This kid is too naive. How can you forget the Chinese rule about how to talk once you get to the United States? Just lie or make empty talk instead of telling the truth. Only this will be beneficial for you in China. Now you cannot come back to China,” @Labixiaoxin said.

There is a lot of texture even within this passage. I do wonder if the writers and editors at The Washington Post knew the exegetical treasures they were offering up.

To me, there is irony in the irony. Among the vanguard of the intelligensia in these United States there is plenty of agreement with the thesis that some remarks should not be made, some remarks should not be thought. Especially in public. The issue is not on the principle, but specifically what remarks should not be made, and what remarks should not be public. That is, the important and substantive debates are not about a positive description of the world, but the values through which you view the world. The disagreements with the Chinese here are not about matters of fact, but matters of values. Facts are piddling things next to values.

So let’s take this at face value. Discussions about Tibetan autonomy and Chinese human rights violations cause emotional distress for many Chinese. I’ve seen this a little bit personally, when confronting Chinese graduate students with historical facts. It’s not that they were ignorant, but their views of history were massaged and framed in a particular manner, and it was shocking to be presented with alternative viewpoints when much of one’s national self-identity hinged on a particular narrative. Responses weren’t cogent and passionate, they were stuttering and reflexive.

Now imagine the psychic impact on hundreds of millions of educated Chinese. They’ve been sold a particular view of the world, and these students get exposed to new ideas and viewpoints and relay it back, and it causes emotional distress. Similarly, for hundreds of millions of Muslims expressing atheism is an ipso facto assault on their being, their self-identity. This is why I say that the existence of someone like me, an atheist from a Muslim background, is by definition an affront to many. My existence is blasphemy and hurtful.

And the Chinese view of themselves and their hurt at insults to their nationhood do not come purely from government fiction. There’s a factual reality that needs to be acknowledged. China was for thousands of years was one of the most significant political and cultural units in the world. But the period from 1850 to 1980 were dark decades. The long century of eclipse. China was humiliated, dismembered, and rendered prostrate before the world. It collapsed into factious civil war and warlordism. Tens of millions died in famines due to political instability.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 20 to 50 million citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China starved due to Mao’s crazy ambitions. This is out of a population of ~650 million or so. Clearly many Chinese remember this period, and have relatives who survived through this period. A nation brought low, unable to feed its own children, is not an abstraction for the Chinese.

On many aspects of fact there are details where I shrug and laugh at the average citizen of China’s inability to look beyond the propaganda being fed to it. And I am not sure that the future of the Chinese state and society is particularly as rosy as we might hope for, as its labor force already hit a peak a few years ago. But the achievement of the Chinese state and society over the past generation in lifting hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty have been a wonder to behold. A human achievement greater than the construction of the Great Wall, not just a Chinese achievement.

But it is descriptively just a fact that nations which have been on the margins and find themselves at center stage want their “time in the sun.” The outcomes of these instances in history are often not ones which redound to the glory of our species, but it is likely that group self-glorification and hubris come out of a specific evolutionary context.

There are on the order of ~300 million citizens of the United States. There are 1.3 billion Chinese. If offense and hurt are the ultimate measures of the acceptance of speech than an objective rendering might suggest that we lose and they win. There are more of them to get hurt than us.

But perhaps the point is that there is no objectivity. There is no standard “out there.” Once the measuring stick of reality falls always, and all arguments are reduced to rhetoric, it is sophistry against sophistry. Power against power. Your teams and views are picked for you, or, through self-interest, or, your preferences derived from some aesthetic bias. Sometimes the team with the small numbers wins, though usually not.

Discourse is like a season of baseball. At the end there is a winner. But there is no final season. Just another round of argument.

Ten years ago I read Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. I literally laughed at the time when I closed that book, because the numbers did not seem to support him in his grand confidence about atheism’s decline. And since the publication of that book the proportion of people in the United States who are irreligious has increased. Contrary to perceptions there has been no great swell of religion across the world.

But on a deep level McGrath was correct about something. Much of the book was aimed at the “New Atheism” specifically. A bold and offensive movement which prioritized the idea of facts first (in the ideal if not always the achievement), McGrath argued that this was a last gasp of an old modernist and realist view of the world, which would be swallowed by the post-modern age. He, a traditional Christian, had a response to the death of reason and empiricism uber alleles, his God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Primordial identities of religion, race, and nationality would emerge from the chaos and dark as reason receded from the world.

With the rise of social constructionism McGrath saw that the New Atheists would lose the cultural commanding heights, their best and only weapons, the glittering steel of singular facts over social feelings. On the other hand, if facts derive from social cognition, than theistic views have much more purchase, because on the whole the numbers are with God, and not his detractors.

And going back to numbers. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. And China is a massive economic shadow over us all. Anyone who works in the private sector dreams of business in China. Currently Amazon is nothing in China. What if the Chinese oligarchs made an offer Bezos couldn’t refuse? Do you think The Washington Post wouldn’t change its tune?

When objectivity and being right is no defense, then all that remains is self-interest. Ironically, cold hard realism may foster more universal empathy by allowing us to be grounded in something beyond our social unit. In the near future if the size of social units determines who is, and isn’t, right, than those who built a great bonfire on top of positivism’s death may die first at the hands of the hungry cannibal hordes. Many of us will shed no tears. We were not the ones in need of empathy, because we were among the broad bourgeois masses.

In the end the truth only wins out despite our human natures, not because of it.

May 18, 2017

Tales of the Chinese future past

Filed under: China,Chung Kuo — Razib Khan @ 10:00 pm

In the first half of the 1990s I was an avid reader of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series. This is before I knew much about Chinese history, or much about life to be honest. This vast epic future history is set in a world where a resurgent China dominates the world. Wars of genocidal extermination against the black and brown peoples, as well as the Japanese, have left the ethnographic topography rather simpler. Europeans exist as a subaltern race in the techno-Confucian order.

The Chinese hegemony erases the true history of the human past and promulgates a fictional alternative history, which the populace accepts as the truth. In this telling the semi-legendary Chinese general who was turned away by the Parthians 2,000 years ago continues westward, and ultimately China conquers Rome. All institutional organized religion is obliterated from existence and memory; no Christianity, no Buddhism. It is as if the Former Han dynasty had access to 21st century technology.

Earth is ruled by a small oligarchy of virtuous monarchs. Progress is dampened in the interests of social stability. The world is explicitly stratified into classes, though there is some mobility upward and downward within a single generation. They know their world’s history is a foundation of lies, but lies are seen as critical to social harmony and stability. The truth may set people free, but this is not a world where freedom is the primary value. Rather, stability and social harmony are prized.

Though Wingrove’s narrative is not without some sympathy for the dominant social order in terms of what it was attempting to achieve (they were not Legalists, but rather moralists), ultimately the most sympathetic protagonists channel the values of the late 20th century West. Truth, progress, and individualism.

Reading this series in the first half of the 1990s as a teenager it all seemed fantastical. Liberalism, Western liberalism, was inevitable as humanity’s terminal state. We all knew that. As the Chinese grew wealthier the expectation by many was that they would begin to inch toward Western norms and institutions, just as the collapsing Soviet Union was. The very concept of a jarring lateral shift in norms, values, and Weltanschauung, was quite literally the stuff of science fiction!

I now believe that I was very wrong about many things back then, and David Wingrove’s fertile imagination grasped far deeper, and perhaps troubling, possibilities about the arrow of history. In 2011, after a 15 year hiatus, Wingrove returned to this series with a prequal, Son of Heaven. It is perhaps an appropriate time for me at this juncture to revisit this world, and even look at it with more sympathy as an adult than I did as a child.

Of course I’ll also be re-reading my Xunzi. In translation I feel as if I’m missing but, but my hope is that re-reading will allow me to gain insight. Unfortunately I am hopeless at languages, otherwise I would attempt to learn to read Mandarin at this advanced age.

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