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

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.

Islam in China is not one

Filed under: China,Hui,Islam,Uyghur — Razib Khan @ 12:43 am

Over the past few days I have seen articles in the media which refer to “Chinese Muslims,” and then make such a casual and slight distinction between Muslims in China and the Uyghur ethnic group that I think it’s really misleading to the general public (e.g., Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China. We found that the Internet fuels — and fights — this).

To review, Muslims in China are multi-ethnic. The two largest groups, the Hui and Uyghurs, comprise nearly 90% of Chinese Muslims. There are marginally more Hui than Uyghurs.

Who are the Hui? The Chinese government defines Hui as an ethnic group, but really they are differentiated by their adherence to Islam. Hui speak a dialect of Chinese specific to their locality. They do not have a “Hui language.” Physically they resemble the Han. Because of their long period of isolation in China after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty, the Hui have gone through several indigenizing phases.In the 18th century in eastern China the Hui intellectual classes synthesized Chinese cultural frameworks with Islam in a fascinating manner. The whole project is recounted in The Dao of Muhammad.

These periods of Sinicization are often followed a reformist globalist revival triggered by missionaries or those who went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam with Chinese characterizes recedes for a generation or two, only to come back.

In the 19th century to a great extent the project of social accommodation with the Han by the Hui collapsed in the face of social disorder, anti-Muslim policies by the Manchus, and reformist movements inspired by broader currents in the Islamic world. Though the Hui are a very small minority, unlike the Han a military career was not low status for them, so they “punched above” their weight.

In the 20th and 21st centuries the Hui have been relatively quiescent. Why? There are numerous reasons, but it is important to emphasize that there are many strong contrasts with how the Hui are treated and perceived, and how they perceive China, in relation to  what is meted out to the Uyghurs. The Hui are no less Muslim than Uyghurs, but they are not the political and social problem in China that Uyghurs are.

Though the Chinese state defines Hui as one of the minority “nationalities,” that is really a semantic obfuscation. The Hui are most easily conceptualized as Han Muslims, even though some of their customs separate them very strongly from the Han (e.g., no consumption of pork), and traditionally Han identity has been seen as exclusive from an Islamic identity. That is, a Han who converts to Islam becomes a Hui by definition.

Though in a Chinese context one could never call the Hui “Han Muslims,” from a non-Chinese perspective it is very informative of the relationship and difference of the Hui from the Han, as opposed to the Uyghur from the Han.

Two Uyghur men

Obviously the Uyghur are not Han, they are Turkic. Uyghur nationalists have pan-Turkic associations, and many Uyghurs live in Turkey. As a Turkic people Uyghurs, unlike Hui, do not speak Chinese as their first language. The attempt to educate Uyghur children in Mandarin Chinese to enable them to assimilate and succeed economically has faced resistance because Uyghurs see in this the first steps to assimilation and eventually alienation.

Though Hui are very distinctive in China proper, and live in their own segregated areas in much of the north (in southern China this is less common, and Hui assimilation into Han identity has also been widespread), they are still part of the Chinese landscape. Muslims have lived in China proper since the Tang dynasty, 1,300 years ago. Large numbers of Muslims arrived with the Mongols 800 years ago, and many stayed on. As a minority in a non-Muslim society these people had to navigate how to be both Chinese and Muslim, when much of Chinese identity deviated from world normative Islam in deep ways.

The Uyghurs did not go through any of this because they were not part of China until the 20th century. Though Chinese garrisons and hegemony did exist in Xinjiang during portions of the Han and Tang dynasty, up until the Manchu conquest of these territories in the mid-18th century the Uyghurs had not been part of the same political unit with Han Chinese for over 1,000 years. In fact, the ethnogenesis of modern Uyghurs, as a blending of Turkic migrants from the north and native Indo-Eurpean speaking groups in the Tarim basin, was concurrent with the collapse of Chinese influence in what became the eastern edge of the Turkic world.

Notice I was very specific in saying that they became part of the same political unit with Han Chinese in the middle of the 18th century. This because outside of China proper the Manchu emperors did not necessarily rule as Chinese potentates. Rather, they took on different forms for their different subject peoples, and the conquests of the heart of Eurasia was not a conquest by the state of China, but of the Manchu ruling caste. Any attempts to Sinicize Xinjiang came later, and were halting at best. While Chinese speaking Muslims in Beijing were theorizing how Muhammad actually completed the Confucian vision better than most Chinese, the Uyghurs simply swapped the rule of nearby Tibetan Buddhist Oirat Mongols for a distant Manchu ruler, who was also sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhist religion and claimed a kinship with the Mongols through descent from Genghis Khan’s younger brother.

The problem that the modern Chinese state has is that he rejects the feudal multicultural compromises of the imperial past. Though Communist regimes pay lip service to national self-determination, the reality in Communist regimes has always been that the party has enforced a normative ethnic identity as one that is aspirational for minorities. The Chinese state suppression of the religion of the Uyghurs, the promotion of Mandarin, the encouragement of migration to Xinjiang by Han, and even inducements in some cases for Uyghurs to intermarry with Han, are all part of a general pattern of activity which will result in the assimilation of the Uyghur nation.

It is apparently a fact that while Islamic belief and practice by Uyghurs is sharply frowned upon by Han authorities in Xinjiang, in most of China proper Hui religiosity is relatively tolerated. Hui are even seen as appropriate ambassadors to Muslim nations for purposes of diplomacy and business, because they show how China can accommodate Islam. Unlike the Uyghurs the Hui do not have a geographical region where they are dominant (Muslims are 35% of the population of the small province set aside for Hui). Their national home is China. Additionally, obviously they would not resist Mandarin Chinese instruction, because they are already Chinese speakers. Unlike the Uyghur, who have substantial West Eurasian ancestry, the Hui are also physically no different from Han.

In Central Asia the Hui have a different name. They are called Dungans. And traditionally they have been overrepresented among soldiers and merchants from China. Within China the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their religion. But in Central Asia the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their Chineseness. Hui were important in keeping Xinjiang in the Manchu fold after the conquest. Many Uyghurs know this history of cooperation between Han and Hui. In the 2009 Urumqi riots the Uyghurs reportedly chanted “Kill the Han, kill the Hui”.

None of this is to deny that Islam presents challenges as a minority religion within a non-Muslim nation. The Hui rebellions of the 19th century, and periodic flare ups between Hui and Han in the Chinese heartland, attest to this. But differences between Uyghurs and Hui illustrate that excessive focus on Islam misses that Uyghur violence in response to Chinese coercion likely has multiple causes. Islam over the last generation has been the most powerful binding ideology for national resistance among Uyghurs. But it would be irrelevant if the Uyghurs were not a nation in the first place, which they are.

Another way to say it is that Tibet and Xinjiang have many of the same underlying parameters as to why they are hotbeds of ethnic tension and separatism.

Related: Islam in China Revisited.

January 21, 2012

The arcologies arise

Filed under: Blog,China,Technology — Razib Khan @ 2:52 pm

How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

The story emphasizes that labor costs are not the primary issue here. There is the natural discussion of skill levels, and the sheer number of Chinese works coming online. But there simply is no way that Foxconn City could exist in the United States today. There is no way I can deny the massive quality of life improvements in China over the past generation. But, the flip side of this is that a way of life has now emerged organically in places like Shenzen which is rather reminiscent of late 19th and early 20th century dystopian visions of the industrial future.

October 16, 2011

Don’t overgeneralize about 2.5 billion people

Filed under: China,Data Analysis,India — Razib Khan @ 3:40 pm

With the current economic malaise in the developed economies and the rise of the “B.R.I.C.s” you hear a lot about “China” and “India.” There is often a tacit acknowledge that China and India are large diverse nations, but nevertheless in a few paragraphs they often get reduced to some very coarse generalizations. What’s worse is when you compare China and India to nations which simply aren’t on their scale. For example, over at Brown Pundits there is sometimes talk about India vs. Bangaldesh/Pakistan/Nepal/Sri Lanka. The problem is that the appropriate comparison are specific Indian states, not the whole nation. Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian state in population, is actually in the same range as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Similarly, when comparing social metrics in Bangaldesh vs. India, one should focus on culturally similar regions, such as the state of West Bengal, not the sum average of India as a nation.

Similarly, we look at frenetic Chinese growth and worry about how they are “leaving us behind” (from an American perspective). But do take a step back to wonder how much the Chinese are leaving the Chinese behind?

Below are two charts which show the yawning chasm within these mega-nations on the scale of states (at a finer grain the variation is even greater). First a rank order of Chinese provinces by GDP PPP, with comparable nations interspersed within. PPP values shouldn’t be taken too literally, and the Chinese data seem to overestimate the values on a province level basis by 10-15%. But you get the general picture.

If these data are correct Shanghai is equivalent to a middle income European nation. With a population of ~25 million that’s not a bad analogy. In contrast isolated Guizhou is in the range of India. Guizhou also has the highest fertility in China, at 2.2.

Now let’s look at India.

Large South Indian states like Tamil Nadu, population ~70 million, have fertility rates around those of Northern European nation-states! In contrast, the huge population states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have fertility profiles similar to Sub-Saharan Africa.

August 1, 2011

Violence in Xinjiang

Filed under: China,International,Pakistan — Razib Khan @ 9:28 am

China Blames Foreign-Trained Separatists for Attacks in Xinjiang:

While the Chinese routinely blame foreign meddlers for Xinjiang’s troubles, however, Monday’s statement was unusual in that it singled out Pakistan as the location of support for the assailants. China has a close military and economic relationship with Pakistan and has refrained from publicly criticizing the Islamabad government’s failure to control terrorist groups within its borders.

While Xinjiang as a whole is ~60% Han, Kashgar was until recently an overwhelmingly Uyghur city. The integration of the Chinese transportation network though is changing that.

July 27, 2011

How Chinese genetics is like Chinese food

Representatives of Szechuan and Shangdong cuisine

The Pith: The Han Chinese are genetically diverse, due to geographic scale of range, hybridization with other populations, and possibly local adaptation.

In the USA we often speak of “Chinese food.” This is rather peculiar because there isn’t any generic “Chinese cuisine.” Rather, there are regional cuisines, which share a broad family similarity. Similarly, American “Mexican food” and “Indian food” also have no true equivalent in Mexico or India (naturally the novel American culinary concoctions often exhibit biases in the regions from which they sample due to our preferences and connections; non-vegetarian Punjabi elements dominate over Udupi, while much authentic Mexican American food has a bias toward the northern states of that nation). But to a first approximation there is some sense in speaking of a general class of cuisine which exhibits a lot of internal structure and variation, so long as one understands that there is an important finer grain of categorization.

Some of the same applies to genetic categorizations. Consider two of the populations in the original HapMap, the Yoruba from Nigeria, and the Chinese from Beijing. There are ~30 million ...

December 5, 2010

BRICs in charts

Filed under: Brazil,BRIC,BRICs,China,Data Analysis,Indian,Russia — Razib Khan @ 3:45 pm

The term “BRICs” gets thrown around a lot these days. At least it gets thrown around by people who perceive themselves to be savvy and worldly. In case you aren’t savvy and worldly, BRICs just means Brazil, Russia, India and China. The huge rising economies of the past generation, and next generation. Here’s a summary from Wikipedia:

The BRIC thesis recognizes that Brazil, Russia, India and China…have changed their political systems to embrace global capitalism. Goldman Sachs predicts that China and India, respectively, will become the dominant global suppliers of manufactured goods and services, while Brazil and Russia will become similarly dominant as suppliers of raw materials. It should be noted that of the four countries, Brazil remains the only nation that has the capacity to continue all elements, meaning manufacturing, services, and resource supplying simultaneously. Cooperation is thus hypothesized to be a logical next step among the BRICs because Brazil and Russia together form the logical commodity suppliers to India and China. Thus, the BRICs have the potential to form a powerful economic bloc to the exclusion of the modern-day states currently of “Group of Eight” status. Brazil is dominant in soy and iron ore while Russia has enormous supplies of oil and natural gas. Goldman Sachs’ thesis thus documents how commodities, work, technology, and companies have diffused outward from the United States across the world.

But there are big quantitative differences between these nations as well. Below the fold are some charts which I think illustrate those differences.

November 29, 2010

No Romans needed to explain Chinese blondes

Uyghur boy from Kashgar

Every few years a story crops up about “European-looking” people in northwest China who claim to be of Roman origin. A “lost legion” so to speak. I’ll admit that I found the stories interesting, amusing, if  implausible, years ago. But now it’s just getting ridiculous. This is almost like the “vanishing blonde” meme which always pops right back up. First, let’s quote from The Daily Mail,* DNA tests show Chinese villagers with green eyes could be descendants of lost Roman legion:

For years the residents of the remote north western Chinese village of Liqian have believed they were special.

Many of the villagers have Western characteristics including green eyes and blonde hair leading some experts to suggest that they may be the descendants of a lost Roman legion that settled in the area.

Now DNA testing of the villagers has shown that almost two thirds of them are of Caucasian origin.

The results lend weigh to the theory that the founding of Liqian may be linked to the legend of the missing army of Roman general Marcus Crassus.

In 53BC, after Crassus was defeated by the Parthians and beheaded near what is now Iran, stories persisted that 145 Romans were captured and wandered the region for years.

As part of their strategy Romans also hired troops wherever they had conquered and so many Roman legions were made up not of native Romans, but of conquered men from the local area who were then given training.

250px-Statue-AugustusLet’s start from the end. The last paragraph indicates a total ignorance of the nature of military recruitment during the late Republic. In the year 110 BC the Roman army was composed of propertied peasants. These were men of moderate means, but means nonetheless. They fought for the Republic because it was their duty as citizens. They were the Republic. Due to a series of catastrophes the Roman army had to institute the Marian reforms in 107 BC. Men with no means, and who had to be supplied with arms by the Republic, joined the military. This was the first step toward the professionalization of the Roman legions, which naturally resulted in a greater loyalty of these men to their leaders and their unit than the Republic. Without the Marian reforms Sulla may never have marched on Rome. By 400 AD the legions were predominantly German in origin, and supplemented with “federates,” who were barbarian allies (though alliances were always subject to change). But in 53 BC this had not happened yet. The legions who marched with Crassus would have been Roman, with newly citizen Italian allies in the wake of the Social War. The legions of the Julio-Claudians were probably still mostly Italian, a century after Crassus (service in the legions, as opposed to the auxiliaries, was limited to citizens, who were concentrated among Italians). So that objection does not hold.

But really, do we need the Roman hypothesis? Those big blonde Romans? Here’s one section of the piece: “Archaeologists discovered that one of the tombs was for someone who was around six foot tall.” Because of issues of nutrition the Roman soldiers were notoriously short relative to the Celts and Germans (who had more meat and milk in their diet). Perhaps they had the potential for greater height, which they realized in the nutritional surfeit of…China?

Anyway, there’s a straightforward explanation for the “Chinese Romans”: they’re out of the same population mix, roughly, as the Uyghurs. Before the year 1000 AD much of what is today Xinjiang was dominated by peoples with a European physical appearance. Today we call them Tocharians, and they spoke a range of extinct Indo-European dialects. It seems likely that there was also an Iranian element. The archaeology is rather patchy. Though there were city-based Indo-Europeans, it is clear that some of them were nomadic, and were among the amorphous tribes that the ancient Chinese referred to as the “Rong and Di.” The Yuezhi and Wusun were two mobile groups who left China in the historical period and are recorded in the traditional annals.

Meanwhile, between 500 AD and 1000 AD the Indo-European substrate of the Tarim basin was absorbed by Turkic groups coming from Mongolia. They imposed their language on the older residents, but genetically assimilated them. The modern Uyghurs are a clear hybrid population. In the papers published on the Uyghurs they shake out as about a 50/50 West/East Eurasian mix. But the DODECAD ANCESTRY PROJECT has them in the sample, and here’s how they break down by a finer grain:

Uyghurs are the third population from the bottom. Below them are the Yakut and Chinese. The Yakut are the northernmost Turkic people, and the Turkic element which settled in Xinjiang and assimilated the Tocharians was from the north. The Chinese-like element may simply be that the proto-Uyghurs were already admixed with the Han populations, or, that that element has a geography-conditional cline where the Yakuts are at an extreme. In any case, the other components of Uyghur ancestry are not East Asian. Like many European popualtions the Uyghurs have a West Asian and Northern European aspect, but they lack the South European ancestry. This is important, because it is dominant in both the Tuscans and North Italians.  If the “Roman Chinese” are genuinely Roman, they will have this specific southwest European ancestry, which will put them at a distinction from the Uyghurs.

As it is, I don’t think that’s what’s going on.  On the order of 4,000 years ago the domestication of the horse allowed for the expansion of Indo-European populations from east-central Eurasia across the steppe. Eventually they they also percolated into the underpopulated zones between the taiga and the highlands around the Himalayan massif. I believe that these were the groups which introduced nomadism and agriculture to the Tarim basin, and their genetic and cultural impact was a function of the fact that they simply demographically swamped the few hunter-gatherers who were indigenous to the region.

In the period between 1000 BC and 1000 AD the flow of people reversed. The expansion of the Han north and west, and the rise of a powerful integrated state which could bully, and could also be extorted, changed the dynamics on the steppe and in the oasis cities beyond. The vast swaths of Central Asia which were Indo-European in speech became Altaic in speech. But many of these populations absorbed the Indo-European groups, and came out genetically admixed. A clear residual of West Eurasian admixture can also be found among peoples who presumably never interacted much with Indo-Europeans, such as the Mongols, though at lower levels.

The villagers of Liqian are a different part of the story. Clearly substantial numbers of “barbarians” were assimilated into a Han identity on the northern frontier. In the case of tribes such as the Xianbei and Khitan they even did the assimilating themselves, through top-down sinicizing edits. In areas like Gansu these elements contribute a greater proportion of the ancestry, and just as the Uyghur are Turkic speaking, and yet have equal portions of West and East Eurasian ancestry, so the people of Liqian are Chinese speaking, and have equal portions of West and East Eurasian ancestry.

I find it curious that the piece above didn’t mention Uyghurs at all. No idea if politics was involved, but I won’t be surprised if I get some angry Han and Uyghur comments because of what I’m saying here (I’m not totally clear what these sorts of commenters are angry about really, they’re usually pretty inchoate).

Addendum: East and West Eurasian ancestry seems pretty equitably distributed among the Uyghurs. But the number of genes which code for racially salient traits are far smaller than the total set which can be used to estimate ancestry. So within a large enough population allelic combinations across loci will segregate so that some individuals exhibit a “pure” ancestral phenotype. What colloquially might be termed a “throwback.” This little boy comes strikingly close.

* I am aware of the reputation of this newspaper. Nevertheless, it’s being picked up by the international press and some blogs, so I’m going to address it.

Image Credit: Gusjer

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress