Monday, December 20, 2004

Collapsing Empires Addledum

[Small addition at bottom]

It is a well-known fact (but one lost on US neocons) that every empire in history collapsed. However, there is a special case: an empire collapsing and re-emerging again and again.


History is full of tyranns who set out to conquer all countries of the known world, promising to fight the war to end all wars. China owes its speciality to the fact that there was one (the only one) of these bloody megalomaniacs who succeeded: Qin Shi Huang-di.

Plus, the age in which he was born (and which he ended). In the Warring States Period (~475-221 BC), China consisted of a number of kingdoms coalescing into seven major states, which in more than one way remind me of 18th-20th-century Europe. One, they were nation states: Qin Shi Huang-di was later quite conscious about eradicating national feelings by ordering the destruction of historical records - and sometimes by slaughtering the population of a sacked capital to the last child. They were also highly centralised and urbanised, major cities numbered in the hundreds of thousands. There was constant war with shifting alliances, as weaker allies never hesitated to suddenly side with a prior enemy to prevent their stronger partner from gaining hegemony.

What resembles the modern European nation states most was the formation of conscript armies, of course - but bloodthirstyness sometimes exceeded that of the Nazis. The Warring States stand out in the history of non-nomadic people for their extreme level of mobilisation: while the total population of the seven was roughly equal to that of the Persia Alexander conquered, each of the seven had larger armies. In-the-end-victorious Qin had 1 million under military duty out of a total population of 6 million before the final push. In the worst recorded slaughter in 260 BC, Wei kingdom's entire army of 400,000 was obliterated: Qin first won a battle against the invaders, then its king ordered the execution of all surrendered Wei troops.[*]

By 256 BC, Qin controlled some 40% of the territory. Ten years later a king named Zheng ascended to the throne in Qin, made preparations, and in nine years (BC 230-221) conquered everything else - and took up the name Qin Shi Huang-di. He also pushed back the Huns, sent 300,000 to reconstruct prior border walls of the kingdoms into the first Great Wall, another 500,000 on a Southern campaign into barbarian country that first made Canton Chinese, and yet another 700,000 to build the largest (by area and work spent) mausoleum ever built (of which the Terracotta Warriors were part of).

Thus the imperial idea was born, which inspired rulers ever since to re-create a unified China after half a dozen disintegrations, and insire even today's 'communist' rulers to dismiss the rest of the world and think Western dominance is only temporary until China regains its rightful place in the world. For, it is true that the successive imperiums at their height had nothing to match them in the West. This is pretty obvious from the two nomadic imperiums that got in contact with both China and Europe.

Tough the Hun Empire was a match for the early Han Empire (206 BC-AD 25), the later remains weren't - even in the time China splintered into up to 16 states, which is the time one group of Huns was pushed towards Europe. But no Germanic or Roman army could stand in their way (not even at Catalaun, see previous post) until internal conflict made them vulnerable.

Ghenghis Khan prepared all his life against China - then again split in two -, but died before a decisive victory (AD 1227). But his Mongol armies could destroy (and exterminate) Central Asian empires without difficulty, and smaller armies of his successors were unstoppable in laying waste to Europe and the Baghdad Caliphate. It took a number of campaigns over three decades (1211-1234) to conquer the weaker Northern part - while the conquest of the Southern Sung Empire didn't happen until an extremely costy[+] 12-year campaign (AD 1267-1279) by Kubilai Khan.

Now, all this is impressive, but in what way impressive? Do Chinese nationalists justify Nazi (and Stalinist) apologists?

It is one thing the Empire maintains itself, but what about the people - is being imperial subjects better for them? I don't think Chinese history shows that. The crushed rebellions, the civil wars, the periodic re-conquests meant no less bloodshed to them, had they lived and died in smaller states battling each other. Qin Shi Huang-di's empire itself collapsed just three years after his death (210 BC). Two years of civil war was followed by the below described confrontation with the new Hun Empire.

[*] Had Alexander's 30-50,000 men reached China, he would have reached the Westernmost, Qin - I suspect Western history books would be filled with legends of his mysterious disappearance...

[+] Especially in human lifes: by some estimates 18 million Chinese alone.


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