From the Urals to the Himalayas

T.H. Barrett

  • The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia edited by Denis Sinor
    Cambridge, 518 pp, £60.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 521 24304 1

One wonders what Lord Acton would have made of this slim, undersized volume claiming the name of Cambridge History. A part of the world that has given us Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun can hardly be dismissed as unimportant, but it must be said that little of world-shaking significance has happened there lately, although there are signs that this may now be changing. The most famous Inner Asian of our own times was probably Irving Berlin, and he left at a very early age. Where the Golden Horde has yielded to Alexander’s Ragtime Band why bother about so long ago, so very far away? Of course, such complacency may be premature. The late 20th century turns out to be full of the most unlikely surprises: in his introductory discussion of the concept of Inner Asia Denis Sinor laments the total disappearance of the useful concept of Central Europe, but while his piece has been in the press up it has popped again.

Sinor, however, describes Inner Asia as depending on underlying environmental realities as much as cultural ones: it is a vast slab of the Eurasian land mass some six thousand miles long by as much as half as wide, defined by steppe lands unsuitable for cultivation – the abode, therefore, of nomads constantly moving to and fro with their flocks and herds. It is flanked to the south by unambiguous mountain barriers, like the Himalayas, and to the north by the sparsely-populated tagja and tundra, but its western and eastern boundaries are less clearcut. In general, Russian expansion over recent centuries has pushed it back from the northern shores of the Black Sea to beyond the Urals, but European states which originally had Inner Asian connections, like Hungary and Bulgaria, remind us that this was not always so. To the east, the upper reaches of the Yellow River have generally been in Inner Asian hands, but nomad power has also, on occasions, spilled onto the North China Plain.

Among the nomads the writing of history has not flourished, so most of what we know about their past depends on the observations of more sedentary outsiders dwelling on the periphery. Inner Asian history, in the sense in which it is used in this volume, is therefore a fairly recent discovery. Classical authors could tell perfectly well the difference between ordinary barbarian folk who took to wandering out of temporary necessity, and those who did so out of habit and choice: the latter wandered, of course, with far greater panache. But if, for the civilised world, the dichotomy between Europe and Asia had a certain importance, there was less incentive to divide the two where a common barbarity was (from the Classical point of view) the principle feature of life beyond the frontier. Only when modern European expansion brought to light the history of the rest of sedentary Asia – and in particular when perceptions were heightened by the spectacle of the Manchu conquest of China in 1644 – did the full extent of Inner Asia as a component in world history become apparent.

Since then, the writing of Inner Asian history has become a mix of ingredients drawn from widely different sources, though not always blended into a digestible whole. It is almost impossible to get very far without biting on some fairly lumpy bits of philology, because even determining what peoples were present in the area at any one time is an enterprise fraught with problems. Nomadic groups appear to have seized upon any existing ethnicon with the same degree of rapacity as they seized upon anything else, and with as little justification, and then to have galloped the length and breadth of Eurasia leaving strangely mutilated versions of their own self-designation hither and yon in the chronicles of baffled and anxious scribes thousands of miles apart. Was Attila the Hun actually trying to pose as Attila the Hsiung-nu, and if so, why? Might he even have been the real thing? We shall probably never know, and the half-promise in this volume to straighten out these aliases is less than half-fulfilled.

Some of the chroniclers, it seems, realised that the nomads were playing ethnohistoriographic games with them, and retaliated in kind by sowing unnecessary doubts on their own account. A good example of this is the Byzantine whose own name appears variously in this volume (with far less justification for the lack of standardisation) as Theophylactus Simocatta, Theophylact Simocattes and Theophylaktos Simokattes. Sir Gerard Clauson, for one, accepted as genuine Avars the nomads whom he dubbed Pseudo-Avars, and commented tartly, ‘I suspect that the “Pseudo-” is merely a typical piece of Byzantine cattishness by Theophylactes Simocatta’ – a remark which, incidentally, is rather typical of the half-vicious, half-playful way in which experts on Inner Asian philology tend to treat their sources, and each other.

Inner Asian history has other experts besides; the little jaw-breaking nuggets of philology which are the stock-in-trade of Sir Gerard’s heirs are frequently served up in a thin soup of Theory of Nomadism. All one needs for this is an armchair and a few books. Any number can play the game, though for some reason a long tradition of British writers from Edward Gibbon to Bruce Chatwin have proved particularly good at it. Perhaps the Hobbit-like scale of British life irritates beyond endurance many who actually yearn to be sleeping out under the stars where they stand a reasonable chance of having their throats cut, and so drives them to seek solace in accounts of sudden and massive slaughter. Not that such theory is always rot, nor even always divorced from practical experience: Bruce Chatwin was probably right in diagnosing nomad incursions as the natural, predictable outcome of their deliberate pursuit of non-sustainable economic growth based on stockbreeding (though he does not draw the glum corollary that our own non-sustainable economic growth will leave us with no one to prey on but each other). But what such scholarship tends to do is to promote the nomad as an ideal type, leading to what might be termed the ‘animal style’ in Inner Asian historiography: the more bestial and bloody the depredations of the nomads, the more they are deemed to constitute the mainstream of Inner Asian history.

The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia is not entirely immune from this tendency. The editor should, perhaps, be congratulated in that the general flavour and texture of the mix is closer to gazpacho than minestrone, but this is only achieved by leaving a great deal out, by concentrating on political history and playing down both the cultural and economic past of Inner Asia. It is not simply that nomadic art influenced surrounding areas; Inner Asia was never in any case entirely dominated by ‘pure nomadism’ and was always able to exert a variety of cultural influences on its neighbours. Thus the chapter on the Hsiung-nu, by concentrating on Chinese sources which emphasise the political and military struggle that raged along the line of the Great Wall, ignores the evidence of Russian archaeology which paints a far fuller picture of Hsiung-nu society, including elements in it that were clearly sedentary.

One gets the impression that for some scholars nomads who stop moving do not count: this is the only possible explanation for an almost total failure to mention the Toba or Tabgach – or worse, to refer to them as Chinese. These people, who sallied forth from present-day Mongolia and who were probably derived from a group ancestral to the Mongols, succeeded in conquering (and holding) the whole of North China in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD, yet retained permanent nomads (apparently of Inner Asian Indo-European stock) among their confederates. True, the consequent tensions between different elements in Toba society led to internal collapse in the sixth century, but they bequeathed to later Chinese dynasties a whole range of durable institutions and an aristocracy of mixed ethnic origins which remained remarkably open to Inner Asian culture for centuries.

This openness may be seen in T’ang art and even heard in T’ang music. As Laurence Picken reveals, it survives as court music in Japan even now, despite the encrustations of tradition, and includes some rather jolly Central Asian folk tunes. Of course not all Chinese were happy with this openness: the poet Po Chü-i, for example, reacted as hysterically as any contemporary cadre combating the subversive effect of ‘spiritual pollution’ from the West, prompting his modern biographer, Arthur Waley, to murmur: ‘Many people in England used to disapprove of jazz on moral grounds, but no one, I think, suggested that it foreshadowed an African military conquest of Great Britain.’

Po’s paranoia was not helped by the presence of real enemies on China’s Inner Asian borders, such as the Tibetans, who do rate a chapter in the Cambridge History, despite their mainly sedentary habits, though their later cousins the Tanguts do not. Admittedly, too, the largely Indo-European (and non-threatening) oasis states whence most of the music originated are discussed in another chapter. In general, the account of Inner Asia given here contrasts significantly with Inner Asian history as included in the comparable Japanese-language world history published by Iwanami in Tokyo. This 31-volume conspectus appeared in the early Seventies, about the time that much of this Cambridge History was compiled, to judge by the very elderly scholarship that dominates a surprising amount of the work. The equivalent half-volume in Japanese (in Vol. VI) entirely ignores the European end of Inner Asia, presumably of little interest to a Japanese readership but one of the strengths of the Cambridge History. Yet the Japanese history does give a much more balanced treatment of the rest, including an entire chapter on the Sogdians, as opposed to the few pages they merit in the survey of Indo-European states in the Cambridge History. The different criteria used become obvious here: the Sogdians were politically unimportant, dominated by a succession of neighbouring powers and geographically peripheral to the Inner Asian world, so that from the Cambridge perspective their literature is treated in part of the Cambridge History of Iran. We do learn in Early Inner Asia of their engagingly-named diplomat Maniakh and his missions to Persia and Byzantium, but only the Japanese history shows how eminently sane the Sogdians really were. They cared little which power ruled them, or even which religion they professed (they were indifferently Christians, Manicheans or Buddhists), so long as they were able to concentrate on their main business – business in pursuit of which they penetrated as far north as Siberia and (as the Chinese sourly observed) absolutely anywhere in China where it was possible to make a profit. The economic coherence of Inner Asia was, it seems, largely dependent on them for centuries, but the importance of their role hardly emerges from the Cambridge History.

The foregoing is, of course, all totally unfair criticism. It is, as the Cambridge History demonstrates, hard enough to write a straightforward political history of Inner Asia; the very notion of trying to write true economic history verges on the absurd, and even a cultural history would mainly consist of pictures of ruins and fragments. In terms of the goals which this volume has set itself, it has largely succeeded, albeit tardily. There are minor annoyances: maps, for example, show up in the text like nomad raiding parties, without either warning or explanation. But at least (one trusts) Lord Acton would find it readable, and if Bruce Chatwin was right, the notion that we may be reading about our own future should add a certain piquancy. What the future holds for Inner Asia is far from clear. Certainly all is not quiet: last year an article on ‘Playing Rock’ in the magazine Mongolia divulged the information that among today’s Mongols ‘fans of heavy metal prefer the “Ayas Salkhi” ensemble, which shocks the respectable public with its cacophonic rock and rantings, eccentricities and outrageous attire.’ Should we, like Po Chü-i, be worried? I wish I knew. Should we, just in case, brush up on our Inner Asian history? I am sure we should.