What the Japanese are saying

T.H. Barrett

  • Central Asia in World History by S.A.M. Adshead
    Macmillan, 291 pp, £42.50, February 1993, ISBN 0 333 57827 9
  • Japan’s Orient: Rendering Pasts into History by Stefan Tanaka
    California, 331 pp, £30.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 520 07731 8

Christchurch, New Zealand looks rather a long way away on most maps – somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner, usually – but one can tell, even from London, that the intellectual atmosphere at the University of Canterbury must be something very special, at least in historical studies. Somehow, whether because it perceives itself to be perched on the far edge of European expansion, or perhaps thanks to the comparative lack of distraction from archives in the immediate vicinity, its history department seems always to have encouraged a certain breadth of vision rare in other centres: one thinks, for example, of J.J. Saunders and his writings on the Mongol Empire and its place in world history. This intellectual legacy has been taken up with a vengeance by S.A.M. Adshead, by origin a historian of late imperial China, in recent works such as China in World History and Salt and Civilisation. His latest offering, on Central Asia, wastes no time on its opening page sorting out just what world history is for his purposes – namely, something which came into being circa 1200, the date of ‘what Joseph Fletcher (1934-84), the greatest modern Central Asianist, called the “interlocking of histories”’. This all looks very promising: Joseph Fletcher certainly was the greatest. But since early death robbed him of the chance of ever producing a book of his own, his ideas live on mainly as refracted through other people’s perceptions of what he had to say in his widely scattered writings. The next mention of Fletcher a few pages later suggests that all is not well with this particular attempt to build on the master’s legacy. Here, and throughout Adshead’s book, he is credited with the ‘theory of blood tanistry (from the Celtic word meaning “succession”)’, but what Fletcher wrote was ‘bloody tanistry’, to signify not simply consanguinity (already implied by the word ‘tanistry’) but also the succession of the fittest, which in the harsh conditions of the steppes, and even in some states with nomad origins like the early Ottoman Empire, meant specifically the succession of the most bloody, bold and resolute. This was usually achieved by the Central Asian tanist wiping out all his brothers, and possibly a few other male kinsmen as well, though occasionally a kind-hearted parent (such as Selim, father of Suleiman the Magnificent) would anticipate matters by murdering all his male offspring but one.

Of course ‘blood tanistry’ may be due to no more than a squeamish copy editor, but even minor errors in a book which has to be convincing in its handling of a large range of disparate information, or else succumb to suspicion as to its accuracy at every point, at once put the reader on the qui vive, and Adshead has not only his Introduction but also a preliminary chapter on ‘temporary world institutions’ spanning the entire history of Central Asia up to 1200 to get through before he reaches ‘interlocking’ history. Yet where most authors would be content to skate as smoothly and rapidly as possible over this thin ice – the Indo-European expansion, the Zoroastrian revelation, the Buddhist ecumene and so forth – this one cannot resist the temptation to add something of the flavour of true scholarship on these topics by larding his prose with bits of parenthetical philology. Thus on Ferghana, known in Chinese as Ta Yuan, we get ‘Yavan, Yonakas, Ionians, Greeks’, a string of equivalences which when decoded yield only a World War One-vintage etymology already abandoned by the Fifties. Worse still, some of these parentheses seem to be all his own work: ‘Fa-tsang (Dharmapitaka)’ apparently reflects the knowledge easily gleaned from secondary sources that Buddhist Chinese fa usually reflects Sanskrit dharma, Chinese tsang usually reflects Sanskrit pitaka. Any worthwhile dictionary of East Asian Buddhism soon reveals that the two Chinese syllables in combination may stand for a number of different Sanskrit words, but not the one that Adshead has put together.

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[*] The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan (edited by Richard Bowring and Peter Kornicki, 408 pp., £29.95, 27 May 1993, 0521 40352 9), it must be said, puts its companion volumes such as the recently revised Encyclopedia of China to shame, both in terms of coverage and of presentation – the appearance of the volume (printed, one notes, in Italy) is almost up to Japanese standards. Pictures such as the Japanese macaques relaxing in midwinter in a hot spring might justify the cost of the volume to a good many readers, even were the scholarship of the contributors not as accomplished (and readable) as it undoubtedly is.