Episode 76 – Southern & Northern #20: Taking Stock


So what does it all mean? Before stepping boldly into the Sui Dynasty, we take this episode to pan out to low-Earth orbit and watch the macro-developments of the past 300-plus years of Disunity, reviewing the dramatic sweep of a period of time often left out of many Western historical understandings of Chinese history due to is sheer complexity and confusing nature.

Time Period Covered:
220-589 CE


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5 thoughts on “Episode 76 – Southern & Northern #20: Taking Stock

  1. Have two questions. But first of all, thank you so much for spending the year on Southern and Northern! Grown up in China, I have heard all the cultural importance of this era, but history taught below college level basically gloss out it entirely. (I have no knowledge if college level courses for non-history majors would include more details because, alas, I was in “the other half” of majors for which history courses are not even offered.) Among the many, one particularly stupid confusion I had was “Northern Wei” – I always thought it was the Cao Wei. In Chinese, sometimes “Northern Wei” is abbreviated to “Wei”; in addition, my mind was further confused because Cao Wei happened to occupy the Northern China. So after seen copies of Cao Cao’s calligraph, I couldn’t help wondering why it didn’t look a bit like “Wei Shu” (魏体 or 魏书). Whereas I had the habit of reading scholarly discussions on the only culture-centric newspaper back then, and tidbits of implications/inheritance from this era were often referenced, I often missed much of what the authors were really saying because in my mind that period was, like you summarized for the U.S. high school, “a bunch of fights, some culture.” I am especially grateful that you laid the vast cultural and technological advances in this period that were often gloated by traditional (Han-centric) Chinese scholars on the background of vast expanses of cultural “melting” and struggles.

    My first question is about a queer tradition among Chinese emperors, that of bestowing their royal family names onto court officials as a special recognition. (赐姓. It is particularly queer considering that royal given names are subject to taboo.) I have not read a study about this, but it is often mentioned in all kinds of literature, folklore and scholarly. I am of the impression that the tradition started in Han, possibly as early as from Gaozu. (How else do you explain that my family name, one of extremely rare characters that does not have a meaning except as a family name, is shared among a hundred million or more people? And mine only ranks 4th among large family names.) Is there any truth to this? Related, did the practice of taboo on royal given names start in Han, or was there an earlier tradition?

    My second question is related to culture, but perhaps leaning more toward sociology. The Chinese culture at large is decidedly atheist since at least Spring and Autumn period. I have read scholars casually attribute this to Confucius teaching about “do not speak of the supernatural.” (子不语怪乱力神) But there is no way one philosophical figure could exert that much influence over his contemporaries. Just like Socrates, Plato and Jesus, Confucius was more of an outlier in the society at the time.

    As I listen to Robert Wright’s Evolution of God recently, I am reminded that the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Persians and the surrounding populations all firmly believed that their military success relied on their dedication to _a_ god, a god with a name, a god of their own that was not that of their enemy’s. Among ancient societies, the Chinese is the only one I know with a complete lack of commitment to any specific deity. (My lack of knowledge about the ancient Indian societies shows.)

    The Chinese, of course, had no shortage of named deities, as well as unnamed, purely functional gods. (To start, the early Chinese mythology is not that different from early Greek mythology.) There were also no shortage of serious dedications to _a_ god or another in times of need. The river god (河伯), for example, demanded sacrifices of many a human lives in select local communities long after kingdoms and empires were established. But at the national level, I never heard of Zhao claiming that they had a god that was superior to Yan’s, or vice versa. If Zhao won a military victory, they did not think, as warring facets of the Greek-Egypt-Persian area would, that _a_ specific god played special favour on them. They go thank a nameless “heaven” (天, or “old heaven” 苍天) which is no different from the heaven above their defeated enemy’s. (In all contexts, the Chinese word for heaven is the same as that for sky.) Of course, they thank their ancestors whom their defeated enemy is supposed to not share, fully aware that this latter supposition could be false.

    The Buddhism foothold established during the Southern and Northern period did not change this. (Again, thanks for dwelling on the suppression of Buddhism, even bloodshed, in the early days. I had always had this picture of peaceful migration of Buddhism into the Middle Kingdom despite folklore depiction of martial art rivalry between the two religious factions in the Chinese society.) Good arguments can be, and have been, made that Buddhism is an atheist religion. Taoism, though they have more deities than anyone would care to count, is decidedly atheist. (Here, I’d like to thank you for enlighten me about the difference between Lao Tse’s Taoist philosophy and the much later practice of Taoism as a religion. In my mind, Taoism was as irreligious as Confucianism.) I have always thought that Socrates line of logic argument would inevitably lead to theology of one form or another, that lack of Aristotelian vigor in Chinese thinking caused the lack of theology. But your discussion about the great Taoism-Buddhism debates reminds me that lack of logic formalism does not equal lack of logical thinking.

    So the question is: What made the Chinese move toward ancestry worship while the rest of world move toward theological worship after a common root of hunter-gatherer worship of functional gods? It is often said that the ancient Chinese was more agricultural than ancient Greeks. But what about Egypt where agriculture was well established? Did Egyptians wage religious wars against their neibours?

    Related to religion, even devoted Chinese Buddhists could enjoy a story about the plethora of Taoist deities who were without exception humans before achieving immortality. I believe that this special class of deities, xian (仙), is uniquely Chinese. There is no counterpart in, say, Greek mythology. (For one thing, any mortals lifted to Greek heavens are rarely heard of again, whereas a Chinese xian’s story really begins after he or she achieves immortality.) Of course, xian did not came around in the same cultural era that inspired mythology, Greek or Chinese. They only became popular after disintegration of Han and flourished in the Southern and Northern period. So a related question is: When did xian stories first emerge? Was there any story that can be traced to before Han Dynasty, especially if any could be traced to pre-Qin societies (when mythology were still important)?

    OK, three questions, not two.

    1. Ho boy! Here I go answering questions again!

      First, let me thank you for listening to the show (and quite obviously having done so quite intently!), and then for taking the time to formulate such a great set of discussion questions! It’s very interesting to have such a layered set of topic to go back and look at anew!

      The Period of Disunion was for me as well one of the most interesting topics and time periods to have researched because it’s so little understood in most Western (and as you point out, even Chinese) historical courses. And I now understand all the better why many have chosen to “gloss over” the period – it’s just trying to explain a country-size Rube Goldberg devices as all the pieces are moving at once!

      And the names, the names, oh the names. Both in terms of family and personal names (and on that note, am I right in my name list that as you mentioned you’re a #4, that means I’m speaking to a Liu?), but also the place names. The endlessly recycled state names: Wei, Zhao, Han, Liang, Former Latter, Northern, Western… ugh. And the hundred million Emperor Wus, to boot. Yeah guys, you’re all great martial heroes, we get it. It’s a lot of data to simply process, much less see the big picture from, so it’s especially gratifying to hear from you – someone who grew up in the Chinese educational system, no less – that I managed to get the (majority of) the details right, and also pull out some of the deeper understandings we might get from that massive conflict. I’m especially glad you like the tact I took, of playing up and bringing to the fore the cultural “melting pot” that North China especially became during this period. I agree that in many of the readings and summaries, it played up the military conflicts and technological achievements… which eventually just made me sort of toss my hands up in the air and say, oh ok another massive war. But WHY?! So that led to me really trying to get into the cultural aspects… and I think that actually turned out to be the most interesting aspect of the whole era! Massive migration, cultures in conflict, heck the very center of Han culture moving a good thousand miles southward while the political center remains in the north. It’s this amazing time of change and blending, and rather ill-understood by many!

      Another reason I found that aspect so fascinating in particular, is actually to serve as a bit of a counter to the (largely) popular narrative that “Han Chinese” as an ethnicity is some especially homogeneous group. That was certainly my understanding growing up for instance, and that (was) even the understanding of my wife, who was born and raised in China. Instead, though, we see that – in many important respects – Han is a “state of mind” much more than a specific bloodline, or real claim to be “of the Yellow Valley Civilization”. Instead of there being a definite group of Chinese surrounded by a definite group of Not-Chinese, the PoD made it clearer to me than ever before that across time, if a Rouran, or a Xiongnu, or a Turk, or a Mongol walked and quacked like a duck long enough, eventually historians would write that he’d been a duck the whole time, and lo and behold! He be able to “find” a branch of his family that was the great-grand-nephew of the Emperor of Han or somesuch.

      Alright, on to you questions! The “queer tradition”, indeed. Insofar as I’ve been able to to tell, you’re probably right that the bestowment of the Royal Clan name was practiced during the Han Period, which was – as the first actual stable imperial dynasty – really the earliest it probably held much meaning to do so. The Zhao and Shang kings, I believe, thought themselves to be much more “actually divine” than the more nakedly politically-savvy and earthly Qin, Han, etc… who came to power not through supernatural bloodlines, but very real bloodletting. Among the official classes, then, it was a way for the emperor to bestow essentially the highest honor upon his closest supporters by literally making them his brothers, an honor that carried with it very real (and potentially dangerous) authority over other equally-ranked officials. “Ah yes, you might be a Marquis, but I’m a Prince!”

      But how does that result in, as you said, a character as uncommon as Liu, becoming the surname of some 65 million people in 2015? We can look at both China and some of its neighbors and what ultimately happened with their own naming conventions. I’m talking about Korea especially, where the saying goes you can’t toss a penny off a building without hitting a Kim or a Park. Prior to the modern era, Korean peasantry were forbidden from holding surnames at all, and they were reserved only for the elite officialdom. Of course, rich merchants were eventually able to find poor nobility and literally buy out their family name, effectively ennobling themselves for a hefty fee. Much the same is said to have happened in China, though obviously much earlier – round about the Warring States or so. Officials and peasantry alike were known from time to time to change their surname as a sign of loyalty to a given state, and likely also as a tool of social mobility. Even after the Liu Clan ceased to be the ruling dynastic line, it was still a noble name, and as such one that an aspiring social climber might consider adopting, rather than simply remaining an inauspicious Tao “the Potter” or Wu “the Shaman”. Additionally with the sinicization policies of Northern Wei, vast groups of non-Chinese were rather unceremoniously renamed with Chinese characters, whereas at other times sometimes entire groups of people would rename themselves to disappear from their enemies – and if you’re trying to hide, where better than in the largest crowd of a surname possible? It’s likely that all of these contributed to the paring down of common surnames to the Big 100.

      As for the naming taboo, that seems to go back at least to the Qin, as Qin Shihuang’s given name Zheng was made taboo, and the first month of the year was renamed from Zhengyue, to Duanyue.

      Okay, onto the next question… Confucianism, atheism, and spirituality.

      I like you’re your comparison of the Daoist patheon to that of the Greeks/Romans, and I think it’s apt: especially that while there was probably a general belief in some aspects of the deities and the Jade Emperor, they would even at the time been seen as largely metaphorical. The Greeks, for instance, knew of all the stories about Zeus and Apollo, but no one was actually looking for a chariot pulling the sun across the sky, or in any actual fear that their wife was going to be seduced by the thunder god. Much in the same way, I think, as the majority of Chinese even in ancient time viewed the river god, the hearth god, etc… metaphor more than literal reality. In terms of the river god you named, He Bo, that is particularly interesting… I was not aware of him, nor the sacrifices he apparently demanded. What it immediately makes me think of though, is the particularly cruel and capricious nature of the Yellow River – Lord He Bo’s domain, after all – the river that was both the prosperity and the sorrow of the Chinese people since time immemorial. In the Shang and Zhou periods there might have been literal human sacrifices, but it strikes me as more likely – and in keeping the the supernatural-as-metaphor theory – that such sacrifices to the gods were in fact those poor people carried off by the river’s periodic and devastating floods. Hebo has claimed another life… what can we mere mortals do?

      I think there was a more accepting nature among not just the Chinese, but many of the peoples surrounding them, and yes even the ancient Greek and Roman states with a plethora of gods… that the supernatural and the primal were simply beyond rational understanding or control. The idea of a personal relationship to a given deity seems to have been a rather peculiar and localized Mesopotamian development that just so happened to go viral, in the large scope of things. Across time, viewing the spiritual and the divine as unknowable, impersonal Forces of Nature seems more widespread than an anthropomorphized god with whom one can actually communicate or understand. Your point about Egyptians and Persians and the like is well take: the locality – and in Mesopotamia especially, sometimes physical locality (as in “our god cannot leave this one city or he’ll lose all his power”) – of a deity’s sphere of influence, the smallness and specific influences attributed to it are in fairly stark contrast to an idea like Tianshang, or Tengri.

      So what I’m getting at is that it seems that to the Chinese conception of the divine was fundamentally more distant and impersonal – you can’t beseech the Sky Itself for help and expect a response. Ancestor worship, then, may have fulfilled that need for personal spiritual protection that neither Daoist nor later Buddhist philosophy (both fundamentally and primarily concerned with the One Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything) could offer. Buddhism’s really, really bleak when you look at it. “yeah, life sucks, then you die, then you do it all again forever… therefore nothing matters.” It’s had to get super gung-ho about that philosophy as a farmer or a merchant. Meanwhile, a notion that your specific ancestors are watching and guiding and helping you is a significantly more comforting belief to hold, even if that does mean doing rather silly things like burning paper BMWs and fake RMB notes to great-grandpa once a year. It’s not only comforting in the spiritual sense, but also the simply ritualistic sense… we asa species are certainly ritual-oriented, and they do provide great comfort even in just the actions themselves.

      So to answer you question then, why didn’t the Chinese turn toward a monotheistic, personal deity? Well I don’t think that the adoption of that practice was quite as universal as you think. The Judeans of Palestine got this kooky notion that their local god of war Yahweh was actually the One God of Everything… and that shift just so happened to occur round about the time Judea was absorbed into the hyperpower of the day, the Roman Empire. It managed to ride out the persecutions, and then mutated into an updated version of itself with a Trinity-but-still-singluar God headscratcher twist, and well … “went viral” from there. That it happened to catch on in a society that had its tentacles in just about everything spread it across Europe, into Egypt, etc… and the rest, as they say, is history. It didn’t catch on in China because China was so extremely far removed from that part of the world, and by the time the Nestorian missionaries penetrated into the Middle Kingdom to spread the Good News, well they ran up against the wall of “uh yeah that’s cool and all, but we’ve already got Laotzu and Buddha… we’ve already paid for the statues and everything …so yeah … thanks for stopping by.” Christianity (and later Islam, the second mutation of that strange little Judean cult) came to dominate the world not because there was any kind of “natural” preference for monotheism of personal deities, but because they just so happened to pop up within expansionistic, warlike cultures who would spread those beliefs with fire and blood wherever they went… which was, of course, eventually everywhere. That is further evidenced by the fact that even today, in East Asia the only areas where either Islam or Chistianity have ever really come to dominance are those areas where political forces on behalf of either were able to assert large amounts of control. Namely: Xinjiang/Uygheristan for Islam, and South Korea for US-centered Protestant Christianity.

      Okay, onto the question of the Xian Immortals in Daoism. Here’s where I think we actually want to break away from comparing Ancient Greek mythology to that of post-Han neo-Daoism. Because as Daoism was given a real run for its money during the PoD by the alien Buddhist belief-set, it was forced to either adapt… or die out. So it adapted, and I believe it was actually Arthur F. Wright in my reading who labeled it by the establishment of the Sui as being essentially a “Crypto-Buddhist faith” by that point. Buddhism, of course, has the possibility – and the outright goal – of a person achieving Buddhahood and ascending as such. These bodhisattvas can and did intervene in mortal affairs – at least legendarily – and it’s probably more through that lens that we might view the establishment, or at least doctrinal solidification, of the Xian Immortals into Daoist thought – kind of like “oh yeah? Well Buddhism’s not so special, we’ve totally got that idea too!”

      This is not to imply that Daoism simply stole the idea from whole cloth, or that it began in the PoD. There was a solid basis on which to build the idea of Xian into what it eventually became. Indeed, the search for immortality – and its association with living in the mountains, or being on a mountaintop, as the character itself paints vividly. Stories of the quest for immortality certainly predate the Han – Qin Shihuang, for instance, sent his chief alchemist Xu Fu into the East Sea to find the immortal on top of the mythical Mount Penglai and get his elixir for immortality, so it clearly predated even him. The First Emperor would of course meet his own grisly end after drinking mercury thinking it would allow him to live forever (the debate over whether that intentially included bodily death, or not is a whole other issue). Linguistically and conceptually, it might be traceable even further back into the proto-Tibetan roots of the Chinese language, to the word gsen, meaning… well, a flying immortal who lives in the mountains.

      Whew! Well, you certainly caught me on a longwinded day! Thanks again for the great questions… they were a lot of fun to read and answer… and I hope I was able to do so to your satisfaction! Please feel free to get in touch anytime!

      1. Good point about the Xu Fu exploration being an indicator of pre-Qin “Xian” legends. The part about mercury brings up another East-West comparison. It seems that alchemy in China was mostly driven by the desire to achieve immortality. In my impression, Western alchemy came mostly in search of Midas’ touch. If the difference is real, what could be the driver? After all, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese are less greedy, or the Westerners are less afraid of death.

        Regarding name, (yes, you got mine right) it is eye-opening to know that even as late as Warring States, peasantry were not allowed to have surnames. Guess it is true that History is written for the rich and famous. My schools certainly didn’t teach me that the lesser beings had to buy into or trade a surname when the Hundred Schools each were named after their respective founder’s surname.

        Also good point of associate the Chinese’s eventual drift to ancestry worship to separation of overarching, abstract, philosophical deity from object of personal worship. Robert Wright spent a lot of energy to explain how the two eventually merged into single objects among Mesopotamian societies. Then he painted a nuanced picture of the centuries-long, oftentimes bloody Yahweh-alone movement among Israelis. Essentially that, and the eventual formation of Christianity/Islamism make a “cult go viral” story. There is always a reason why something goes viral; but you are right, it began as a singularity not a commonality. If the combined force of a imageless Heaven and my ancestors answer to my needs well enough (from a societal point of view), I would not go into the trouble of looking for further theological “truth”.

        Before, I tend to think of this as a consequence of the extreme pragmatism the Chinese are often said to have held. But Wright’s book essentially pegged all theology to “matters on the ground”, i.e., pragmatic considerations, Aristotelian rigour or not. Combining this and the information you provide, I can now see how heavenly matters can settle into different paths “naturally”. This really pushes me to think that there is a even stronger reason why all those “barbarians” quickly got corrupt by the Han, or Yellow River Valley culture, another mystery that have always troubled me. The Han lifestyle was just too comfortable:-)

        Yet another unsettling facet you mentioned is the Toba Xianbei losing their language. To me, losing one’s mother tongue is far more humiliating than losing one’s tribal names. Of course, I’m looking at the matter from the viewpoint of Daudet’s Last Lesson. But still, there is no other viewpoint from which I can borrow. Why would the leader of a tribe want to actively forbid the use of the tribe’s own language? If this happened to Xiongnu, I can point to their lack of a written language as a plausible explanation. But I believe that you mentioned Xianbei had a written language. Why? Before Toba Xianbei, there were texts describing resentment against the First Emperor’s 书同文 (conformity of universal written language) even among (more or less) Han Chinese, not too different from Daudet’s. After that, both Mongolians and Manchurians adopted Han language as official. (And at least many Manchurians assumed Han names.) But none forebode their tribal language. What could cause a conqueror to abandon its own language?

        Related to this: How much of pre-PoD Xianbei history has survived in either native language or in faithful translation?

        Speaking of queer traditions, the Chinese school’s glossing over this period has one advantage: It spares billions from learning about Toba Xianbei’s “promote to crown prince and lose your birth mother” tradition. Yours was the first time I heard of this. It drove a chill down my spine.

  2. You should see how my school (US) handled the fall of the roman empire. It was a paragraph that could be summed up like:

    “lol iron stirrups lol”

    This was for the western part of the roman empire; the eastern half wasn’t even mentioned like one day it just up and vanished.

    This was in middle school but I still think they could have done a better job of it.

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