Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human...moreGenghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human rights, specifically freedom of religion, freedom from torture and free trade (he got two of the Four Freedoms right, which is pretty impressive by medieval standards, especially when they still, like, burned heretics and unbelievers in Europe and elsewhere). GK forbade the use of torture in trials and as punishment. He also granted religious freedom within his realm, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. His own immediate family was religiously diverse: besides those who were Shamanists or Buddhists, a significant number were Monophysite Christians --- and later also Muslim converts. As for the free trade thing, it was more of a byproduct of the commercial opportunities that developed along the Silk Road (“history’s largest free-trade zone”), once the interior of the Eurasian landmass became safe enough to travel under the Pax Mongolica. Free trade as human right is still a pretty iffy concept, anyway.
2. GK created a hitherto unprecedented egalitarian society where men and some women (more on this later) advanced through “individual merit, loyalty and achievement”, instead through birth and aristocratic privilege. This egalitarian society was also incredibly diverse, comprising of people of different religions and nations. The Mongols hired European artisans to decorate their HQ in Xanadu, Chinese engineers to man their siege engines, and Muslim astronomers to chart their horoscopes. And they might have hired an Italian guy called Marco Polo to govern the city of Hangzhou --- who knows? But there’s no independent proof of it whatsoever.
3. GK was a proto-feminist --- well, he was sort of pro-woman, in the context of his era. He made it law that women are not to be kidnapped, sold or traded. Through marital alliances, he installed his daughters as de facto rulers over conquered nations. In Mongol culture, when the men went off to war, the women ruled the roost. And since Mongol men in the time of GK went really far away to conquer distant nations and did not return for years, the wives and daughters were the real boss at home (and also at the various Mongol courts, when many of GK’s male descendants turned out to be drunken incompetents). A successful queen like Sorkhothani, the wife of GK’s youngest son, was able to rule in her dead husband’s stead and made all of her sons Great Khans. Failure, however, could doom such women into cruel and unusual punishments, such as being sewed up naked into a rug and then pummeled to death (Mongols abhorred the sight of blood, thus the rug).
4. The Mongols promoted pragmatic, non-dogmatic intellectual development in the countries that they ruled. Although himself an illiterate, GK and his family recognized the value of learning and actively encouraged the development of the sciences. Under the Mongols, learned men did not have to “worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principles taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting.” New technology, such as paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass were transmitted through the Mongol realm to the West and sparked the Renaissance a few generations later.
5. The Mongols were for low taxes. GK lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for professionals such as doctors, teachers and priests, and educational institutions.
6. The Mongols established a regular census and created the first international postal system.
7. The Mongols invented paper money (it was soon abandoned because of hyper-inflation, but they got the right idea) and elevated the status of merchants ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials (this is in contrast to Confucian culture, which ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers). They also widely distributed loot acquired in combat and thus promoted healthy commercial circulation of goods.
8. The Mongols improved agriculture by encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient planting methods and tools, as well as transplanting different varieties of edible plants from country to country and developed new varieties and hybrids.
Okay. So Pax Mongolica was basically good for the world. But wait, how about all of those terrible massacres, rapine and wholesale destruction of cities? Didn’t Genghis Khan famously stated that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms?”
Actually, Muslim chroniclers attributed that quote to him and it is highly unlikely that he ever uttered it. Muslims writers of the era often exaggerated Mongol atrocities for Jihad purposes.* The Mongols were very aware of the value of propaganda as a weapon of war and actively encouraged scary stories about themselves.The Mongols decimated cities that resisted them, such as Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they generally let those that surrendered remain unmolested. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane piled up pyramids of heads outside the cities that he conquered, and as he (flimsily) claimed to be a Mongol, “his practices were anachronistically assigned back to Genghis Khan.” Three centuries later, Voltaire adopted a Mongol dynasty play to fit his own personal political and social agenda by portraying GK, whom he used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. So basically, GK got an undeservedly bad rap.
Yay for Genghis Khan!
* “…more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols. Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the (inflated) numbers have no basis in reality.” (less)
First, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pi...moreFirst, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pictures in the book to justify it. There is art and architecture galore, but other than that, there is a dearth of discussion about other aspects of culture. As for the personal, aside from a few brief anecdotes about the author's various visits to Rome, there is preciously little. Judging from the contents, perhaps the book should be titled ‘Art and Architecture in Rome, with Brief Historical Asides’ --- or something to that effect.
There is some history in the earlier chapters, which deal with the Roman Empire and its papal successor, but once Hughes gets to the Renaissance, it’s all art and artists. History only resurfaces after the great works of art have dwindled by the 19th century. Then, it’s almost exclusively political history. The dichotomy is at times disorienting --- I’d love to know more about the political and cultural context of the great artistic eras, or about how the city was governed, and how ordinary citizens lived. Instead, we get some tangential history that is interesting in itself, but is not that relevant to Rome, such as the history of the Albigensian Crusade (obviously, it has something to do with the papacy, but it took place entirely in Provence).
The art history/criticism that is the meat of this book is brisk, bristling with interesting details and occasionally memorably phrased: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is “almost all body, or bodies. The only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree”; Caravaggio “thrashed about in the etiquette of early Seicento Rome like a shark in a net.” It is fascinating to learn about the history of all of those obelisks that dot the Roman landscape and the engineering feats that were accomplished to move and erect them. Or about the creative recycling/vandalism that went on through Rome’s history until relatively recent times (the Colosseum, for example, was used as a convenient quarry for the new Vatican, and the ancient bronze cladding of the Pantheon was stripped to make Bernini’s massive baldachino in St. Peter’s). Hughes goes beyond the familiar superstars like Michelangelo and Raphael, covering lesser-known artists like Guido Reni (“There can be few painters in history whose careers show such a spectacular rise to the heights of reputation, followed by such a plunge to the depths.”) and Annibale Caracci, who painted the staterooms of Palazzo Farnese. This was done during a particularly dissolute era in the history of the Church, when it was perfectly okay for a cardinal, later Pope Paul III, to have his private residence decorated with pagan soft porn scenes with a bestial twist like this one (it’s classical! --- it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses!):
The Rape of Ganymede by Jupiter's Eagle with Satyrs Ouch!
Hughes points out that “to call such a theme inappropriate for a future pontiff would be a mistake: he had been made a cardinal by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, whose mistress was Alessandro Farnese’s sister, Giulia Farnese. Moreover, he had four illegitimate children of his own, plus an unknown number of by blows.” As a Jesuit-educated ex-Catholic, Hughes pulls no punches against his former faith, in most cases with some justification --- scathingly denouncing the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the reactionary Church of the 19th century, the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists in the 20th, and the $ 500 “hefty ransom” that the Vatican demanded for a private tour of the Sistine Chapel today. But he’s at his crankiest (and funniest) best when charting the decline of 21st century Rome, where statesmanship has gone down from this
Augustus of Prima Porta
“…a multi-multi-millionaire…who seems to have no cultural interest…apart from top-editing the harem of blondies for his quiz shows.”
and art has degenerated from this
“Opening the can would, of course, destroy the value of the artwork. You cannot know that the shit is really inside, or that whatever may be inside is really shit…so far none has been opened; it seems unlikely that any will be, since the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000.”
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, t...moreFROM THE MEMOIRS OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later). I brought them together to study laws, and they were busy discussing my virtues instead. Imagine that! I still blush with embarrassment whenever I recall the incident, although I cannot say that I’m thoroughly displeased with it.
My real name is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Yes --- I was a German import. Many Romanov royals, including my future husband Tsar Peter III, are actually Germans, specifically Prussians. This caused some awkwardness later when we went to war against Prussia in my reign --- but that was still far in the future. Papa was the ruler of the Anhalt-Zerbst principality. Some people would call him a minor aristocrat, but he was still a prince, nein? Mama was formerly a princess of the house of Holstein-Gottorp (yes, that’s where those lovely cows come from), whose late brother was affianced to the young Empress Elizabeth. He died of smallpox before the wedding, but Elizabeth never forgot him, and when it was time to look for a spouse for the Tsarevich, she naturally turned toward his family.
I was all of 14 years old when Elizabeth summoned Mama and me to Russia to marry Peter III. I was just a tiny slip of a girl then! The entirety of my trousseau consisted of three old dresses, a dozen chemises, a few pair of stockings and a few handkerchiefs. You see, Mama had spent all of the money that the empress sent for me on her own wardrobe. That’s Mama for you. Soon after my wedding, Elizabeth unceremoniously sent her back home for being a meddlesome mother-in-law and a clumsy Prussian secret agent. I never saw her again for the rest of my life.
That’s my husband. As you can see, he’s not much of a catch, but he’s still Peter the Great’s only surviving grandson, and that’s who I married --- the future Tsar of all the Russias. Peter was a sickly man-child who would rather play with his toy soldiers on our marital bed than with me. He was not allowed to play with them during the day, so they were hidden under the bed. As soon as we were both in bed, Madame Krause, our nanny/supervisor, would come in and brought out the toy soldiers. I couldn’t even move in the bed --- they were so many of them! Peter played with them until well after midnight, and every time someone knocked at the door to check on us, we had to scramble to hide the toys under the blanket. It was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. But the Empress Elizabeth was not amused when, years into our marriage, we had not produced the heir that she was expecting from us.
The fact is that my husband never touched me for the first nine years of our marriage. There was a lot of speculation as to the reason why. He openly told me that he was in love with another woman --- one of my ladies in waiting --- but it seemed that the relationship was similarly unconsummated. Others speculated that he was just simply too physically and mentally immature to father a child. Some of our learned doctors even diagnosed him with phimosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phimosis). Sergei Saltykov, the first of my twelve lovers (oh, how handsome he was!), convinced him to have an operation to correct the condition. You see, once Sergei was involved with me, he became anxious of his own safety. What if I got pregnant? But if Peter had been known to be able to consummate our marriage, who could say that Sergei was responsible? It turned out that my paramour was unnecessarily worried: the empress herself had instructed her minions to provide me with a more reliable male for the purposes of begetting an heir --- and Sergei was one of those considered! Anyway, I soon fell pregnant, resulting in Paul, the long-awaited Romanov heir.
Many people claimed to see a marked resemblance between my son and my husband, not just in looks, but also in their shared hobby of playing soldier. But whenever I wanted to needle my son, I always said that Sergei Saltykov was his father. We never got on well, Paul and I, perhaps because I rarely saw him during his childhood. The Empress Elizabeth whisked him away right after he was born, smothered him with frustrated maternal love and casted me aside. When my first grandson was born, I contemplated bypassing Paul altogether and make him Tsar Alexander I, but it was not to happen.
After the empress passed way, Peter briefly got to be Tsar, before he was forcibly deposed by the army, who made me empress instead. Peter idolized Frederick II, the Prussian king who was at war with us, and wanted to make peace with him. The patriotic Russian people hated this radical change in foreign policy and casted their lot with me instead. My then boyfriend, Grigory Orlov (that’s him below, by the way --- isn’t he dashing?), and his brother made sure that Peter was mysteriously dispatched soon after, and I got to gloriously rally the Russian people on horseback wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
The reign of Catherine II officially begins!
I believed in the strong Russian motherland and added many territories, 520,000 km2 in all, to Peter the Great’s empire. When he was only able to gain a toehold in the south, I completed his conquest by defeating the ailing Turks (and gaining a warm water port, so crucial for Russia, in the process). The former Ottoman territories around the Black Sea, the Ukraine, and Crimea (which the love of my life, Grigory Potemkin, administered as my Viceroy) became Russian possessions. I also partitioned Poland, after putting my second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of that country (poor sweetie, he actually didn’t want to be king, imagine that!).
On the home front, I tried my best to drag Russia into the modern age. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness as an unhappily married woman gave me the opportunity to read many books. I imbibed the best ideas of the Aufklarung through the writings of M. Montesquieu (whose ideas I pillaged for the Nakaz, the new legal code that I envisioned for Russia), Mr. John Locke (what is more important than our children’s education, especially our girls?) and Signore Beccaria (torture is barbaric!). I corresponded with the best minds in France, including M. Voltaire (he called me “The Star of the North” --- such a sweet man!) and M. Diderot, whose work on his Encyclopedie I supported, and whose library I purchased --- on the condition that he got to keep it during his lifetime as I thought that it would be so cruel to separate a scholar from his books. M. Diderot actually visited me in St. Petersburg to express his gratitude, the poor sickly man. Unfortunately, many of these progressive ideas proved to be far too advanced for the country, and I had to reassert my absolute powers as the autocrat of all the Russias to prevent the total collapse of the social order, particularly during the savage Pugachev rebellion. That rough Cossack pretended to be my long dead husband --- what insolence!
The Benevolent Despot in action
Finally, I must say for myself that as a sovereign I wanted nothing other than what was good for my country, and that I had employed all the powers on my disposal to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity for my subjects. I am aware, however, that I have a number of detractors, who do not hesitate to concoct lies and outright fabrications to sully my good name. They alleged, for example, that the so-called “Potemkin Villages” deceived me during my visit to the Crimea in 1787. My darling Grigory (below --- mwah, mwah!) might have put some fresh paint on some of the settlements that we passed through, but he did not construct whole made-up villages for my benefit. And even if he did, do you think that they could have fooled me, and my whole entourage, which included courtiers, foreign diplomats and even Emperor Joseph II?
And as for that unspeakable, much more egregious fabrication--- let us just say that some men were troubled by the fact that there was an accomplished, powerful woman on the throne and would stop at nothing to slander her. Besides, I had had twelve handsome young men at my beck and call --- what would I need a horse for? (less)
A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fo...more A reasonably entertaining popular account of the Third Crusade, focusing on the storied relationship between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, the fodder for so much romantic tales concocted by medieval troubadours. However, Reston seems to be unable to decide whether he wanted to write history or historical fiction, resulting in passages such as this:
“These affections were prophesied by no less a figure than Merlin the magician, who proclaimed that “the eagle of the broken covenant shall rejoice in her third nesting.””
(- 1 star)
He also seems to be inordinately fixated on Richard’s alleged homosexuality (“Richard himself, in all the glory of his masculinity and homosexuality, called the Griffones “effeminate”.”) and his supposed affair with his fellow Crusader/ nemesis Philip II of France. Brief googling reveals that there is no consensus between historians regarding the first allegation, and hardly any evidence to support the latter. To analyze any interaction between Richard and Philip through the angle of this imaginary affair is misleading, as well as annoying.
(- 1 star)
The real history is dramatic enough by itself, involving not just the chivalric exploits of the protagonists, but also epic sieges, storm-tossed voyages and savage assassinations (by the original Assassins, disciples of Hassan-i Sabbah’s murderous Ismailli sect, a fascinating topic by itself) --- but Reston’s questionable assumptions and general lack of credible citations make for a highly suspect read. Why not just make a historical novel out of it and dispense with pesky historical facts altogether?
Being neither Muslim nor Western, but nevertheless a citizen of what CNN and other Western media regularly dub “the world’s largest Muslim nation*”, I...more Being neither Muslim nor Western, but nevertheless a citizen of what CNN and other Western media regularly dub “the world’s largest Muslim nation*”, I often feel baffled by the so-called “clash of civilizations” between these two entities. And lately, not just baffled, but also profoundly disturbed by the scale and frequency of sectarian violence in my country, the majority of which allegedly perpetrated by those the author of this book calls “jihadists”. The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are no doubt moderate and tolerant, but there is no denying the fact that acts of violent extremism have increased exponentially and that at times, the perpetrators seem to have acted with impunity. Is this the inevitable result of a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations?
Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American “secular Muslim”, thinks that it is something else altogether:
“The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”, if that proposition means we’re-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there’s-only-one-of us. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.”
The key word here is “mismatched” --- the West and the Muslim world have been developing more or less separately for centuries and have been talking at cross purposes for much of their (relatively recent) shared history:
“Did the perpetrators of 9/11 really see themselves at striking a blow against freedom and democracy? Is hatred of freedom the passion that drives militantly political Islamist extremist today? If so, you won’t find it in jihadist discourse, which typically focuses, not on freedom and its opposite, nor on democracy and its opposite, but on discipline versus decadence, moral purity versus moral corruption, terms that come out of centuries of Western dominance in Islamic societies and the corresponding fragmentation of communities and families there, the erosion of Islamic social values, the proliferation of liquor, the replacement of religion with entertainment, and the secularization of the rich elite along with the ever hardening gap between rich and poor.
One side charges, “You are decadent.” The other side retorts, “We are free.” These are not opposing contentions; they ‘re nonsequiturs.”
Ansary is no apologist and is not interested in sweeping away potentially divisive issues under the rug of political correctness:
“On the other side, I often hear liberal Muslims in the United States say that “jihad just means ‘trying to be a good person,’” suggesting that only anti-Muslim bigots think the term has something to do with violence. But they ignore what jihad has meant to Muslims in the course of history dating back to the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad himself. Anyone who claims that jihad has nothing to do with violence must account for the warfare that the earliest Muslims called “jihad.”
Like the holy books of other so-called Abrahamic religions, the Koran contains verses that might be interpreted as advocating violent acts.
Likewise, he doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Islamic history. Islam, though originally conceived as an admirably “epic, devotional social project”, was also a political entity. And very soon after Muhammad’s death, it became an empire. An empire of epic proportions that stretched over continents and ruled millions of non-Muslims. Long before Westerners colonized the Muslim world, Islamic empires ruled over large swathes of Christendom. And like other empires, including those that adhered to Christianity or other religions, it was not immune of the usual bloody internecine fighting --- some involving Muhammad’s close relatives and companions --- and oppression of people who became their subjects.
Ansary tells the rest of Islamic history in a light, conversational style that is eminently readable, even if he necessarily simplifies certain aspects of it (perfectly understandable, considering that he has to cover 1,300 years of history in a relatively slim book). We learn of the different interpretations of Islam, ranging from the comparatively liberal, tolerant Sufism to the literal, rigid Salafism and Wahabism. We also learn of the theological and racial factors that gave birth to Shiism and other schisms in Islam. We are reminded of how Islamic scholars “saved” the works of Greek philosophers, long forgotten in the West, and of the reasons why despite of that, science and technology failed to develop during the Abbasid Caliphate’s golden age. And of how the Crusades, a pivotal event in European history, was barely a blip in the Muslim narrative (the most traumatic event in Islam’s history is instead the 13th century Mongol invasion, which had an impact akin to the Black Death in Europe).
The most interesting, and pertinent part of the narrative for me is the chapters that cover the interaction between the West and the Islamic world in the last two centuries, as the roots of the current conflict could be traced to the events that happened in those crucial eras. The gist of it is that Western colonialism and continuing meddling in Muslim countries, aided by their corrupt and/or westernized elites, fuels extremist rage:
“Helping the Iraqis was a way to weaken Iran and possibly keep the Soviets at bay. Here again as a catastrophic intertwining of the Muslim and Western narrative still about secular modernism versus back-to-source Islamism, the other still about superpower rivalry and control of oil, though couched in rhetoric about democracy and totalitarianism.”
“In the Muslim world, the difference was not just economic but cultural and therefore the gulf between the worlds fed alienation and produced a more anti-colonialist flavor of resentment, but against the nation’s own elite. This resentment led to occasional civil unrest. Since these culturally divided countries had no democratic institutions to mediate disputes, governments casually resorted to force to suppress disorder.”
A plausible explanation for conflicts in Muslim countries in the Middle East, but probably not entirely adequate to explain sectarian violence in other Muslim countries which are democratic, and where Western interference is minimal, like Indonesia. I wish Ansary had spent some pages discussing such countries, but perhaps they are considered too peripheral in comparison to the Middle East to worth analyzing.
* Indonesia is not a Muslim country, in the sense that it is not based on Islam (or any other religion). Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, and its constitution guarantee the freedom of religion for all of its citizens. (less)
Ini boekoe jang ditoelis toean Liem Thian Joe sebenarnja sangat menarik ati, teroetama kerna soember2 oetamanja diambil daripada archiev Kongkoan (Chi...moreIni boekoe jang ditoelis toean Liem Thian Joe sebenarnja sangat menarik ati, teroetama kerna soember2 oetamanja diambil daripada archiev Kongkoan (Chineesche Raad) Semarang sebeloem Kongkoan terseboet ditoetoep oleh pemerintah Nederlands Indie pada tahoen 1931. Di dalem ini boekoe, ditjeritaken mengenai asal moelanja bangsa Tionghoa dateng di tanah Djawa (di Bantam), riwajat kota Semarang dan kedatengannja Sam Poo Kong disitoe, timboelnja institutie officier Tionghoa dan tokoh-tokohnja, pembantaian tahoen 1740 di Batavia, pemberontakan Soenan Koening dan Diponegoro, berdirinja Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan (THHK) dan pers Melajoe-Tionghoa, dan laen-laen peristiwa sedjarah dari soedoet pandang orang Tionghoa. Ta kalah menariknja djoega tjerita2 tentang process terbentuknja masjarakat Tionghoa peranakan di Djawa beserta adat-adat kolotnja (doedoek djongkok, gigi dihitamken, makan sirih) sebeloem di-reformatie oleh gerakan pembaharoean Kang You Wei. Ta ketinggalan poela ditoelis mengenai kehidoepan glamour keloearga2 "tjabang atas" officier Tionghoa di abad ke-19 seperti Majoor Oei Tiong Ham dan Be Biauw Tjoan jang kekajaannja banjak berasal dari pacht madat (opium) dan gadai. Satoe kisah jang ada di ini boekoe, jaitoe tentang "Seorang Pedagang Tionghoa Menemoekan Seorang Anak Desa Main Lajang2 Dari Oeang Kertas" telah ditoeliskan mendjadi seboeah tjerita berdjoedoel "Tjerita Oey Se" oleh toean Thio Tjin Boen (telah ditjetak kombali di Kesastraan Melayu Tionghoa Jilid I terbitan Gramedia).
Tentoenja kita orang sangat gumbira bahwa ini boekoe telah diterbitken kombali, akan tetapi menoeroet hemat saja, lebih otentik kaloe diterbitken dalam bentoek facsimile sadja, dengan mempertahanken bahasa Melajoe-Tionghoa aslinja. Komentar redacteur sebaiknja diberiken dalem tjatatan kaki, tida dalam teks. Selaen daripada itoe, ada beberapa salah tjetak jang agak menganggoe.
Di mana gerangan itoe archiev2 Kongkoan sekarang? Moga2 tersimpen rapi di perpoestakaan Arsip Nasional --- sajang beriboe sajang kaloe sampai roesak didahar ngengat atawa raib misterius seperti archiev2 Sam Poo Kong-nja toean Parlindoengan!(less)
Siapakah sebenarnya sosok yang dikenal dengan nama Cheng Ho (pinyin: Zheng He) ini? Apakah ia seorang manusia sakti yang dipuja keturunan China di Asi...moreSiapakah sebenarnya sosok yang dikenal dengan nama Cheng Ho (pinyin: Zheng He) ini? Apakah ia seorang manusia sakti yang dipuja keturunan China di Asia Tenggara sebagai pelindung mereka? Apakah ia seorang pelaut hebat yang konon berhasil "menemukan" benua Amerika hampir seabad sebelum Columbus? Apakah ia seorang tokoh China muslim sekaligus penyebar agama Islam di nusantara? Apakah misi yang dipimpinnya merupakan misi persahabatan yang damai, atau sebaliknya bersifat imperialis seperti yang dilakukan oleh bangsa-bangsa Barat? Apakah kontak diantara dua peradaban yang berbeda selalu berujung pada konflik dan eksploitasi, atau sebaliknya dapat menimbulkan pertukaran budaya yang bersifat damai?
Buku yang aslinya merupakan tesis doktoral penulisnya ini mencoba menjawab beberapa pertanyaan diatas. Cukup menarik, walaupun penulis tidak mengungkapkan hal-hal baru tentang Cheng Ho dibandingkan dengan buku-buku sebelumnya seperti Admiral Zheng He & Southeast asia. Bagian kedua dari buku ini menyoroti peranan aktif Cheng Ho dalam mengatur dan membina komunitas-komunitas China perantauan di nusantara, dimana masyarakat China pendatang muslim mendapat perlakuan istimewa. Keturunan mereka kemudian berperan besar dalam syiar Islam di pulau Jawa, termasuk tokoh-tokoh yang dikenal dalam sejarah sebagai Wali Sanga.
Tesis penulis mengenai hal ini sepenuhnya didasarkan pada Malay Annals of Semarang and Cirebon (MASC), naskah misterius yang dikutip oleh M.O. Parlindungan dalam bukunya Tuanku Rao. Menurut Parlindungan, MASC tersebut ditemukan oleh Poortman, seorang Belanda yang bertugas di dinas rahasia pemerintah kolonial, di arsip kelenteng Sam Po Kong di Semarang dan kelenteng Talang di Cirebon pada tahun 1928. Karena isinya yang dianggap kontroversial, pemerintah Belanda memutuskan untuk melakukan supresi terhadap MASC (hal yang sama dilakukan oleh pemerintah Orde Baru yang melarang buku Prof. Slametmulyana yang mengutip Parlindungan). Dr. Tan Ta Sen, seperti H.J de Graaf dan Pigeaud, yakin bahwa naskah tersebut (pernah) eksis dan merupakan cerminan memori kolektif masyarakat China perantauan abad XVI dan XVII. Sebaliknya, berberapa ahli sejarah lain meragukan otentisitas MASC karena naskah aslinya tidak pernah ditemukan. Identitas Poortman sendiri sebagai agen rahasia Belanda juga masih diragukan. Selain itu, menilik tata ruang kelenteng Sam Po Kong lama, apakah mungkin arsip sebanyak tiga pedati disimpan di dalamnya? Dan apakah arsip tersebut bisa bertahan selama 400 tahun di tengah-tengah pergolakan sejarah di pantai utara Jawa?
Sungguh suatu misteri sejarah yang sangat menarik. Dan yang seharusnya wajib hukumnya untuk diselidiki lebih lanjut.
Kenang-kenangan ketika mengunjungi Semarang waktu kecil: makan bolang baling dan lumpia di Gang Lombok, dan didongengi orang-orang tua tentang patung naga di atap kelenteng Sam Po Kong, yang konon bisa hidup dan berenang-renang ria kalau Semarang banjir.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her femi...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her feminine wiles. Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.
2. Cleo looked like Elizabeth Taylor with too much mascara. We just don’t really know how she looked. The only surviving images of her are stylized coin portraits. Accounts that were written during or shortly after her lifetime didn’t say much about her looks, while later sources seems to have exaggerated her beauty to fit the vampy seductress mold. However, as a Macedonian Greek, she must have looked Caucasian, thus probably closer to the aforementioned Ms. Taylor than say, Queen Latifah.
3. Mark Antony looked like Richard Burton. Mark Antony was “broad-shouldered, bull-necked, ridiculously handsome, with a thick head of curls and aquiline features.” Who knows, he might have looked like a certain Welsh actor. They both surely drank a lot.
4. Cleo was a dumb floozy who had nothing going on for her except her seductive beauty. As a Ptolemaic princess, Cleo received a first rate education by ancient standards, which is to say that she was well versed in mathematics, astronomy/astrology, Greek philosophy and literature, and rhetoric. According to Plutarch, she spoke nine languages, in addition to Egyptian, which other Ptolemaic rulers didn’t even bother to learn. She managed to make herself the absolute ruler of Egypt, while preserving her country’s independence against Roman encroachment for almost two decades. She must have been a pretty smart lady to be able to accomplish such feats.
5. Cleo was an incestuous queen who murdered her siblings to gain the throne of Egypt. Essentially true. The Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian custom of royal intermarriages. She was married to her 13-year old brother (prior to fighting him for the throne and causing him to be killed by Caesar’s men), and then to another brother. She also had her sister Arsinoe, a rival claimant to the throne, murdered. But to be fair, murdering relatives had been a centuries old tradition in her family, and those siblings would not have hesitated to off her if they had the chance anyway.
6. Ptolemaic Alexandria was an astounding city of Cecil B. de Millean proportions. Alexandria’s famous lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), library and gymnasium dwarfed anything in other 1st century B.C. cities. Forty-foot tall sculptures of former Cleopatras greeted new arrivals in its harbor. At least one “colossal hawk-headed sphinx” towered over the palace wall. “Glossy thirty-foot long sphinxes” guarded the temples. The Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main drag, could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast. The cosmopolitan population was “hyperkinetic”. Rome was nothing but a staid, crude muddy hamlet in comparison.
7. Cleo corrupted the Romans with her Eastern luxuries and debaucheries. Orientalism nonsense that began as Octavian’s propaganda. It’s true that the Ptolemies threw the best parties in the ancient world (at one particular feast, the gold dinner vessels alone were said to have weighed 300 tons), but Cleo was also one of the richest ruler on earth, so she could well afforded them. Peacock-eating Romans could be perfectly extravagant and corrupt without any Eastern influences.
8. Cicero is the “greatest boaster alive”, a fawning hypocrite who “was perfectly capable of maligning a man one day and swearing eternal devotion to him the next.” Cleo didn't want to lend him her book (probably from the great library of Alexandria) and he spent the rest of his life maligning her.
9. Herod was an “entertaining” friend of Mark’s who later turned treacherous. He was also a fake Jew who probably didn’t deserve the throne of Judaea. Herod and Cleo fought over asphalt and balsam monopolies, and this resulted in Flavius Josephus maligning her.
10. Cleo killed herself by putting an asp to her bared breast. Painters and moviemakers love this scene. But it’s most probably not true. Cleo, a “woman who is known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning” would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to an unreliable wild animal. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options, such as the poisons that she was reported to have experimented with. It was also as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt: the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Octavian did display a model of Cleo with an asp in his triumph, and this was probably where the legend started.
“…We are left to square intelligible decisions with obscure accounts…”, Schiff wrote of the contradictory historical accounts about Antony and Cleopatra’s conduct at the battle of Actium. The same might be said of virtually all historical accounts about her, be they written by Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio, Josephus or others. If your agenda is to remove 2,000 years of sexist and/or orientalist distortions from Cleopatra’s portrait, which account are you going to accept as reliable and which are not? Are you going to accept those that support your thesis only and disregard those that do not, even though they are consistent with other accounts? After all, “no story in the ancient world is unvarnished”. In Cleopatra’s case, the varnish might have been so thick and persistent that it has become virtually impossible to remove.
Schiff’s book is an entertaining, occasionally snarky, impressively detailed reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have been like, but there were times when I wondered whether she was just as biased as her ancient predecessors. What really happened 2,000 years ago? Who knows?
WARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
C...moreWARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
Catholicism 101: Final Exam
Required Text: The Catholic Church A Short History, Hans Kung, trans. John Bowden, Modern Library chronicles, 2003. Hereinafter referred to as “short history”.
1. According to the short history, who founded the Catholic Church?
A. Why, Jesus himself, of course. Next question. B. Peter, who was entrusted to build the Church by Jesus and became the first Pope (see question no. 3). C. Paul, who founded the first churches in the Gentile world. D. His followers. Jesus did not found the Church, but from the earliest times, it has been a fellowship of those who believe in Christ.
2. Was Jesus Catholic?
A. Isn’t that obvious? What the Catholic Church has always said and intended is what Jesus Christ himself originally said and intended, so in principle Jesus himself would already been a Catholic. If you are a Traditional Catholic, it is mandatory for you to choose this answer. B. Of course not! As everyone knows, he was a Methodist, or at least a sort of a Protestant. C. No. To call Jesus “Catholic” would be an anachronism, since the Church has not been founded yet during his lifetime. He was a Jew through and through. D. It is doubtful whether a Church which is: a. rigidly hierarchical; b. stubbornly patriarchal; and c. into celibacy as a condition for its priests could claim Jesus as its own, when his teachings are contrary to such principles.
3. The Catholic Church bases its authority on Peter, who was the first Bishop of Rome. Does this claim have any scriptural or historical basis?
A. Of course! The Church wouldn’t make such claims without clear evidence. It’s all there in my sixth grade Catechism book. B. No. Such claims have no historical basis whatsoever, not to mention scriptural. Pure Papist propaganda! C. Again, it’s an anachronism. There was no Catholic Church during Peter’s lifetime. D. We simply do not have any conclusive evidence, biblical or otherwise, that Peter was ever the first Bishop of Rome. And more importantly, there is also no evidence that the Bishop of Rome held any primacy over other Christian bishops during Peter's lifetime.
4. When did the requirement for priestly celibacy became mandatory in the Catholic Church?
A. It has always been mandatory for priests to be celibate since Jesus and Paul were celibates. B. There has never been any such requirements prior to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1209. C. It was promulgated by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, but was never actively enforced until relatively late in the 16th century. D. After the Second Lateran Council of 1139, when priestly marriages were regarded as a priori invalid, priests’ wives were regarded as concubines, and priests' children officially became the church's property as slaves, resulting in furious mass protest by the clergy.
5. The proceedings against the accused are secret. The informants are unknown. There is no cross-examination of witnesses, nor are there any experts. Accusers and judges are identical. Any appeal to an independent court is ruled out or is useless. These are the principles of which court?
A. The Roman Inquisition during the middle ages. But it’s much better now, as heretics are no longer burned at the stakes. B. The Superior Court of Judicature during the Salem witch trials. C. The People’s Court of North Korea. D. The Holy Office; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the modern version of the Roman Inquisition.
6. How did the doctrine of papal infallibility came into being?
A. It’s biblical and should not be questioned by any loyal Catholic. B. More Papist propaganda! C. It originated from the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and other fathers of the church. D. It was not officially promulgated until the controversial First Vatican Council in 1871, where its definition was challenged (unsuccesfully) by the majority of German and French episcopates.
7. What is the Second Vatican Council?
A. An abomination. B. Finally, the Catholic Church recognized that Martin Luther was right. C. It dragged the church to the modern age, somehow. But clearly not enough was done. D. It is an epoch-making and irrevocable turning point for the Catholic Church. It integrated fundamental paradigms of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and modernity (anti-Semitism is not OK; there is salvation outside the church; democracy, human rights and science are good, etc.). Unfortunately, it was hampered by curia shenanigans and even now partially repudiated by reactionary church leaders.
8. So, what’s wrong with the Catholic Church today?
A. Nothing’s wrong with it whatsoever. Perish the thought. B. Obviously, there’s something very wrong. But it is only to be expected from the Whore of Babylon. C. Humans err. Priests molest. But a few black sheep are to be expected in a flock the size of the church. D. The church is in trouble because it wants to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The two main reforms that are desperately needed are those concerning the law of celibacy and the episcopal ministry. Without such reforms, the church will become a reactionary force that can't deal with modernity.
Essay (approx. 100 words)
In your own words, what do you think of the short history?
It’s an interesting introduction to Hans Kung’s views, who like the current pope was a theological advisor to the members of the Second Vatican Council (his authority to teach Catholic theology had been rescinded since). He does a decent job covering the most salient points of the theological and institutional history. However, much of it is rather cursory, very opinionated (detractors would say biased) and could be confusing to readers who have no prior knowledge of the subject. He seems to be much more interested in airing his criticism (many of which I personally agree with) of the church’s theology. The book should really be called something like The Catholic Church: What’s Wrong With It.
------------------------------------------------------------------------ Key: For all multiple-choice questions, D is the correct answer according to the short history. (less)
Mildy enjoyable, though largely superficial ramble through English and American domestic history, Mr. Bryson, but what are Marx and Engels doing in th...more Mildy enjoyable, though largely superficial ramble through English and American domestic history, Mr. Bryson, but what are Marx and Engels doing in the Nursery? (less)
Orang 'Belanda', yang menjadi elite masyarakat kolonial selama berabad-abad di Indonesia, ternyata bukanlah suatu masyarakat yang monolitik. Seperti b...moreOrang 'Belanda', yang menjadi elite masyarakat kolonial selama berabad-abad di Indonesia, ternyata bukanlah suatu masyarakat yang monolitik. Seperti bangsa asing lainnya yang hidup di Nusantara, mereka juga mengalami proses adaptasi, kreolisasi dan bahkan asimilasi dengan masyarakat Indonesia. Hanya berselang beberapa puluh tahun saja sejak kota Batavia didirikan oleh Jan Pieterzoon Coen, telah terbentuk suatu masyarakat berciri Indisch, yang terdiri atas orang 'Belanda' yang lahir dan dibesarkan di Indonesia. Tak sedikit dari antara mereka yang beribu pribumi atau wanita Asia lainnya, umumnya para budak yang diimpor dari koloni-koloni Belanda lain di Asia Selatan. Hal ini terjadi karena kegagalan usaha Coen untuk mendatangkan wanita Belanda dari "keluarga baik-baik" ke Batavia dalam jumlah yang memadai untuk menjadi pasangan para pegawai VOC. Untuk menghindari akibat negatif dari praktek 'pernyaian', kebijakan VOC selanjutnya malah mempromosikan pernikahan legal diantara para pegawainya dan wanita Asia yang dibaptis, dengan tujuan agar terbentuk masyarakat Eurasia yang stabil sebagai pendukung koloni yang setia.
Dalam beberapa generasi saja telah muncul komunitas Mestizo berdarah campuran (tapi berstatus Eropa) yang kemudian menjadi elite penguasa VOC di Indonesia. Suatu hal yang menarik, bahwa banyak dari para Gubernur Jenderal yang memerintah pada abad ke 17 dan 18 lahir atau dibesarkan di Indonesia sebagai anggota komunitas ini. Walaupun kebijakan VOC mendiskriminasi orang Kreol dan Eurasia, namun dengan berbagai cara, termasuk melalui pernikahan strategis, mereka berhasil mencapai puncak kekuasaan kolonial. Hal yang menarik lainnya ialah bahwa masyarakat ini bersifat matrilineal, dimana status sosial dan kekayaan berpindah melalui garis perempuan. Ini juga merupakan efek dari kebijakan anti nepotisme VOC yang membuat anak laki-laki dari masyarakat ini dikirim ke Belanda untuk berkarir disana, sedangkan anak perempuan dipertahankan di Indonesia untuk nantinya menjadi istri pejabat VOC yang karirnya cemerlang.
Pengaruh yang kuat dari pihak perempuan yang berdarah Asia membuat masyarakat Mestizo ini banyak mengadopsi gaya hidup Indonesia, mulai dari kebiasaan mengenakan kebaya, makan sirih, memelihara budak, mandi dua kali sehari, sampai dengan kegemaran bertelanjang kaki dan duduk di tikar. Serangan terhadap gaya hidup yang terlalu 'pribumi' ini beberapa kali dilakukan oleh elite VOC. Sekolah-sekolah yang mengajarkan bahasa dan tatakrama Belanda yang baik dan benar didirikan untuk mendidik anak-anak mereka, namun usaha-usaha ini tidak mengalami kemajuan yang berarti.
Kejayaan kaum Meztizo berlangsung sampai kebangkrutan VOC pada tahun 1799. Gubernur Jenderal berikutnya, Daendels, adalah orang Belanda totok yang langsung dikirim dari Eropa. Demikian juga dengan Raffles, yang berkuasa pada masa Peralihan Pemerintahan Inggris. Raffles mendirikan berbagai institusi seperti koran berbahasa Inggris dan Belanda, klub sosial dan teater untuk 'mengeropakan' mereka. Kebaya dianggap sebagai baju dalam yang tidak sopan dan para perempuan didorong untuk mengikuti teladan Olivia, Nyonya Raffles, untuk mengenakan gaun Eropa. Tempolong ludah dibuang dari acara-acara resmi yang disponsori pemerintah untuk menghilangkan kebiasaan menyirih yang "menjijikkan". Namun seperti usaha-usaha sebelumnya, pemerintah Inggris juga tidak berhasil melakukan perubahan yang berarti. Menurut Taylor, hal ini disebabkan karena singkatnya masa pemerintahan Inggris, dan juga karena (ironisnya) orang Inggris yang datang ke Indonesia sendiri juga membawa kebudayan yang tidak murni Eropa (!). Seperti Belanda di Indonesia, mereka juga telah "terindiakan" sebagai efek dari ratusan tahun kolonisasi Inggris di India, seperti yang diantaranya diungkapkan dalam buku White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India.
Setelah kembalinya Belanda ke Indonesia, tekanan terhadap kelompok Mestizo bertambah kencang. Para Gubernur Jenderal dikirim langsung dari Belanda dan anggota keluarga Mestizo yang dahulu berpengaruh pada era VOC tidak lagi diterima dalam eselon atas pemerintahan kolonial. Mereka lalu menjadi pengusaha swasta. Kebudayaan Indisch juga mundur dari ruang publik dan hanya dipraktekkan dalam situasi domestik, terutama setelah makin banyak datang imigran Eropa pada abad ke 19 dan 20. Dan akhirnya, kebudayaan ini hilang setelah Indonesia merdeka, dan "hanya dapat hidup di dalam catatan-catatan yang sentimental dan menyentuh hati dari para penulis Tempoe Doeloe".
Finished Vol. I Book I only. Lost interest because it's only a rehash of familiar biblical stories so far. Perhaps will take up again if the Librivox...moreFinished Vol. I Book I only. Lost interest because it's only a rehash of familiar biblical stories so far. Perhaps will take up again if the Librivox recording have reached the post-Biblical parts.(less)
This book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- ha...moreThis book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- have been written in the last five hundred years. Apparently, this book is also the only biography of Felice della Rovere that has ever seen print. It’s easy to discern why --- compared to Lucrezia, who (among other things) is accused by some of having an incestuous relationship with her father, Pope Alexander VI, Felice lived the relatively dull, virtuous life of a Renaissance clan matron. She was married twice, both arranged by her father for dynastic/political purposes, the second one to a scion of the powerful Orsini family, whose continuing street brawls with the Collonnas make the Capulets/Montagues feud looks like a schoolyard fight. In fact, their everlasting vendetta against each other drove the Papacy away from Rome for a while, and Julius II, Felice’s father, was desperate to engineer peace between the two clans. Marrying his bastard daughter into the troublesome, warlike family would ensure that they toed the papal line.
Unlike his predecessor (and arch-enemy) Alexander VI, who had numerous illegitimate children from several different mistresses, Julius was actually considered quite chaste --- the ‘Warrior Pope’ was more interested in making war than love. His having a daughter was nothing strange in an age when the preferred vice for a Catholic priest was not pedophilia but plain old-fashioned fornication with women, preferably aristocratic ones. The children that issued from such relationships became valuable pawns in their fathers’ political games and were mated with the sons of the powerful families that effectively ruled Italy. Their relatives, in turn, were given cardinals’ hats through blatant acts of nepotism (non-relatives were expected to engage in simony --- the Vatican did not believe in freebies for strangers).
Felice, despite having an unblemished reputation, was an adept of all the aristocratic arts of the day, which included everything that Macchiavelli advocated short of murder. Apparently, had she been born a man she would have been a formidable player, but being female, she had to be contented with being the dynastic brood mare of the Orsinis. When her mercenary husband died, she became the regent for her small sons and the de-facto ruler of the Orsini fiefdom. She spent the rest of her life managing the vast estates and outwitting the clan enemies, as well as envious, even murderous in-laws. She not only survived, but was able to hand over the family patrimony largely intact to her sons (who turned out to be totally undeserving, but that’s another story). To her credit, she was also piously charitable, ever ready to listen to sob stories and share her estate’s bounty with hard-luck tenant farmers and loyal retainers.
The story of her life, although not as piquant as Lucrezia’s, is an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period in Italian history; it was during her father’s reign that St. Peter was built and the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Raphael preserved her likeness in frescoes commissioned by the pope. She survived the sack of Rome by paying an enormous ransom, fleeing the city in a disguise.
Not much is known about her private thoughts, save for a few hints gleaned from official correspondences, and it seems that the author had to form quite a number of conjectures about them. It’s hard to know which are hard facts and which are mere inferences as there is a dearth of footnotes about them. It makes her story reads more smoothly, but is it really an accurate portrait? (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest r...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Ancient Greeks are quarrelsome and love to waste each other’s city-states for the pettiest reasons.
2. From all forms of government known to man, democracy is the best. Tyrants and oligarchs suck.
3. The Persian Empire is a mighty barbarian nation, but being cowardly, effeminate and slavish, it is eventually defeated by the quarrelsome but brave and civilized Greeks.
4. Among the Greeks, the Spartans are the bravest. Gerard Butler with a six-pack King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans heroically perished in the battle of Thermopylae. They also have the particularly icky custom of marrying their own nieces.
5. The Delphic oracles are 100% accurate, except when someone manages to corrupt the Pythoness. The Gods are, however, a jealous sort and would strike any mortal who has the presumption of calling himself happiest on earth. Therefore, one should call no man happy until he is dead.
6. Egypt is a country of wonders, but its citizens’ customs and manners are exactly the reverse of the common practice of mankind elsewhere. For example, the women there urinate standing up, while the men sitting down. The country also abounds in strange fauna, among them the hippopotamus --- a quadruped, cloven-footed animal, with the mane and tail of a horse, huge tusks and a voice like a horse’s neigh.
7. The Scythians are a warlike nation that practices human sacrifice. The Scythian soldier drinks the blood of the first man that he kills in battle and cuts off all of his enemies’ heads, which he must show to the king to get his share of the war booty. They also like to saw off their enemies’ skulls, which they make into fancy gold-plated drinking cups.
8. The manners of the Androphagi, being cannibals, are more savage than those of any other race. Darius the Persian smote them.
9. The Atarantians, alone of all known nations, are destitute of names. The title of Atarantians is borne by the whole race in common, but the men have no particular names of their own. They also like to curse the sun because he burns and wastes both their country and themselves.
10. In the Indian desert live ants that are larger than a fox. They like to throw up sand-heaps as they burrow, which are full of gold. This is why India is so rich in gold. In Arabia, there are sheep that have long tails, so long that the shepherds have to make little trucks for their tails. Really.
Herodotus is a consummate storyteller who had a fine eye for the fantastical, although to his credit, he always qualified his more improbable assertions by stating that they are based on hearsay or other sources that he could not wholly verify. Much of the pleasure of reading his book is found in the lush descriptions of long lost nations and their exotic customs. His 'Histories' does not concern itself solely with history in the modern sense, but it is also a book of travelogue, ethnography, zoology, geography and botany. He is an excellent raconteur, almost always entertaining, except when he drones about speculative geography. We can easily imagine him, a man of seemingly inexhaustible curiosity, interviewing Marathon veterans for firsthand battle accounts, or interrogating Egyptian temple priests about their country’s history and religion. History for him is not a dry recitation of facts and dates, but an intensely human story acted by a vast cast of monarchs, queens, warriors, tyrants, gods and ordinary citizens. Regicides and rebellions are caused by personal passions, such as in the stories of Caudales and Gyges, and Xerxes and Masistes. Dreams compel Xerxes to invade Greece. Divine intervention decides the course of epic battles.
A skein of tragedy runs through the historical drama that he narrates. The gods are so capricious and jealous that “one should not call a man happy until he is dead.” Xerxes, on beholding his massive force on the Hellespont, laments that “not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.” Yet while man lives his short existence he is capable of epic deeds, and Herodotus chronicled them all. (less)
In 1987, I went to China and visited, among other places, the tomb of the Wanli Emperor near Beijing. It was the only royal tomb open to the public in...moreIn 1987, I went to China and visited, among other places, the tomb of the Wanli Emperor near Beijing. It was the only royal tomb open to the public in the Ming Tombs complex at that time. Our Chinese guide led us down a ramp into a subterranean, vaulted chamber clad in white marble. Inside there were thrones carved with dragons and phoenixes, also of the same white marble, and huge blue-and-white porcelain urns. The chamber led into other chambers, just as massive and cold. One contained numerous lacquered boxes of all sizes containing grave-good treasures. The main chamber held the enormous coffins of the emperor himself and two of his consorts. Our guide stopped in front of the royal coffin and told us that the man whose remains it held was ‘the most venal emperor in Chinese history’ and also that his ‘feudal excesses had bled the Chinese people dry’. No doubt he was parroting the official party line at that time, but he made me curious about the Wanli Emperor.
The interesting thing is that he began his almost five-decade reign (one of the longest in Chinese history) as a conscientious young sovereign. Raised by top Mandarins according to strict Confucian principles, the intelligent and sensitive young man was prepared to devote his life to being a model ruler, guided by grand-secretary Chang Chu Cheng. However, Huang tells us, he gradually grew disillusioned with the hypocritical and impersonal nature of the administration that he was the titular head of. By about halfway through his reign, he stopped attending court functions, letting important posts stay vacant and otherwise engaged in a passive-aggressive war against his own ministers.
China’s vast bureaucracy was infinitely more ancient than the emperor and the dynasty that he represented. It was unique in that it was more or less a meritocracy, and that it governed by moral principle. The latter, according to Huang, is the very factor that ultimately led to its collapse. On the one hand, Confucian principles expected the mandarins to serve the people selflessly, to live simply on subsistence wages. On the other hand, the wages were so ridiculously low that most officials had to supplement their incomes by taking advantage of their position. The opportunity for graft and corruption was virtually endless. Huang argues that the most successful officials were not the most honest ones --- who most often than not created more problems because of their overzealousness --- but the ones who could balance the two opposing directions. Shackled to Confucian moral tenets, the judicial system remained ineffective and arbitrary. The army was not organized according to proper military practices and was helpless against Japanese pirates and nomadic marauders. All of these factors eventually led to the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Wanli was not the cause of it but he was a part of a dysfunctional system that was tottering towards its demise.
I wonder if other historians are as lenient to the Wanli Emperor.