Bryn Hammond's Reviews > The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China

The Perilous Frontier by Thomas J. Barfield
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it was amazing
bookshelves: steppe-history, website-widget

This has been a must-read since it came out, because it's a book with a theory. Whether you are convinced or unconvinced by the theory of steppe history here, you have to engage with this one. As a matter of fact I'm largely unconvinced, and yet this is a terrific book for me. I thought it best on: the Hsiung-nu or Huns - can't say enough about his account of Hun history; on the Turks and Tang China; and on Chinggis Khan, particulary on his politics which went against tribal conventions - on his innovations.

It's brilliant on the culture of geography: on the great cultural divide between the steppe and China. From the introduction on 'The Steppe Nomadic World': Inner Asia was a zone of long-term interaction between two opposing cultures with powerfully fixed ideas of themselves and others. For more than 2000 years the nomadic peoples of the steppe confronted the world's largest agrarian state without being politically incorporated by it or adopting its culture... Throughout East Asia even fiercely independent neighbors adopted Chinese models of state organisation and foreign relations, ideographic literacy, cuisine, clothes and calendars. All of East Asia that is except for China's great opponents on the steppelands in the north. There horse-riding nomads not only rejected Chinese culture and ideology, worse, they obstinately refused to see any value in it except in terms of the material goods the Chinese could offer.

How's that for a battlecry? He starts out from this observation, and studies nomad-Chinese interactions - in terms of nomads' exploitation of China for those material goods, while they go on standing aloof from the culture (or trying to). It's fascinating, it's important, and covers the entire history of the steppe. You needn't believe his interpretations in every case. I still five-starred, no question.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 10, 2012 – Shelved
January 10, 2012 – Shelved as: steppe-history
October 26, 2012 – Shelved as: website-widget

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