At the conference “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context,” David Mervart reflected on the relative character of European periodisation schemes. By discussing two late 18th-early 19th century Japanese authors who translated the European history into the standard historiographical categories of the Sinosphere, he attempted to offer a counterfactual glimpse on alternative ways of organizing past. In the following think piece, he comes back to some of the topics he dealt with during the conference.
Let me open a thread on something that I believe can help us reflect on the relative character of our periodisation schemes: the translation of the European/Western past into the standard, universal categories that were current around the Sinosphere right until well into the nineteenth century. This allows us to see how different temporal regimes enter into interplay and how, say, emblematic moments from one historiography are subsumed under the conventional terms of another historiography.
I brought this up recently at the “Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context” conference in Berlin, because I thought this perspective would provide us with a certain counterfactual glimpse on the alternative ways of organizing past into chunks endowed with meaning taken from authoritative precedents. My only slightly provocative purpose was to show what might have happened if the European past had been fitted into containers from the East Asian historiography with universalist pretensions.
So let me first lay out my example.
I have been looking at some of the early attempts to make sense of European/Occidental history in Japan. These early attempts are quite early by East Asian standards: we are talking about the decades straddling the year 1800. And this is what makes them interesting. Because that means they precede by a few decades the head-on confrontation with what we call by convenient shorthand “Western imperialism”.
For the sake of highlighting the difference in degree, one could say that to try and understand European history in 1790s or early 1800s in Japan is more of a sporting philological and ethnographic challenge than a hard-nosed, “raison-d’état” necessity driven by demand for geopolitical intelligence. In these early decades, there is certainly a slowly growing sense that the Occidentals are now a global presence and that probably in the more or less distant future something will need to be done about it. But this is not yet the perception of the acute, existential threat which is articulated with growing urgency later in the 1820s and intensifies after the shocking news of the defeat of the Qing empire at the hands of the British expeditionary force in the first Opium War in 1839–42.
For the sake of convenience, I would like to illustrate this dynamics by the example of two authors (and their historiographic work) that stand for two different moments of dealing with the European past: shall we say the “philological moment” of 1800s and the “strategic intelligence” moment of 1840s.
The first author is Yamamura Masanaga 山村昌永 or Saisuke 才助 (1770–1807). Just around 1800 he translated (via Dutch) and commented excerpts from the famous, Matthäus Merian-illustrated biblical universal history of Johann Ludwig Gottfried, a 1603 Heidelberg theology graduate. This is nothing less than a full history of all memorable events from the Creation until the year of publication, 1619, “nach Austheilung der vier Monarchien” (following the division into the Four [Universal] Monarchies/Empires).
The second author I would like to mention is one Nagayama Kan 長山貫 or Choen 樗園 (active in 1840s–50s), who penned some military treatises and portraits of selfless warrior heroes of the past and also one of the comprehensive histories of the first Opium War, Record of the War Between the Qing and Great Britain (Shin’ei senki 清英戦記, around 1848–9). But he also wrote a Brief History of the West (Seiyō shōshi 西洋小史, prefaced 1848), which avowedly draws precisely on Yamamura Masanaga’s Gottfried translation and the scheme of the Four Monarchies. This latter work is an 1840s survey history (written at the same time that Nagayama is drafting his detailed account of the Opium War) gleaned from earlier, 1800s translations, in an attempt to make sense—by providing the larger and longer-term context—of the inconceivable fact that a small kingdom from the Far West was capable of defeating at a distance the fleets and armies of the vast Qing realm right on its doorstep. Nagayama is not a great or famous historian. What makes him noteworthy is rather the way he uses second- and third-hand accounts of that particular history (Occidental history from the dawn of time through the translatio imperii) in the particular context of the post-Opium War shock-wave around East Asia.
Here is the outline of the Western history that Nagayama of 1840s (quoting Yamamura of 1800s) offers as a long-shot explanation of the shocking new geopolitical dynamics that has engulfed East Asia following the Qing defeat:
Following the Flood (with Noah’s ark and the reset point zero of human history), the western world passed through four successive stages of universal empire: 1. the Babylonian/Assyrian; 2. the Mede/Persian; 3. the Greek/Macedonian; and finally 4. Roman. This scheme is of course theological and eschatological, so it is supposed to culminate in the fifth empire, the Kingdom of God, but that is not the point here and neither Yamamura nor Nagayama have anything to say to that. By the way, as discussed in a previous post on this website (“Empire as analytical category”) neither Yamamura nor Nagayama hesitate to equate the name of these political formations, imperium, or keyzerrijk, with the title 帝 (Ch.: di; J: tei) established for the august Son of Heaven, i.e., the “emperor”, in the universal, “Chinese” political theology. In this, they both follow a well-established convention from precisely around 1790’s, the result of a sort of tacit comparison of the great world polities and their respective pedigree of descent from Rome’s caesars or from Mongol/Tatar great khans. Relying on that established convention which pragmatically assumes a functional parity between caesars, keyzers, caliphs, khans and huangdi—all basically variant modes of universal sovereignty—Nagayama can subsequently apply common tropes of East Asian historiography to make sense of the West’s sociopolitical trajectory.
This is where it gets interesting from the point of view of global history, because this is the point where Nagayama proceeds to tacitly apply to European history some of the assumptions which are implicit in traditional periodisations of East Asian history. He observes that, in East Asia, periods of unification under caesar/di-like rulers (emperors) commonly emerged after periods of fragmentation, disorder and strife, the Warring States (戦國 J: sengoku) period, as the historiographical convention terms it. In Europe, by contrast, this standard (standard by the assumptions current around the Sinosphere), commonsensical direction of history from fragmentation and anarchy to unification and order appears to be reversed. The West—as Nagayama understands it—emerged right from the dawn of time as a reasonably organised and properly ruled unity. With the decline and fall of the last universal empire of the Romans, however, a plethora of small competing polities emerged—precisely the Warring States situation which was so familiar from the Chinese (and Japanese) histories. This accounts for the later development of the West. The ruthless, cutthroat competition between the small European kingdoms which emerged after the fall of the Roman empire made them expert in warfare and related skills like ballistics and surgery; and the natural barrenness of their lands and the necessity to secure supplies for the intermittent conflict drove them overseas in search of resources and made them expert in navigation and piracy (and related skills like astronomy) and in other cheerful exploits in violently disturbing the peace of foreign lands. Nowadays—that is, as of mid-1840s—the Occidentals encroach upon Asia like so many “silkworms munching a mulberry leaf” (not perhaps the scariest, but thoroughly respectably classical image, lifted straight from Sima Qian) and England is by far the most formidable among them. It is nonetheless quite surprising that, even though it apparently owns a third of the world and can beat the Qing on their home turf, neither Nagayama nor any of his contemporaries (to the best of my knowledge) call England an “empire”. I guess they share the idea that empires are by definition sources of order and stability, which England decidedly is not, because it rather continues to operate on the conquest-desperate, destabilising, warring-states logic of one small kingdom among many.
In short: Nagayama does not see the dramatic expansion of European presence around the world as an instance of diguo帝國 (J: teikoku), “empire”. Rather, he sees it as the threat of dragging East Asia—which has previously experienced a long period of unification and considerable stability—back again into a world that operates on the pre-imperial, zhanguo/sengoku warring-states logic.
In the mid-1850s, after Tokugawa authorities are pressed into negotiating a series of bilateral treaties with the main powers, this comparison of the logic of western-dominated international relations with the logic of the warring states period becomes staple language of the Tokugawa diplomats and officials. Hotta Masayoshi 堀田正睦, the de-facto standing minister for foreign affairs of the Tokugawa government in 1857, pronounced to the full bench of the highest legislative and executive council (hyōjōsho 評定所)：
万国之形勢 […] 粗漢土春秋列国の時 […] に似たる有様の大なるもの
“The dynamics of the ten thousand countries [of the world today] greatly resembles the times of the competing kingdoms of the Springs and Autumns period…”
But this conventional trope can be traced back to the attempts to map the European past onto the conceptual and chronotypical grid of universal (“Chinese”) histories, by means of a sort of creative comparative equation, attempts that were well under way by early 1800s. Thus Nagayama at the opening of his Brief History of the West:
“After the decline of the imperial rule of Rome, the independent kingdoms that succeeded it have come to resemble the seven powerful contenders of the Warring States period [of ancient China] in always attempting to conquer one another. At this time, these [independent kingdoms] do not submit to [the authority of] any single imperial sovereign.”
Of course, and I cannot emphasize this enough, to use in Japan the historiographical containers lifted directly from the “Chinese” histories was the most normal, conventional, educated thing to do. Pretty much like lifting one’s meta-historical nomenclature from the Republican and Imperial period of ancient Rome has been the normal, standard, educated way to make sense of the more recent past of the post-Roman monarchies and nation states of the European world. Even imagined, beyond-the-Earth “mytho-histories” like the Star Wars saga effortlessly and intuitively operate in the space of temporal-political categories defined for us by a Livian and Tacitan classical Roman history: a galactic “Republic” in a process of corruption degenerates into an “Empire” in a coup precipitated when a man (well, a Sith) called into office as a public servant of the republic arrogates to himself dictatorial powers pleading security concerns and emergency circumstances. The zhanguo/sengoku “warring states” conceptual terminology—around the broader East Asian Sinosphere, once upon a time—represented a historiographical container, a type, an emblematic moment of the same level of tacitly posited general applicability. As emblematic and generally applicable as, say, “Middle Ages” or “Renaissance” of the European historiography (which, as in Joachim [Kurtz]’s and Pablo [Blitstein]’s presentations in this conference, some went into considerable lengths trying to locate in Chinese past). It had the same ability to structure, periodise, and explain a body of past record (even foreign, possibly even extra-terrestrial record) and make it into a narratable storyline with a point.
Had things gone the other way round and had East Asian historiographical tradition somehow ended up being the one to impose its general categories on the structures of world history, we would now be doubtless all scouring the European past to identify the “Warring States” period of Europe. The likely conclusion probably would have been that it started around the demise of the (probably Western?) Roman Empire and ended (provisionally?) in the year 1945. Quite as Nagayama Choen had it.”