Friday, 9 December 2016

The Old Man and the Book

Xin Wen, Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, describes manuscripts discovered in the Dunhuang caves that tell us about one man’s personal experience of the fall of the Tang Dynasty.
On the eighth day of April in 905 (1st day of the 3rd month), an un-named, 82-year-old man copied the Chinese version of the Diamond Sūtra onto a small codex (Figure 1). This copy is the earliest one in a group of at least a dozen similar copies of Diamond Sūtra made by this same man between 905 and 911. In the early 11th century, all of these codices were sealed in the “library cave” of Dunhuang, an oasis town on the edge of eastern Central Asia, and re-discovered in 1900.
Figure 1: The end and the colophon of the 905 copy of “Diamond Sūtra” (Stein 5534). Image courtesy of British Library’s International Dunhuang Project
Around the same time, one thousand miles away, the Tang dynasty (618–907) fell. This event marks not only the official end of an imperial world system that ruled much of Eastern Eurasia for the previous three centuries, it is also a key moment in the seismic “Tang-Song transition” in the political as well as cultural histories of China. Was this man aware of the fall of the Tang? Did the great medieval cultural transition of China leave any traces in his life or the books he copied?
There is indeed no reason to assume that the fall of the Tang would have any impact on him. Physical distance was not the only thing that separated this man from Chang’an, the capital of the Tang. As a late 10th century Dunhuang geographical manuscript titled A Path to India (西天路竟) shows, the trip from central China to Dunhuang (see Figure 2) would take one through various towns in modern Ningxia and Gansu provinces. None of these places, in the early 10th century, were under the direct rule of the declining Tang empire. Many of them, such as the Uyghur state of Ganzhou, were ruled by non-Chinese regimes. So even though the state of Dunhuang still adhered to nominal vassal status, it was in no way under the control of the Tang.
Figure 2: First Section of “A Path to India”
Yet in the copies of the Diamond Sūtra by this man, the fall of the Tang does find the subtlest of expressions. Such expression is only clear when one understands how he perceived of time according to official Tang rules. Because of the distance between Dunhuang and the capital Chang’an, the news of a new reign name of the Tang — the standard system of dating in pre-modern China — often reaches him very slowly. The copy shown above, for instance, was written “in the 5th year of the Tianfu reign.” But the Tianfu reign only officially lasted for four years, and the year 905, according to the official Tang government, should have been the 2nd year of the Tianyou reign. Between this first copy and the second copy he made 53 days later (Figure 3), however, he became aware of this change in reign names, and switched the year to the “2nd year of the Tianyou reign.”
Figure 3: The second copy of Diamond Sūtra (Stein 5444). Image courtesy of British Library’s International Dunhuang Project
In 907, he abandoned the use of reign names altogether, and switched to the apolitical ganzhi system (a way of reckoning time using sixty unique combinations of terms). Importantly, this action occurred a few months before the dethronement of the last Tang emperor by Zhu Wen (852–912) and the official end of the Tang. The news of Zhu’s new dynasty therefore could not have been the reason for this change. Why did he make this change? Did he already sense the imminent fall of the Tang a few months before it actually occurred? There is no way for us to know the answer. The last time residents of Dunhuang switched to the ganzhi system en masse as their method of dating was when the Tibetan empire conquered Dunhuang in the late 8th century. Therefore, from this small change, it appears that this man in Dunhuang may have been cognizant of the political drama unfolding in Central China. He was connected to Central China in ways we cannot know.
Another way he was connected to Central China is hinted at in his colophons. According to his own notes, this man made the copies of the Diamond Sūtra on the basis of “an authentic version printed by the Guo family in Xichuan (modern western Sichuan) 西川過家印真本” (See Figure 1). As the 868 copy of Diamond Sūtra (Or.8210/P.2) — often seen as the earliest extant printed book in the world — shows, this text was already printed in Dunhuang in the mid-9th century. Yet this man used the print imported from Sichuan, some 1300 miles away. This Sichuan version is no longer extant, but judging from the copies this man made on its basis, this version must have been in codex form, and contained a different set of mantra (zhenyan 真言, Buddhist hymn) at the end of the text. The man might have found this text more appealing for these reasons, or perhaps the 868 copy or similar copies printed in Dunhuang were simply unavailable to him?
Whatever the reason for copying from an imported print, his copies show that the transition from manuscript to printing — a significant component of the broader cultural shifts in the “Tang-Song transition” — is a lot more complicated than is sometimes assumed. In a manner that seems to reverse technological progress, he used printed texts and made them into manuscripts. Interestingly, however, he did identify the printed version as “authentic (印真本 or 真印本),” perhaps recognizing the apparent stability of printed text in comparison to the variability of manuscript. This model of the dissemination of books in the era of transition, in which printed texts were being disseminated trans-regionally, while manuscripts were copied locally, might help raise new questions about the social impact of printing in Middle Period China.
But perhaps more important than complicating our existing historiographical narratives about the era, this series of copies of the Diamond Sūtra offers some rare glimpses into the life of an ordinary person that are sometimes profoundly touching. He prayed in later colophons that his old ox will be reborn in the pure land of the west, and will not suffer being reborn as an animal again (Stein 5544). He prayed too for his enemies and debtors, so that their offenses as severe as defiling a monastery might be absolved (Stein 5450). At the end of a 906 copy, he left the following colophon (Figure 4):
This 83-year-old man mixed blood with ink, and copied this sutra by hand in order that it be distributed to all the faithful ones in Shazhou (Dunhuang). May the land of the state be peaceful, and the wheel of the dharma turn in perpetuity. I copied it with (the wish for) death. Other than a swift departure from the world, there is nothing more that I desire.
Figure 4: Pelliot chinois 2876. Image courtesy of British Library’s International Dunhuang Project
The apparently resolute wish for the other world and his sensitive perception about this world are not necessarily contradictory. By mixing his blood with the ink and stressing that the text was copied by hand, his own body became deeply entangled in the process of making this text. Hence, although a copy of the Diamond Sūtra, this text differed fundamentally from mass-produced printed texts made by the Dunhuang government at the time. Perhaps only in this way could he hope to compete with the well-funded projects of printing in the race for merit?

Xin Wen previously spent a summer researching at the British Library’s Asian and African Studies center, funded by Harvard’s Fairbank Center. Read his account on Manuscripts and Digital Humanities at the British Library.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Archaeology sheds light on Mongolia’s uncertain nomadic future

As a herding lifestyle practiced for millennia is threatened by contemporary climate change, archaeology offers a long-term perspective

Herders tend their flock in the midst of a winter storm.

 Herders tend their flock in a winter storm. Dry summers and cold, snowy winters linked with climate change have resulted in rising livestock death toll in winters, often numbering in the millions. Photograph: Orsoo Bayarsaikhan

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Around the world, traditional subsistence practices provide a resilient source of ecological knowledge that improves humanity’s ability to respond to environmental crises. In Central Asia, a herding lifestyle practiced for millennia is increasingly threatened by the speed and magnitude of climate change.
Although the global mean temperature is predicted to rise by 2C over the coming century, this trend will likely be more severe in high altitude and high latitude environments. In the subarctic steppes of Mongolia, nearly one-third of the population makes their living through migratory herding of livestock – sheep, goat, horse, cattle, camel, and yak. For these herders, the effects of climate change have been immediate and dramatic. Mongolia has experienced summer droughts, extreme winter weather, pasture degradation, a shrinking water supply, and desertification, leading to seasonal herd die-offs. These processes have a cascading effect, reinforcing other issues caused by human activity and globalisation. 
How will nomadic society respond to these obstacles? Archaeology offers a long-term perspective on the relationship between people and the environment.
In comparison to other parts of the continent, the grasslands of Mongolia are dry, cold, and inhospitable. Precipitation is infrequent and seasonal, making pastures susceptible to overgrazing. Horses, which can open snow-covered winter pastures for other livestock and move quickly over long distances, would have helped to mitigate the challenges of life in the Mongolian steppe.

In many areas of Mongolia, including Gobi-Altai province where this photo was taken, increasing numbers of livestock must be watered at fewer and fewer wells.
 In many areas of Mongolia, including Gobi-Altai province where this photo was taken, increasing numbers of livestock must be watered at fewer wells. Photograph: Caleb Pan/University of Montana

Archaeologists have long been aware of the ecological advantages to horse herding and riding, and used them to develop explanations for the origins of nomadic cultures made infamous by Genghis (Mongolian: Chinggis) and Khubilai Khan. One popular archaeological theory championed by Russian scholar Anatoly Khazonov1 argues that more sedentary herders developed horseback riding and seasonal migration as a way to cope with prolonged drought during the late second millennium BCE. If mobile herding societies first coalesced during a centuries-long dry spell, contemporary climate trends might not seem such a fatal threat to nomadic life. 
However, as researchers have acquired detailed record of ancient climate conditions, a different pattern has started to emerge –a link between wet, productive grasslands and the success of nomadic empires. Because water is the limiting factor for life in the Eastern Steppe, rain has a direct impact on the number of livestock an area can support. A recent investigation of paleoclimate records from the Tarim Basin of western China revealed that the great Mongol empire flourished during an anomalously wet period, linked to hemispheric cooling. “Increased carrying capacity for livestock translates into increased carrying capacity for herders,” says study co-author Dave Putnam of the University of Maine. 
Putnam and colleagues argue that cooler, wetter conditions prompted the southern expansion of grasslands and made long-distance military travel on horseback through arid regions easier – favouring the spread of pastoralism, and facilitating the Mongol conquests.
Putnam cautions that their work only demonstrates a correlation, and more data is needed to demonstrate causality. However, other recent work implies that this pattern is far older than the Mongol empire. 

Across the Mongolian steppe, bronze age standing stones are surrounded by dozens of small stone mounds, each containing the remains of a sacrificed horse. Study of these horses shows evidence for the region’s first nomadic horse culture circa 1200 BCE.
 Across the Mongolian steppe, bronze age standing stones are surrounded by dozens of small stone mounds, each containing the remains of a sacrificed horse. Study of these horses shows evidence for the region’s first nomadic horse culture circa 1200 BCE. Photograph: Jean-Luc Houle/Western Kentucky University.

The first direct evidence for widespread mobile pastoralism in Mongolia dates to the late bronze age, around 1200 BCE. Researcher Jean-Luc Houle at Western Kentucky University studied this early nomadic period, and found little evidence for ecological stress. Instead, he argued that these herders, who may have practiced the first horseback riding in Mongolia, seemed to have a healthy diet and an economy with enough surplus animals to conduct conspicuous ritual sacrifices – at some sites, the number of animals killed reaching into the thousands. Houle’s current studies suggest that the Xiongnu (another early empire known for prompting construction of parts of the Great Wall) also rose to power during a wetter interval at the end of the first millennium BCE.

Archaeologists excavate the skull of a 3,000-year-old domestic horse, buried next to a deer stone as part of a ritual sacrifice by early nomadic horsemen.
 Archaeologists excavate the skull of a 3,000-year-old domestic horse, buried next to a deer stone as part of a ritual sacrifice by early nomadic horsemen. Photograph: Julia Clark/American Center for Mongolian Studies

So if the first mobile herding societies (and many nomadic empires thereafter) developed and spread under a wetter climate, what does this mean for contemporary nomads facing unprecedented warming and desertification? 
The answer may be surprisingly complex. One man I spoke with, Jantsankhorloo, lives near Terelj national park not far from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar. He has seen many new challenges in his seven decades as a herder, many of them caused by human activity rather than climate. He notes that urban expansion, fencing, increased animal populations, and more traffic near the park have damaged grasslands and made subsistence more difficult. In mineral-rich areas, mining has also depleted local water sources. More than dry summers and difficult winters, he worries most about the loss of traditional knowledge among the younger generation. Many young people have left the countryside for the city, and no longer learn the skills of horsemanship and animal husbandry. In the coming years, the success or failure of Mongolian nomadic life may depend in large part on how people respond to and mitigate these anthropogenic problems. 

A herder on motorcycle in Bayankhongor province, Central Mongolia.
 A herder on motorcycle in Bayankhongor province, Central Mongolia. Photograph: William Taylor

Modern technology has also impacted herding. Many herders living in the drier, flatter Gobi regions have abandoned horses for Chinese motorbikes – enabling them to move farther distances with their animals, and cope with easily overgrazed pastures. Critics denounce the practice as “lazy” and un-Mongolian, expressing concerns about the effect it may have on the environment and livestock health. Even as technology helps herders cope with changing ecological parameters, it may also have unintended consequences.
With this whirlwind of social and technological change occurring alongside the changing climate, it’s unclear exactly how the future may play out for nomads in eastern Eurasia. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that wet and productive environment that accompanied the emergence of horse culture in the region – and some of its greatest nomadic empires – will characterise the near future. As arid conditions stretch further northward, Putnam sees many herders “caught between a desert and a cold place” – with less biomass translating into reduced forage, and a narrowing window for nomadic life. As climate change endangers Mongolia’s herding traditions, it also threatens ecological knowledge essential to our collective resilience to environmental disaster. 
Further reading:
Houle, Jean-Luc. 2010. Emergent complexity on the Mongolian Steppe: mobility, territoriality, and the development of early nomadic polities. PhD dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.
Khazanov, Anatoly. 1984. Nomads and the Outside WorldMadison, University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 89-97
Putnam, A et al. 2016. Little Ice Age wetting of interior Asian deserts and the rise of the Mongol EmpireQuaternary Science Reviews 131: 33-50.

Genghis Khan goes global

China Daily
By Wang Kaihao and Yuan Hui | China Daily | 2016-12-06

Genghis Khan goes global
Baljinnyam and his wife, Zhang Jixia, read one of the books about Genghis Khan they've collected during their travels around the world over the past few decades. [Photo provided to China Daily]
For Baljinnyam, a man from the Mongolian ethnic group, rummaging through the world's bookshelves for the legends of his "emperor lord" is a pilgrimage.
The 78-year-old, who lives in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region's capital, Hohhot, has collected about 12,000 copies of books in 58 languages, from home and abroad, related to Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the Mongol ruler who established a mighty Eurasian empire.
"Everyone in the Mongolian ethnic group admires Genghis Khan and treats him like a god," Baljinnyam says.
"But many of us don't know much about him as an individual. My impression of him was limited until I began to collect the written material."
In 1998, Baljinnyam retired from his job at a local newspaper. After that when he went to visit his younger daughter in Shanghai, he read a Washington Post story that quoted a public poll as saying Genghis Khan was "the most important man of the last millennium".
Many people in the West call the Mongol emperor a conqueror and an invader, so Baljinnyam says he was surprised to read such a "positive comment" in the Post.
"That inspired me to have a complete view of Genghis Khan."
Genghis Khan goes global
Baljinnyam's collection includes 12,000 copies of books in 58 languages. [Photo provided to China Daily]
He and his wife, Zhang Jixia, an ethnic Han, have traveled to more than 40 countries, starting from Japan, where their eldest daughter used to live.
They often gave popular tourist destinations a miss, instead focusing on local bookstores, libraries and flea markets for references about Genghis Khan.
"You cannot imagine how excited we were when we found a Bengali version of Genghis Khan's biography at an old book market in Bangladesh after days of looking around in vain," he recalls of their trip to Dhaka in 2012.
They were also surprised to find four different kinds of books on Genghis Khan in a small bookstore in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013.
But not everywhere gave Baljinnyam what he was looking for.
He searched for such books in Cuba during one of his trips, but returned to China empty-handed. He later found out that Cuba, too, had books on Genghis Khan.
A son-in-law of Baljinnyam from Pakistan helped him get more than 100 such books from the Arab world.
Genghis Khan goes global
Publications about Genghis Khan and the history of Mongols written in Mongolian. [Photo provided to China Daily]
"Genghis Khan has become a cultural phenomenon across the globe," he says. "The books I've collected show that many overseas scholars have abandoned stereotypes in recent years and have gradually come to consider him an early advocate of globalization, which echoes with modern times."
In 2003, Baljinnyam published his first book, Genghis Khan in the Eyes of the World's Famous Figures, to summarize different opinions on the ruler. But he says it is more important to have original viewpoints rather than just echoing other people's thoughts.
He has published 12 books so far, and several are on his own explanation of The Secret History of the Mongols, which was written for Mongol royal families after Genghis Khan's death and is generally regarded as the most significant native Mongolian record of the emperor's life.
In 2013, he opened a private museum in Hohhot to exhibit his collection.
Baljinnyam says both his daughters are busy running their own businesses, and have little time for this.
But he acknowledges his daughters' focus on their careers helped to sponsor his travels abroad.
He has reached an agreement to move most of his collection to the new Genghis Khan Literature Museum.
Genghis Khan goes global
Publications about Genghis Khan and the history of Mongols written in Mongolian. [Photo provided to China Daily]
The 2,000-square-meter museum in Xilinhot-another city in Inner Mongolia, some 600 kilometers from Hohhot-is open to the public from 8 am to 9 pm daily.
"I have to get more people involved," Baljinnyam says of his endeavor.
According to Gao Mingrui, director of the museum, more books on the subject have been donated or bought as exhibits other than Baljinnyam's own collection.
More than 16,000 copies on Genghis Khan are now housed in the museum, which has attracted 37,000 visitors since its opening in June.
"We will begin research on the books, and are considering some of them as applicants for the national list of precious ancient books," Gao says.
The oldest book in the museum was published in 1573 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Gao also says they are planning to hold a special exhibition on Genghis Khan in Taiwan in the future.