China in Disintegration?

Joseph A Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge 1988

Picking up on a previous discussion about the possibility that the failure of cities would produce depopulation in their hinterland, with specific reference to Galilee, a possibility for which Tainter's book was cited in support, the following was posted to the ANE-2 list on 5 June 2007.

Joseph Tainter

Tainter defines collapse as loss of complexity. I think that definition needs a lot of work. But rather than engage those deep theoretical issues here, it may also be worth noticing how Tainter treats the ancient Chinese situation which is one of his examples. After all, any attempt to breach the barrier which now exists between the Mediterranean disciplines and the rest of us is to be to be encouraged in principle, even if some corrections might be in order.

I find that some corrections are in order. First among them is that China in 0771 (the instance Tainter includes among his specimens of collapse) did not collapse. The overlord power Jou vanished as a factor in affairs, leaving behind it a perfectly viable if acephalous multi-state system. There was no starvation, no exodus; there were no group suicides among the rural populace. What the Jou had provided was control, and what they had bled off was wealth. Once that control was lacking, and once that blood was left to circulate where it had originated, the constituent entities flourished. As indeed seems to have been the case for at least parts of the Roman Empire, a case which Tainter considers at greater length.

Glen Bowersock

One has to side emotionally with the Chinese overlords before anything approaching a Chinese "collapse" can be posited for 0771. Evidently Tainter does take that side, but he has no business doing so. History is not what you like; it is not whose side you are on; it is what happened. The example, therefore, does not belong in the book. It might be questioned (and by Glen Bowersock, who finds that Rome did not in fact collapse in the sense meant by Tainter, it has been questioned) whether Rome does either. In both these cases Tainter is meddling with history, which is not something he was trained for. It shows.

That is the short answer. For details, I repeat Tainter's summary of the Jou situation from p4-5 of his book, and intersperse a few remarks, in the interest of seeing how comparative history is currently done, and how it might be done better in the future.

TAINTER [p5-6]. "The Western Chou Empire." The Chou dynasty succeeded the corrupt Shang in the mastery of China by 1122 BC, . . .

BROOKS: It is not likely that the "corruption" or moral failure of Shang was the reason for its conquest by Jou. That theory of the transition is a self-serving Confucian myth. History needs to notice myth, but myth itself does not make good history. Tainter is being suckered out by standard tales and stories, and he does not seem to realize it. This does not get us off to a very good start.

TAINTER: . . . a reign was subsequently established that later Chinese looked back on as a golden age.

BROOKS: Certain Chinese (more exactly: certain Confucian theorists) did so regard the Jou, but for reasons beneficial to themselves. There was actually a vigorous discussion in the Warring States (that is, the immediate pre-Imperial period) about whether the Jou were a good model or a bad model for modern times; that is, Warring States times. Lots of people thought that they were a bad model. Tainter is here unaware of anything other than standard Confucian piety. Piety is not history, and concentration on pious viewpoints, to the exclusion of all other viewpoints, is not historiography.

TAINTER: The Chou ruled through a feudal system, but within a few centuries their control began to slip. The royal house began to lose power as early as 934 BC. Barbarian invasions increased in frequency through the ninth and eighth centuries, and regional lords began to ignore their obligation to the Chou court.

BROOKS: It is hard to tell how far this departs from the Bad Last Woman topos, which dominates most popular treatments of the subject. Taking these statements as true, however, as Tainter does, notice that what they imply is a strengthening of the constituent states at the expense of the overlord (one cannot very conveniently say "central authority," since the Jou homeland was in the NW corner of the then Chinese world), not a general loss of efficiency. The locus of power is changing, but China as a whole is not becoming either weak or inefficient.

TAINTER: In 771 BC the last Western Chou ruler was killed in battle and the capital city, Hao, overrun and sacked by northerners. Following this disaster, . . .

Simone Signoret

BROOKS: A disaster to the NW-located overlord, no doubt. But a boon to everybody else, in a process that seems already to have been headed that way. Feudal systems can fail in many ways, among them these two: either the overlord is so successful that he bleeds the underlords until the whole system becomes weak, or the overlord can weaken, in which case the underlords may well assert themselves. We have here the latter scenario. Was the liberation of the South American republics from their Spanish overlords in the 1830's a disaster? Not for those republics. Was the liberation of Paris in 1944 a disaster? Depends who you talk to, but that event had Lucien Le Cam and Simone Signoret, to mention only two, dancing in the streets.

TAINTER: . . . the Chou capital was moved east to Loyang, where the Eastern Chou dynasty resided from 770 to 256 BC. The Eastern Chou, however, were powerless figureheads: Chinese unity effectively collapsed with the Western Chou.

BROOKS: True but tautological: Jou control ended with the end of Jou control. Whether this was a collapse, or a geographical rearrangement that was the end of a process which, as Tainter himself invites one to suspect, began 150 years earlier, is a matter on which collapse theorists may wish to pause. Let it be emphasized in passing that the "unity" of the Jou-dominated states consisted chiefly in the fact that Jou dominated them. Considered in themselves, those states had different traditions, and in some cases spoke different languages. A certain cultural unity did gradually come into being after 0771, and after three centuries, the extent and importance of that cultural unity had become considerable. But cultural homogenization is a fact about the later multi-state system; it is not a fact, or an least not an equally demonstrable fact, about the previous Jou system.

TAINTER: Through the Spring and Autumn (770-464 BC) and Warring States (463-222) periods, disintegration and endless conflict were the norms.

BROOKS: Tilt. The feudal connection vanished with the feudal overlord, but that is not dis-integration in any real sense, since it is one of the basic traits of feudalism (indirect sovereignty on a land/service basis) that the constituents are NOT integrated into a single state, but retain full local identity for all except tribute and military obligation purposes. Anjou. Burgundy. Feudalism is one way you can dominate an area when you are not strong enough to conquer and unite it. As for disintegration in the sense of civil breakdown, in the Chinese case, there is none. On the contrary, each of the the constituent states, minus its outside obligations, was more fully integrated than before, like a pig without its tapeworm. Remember that this is a big area, as big as Europe on a good day. Was Italy better off after the Austrians were ejected? Austrians may speak of a collapse, but most Italians will probably have a different view.

All that survives of this sentence, then, is the idea of endemic warfare. That may deserve to be explored a little further.

TAINTER: Powerful regional states emerged which contended endlessly for hegemony, forging and breaking alliances, engaging in wars, and manipulating barbarian groups.

BROOKS: The bigger of the Jou constituent states asserted themselves regionally after 0771. So did the medium ones, but most of them were overborne in about a century (the mid 0600's) by the big ones. As for alliances, in the sense of alliances, there were none. There were ad hoc agreements to campaign together, but these had no validity, and they were expected to have no validity, beyond the close of that campaign. They did not define ongoing alignments of states. That is, the term "alliances" tends to evoke a modern arrangement that has no parallel in early China. A lot of damage has been done to European understanding through misreporting the facts of this period. The League of Nations was founded, in part, on an optimistic but erroneous notion that there had been such a thing as international law in the Spring and Autumn period. (For bibliography, see Walker). That theoretical model was untrue. And the League collapsed, if I may borrow that term, after about 2 years. The League was an untruth built on a misconception.

Hall of the League of Nations

Mistakes are not only bad in themselves; they hurt other people. Sometimes they hurt whole states. It is better, both methodologically and morally, to read the sources more carefully, and get it right the first time.

TAINTER: The contending states became fewer but larger, until finally the Ch'in reunified China in 221 BC.

BROOKS: Tilt. China had never been unified. Much of it had come under overlordship twice in succession, first under Shang and then under Jou. The unification of 0221 was the first ever, an utterly new event, and the title chosen by its leader was exlicitly meant to symbolize this: The First Emperor. He was the first. There had never before been a single Chinese state comprising the whole Sinitic area. There had never been a previous emperor. I count it in Tainter's favor that he did not call the Jou rulers "emperors." But credit for that caution vanishes, after all, in his use of the drastically incorrect term "reunified."

The Chinese states in Spring and Autumn (and there were also a good many non-Sinitic states in the mix, including some of the big ones, a fact Tainter ignores in favor of the popular but inadequate theory of "outside barbarians") were like the Greek states, as well described by M I Finley. The Greek states, or a subset of them, had cultural commonality. They could unite against a major outside threat. (So could the Chinese states - in Spring and Autumn, the chief threat was the southern but non-Sinitic state of Chu, which only later became acculturated as a member of the Sinitic family). But the Greek states never unified, except temporarily with an assist from Persia, and permanently with an assist from Rome, but the latter is a separate chapter.

It was only with the tremendous state reformations of the Warring States period (the term "state formation" is drastically overused in these contexts, and I here avoid it), which enabled them to bring resources more singlemindedly to bear to support the army, an army which was itself reshaped at the same time, that the states gained the power to destroy each other. That is what happened next, the first of the new style battles being fought in 0343. It is this crucial restructuring of the state and its populace that Tainter is missing out on. For those who know, it may be thought to be implied in his phrase "fewer but larger." But the thing needs to be made explicit, and also to be made detailed. This is why "Spring and Autumn" and "Warring States" are usefully distinguished as two periods. The contentiousness is there in both periods, but only in the latter phase does the contentiousness get enough teeth to kill.

TAINTER: The period of disintegration and conflict . . .


BROOKS: Tilt yet again. No matter how many times Tainter sticks in the word "disintegration" as riding piggyback on the more correct word "conflict," there was no disintegration whatsoever. Tainter might defend that term if he takes the Jou view of the event of 0771, and if he confines his treatment to 0771, and then stops. But he does not. He goes on through several centuries, and throughout those centuries, the Chinese states were becoming constantly more powerful, and they did this precisely by integrating themselves. The great watershed occurs somewhere around 0500, and the new situation was fully in place by the mid 0300's. In place of an exiguous layer of elite chariot warriors, feeding off an indigenous rural populace - the classic palace state - you had instead a virtually Napoleonic situation: a populace which was now part of the state, having access to (and also being amenable to) the law, a thing which was itself a new phenomenon. There was also the new mass infantry army based on precisely these new social elements. That populace came to be loyal to the state as such, and this also was utterly new; the palace states had functioned on the service ethos of the lifetime military elite, and the loyalty of the elite had been to the person of the ruler; the "state" as a concept no more existed in their time than it did in the Ancient Near East. The new-style state instituted resource management and logistics considerations on a large scale: land surveys, tax ratings, agricultural loans paid back with a different set of measures, the whole schmear. Every man (farming or fighting, as one political theory manual of the time puts it), every woman (textile production), every plant (including some new introductions yielding more calories per calorie expended in cultivation), every inch of land, every dollop of fertilizer, was surveyed, inventoried, and turned into war material. If this is "disintegration," I puzzle to think what "integration" would look like.

So here again, into a statement that is otherwise not ostensibly false, Tainter has dragged in the entirely gratuitous term "disintegration." What he describes in that sentence is something which, on any close and reasonable appraisal, is the exact opposite of "disintegration." All Tainter can do with these centuries, apparently, is to mourn for the long lost Jou overlordship. It was the crumbling of that already weak Jou overlordship that uncorked the tremendous social energy latent in China as such, whence:

TAINTER: . . . produced some of China's major philosophical, literary, and scientific achievements.

BROOKS: "Scientific" might be pushing it. Let's say "technological." Philosophical and literary, sure. And why? For the same reason that Renaissance Europe was such a hotbed of civil and military technology, of political theory, and of philosophy and learning in general. These things arose despite the general human aversion to change as such, because, in a competitive multi-state system, each state can see a potential competitive advantage in adopting changes, or in winnowing out the best of those proposed. Warring States China and Renaissance Europe are one of the most attractive parallels that the planet offers to the alert comparative historian. Tainter is here walking past that opportunity with his hands in his pockets, mourning that which is not (Jou overlordship) and missing that which is (a dynamic system of increasingly integrated and increasingly powerful states). As an exercise in comparative history, at least as far as this specimen allows one to judge, Tainter's book is nugatory.

TAINTER. Confucius wrote during, and in reaction to, this era.

BROOKS: Not for a moment. Confucius was dead (0479) well before the date at which Tainter begins the Warring States period (0463; vide supra). Confucius wrote nothing at all, at any date; the idea that he did is a later cultural myth. The Analects, a daybook kept up by his successor school in Lu, did invent sayings of Confucius in order to address the new issues of the developing Warring States period. This is an interesting situation; I myself wrote the book on it (The Original Analects, Columbia 1998). Those who want to watch an integrating state in progress, outside the window, and are willing to decode some evidence which happens to be anachronistically phrased, might like to take a look at it. There are no very hard words in it. Feel free.

TAINTER: Contending schools of philosophy (the "Hundred Schools") proliferated and flourished between 500 and 250 BC. In addition to many technical and economic developments, Chinese political thought in its classical form emerged during the worst of the breakdown (Creel 1953, 1970; Needham 1965; Levenson and Schurman [sic] 1969; Hucker 1975).

Sundz,  Author of The Art of War

BROOKS: Quibbles aside (there is some interesting stuff after 0250), this sentence is true except for the phrase which links it to Tainter's thesis. This was not "the worst of the breakdown," except for sissies who mind a little carnage going on around them. There was no "breakdown." There was on the contrary an enormous increase in state power and effectiveness, and for that matter in personal wealth. Traders grew rich. Houses grew grand. A leisure culture developed. Some people at the time didn't like the way power was being used; some even wanted to opt out of the whole tendency (producing a scatter of Fourierist communities across the landscape, which became especially numerous following a particularly traumatic political event in 0286). But they are not the story. The story of China was written by the powerful states, and by those in power in those states. These states made history by devouring each other. Casualty figures in one battle, said to be more than 400,000, might be exaggerated, but the slaughter was undoubtedly fierce; states could emerge from one such encounter minus sizable percentages of their previous land area and population count. As is said in the Art of War [a book of this period], war is the chief business of the state, and the state's only hope of survival. Only too true. But the states of the period, until they went under altogether, did not collapse or even weaken; they grew in power and efficiency, just like the states engaged in World War 2, of recent memory. Japan after years of war in 1945 was technologically far ahead of Japan on the verge of war in 1937. So, unfortunately, for Japan, was the US. So was England, so was Germany, so was everybody, more or less. War does that. War is the most efficient catalyst for technological advancement that was ever invented.

But all of this is rather far removed from the idea of "collapse," No?

As for the authorities on whom Tainter relies, they are a mixed lot. Levenson and Schurmann [sic] in particular is an odd performance, a history of early China by a man (Levenson; I don't know about Schurmann) who despises ancient history in general, and has no patience with the tools needed to get the history of any period out of the sometimes recalcitrant and misleading sources. For the case of Levenson, see the review of that book, elsewhere in this section.

There is nothing wrong with not knowing everything. As Confucius did not say, but as someone in a later century was clever enough to make him say: "to know when you know something, and to know when you don't know something; that is knowledge." (This is a typical maxim of the expert period, the bureaucratic period, the period of the new specialist; Confucius would have been appalled, not only at the false attribution, but at the whole social situation of that time). But those who don't know do need to take care about those other people on whose knowledge they rely. Tainter doesn't show good judgement in this matter, nor does he display a very sound historical instinct of his own. The working historian needs at least one of those virtues.

So in the end we have a summary which is superficially recognizable as a digest of various Chinese bedtime stories and standard stereotypes. Not all of them are wholly without foundation. But the summary is lacking in historical information and in analytical force. Above all, it proves more or less the opposite of what it seems to have been meant to prove.

Well, the planet is young yet, and we of the East are nothing if not patient. Maybe next time.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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