Official History

According to the Official Chinese History, the Han Chinese have lived within roughly the modern Chinese borders for more than two thousand years, Chinese culture is five thousand years old, the Chinese invented practically everything before anybody else, and Chinese culture sprung up completely independently, uncorrupted by outside influences. Unfortunately for the Official History the evidence for all of these things is passing small and coming under strain as we uncover more and more about the past and what happened in really truly history.

Chinese scholars knowingly invented much of this Official History during the same period that in Europe we call the Middle Ages. The really truly history is a lot more complicated. than the Official History would have it.

There have been other non-Han Chinese people living within what is now China from time immemorial. Some have been non-Han Chinese East Asian peoples. Some have been Central Asian peoples. Some have even been people of European type. China has been influenced by all of these people. Its culture did not develop in isolation and in many ways in antiquity China was a technological backwater. I seem to recall that a prominent and non-crackpot University of Chicago linguist believed that not even China’s distinctive writing system was a Chinese invention but had been brought there, presumably by travelling Sumerian salesmen.

This is no secret. Except to most of the Chinese people and practically all Westerners who’ve learned the Official History in school and are too gullible to know any better.

Every so often a journalist rouses from his or her torpor to publish something that calls the Official History into question, only to lapse once again into troubled slumber. That’s how I take the article in the New York Times today about the origins of the archaeological finds from China’s Xinjiang Province:

Some Uighurs have latched on to the fact that the oldest mummies are most likely from the west as evidence that Xinjiang has belonged to the Uighurs throughout history. A modern, nationalistic pop song praising the Loulan Beauty has even become popular.

“The people found in Loulan were Uighur people, according to the materials,” said a Uighur tour guide in the city of Kashgar who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of running afoul of the Chinese authorities. “The nationalities of Xinjiang are very complicated. There have been many since ancient times.”

Scholars generally agree that Uighurs did not migrate to what is now Xinjiang from Central Asia until the 10th century. But, uncomfortably for the Chinese authorities, evidence from the mummies also offers a far more nuanced history of settlement than the official Chinese version.

By that official account, Zhang Qian, a general of the Han dynasty, led a military expedition to Xinjiang in the second century B.C. His presence is often cited by the ethnic Han Chinese when making historical claims to the region.

The mummies show, though, that humans entered the region thousands of years earlier, and almost certainly from the west.

Lest we get too complacent about the ancient grandeur of our own civilization it helps to remember that the history that you learned in school about Europe previous to about 1500CE is almost certainly bunkum, too. Neither we, nor the Chinese, nor anyone else really know very much about things that happened more than about 500 years ago and virtually everything you learned about what went on 1,500 or 2,500 or more years ago is a mixture of conjecture, guesswork, legend, and confabulation.

Prior to the spread of the printing press the cost of preserving and disseminating information was quite high and to do it people needed to have a darned good reason. One of the best of reasons, as Napoleon reminded us, was the hope of gain and most “history” was written by somebody with an axe to grind, trying to support somebody or other’s claim to something or other.

13 comments… add one
  • Excellent post Dave – Ancient history hangs by slender threads of evidence. Modern history drowns in an ocean of irrelevant information.

  • I’m skirting the hotbutton issues, of course. It’s my way.

    This subject is a perpetual irritant to me.

  • Lexington Green sent me this review a while back – a good read but the subject may infuriate you 🙂

  • Thucydides’s History of the Peloponessian War is a wonderful example of exactly what I’m talking about. The oldest extant manuscript of the work is less than 1,000 years old and it’s writing about events that purportedly took place 1,500 prior to that.

    Thucydides rarely cites his sources (unlike Herodotus). Further, it is logically untenable to praise him for his scientific accuracy in reporting without recognizing that his reporting of dates, based on the descriptions of eclipses in the work, is messed up. This is not a secret. It’s been known for hundreds of years.

    The History is best thought of as a work of fiction. That doesn’t make it any less great. Tolstoy’s War and Peace would be a great book whether it described actual historic battles or not. But we shouldn’t rely on it as history.

  • Brett Link

    Well, there’s archaeology, which tends to at least have some physical basis. I get your point, though; prior to the printing press, at least written history is a bit iffy. That’s why you look for common ground among differing accounts, so that if, say, Tacitus and Josephus agree on something that happened during Roman Judaea times, they might have something there pending archaeological proof.

  • Brett Link

    One other thing –

    Would Thucydides even have to have sources? He was supposedly alive during the whole period (IIRC, he writes his accounts based off of what he’s heard, and heard from other people involved in the events), and even mentions himself in the third person.

    Moreover, it’s entirely possible that he just made a mistake regarding the timing of the eclipses. It’s not like there were tons of people around recording every solar eclipse into written records he could access – he had the same problems with this type of thing that we do now, with the downside in that he didn’t have archaeology.

  • Tacitus is only known from two manuscripts, the older of which is from 700 years after Tacitus presumably lived. We have no way of knowing what the original actually said and believing that it was transmitted unerringly requires quite the leap of faith. Additionally, we have no way of knowing whether any of the scribes who who transcribed Tacitus were aware of, say, Josephus and interpolated from Josephus into Tacitus.

    And Books 1-10 of Josephus are known from only eleven manuscripts not one of which has the complete text. Re-constructing the original text isn’t just translation, it’s creative writing. We have no idea whatever what the original text was like, just guess work.

    The eight manuscripts from which we know Thucydides don’t agree perfectly among each other. The translation isn’t just a translation; it’s a synthesis.

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