Fallen Tang

Chinese Herder

“The season of the falling blossom” was a metaphor used by Du Fu to describe the collapse of the great Tang Dynasty, the high water mark of Chinese Imperial Civilization.  The Tang was a time of great prosperity in China.  A healthy population growth gave the Chinese huge military resources.  These in turn allowed the Chinese to dominate surrounding nations and receive tribute from Japan, Korea, Vietnam and from Central Asian rulers as well as the Arabs and the Indians.

They were able to carve out a huge western empire along the silk road, and trade flourished.  In this golden age art prospered.  It was an age of literature, painting, sculpture, ceramics, theater and poetry.  Silks, tea, block printing all flourished.  It was a time of sophistication, summed up by the poem “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup” which described eight leading lights of the arts who imbibed freely of the grape.

Ultimately it was the strong military that doomed the Tang.  Frontier generals commanding seasoned veterans carved out their own kingdoms.  The painted soldiers on comfortable palace duty were unable to match the tough border troops.    The central government became weak or disinterested and was dominated by the Eunuchs.  When a series of natural disasters struck, leading to flooding and widespread famine, the huge population faced starvation.  Bandit armies sprung up in every province.  They took over trade that previously delivered wealth to the Government, such as the salt trade.

The dissolution took many decades and follows themes that are familiar to students of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  A peaceful central civilization surrounded by barbarian populations who covet the luxury and lifestyle of the empire.  Bloated bureaucracy, effete emperors, corrupt officials and ambitious frontier generals.

 

江南逢李龟年

岐王宅里寻常见
催九堂前几度闻
正是江南好风景
落花时节又逢君

Meeting Li Guinian South of the River ; by Du Fu

In Prince Qi’s mansion house, I met you often,
By Cui Jiu’s hall, I heard you several times.
Truly the landscape south of the river is good,
I meet you again in the season of falling blossom.

 

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Radhanites

Fun fact:  20 years ago on this day the US state of Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery.  That Southern Anti-Slavery impetus is fast like molasses in winter.

This got me thinking about slavery and the slave trade through history.  Along the way I came across the history of the Radhanites, a group I never heard about before.  It seems Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta found their way to China by tramping a well worn path created by a group of enterprising Jews.

Radhanites were a bridge in time, space and culture.  Masters of language, they could trade from France to China.  As Jews they could move between the Christian and Muslim worlds in “relative” safety (they were equally hated in both spheres).  They were a bridge from China to Europe and the Middle East.

This is not to say that they were true blue nice guys.  They were canny businessmen.  Muslims were forbidden from enslaving other muslims.  The Radhanites made good money supplying Christian slaves to Muslim markets.  Mostly they dealt in high value goods that were easy to transport.  Spices, silks, gems and intellectual property.  They may have been instrumental in the introduction of paper and Arabic number systems to Europe.

They were pioneers of long range funds transfer through letters of credit.  It is almost certain that the Italians learned the fundamentals of banking from the Radhanites.  The enclosed and tribal nature of Jewish society, and the community focus on morality engendered the level of trust required to underpin the establishment of letters of credit.  The Italian finance families achieved the same end by a Mafiosi style culture of “loyalty to the death” and by administration of poisons, to which they controlled the antidote, to be taken on a regular basis.

The Radhanites were at their most influential from 500 AD to 1,000 AD.  They spanned the period between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the establishment of the Crusader Kingdoms.  The Radhanite control of the Silk road was undermined by the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China and the Khazar Khaganate  in the 10th Century.  Central Asia became highly unstable until the rise of the Mongols.  In Europe and the near East their trade was wrested from them by Italian City States.

The Radhanite sea route to China, via the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, Malaysia etc is the basis for the stories of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Radhanites

The Slave’s Dream : Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,
They held him by the hand!–
A tear burst from the sleeper’s lids
And fell into the sand.
And then at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger’s bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion’s flank.
Before him, like a blood-red flag,
The bright flamingoes flew;
From morn till night he followed their flight,
O’er plains where the tamarind grew,
Till he saw the roofs of Caffre huts,
And the ocean rose to view.
At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.
The forests, with their myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty;
And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled
At their tempestuous glee.
He did not feel the driver’s whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay