"The book is an epic history of China that I can’t hope to encapsulate in such a brief review, the story of a nation “in international contexts and on global scales.” But the stories Brook tells are those of individuals that played a part in that history, sometimes far outside the borders of the modern Chinese state."
Great State: China and the World by Timothy Brook, Harper
In a book ostensibly about China, there is but one primary character in the first few chapters that is actually Chinese—a monk who designed the dual capitals of the Yuan Great State—Beijing and Xanadu—and served as an administrator in the service of Kubilai Khan. That lack of Chinese characters in the early parts of the book is, in part, the point. While the Chinese trace their history back to a much earlier origin, it is the paradigm of the Great State that the Great Kahn established that Timothy Brook believes has shaped Chinese political thinking to this day.
The book is an epic history of China that I can’t hope to encapsulate in such a brief review, the story of a nation “in international contexts and on global scales.” But the stories he tells are those of individuals that played a part in that history, sometimes far outside the borders of the modern Chinese state.
It is the story of a Mongolian princess sent in an arranged marriage to the Il-khanate in Persia, a ruler who died as she and her entourage were on route. The Blue Princess, Kokecin, was then married to his successor (and son) Ghazan, “remembered today for tipping Persia from Buddhism to Islam … eradicating Iranian Buddhism in the process” of imposing Sufism on his subjects. It is an example of how grand the sweep of history is in the book even in some of its ancillary characters. The fact that Marco Polo was a member of the entourage that took the Blue Princess to Persia, and that his memoirs are part of the supporting evidence of her existence, is another example. It is also the story of Kubilai Khan, who conquered China, and was himself the grandson of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, whose descendents (including Ghazan) would rule over the Asian steppe and its surroundings for generations. Chistopher Columbus makes an extended appearance midway through the book, the Seventh Dalai Lama, and a fictional Korean horse trader. Gandhi and Winston Churchill make a brief appearance in a discussion of Chinese coolie labor in South Africa and the (largely inaccurate, or at least incomplete) images it portrayed of Chinese life and customs in the Western press.
It is the story of how a Venetian merchant insulted a Mongolian aristocrat in the streets, an offense that eventually led to a Mongol army’s three year siege of the Italian port city of Caffa on the Crimean peninsula. The siege collapsed as a mysterious disease began to inflict the army outside the walls of Caffa. But before he retreated, the ruler of the Golden Horde who led the siege (Janibeg, also a descendent of Chinggis) launched infected corpses from his trebuchets over the walls and into the city. It was plague, the Black Death, and it was the beginning of its spread by traders into Europe itself.
And so it was that one of the more surreal moments I’ve had in the last week came not while watching the news about today’s pandemic, but while reading late into the night about the plague in China. The bishop of Bath called what we now call the Black Death “a catastrophic pestilence from the East,” and many believed the origin of the disease to be China itself, leading Brook to examine the historical and scientific evidence. And now I have learned more about Microbiology and Epidemiology from a book of Chinese history than the news reports of today. Brook details the latest scientific investigations into the archaic DNA (aDNA) of plague genomes and the different strains (or branches) it has taken, explaining how:
At the time of writing, geneticists have sequenced almost forty complete aDNA genomes. Slowly a global picture of the historical evolution of the plague is taking shape.
It turns out that the plague that devastated Europe in the 1300s was Branch I, a strain that reappeared as the Hong Kong plague in 1894. There is evidence of earlier plague in China—probably Brach 0—in multiple dynastic histories, but experts in Microbiology and Epidemiology now believe that there was a “Big Bang” evolution of plague between 1142 and 1338 that split into four branches. Brook believes it likely originated in modern day Kyrgyzstan, but that “Mongols will always be at the center of the story”—offering compelling and riveting evidence for that belief. The end result, either way, is that it spread across their kingdoms first, and ultimately led to the downfall of the Yuan Great State in China. And while the origins of the current pandemic are more accurately traced to China, it is no more helpful to international diplomacy or trade, the image of China or to the Chinese American community, to call it the “Chinese Virus” of Kung Flu.”
As I wrote at the beginning of this review, the book is an epic history that I can’t hope to encapsulate in such a brief review, but one thing I hope I’ve gotten across is how intimately Brook related that history, doing it through the individual stories of people who experienced it.
It is a story of expansion by invasion rather than immigration.
China became a mega-state not by conquering others so much as by being conquered by others. What the Mongols and Manchu ruling families of the Yuan and Qing Great Stated wrought, the Chinese ruling families of the Ming, the Republic, and the People’s Republic have chosen to perpetuate.
That perpetuation belies the modern attitude in China, in which they “see themselves purely as imperialism’s victims, not its perpetrators, as though the one must exclude the other.” He tells the story of Mongolia, East Turkestan (what Muslim Uyghurs call Uyghurstan), and Tibet to show how the Chinese Communist Party engages and perpetuates a kind of neo-colonialism first described by Ghanaian political philosopher Kwame Nkrumah—one in which patronage and indebtedness maintains a greater grip on the less developed world than direct control ever had. It is a model that China has extended to places as far flung as Sri Lanka (which Chinese emperors had been trying to extract tribute from going back to Kubila Khan) and Ecuador.
To show just how the threads of history can unfold and intertwine, consider the story of Henry Tomalin, an english architect and engineer who worked on colonial public works in Sri Lanka when it was under British rule as Ceylon. Tomalin is the man who understood the importance of the discovery of the Galle Stele, a large stone monument that bore out the breadth of the Ming Dynasty’s influence on Ceylon, and leads Brook to the story of a Buddha’s tooth with mystical properties potentially at the heart of a dispute between the kingdoms. But Tomalin’s story struck me more immediately because he went on to design an award winning pavilion, the Ceylon Court, for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As Brook tells us:
The wooden structure was dismantled when the world’s fair closed and sold to John J. Mitchell, Chicago’s leading banker, who had it moved to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and reassembled as a summer house. It burned down in 1958 and had to be demolished, thereby ending the history of this curious strand in the circuit board linking Ceylon to the rest of the world.
And that passage struck me personally because Lake Geneva is where my family eventually ended up (after a few years on a farm and more in a small town nearby) after fleeing the closing factories of Rockford, Illinois in the early ‘80s. It is where my brothers and I went to high school, and where my parents still live, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in print like this before. It very literally brought the story home for me. It’s a random detail that doesn’t have much bearing on the history of China, but it shows both how wide the stories Brook tells expand, and how close and interconnected they, and we, all are.
Blood tannery, royal courts, kingdoms rising and falling, great expeditions by land and sea, plague and pestilence, locusts and drought, spiritual relics with mystical powers, missionaries, pirates, eunuchs, and horse traders—Great State has elements of escapism and wonder that the very best fantasy novels offer, along with the rigor of a world class historian to make it real and put it in perspective. It is a story of merchants and trade, ancient rulers and politics, and the human condition. That perspective reveals not only how China is connected to the world, and the world to China, but how we are all connected to each other. It is a series of personal stories that reveal a universal human truth. The larger story can and does continue beyond the pages of Great State, beyond the borders of the Great State it focuses on, and we are all a part of it.