I attended another fantastic lecture at
The lecture I want to tell you about,
As a bit of background, the vast plains between present day China and Europe are called the steppes. Strictly speaking, steppes, with a lower-case s, are a geographic phenomenon of mostly treeless plains, and they exist in cold and subtropical regions throughout the world, including in the US and Canada, which host the shortgrass prairie step of the Great Plains. The steppe of import for this talk is known as the Great Steppe “found in southwestern
In the Ancient world, the Great Steppe, henceforth ‘the Steppes’, was dominated by a network of nomads who’s culture was built around warfare and who’s interrelations were maintained by a strong merchant and gifting culture. The primary way that these cultures preserved value was through gold. We know this because the entire Steppes region is also characterized by a form of burial mound called the kurgan, the exploration of which has yielded a wealth of ancient artifacts. Around the 8th century B.C.E., the objects uncovered from these kurgans are almost entirely of Steppe nomad design. Gold and textiles predominate the higher-end tombs, and designs picturing warfare, elks, horses, and other staples of steppe ecosystems are ubiquitous. But then in the 4th and 5th century tombs, something of alien origin begins to enter the treasure piles; jade, bronze and silk.
In China, through to its very recent history, gold was not adopted as a value saving medium. Instead, value was preserved through bronze and jade and silk. These were the materials of exchange. Their ultimate form differed – whether that be in the form of bronze vessels or mirrors, or jade and bronze coins – but the materials stayed relatively unchanged for a very long time. So, the presence of this trojka of Chinese value markers in Steppe tombs indicates that around this time trade between China and the Steppes was on the rise relative to earlier periods.
So far, so good? Great. I hope you’re with me because here comes the kicker. What happens in tombs from this period on is that not only does the number of bronze and gold objects begin to increase from the 4th century on, but a whole new form of object starts to appear. Objects made by Chinese artisans, using a hybrid mix of gold, textile, and traditional chinese materials like bronze, jade and silk. In addition, the ornamentation on the objects is reflective of nomad tastes. Professor Di Cosmo’s hypothesis is that during this period China was going through an intense period of warfare. In order to be able to fund their armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the kingdoms of China had to figure out a way to trade with the steppes nomads. Their solution was to manufacture objects made to steppe nomad tastes and needs. They were very successful, for hundreds of years. By the 1st millenium C.E., tombs from the steppes around Mongolia were full of Chinese-made goods, though by this period there were made in the Chinese style. In effect, the Steppes cultures had become dependent on their trade with China. Over time this dependence changed their cultures.
We tend to think of globalization as a recent, short-term phenomenon. Professor Di Cosmo’s lecture made me think about the fact that globalization has in fact been more of a law of human interaction. It’s just that before the advent of modern transit and communications technologies its effects were harder to see, because they made themselves obvious over periods of time that were impossible for any one generation of people to observe. I am reminded of a poem by Mao ZeDong that Zhou Enlai is reported to have told to Henry Kissinger during a very abstract discussion about the need to push forth on normalization between the US and China. The discussion and full quote can be found on page 69 of
The poem is translated by Zhou Enlai as “Ode to a Plum Blossom.” A plum blossom is a very ephemeral thing. By the time it flowers to show its beauty, it’s also near death. Up until very recently, globalization has been a movement dominated by plum blossom moments, spearheaded bit by bit across the ages by unknown individuals, some of them Chinese warlords. Before they could be told what a useful thing they had done, these people passed on. Today, globalization is faster, and certain benefits of cross cultural exchange can be realized within a single generation. Indeed, exchange and cultural cross pollination can in some instances travel at the speed of information. The rise of
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