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Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and the Anthropological T urn in Ancient Greece and Han China*

siep stuurman
Erasmus University Rotterdam

istory as a critical account of the past and a means of self-knowledge and political enlightenment was independently invented in H two civilizations in ancient Eurasia: China and Greece. It received its two best-known canonical formulations in the Shiji (Records of the Scribe, written ca. 100 90 b.c.e.) of Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Chien) in the former Han dynasty in China, and in Herodotuss Histories (Inquiries, written ca. 450 425 b.c.e.) in the Greek communities of the eastern Mediterranean after the Persian Wars. The Greek city-states were vibrant newcomers to the established world of the ancient civilizations of western Eurasia, while China was the most advanced civilization of eastern Eurasia. The independent development of history in two Eurasian civilizations provides us with a fascinating comparative case in the world history of ideas. History represented a new way for a society to reect on itself, com* Part of the research for this article was done when I was a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. I wish to thank Jonathan Israel, Joseph McDermott, and Carol Gluck for enlightening conversations about European and Asian history. I owe a special debt to Nicola di Cosmo for sharing his vast knowledge of Chinese-Xiongnu relations with me. I also want to thank the Leiden sinologist Axel Schneider for valuable advice. Finally, I am grateful to my Rotterdam colleague Maria Grever and to the anonymous reader of the Journal of World History for their helpful comments on previous versions of this essay.

Journal of World History, Vol. 19, No. 1 2008 by University of Hawaii Press

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peting with older religious, poetic, and philosophical modes of selfunderstanding. More than those older genres, history investigated the contingencies of time and place. It made it possible to explore frontiers and to reect on the differences between ones own way of life and the customs of foreigners. It is surely signicant that in Greece as well as in China, the new discourse of history comprised a large amount of geography and ethnography. My comparison of Herodotus and Sima Qian focuses on the ethnographic parts of their histories, in particular on Herodotuss description of the Scythians and Sima Qians treatment of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu). In both cases, historians belonging to a sedentary civilization confronted the nomadic culture of the northern peoples inhabiting the great band of steppe lands that traverses Eurasia from west to east. I will discuss their nomadic ethnographies in the context of their views of empire and cultural difference, as well as in connection with the temporalities underpinning their historical narrative. The dialectic of empire, ethnography, and history powerfully frames these histories. The writing of history is always an exercise in self-denition. More than anything else, it is the confrontation with others that compels people to question their own identity. That is what makes imperialism so central to my comparison, whether empire is a menace from without, as in Herodotus, or a perilous course the fate of ones own civilization depends on, as in Sima Qian. Both Herodotus and Sima Qian were fascinated by the conditions and morality of empires, giving much thought to cultural difference, and trying out formulations akin to what we today call cultural relativism. The problematic of empire incited both historians to compose a history of the known world. Their societies had reached a stage when it was no longer possible to understand ones civilization without taking the measure of its wider environment. This, then, is the problematic that will guide my comparative investigation. A few theoretical observations may be useful at this point. The ethnographies in the Histories and the Shiji are instances of what we may call the anthropological turn. Our historians inform their readers about the way of life of others living in foreign lands. The anthropological turn happens when they attempt to understand those others from within, examining the functioning of their culture, instead of merely compiling a list of weird and outlandish customs. Now, the type of ethnography we encounter in Herodotus and Sima Qian has frequently been labeled under the generic notions of othering and Orientalism (Occidentalism would be more appropriate in Sima Qians case). In an inuential book, Franois Hartog has analyzed Herodotuss

Stuurman: Herodotus and Sima Qian

Scythian ethnography as an exemplary case of othering, while Owen Lattimore has long ago deplored Sima Qians strongly conventional ideas about the steppe nomads.1 Over the past decades, the diagnosis of othering has been made about virtually every European text discussing non-European cultures, and there is no good reason why a similar evaluation could not apply to Chinese accounts of barbarians. The problem with such readings is not that they are untrue. There obviously is a great deal of othering in these texts. My objection to an overly exclusive focus on othering is that it makes us miss the signicance of the anthropological turn. To get the problem in sharper focus we must realize that there was a way of looking at foreigners before the anthropological turn. The German Egyptologist Jan Assmann has called our attention to the habit of the Egyptians of the Old and Middle Kingdom of calling all non-Egyptians vile enemies, even when there were bonds of amityestablished by treaties or political marriages with the ethnic groups thus designated. The Egyptians equated Egypt with the meaningfully ordered world. Beyond its borders lived absolute aliens with whom any relations would be unthinkable. 2 Against this background, much of what is called othering represents a real accomplishment. That Herodotus and Sima Qian typify the components of other cultures in a series of contrasts with their own way of life is not in itself very signicant. It could hardly be otherwise. Any account of remote lands seeks to understand the unknown by comparing it with the known. What is signicant is that they investigate the functionality of other cultures as interlocking systems, and inquire how the others look back at the civilized center. That is a new approach. Even when these ethnographies contain negative judgments and stereotypical representations, they present us with the rst step toward an appraisal of the rationality of foreign ways. In this connection, it is of vital importance to see frontiers as zones of creative interaction, and not just as sites of hostility and prejudice. The widespread adoption of othering as a theoretical framework in intellectual history has led to an underestimation of the critical and universalistic impulses in frontier texts. The mutual awareness that is a necessary prelude to reecting upon the nature and value of other cultures makes for the thinkability of a common humanity transcend1 Franois Hartog, Le miroir dHrodote: Essai sur la reprsentation de lautre (Paris: Gallimard, 1991); Owen Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962), p. 448. 2 Jan Assmann, The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002), p. 151.

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ing cultural boundaries. The frontier, taken in this sense, is the real or imagined locus of rejection and acceptance, incomprehension and mutual understanding. We should bear in mind that this is not an all-or-nothing game. The denial of other peoples humanity and the recognition of their equality represent two extreme cases. Much, and perhaps most, of history is played out on the continuum between the two extremes. Two Fathers of History With some justication, both Herodotus and Sima Qian have been called fathers of history in their respective civilizations, but, as Grant Hardy observes, comparative studies of Greek and Chinese historiography are rare.3 The Histories, written in the late fth century b.c.e., and the Shiji, written at the beginning of the rst century b.c.e., were among the most inuential books of history ever written. The Shiji stands at the beginning of the long Chinese tradition of historiography that continued through the entire imperial era. Subsequent Chinese historians, beginning with Ban Gu (Pan Ku) in the later Han dynasty, have frequently voiced criticisms of Sima Qian, but, as Burton Watson observes, they, as well as their readers, have always read, studied, and admired the Shiji.4 The case of Herodotus is different. He was widely read, and frequently criticized, in antiquity, but was not well known in
3 Grant Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo: Sima Qians Conquest of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 261 n. 2, mentions S. Y. Teng, Herodotus and Ssu-ma Chien: Two Fathers of History, East and West 12 (1961): 23340, and N. I. Konrad, Polybius and Ssu-Ma Chien, Soviet Sociology 5 (1967): 37 58, to which must now be added David Schaberg, Travel, Geography, and the Imperial Imagination in Fifth-Century Athens and Han China, Comparative Literature 51 (1999): 15291, and G. E. R. Lloyd, The Ambitions of Curiosity: Understanding the World in Ancient Greece and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 520. Of these, Teng gives a brief introductory account, Konrad focuses on political cycles, Schaberg mainly compares Sima Qian and Thucydides, while Lloyds discussion privileges epistemological concerns. 4 Burton Watson, Ssu-ma Chien: Grand Historian of China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), p. 38; see also William H. Nienhauser Jr., ed., The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 689; and Stephen W. Durrant, The Cloudy Mirror: Tension and Conict in the Writings of Sima Qian (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p. xxi. Moreover, historiography has greatly inuenced the evolution of other Chinese literary genres; see Anthony C. Yu, History, Fiction and the Reading of Chinese Narrative, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 10 (1988 1989): 119. Quotations from the Shiji, unless otherwise indicated, are from Burton Watsons translation: Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, 3 vols., rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); references contain Shiji chapter number, relevant volume (Han I, Han II, Qin), and page.

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medieval Europe, only to resume his career with Lorenzo Vallas Latin translation in the fteenth century.5 The canonization of Herodotus has thus not been a continuous process in time, nor did it represent a geographical or cultural unity. While we can consider Sima Qian a Chinese historian, who wrote about a Sinocentric world and saw himself as an inheritor and successor of the Chinese classics, Herodotus cannot stand for Europe. He was a historian of the Greek city-states, the Persian empire, western Asia, and Egypt. In the Histories, Europe is the name of a continent, but for Herodotus it did not denote a meaningful cultural tradition or intellectual canon.6 Insofar as Herodotuss world had a cultural center, it was the Greek-speaking part of the Mediterranean. It follows that we must be careful not to project back later oppositions between China and Europe into our discussion of Herodotus and Sima Qian. The differences between ancient Greece and Han China are undeniable and important, but so are the instructive parallels between the two civilizations. We should pay equal attention to both. Moreover, we must take into account the specicity of intellectual history. The writings of Herodotus and Sima Qian present us with two varieties of historiography that originated in the eastern and western regions of Eurasia. Both were bold, innovative thinkers who conceived of history as a critical, explanatory discourse about political power that went beyond its traditional annalistic and mnemonic functions. It is thus entirely possible that we will nd methodological and political similarities between them that transcend their different cultural backgrounds. Generic readings in terms of Greekness or Chineseness easily overlook such similarities. Herodotuss Histories recount the history of the Greco-Persian Wars in the early decades of the fth century b.c.e., against the backdrop of a history and ethnography of the world of western Asia and northern Africa. The rise and defeat of Persian imperialism and the maintenance of Greek independence are the main themes of his history. In the Shiji, Sima Qian presents a history of China from its mythical beginnings to the Han empire of his own lifetime, including large swaths of the

5 See Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 50 51. 6 To the Greeks, Europe represented a heterogeneous collection of lands and peoples. The Histories do not even contain a synthesizing geographical description of Europe: Wido Sieberer, Das Bild Europas in den Historien (Innsbruck: Institut fr Sprachwissenschaft der Universitt Innsbruck, 1995), p. 29; see also Martin Ninck, Die Entdeckung von Europa durch die Griechen (Basel: B. Schwabe & Co., 1945).

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history and ethnography of the frontier zones of the empire. The emergence of a unied empire out of the Warring States of pre-Qin China, the consolidation of the former Han, and the relations between the empire and the surrounding peoples are major themes of his history. To frame what follows, let us briey review some elementary facts about the two historians. Herodotus was born before 480 b.c.e. to a well-to-do family in Halicarnassus on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. It has been suggested that the family was of mixed Greek and Carian descent, but that is not certain.7 He received a thorough grounding in poetry, drama, and philosophy. At some point, he left for the island of Samos, then part of the Athenian confederacy, possibly because his family was expelled from Halicarnassus by the tyrant Lygdamis. He later returned to his place of birth, which had deposed its tyrant and joined the Athenian confederacy. In the 440s, Herodotus spent some years in Athens. Probably in 443, he moved to the newly founded Athenian colony at Thurii in southern Italy. There he died between 430 and 424. Herodotuss places of residence thus covered a great part of the Greek world. Moreover, he traveled extensively, and in the Histories he frequently refers to rsthand oral and visual evidence of many lands. He claimed to have visited Egypt, Cyrenaica, Babylon, Phoenicia, and Scythia, but some students of Herodotus do not accept all of those claims. Though well connected, Herodotus seems never to have belonged to the inner circles of the political elite in any of the cities in which he resided. In a broad way, Herodotus sympathized with the Greeks, which is hardly surprising since the successful resistance of the Greek cities against Persian imperialism is his main subject, but he was not a partisan of any Greek city, not even of Athens, which he greatly admired for its paramount role in defeating the Persians. Several commentators have argued that his insistence on the hubris and inevitable decline of empires implied a censure of Athenian maritime imperialism that probably was not lost on his Greek readers who were living through the Peloponnesian War when Herodotus nished his work.8 Herodotus, then, was a man keenly interested in politics but not directly attached to state power. Accordingly, he wrote the Histories for the literate citi-

See James Romm, Herodotus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998), p.

8 See, e.g., Charles W. Fornara, Herodotus: An Interpretative Essay (Oxford: Clerendon Press, 1971), pp. 46 58; John Moles, Herodotus and Athens, in Brills Companion to Herodotus, ed. Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J. F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 50 52.

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zenry in the Greek world, and not at the behest of any particular city or prince. Contrasting with Herodotuss relative political independence, the career of Sima Qian was from start to nish intertwined with the politics of the Han state under the ambitious and severe emperor Wu (r. 141 87 b.c.e.). He was born in 145 b.c.e., near Longmen (Dragon Gate) on the Yellow River in North China. When he was ve, his father, Sima Tan, obtained the position of Grand Astrologer at the imperial court in the Han capital Changan. However, neither Sima Tan nor his son was an ofcial imperial historiographer. They had access to the palace archives, but Sima Tans historical work was a self-imposed, private project. And so it was with his son, who, complying with his fathers last wish, continued the latters history of China.9 In his youth, Sima Qian got a thorough education in the classics. At the age of ten, he later recalled, he could read the old writings. 10 At twenty-one he took up service as a gentleman of the palace. Like Herodotus, Sima Qian traveled widely, within China as well as in the borderlands to the south and north of the Han territories. In 110, he accompanied emperor Wu on an inspection tour of the northern frontier, a region of intermittent clashes and skirmishes with Chinas most redoubtable enemies, the nomadic Xiongnu. Besides, he collected much knowledge about distant lands and people by interrogating travelers.11 In 108, he succeeded his father as Grand Astrologer, and in 104 he assisted the emperor with the reform of the calendar.12 Five years later, however, he suffered disgrace because he had spoken in defense of general Li Ling, who had surrendered to the Xiongnu after a heroic battle against numerically superior forces. Simas punishment was death for defaming the emperor, but the sentence was eventually commuted to castration. In such cases, the code of honor prescribed suicide. Sima Qian, however, continued to work on his history, living in shame and humiliation, but fullling his lial duty to his father and hoping for recognition in future ages. Rehabilitated and appointed Prefect Palace Secretary in 96, he managed to nish the history before he died in 86, a year after emperor Wu. The Shiji is a work of inordinate length, comprising 130

See Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, pp. 16 18. Shiji 130, quoted in Watson, Ssu-ma Chien, p. 48. 11 See Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Power in East Asian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 26869. 12 See Christopher Cullen, Motivations for Scientic Change in Ancient China: Emperor Wu and the Grand Inception Astronomical Reforms of 104 b.c., Journal for the History of Astronomy 24 (1993): 185203.

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chapters. It recounts the entire history of China up to the historians time. Like Herodotuss Histories, the Shiji contains a sizable amount of geography and ethnography, in particular of the barbarian lands to the west and north of the Han empire. On the face of it, Sima Qians relation to political power appears as almost the opposite of Herodotuss. As a loyal servant of the emperor, one would expect him to write a history endorsing the Han empire. To some extent, he lived up to such expectations, justifying the order and unity of the empire and contributing to the new Confucian canon that informed the Han vision of Chinese history. For all that, Sima Qian envisaged the task of the historian as an eminently critical one. Attributing his own views to Dong Zhongshus (Tung Chung-shu) exegesis of Confuciuss explanation of the message of the Spring and Autumn Annals, he declared in the concluding chapter of his work that Confucius realized that his words were not being heeded, nor his doctrine put into practice. So he made a critical judgment of the rights and wrongs of a period of two hundred and forty-two years in order to provide a standard of rules and ceremonies for the world. He criticized the emperors, reprimanded the feudal lords, and condemned the high ofcials in order to make known the business of a true ruler. 13 Sima Qians invocation of the authority of the great sage to justify his view of history as critique was in line with the Confucian view of the double function of history as the public concern of the ruler and the private duty of the sage to uphold moral rectitude.14 Here, he is drawing on the authoritative commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals, in which, according to David Schaberg, Confucius becomes the unerring judge of history, the uncrowned king. 15 Sima Qians self-image can be traced back to the autonomous critical role historical writings had achieved during the Warring States period.16 Accordingly, the Shiji contains numerous criticisms of emperors, ministers, and lower ofcials. Such criticisms, however, are invariably found in the speeches of personages in the narrative rather than in the meta-narrative rst-person comments placed at the end of each chapter. Grant Hardy has characterized the Shiji as
Shiji 130, cited in Watson, Ssu-ma Chien, p. 50. See Sarah A. Queen, From Chronicle to Canon: The Hermeneutics of the Spring and Autumn according to Tung Chung-shu (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 119. 15 David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 308; Sima Qian invokes Confucius by quoting his older contemporary Tung Chung-shu, the major author involved in the Han canonization of Confucianism. 16 See Schaberg, Patterned Past, pp. 258 70; Queen, From Chronicle to Canon, pp. 118 19.
14 13

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an arena for moral hermeneutics rather than a straightforward exercise in criticism.17 The trope of indirect criticism was long established in Chinese historiography, and Sima Qians bitter experiences had undoubtedly impressed the need for authorial prudence on him. Here, he differs from Herodotus, who expresses some of his harshest condemnations of the behavior of rulers in his own authorial voice. What about the philosophical background? When it moves beyond the annalistic genre, the writing of history always involves theoretical notions, however implicit these may be. The important thing to note here is that both Herodotus and Sima Qian drafted their histories in a climate of intellectual pluralism and uncertainty about the ultimate foundations of knowledge and morality. In Greece, this was the age of the Sophists, who excelled at questioning the validity of traditional ethics and epistemology. Herodotuss strong formulation of cultural relativism shows his afnity with Sophistic skepticism.18 In China, the intellectual strife between the hundred schools of the Warring States period persisted as a living memory in Sima Qians days. In his account of his own education he relates that his father explained the mutually contradictory doctrines of the six schools to him.19 Sarah Queen characterizes the intellectual culture of the early Han as pluralistic and syncretistic.20 In the intellectual cultures of fth-century Greece and early imperial China traditional knowledge-claims no longer commanded unquestionable authority, so that tradition had to be shored up or supplemented by philosophy. Introducing systematic and interpretative history, Herodotus and Sima Qian experimented, each after his own fashion, with a new type of knowledge about the human condition. Both attributed a political function to history, albeit in widely different political regimes.21 Both conceived of history as a critical discipline that would enlighten the minds of men in uncertain and dangerous times. Finally, they were convinced that their society was passing through a political crisis caused by its involvement in a wider environment. Even as Herodotus was writing the history of the momentous colli17 Grant Hardy, Form and Narrative in Ssu-ma Chiens Shih chi, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 14 (19921993): 22. 18 See Rosalind Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1112. 19 Durrant, Cloudy Mirror, pp. 3 6; Sima Tan was probably the rst to classify the schools according to their intellectual content instead of the names of founders and masters; see Kidder Smith, Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, Legalism, et cetera, Journal of Asian Studies 62 (2003): 12956. 20 Queen, From Chronicle to Canon, pp. 23, 2223. 21 See Lloyd, Ambitions of Curiosity, pp. 18 20.


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sion of the Greek city-states with Persian imperialism, he was witnessing the early stages of the war between Sparta and Athens, and the rst tremors of the decline of the Athenian maritime empire that had emerged from the Persian Wars. Likewise, Sima Qian was writing when the Han empire was engaged in a perilous and costly course of imperial expansion, a policy he himself deemed misguided and harmful. For both historians, issues of empire called for a rethinking of the place of their society in the known world. Both supplied their readers with the latest geographical and ethnographical information to enable them to understand their own history in a broader, global framework. In that sense, we may call them world historians.22 History, the Politics of Empire, and the Eurasian Frontier Herodotus and Sima Qian belong to the age Jerry Bentley has called the era of the ancient silk roads. The ethnic, linguistic, and religious boundaries traversed by the far-ung Eurasian trade routes contributed to their interest in ethnography. Long-distance travel remained exceptional, but there was enough of it to provide inquisitive minds with information about remote places and peoples. In particular, the silk roads cut across the sedentary-nomadic divide. As Bentley observes, the network of trade routes that sustained east-west communication across the entire expanse of Eurasia and North Africa was facilitated by the political and economic collaboration between settled and nomadic peoples. 23 Collaboration was, however, frequently interrupted by warfare. The nomads regarded the sedentary societies as targets for raiding and sources of tribute. The settled peoples, who feared and respected the military power of the nomads, often had to pay up, but they also attempted to curb nomadic power by military means. The encounter between the civilized and the barbarian affected the earliest notions of history and culture in the Eurasian world. The frontier between the sedentary civilizations and the nomadic-pastoral societies of the north ran from present-day Moldavia through the

22 See William H. McNeill, The Changing Shape of World History, History and Theory 34 (1995): 8: Historians of the portion of the earth known to the writer are properly classed as world historians inasmuch as they seek to record the whole signicant and knowable past. 23 Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in PreModern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 32.

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entire breadth of western and central Asia, and thence along the series of defensive mounds and ramparts known as the Chinese Great Wall that reached the Yellow Sea at the base of the Korean peninsula. To the north of the frontier lay the steppe lands, a vast sea of grass, as world historian William McNeill has called it.24 The sea of grass fed the herds of the nomads and enabled them to migrate and raid over impressive distances. The zone to the south of the frontier was the locus of the rise of all the great sedentary urban civilizations, from China, India, and Iran, to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The frontier was an ill-dened intermediate zone, a locus of trade, raiding, and warfare, as well as confrontations and exchanges between different cultures. The written sources have overwhelmingly been on the side of the sedentary cultures. Unsurprisingly, they mostly depict the tensions and struggles in the frontier zone in terms of an opposition between the civilized and the barbarian. The dialectic of the civilized and the barbarian, and of the sedentary and the nomadic, was an organizing principle of ancient historiography from its inception in the writings of Herodotus and Sima Qian to its subsequent development in Hellenism in the west and the later Han in the east (and, much later, in Ibn Khaldun in medieval Islam). The Histories range widely across western Eurasia and North Africa. Book IV is devoted to the Scythians north of the Black Sea, with brief digressions on other northern peoples. Books I and III contain much material on Persian culture, while Book II deals with Egypt and northern Africa. Sima Qian likewise devotes much space to ethnography, though not as much as Herodotus. The Shiji contains six chapters on barbarian peoples.25 One of the longest chapters of the book discusses the Xiongnu to the north of the Great Wall. The Xiongnu and their relations with China gure in many other chapters as well. The Shiji also contains accounts of the southern marchlands of the Han empire, as well as Korea (Chaoxian), Ferghana (Dayuan), Bactria (Daxia), and Parthia (Anxi). The descriptions of the Xiongnu and Ferghana are fairly detailed, the others are shorter, and about still other regions Sima Qian possessed only bits and pieces of disconnected knowledge.26 About India

24 William H. McNeill, The Shape of European History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 47. 25 See Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, p. 132. 26 The original version of chapter 123 of the Shiji, which contains the description of the western lands, is lost, except for the introductory alinea; what we now have is largely based on an interpolation from the Han Shu by Ban Gu (Pan Ku), which was in turn based


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(Shendu) he presents some information the Chinese had obtained from Bactrian merchants who had visited Indian markets. India, they told the Han envoys, lies several thousand li (1,000 li is about 415 kilometers, or 260 miles) to the southeast of Bactria, the people cultivate the land, they use elephants in battle, the climate is hot and damp, and the kingdom is situated on a great river.27 The regions described by the two historians represent adjacent parts of Eurasia. The eastern extremities of Herodotuss Scythians border on Sima Qians westernmost nomads, the great Yuezhi, who live some six hundred miles west of Ferghana, and whose customs are like those of the Xiongnu. 28 Sima Qians remote and little-known Anxi geographically overlaps with Herodotuss Persia. To both of them, India is a far country at the rim of the known world, although Sima Qians information about it is more matter-of-fact than Herodotuss account of gold-digging ants. 29 They are understandably most interested in knowledge about the lands and peoples with which Greece and China had entered into commercial or political relations. To the Greeks, the Persians were important as enemies, the Egyptians were important because theirs was the most ancient of all known civilizations from which a part of Greek culture was believed to derive, and the Scythians were important because there were Greek trading colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Herodotuss interest in Cyrenaica is likewise explained by the presence of Greek colonies there. Apart from that, Scythia and Ethiopia were of interest because of the Persians failure to conquer them. Sima Qians geographical focus can be explained in a similar fashion.30 His most elaborate ethnography concerns the nomadic Xiongnu, with whom the Han were frequently at war.31 Other geographical and ethnographical data in the Shiji concern the borderlands of China. In Sima Qians time, several border regions had come into the orbit of the ambitious policy

on Sima Qians text. See A. F. P. Hulsew and M. A. N. Loewe, China in Central Asia: The Early Stage: 125 B.C. A.D. 23. An Annotated Translation of Chapters 61 and 96 of the History of the Former Han Dynasty (Leiden: Brill, 1979), pp. 1439. 27 Ibid., pp. 23536. 28 Ibid., p. 234. 29 Herodotus, III, 102; cited from Herodotus, The Persian Wars, trans. A. D. Godley, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); all references to Herodotus are to book and section number. 30 On the strategic background of the ethnographies in Chinese historiography, see Michel Cartier, Barbarians through Chinese Eyes: The Emergence of an Anthropological Approach to Ethnic Differences, Comparative Civilization Review 6 (1981): 34. 31 See Thomas J. Bareld, The Hsiung-nu Imperial Confederacy: Organization and Foreign Policy, Journal of Asian Studies 41 (1981 82): 45 61.

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of expansion of Emperor Wu. Ferghana (Dayuan) represented a link in the Chinese trade routes to the west, but its main attraction was the excellent opportunity it offered to outank the Xiongnu.32 Around 100 b.c.e., the Han had established garrisons in Dayuan. As I noted above, frontiers are places of creative interaction. Beyond othering and hostility, they open up the possibility of recognizing the humaneness and rationality of others. To make the notion of common humanity thinkable, the rst step to take is a negative one: the abandonment of unreective ethnocentrism. In his Egyptian ethnography, Herodotus observes that the Egyptians call all men of other languages barbarians. 33 In Greek parlance, the term barbarians commonly denoted all non-Greek-speaking peoples, so that Herodotuss statement represents a conscious inversion of the standard Greek discourse on cultural difference. In Sima Qians ethnography of the Xiongnu we encounter a similar inversion of the standard Chinese view of the northern barbarians. The standard view was, of course, that the customs of the Han Chinese were in every way superior to those of the nomads. Sima Qian, however, rst explains the functioning of Xiongnu society in remarkably neutral and unbiased terms, and then has a Chinese who has gone over to the side of the Xiongnu explain why the customs of the nomads are reasonable in the steppe environment, and in some ways even superior to the ways of the Han.34 The inversion is not as perfectly symmetrical as Herodotuss Egyptian maxim, but the rhetorical gure is the same. It is this inversion that constitutes cultural relativism. To avoid taking on board too much philosophical overweight I propose to dene cultural relativism in very simple terms: it is the awareness that others look at us just as we look at them. As the Greeks regard the Egyptians, so the Egyptians regard the Greeks. It is an elementary idea with momentous consequences: People who realize that they are others in the worldview of those they themselves were accustomed to see as others will not have the same self-image as before. It should be underlined that cultural relativism does not necessarily entail moral relativism. Usually it does not. Moral relativism, the conviction that ethical values are entirely contingent on time and place, is hard to nd in the his-

32 Lattimore, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, p. 495; Hulsew and Loewe, China in Central Asia, pp. 40 43. 33 Herodotus, II, 158. 34 Shiji, 110: Han II, pp. 14344.


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torical sources.35 Both Herodotus and Sima Qian, for example, believe that it is absolutely wrong to kill an innocent person. Where they differ from each other, and from us, is in their notions of innocence, guilt, and the appropriate procedures of justice. Cultural relativism denotes the modest proposition that it is wise to study a culture in its own terms (not necessarily on its own terms), to attempt to understand it from within, instead of passing a summary verdict on it. The intellectual and rhetorical move of cultural relativism paves the way for the thinkability of common humanity. The other intellectual origin of the notion of a common humanity is the conviction that there are attributes shared by all members of the human species. Such ideas were available in Greek as well as in Chinese intellectual culture. Homer, the premier canonical author of the Greek world, asserted that all men need the gods, all men must die, and no one is nameless.36 Likewise, he strongly endorses Zeuss command to treat strangers in a humane way, thus establishing the notion of a morality common to all men who are reasonable and heed the gods. Scattered notions of the unity of humanity were found in Greek thought from the sixth century onward.37 From the late sixth century, Greek authors amassed a body of ethnology.38 The Greek world itself was a patchwork of local cultures, and through their trade, travels, and colonies, the Greeks were well aware of the multiplicity of customs and beliefs in the surrounding lands. Among the sophists, the idea that the laws and moral prescriptions of particular cultures are merely human conventions was widespread.39 One of them, Antiphon, would later assert that Greeks and barbarians are the same by nature. 40 The Chinese notions of ethics and civilized life were grounded in a cosmic order, and thus presumably absolute. The barbarians are often berated for their failure to understand them, suggesting a clear-cut con-

35 Strong moral relativism is a self-contradictory concept, for the elementary reason that moral rules are, among other things, dened by the fact that they do not depend on local preferences; see John W. Cook, Morality and Cultural Differences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). 36 Odyssey, III, 48, 236; VIII, 55253. 37 See H. C. Baldry, The Unity of Mankind in Greek Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 2432. 38 See W. A. Heidel, Hecataeus and Xenophanes, American Journal of Philology 64 (1943): 264. 39 See John Gibert, The Sophists, in The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Christopher Shields (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 39 44. 40 See A. W. H. Adkins, From the Many to the One (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 11314; Thomas, Herodotus in Context, pp. 13133.

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trast between a homogeneous Chinese civilized way of life and barbarian incoherence and confusion. In reality, the preimperial history of China was marked by ethnic and cultural diversity.41 The Han empire itself was by no means a culturally homogeneous space. Against this backdrop, the insistence on the cosmic grounding of Chinese civilization appears as a discursive means of domesticating diversity rather than as a condent extrapolation from reality. The power of the notion of a human nature common to all men (at least potentially including barbarians) is apparent from the fact that it is shared by philosophers who otherwise sharply disagree. Mengzi (Mencius), a fourth-century successor of Confucius, presents a welldeveloped theory of a benevolent human nature.42 However, another highly inuential and original philosopher, Xunzi (Hsn Tzu), writing in the third century, rejects Menciuss view, maintaining that mans nature is evil.43 For his part, the early fourth-century philosopher Mozi (Mo-Tzu) posits a primordial selshness before there were any laws or government. 44 The chief representative of the legalist, or realist, school, the third-century political theorist Han Fei, is distrustful of general theories but nonetheless maintains that all men can be governed by means of punishments and rewards.45 Though unable to agree on what makes people tick, the different schools all seem to subscribe to the belief that there is such a thing as a universal human nature. Arthur Waley points out that Confucius himself perhaps tended to limit the reach of the concept of humaneness to civilized Chinese society, but that later Confucians used it in a more abstract manner, so that it came to stand for human being and humaneness as opposed to animal and animality. 46 In Sima Qians time, this was the generally accepted meaning. Chinese philosophers did not develop the stark opposition between nature and convention characteristic of Greek thought, although one statement by Xunzi comes close to it: Children born among the Han or Ye people of the south and among the Mo barbar-

41 See Jacques Gernet, Le monde chinois, vol 1: De lge de bronze au Moyen ge (Paris: Armand Colin, 2005), pp. 18, 40, 71. 42 Mencius, translated with an introduction by D. C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1970), pp. 1215. 43 See Hsn Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 15759. 44 See Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsn Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, s.d.): Mo Tzu, 34. 45 Ibid., Han Fei Tzu, 30. 46 See The Analects of Confucius, trans. and annotated by Arthur Waley (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), p. 27.


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ians of the north cry with the same voice at birth, but as they grow older they follow different customs. Education causes them to differ. 47 The concepts of common humanity and human nature have intellectual as well as political roots. Intellectually, they represent a cognitive strategy of explaining plurality in terms of an underlying unity. Politically, they are a means to deal with cultural diversity, both within polities and in the marchlands of empires, a strategy of bridging cultural distances by appealing to higher-order bonds of humanity. What the intellectual cultures of ancient Greece and Han China have in common, then, are two things: rst, a keen interest in foreign lands and a sizable amount of ethnographic knowledge, making cultural difference a possible object of investigation; second, generic concepts of human nature that might be developed into a notion of common humanity. The combination of these discourses created the intellectual matrix for the anthropological turn. In the next two sections, Herodotuss and Sima Qians deployment of the anthropological turn will be examined in more detail. Herodotus: Persians, Scythians, and Greeks Herodotuss Histories revolve around the new world order created by the Persian bid for domination of the known world. The Persians had extended their power to the borders of India; they ruled Iran, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor; and after their conquest of Egypt they were the masters of the Levant. To the Greeks this was an awesome and menacing empire. Nothing remotely like it had ever been seen.48 Herodotus recounts the failure of the Persian campaigns to conquer Ethiopia and Scythia, followed by his much more detailed narrative of the defeat of their attempts to subdue the Greeks. He offers his reader a dazzling panorama of the known world, followed by the spellbinding story of the failure of the rst bid for universal empire. Even though Greek victory was important and dear to him, his basic subject was Persian defeat. In a way, Herodotus already announces his cultural relativism in the opening statement of the Histories, informing his readers that he has written down the results of his inquiry so that the great and marvelous

47 48

Hsn Tzu, 15. See James Romm, Herodotus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

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deeds done by Greeks and barbarians shall not fall into oblivion. 49 The barbarians, or so it appears, have also accomplished great deeds that are worth remembering on a par with those of the Greeks. This is not the language of ethnocentric parochialism. Another Herodotean maxim in the opening sections of the book likewise conveys a powerful equality effect: [I will] speak of small and great cities alike. For many states that were once great have now become small: and those that were great in my time were small formerly . . . human prosperity never continues in one stay. 50 The transience of greatness, a recurrent theme in the Histories, seems to preclude the lasting success of any imperial venture. Generally, Herodotus disapproves of the lust for wealth and power he observes in most rulers. Even the thirst for knowledge, a drive he otherwise holds in high esteem, becomes corrupted by its instrumental use for ignoble ends by greedy and prideful kingsthat is, by virtually all kings.51 In this connection it is important to note that Herodotuss most powerful and explicit statement of cultural relativism comes in the course of the gruesome story of the madness and death of the Persian king Cambyses (r. 530 522), who has rightfully been called the most cruel and stupid of all Herodotuss kings. 52 The story of Cambyses actually represents Herodotuss rst instance of Persian defeat. It recounts the failure of his attack on Ethiopia, a defeat Herodotus attributes to the Persian kings reckless mismanagement of his army. Only when his troops are near starvation and resort to cannibalism does he abandon the campaign. Upon his return to Egypt Cambyses demonstrates that he has learned nothing from his mistakes. Instead,

49 Herodotus, I, 1; for a time, Herodotuss cultural relativism has been downplayed in the historiography, see Hartog, Miroir dHrodote; Romm, Herodotus; James Redeld, Herodotus the Tourist, in Greeks and Barbarians, ed. Thomas Harrison (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), pp. 2449; see also Vivienne Gray, Herodotus and the Rhetoric of Otherness, American Journal of Philology 116 (1995): 185211; and Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). Recently, however, such assessments have been (convincingly, in my opinion) challenged by Thomas, Herodotus in Context; Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Telling Wonders: Ethnographic and Political Discourse in the Work of Herodotus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001); and Munson, Black Doves Speak: Herodotus and the Languages of Barbarians (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, Harvard University Press, 2005). See also Christopher Pelling, East Is East and West Is West Or Are They? National Stereotypes in Herodotus, http://www / Classics / histos /1997 /pelling; and Walter Burkert, Die Griechen und der Orient (Munich: Beck, 2003). 50 Herodotus, I, 5. 51 See Mathew R. Christ, Herodotean Kings and Historical Inquiry, Classical Antiquity 13 (1994): 167202. 52 Richmond Lattimore, The Wise Adviser in Herodotus, Classical Philology 34 (1939): 31.


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he blames the Egyptians and kills the Apis, the holy calf of one of the major Egyptian religious festivals.53 Blinded by his overweening pride, Cambyses believed that he could wantonly kill and insult, respecting neither the customs of other peoples nor those of his native Persia. The fate of Cambyses was an object lesson in the perils of hubris and unchecked power, and in particular of the risks of trampling on peoples cherished beliefs and customs.54 It provides the background to the famous anthropological experiment executed by the Persian king Darius: Darius . . . summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them what price would persuade them to eat their fathers dead bodies. They answered that there was no price for which they would do it. Then he summoned those Indians who are called Callatiae, who eat their parents, and asked them (the Greeks being present and understanding by interpretation what was said) what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death. The Indians cried aloud, that he should not speak of so horrid an act. So deeply rooted are these beliefs. 55 Generalizing from Dariuss experiment, as well as from the Cambysess case, Herodotus formulates cultural relativism as a universally valid maxim: For if it were proposed to all men to choose which seemed the best of all customs, all, after examination made, would place their own rst; so well all are persuaded that their own are by far the best. 56 Custom, Herodotus declares, quoting a wellknown line from the poet Pindar, is king of all. Here, his maxim resonates with much of ancient opinion, for this was one the most frequently quoted lines of poetry throughout antiquity.57 Introducing his maxim, Herodotus tells his readers that he deems it in every way proved that Cambyses was very mad, or else he would never have endeavored to deride religion and custom. Cultural relativism thus represents the counterpoint to the delusions of imperialism. Herodotus likewise explains the Persian failure to conquer Scythia and Greece by their lack of understanding of other cultures. The Persians misinterpreted the guerilla tactics of the Scythian nomads, and

53 Herodotuss judgment of Cambyses has been criticized; see Cyrus Masroori, Cyrus II and the Political Utility of Religious Toleration, in Religious Toleration, ed. John Christian Laursen (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 2021. 54 See Rosaria Vignolo Munson, The Madness of Cambyses, Arethusa 24 (1991): 4365. 55 Herodotus, III, 38. 56 Ibid. I have slightly modied the translation. Godley renders pasi anthropoisi as to all nations, which sounds a bit anachronistic. I prefer the literal translation: to all men. 57 See Martin Ostwald, Pindar, Nomos, and Heracles, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 69 (1965): 109.

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their belief in the military superiority of monarchies led them to fatally underestimate the strength of the Greek city-states. Herodotuss lessons, however, were also intended for the Greeks themselves. His invocation of the Egyptian perspective, to which I have already alluded, gets its point from his critique of the Greek pretensions to superiority over the Egyptians.58 In particular, the Histories implicitly targeted the Athenian empire. Let us recall that Herodotus nished his work during the Peloponnesian War, which contemporary popular views blamed on the excessive power of the Athenian empire.59 Chester Starr has estimated that at its apex the Athenian thalassocracy directly ruled some two million Greeks, while some twenty million people in the Mediterranean lands had to reckon with Athenian power.60 In the second year of the war, Pericles himself had argued in the peoples assembly that the empire was largely based on self-interest and functioned as a tyranny in its rule over other Greek cities.61 Of the major peoples discussed in the ethnographic part of the Histories the Scythians, who inhabited what is today the Ukraine, are by far the most Other, for they do not live in cities and their mode of warfare is almost the opposite of the infantry tactics practiced by the Greeks, the Persians, and most other sedentary civilizations. Some authors, notably Franois Hartog and James Romm, therefore have interpreted Herodotuss study of Scythian culture in terms of a fascination with the exotic. Romm places them, together with the other northern peoples, in the Herodotean category of the most remote of all human beings, while Hartog reads the Scythian ethnography as a structural inversion of Greekness.62 However, Herodotuss full-blown ethnography of the Scythians places them on a par with the Persians and the Egyptians in the narrative structure of the Histories. It stands in sharp contrast to his treatment of the other northern peoples, represented as a motley collection of oddities at the edge of the world. Herodotus assuredly contrasts Greek and Scythian customs, as he does with other cultures, but this narrative device should not be inated into the deep and

See Christ, Herodotean Kings, p. 185. Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Ananke in Herodotus, Journal of Hellenic Studies 121 (2001): 42. 60 See Chester G. Starr, The Inuence of Sea Power on Ancient History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 38. 61 See Mason Hammond, Ancient Imperialism: Contemporary Justications, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 58 (1948): 109 10; and Russell Meiggs, The Crisis of Athenian Imperialism, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 67 (1963): 1. 62 See James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 45 81; and Hartog, Miroir dHrodote, passim.



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ultimate meaning of the text. Actually, Herodotuss approach is better explained by the long history of Greco-Scythian contacts that continued into his own time. For over two centuries, there had been Greek colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea, Greek traders had traveled widely in the Scythian hinterland, and they even marketed art tailored to Scythian taste.63 Scythian archers were employed as a police force in Athens.64 The controversial question of whether Herodotus himself ever visited Scythia is not really material to this.65 The second reason for his interest in the Scythians is that they were enemies of the Persians. Herodotus explains Dariuss invasion of Scythia as a revenge for a previous Scythian invasion of the Persian empire.66 At the same time, the Persian defeat in Scythia provides a runner up to the main story of their defeat in Greece. In his gleeful account of the failure of Dariuss campaign in 512 b.c.e., Herodotus skillfully interweaves Persian defeat and Scythian ethnography. Let us begin with Persian defeat. Because the Scythians have no cities, while their army consists of fast-moving mounted archers, their guerilla tactics can easily avoid a regular open-eld battle with the heavily armed Persian infantry. The Persians are lured into Scythia, in search of an enemy they cannot nd and suffering the hardships of a barren land from which they cannot draw sustenance. Their plight is the consequence of their inability to understand the functioning of Scythian society. As usual, Herodotus blames this in particular on the Persian king. Dariuss obtuseness is highlighted in the story of the

63 See Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1913), pp. 37, 28391, 438 41; see also J. G. F. Hind, Greek and Barbarian Peoples on the Shores of the Black Sea, Archeological Reports 30 (1983 84): 71 97; M. Rostovtsev, South Russia in the Prehistoric and Classical Period, American Historical Review 26 (1921): 20324; Arthur O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 315327, esp. 32122; David Braund, ed., Scythians and Greeks: Cultural Interactions in Scythia, Athens, and the Early Roman Empire (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005); and Thomas, Herodotus in Context, pp. 54 74, esp. 55 56. 64 See Balbina Bbler, Bobbies or Boobies: The Scythian Police Force in Classical Athens, in Braund, Scythians and Greeks, pp. 11422. 65 See O. Kimball Armayor, Did Herodotus Ever Go to the Black Sea? Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 45 62; and Armayor, Sesostris and Herodotus Autopsy of Thrace, Colchis, Inland Asia Minor, and the Levant, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 84 (1980): 5174; but cf. Lionel Pearson, Credulity and Scepticism in Herodotus, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 72 (1941): 33555, esp. 34045; Jack Martin Balcer, The Date of Herodotus IV.1 Darius Scythian Expedition, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 76 (1972): 99 132; and Stephanie West, The Scythian Ultimatum (Herodotus IV 131,132), Journal of Hellenic Studies 108 (1988): 207211. 66 Herodotus, IV, 1.

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Scythian message. The arrogant king had demanded that the Scythians surrender and offer him their land on a plate. With the Persian army exhausted by the inconclusive guerilla war, the Scythians nally dispatch a herald who brings the Persians a gift consisting of the following items: a bird, a mouse, a frog, and ve arrows. The herald refuses to disclose the meaning of the gift, saying that the Persians should nd out themselves, if they are clever enough. Darius thinks that the mouse signies the earth and the frog water, while the arrows stand for arms, so that the upshot of the message is that the Scythians surrender their earth, water, and arms to the Persians. His nave reading is disputed by his adviser Gobryas, who argues that the meaning of the gifts is a far less pleasant one. Read correctly, it spells Persian doom: Unless you become birds, Persians, and y up into the sky, or mice and hide you in the earth, or frogs and leap into the lakes, you will be shot by these arrows and never return home. 67 Gobryas is right: note that Herodotus is thus not saying that the Persians as a race are incapable of good intelligence; Dariuss wishful thinking is just another item in Herodotuss long list of monarchical misinterpretations of messages, omens, and oracles. Only after additional misfortunes does Darius nally come around to Gobryass view. The Persians abandon the campaign, happy to get out alive. The next thing to note in Herodotuss ethnography of the Scythians is that he does not portray them as backward barbarians. When he remarks on the feeble mental powers of the inhabitants of the far north, he at once makes an exception for the Scythians.68 His appraisal of Scythian intelligence also appears in the rst story he tells about them. When the Scythians returned from their Persian expedition, their slaves sons, born from their wives during the absence of the men, rebelled against them, but they were defeated by a clever stratagem: Herodotus relates that one of the Scythians said: . . . my counsel is that we drop our spears and bows, and go to meet them each with his horsewhip in hand. As long as they saw us armed, they thought themselves to be our peers and the sons of our peers; let them see us with whips . . . and they will perceive that they are our slaves. . . . This the Scythians heard, and acted thereon; and their enemies, amazed by what they saw, had no more thought of ghting, but ed. 69 The Scythians are here depicted as perfectly capable of analyzing the role of the imagination in

67 68 69

Ibid., 132. Ibid., 46. Ibid., 34.


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power relationsno mean feat. Coming to the functioning of Scythian society, Herodotus expresses his admiration for their technology of military nomadism, the combination of mobile homes and fast-moving mounted archers that had enabled them to defeat the mighty Persian war machine: [T]he Scythian race, he declares, has in that matter which of all human affairs is of greatest import made the cleverest discovery that we know. 70 We may contrast this with Hippocrates, who also gives a description of the Scythian mobile homes, but entirely refrains from any positive appreciation of them, and generally gives an unattering picture of Scythian physique and customs.71 Herodotuss appreciative judgment of military nomadism is undoubtedly stimulated by its role in defeating the Persian army, but the entire ethnography cannot be reduced to an admire-your-enemies-enemies logic. Although Herodotus does not admire the Scythians in all respects, the only aspect that explicitly comes in for criticism is their stubborn ethnocentrism. The Scythians (as others), he says, are wondrously reluctant to practice [the customs] of any other country, and particularly of Hellas, as was proved in the case of Anacharsis and again also of Scyles. 72 Anacharsis and Scyles were Scythians who visited Greece and went native there. When they returned home and their adoption of Greek ways was discovered, both were killed.73 We should further consider that Scythia stands on the side of liberty in Herodotuss grand opposition between free peoples and despotic imperialism. What we learn about their political regime is much closer to the tribal democracy of Tacituss Germans than to the great Oriental empires. The story of Dariuss Scythian campaign ends with the Ionian Greeks refusal to assist the Scythians in destroying the Persian army, and so to use the opportunity to free the Greek cities in Asia Minor from Persian rule. Herodotus depicts the Ionian leaders as shortsighted petty despots who are fearful that an anti-Persian revolt will bring about a victory of the democratic party in their cities, and he gives the Scythians the last word: the episode concludes with their biting critique of the Greeks

Herodotus, IV, 46. Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, Places, xviii; on the mostly negative treatment of the Scythians by later authors, see James William Johnson, The Scythian: His Rise and Fall, Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959): 250 57. 72 Herodotus, IV, 76; but note that Herodotus says that the Scythians share their aversion to foreign ways with all other peoples: They too [kai houtoi] are very keen to avoid . . . . 73 See A. MacC. Armstrong, Anacharsis the Scythian, Greece and Rome 17 (1948): 18 23.


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servile mentality.74 Here, the Scythians seem to represent the Greeks bad conscience about a missed opportunity rather than a simple inversion of the values of Greek civilization. (But note that Herodotus recounts elsewhere how the Scythians, having subdued the Medians in Cyaxaress days, lose their conquests because of their pride and lack of prudence.75) Generally, Herodotuss discussion of the Scythians is remarkably even-handed. His serious examination of their customs exemplies what I have called the anthropological turn. He really wants to understand Scythian society, displaying a detailed knowledge of their food, clothing, and funeral customs. That he contrasts their ways with those of the Greeks is not so surprising given the fact that cultures are constituted by difference, so that it is impossible to describe them without terms of comparison. What matters is not the bare fact that Herodotus contrasts and compares, but the intellectually serious and open-minded way in which he does so. Herodotuss Histories make thinkable, I conclude, a new discourse of common humanity that actually comes close to a notion of transcultural equality. Starting from the stark facts of cultural difference, Herodotus makes two major discursive moves, one on the meta-narrative level and another in the narrative text. The meta-narrative move is his explication of the logic of cultural relativism. Acknowledging difference, it afrms sameness on a higher level of abstraction: all men are fundamentally alike in the way they relate to their own customs. In most cases they stay within the ambit of their own culture, but culture (nomoi) is not a hermetic prison from which there is no escape. Human beings have the potential capacity to cross the border toward another culture. The second move is made up of countless little moves: passages in which the hubris of rulers, the prideful ambitions of empire builders, and the pretensions to superiority of (among others) Persians over Scythians and Greeks, and Greeks over Egyptians and others, are scrutinized and found wanting. In numerous other passages Herodotus displays his mastery of the anthropological turn: his intellectual engagement with non-Greek cultures is serious, often sympathetic, and almost never haughty and patronizing. He decidedly glories the Greek victories over the Persian invaders, and he believes in the virtues of Greek democracy, asserting that the Persians are servile and do not ght in good

74 Herodotus, IV, 142; see also Arnaldo Momigliano, Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 13132. 75 Herodotus, I, 106.


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order.76 However, his really biting criticisms are aimed at the Persian kings, while he has their advisers counsel prudence and moderation. As we have seen, Gobryas correctly read the Scythian message, censoring Dariuss wishful misreading. Likewise, Artabanes vainly warns Xerxes of an impending disaster on the eve of the invasion of Greece.77 The emphasis is on the theme that great power blinds those who wield it, coupled with the retribution the gods mete out to those who overstep the bounds set for them. Herodotuss criticisms of the Persians focus on their despotic political regime; they should not be read as evidence of Persian cultural or racial inferiority. His discussion of Persian customs is fairly balanced, giving praise where it is due.78 And let us recall that it is the Persian king Darius who conducts the anthropological experiment that exemplies the maxim on cultural relativism. In his narrative of Persian behavior in the wars against the Greeks, Herodotus often censures them, but even there he does not write as a Greek chauvinist hack.79 Nor is Herodotus an uncritical admirer of all things Greek. As we have noted above, his extremely critical treatment of empires and imperialism, made public during the Peloponnesian War, was rather obviously applicable to the Athenian maritime empire and the high-handed, sometimes cruel, policies of Athens against Greek cities that resisted her designs. The upshot is that Herodotus appreciates the specic virtues of many, perhaps most, cultures. His working hypothesis seems to be the equal worth of all cultures, unless there are strong arguments to judge otherwise. Not to overstate my conclusion, it should be added that he nowhere explicitly says that all cultures are of equal worth. But his narrative and the lessons he draws from it strongly suggest it. Sima Qian: The Han Empire and Its Barbarians In Sima Qians world, empire was a solid reality. Unlike Herodotus, the Chinese historian assumed that one central empire would dominate all under heaven in the future.80 The recent past, however, was a

76 See Sara Forsdyke, Athenian Democratic Ideology and Herodotus Histories, American Journal of Philology 122 (2001): 32958. 77 Herodotus, VII, 10. 78 Herodotus, I, 13140. 79 See Thomas Harrison, The Persian Invasions, in Bakker, de Jong, and van Wees, Brills Companion, pp. 55178. 80 Schaberg, Travel, Geography, and the Imperial Imagination, p. 154, even considers the Shiji the imperial text par excellence.

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different matter. Chinese tradition held that there had been wise and righteous emperors in dim antiquity, but the living reality of empire was quite recent. The unication of China by the Qin (Chin) dynasty in 221 b.c.e. lay less than a century in the past when Sima Qian was born. The power of the Han was a still more recent accomplishment. The Han believed that Chinese civilization was the most advanced in the world, but they knew quite well that there were other sedentary and urban civilizations, certainly after Zhang Qians mission to the far west (139 126 b.c.e.). The habit of calling China all under heaven persisted, and according to the imperial ideology no foreign prince could claim equal status with the Han emperor, but this symbolic Sinocentrism did not blind the Han to the signicance and power of realms outside China.81 Ironically, the most redoubtable foreign power was not a sedentary civilization but the nomadic Xiongnu federation. In 209, shortly before the fall of the Qin dynasty, Maodun became Shanyu, the traditional title of the Xiongnu ruler. Under his leadership, the Xiongnu defeated their steppe rivals in the east and the west, and established a strong nomadic confederacy that now confronted China across a major part of the Great Wall frontier. The construction of the confederacy was in part a defensive move, for under the Qin the Chinese had sent armies and settlers northward, threatening the nomads access to agricultural areas. The Xiongnu pastoral nomadic economy entertained a symbiotic relationship with agricultural regions and towns in the steppe regions from central Asia to southern Siberia. They also engaged in trade in the northern frontier zone of China, exporting horses, furs, and jade, and importing luxuries and seasonally necessary agricultural products.82 The Xiongnu eventually came to control a large territory, extending from the Tarim Basin in the west to northern China, and to Manchuria in the east.83 Their formidable ghting power rested on the same technology of military nomadism Herodotus so admired in the western Scythians.
81 See Ying-Shih Y, Han Foreign Relations, in The Cambridge History of China, vol. I, ed. Denis Twitchett and Michael Loewe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 378 81; and di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies, pp. 6 7. 82 See Nicola di Cosmo, Ancient Inner Asian Nomads: Their Economic Basis and Its Signicance in Chinese History, Journal of Asian Studies 53 (1994): 1092126; H. G. Creel, The Role of the Horse in Chinese History, American Historical Review 70 (1965): 65960; and William Watson, The Chinese Contribution to Eastern Nomad Culture in the PreHan and Early Han Periods, World Archeology 4 (1972): 139 49. 83 On the Xiongnu state, see Nicola di Cosmo, State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History, Journal of World History 10 (1999): 140; Thomas J. Bareld, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 32 84; and Bareld, The Hsiung-nu Imperial Confederacy.


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In the steppe environment, the military tactics of the nomads were superior, but they usually avoided regular eld battles with numerically superior Han forces. They raided northern China, but never occupied Chinese territory. The upshot was an unstable equilibrium, precariously regulated by the peace treaties concluded by Emperor Wen (r. 180 157). The Chinese paid annual tribute to the Xiongnu, a Han princess was given in marriage to the Shanyu, the Great Wall was to demarcate the border, and China and the Xiongnu recognized each other as coequal states.84 Because the Chinese considered nomadism a denitely inferior way of life, and failed to appreciate the agricultural and urban elements in the nomadic economy, they only reluctantly admitted the equal status of the Xiongnu. Military necessity forced them to accept it, but it sat ill with their deep convictions of propriety and hierarchy. The ensuing emotional and intellectual ambivalence could lead to a dogmatic closure, upholding Chinese superiority against the backdrop of Xiongnu barbarian baseness, but it might also occasion a more open, questioning outlook. Both perspectives are discernible in Sima Qians history. The distinction between civilized and barbarian long antedated the Han. In the Warring States era, the superiority of Chinese values was taken for granted, and even the occasional wise barbarian who rebuked the Chinese did so in the name of traditional Chinese values.85 However, it is important to realize that the civilized / barbarian divide did not neatly coincide with the boundary between Chinese and non-Chinese. Only the Han are always on the civilized side, but in other cases Sima Qian mentions ethnic mixing within China. He asserts, for instance, that the mixture of the Qin dynastys customs with those of the Rong and Di barbarians accounts for the violence and cruelty of the regime.86 In an earlier chapter he had reported that the Qin themselves were considered barbarian by the more centrally situated states in preimperial China.87 In a recent investigation of Chinese perceptions of the Yue (Viet) peoples in pre-Han and Han times, Erica Brindly notices a general ambivalence in the different notions of barbarity in Chinese sources, ranging from not-yet-civilized Others within the orbit of an expanding Chinese cultural space and an essential alterity ascribed to the more remote barbarians. She observes that Sima Qians treatment of the Yue contains depreciative essentializing
84 85 86 87

See Bareld, Perilous Frontier, pp. 4146. See Schaberg, Patterned Past, pp. 130 35. Shiji 15: Qin, p. 85; see also Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, pp. 17172. Shiji 5: Qin, p. 23; see also Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, p. 171.

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elements, but also allows for their potential to act in a civilized manner, depicting them as less civilized others rather than unchangeable barbarians. 88 As we shall see, Simas ethnography of the Xiongnu presents an even more critical perspective. To Sima Qian and his contemporaries the Xiongnu question represented Chinas greatest foreign policy challenge. In 133 b.c.e., Emperor Wu ended the treaty system, commencing a century of Chinese-Xiongnu wars. The wars were bitter and, at any rate in Sima Qians time, mostly inconclusive, while the nancial and demographic burden almost crippled the Han economy. Sima Qian belonged to a current of opinion questioning the wisdom of Emperor Wus aggressive foreign policy. The costs of warfare, they argued, were appalling and victory was uncertain, while high taxes and conscription might lead to a popular revolt. This, and not his cruel punishment by the emperor, was the main reason for Sima Qians doubts about the benets of Han imperialism. The prosperity and happiness of the people, he believed, were more important than imperial grandeur. Appreciating the need for a well-trained army to deter aggression from abroad, he was very much aware of the human costs of warfare. With approval he cites the advice of Yan An to Emperor Wu: Now, when China is not troubled by so much as the bark of a dog, to become involved in wearisome projects in distant lands that exhaust the wealth of the nationthat is hardly right for a ruler whose duty it is to be a father to the people. To seek to fulll endless ambitions, determining to win revenge and incurring the hatred of the Xiongnuthis will not bring peace to the frontier. 89 Yan An reminded the emperor that the fall of the short-lived Qin dynasty came about when the people rebelled against the heavy burdens caused by excessive warfare. More generally, the memory of Qin recalled the perils of a despotic and over-centralized style of government. Similar criticisms of despotic and aggressive policies by councilors and ministers are quoted in the Shiji in other places, usually with prudent endorsement. Like Herodotuss, Sima Qians critique of imperialism is thus wedded to a critique of despotic rule.90 But we must be careful not

88 Erica Brindley, Barbarians or Not? Ethnicity and Changing Conceptions of the Ancient Yue (Viet) Peoples, ca. 400 50 bc, Asia Major, Third Series 16, no. 1 (2003): 29. 89 Shiji 112: Han II, p. 202. 90 See Robert B. Crawford, The Social and Political Philosophy of the Shi-chi, Journal of Asian Studies 22 (1963): 402403; Karen Turner, War, Punishment, and the Law of Nature in Early Chinese Concepts of the State, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 53 (1993): 29394, 305307; and Wang Yu-chuan, An Outline of the Central Government of the Former Han Dynasty, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 12 (1949): 13487.


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to push the analogy too far: his standard is not the democratic polis, but responsible civilian imperial rule. The historians calling is to act as a moral adviser to the emperor, a role Sima Qian attributed to an idealized model of the Confucian sage.91 The chapter on the Xiongnu begins with the observation that throughout Chinese history the northern nomads have been a source of constant worry and harm. The Han, Sima Qian declares, has attempted to determine the Xiongnus periods of strength and weakness so that it may adopt defensive measures or launch punitive expeditions as the circumstances allow. Thus I made The Account of the Xiongnu. On the face of it, this is history in the service of imperialism. There follows a summary description of the economic and military foundations of Xiongnu society that begins with the emblematic negative statements found in so many travelogues on nomads: They move about . . . and have no walled cities or xed dwellings, nor do they engage in any kind of agriculture . . . They have no writing. The ethnography moves to a positive key in its description of the military skills of the nomads, observing for instance that they are very skilful at using decoy troops to lure their opponents to destruction, but it switches back to the not-like-us mode in another remark on the battle tactics of the Xiongnu. Just as Herodotus on the Scythians, Sima Qian reports that the Xiongnu advance when things go well for them, but do not consider it disgraceful to take ight when they are hard pressed. Their only concern, the historian scornfully remarks, is with self-advantage, and they know nothing of propriety or righteousness. 92 Later on, however, the tactics of hitting with lightning speed and vanishing like the mist when the enemy outnumbers them are mentioned in an explanation of the military successes of the Xiongnu under the leadership of Maodun.93 His moral strictures notwithstanding, Sima Qian quite realistically assesses the sources of the Xiongnus military power, a power the Han feared and respected. His ethnography of the nomads wavers between his disapproval of their un-Chinese ways and an objective appraisal, at times bordering on a grudging admiration, of their military skills and efcient style of governance. He does not go quite as far as Herodotuss opinion that the social technology of military nomadism is the cleverest invention we know, but neither does he fall into the typically civilized underestimation of it.
91 See Wai-Yee Li, The Idea of Authority in the Shih chi, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54 (1994): 360. 92 Shiji 110: Han II, p. 129. 93 Ibid., pp. 13739.

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Sima Qians ethnography of the Xiongnu thus oscillates between an essentialist reduction of their nature to those aspects of it the Chinese found particularly reprehensible and a more favorable appreciation of their intelligence and versatility. An example of essentialism is the blunt statement that in times of crisis the northern barbarians take up arms and go off on plundering and marauding expeditions. This seems to be their inborn nature. 94 Likewise, some Xiongnu customs, such as their preference for seats on the left and facing north, and their preference of the young over the aged, are depicted as simple inversions of Chinese ways.95 But the greater part of the ethnography is not like that at all. The description of the political organization of the Xiongnu confederation, for example, gives an impression of efcient statecraft rather than backward despotism. In fact, its sophisticated combination of centralized control and decentralized administration seems well suited to elicit the admiration of Sima Qians Chinese readers, many of whom were critical of the unwieldy governmental bureaucracy of the Han. It is true that Sima Qian mentions several examples of cruel behavior, including parricide, but elsewhere he recounts even more instances of similar cruelty on the part of Chinese rulers and aristocrats. It is not easy to determine the cultural distance between the Chinese and the Xiongnu in Sima Qians narrative. The Xiongnu are surely represented as Other, in the sense that their means of subsistence, methods of warfare, code of honor, food, clothing, and housing differ profoundly from Chinese ways. They are also Other because they are consistently represented as enemies, placing them at a political and emotional distance that is absent from Herodotuss depiction of the Scythians, who are not enemies of the Greeks, but rather enemies of the Greeks enemies. On the other hand, the nomadic-sedentary boundary is less permeable in Herodotus than in Sima Qian. In Herodotus, there is not a single instance of a Greek going native among the Scythians. Herodotean border crossing is a one-way street. Scythians sometimes adopt Greek ways, but Greeks never adopt Scythian customs (although there is one mention of Scythian Greeks 96). Sima Qian, however, reports continuous travel across the frontier in both directions, with several instances of Chinese adopting the Xiongnu way of life. Unlike the Scythian frontier, the Great Wall frontier is culturally permeable in two directions.

94 95 96

Shiji 110: Han II, p. 129. Ibid., p. 137. Herodotus, IV, 17.


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In the early Han we nd several examples of border crossing and cultural adaptation. In this period, the military balance tilted toward the Xiongnu. Hann Xin, appointed by the rst Han emperor, Gaozu, to rule the border province of Dai, went over to the Xiongnu side when they invaded his province, and eventually became a Xiongnu general. Shortly thereafter, Sima Qian relates, a number of Han generals went over to the Xiongnu.97 The most striking example of the cultural inversions such contacts could bring about is the story of Zhonghang Yue. This man was a eunuch dispatched by Emperor Wen, not long after 174 b.c.e., to accompany a Han princess who was to marry Jizhu, the successor of Maodun, as part of the peace treaty. The court had forced this mission on him against his will. Upon his arrival at the court of the Shanyu, Zhonghang Yue promptly went over to the side of the Xiongnu. Jizhu treated him with great favor, making him a sort of ofcial advisor on matters Chinese. Sima Qian quotes Zhonghang Yue extensively, rst when he warns the Xiongnu against adopting Chinese ways, and second when he refutes the criticism of the customs of the nomads voiced by a Han envoy. The speeches Sima Qian attributes to Zhonghang Yue merit a careful reading, for they demonstrate the extent and the limits of the historians ability to imagine the perils of Sinication for the Xiongnu, as well as his willingness to give voice to an imagined Xiongnu critique of Chinese culture. To begin with, Zhonghang counsels his Xiongnu friends to recognize the demographic imbalance between themselves and China. The Chinese vastly outnumber the Xiongnu, and yet the military power of the latter is sufcient to withstand, and sometimes even defeat, the Han. That is because their way of life is well suited to military training and preparedness. The strength of the Xiongnu, Zhonghang argues, lies in the very fact that their food and clothing are different from those of the Chinese, and they are therefore not dependent upon the Han for anything. However, the tribute the Chinese send to the Xiongnu court might change this. The Shanyu is getting fond of Chinese garments and food, and his subjects might develop similar tastes. Zhonghang strongly warns against becoming dependent on Chinese imports, pointing to the utter uselessness of Han silk when riding on horseback through the brush and brambles. On the other hand, he taught the Shanyus aides how to make an itemized accounting of the number of persons and domestic animals in the country. 98 Here, he advised

97 98

Shiji 110: Han II, pp. 13839. Ibid., p. 143.

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them to adopt some of the routine practices of the Han state.99 But the key issue in Zhonghang Yues advice has to do with the cultural consequences of taking up Chinese habits and tastes. It presents us with an analysis of the dangers of luxury to a militarized society that is not unlike later European explanations of the fall of the Roman Empire. Thus far, Zhonghang Yue has mainly dwelt on the perils of Sinication. When faced with the Han envoys strictures about Xiongnu culture, however, he replies with a critique of Han society from a Xiongnu perspective. The rst point the envoy had made was that Xiongnu customs showed insufcient respect for the aged, for they give the best food and drink to the young men. Well, Zhonghang Yue retorts, is it not true that the Han do the same in wartime, when the old parents at home voluntarily give up their warm clothing and tasty food so that there will be enough to provide for the troops? The Han envoy had to admit that this was indeed the truth. Zonghang then simply pointed out that, since warfare was the main business of the Xiongnu, it was perfectly appropriate to allot the best food and the sturdiest clothing to those who bore the brunt of the war effort. The nal results were benecial to all: So the young men are willing to ght for the defense of the nation, and both fathers and sons are able to live out their lives in security. How can you say that the Xiongnu despise the aged? 100 The Han envoy is not yet nished. Among the Xiongnu, he continues, when a father dies, the sons marry their own stepmothers, and when brothers die, their remaining brothers marry their widows! These people know nothing of the elegance of hats and girdles, nor of the ritual of the court! This time, Zhonghang Yues repartee is longer. For a start, he explains that the Xiongnu are well provided with all they need and enjoy more leisure than the haughty Chinese: the people eat the esh of their domestic animals, drink their milk, and wear their hides, while the animals graze from place to place, searching for pasture and water. Therefore, in wartime the men practise riding and shooting, while in times of peace they enjoy themselves and have nothing to do. The laws of the Xiongnu, Zhonghang further declares, are simple and easy to carry out; the relation between ruler and subject is relaxed and intimate, so that the governing of the whole nation is no more complicated than the governing of one person. Sima Qians readers would

99 See Michael Loewe, The Former Han Dynasty, in Cambridge History of China, vol. 1, pp. 12627. 100 Shiji 110: Han II, pp. 14344.


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surely decode the praise of Xiongnu simplicity as an indirect critique of the complicated laws and cumbersome bureaucracy of the Han. Coming to the Han envoys objections against the Xiongnu marriage code, he explains that their purpose is to safeguard the preservation of the clans, so that the ruling families will stand rm in times of turmoil. This is followed by a searing critique of Han society:
In China, on the other hand, though a man would never dream of marrying his stepmother or his brothers widow, yet the members of the same family drift so far apart that they end up murdering each other! This is precisely why so many changes of dynasty have come about in China! Moreover, among the Chinese . . . enmity arises between the rulers and the ruled, while the excessive building of houses and dwellings exhausts the strength and resources of the nation. Men try to get their food and clothing by farming and raising silkworms and to insure their safety by building walls and fortications. Therefore, although danger threatens, the Chinese people are given no training in aggressive warfare, while in times of stability they must still wear themselves out trying to make a living. Pooh! You people in your mud hutsyou talk too much! Enough of this blubbering and mouthing! Just because you wear hats, what does that make you? 101

How should we read this fascinating passage? The rst thing to note is that Sima Qian does not express these criticisms of Han culture in his own voice, but puts them in the mouth of a Chinese who went native among the Xiongnu. He appears thus to be telling his readers that if an intelligent and unprejudiced Chinese man were to familiarize himself with the barbarian outlook on the world, this is the kind of opinion he might well arrive at. Elsewhere, he relates that the way of life of many other nomads of Inner Asia resembles that of the Xiongnu, up to the faraway lands on the western borders of Parthia.102 He also recounts that the Wusun, who live in western Inner Asia, fear and respect the Xiongnu but hardly bother about distant China.103 Such a global perspective, showing that the Xiongnu are not an isolated case and that their power reaches far into the west, might serve to impart a measure of modesty to his audience. Sima Qian often presents defamiliarizing views as the opinions of such remote peoples. Nicola di Cosmo, who offers the best discussion of the Shijis Xiongnu narrative, considers it

101 102 103

Shiji 110: Han II, p. 144. Shiji 123: Han II, p. 234. Ibid., pp. 23940.

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possible that Sima Qian might have been regarded as a barbarophile by his contemporaries. 104 Apart from that, the historian has his Han / Xiongnu composite personage express an opinion he himself probably shared: China is huge and wealthy, but the majority of the Chinese are toiling away for a meager reward while a small elite wallows in luxury. Consequently, there is enmity between the popular classes and the ruling stratum. Here, the author seems to use his nomadic subject matter to deliver his opinion in an internal Chinese debate. In the speech quoted above, Sima Qian has Zhonghang Yue perform a discursive move not unlike the one Herodotus attributed to the Egyptians when he reported that they called all people who did not speak Egyptian barbarians. However, he nowhere employs his metanarrative comments (guring at the end of all his chapters) to formulate the general rule of cultural relativism in anything like the strident terms of Herodotus. What he is saying is that a barbarian perspective on Han culture and institutions is thinkable and intelligible for an educated and well-informed Chinese. In this manner, he practices the anthropological turn and makes a rst step toward the thinkability of cultural relativism. No less, but also no more. Sima Qians discussion of the Xiongnu is thus far more than a long digression on savages and barbarians. It is a densely written and serious ethnography, comprising three observations. In the rst place, he posits, here and elsewhere, that the Xiongnu way of life is well adapted to the steppe environment in which they have to maintain themselves. Second, their peculiar and, in Chinese eyes, barbarian marriage customs ensure the survival of their people in a society permanently organized on a war footing. In the third place, the technique of nomadic militarism enables them to escape domination by the numerically superior Chinese. When all is said and done, it is no mean feat to force the mighty Han to recognize a nomadic confederacy as an equal partner in international relations. The upshot is that there are no good reasons for the Xiongnu to become civilized along Chinese lines, and very good reasons not to do so. The opinions attributed to Zhonghang Yue may well reect views held by the author himself. This is also apparent from his endorsement of the politics of Emperor Wen (r. 180157 b.c.e.). Let us recall that it

104 Di Cosmo, Ancient China and Its Enemies, p. 271. Likewise, Joseph Roe Allen III, An Introductory Study of the Narrative Structure in the Shi ji, Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 13 (1981): 56 n. 46, nds Sima Qians treatment of the Xiongnu quite sympathetic, especially considering that they were Han Chinas most enduring enemies.


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was Wen who concluded the peace treaty with the Xiongnu, while it was Sima Qians master, Emperor Wu, who had sided with the war faction in 133 b.c.e. Praise for Emperor Wen thus represented an indirect way of criticizing Emperor Wu. That stance should not be equated, however, with a disapproval of Chinese imperial expansion as such. Sima Qians discussion of imperial foreign policy exhibits the same ambivalence we have encountered in his ethnography of the Xiongnu. He quotes a letter dispatched in 162 by Emperor Wen to the ruler of the Xiongnu: We have heard it said that Heaven shows no partiality in sheltering mankind, and Earth no bias in bearing it up. Let us, then, with the Shanyu, cast aside these triing matters of the past and walk the great road together . . . in order that the peoples of our two states may be joined together like the sons of a single family. 105 These words are part of the proposal to establish a lasting peace in which both parties would recognize the Great Wall as the legitimate border. Sima Qian clearly sympathized with the worldview just outlined. At one moment, he attributed to Emperor Wu the dream of winning over the kingdoms of the far west by peaceful means.106 Elsewhere, he even imagined that the multitudinous tribes within the four seas, translating and retranslating their strange tongues, have come knocking at our borders in submission. Those who bring tribute and beg for an audience are too numerous to be told. 107 These words surely represented a Confucian metaphysical dream rather than a realistic appraisal of the state of affairs in central Eurasia. But it was a dream that was solidly lodged in the intellectual imagination of Han China. Empire and the Temporalities of History In the dialectic of the civilized and the barbarian, and in visions of empire, notions of temporality play an important role. Some temporalities only allow empires to falter or fail in the teeth of fate, while others promise them a victorious ride on the winds of time. That is not to say, however, that we face a clear-cut choice between linear and cyclical time. There is, by now, a broad consensus that all conceptions of history contain both linear and cyclical elements. 108
Shiji 110: Han II, p. 147. Shiji 123: Han II, p. 236. 107 Cited in Watson, Ssu-ma Chien, p. 53. 108 George Macklin Wilson, Time and History in Japan, American Historical Review 85 (1980): 560.
106 105

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Connecting the nomadic ethnographies in Herodotus and Sima Qian to the temporalities underpinning their histories will enable us to identify similarities and differences in their handling of the anthropological turn. In the rst place we may conclude that the strong developmental temporality characteristic of the European Enlightenment is entirely absent from these histories. There is no stadial theory that would guarantee the evolution of lower nomadic societies to the higher stage of sedentary, agricultural civilization. In Herodotus, individual Scythians adopt Greek ways, but this proves to be their undoing, and there is absolutely no prospect of the Scythian people adopting Greek or, for that matter, Persian culture. Sima Qians account mentions cultural border-crossing in two directions, and the historian discusses the possibility of the Xiongnu being seduced by Chinese luxuries and habits. But the latter point is made only to underline the perils of such an acculturation for the vitality and the independence of the Xiongnu. The Han regarded themselves as the cultural center of the world, with concentric regions of barbarity around them.109 It follows that the desirable and intelligible transition is that barbarians become civilized. As Mencius remarks: I have heard of the Chinese converting barbarians to their ways, but not of their being converted to barbarian ways. 110 In the opening lines of his account of Central Asia, Sima Qian likewise declares that all the barbarians of the distant west craned their necks to the east and longed to catch a glimpse of China. 111 But his ethnography of the Xiongnu conveys a quite different message. Unlike Mencius, Sima Qian has heard of Chinese adopting barbarian ways. In his narrative, several Chinese act out the non-intelligible move from Han to Xiongnu culture, and one of them voices a critique of Han culture from a Xiongnu standpoint. In these sections of the book, the grand Sinocentric sweep of Sima Qians historical narrative is quite literally punctured by the anthropological turn. From his account of the Xiongnu, it seems extremely unlikely that the Chinese will ever impose their civilization to the north of the Great Wall. The differences between Herodotuss and Sima Qians views on civilizing the barbarians are closely connected to the temporalities of their histories. In Herodotus, time is both linear and cyclical: the wars between the Greeks and the Persians are recounted as a unique

109 See Q. Edward Wang, History, Space, and Ethnicity: The Chinese Worldview, Journal of World History 10 (1999): 285305. 110 IIIA, 4: Mencius, p. 103. 111 Shiji 123: Han II, p. 231.


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series of events with an irreversible and auspicious outcome. That is linear time, but it is weak linear time, for Herodotean history is also cyclical. Cities and empires rise and decline. Fortuna never stays in one place for long. The real lesson of the Histories is not Greek victory but Persian defeat. World Empire is a dream that will always elude mortal men. In secular terms, this outcome is explained by the corruption of power and the blindness of kings. At another level of thought, it is inscribed in Greek religion, for the gods will not permit the affairs of a man, a city, or an empire to prosper forever.112 It is heavens way to bring down all things of surpassing greatness.113 Thus spoke the Persian general Artabanes, counseling prudence to Xerxes on the eve of his invasion of Greece. Two temporalities thus structure Herodotuss narrative of rise and decline: political cycles caused by the corrupting effects of excessive power, and religious cycles in which the gods strike down the hubris of empires. The temporalities of the Histories exclude the enduring transformation of one culture by another. Cambysess attempt to damage and ridicule Egyptian religion bespeaks his insanity and will eventually ruin him. Herodotus recounts how the Persian king dies from a self-inicted wound on his thigh, in the selfsame spot where he had stabbed the Egyptian holy Apis calf.114 Like the overall pattern of the Histories, the narrative of Cambysess downfall is framed by two cycles. He is brought down by his own mindless pride, but it is equally true that he is felled by the revenge of the Egyptian deity. And with Cambyses falls the entire project of cultural imperialism. The Persian empire conquered the greater part of the known world, calling into question the received wisdom about the transience of empires, but it failed to subdue the Ethiopians, the Scythians, and the Greeks, thus reafrming the validity of the recurrent cycles of rise and decline that dominate the temporal framework of the Histories.115 Just as in Herodotus, the temporality of the Shiji is not perfectly cyclical. The dynastic cycles represent a series of analogies between recurrent political crises. From the time of the ancient Five Emperors down to the Qin dynasty, Sima Qian observes, periods of strong and

112 Thomas Harrison, Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 31 63. 113 Herodotus, VII, 10. 114 Herodotus, III, 64. 115 See Justus Cobet, The Organization of Time in the Histories, in Bakker, de Jong, and van Wees, Brills Companion to Herodotus, pp. 411 412; and Momigliano, Classical Foundations, pp. 2930.

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weak government have alternated.116 Elsewhere he refers to the law of change, that when things reach their period of greatest ourishing, they must begin to decay. 117 The Shiji, however, is also structured by notions of linear time. Unlike Herodotuss work, it is a history from the earliest times to the present day. According to Joseph Needham, the Chinese were the most historically minded of all ancient peoples. 118 They kept written records from the eighth century b.c.e. onward, so that historians in Han times could look back on a long past in which Chinese civilization had gradually expanded, albeit with numerous setbacks and ages of war and turmoil. Sima Qians Confucian outlook theorizes the growth of order and civilization as the unfolding of the immanent potential of human and cosmic nature. There is, or must be, an encompassing order pervading the course of nature and human endeavor.119 This cosmo-political order, however, remains precarious, and is forever threatened by the failure of the human actors who must sustain it.120 The immanent cosmic order can only realize itself through human agency: there is a cosmic ontoteleology, but there is no such thing as divine providence. 121 There is a vision of reform and correction, but its temporality is not progressive, tempered as it is by the powerful notion of a return to the Way of the ancient sages. Assessing the temporalities of pre-Han historical writing, David Schaberg typies it as a record of continual failure and rare success. 122 Grant Hardy argues that the thematic and nonlinear narrative structure of the Shiji conveys an open-ended, contingent, and nonnalist vision of historical development, and he observes that a sense of loss permeates the Shiji, a yearning for what once was. 123 We

Shiji 28: Han II, p. 16; see also Han II, pp. 6, 198, 217. Shiji 30: Han II, p. 63. 118 Joseph Needham, Time and Knowledge in China and the West, in The Voices of Time, ed. J. T. Fraser (New York: G. Braziller, 1966), p. 101; Needham regards the temporality of Chinese historiography as basically linear, though not developmental in the modern European sense. For views that emphasize the cyclical element in Chinese conceptions of time, see Nathan Sivin, Chinese Conceptions of Time, Earlham Review 1 (1966): 82 92; and Jaroslav Prusek, History and Epics in China and the West, Diogenes 42 (1963): 20 43. 119 Hence the comprehensive, encyclopedic structure of the Shiji; see Mark Edwards Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 308 17. 120 See Benjamin Schwarz, History in Chinese Culture: Some Comparative Reections, History and Theory 35 (1996): 27 29. 121 See Joachim Gentz, Wahrheit und historische Kritik in der frhen historiographischen Tradition, Oriens Extremus 43 (2002): 37. 122 Schaberg, Patterned Past, p. 276. 123 Hardy, Worlds of Bronze and Bamboo, pp. 12735, 120.



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may conclude that Sima Qians vision of history and the expansion of Chinese civilization is premised on a weak linearity forever threatened by dissolution and decay. The empire is a solid historical fact, but its future moral and political health is not, in the end, guaranteed by the temporality of Sima Qians history. Although Sima Qian, in contrast to Herodotus, considers an imperial mission civilisatrice both feasible and desirable, his ethnography of the Xiongnu underlines the limits of the expansion of Han civilization in the steppe regions of northern Asia. Conclusion Herodotus knew nothing about China, and Sima Qian was entirely ignorant about Greek historiography. It only makes the parallels between them more fascinating. Both historians question the wisdom of imperial expansion and probe its conditions and consequences. Both perform the anthropological turn, passing beyond a complacent Grecocentric or Sinocentric perspective on themselves and the surrounding world. The role of Othering in their writings should not be overstated. Notions of common humanity and an incipient cultural relativism play equally signicant parts. The dialectic of Othering and common humanity bespeaks a creative ambivalence in their outlook. They fully belong to their native cultures: Sima Qian is a Han Chinese and Herodotus is a Greek, but their intellectual enterprise is fueled by an investigation of the dynamics of their own culture in its evolving relationships to other cultures. That, more than anything else, explains their intellectual power and wide-ranging curiosity. Something else they share is a secular orientation. While it is true that the gods have their role to play in Herodotus and that there is a cosmic-metaphysical element in Sima Qians Confucian outlook, neither of them ever explains trends or events in terms of a divine plan for the world. Their visions of history are fundamentally different from the divinely ordained sequence of events that structures the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible, a text that is world-historically contemporary with them. The main differences between Herodotus and Sima Qian turn on temporality and their relation to empire. While both the Histories and the Shiji work with combinations of cyclical and linear time, the balance tilts toward the cyclical side in Herodotus and toward a weak linearity in Sima Qian. That is hardly accidental. Grafting his long-run history of China on the mythical traditions of the Way of the ancient sage emperors, Sima Qian conceives of a temporality premised on the expansion of Chinese civilization, of which the dynastic cycles are a

Stuurman: Herodotus and Sima Qian


temporal substructure. His temporality is not, however, progressive, but precarious and mournful. Herodotus, on the other hand, recounts, and to a certain extent rejoices in, the failure of the Persian attempt at world empire. The overwhelming signicance of this irreversible event may suggest a linear temporality, but Herodotuss explanation and evaluation of the decline of empires structures his narrative to such an extent that the rhythm of rise and decline become its major temporal frame. A further difference concerns cultural relativism. While both historians are remarkably open in their ethnography of the nomadic barbarian others living on the Eurasian steppe, Herodotuss formulation of cultural relativism is more explicit and epistemologically grounded. It accords with the peripheral position of the Greeks in relation to the great civilizations of western Eurasia and northeastern Africa. They were living on the rim of that world, and their political and intellectual culture was a highly agonistic one of ever shifting power relations in and between city-states. By contrast, the Chinese ideal of civilization and the state was more stable.124 While the Greeks peered from the outside into the entrails of empires, Sima Qian wrote from an insiders perspective within what he, with some justication, believed to be the greatest and most lasting empire in the world. In Sima Qians history, Chinese civilization occupies a unique nodal point in space and time. That is where he differs from Herodotus, who never claims, nor could have claimed, a comparable centrality for Greek civilization (only a much later European invented tradition made such a claim for Greece). The conclusion I propose to draw is that we should not overemphasize, nor simply invert, the signicance of Othering and orientalism in intellectual history. I have sought to show that it was precisely the frontier experience that enabled Herodotus and Sima Qian to include ethnography in their historical accounts, to formulate critical perspectives on empire, and to engage in a serious and open-minded investigation of barbarian culture. The similarities between Herodotuss Scythian ethnography and Sima Qians Xiongnu ethnography are much greater than an undue emphasis on the Greekness of the former and the Chi-

124 Nathan Sivin observes that China differs from the Greek World primarily in that the state was so rarely reinvented, see State, Cosmos, and Body in the Last Three Centuries b.c., Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55 (1995): 7 8, 3436; the same point is made by Mark Edward Lewis, The City-State in Spring-and-Autumn China, in A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures, ed. Mogens Herman Hansen (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzel, 2000), pp. 359 74.


journal of world history, march 2008

neseness of the latter might induce us to believe, to say nothing of an approach in terms of Chinese versus European or Western culture. It is only in the context of the similarities that we can appreciate the signicance of the differences between the two historians. Those differences, I have sought to demonstrate, can be explained by the geographical position and the political history of Greece and China, and by the peculiarities of Greek and Chinese intellectual history, rather than by essentialist conceptions of Greek, European, or Chinese identity. In the new historical mode of inquiry into the human condition pioneered by Herodotus and Sima Qian such identities became, perhaps for the rst time, thinkable as objects of historical inquiry rather than its unquestionable starting points.