From exploring eighth-century India to finding Lenin’s lost love, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
New York Review of Books
“People of distant places with diverse customs,” wrote a Chinese Buddhist monk in the mid-seventh century, “generally designate the land that they admire as India.” Xuanzang was a scholar, traveler, and translator. When he wrote these words in the seventh century, he had just returned from an epic seventeen-year, six-thousand-mile overland pilgrimage and manuscript-gathering expedition to the great Indian centers of Buddhist learning. Buddhism by then had been the established religion of most of South and Central Asia since it was taken up by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC, around three hundred years after the Buddha’s death in northern India. The account Xuanzang wrote of his journey, Buddhist Record of the Western World, makes it clear that the places he passed through from western China to the Hindu Kush were then very largely dominated by Indic ideas, languages, and religions.
For most of its later medieval and modern history, it was India’s fate to be on the receiving end of foreign influences. Following the establishment of a series of Turkic-ruled Islamic sultanates throughout India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Persian became the language of government across much of the region, and Persian cultural standards, in art, dress, and etiquette, were adopted even in Hindu courts. By the nineteenth century, English had replaced Persian, and India became instead a distant part of the Westernizing Anglosphere. To master English was now the route to advancement, and Indians who wished to get ahead had to abandon, or at least sublimate, much of their own culture, becoming instead English-speaking “Brown Sahibs,” or what V.S. Naipaul called “Mimic Men.” But for at least seven hundred years before then, from about 400 AD to 1200 AD, India was a large-scale and confident exporter of its own diverse civilization in all its forms, and the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language, and literature. [continue reading]
Today I want to pretend that I know how to read science journals, particularly a recentNature article by scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin entitled “Defining the Anthropocene.” Reading a summary about the article was provocation enough to read the article itself, which in turn sparked a more extended rumination about chronology, interdisciplinarity, and scholarly divides. So here’s a confession: six months ago I’d never heard the word “Anthropocene.” I first learned it when someone mentioned it in reference to a grant application. The Oxford English Dictionary (my go-to for etymology) traces the appearance of the word to May 2000, and describes it as “The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth.”
Here’s the rub: there’s not much agreement over when the Anthropocene begins—and the point of Lewis and Maslin’s article is to set a start date. They argue that defining the start of the Anthropocene requires “the location of a global marker of an event . . . such as rock, sediment, or glacier ice, known as Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP)” (colloquially, a “golden spike”), or a date “agreed by committee, known as a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA),” which the committee would agree on after surveying the stratigraphic evidence. Scientists prefer the former method. Maslin and Lewis would like to do away with the commonly-referenced start date of the Industrial Revolution because they argue that humans had “long been engaging in industrial-type production, such as metal utilization,” in addition to other pollutant-causing actions, for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. The long spread of the Industrial Revolution (they offer an onset date from anywhere between 1760 and 1880), furthermore, makes it hard to find one “clear global GSSP primary marker.” Ultimately, they end up proposing two start dates: 1610, because the event of “New-Old World collision” created a stratigraphic marker of low CO2 in glacier ice, and 1964 because “Nuclear weapon detonation” left behind radionuclides in tree rings. [continue reading]
TOKYO —A group of nearly 200 academics, including Pulitzer Prize winners, has published an open letter calling on the nation to face up to its World War II crimes, including its system of sex slavery. The letter, penned by scholars from top institutions including Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics, comes as disquiet grows over what critics say is the tendency of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to whitewash the past. “This year presents an opportunity for the government of Japan to show leadership by addressing Japan’s history of colonial rule and wartime aggression in both words and action,” the letter says.
The missive, which was published on the Internet and is not addressed to anyone in particular, says Japan has achieved great things in the 70 years since its surrender. But it says an apparent refusal by some on the right to fully accept Tokyo’s guilt, risked undermining that stance. The scholars argue that even by the standards of wartime sexual violence and military prostitution in the last century, Japan’s so-called comfort women system “was distinguished by its large scale and systematic management under the military”. It also noted the system’s “exploitation of young, poor, and vulnerable women in areas colonized or occupied by Japan.” Mainstream historians say around 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from other Asian nations, were systematically raped by Japan’s imperial forces in military brothels. Japanese conservatives, however, say no official documents prove government involvement in the system; they say the women were common prostitutes engaged in a commercial exchange. [continue reading]
A London-based academic has uncovered a photograph of the woman described by some as Vladimir Lenin’s true love and the “primeval force of the black earth” by her contemporaries, after the image was lost for nearly a century. Dr Robert Henderson, a Russian history expert at Queen Mary University London, uncovered a photograph of Apollinariya Yakubova – a Russian revolutionary who fled to King’s Cross in London at the turn of the 20th century. Yakubova and her husband were close associates with Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, who lived intermittently in London between 1902 and 1911, although Yakubova and Lenin were known to have a tempestuous and fractious relationship over the policies of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party.
As first reported by the Camden New Journal, Henderson uncovered the photograph in the bowels of the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow in April while researching the life of another young revolutionary, Vladimir Burtsev, for a book. According to the academic, Lenin called Yakubova by the pet name “Lirochka”, which can be roughly translated as “a bit like ‘Bobbykins’,” he said. Yakubova, then 27 and living in a now-demolished building in Regent Square near the British Library in central London, was a force of nature, known for orchestrating debates on communist doctrine in the East End. She was also a key member of a group running lecturing society debates in Whitechapel. [continue reading]