I’ve finished Beckwith (see my earlier posts: 1, 2, 3), so it’s time for the summing up. Since I’m going to have some strongly negative things to say, I’ll reiterate that despite its faults the book is more than worth your while; the author’s rethinking of not only Central Asian history but just about everything we think of as “world history” is convincing and important, and I hope the book has the influence it deserves.
Furthermore, the epilogue, “The Barbarians,” would make a superb little booklet on its own, and sums up the essence of what he’s trying to convey throughout the book. He thoroughly demolishes “the widely held theory of the ‘needy nomads,’ according to which steppe-zone Central Eurasians did not themselves produce enough of the necessities of life and depended on the agricultural products, textiles, and other goods of their peripheral neighbors, whose wealth they coveted. When the Central Eurasians could not obtain what they needed or desired by trading their animals and other goods with the ‘advanced’ peripheral empires… the Central Eurasians invaded to take them by force.” He demonstrates that the Central Eurasians were no more violent than the “civilized” states with whom they sometimes fought, that what they desired above all else was trade (which requires peace), and that it was generally the peripheral states that attacked the Central Eurasians in an effort to expand their own territory and impose their own power, which they believed should be universal. He provides this powerful quote from Sophia-Karin Psarras (“Han and Xiongnu: A Reexamination of Cultural and Political Relations”): “I have found that the Xiongnu merit the attention paid them since the Han, not because of any threat they posed to China, but because they were China’s equal. It is this equality which constituted the supposed menace to China.” Everyone who wants to discuss world history should read and assimilate what he has to say, and hopefully the entire concept of “barbarian” will eventually make its way to the dustbin of history where it belongs.
Alas, I must report on the last two chapters, which are devoted almost entirely to a denunciation of “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century. (For him, postmodernism is a subset of Modernism, a sort of rebranding.) This passage will give an idea of the depth of analysis involved: “Modern poets stripped poetry of its elite status in relation to prose: free verse, a thinly disguised form of prose that anyone could write and was therefore accessible to anyone, replaced poetry. Painting called for little training or aesthetic taste (and, indeed, Modernism explicitly demanded its suppression); it required only the ability to splash paint on a canvas. In painting, poetry, and music, among other high arts, traditional forms were rejected and there was unrelenting pressure to abandon any new forms that arose to replace the old ones. The result was literally the loss of the meaning of Art and even Beauty…” Yes, he capitalizes Art and Beauty, and yes, he sounds exactly like the clichéd guy complaining that his six-year-old daughter can paint better than that.
Now, I don’t begrudge anyone their prejudices, and there’s no reason a specialist in medieval Eurasian history should have any expertise in, or sophisticated response to, modern poetry, music, and art. He’s welcome to bend the ear of the patrons of his neighborhood bar about such things, and he’d doubtless find sympathetic listeners. But it boggles my mind that he considers it relevant, let alone vital, to a history of Eurasia (which he claims “suffered the most of any region of the world from the devastation of Modernism”), and it further astonishes me that his publishers didn’t make him cut all that stuff (and replace it with the further details he could surely supply about the topics and periods in which he is genuinely expert). As it is, I can only suggest that readers skip chapters 11 and 12 and head straight to the brilliant Epilogue.
One minor complaint I can’t resist making: he has a cavalier attitude about nomenclature that occasionally creates real problems. It’s quirky that he insists on calling the Battle of Talas “the battle of Atlakh, near Talas” (saying in a footnote that “It is popularly known as the Battle of Talas”—well, then, that’s its name, no?) and a bit odd that he chooses to use “czar” rather than “tsar,” but what the heck; it’s extremely puzzling that he calls the Battle of Manzikert the Battle of Mantzikert (the accepted quirky nomenclature is to use Malazgirt, the Armenian name; what good is that extra -t-?); and it’s truly bizarre that he insists on calling the country south of Russia “Ukraina” (adding in a footnote “Also Ukraine”). But using Salmanasar (a French form) on page 41 and Shalmaneser (the normal English form) on page 61 for the same Assyrian name is pretty unforgivable.
Addendum. Even more unforgivable is the error on page 148, where he calls the Uighurs’ eighth-century capital “Khanbalik” (Khanbaliq is actually the thirteenth-century Mongol name for the city that became Beijing) rather than the correct Ordubalik or Ordu-Baliq, which was just north of the later Mongol capital Karakorum in northern Mongolia. To make matters worse, he doesn’t show it on the map or give any indication of its location in the text. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.