Some months ago I posted a blog on the role of geography in history, in which I discussed the Continental Axes argument of Jared Diamond. I found it a highly productive idea – literally so, because it prompted us to collect data to test empirically a particular extension of the argument. But, as I said earlier, there are also things in Guns, Germs, and Steel with which I disagree.
An example of the latter is Diamond’s explanation of the contrast between politically fragmented Europe and perennially centralized China. First, however, it is worth pointing out that the contrast between the “united East” and “divided West” is not quite as black-and-white as it is usually portrayed. Large chunks of Europe (quite comparable in size to Chinese empires) were unified by the Roman Empire, later by the Carolingian empire, and, more fleetingly, by Napoleonic France and the Third Reich. At the other end of Eurasia, China was not always under a centralized state. There were numerous periods of disunity and fragmentation, most notably, the three centuries from the collapse of the Han Dynasty to the Sui/Tang unification. As my friend and co-author Walter Scheidel points out, two thousand years ago two quite similar political organizations, Rome and the Han dominated Western and Eastern Eurasia, respectively. It was after these empires failed, when the “First Great Divergence” came about. In Europe, periods of unification became more fleeting and periods of disunity longer, while in China, on the contrary, periods of fragmentation following recurrent imperial collapse became shorter. So there is a real difference, even though it’s not quite as stark as it is often portrayed.
What were the causes of these divergent dynamics between the Western and Eastern ends of Eurasia? Diamond proposes a geographical explanation. Here’s one version of it (from Jared Diamond’s talk, How to Get Rich, on Edge.org):
“So the real question is, why was China chronically unified, and why was Europe chronically disunified? Why is Europe disunified to this day? The answer is geography. Just picture a map of China and a map of Europe. China has a smooth coastline. Europe has an indented coastline, and each big indentation is a peninsula that became an independent country, independent ethnic group, and independent experiment in building a society: notably, the Greek peninsula, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Denmark, and Norway/Sweden. Europe had two big islands that became important independent societies, Britain and Ireland, while China had no island big enough to become an independent society until the modern emergence of Taiwan. Europe is transected by mountain ranges that split up Europe into different principalities: the Alps, the Pyrenees, Carpathians — China does not have mountain ranges that transect China. In Europe big rivers flow radially — the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, and the Elbe — and they don’t unify Europe. In China the two big rivers flow parallel to each other, are separated by low-lying land, and were quickly connected by canals. For those geographic reasons, China was unified in 221 B.C. and has stayed unified most of the time since then, whereas for geographic reasons Europe was never unified. Augustus couldn’t do it, Charlemagne couldn’t do it, and Napoleon and Hitler couldn’t unify Europe. To this day, the Europe Union is having difficulties bringing any unity to Europe.”
This argument sounds plausible and, as far as I know, did not generate much disagreement (in fact, Diamond is not the first to put it forth). However, it is wrong in two ways: (1) conceptually, because it does not get right the mechanisms underlying geographic influences on social evolution and historical dynamics and (2) empirically, because it does not reflect correctly the facts on the ground.
First, let us discuss how different features of terrain promote or impede state formation and spread. The basic rule is that anything that promotes ease of travel and communications has a positive effect on state growth and expansion, and vice versa, anything that creates barriers to movement has a negative effect. Topography, plains versus mountains is the most obvious variable, and here I am in complete agreement with Jared Diamond. Mountainous terrain provides natural defenses that make societies living there much harder to conquer. Furthermore, rugged areas interrupt easy communications; it is harder to move goods, people, and information across such terrain. So states encompassing mountainous areas had to work harder to move armies and messengers across these areas, extract resources, and to assimilate highlander population to the imperial culture.
Other geographic features that impede communications and increase defensibility are thick forests (although those can be cut) and extensive marshes (although those can be drained, as Iraq of Saddam Hussein did to suppress the rebellion of the Marsh Arabs).
But bodies of water, such as major rivers, straits, and inland seas, are not dividers, as Diamond proposes, but connectors. They may serve as moats, occasionally, but overall effect is to promote communications rather than impede them. Moving trade goods and armies is an order of magnitude cheaper by water than by land. Historians noted long ago that all major Old World civilizations were associated with major rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow River). Some (e.g., Karl Witfogel) thought that this association was explained by the need for irrigation, but that ideas has been rejected by modern historians, because the same pattern holds for areas where no irrigation was practiced, e.g. Eastern Europe. The major river there is the Volga, and true to the pattern, the cores of all major empires in East Europe were located on the Volga: the Khazars, the Bulghar, the Golden Horde, the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, and Muscovy-Russia (the last had a core in the Volga-Oka Mesopotamia). The only exception, Kievan Russia, was based on the Dnieper River, the second major river of Eastern Europe. So this association between a major river and an imperial core has nothing to do with irrigation and everything with the ease of communications.
Inland seas have the same effect. The Mediterranean is the best example, as it was extremely important as the conduit for genes, ideas, armies, and goods. It was the road that the “Sea People” used to wreck the Bronze Age civilizations. Later the Phoenicians and the Greeks spread in the opposite direction. Roman Empire would have been impossible without the Mediterranean. The population of Rome (around a million) could be fed only by bringing grain from North Africa and Egypt by sea. Contrary to what Diamond says, the peninsulas of Europe were well connected by inland seas, and were repeatedly unified within a single state. Roman Empire, of course, unified all of them, but there were plenty of later states that incorporate two or more of these peninsulas. Byzantium briefly reconquered most of the Mediterranean, but even during its weakest periods it had a foot in both Europe (the Balkans) and Asia (Anatolia). The Ottoman Empire later replaced the Byzantium and unified most of the Mediterranean from Algeria to the Balkans. So the Balkan and Anatolian peninsulas were within one state for most of their history. The Spanish also controlled Italy for many centuries, France conquered Algeria, etc. etc. I can multiply examples, but the point is that internal seas are no impediment to imperial expansion. If you look at the map of 20th century Europe, Diamond’s argument makes sense. But in fact the neat division with each peninsula being controlled by a separate country is, historically speaking, unusual.
What about the mountains? I agree on the divisive role of mountain ranges, but is Europe really more divided by mountains than China? Let’s take a look at a map:
A topographic map of Europe (from eo.wikipedia.org)
Yes, Europe is divided by a series of mountain ranges into Northern and Mediterranean parts. But North of these ranges (Pyrenees, Alps, Carpathians) Europe is very flat. The North European Plain runs from Bordeaux in southern France (where it is narrowest) through Germany and Poland to Russia (where it becomes very broad). There are no significant barriers within it to the movement of armies and conquest. So Paris has fallen to the Russians and the Germans (on several occasions) and Moscow to the Poles, the French, and (nearly) Germans. Such conquests did not lead to a lasting unification, but the reason is not geography or, at least, not topography.
China is much more cut up by mountains:
(image from Wikipedia)
One of the most important capital cities, Xian, the capital of the first (Qin) and many other unifying states is cut off from the rest of China by mountains. In fact, the area around Xian is known as the “Land between Passes,” and some Chinese historians have argued that it served as the unifying center precisely because it is a good defensive base from which to expand. Other mountain ranges cut Sichuan and southern China off northern China. So the topography of China is much more complex than that of Europe. The eastern plain of China is indeed flat. But it was not the Yangzi valley or the lower Huang He that served as the nucleus from which China was unified. Instead China was invariably unified from the northwest (the Wei River valley where Xian is) or from the north (Beijing area).
China was also unlucky with the situation of its rivers. Whereas Europe has rivers flowing in all directions, so it is easy to travel both east-west and south-north, China is dominated by rivers flowing from west to east. So it is very difficult to move bulk goods in the North-South direction. The Chinese solved this problem with a truly remarkable piece of engineering – the Grand Canal (length = 1776 km). But it was not the Canal that made unification possible; it was political unification that made building the Canal possible.
So west-east flowing rivers and mountain ranges made southward expansion from the Wei River/Yellow River core quite problematic. An additional difficulty for conquering the South is that Yangzi River valley has a very different terrain and environment than North China. Whereas in the North cavalry reigns supreme, the South can only be conquered by a river navy. A dramatized illustration of this can be seen in one of the best Chinese movies, Red Cliff:
(image from awn.com)
This is why it took the Mongols many decades to conquer the South – they first had to learn how to fight on water.
To conclude, both the geographic facts and our conceptual understanding of how geography affects empire-building contradict the geographic explanation of why Europe and China had such divergent political history, proposed by Jared Diamond. So what is the explanation? Why is Europe not China?
Note that there is nothing particularly unique about Europe in terms of its political disunity. There are lots of world regions that had a similar history. As an example, take Southeast Asia, which was never politically unified. As Victor Lieberman describes in his magisterial two-volume work, Strange Parallels, mainland Southeast Asia typically had at least three concurrent states, roughly where present-day Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam are.
What is unique is China – there are no other world regions that were so consistently unified by a megaempire during the last two millennia. And what accounts for the uniqueness of China? An extended answer to this question is worth another blog (especially since this one got rather too long already). But if briefly – the interaction between Inner Asian horse archers and the Chinese. I have already discussed it here, and I plan to return to this issue in the future.