War and peace

By Lorenzo

We think of the World Wars of the C20th as being unprecedented in their death tolls. That is not true in either total deaths or, still less, death rates.

While the 1939-45 War did have the largest death toll of any war in history, the 1914-19 War does not come second. When one considers the huge increase in population the Industrial Revolution unleashed, they are both well down list in death rates; mostly due to starvation and disease not taking the proportional toll it did in previous major conflicts. The increase in technology — in productivity, in transport capacity, in administrative capacity, in knowledge of disease and medicine — created much more robust social orders.

We can see this quite clearly in these estimates of China’s population over time (via).

As a new dynasty imposes order on China, the population surges as people have more surviving children due to the expansion in farming production.

If that order breaks down, the population plummets (even taking into account shrinkage of official ability to take censuses) due to starvation and disease as the land people are able to reliably cultivate shrinks. The effect is increased as agriculture is an across-seasons activity and so more vulnerable to disruption.

Hence the supreme importance agrarian societies generally, and China in particular, have usually put on preserving social (and divine) order.

As heirs of millennia of monotheism, it is natural for Westerners to think of the (moral) universe in good-versus-evil terms. A perspective that likely dates back to Zoroaster, who historian Norman Cohn argued was its originator. But there is an older perspective that dates back to the beginning of farming societies and which still pervades Asian perspectives.

That is of order-versus-chaos. When things are ordered (both on earth, and in what the heavens provide — rain, fertility-renewing floods), then the crops can be cultivated and planted, families get fed, children survive.

If chaos strikes, if order is lost, all that is imperilled. In a very direct and literal sense.

The ancient Egyptians — running a complex society dependant on the Nile flooding regularly — had the concept of maat or order. The ancient Mesopotamian religions clearly had a similar perspective of order versus chaos; creation is the construction of order out of chaos.

If order is the supreme social goal, then actions are justified according to how much they preserve, restore or extend social (and divine) order. The historical Chinese notion that if someone committed a sufficiently severe crime, then you killed their entire family, makes perfect sense in this context. That family had failed in its duty to defend order; it had proved itself a source of disorder and needed to be eliminated so that order could be preserved.

This order-versus-chaos perspective can also lead to a more limited notion of law. If families are supposed to take care of their own, and the family will be punished if its fails to do so, then the realm of law can be much more limited. The historical Chinese notion of law as “instructions given to officials” fits in with an order-versus-chaos perspective. You only do enough law to maintain order. Particularly given the lack of a priestly role in law, so no need to separate the righteous from the unrighteous, the “clean” from the “unclean”. Being simply a guardian of order is a much less expansive role than being a gatekeeper of righteousness.

This perspective of there being delinquent families is alive and well in the operation of the North Korean police state (pdf), for example.

Of course, Leninism is a particularly intense version of the politics of salvation, so the full deal can be deeply concerned with controlling just about all aspects of life — as was true in Maoist China and is still true in North Korea under the Kim Family Regime. But the more Leninism becomes a social game to signal acceptance of ruling authority (pdf), the more law in post-Leninist Asian societies is likely to shrink back to its more conventional role of whatever is needed to maintain order.

Which makes the apparent spread of Christianity in China a disturbing development for the emerging social order there. (Islam is a much smaller in numbers and much more connected to border problems.) Importing a strong good-versus-evil perspective does not sit well with “keep order, and that’s enough”. The regime’s apparent interest in promoting a revival of Confucianism — very much an order-versus-chaos worldview — makes a great deal of sense in such a context, beyond Confucianism being indigenous Han in origins and so lacking any implied foreign connections or loyalties.

But just looking at that graph makes the deep Chinese fear of disorder make perfect sense.


  1. Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I first came across the Order versus Chaos dichotomy in the books of Michael Moorcock and then in the background material for D&D (Dungeons & Dragons). It also turns up in Bab5 (Babylon 5).

    So, it was something of an eye-opener to read Cohn on the novelty of Zoroaster’s vision and the pervasiveness of the order-versus-chaos distinction in agrarian societies. Once I was alerted to it, much was clearer. Particularly Chinese perspectives.

    Then you look at that population graph, and the rationality of the concern becomes starkly clear.

    And yes, lots of said horrid events do not resonate because they are outside Western experience. (Such as treating the C19th as “remarkably peaceful”; not in East Asia or Latin America it wasn’t.)

  2. Posted October 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    I’m assuming that catastrophic dip in between the Ming and the Qing Dynasties was tied to the Boxer Rebellion or something similar. Scary graph, anyway.

    Order v Chaos was the big deal for the Romans, too – it fed into their conception of public and private law, which is why they sound so modern when it comes to the very limited moral policing of the private sphere. Law (and religion) did not exist to make people good, but to keep things (and people) orderly.

    The Romans are the first civilisation to engage in the sort of ‘Laura Norder’ rhetoric we now associate with various New York City Mayors.

  3. Posted October 17, 2012 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    The Boxer Rebellion was 1898-1901. And the Taiping Rebellion of the mid C19th was much more catastrophic. No, the dip was the decay of Ming power and the depredations of the Manchus and others.

    Thanks for the details on the Romans.

  4. Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Just looking at that graph makes me wonder: where did you get those figures from?

    They seem much too low to me, and out of whack with anything that a quick “china population history” internet search (quotes not part of the search) throws up.

  5. Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] As marked in the post, the graph is from here. Remember also the graph is pre-1800.

  6. Posted October 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, Lorenzo, I missed the “via.”

    Figures are apparently based on official figures and still look to me to be way out of whack with other figures I have seen, some of which at least purport to be based on identifiable modern scholarship. The caveats on your source also identify a lot of reasons for treating the official statistics (assuming these be they) with caution, including, specifically (and this was the one which first made me pause) the one for the end of the Ming/beginning of the Qing dynasties.

  7. conrad
    Posted October 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the figures are necessarily good either — when I look around most of the estimates are much higher, and whilst there were really nasty wars, famines etc. in China, almost all other estimates are higher and have less variability. That being said, I don’t know anything about historical populations, so I have no idea who is correct here.

    For example, http://web.whittier.edu/people/webpages/personalwebpages/rmarks/pdf/env._panel_remarks.pdf has some of the problems estimating the population, but has 70 million as the lowest estimate for 1650.

  8. derrida derider
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Are you sure these wild fluctuations are not because what geographic China was varied wildly?

    A flourishing new dynasty would naturally carry out a mission civilitrice to forcibly bring to the notice of neighbouring barbarians the wisdom of subjection to the Son of Heaven. The sign of a dynasty decaying was when those barbarians ungratefully rejected such benevolence and he Middle Kingdom shrank drastically.

  9. Posted October 19, 2012 at 5:32 am | Permalink

    [email protected], [email protected] Historical population estimates are fraught. And while taking the point about amplitudes, the pattern I believe is correct and it is easy to underestimate the fragility of population levels in agrarian societies with very limited transport capacities.

    [email protected] There is something in what you say (hence my comment “even taking into account shrinkage of official ability to take censuses” which was about capacity in both territorial and bureaucratic senses), but it would affect the amplitude but not the pattern. Particularly as the “lost” areas would generally be the less populous. And the collapses within dynasties are not explained by such.

  10. Posted October 20, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    The other way of looking at the graph is that population growth comes before war.

    The are also Good v Evil economics views (from both sides, be it capitalism is evil or government regulations are evil), with schumpeter playing the balance of order/disorder with creative destruction.

    But on Zoroastrians, it is weird, for the origin of abrahamism (turning yahoowahoo from a thundering ethnic patron to a universal principle during the hebrew babylonian cultural uplift), the arrogance of many abrahamists is totally missing in all zoroastrians i have met. in a sense, they seem less concerned with souls than how actions impact others and the world in general. (Maybe their “Speak the truth” is less the Abrahamic “Thou shalt not bear false speech“ and more the buddhist “Right Speech” – less about being pure not dirtying oneself)

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » ‘Manners cost nothing’ on October 19, 2012 at 5:06 am

    […] will also suffer. This, of course, is a means of preserving social order, and resonates with some of the observations Lorenzo makes about Chinese […]

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