Factors of Accumulation III
All roads lead to Kaifeng
Songshi is the official history of the Song dynasty, compiled by TuoTuo and published in 1345 (much after the dynasty ended!). In Scroll 332 of the history there’s the following passage:
So what is this kingdom of Zhu-nian?
It’s the Tamil Chola empire, whose first emperor, Rajaraja Chola, sent an embassy to the Song Court in 1015.
The Chola was acting as a front-end for a very interesting medieval merchant guild called the Ainnuruvar (literally, the five hundred though far greater in number by the time they went to China):
Ainnurruvar is a medieval merchant guild originating in the Tamil Nadu region of India between the eighth and 13th centuries. In this period, organised merchant guilds exerted considerable power and influence. Ainnurruvar was one of the most prominent of these guilds. During the Chola Empire they were regarded as the elite amongst the South Indian merchant organizations.
When the embassy landed in China they were very well received:
But they also received some unwelcome news:
Srivijaya was a Sumatran kingdom (with clear Indian influences, as the Sanskrit name suggests) with links to the Song empire, which was a major source of trade and profit. The Srivijayans had been representing the Cholas as their tributaries which was not only an insult, but also determined the concessions they could receive from the Song.
The Cholas realized their power depended on preferential access to Song markets. So they did something no Indian empire had done so far: Rajendra Chola (Rajaraja Chola’s son) ordered a naval invasion of Srivijaya in 1025:
I’m Tamil. Chola history and culture is held with religious reverence across Tamil Nadu, but it sure looks like they could be nasty when invading other kingdoms. Before invading Srivijaya, Rajendra Chola invaded Sri Lanka, where their invasion is talked so:
It was a thousand years ago, but the horror of these events has survived for a millennium. If you set aside that both religions involved are of South Asian origin, why should the Chola invasion of Anuradhapura be treated any differently from the Ghaznavid invasion of Somnath? It forms the backdrop (though obviously doesn’t excuse) of the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka at the beginning of our millennium.
Anyway, I am not trying to tell the story of ancient blood feuds. What’s more important for our story of accumulation is that the medieval world was really Sino-Centric. Everyone from the Italians to the Tamils wanted to trade with Song China and its successors. The power of local kingdoms across Eurasia was tied to their access to China.
Over five hundred years before the Spaniards established Manila, a naval invasion of South East Asia was prompted by the desire for preferential access to Chinese markets. The intimate link between merchant power and military power that we think of as the hallmark of European colonialism has a much older history in which China plays the leading role. In fact, even the combination of maritime trade and naval power that characterizes the modern era has precedents in South and East Asia. I might even go so far to say:
The modern era of globalization started not with Potosi in 1545 or Manila in 1571, but Srivijaya in 1025. The globe is, for better or worse, the achievement of the second millennium.
China was the most important region for the first five hundred years of globalization, attracting trade by land as well as by sea. The Mongol conquest of Eurasia (including China) opened the land route to China. The other was by sea in which South India and South East Asia played a major role. For over half a millennium, all roads led to Kaifeng-Lin’an-Beijing. Is it any wonder the story of Alladin starts with him being born in one of China’s wealthy kingdoms and quickly mentions how his mother melted all his tools into silver.
BTW, there’s no mention of Alladin (or of Ali Baba) in versions of the Arabian Nights that predate the first translation into French by Antoine Galland in the early 18th century. He heard it from a Lebanese Christian named Hanna Diyab, who was visiting Paris. Alladin is the secret thread that connects both eras of globalization: a story first written in French based on an oral tale in Arabic that talks about the magical adventures of a boy living in China. All of which is framed within a web of stories told by an Indian woman to her murderous husband.
What the Spaniards did was to bring the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans into an orbit that until then was centered on the Indian ocean. The decentering of the Indian ocean was also the decentering of China.
So why weren’t the Tamil merchants able to turn their successes into political power and become a bourgeois class? Even more importantly, how was a Sino-centric world turned into a Euro-centric world?
Silver has been at the center throughout 😀. Lapis lazuli, gold, silver and then paper: these were the information commodities. They have to be studied alongside energy commodities: wood, coal and gasoline. Together, information and energy bind the globe. Neither is fully dematerialized: they are always tied to a material substrate, be it lapis or gasoline. Neither are they fully material, in that their influence extends well beyond the specific substance - silver or coal - through which they become the medium of energy or information. With code, we might have reached a medium that unlocks both information and energy.
A truly universal medium.
I will leave you with those thoughts and questions as I quasi-hibernate for a couple of months.