Mandarin Idioms, Ouyang Xiu and Medieval and Modern China

I have always been fascinated by the catchy slogans used in modern Chinese history, which are always pithy, short phrasings of rather much larger historical statements – think of any one of Mao’s, like “Let a hundred flowers bloom” (百花齊放) or “Smash the Four Olds” (破四旧立四新), and you basically encapsulate the movements and habits of millions of people at a point in time. Deng Xiaoping had several of his own, including “Reform and Opening Up” (改革开放), “Eliminating Chaos and Returning to Normal” (拨乱反正), and my own favorite “Crossing the river by touching the stones” (摸着石头过河). Even modern leaders like Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping have carried on the torch, albeit with less revolutionary fervor – the big one on everyone’s lips today is “common prosperity” (共同富裕).

This is a poster for the slogan “criticize Lin, criticize Confucius,” which was also in vogue during the Cultural Revolution.

It’s probably unsurprising to learn that many of these slogans were taken from earlier Chinese literature – China, after all, has the deepest literary history of any culture on the planet. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” for example, comes from a poem written in the Warring States period, pre-Qin unification. What was more surprising to learn is that this sort of idiomatic expression is not just a part of political and literary thought, but a deeper linguistic feature of Mandarin, which is usually called chengyu (成语).

Chengyu are usually four-character statements, nearly always derived from ancient literature, and thus governed by the archaic, context-collapsing rules of Literary (or Classical) Chinese. What this means is that modern syntactical rules, which are already less stringent in Mandarin than in familiar western languages (don’t have to modify verbs for tense or number, no declining nouns in cases, etc.), don’t apply and instead meaning is often metaphorically (and creatively) constructed.

This chengyu is “playing the zither for an ox”. Source

Examples: the old man lost his horse (塞翁失馬), a saying taken from a parable written in the 2nd century BC Huainanzi. It basically means “there’s a silver lining to everything,” since the remainder of the story talks about how losing his horse ended up benefiting the old man down the road. “Break the cauldrons and sink the boats” (破釜沉舟) refers to a story from the 3rd century BC, during the Chu-Han Contention. A general broke his cauldrons and sunk his boats after crossing enemy territory, and ended up winning his battles as a result of going all in – compare it to something like “crossing the Rubicon” or even that story of Hernan Cortes burning his boats before venturing into Aztec territory.

So far, I’ll admit that there’s a lot of similarity to the way we handle idioms in English. After all, “crossing the Rubicon” refers to an event that took place 2000 years ago as well. But the key thing here is in the consistency of the format – almost always four characters and taken from ancient literature.

Besides, there’s a lot of cultural untranslatability at work in other examples – take the phrase “adding feet when drawing a snake” (畫蛇添足), which comes from the Warring States period as well, and means to do something unnecessarily. Or try the obscure “under a plum tree or in a melon patch” (瓜田李下), which dates to the Han Dynasty and derives from a longer line: “Don’t adjust your shoes in a melon field and don’t tidy your hat under the plum trees.” If that expansion doesn’t make it immediately clear, the meaning is basically to avoid situations where you might be perceived as suspicious.

One out-of-bounds example of a nice idiom is a seven character chengyu, “the Old Drunkard’s attention is not directed towards his wine” (醉翁之意不在酒). This again is an excerpt from a longer line, and exhorts one to watch out in case someone may have an ulterior motive. Its author was the Song Dynasty polymath Ouyang Xiu, during the consultation of whose lengthy Wikipedia page I became mighty curious, and sought out more info.

A contemporary painting done of Ouyang.

My copy of FW Mote‘s murder-weapon-weighty Imperial China: 900-1800 has a lot to say on Ouyang. “He led significant developments in every aspect of that transformation [of Song civilization] – the political, philosophical, literary, and scholarly activities that made the Song dynasty a new age in Chinese history…Ouyang Xiu was the ‘universal man’ of his time and one of the small number of such figures in all of Chinese history,” Mote writes.

Ouyang made his way up the civil examination ladder and, as a young official in Luoyang, became an important figure in the literary cultural scene. He won fame for his mainstream lyric poetry, but was energized by new stylistic approaches, including the revival of the ancient prose essay form. As Mote writes, “…at this period of Chinese history, intellectual life came to bear even more directly on political careers and on policy than had ever been the case,” and indeed Ouyang’s literary cultural cachet propelled him in 1034 to the Imperial Academy at Kaifeng, the Song capital, after which he embarked on a long career of public service and works. He was associated with important, AP World-type events like the Qingli Reforms and the Major Reforms, and emperors like Renzong knew his name.

A painting made nearly contemporary to Ouyang’s life, Zhang Zeduan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival depicts imperial Kaifeng at the height of Song power.

Among Ouyang’s most important efforts was his history writing – he took on posts as an imperial Academician, which gave him access to the deep archives of the Chinese state, and helped to write two of the Twenty-Four Histories which served as the definitive imperial history from 91 BC to 1911 AD. In fact, a Princeton-trained Sinologist, now at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, published in 2002 an abridged English translation of Ouyang’s Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, available here.

It’s wonky to read, full of references to places and emperors any Westerner will quickly feel out of his depth in, but it is sort of delightful to be able to reach back a millennium ago to read the historical thoughts of a figure so influential in Chinese events in his own right. The uncanny thing about pre-modern China is its essential modernity – at a time before the Normans had invaded Britain, Ouyang was hard at work developing double-blind scoring procedures for the civil service exams, for which he was briefly commissioner.

Institutions like the civil exams made Song society rather fluid, especially for its best and brightest, and upon appointment to ministerial roles, one’s career progression seems rather legible to me as a modern today – you moved to a small city and helped run it, got involved in larger projects and dealt with corporate(ish) politics, you moved up to larger cities or the capital as your career thrived. We have records of political scandals involving ministers partying too hard in seedy quarters, or being accused in sex scandals – it’s far easier to understand lives like this than the rote drudgery of peasant (or even rich urban) life in Europe at the same time, which seems to mostly have been quiet punctuated by brief times of war or plague. All in all a good lesson in the deep humanity of history.

Coming Late to McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”

The historian James McPherson released his survey of the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, in 1988. Despite its 900 pages of girth, the book was an overnight success and shared the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in History with Taylor Branch’s equally mammoth Parting the Waters.

Named for the Civil War-era song that they used to sing I guess

I came to it early in the pandemic when, faced with dwindling in-home activities, I nearly engineered a Kurswechsel into full Civil War buff. There’s yet time for that, but more recently I turned again to the book and found some delightful tidbits.

The book opens, as it says, “at midcentury,” and McPherson takes you on an albatross’ tour of the country’s development. The famous Jacksonian market economy is detailed, as is the pace of western expansion. The narrative voice alights right around the time of the Mexican War, when a Pennsylvania Congressman named David Wilmot hurls a lit match into the political tinderbox that was arguments over statehood in the time of slavery.

Wilmot’s Proviso was a BFD

From there, it’s all downhill – Lincoln’s election is for McPherson the “Revolution of 1860,” secession and Fort Sumter the “Counterrevolution of 1861”. Much emphasis is given to the reception of military outcomes in the home territories; dispatches from Birmingham or Atlanta or New York or Philadelphia newspapers give color to the political goings-on behind the front lines.

1862, as McPherson details, was a banner year for the Union, especially in the Kentucky and Tennessee campaigns. From Cairo, the town memorialized in Huck Finn as the riparian entrance to the Old South, Army forces stabbed into the belly of the Confederacy.

There’s not a lot of illustrations from Huck Finn, which strikes me as odd

U.S. Grant made his name at Forts Henry and Donelson, redoubts along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, where he along with Andrew Foote mounted a coordinated land-water invasion. A commander named John Floyd, who had previously brought scandal to his name by going out of his way to restock Southern armories as Buchanan’s Secretary of War in full view of the coming crisis, was meant to be the Union’s prize, but he escaped overnight. So too did a profiteering battalion commander named Nathan Bedford Forrest, who decided mere hours before Fort Donelson’s surrender to slip out with his force across the icy Cumberland.

Characters abound in McPherson’s telling, and they’re all sketched in hokey, memorable ways. Charles Ellet, who built an impressive ramming squadron in the fresh-water Union navy through 1861 and 1862, was “doughty” and “frail-looking,” but died a glorious death in the Battle of Memphis. The “most intrepid of all” Union sailors, David Farragut, is “angry as a hornet” mid-battle. A Confederate war council at Fort Donelson was filled with “the self-important Tennessee politician Gideon Pillow, and the darkly handsome, saturnine West Pointer Simon Bolivar Buckner”. Incredibly, Buckner’s son, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was the highest-ranking officer killed in World War II.

The battles ebb and flow across the long years, and some of the keenest observation McPherson brings is in charting the evolution of military strategy and tactics. The situation at Vicksburg was basically frozen by the summer of 1862 – the last stand of the Confederacy on the Mississippi, it would take the Union army over a year before Grant’s daring campaign of maneuvers successfully took the city. Generals like Henry Halleck and George McClellan retarded the successful persecution of the war with old-timey beliefs – McPherson calls him “Jominian,” a reference to the noted war theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose book on war crystallized the lessons of the Napoleonic Era. Part of Lincoln’s great strategic wisdom was to know that these beliefs were outdated, and part of Grant’s success was the way he threw the Jominian playbook out.

Carnage from Vicksburg

Of course, perhaps the most notable change on the battlefield in the Civil War was the invention of ironclads, naval warships as we know them today which did not in fact exist before 1861. The CSS Virginia absolutely shredded the Union’s old ships of the line in its debut engagement at Hampton Roads. Remarkably, the Union was able to launch its first ironclad, the USS Monitor, the next day, and the two fought to an historic standstill. When the Union army was able to capture the city of Hampton Roads not too much later, the greyshirts blew the Virginia up so as to avoid its capture; the Monitor was sunk in a storm not too much later.

More to come as I dip in and out of its old thing. A Civil War guy I may yet become.

Local Notes No. 8 – The Prehistory of Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena

In the 1995-96 NBA season, Gary Payton, point guard for Seattle’s SuperSonics, did something remarkable – in addition to recording a box score of 19 points, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, he punished lollygagging opponents by stealing the ball 231 times in the regular season. For this effort he earned the nickname The Glove; by the by he was also awarded Defensive Player of the Year.

Departure from Seattle bad memory for Gary Payton - The Boston Globe
The Glove. Source: Reuters

Payton’s teammates, rallied by his monster effort on both sides of the floor, pitched in as well and ended up winning 68 games. This streak they continued in the playoffs to become Western Conference champions. Despite having such formidable accessory weaponry as Detlef Schrempf and a 20/2/11 Shawn Kemp available at veteran coach George Karl’s disposal, Seattle never got to celebrate ultimate glory – as was the case with most NBA success stories in the 1990s, Payton’s Sonics ran into the brick wall of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who put them away 4-2 in the league finals to begin their second threepeat.

The Sonics earned well over half of those 68 wins at a stadium then doing business for the first season under a new name – KeyArena, named for the venerable Midwestern regional depositary KeyBank, whose $15.1 million bid for the naming rights satisfied Seattle mayor Norm Rice’s long-held dreams for a state-of-the-art pro sports facility in the Emerald City. (Until last month, Rice had been Seattle’s only black elected mayor – Bruce Harrell just became the second.) In fact, while mayor Rice’s architects were busy renovating the KeyArena-in-waiting, Payton’s Sonics were briefly ousted from Seattle, playing instead at a PNW motorist’s favorite landmark, the TacomaDome, some 30 miles to the south.

Rice, Norman B. (b. 1943 ) -
Two-time Seattle Mayor Norm Rice overseeing the groundbreaking of the new City Hall in 2001. Source: HistoryLink

In the 27 seasons before 1994, the SuperSonics played their home games at the same arena, then named simply the Coliseum. It finished construction in 1964 under the watchful eyes of Paul Thiry, who had a slightly scaled-down version built two years prior for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; the Space Needle was first unveiled for the same occasion.

The Coliseum undergoing construction in 1961, ahead of the Seattle World’s Fair. Source: Issuu

The Beatles performed twice at the Coliseum to crowds of 14,000; three other professional sports franchises played there; it hosted the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in 1987, and future Sonics vanquisher Michael Jordan won his first dunk contest there.

Gift of Flight - MJ and the 1987 NBA Slam Dunk Contest
You know who this is.

Five years after the best moment KeyArena had yet had, the Sonics’ Game 5 win over the Bulls on a Friday in June of 1996, ownership of the team transferred to local nincompoop Howard Schultz, then CEO of Starbucks and lately a presidential pretender. The coffee mogul went to Seattle City Council a few years later hoping to have the renovation costs of KeyArena publicly defrayed; when this attempt at financial hardball failed, he sold the team to a willing gaggle of oil and gas enthusiasts of Oklahoman extraction.

What follows is famous – Aubrey McClendon, who pioneered fracking and founded Chesapeake Energy, an entity solely responsible for 1 in every 1000 lbs of industrial greenhouse gases emitted in the thirty years following 1988, shanghaied the Sonics to Oklahoma City. They became the Thunder, and Kevin Durant became the last NBA player ever drafted in Seattle.

Oklahoma City Thunder part owner Aubrey McClendon dies in car crash after  indictment
The Fracking King himself, who met an untimely end in 2016 (Chevy Tahoe, concrete pillar). Source: ESPN

Perhaps you get the point I’m trying to make by now; if not, a dash more history brings us to the present. With no regular tenant, the building born for a World’s Fair fell into disrepair. KeyBank declined to renew their naming rights in 2011, but with no suitors on offer, the arena continued to go by the bank’s title, like some Austenite waif doomed to marry her parents’ first choice. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sniffed at the possibility of an expansion team calling it home. The NBA simply ignored the prospect.

By 2016, however, conditions in Seattle had changed sufficiently to admit a second life for the pyramid. Now-disgraced but then-mayor Ed Murray, approaching reelection, made KeyArena’s revitalization a pet project; when he resigned the following year, his replacement, Jenny Durkan, brought the campaign across the finish line. A contractor was selected in 2017 – the NHL joined negotiations the following week – and by late 2018, the lurid powers-that-be of the hockey world had granted Seattle their Kraken. The NBA, never unhappy to join a party, sent the stadium off for extensive renovation with a preseason exhibition game between Durant’s new team, the Golden State Warriors, and the hapless Sacramento Kings – Durant scored 26 points to win.

While Murray-Durkan opportunism was certainly one driver of KeyArena’s rehab, the other was likely more impactful. For by 2017, Seattle’s homegrown corporate Cthulhu du jour, Amazon, had swallowed up half of the e-commerce market. Financial commentator Jim Cramer that same year included the company in his coining of the acronym FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) to describe the technology powerhouses whose soaring valuations would propel equity markets to their dizzying heights in the Trump era.

Amazon turns headquarters into cooling center amid Seattle heat wave
The Amazon Spheres in South Lake Union, Seattle. (I think the Spheres are cool fwiw). Source: CNBC

Such prowess had given Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, dreams of grandeur; finding time away from his philanthropic, romantic, and extraterrestrially avionic efforts, he sent a trunk of ducats down Mercer St and asked if the city would be so kind as to begin referring to the Seattle Center Arena (neé KeyArena (neé Coliseum)) as the Climate Pledge Arena.

Seattle's KeyArena is being renamed Climate Pledge Arena - CNN

Local Notes No. 7 – ‘Iolani Palace, the US’ Only Royal Residence

The most famous examples of Hawaiian architecture are often identified with the somewhat tropical strain of modernism that infected the islands in the postwar boom. This makes a natural degree of sense: after all, statehood and Elvis arrived in the îles Sandwiches at the zenith of the Jet Age, when PanAm established a new tourist mecca in Waikiki and the Rat Pack could be found sipping mai-tais at the bar of the Coco Palms Resort.

Image may contain Summer Plant Palm Tree Arecaceae Tree Building Architecture and Tropical
John Carl Wernecke’s Hawaii State Capitol Building, Honolulu. Source: AD

On a recent visit, though, I was equally drawn to the fine buildings constructed before annexation. The Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian Hall, built in 1889 by the firm of William F. Smith (about whom the building’s application for status in the National Register of Historic Places says “little is known”), was one of the most striking.

The Hawaiian Hall of the Bishop Museum. Source: Gaytravel

Intended as a monument to the last member of the Kamehameha dynasty, Princess Bernice Pauahi, it’s a beautiful example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, whose elements Philadelphians may have a leg up in recognizing – I found it reminiscent of Frank Furness’ buildings, like the PAFA or Penn’s Fisher Fine Arts Library.

The 4-story Main Reading Room acts as a lightwell for the inner rooms surrounding it.
The unbeatable Fisher Fine Arts Library. Source: Wiki

Still more striking was the ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace ever built on US soil. Its construction began five years into the reign of King Kalākaua, on the last day of 1879. Over the course of the next three years, three architects would see the palace to completion – Thomas Baker put together the blueprints and his handiwork formed its final design, but he was sacked and moved to Australia in 1880, really just a few weeks after ground was broken. Charles Wall shipped in from a San Francisco racked by the economic spasms of the Panic of 1873 to continue the work, but he couldn’t please Kalākaua either, which left the otherwise unknown Isaac Moore to finish the job.

May be an image of outdoors
‘Iolani all dolled up with the standard of Kamehameha at left. Source: the palace’s FB page lol

The Palace is undoubtedly handsome. Its masonry glimmers beige and heather green in understated contrast to the joyful bounty of its surrounding grounds. The structure sports mansard roofs in the Second Empire style and fine Corinthian columns supporting broad verandas (lana’i) fronting both floors.

Iolani Palace – MASON
Detail of the lana’i. Source: Mason

A gazebo on the southwestern corner, which still stands today, was built for Kalākaua’s coronation ceremony in 1883; other records from the kingdom period show the palace’s frequent ritual and ceremonial usage.

The gazebo decorated for the 1883 coronation. Source:

One rather ignominious ceremony the Palace was host to took place in 1898 – this was the annexation of Hawai’i by the United States, against the explicit protestation of the country’s rightful sovereign, the Queen Lili’uokalani. Marines from the USS Philadelphia decked out in their whites let down Kamehameha’s standard and rose the American flag in its place. Inside, the ex-Queen, confined to house arrest since the coup of 1893, waited and waited.

Raising the American flag at ‘Iolani Palace. Source:

The American annexation of 1898 brought an end to a century of independent dynastic rule by native Hawaiians of Hawai’i, a remarkable achievement comparable to the defenses against colonialism achieved by Thailand or Ethiopia in other periods. Kamehameha the Great, until his late 40s nothing more than one chief among chiefs on the Big Island, waged a series of wars to consolidate power beginning in the 1790s, ending in success and unification under his rule around 1810.1

King Kamehameha Statue, Oahu | Go Hawaii
Thomas Gould’s statue of Kamehameha the Great stands across from ‘Iolani on the grounds of the State Supreme Court. A replica stands in the US Capitol. Source: GoHawaii

His successor, Kamehameha II, nearly fumbled the bag on a trip to Britain – an anglophile tradition persisted in the kings of Hawai’i for several generations – but from what the record suggests, threat of the paperwork that would have ensued, as well as Kamehameha II’s untimely death from tuberculosis in London in 1824, dissuaded the British Foreign Office from outright conquering the islands and so they went on a sovereign nation in the north Pacific.

Kamehameha III faced down another British annexation attempt in 1843 and reshaped the government into a constitutional monarchy with strong rule of law. Kalākaua dramatically revamped the economy by entering into a free trade deal with the US, leading to an economic boom which attracted American business interests. When Lili’uokalani attempted to rejigger the balance of political power in the kingdom with the promulgation of the Constitution of 1893, those same interests – notably including Samuel Dole, cousin to pineapple mogul James Dole – forcibly overthrew the monarchy.

Queen Liliuokalani leaves Aliiolani Hale, 1/14/1893
Queen Lili’uokalani leaving Ai’iolani Hale, now the State Supreme Court, just across King St from ‘Iolani Palace, after announcing the new Constitution. Source: U Hawaii

Although the putschists had had the backing of the US attaché in Honolulu, by the time word reached Washington of what had happened, the mood had cooled. President Grover Cleveland thought the whole thing a miscarriage of justice and refused the coup plotters’ petitions for immediate annexation; the now Republic of Hawai’i could only then muddle along for a few years, in which intervening time a monarchist party led an abortive restoration attempt, until William McKinley could be elected President, after which the coming of American imperialism was proudly, irrevocably declared in the bowels of the USS Maine.

Sanford Ballard Dole -- Elected Legislator and Appointed Supreme Court  Justice of the Kingdom of Hawaii; President of the Provisional Government  and of the Republic of Hawaii; Governor of the Territory of
Sanford Dole inaugurated as first Governor of the Territory of Hawaii at ‘Iolani Palace, 1898. Source: this weirdo Dole apologist guy’s website

Although Dole would continue to rule from ‘Iolani during the Republic period and into his tenure as Governor of the Territory, the Palace is better memorialized in service of the lost majesty of its kings and queens. Indeed, Lili’uokalani, last queen of this magnificent monument to an independent, modern nation-state built atop mere earthen toeholds of volcanism 3000 miles away from the nearest continent, fittingly composed a song of farewell which later came to stand metonymically for the American takeover and all it meant for Hawaii: Aloha ‘Oe.

Review: Niall Ferguson, “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe”

In Harpers, Rebecca Panovka recently reviewed the new novel from the writer Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise. “There is a reason,” Panovka mused, “world-historical ruptures, like the one collectively experienced in the spring of 2020, tend to produce big, ambitious books…The task of the great pandemic novel, if such a thing were to exist, might be to start metabolizing the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 response”. Let it suffice to say that Panovka found Yanagihara’s sally less than convincing.

On the other hand, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, the latest from multi-institutional historian Niall Ferguson, does earnestly make such a metabolic attempt. It appears the book was finished around October of last year for publication in the spring of this one. With his characteristic eye for scope, Ferguson attempts to formalize why societies throughout time and across space have struggled to deal with catastrophic occurrences – whatever that actually means. He marshals long traditions of writing in fields like economics, epidemiology, archaeology, etc etc to explore how gaps in our thinking or the unrestrained desires of elite classes or the fault in our stars lead us to bumble through disaster. Like I said, it’s a wide book.

The interested would be wise to recognize aforehand that Ferguson’s writing can be…self-aggrandizing. Part one of the introduction, “Confessions of a Superspreader,” is mostly an itinerary of Ferguson’s fantastic world-spanning travel – “I used to joke that the lecture circuit had turned me into an ‘international man of history,'” he sniffs. In that same introduction one can find a recounting of just how right he was about COVID-19 in the early days, a list of his impressive earlier books and their relevance to the book before you, details on his pandemic-induced flight from the Bay Area to “Montana” (the Bay Area’s general success in keeping COVID tame notwithstanding), and a rhetorical question asking “Why write history now, when the story is not yet over?” Why indeed.

Now I’m being overcruel; in truth, I find it hard not to admire Ferguson for precisely the panache he brings to history writing. His interview on Conversations with Tyler gave, I think, a good sense for the kind of Old World intellectual he really is, the type to talk about what AJP Taylor meant to him and to muse aloud about why the English let the Dutch come over and conquer them for free in 1688. Contemporary historians are of course rigorous researchers, doggedly devoted to unearthing minutiae of minutiae in the archives, albeit in service of arguments which seem perhaps to cleave away from their intellectual opponents’ stances less and less as time goes on. The book that won 2020’s Bancroft Prize, Andy Horowitz’s Katrina: A History 1915-2015, spends half its runtime describing the political career of the district attorney of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a place which has never contained more than 26,000 people.

Again I’m being overcruel – Katrina is an excellent book and the strange career of Leander Perez is a good and important story. Where Horowitz really excels, and where his book dovetails with Ferguson’s Doom is in its theory of catastrophic history. To Horowitz, the notion that Hurricane Katrina was some force majeure which caused great suffering for the residents of the Gulf Coast in 2005 and about which we all need to feel sorry is misguided. The catastrophe did not begin with a temporary intensification of windspeed in the western Atlantic ocean, nor did it end when the rains subsided and the Lower Ninth Ward could begin to drain. The catastrophe was human, and political, and tied up in the choices made by Louisianans and their leaders for a century hence. The catastrophe began with patterns of settlement encouraged by the GI Bill, and was hastened by the failure of the Army Corps to finish their plans for the seawalling of Lake Pontchartrain. It was only worsened when, in response to dramatic weather, St Bernard Parish closed the bridge to New Orleans, CNN claimed snipers and looting in the streets, and the Bush administration failed to provide relief for renters.

Ferguson realizes this essential insight as well, and as such his work investigates human responses to exogenous events. One of his strongest sections is a takedown of theories of cyclical history, which have been falling in and out of fashion since Giambattista Vico. Ferguson admires more the longue durée work of Jared Diamond, which doesn’t try to capture time until collapse as some regular function of a handful of civilizational variables; by contrast, it is useful to understand that common phenomena will enact common pressures on people no matter where or when they live. In our time, most historians will defer to climactic pressures as nudges towards catastrophe, but of course, history is always of its own time, and there’s no more reason to believe climate is the ultimate answer than any other pressure.

Another light for Ferguson is the nature of authority in crisis, and what he’d like to say about authority in our own time. Sir Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is cited more than once and Ferguson suggests that where early modern religious institutions once chased away local magical superstitions, the “belief in science” mantra espoused during the pandemic, chiefly by well-meaning American liberals, may mark a return of magical thinking to modern mentalities.

So while Ferguson’s got a good head on his shoulders about all this, and manages to get the right potshots in against his pretender intellectual opponents, I find that Doom ultimately fails for lack of substance. Though it attempts a history of catastrophes, it ends up more like a literature review of intellectual traditions which might be applied to understanding catastrophe. He swings from big name to big name, one field to the other, summarizing their findings and asking the reader to go “Hmm!” but never brings the juice of historical evidence to bear on his broad theory. What’s more, it’s predictable – when he starts to discuss cognitive biases which might affect leaders in catastrophic scenarios, it’s easy enough to guess he’ll bring up Kahneman & Tversky, and indeed he does.

When history writing becomes more industrial than academic, as indeed it may have for Ferguson, I suppose it’s only fitting that one book or another will fall flat. Still, popular history, if nothing else, ought to delight and educate. Doom does neither. If you need to get caught up on the historiography of empire studies go grab this thing off your nearest shelf. Otherwise skip it.

A Visitor’s Guide to A Coruña, Spain

I was delighted last week to be able to spend time in A Coruña, a seaside city in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern–most province. Galicia has long suffered from a dearth of attention, especially in comparison to Spain’s nearly mythic Mediterranean coast, from Barcelona on down; and despite lying just 100mi from the border with Portugal, A Coruña did not receive the bump in attention paid to Porto, Lisbon, and the Algarve when travel to the Lusophone Atlantic coast of Iberia came into vogue.

With this post, then, I’m going to try and make amends. This will be a by-the-books travel guide to A Coruña, including how to get there, where to stay, and what to do while you’re there. I had a blast with my time and I think you will too.


A Coruña lies in the northwest of Galicia, itself the northwest of Spain. Together with its suburbs, the city boasts a total population of about 400,000 – in US terms, its size is comparable to that of Asheville, NC, Santa Barbara, CA, or even Anchorage, AK.

Its weather and environs hew much more closely to the cities of the Pacific Northwest, which is why in the subhed I called it “Spain’s Portland” (and I mean Portland, OR); it’s intermittently rainy and cloudy a lot of the time, but rarely stormy or snowy, and heat in summer is softened by the breeze from the ocean.

A Coruña seen looking southeast from the ocean – the Tower of Hercules is at bottom-left, Riazor Beach middle-right. Source:

Much of the city lies on a peninsula which extends into a leeward bay known as the Ría da Coruña – opposite the city across the bay lies Ferrol, once an important shipbuilding town. The Ría da Coruña is exemplary of the geography of littoral Galicia, with the verdant coastal land rising rather steeply and irregularly from sea level to form the surrounding hills and dales. Rías like this can be found elsewhere in the world – they are basically the same as Scandinavian fjords, with quibbles over whether glacier action carved the landscape – but were named for the first time on the Galician coast.

A Coruña and surroundings, including the ocean. Source: Wikipedia

If population totals don’t mean much to you, I’ll add that the city feels bigger in terms of geography and smaller in terms of population than it seems. Taking in the sights required several 20k+ step count days, but in my time there I ran into a few repeat customers, including one lovely doña who introduced her 17-year-old dog and informed me it was her cat’s birthday the next Sunday, then showed me a picture of said birthday when I saw her at the cafe Monday.

The city’s name – A Coruña – may look odd to those familiar with Spanish, but that is because it is given in Galician, a Spanish dialect closer to Portuguese. To get its name in Spanish, simply switch the A for La. Since the democratic transition, the government in Galicia has promoted the use of their dialect, also called gallego. However, this should not be cause for alarm on the traveler’s part: everyone in the city speaks perfectly normal (and very clear, I thought) Castilian Spanish, and almost everyone speaks better English than your Spanish anyway.

History, Deep and Recent, and Current State

Deep History

In his excellent The Celts: A Very Short Introduction, Cambridge archaeologist Barry Cunliffe challenges us to rethink our familiar notions of European geography:

A glance at the map of Europe, suitably adjusted to jolt our cognitive geography, is sufficient to stress that Atlantic Europe is a cohesive region. Its many promontories and peninsulas are linked by the ocean, while the flooded valleys of its ria coastlines provide sheltered waters reaching deep inland. The great rivers of France and Iberia flowing westwards into the ocean are arteries of communication binding huge swathes of inland territory to the littoral zone.

Cunliffe, The Celts

Cunliffe focuses on Atlantic Europe as the natural homeland of the Celts, an ancient people who lived down from the Algarve in Portugal through Galicia and French Bordeaux and Brittany all the way up to Ireland and Wales. This ancient cross-European cultural continuity gets some play in Galicia today – souvenir shops sell emblems and necklaces with goofy “Celtic symbols” to tourists – but the region’s Celtic roots are much less important to its history than what came after.

What – or rather who – came after was Julius Caesar and the Romans. Caesar came to A Coruña in 62 BC and established trade in iron with France and England around the Bay of Biscay, a pattern of intercultural communication which would repeat endlessly through Galician history. In the second century, Roman imperial administrators under Trajan or somelike set about building a nice big lighthouse at the end of the peninsula of Coruña – this is the Tower of Hercules, which stands today and is therefore the oldest extant lighthouse in the world.

The band of stone wrapping a helix up the tower is evidence of the old spiral ramp used to scale it, now lost. Source: me! Not bad, right?

After Rome, A Coruña’s status as a rich and well-connected coastal city opened it up for intermittent invasion by the Vikings, while its Romano-Iberian neighbors to the south fell eventually to the great conquest of Al-Andalus perpetrated by the Umayyads.

“The Civilization of the Caliphate of Cordóba in the Time of Abd al-Rahman III” by Dionís Baixeras, 1885. Source: Universitat de Barcelona

By the early 800s the kings of Asturias had reestablished a beachhead of Christian rule in northern Spain, including Galicia. Then around 814, Alfonso II (there would be eleven more Alfonsos ruling Spain) learned that some peasants had found bones supposedly belonging to Saint James the Greater, one of Jesus’ Apostles. Seizing upon the opportunity to up his status as a defender of Christendom, Alfonso II affirmed the identity of the remains and declared that a great cathedral be built on its site – this became the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and the pilgrimage to it the Camino de Santiago.

Santiago di Compostela Jubilee: A time of grace, healing and encounter -  Vatican News
Source: Vatican News. I figured none of my pictures would be as good as some of the Vatican’s.

While Coruña was not the ultimate destination of the Camino, the Camino changed it as well. Pilgrims on the Camino came from all Christendom as part of a large network of pilgrimages active in the High Middle Ages – Ken Follett’s indescribably popular 1989 novel, The Pillars of the Earth, dramatizes this well in one of its later chapters. But most of those pilgrims ended up coming from France, and the development of the overland routes of travel through northern Spain influenced Coruña and Galicia greatly. Monasteries sprouted up all over Galicia and grew rich and powerful from the income of the pilgrims; the monks began to grow wine, leading to the division of varietals handed down to us today.

Galicia Spain Wine Map
Drank a lot of lovely Ribeira Sacra on this trip. Source: Wine Scholar Guild.

The resumption of cross-cultural communication in Galicia in the High Middle Ages would deal a nasty sting to the region as we turn to the early modern; the Black Death arrived in Iberia at Galicia, via those Biscay-based water routes established by the Romans. But for all the suffering the Galicians survived in the 1400s, the birth of empire in the 1500s led to better times. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, built their Royal Audiencia in Coruña, and their successor Carlos I (Charles V to his subjects in the Holy Roman Empire) established one of his Casas de la Contratación in the city as well, this one devoted to the spice trade.

The Spanish Armada departed from Ferrol in 1588. After that lucky storm wrecked it, Francis Drake raided Coruña in retribution in 1589, but was repelled thanks in part to the efforts of a brave woman known as Maria Pita, whose name adorns the city’s main square today.

Plaza Maria Pita and the Royal Audiencia established by Ferdinand and Isabella. Source: me!

Recent History

When Napoleon invaded Spain in the Peninsular Wars, the Coruñeros fought back again, this time aided by the British. The 1809 Battle of Corunna was a Dunkirk moment 130 years before the one we know today in Normandy took place, as 26,000 British troops out of an expeditionary force of 35,000 escaped back to their ships in the Bay of Biscay. Sir John Moore, commander of the British forces in Spain, was wounded and died in Coruña; the Jardin San Carlos in the city’s Marina is devoted to him.

Fast forwarding a bit more, Francisco Franco was born in Ferrol in 1892. He would go on to lead the Right in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, after which he would rule Spain singlehandedly for 36 more years. Franco took as his country home the Pazo de Meirás in the hills outside Coruña; oddly enough, that specific home had previously belonged to one of Spain’s most celebrated modern novelists, Emilia Pardo Bazan, who was born there into a noble Coruñero family in 1851.

After the transition to democracy, Galicia was promoted to the status of autonomous community, making it co-equal to Catalonia, Andalusia, the Basque Country, etc. The local government has since promoted the use of Galician, which is why you’ll see it on signs and hear it on the street occasionally.

Current State

A Coruña was changed immeasurably in 1975, when Amancio Ortega opened up his first Zara in the city center. Since then, Zara has grown to be the flagship chain of Inditex, Ortega’s conglomerate and the world’s largest apparel retailer. Inditex’s 100bn Euro valuation is good enough to make Ortega the world’s 11th richest man.

Inditex dominates the region’s economy. Its headquarters, in rural Arteixo, employs 5,000 designers who are shuttled out from the city daily. You can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing one Inditex store or another, including its crown jewel, the Zara flagship, which lies at the intersection of the Calle de Sanchez Bregua and the Calle Compostela, one block from the ocean.

EPR Retail News | SPAIN: Zara opens flagship store on calle Compostela 3,  one of A Coruña's prime shopping streets
Interior of the 5-story Zara flagship – menswear on floor 5.

Zara brought modernity and industry to the city, attracting designers and models from all over the world, who went on to demand big-city amenities. Couture boutiques like Iamnue Store sprung up in its wake, as did fine dining of various cuisines, helping diversify the Galician diet away from its traditional reliance on mariscos.

Tienda de Ropa Iamnue Store en A Coruña
Imagine if you could buy Comme des Garçons and Acne Studios in York, PA. That’s what Coruña is like.

This novel modernity has made A Coruña a very lively place. Professionals of all stripes walk its streets and crowd its bars alongside Erasmus students from across Europe. If there’s a baby bust plaguing modern Spain, you couldn’t tell by looking at Coruña – almost every young couple I saw had a baby in tow, and the playground of the Plaza Pontevedra in the city center was filled daily with shouts of playing kids.

Life is good in A Coruña, which also engenders a certain chill among its inhabitants. People were very happy indeed to spend their days at big restaurant tables, taking cañas of Estrella Galicia or bumming out on their lovely beaches like Riazor or Santa Caterina. For travelers more accustomed to the haughty monuments of Madrid or the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast, A Coruña’s different pace of life has a lot to offer.

Getting There

A Coruña has a small airport with mostly-daily flights to Madrid and Barcelona – according to Expedia, you can even get there from London-Gatwick.

If you’ve got the time, though, take the train. There are about 5 daily trains from Madrid’s Chamartin Station to Coruña via Renfe, the national rail operator. The journey takes 5-6 hours and lets you soak in the varied geography of Spain while also going through other Galician cities like Ourense and Santiago.

Sights to See

  • Ciudad Vieja
    • Large, pedestrian neighborhood entirely paved by cobblestones and hemmed in by tall townhouses which emerge occasionally into breathtakingly peaceful courtyards. Reminiscent of Venice in its breadth – you could spend your entire stay here.
Source: Uxío
  • Plaza Maria Pita
    • Large broad plaza at the narrow northern end of the isthmus, home to the Royal Audiencia established by the Catholic Monarchs. The statue at middle commemorates Maria Pita, a Coruñera who assisted in the defense of the city against the marauding British under the command of Francis Drake.
El Ayuntamiento en la Plaza de Maria Pita - Picture of La Coruna, Province  of A Coruna - Tripadvisor
  • Marina
    • The best place in the city to see examples of A Coruña’s characteristic architectural motif – the galerias, facade-wide bay windows which imitate the aft walls of large galleys.
Zona del PARROTE hacia la ciudad vieja de La Coruña desde el puerto  deportivo. - Photo de La Corogne, Province of A Coruna - Tripadvisor
  • Riazor Beach
    • Beach on the western side of the isthmus, facing the ocean. At low tide quite rocky, but no less beautiful.
  • Monte San Pedro
    • Large park on the hilltop to the southwest of city center – can be accessed via taxi or via a cool funicular which takes you to a big observatory. Great restaurant up there too.
File:Ascensor ó monte San Pedro, A Coruña.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
  • Tower of Hercules
    • Already mentioned, but site of the oldest extant lighthouse in the world, built by the Romans in the early part of the first millennium. Lovely park surrounding it, with the compass rose of the Celts and a statue of a Celtic king.
  • Riazor Stadium
    • Home to Real Club Deportivo La Coruña, the city’s soccer team, which plays currently in the fourth league. At one time (2005) they were actually good enough to win La Liga championship, but people love them regardless and I’m sure catching a game there would be a tremendous experience.
Stadium Guide: Estadio Riazor, Deportivo La Coruna
  • Estrella Galicia Museum
    • The Museo Estrella Galicia (MEGA) is a baffling thing – an absolute corporate narcissism and meticulously detailed and curated museum of the history of beer at the same time. At one point, a theme park ride puts you inside a vat of barley as you become hops. The 25 euro ticket is worth it for all the free beer at the end, but this is a long tour.
  • Museums
    • The Museo de las Bellas Artes da Coruña was very well-equipped, with a great selection of portraits from the 16th century up to the modern era. Also had a lovely collection just of Goya sketches. Other museums focus on Pablo Picasso, who spent his adolescence in the city.
  • Churches
    • The Colegiata de Santa María del Campo, located behind Plaza Maria Pita, dates back to the 12th century, which is sort of incredible in its own right. Otherwise go for the Parroquia de San Jorge, which is about 100 years younger.

Eating and Drinking

As an addendum to this section, I’ve put all these great bars and restaurants in a Google Map, available for viewing here.

  • Bakeries, cafes and fruterías
    • Every block in A Coruña has its own bakery and its own frutería. While there are supermarkets, people rely on these local shops for their fresh goods, and how fresh they are. Upscale bakeries like Tahona offer truly scrumptious treats with the Scandinavian industrial-chic design affectation a New York-based traveler might already be homesick for.
    • Some of my favorite cafes: Tahona, Vazva, Cafe Central Park, Astro Coffee, Cafe Siboney
Panadería Tahona inaugura un nuevo establecimiento en la Ciudad Escolar de  A Coruña
  • Seafood
    • Cab drivers in Madrid on the way to the train will tell you to eat the seafood in Galicia, and they’re not wrong. All of it’s good, but try taking the little tapas camarones at Os Tigres on Calle Galera. Very lovely.
    • Some of my favorites: A Mundiña, NaDo, Peculiar, Gastromaar, Terreo Cocina Casual
  • Bars
    • Like I said earlier, there are a lot of kids and students in A Coruña, and they will absolutely mob bars along Calle Juan Canalejo basically every night of the week. Bars tend to close at 1am but there are clubs, lines for which you’ll see begin to form as the street-fronts close up.
    • Some of my favorites: Twin Fin, La Maleta, La Tata, Abuela Josefa, Kvras
PUNTOS DE RUMBA | Rumba is good

Shopping and city life

  • Coruñeros shop for clothes like Americans shop for gadgets – when in Rome, do as the Romans and go shopping!
    • Definitely try the Inditex complex – any of the several Zaras, the Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear, and Bershkas available in city center all fantastic.
    • Boutiques in city center are great as well, and it’s fun shopping at the David in the relationship when Goliath is worth 100bn Euros.
    • It’s worth heading for Marineda City, the giant mall built on the city outskirts in 2011. If you’re dying for it, they’ve got the region’s only McDonalds and Starbucks.
Interior of Marineda City, A Coruña’s shopping mecca. Source: me.
  • Coruñeros also prioritize chilling
    • Siesta is pretty well-adhered to most days – don’t try and go shopping or out to eat between 2pm and 5pm
    • Plaza Pontevedra always has kids screaming and skateboarding thanks to the Colegio which fronts it. Otherwise, Plaza Maria Pita is gorgeous, as are the Plaza de Galicia and Plaza de España. For a nice day trip, try going to Santa Cristina Beach in Oleiros.
A fitting image to close on – a big palm at Santa Cristina Beach. Source: me!

Local Notes No. 5 – Fort Ross, the Frontier Outpost of Russian America

Heading west from Santa Rosa, CA, out along the Russian River, there runs thirty miles of charming, bucolic country: a thick canopy of trees and hills and small towns with names like Rio Nido, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Jenner. Eventually, the canopy thins, the sea comes and you can go no more west, so follow the road and turn north – what will then open before you is the Sonoma Coast, an area of unbelievable beauty. Describing its vistas defies the words normally used for this kind of thing – dramatic, yes; stunning, yes; but even more than that, jarring and vertiginous and almost deadly.

Sonoma Coast | The Lodge at Sonoma
It can get foggy – bring a jacket.

New Deal funds led to the construction of a highway along the seaside in 1933. When I drove on it this summer, the good people of the California Dept of Transportation were hard at work shoring up its asphalt against the encroaching seaside. But long before these roads were laid down, before prospectors struck gold and before San Francisco became the Paris of the Pacific, a different, almost alien set of eyes took in the sight of this beautiful coastline – Russian ones.

Fort Ross
Aerial view of Fort Ross, credit Humboldt State University.

In 1812, a shipful of Russians landed at an inlet they named Rumiantsev Bay, in honor of the empire’s Minister of Commerce at the time, the Count Rumiantsev, and founded an agricultural settlement they named Fort Ross. The expedition’s leader was one Ivan Kuskov, previously a paper-pusher at the Russian-American Company, the startup enterprise given royal imprimatur in 1799 to fortify the Russian presence in what was rapidly becoming a race between Britain, Spain, and the sixteen-year-old USA for control of northwestern North America.

(I will take the time here to note that my little note about Russian colonization of Northern California is not designed to downplay the lives and experiences of Native peoples who lived in the area before, during, and after the Russian presence. The presence of imperial Russian traders in California is notable for their complete foreignness, both then and now, as well as the ways in which they tried to make up for that foreignness. However, I would be not doing my part if I didn’t mention that there were large and active indigenous populations in these regions all along.)

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Russia Got Into Its Own "Folly" in Alaska
Detail from a painting depicting Alaskan natives watching a departing Russian-American company ship.

Even before the Tsar’s ukase of 1799, Russians had crossed the Bering Strait in explorations mostly aimed after the economic object of nearly all tsarist expansion from time immemorial – fur pelts. From Ivan the Terrible on down, each tsar in turn sought more virgin forest to harvest yet more furs from the chicest of sources – beavers, sea-otters, sables, ermines, and even squirrels. This long process of Russian eastern expansion suffers from underdiscussion in the broader history of European colonization – although it never involved daring man-o-wars crossing oceans to find new shores, to the Siberians they encountered, the tsarist troops and profiteers were unstoppable marauders, forging their way with cannon and musket in a marshy semi-tundra whose sparse native populations, be they Tatar, Kirgiz, Samoyed, or Yakut, had before mostly concerned themselves with fighting each other.

Russian eastern expansion from the time of Ivan the Terrible on.

By the turn of the 18th century, imperial boots were planted firmly in what we still today call the Russian Far East, and so it was that in 1725, Peter the Great asked for his bravest sailors to test the waters east of Kamchatka for whatever fur-growing mammals might be found in the land across the strait. A few shipwrecks later, Russian traders had figured it out and were engaged in a brisk business from a port like Kamchatka or Okhotsk to the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian islands and back. According to Gibson, one successful summer’s hunt for pelts in the Aleutians could net between 10,000 and 30,000 rubles, doubling the money invested to outfit the expedition.

The capacity for such profit sparked a fur rush of sorts, with hundreds of voyages being launched from the middle of the century on. This had predictably tragic environmental consequences – otters were extinct in the Kuril Islands by 1780, and fading fast from the Aleutians by the next decade. In order to impose some discipline on the crush of trappers headed across the Bering, the Tsarina Catherine granted the first state licenses for otter hunting in the late 1780s, a system which was updated by her successor, Paul I, in his 1799 edict forming the Russian-American Company, which won the right to a strict monopoly on fur trading and bore the responsibility of creating more substantial settlements in North America.

Paul’s decision to grant the monopoly to the RAC represented a break from previous Russian imperial strategy and also marked the introduction of a dynamic form of corporate management – the joint-stock company. This new corporate form allowed individual shareholders the right to invest capital and own separate chunks of the business, as well as transfer those shares freely without impacting the existence or operations of the company. What’s more, early practitioners of the joint-stock form figured out they could limit their liability to only capital invested, a development which essentially turned them into modern corporations as we understand them today. And although the Dutch and British had had wildly successful joint-stock companies operating colonial enterprises since the early 1600s, most notably in their respective East India Companies, Russian exploration had for two centuries neither birthed nor adopted the same organizational model.

When they finally did, it allowed them to focus. Under the leadership of A.A. Baranov, the RAC founded two settlements, Pavlovskaya and Novo Arkhangelsk, which became the modern day cities of Kodiak and Sitka. After receiving intelligence that there were long stretches of the California coast to their south unoccupied by other imperial powers, Baranov dispatched his lieutenant, Kuskov, with instructions to leave some plaques claiming the land for the Tsar and also to set up camp and do some settling.

Tikhanov - Alexandr Andreyevich Baranov (1818).png
AA Baranov, first leader of the Russian-American Company.

Walking the well-maintained grounds (thanks, CA Parks & Rec) of Kuskov’s krepost’, I found myself wondering what these outcast Russians must’ve thought about the new landscape they found themselves in. Homesickness is written into the very planks of the structures they built – one of the most striking details at the amply sized fort is the small Orthodox cross hewn in soggy oak standing atop the church.

The Fort Ross church (right) and its little Orthodox cross, beating back the tides.

Only the higher-ups and visitors actually stayed within the fort walls – most other Russians lived in smaller houses just outside the fort, while the indigenous Kashaya people who were more populous and integral members of fort life lived in another village a short distance to the south.

What did these people do all day? For starters, they didn’t actually end up hunting much fur – beaver and otter populations plummeted too quickly wherever the Russian trappers went to set up a real business. By 1834, the RAC’s leadership was so desperate to save something of their founding livelihood that they called for a twelve-year moratorium on all fur trapping and thereafter imposed a strict quota system.

Instead, the colonists at Fort Ross turned their attention towards other economic activity – Kuskov was a gifted gardener, and established farms of grain and barley with minimal success, but also of grapes, peaches, and pears which were modestly more successful. The Russians figured out ranching as well, grazing herds all the way down the bay to where modern-day road-trippers like myself make the turn out from Jenner onto the coast. They even tried their hand at shipbuilding, assembling California’s first windmill as part of a semi-industrial effort. This fizzed out after only a few attempts.

View of the fort to the south.

Truth be told, it seems that the Russians at Fort Ross, and especially the RAC higher-ups there, spent most of their time waiting for company resupply ships and thinking of life back home. A French visitor in 1828, A.B. Duhaut-Cilly, noted astutely that, “In the apartment of the governor are found all the conveniences valued by Europeans but still unknown in California.”

The possessions and house of Alexander Rotchev, the Fort’s last administrator, are still at the Fort today and in them you can see the truth of Duhaut-Cilly’s observation. Rotchev and his family spared no expense in attempting to live on the Sonoma Coast like the genteel Europeans they thought themselves to be – they kept a score of Mozart on the piano at all times.

The Rotchev house, the only building still standing since the Russian period.

Like any discerning Europeans of their time, the fort’s higher-ups investigated their California surroundings with a scientific eye. The first vaccinations in California were reportedly done at the fort in 1821. The reports of one Captain Golovnin’s stay at the Fort in 1818 include the first written mention of the native population intentionally burning large grasslands to inhibit future wildfires. Yegor Chernykh, a rancher at the Fort, kept systematic weather records for the first time beginning in 1837. Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii, a friend of Chernykh’s, left for a surveying trip in 1841 which led him eventually up the Sacramento River to the door of one unassuming miller named John Sutter.

Inattentive, however, to the pioneering exploits of their scientists in California, the Russian-American Company had decided by 1840 to call time on their outpost at Fort Ross. None of their attempts in hunting, farming, or industry had ever panned out, and by the late 1830s, they were spending some 40,000 rubles per year just to keep the colony afloat. Rotchev, the administrator, asked around if any of the surrounding great powers were interested in taking over for the Russians; when both the British and Mexicans declined, he went up the river and knocked on Mr. Sutter’s door himself. After 30 years of trying, Tsarist Russia unceremoniously sold away its most distant outpost in North America to a miller better remembered today for the gold others found on his property and the rush it inspired. Rotchev and his patrician family got onto the same boat as the other hundred or so farmers, ranchers, and would-be shipworkers who called Fort Ross home and sailed for RAC headquarters at Sitka. Russian California was no more; before another 30 years were out, Russian America would be gone too, sold to the American government at William Seward’s request in 1867 for $7 million.

A lovely painting of Fort Ross, with all the drama of the Sonoma Coast on full display.

What can we learn from the Russians’ experience in California? Plenty, not least of which the important lesson that for all the incalculable transformation wrought by other colonial enterprises around the world, we have to remember that none of them were ever sure things, and indeed very many of them did fail. I wrote my senior thesis about another, earlier attempt by a German banking family to establish a pearl fishing colony in Venezuela – that one ended with everyone dying in the jungle, either from horrible disease or a machete to the head, so the Rotchev family was probably better off having just taken the long boat ride up to Alaska.

Another lesson is the variance in interactions between colonists and indigenous peoples: the cossacks who conquered Siberia swept over unprepared peoples with ease, while Baranov was a butcher of a colonist, slaughtering native Alaskans and building Sitka on the bones of a Tlingit town. By contrast, it seems that the colonists at Fort Ross like Kuskov and Rotchev worked hard to maintain cordial and mutually respectful relations with the Kashaya and other groups of indigenous people in the area. Some sources claim the indigenous groups even played their own imperial politics, preferring the Russian approach to the heavy-handed Spanish, and balancing one against the other.

Lastly, we can’t forget about the environmental impacts of extractionary colonial economies – those extinct Kuril Islands otters aren’t coming back – but nor should we pat ourselves too much on the back, lest we think we’ve got all the answers. The RAC tried moratoria and quotas beginning nearly 200 years ago. It will likely take more than that to save our fish.

Fort Ross is today an interesting curiosity and a great state park lying on one of the prettiest stretches of coastline on the planet, but for a quarter-century it was the nexus of imperial hopes and worries from Moscow to Sitka and including London, Washington, Paris, and Mexico City. Not bad, I say, in the end for a bunch of promyshlenniki.

Review: Daniel Immerwahr, “How to Hide an Empire”

In June of 1944, Dwight Eisenhower hesitated for cause of bad weather in crossing the English Channel and launching the Allied re-invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe.

In this he was following an example set some two millenia prior by Gaius Julius Caesar, at the time the scouring governor of Gaul, in both its Cis- and Transalpine flavors, and mighty Illyricum too.

In his own De Bello Gallico, Caesar described the approach to Britain:

When about eighty transports — enough, in his opinion, to carry two legions across — had been collected and concentrated, he distributed all the ships of war he had over between his quartermaster-general, lieutenant-generals, and commandants.​ To the total stated eighteen transports should be added, which were detained eight miles off by the wind, and prevented from entering the port of concentration;​ these he allotted to the cavalry…

These arrangements made, he caught a spell of fair weather for sailing, and weighed anchor about the third watch; he ordered the cavalry to proceed to the further harbour,​ embark, and follow him. They took somewhat too long to despatch the business; he himself reached Britain about the fourth hour of the day, and there beheld the armed forces of the enemy displayed on all the cliffs.​ Such was the nature of the ground, so steep the heights which banked the sea, that a missile could be hurled from the higher levels on to the shore. Thinking this place to be by no means suitable for disembarkation, he waited at anchor till the ninth hour for the rest of the flotilla to assemble there.

Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book IV: 21-22

Twenty centuries of progress could not deliver Ike good forecasts for the twenty miles of sea between Dover and Calais, but they could deliver him something nearly as useful: live real-time computer-based messaging with the other top brass.

Daniel Immerwahr’s language here is neat: “Before the invasion of Normandy, George Marshall in Washington used a similar system to confer for more than an hour with Dwight Eisenhower in Europe, Douglas MacArthur in the Southwest Pacific, and John Deane in Moscow. The generals communicated by sending short typed messages, which appeared on a screen. In other words, they texted.”

Taken from George Raynor Thompson and Dixie R. Harris, The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945). Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington DC: 1956.

This little contrivance is found in Immerwahr’s 2019 tour de force history, How to Hide a Nation, in the portion of the book devoted to what he refers to as “empire-killing technologies”. It’s one of the many striking anecdotes he marshals to build an alert and lively argument concerning US imperialism, its impacts on the colonized around the world, and the striking lack of impact left on mainland citizens.

Immerwahr’s book received all the praise it deserved; the New York Times called it a best book of 2019. My review, then, is not only late, but also redundant, because I feel similarly to the other, quicker (some might call them professional) reviewers. Still, I hope to bring out a few more interesting morsels from this very well-constructed book.

Hide an Empire succeeds because it is principally not about the actual land grabs with which most people are familiar from an AP US history course, neither Teddy Roosevelt carving up the decrepit Spanish Caribbean nor Seward’s folly.

No, Immerwahr did something bolder: he dared to bring us with him into the history of those new American lives and what the brutality of the 20th century visited upon them even as we mainlanders remained safe, two oceans away from the firestorm of it all.

How to Hide an Empire does what it says on the tin – it traces the capture of America’s overseas territories, their development (or lack thereof) in the period leading up to World War II, the wartime experience, and the twin processes of either decolonization or true mainland integration (via statehood) which followed the war.

It is important, I think, that Hide an Empire is not only concerned with the titular empire-hiding, which takes place in the imperial period, but also in the birth of the American empire and in the surprising new form of American hegemony developed after decolonization.

This fullness upgrades the work from “pretty good” to “great,” offering no-nonsense mechanical narratives of how wartime advances in science and technology “killed” the empire, or at least the need for the American government to administer a set of overseas territories directly.

Learning a bit of Immerwahr’s background reveals the seed of research around which the rest of the book coalesced pretty plainly. His academic career at Berkeley and then Northwestern has been made in intellectual history, and his “real historian” bonafides are unimpeachable – his first book, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, won the Organization of American Historians’ 2016 award for best intellectual history.

That seed, then, must be somewhere in the tradition of American intellectual history, and indeed, some of the book’s most interesting and novel arguments come in the discussion of mapmaking and cartography in early-20th c. America. The introduction to the book is subtitled “Looking Beyond the Logo Map,” Immerwahr’s term for the cartographic depiction of the United States as merely the Lower 48, and a few chapters later he describes the impact of the successful end to the Spanish-American War on American cartography:

To McKinley…[there was] only one option: take the Philippines, ‘educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best for them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.’ Resolute, he sent for the War Department’s cartographer…

The war with Spain gave rise to the only moment in US history when cartographers aggressively rejected the logo map. In its place they offered maps of the empire. Publishers, cashing in on empire fever, rushed to put out atlases showcasing the country’s new dimensions…

By 1900, such maps were common. They appeared as a matter of course in atlases, on classroom walls, in textbooks and at the front of the census report. Some showed the North american mainland surrounded by insets. Others showed the United States stretching out over the world from the Caribbean to the edge of China. Either way, the message was clear: the country had undergone a metamorphosis.

Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, p.74
United States of America, 1900. - David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
A map of the US, published by Rand McNally in 1904, showing the state of the country as of 1900.

This is clearly not hiding an empire – so what was? By the 1910s, once the glory of war had settled into the doldrums of occupation, the appeal of empire had vanished to the mainland audience – “a regrettable drunken binge,” in Immerwahr’s telling. First Filipino and then Puerto Rican nationalists admirably profiled in the book, like Emilio Aguinaldo and Pedro Albizu Campos, agitated militarily for independence from rule by Washington DC.

The war in the Philippines was brutal, ugly stuff, reportedly claiming more lives than the American Civil War and defying the best efforts of the nascent Roosevelt administration to bring about a swift end. “As [Aguinaldo] saw it, the point of guerrilla warfare was not to defeat the U.S. army…he hoped he might influence the 1900 presidential election.” That year’s Democratic party platform indeed called it a war of “criminal aggression,” thanks to the work of anti-imperialist activists no less prominent than Mark Twain.

As much of a push factor as the miseries of the Philippine War represented, anti-German sentiment which coalesced into a resurgence of white American nationalism pulled mainlanders away from any attachment greater than the purely imperial towards their colonies.

Woodrow Wilson declared Flag Day in 1916, just two weeks before the first offensive in the Battle of the Somme, and as Immerwahr points out, even if they’d wanted to, there wasn’t much for mainlanders in the old Stars and Stripes to celebrate about the empire:

Whereas British children were made to examine the world map [for Empire Day], U.S. children venerated the national flag, which had a star for each state but no symbol for territories.

If U.S. teachers had pulled out their maps, as many surely did, it’s not clear what they would have found on them. The ‘Greater United States’ maps in vogue a decade earlier were no doubt still hanging on some classroom walls, but by 1916 few such maps were being newly commissioned. Cartographers were returning to the old logo maps, showing only the states.

Immerwahr, p. 111-12

By this point, we’ve strayed from talk about cartography. The book does too, covering the exploits of the US in its colonies up to WW2 in the intervening period, but returns, just as Truman is unwinding the US’ territorial claims, to discuss map projections, the favorite of every devoted West Wing fan.

Pivoting from Sorkin to Immerwahr, we find the following:

In 1898 imperial expansion had inspired new maps. The 1940s wartime expansion yielded a similar burst of cartographic innovation. Writers tapped surprisingly deep reservoirs of feeling as they touched on the subject of map projections. The long-familiar Mercator map, which showed North America protected on both sides by enormous oceans, became an object of scorn. It had worked well enough in an age of east-and-west sail, but the editors of Life deemed it ‘a mental hazard’ in an age of aviation…

More popular was the ‘polar azimuthal projection’ perfected by the dean of wartime cartography, Richard Edes Harrison. It showed the continents huddled around the North Pole, a jarring angle of view that highlighted aviation routes and showed how dangerously close North America was to Germany’s European empire.

The map was an enormous hit, reprinted and copied frequently. Joseph Goebbels waved it in reporters’ faces as proof of the United States’ world-conquering ambitions. The U.S. Army ordered eighteen thousand copies, and the map became the basis for the United Nations logo, designed in 1945.

Immerwahr, pp. 221-22

While the history of cartography alone would make for a compelling read, there’s a lot more to this. In fact, the breadth of topics which Immerwahr manages to fold into his book on American imperialism in itself is startling and worth reading, let alone the actual content of those topics. This is purposeful; as he claims, the work is designed to be “perspectival, seeing a familiar history differently”.

As such, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! comes out of the history of the actual settlement of Oklahoma, especially the former Indian territory never honored. The celebrated architect Daniel Burnham, designer of the White City and author of the Plan of Chicago, is revealed to have had much greater success in American-era Manila, though many of his creations were sadly destroyed in the Philippine Campaign of WW2.

Burnham’s Plan for Manila

The late 19th-C. craze for guano islands on the Pacific drove the earliest urges of American settlement beyond the North American continent, but the pioneering work of Fritz Haber, who synthesized ammonia, made the acquisition of guano moot. For this Immerwahr calls him “arguably the single most consequential organism on the planet”.

More tragic is the story of Haber’s later career; the worthy scientific work of his wife, Clara, stalled while her husband canoodled with Albert Einstein and set up a new institute for further research. After that work led to the development of poison gas, the German military staff kept Haber on tap to supervise its first deployment on French troops at Ypres. After that war, Haber helped develop a new insecticide named Zyklon A, and which would later be redeveloped into Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

“Clara’s relatives were among those who died in the camps,” Immerwahr writes, continuing, “Luckily, not all of them perished. Although Clara’s married name was Haber, she is today known by her maiden name, the name under which she defended her dissertation: Clara Immerwahr. Her cousin Max was my great-grandfather.”

After that rhetorical mic drop, the book tracks the story of medical practice in Puerto Rico, in what turns out to be a particularly piquant example of the perspectival thesis. All $4.1 billion of the money managed today by the Rockefeller Foundation for “improving lives and the planet” would never have been put to work if not for an an early imperial-era deworming campaign on the island. Bailey Ashford, the physician responsible for this life-saving campaign, was replaced in time by one Dr. Cornelius Rhoads as the main medical administrator on the island. Rhoads, by contrast, spent much of his time performing detestable medical experiments on unconsenting patients; racist and eugenicist private correspondence of his, discovered by housekeepers, helped stoke the flames of revolutionary Puerto Rican nationalism.

And yet while Ashford remained on Puerto Rico for love of the island, Rhoads went on to become director of Memorial Hospital in New York, then head of the medical division of the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, for which he received the Legion of Honor. He ended his career as the director of Sloan-Kettering, and the American Association for Cancer Research later established an award for promising young doctors in his name.

“But so complete,” Immerwahr notes, “was the informational segregation between Puerto Rico and the mainland that the prize was given for thirty-three years before anyone objected…Even the donor who’d funded the award hadn’t known of Rhoads’ Puerto Rican legacy. And that’s how you hide an empire.”

I really can’t say enough about this book; if you’ve followed along to this point just go out and read it.

Local Zoning and Hukou – Systems of Mobility Management in the US and China

The writer Michael Hobbes had an excellent thread on housing and homelessness the other day:

As Hobbes continues to say, “Every American city that sees a boom in incomes and employment also sees a spike in homelessness. Our deranged housing policy has made equitable urban growth a thing of the past.”

The relationship is indeed causal. The poster children for the current housing crisis in America are precisely those cities where high amenity construction and an influx of college-educated workers has not been followed by sufficient homebuilding – San Francisco, Boston, New York and Austin; to a lesser extent Los Angeles and Seattle too. With no other alternatives, these new high-income workers bid up the existing housing stock – this is the gentrification process – and research by Zillow has found that future increases in homelessness is well-predicted by what comes next, i.e, increases in average rent. While the natural solution to an increase in the demand for housing in a place is to increase the supply for housing in that place, the issue has instead festered and spawned a kaleidoscope of groups all pushing their own solutions, each with a worse tradeoff than the last.

In a classic case of strange bedfellows, some NIMBYs and pro-homeless activists have pointed out that in fact there is no housing crisis, since the national housing stock is more than capable of housing the unhoused, with there being more vacant homes than homeless people. This is true, but subject to an obvious critique: since extra houses in Detroit can’t be moved to Culver City, the only option remaining is to move some of the people out of the crowded cities into these extra homes. And while there are thoughtful approaches to this (like pursuing geographic redistribution as a tool of federal policy), more often than not proponents of this approach end up advocating for a deep and modern form of segregation.

As it happens, the mismatch of homes and jobs is not a uniquely American problem. China, amid its stomach churning rise to middle-income, has been groaning under the weight of a similar problem for decades. I want to compare the restrictions on mobility imposed by local control of zoning in the US with the top-down system used in China – the hukou, which is a form of census and identification strategy that maps each Chinese citizen to a region and determines their eligibility for legal residence in other regions. Obviously, hukou is a rather more domineering way to control the movement of a population. But the effects of local control of zoning are no less severe; rather remarkably, the natural whims of homeowners in Marin County and the Upper West Side have come to align with the technocrats at the CCP.

“Getting to Denmark”

First some accounting: every population on Earth has become more urban since the Industrial Revolution, but the Americans (beginning in the 1850s) and the Chinese (beginning in the 1970s) were really good at it.

It was only by 1920 that the US would become a majority-urban nation; today about 80% of Americans live in cities. The late 20th C. suburbanization is evident to see in the below chart as a break in trend, as is the great return of the millennials to cities after 2008; to a first approximation, however, it’s easy to see that urbanization followed a linear trend up for several decades before slowing at higher levels.

The Chinese have taken a much more volatile path to urbanization.

In 1949, the Communist Party took power in a country that counted 60 million urban residents, a mere spearhead compared to the 450 million living in the countryside.

Early on, they established the hukou, or “household registration” system, a tool of the command economy designed to help the party manage the vast Chinese population. Hukou were used to designate where residents would receive government benefits, like healthcare, schooling for their kids, and work eligibility. They came in two flavors, rural and urban, and while changes to hukou status were nominally allowed, in practice they were exceedingly rare: maybe something like 1% of all rural holders could have converted to urban status each year.

China Loosens Hukou Residency System to Spur Growth - Bloomberg
These are hukou – they’re physical books, sort of like IDs, with all the requisite data about each individual on them.

Hukou shaped Mao-era policymaking. As the Dear Leader’s focus swung from rural collectivization to leap-frog industrialization and then back to iconoclastic civil struggle in the late 1960s, holding an urban hukou was tantamount to a stay of execution – 19 in 20 deaths during the Great Chinese Famine were of rural hukou holders, as they were expected to feed themselves with the surplus remaining after CCP authorities had collected their grain targets, while urban residents received (meager, but reliable) state rations.

Even after the death of Mao and up through the 80s, modern megalopoli like the Pearl River Delta were agricultural, still covered in “rice paddies and water buffalo,” as one urban studies scholar puts it. Shenzhen changed all that. Amid the raft of economic reforms which opened up special economic zones from 1979 onwards was a crack in the armor of hukou that allowed for rural merchants to legally bring their business to cities distinct from their own.

Further reforms in 1992 would open more benefits and a form of legal residency to migrant laborers in a few cities; yet more reforms in the early aughts would finally tear down the rural-urban distinction, replacing it instead with a “regional” hukou. Those reforms have basically worked:

Statistic: Degree of urbanization in China from 1980 to 2020 | Statista

By the mid-2000s, poor farmers in the Chongqing hinterlands had it well within their rights to cast down their plows and pick up factory tools – but only in Chongqing. They couldn’t leave behind the farm as easily for one of the dynamos like Shenzhen, Shanghai, or Beijing. And therein lay the rub.

Between countries, within countries

While overall urbanization stats tell a simple story, they hide the changes in mix between cities which has attained a greater salience today. Put another way, like the UN does in 75-year report on Inequality, “Income inequality between countries has improved, yet income inequality within countries has become worse.”

The below chart illustrates this well – taking the per capita personal income of the top 100 combined statistical areas in the US, we observe that the playing field has become much less equal. In 1969, the median CSA had personal income only 25% lower than the peak, in that year oddly enough represented by Reno, NV. In 2019, the median CSA had a personal income nearly 50% lower than the Bay Area’s.

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

This development has important implications for individual behavior and the study of urbanization more broadly. If, say, rural productivity in 1969 was equal to an index of 25 on the chart, then even someone moving to the poorest CSA at that time – New Orleans, LA – could have expected to nearly triple their personal income.

By contrast, say rural productivity was again at 25 for 2019, then someone moving to the 100th-richest CSA, Lexington KY, would only expect to double their income. That 2019 mover has to get all the way to Minneapolis to triple their income like the person who moved to the Big Easy in 1969.

Put simply, while the returns to urbanization were rather uniform in the mid-century, the distribution has skewed in our day. All urbanization is no longer created equal and the restrictions which prevent workers from moving to San Jose and Seattle and NYC and Boston are a club to the kneecap of broader American growth.

Two clever economists advanced this argument a few years ago and did the legwork too; they found that the increase in GDP from ending restrictive housing regulations and allowing greater mobility was astronomical – from 1964-2009, the total increase in GDP would’ve been +36% higher than it was in reality, worth an extra $3.4tn in 09 dollars (Hsieh & Moretti, the authors of that study, corrected an error caught by the economist Bryan Caplan, which had actually underestimated the theorized effects by something like $2tn dollars!).

Of course, for all this to work you have to believe that the increase in income inequality between cities has actually come along with a decrease in mobility to those rich cities. But that does seem to be the case – as above, we noted that these richest cities are ground zero for the housing crisis, places where housing costs are so high not only as to deter all the potential newcomers who don’t have FAANG RSUs as part of their compensation, but also to actually evict present residents!

The real economists have weighed in on this for a while too – the impacts of lower mobility are at the core of Tyler Cowen’s Complacent Class. Davis & Haltiwanger (2014) found rates of job relocation fell by a quarter going into the 90s, while Molloy et al. (2011) declared internal migration to be at a 30-year low.

Molloy et al. (2011), p. 174

If that’s not enough for you, Brookings laid it out cleanly in a 2018 note called “Americans aren’t moving to economic opportunity” – more than half of migration out of “low vitality” counties was destined for other “low vitality” counties, and only 13% of migration from lowest vitality counties made it to highest vitality counties.

The Chinese economy has been no less susceptible to this phenomenon. The mid-aughts hukou reforms which got rid of the urban/rural split brought in new dividing lines, this time in the form of regional boundaries. This has caused its own chafing issues as poor rural residents want the gains from income possible in Shenzhen & Beijing and impossible in their local tier 3 urban area. Filmmakers like Jia Zhangke, who have made it out to the coastal superstar cities, pay testament to these inequities – the lives of a group of miners in remote Shanxi province are depicted in A Touch of Sin as being all sound and fury, bitter cold and hard labor for meager wages.

It’s no wonder that, as The Economist found in 2020, the smallest Chinese cities are actually seeing their hukou-compliant populations fall. Rural hukou holders have a certain “reservation” status, similar to job-seekers in a labor market, below which they will prefer to retain their rural status and forgo the social benefits of registration in the city in which they work. Xi Jinping, who wrote as a student about tinkering with hukou, has pushed a new initiative to spruce up these smaller towns and cities, with little word back on success.

Hukou today, as The Economist has it, is a game of three tiers: you’d love to but can’t get into Shanghai and Beijing, you’re ok with and can get into Chengdu and Xi’an, and you don’t even want to get into small cities like Dawan or Wuwei.

NIMBYism on the Pacific Rim

Nowadays the arguments for keeping strong hukou distinctions are weaker than ever. Faced with four years of Trumpian jousting, COVID-19, and a burgeoning demographic crisis, the party under Xi has been more and more active in tinkering with the rules and allowing for more migration, a strategy once referred to as adding a “new engine for the slowing economy”.

Where opponents of liberalization usually stake their claims is in arguments about the cost of providing for all those newcomers. In a very telling discussion, Fei-Ling Wang, a professor at Georgia Tech, describes the modern pressures on the reform camp:

Resistance to any proposed major reform now, ironically, comes from the urban people – not ironically, but expectedly I guess – and not necessarily from government planners. Government planners are hoping to speed up urbanization even in large cities so the economy can get a new driving force. However, urban officials, the local cadres, see this as compromising their current privilege. They see the rural folks as coming in to share their fruits. The urban-rural difference in China is horrendous – living standard, income, education, medical service, you name it. This great gap really makes the urban folks feel they are privileged and wonder why they should share the scarce resources with country folk. The local officials also worry about it [hukou reform], as it may get local people really angry or create a management issue.

Fei-Ling Wang, quoted in The Diplomat

There we have it – Chinese NIMBYism made flesh. What in the end distinguishes the ideas of those who were there first, either in China or the US, from those who would like only the chance to share in the fruits of high-productivity economies? Very little, except for a commitment to keeping the rest of us all a little poorer.

Misreading Malthus – The Life and Death of Family Planning Policy in China

An era has ended – the Chinese government has capitulated on its near-half-century-long attempt to restrict the growth of its population. Following the release of results from the most recent decennial census, the CCP has told families that having as many as three children is permissible – this from the same organization that promoted in 1978 the slogan “one is best, two at most”. Hand-wringing has already begun as to whether this relaxation will end up having any positive effects. I find it more curious why China’s government embarked on this quixotic errand in the first place.

The writer Sui-Lee Wee has been the New York Times‘ reporter of choice in covering this topic. In a recent series of stories covering the census and its policy impacts, she has updated and typified the discourse around Chinese family planning – focused on the mothers of today either stymied in their desire for more kids or completely overwhelmed by the cost of rearing their single child, Wee’s writing offers the perspective that the Party’s fretful back-pedaling on population planning will end up too little, too late.

That the Party should be worried at all is noteworthy – their fear validates at least in part a sort of pat wisdom now commonly shared about the hegemonic prospects of modern-day China, namely that China as a country got too old before it became rich.

Western countries are not unconcerned about similar matters. South Korea & Japan are quite a ways ahead of the Americans and Europeans in terms of staring down the barrel of the developed country demographic transition, worrying about plunging birth rates among alienated city dwellers. But at least the OECD countries are rich; China, as The Economist notes, still only has per-capita income about one-quarter of the US’.

This is a tension not totally explored in Wee’s stories – in centering the individual women whose lives were and are altered by the policy, this approach paints a valuable picture of daily life in modern China. Yet at the same time, this close portraiture understates the larger dimensions of the one-child policy, its logic, its implementation, and its effects. In fact, I can’t find any more useful way to conceptualize the 1CP other than as the one of the most tremendous acts undertaken by a totalitarian state upon its own citizens in the whole brutal 20th century.

The basic chronology of family planning is worth noting here: Mao is dead in September 1976. Following a short period of intramural combat, the reformists under Deng Xiaoping take power at the December 1978 party plenum.

Moving in parallel to the power politics in the Politburo, a group of scientists and doctors concentrated in Tianjin began to circulate writings through 1978 which asked the state to embark upon a formal policy of population control. A short CCP document advocated “one is best, two is most” the same year, and though it remained merely a party suggestion, some provinces began then to implement 1CP.

In 1980 it became law at the highest levels of policymaking, with a September Open Letter from the Secretariat of the Central Committee announcing “one-child per couple” to its people. Loopholes opened rather quickly – in 1984, the CCP allowed local governments some leeway in administration of the 1CP, mostly to relax requirements for the most rural localities.

And yet in this basic form it endured for more than thirty years. Xi Jinping took the premiership in 2013 and moved as part of his reform plan to loosen family planning policy, declaring in 2014 that couples in which one party was an only child should feel free to have two. In 2015, a two-children policy became the law of the land.

That the one-child policy arrived so late in the difficult history of the People’s Republic is jarring; the whole point of Deng’s regime was to remove the heavy yoke of Maoism from the administration of the country. It was in the fall of 1978 that the pioneering reforms in Xiaogang began, and early in 1979 that the Special Economic Zone in Shenzhen was opened.

Deng pledged “reform and opening-up” at his ascension at the December plenum. His plenipotentiary in Shenzhen, Yuan Geng, became famous for the phrase “time is money, efficiency is life” (时间就是金钱,效率就是生命). The new socialism with Chinese characteristics was a tremendous success, with real gross output rising twelve-fold and extreme poverty being eradicated.

All the while, however, Deng’s lieutenants in the provinces were enforcing 1CP with zeal. This dynamic is typical of Chinese political economy, where the key to a successful political career is leading a provincial government to outperform its targets and peers. The human toll was terrible: official party estimates claim some 400 million births were prevented by the policy.

This is a shocking acknowledgement in its own right, and yet it loses its vigor upon recognition of the crimes committed along the way. Reports abounded of infanticide after unexpected pregnancies, most victims girls. Preferences for boys among Chinese families led to a black market where girls commanded low prices. One NGO claims that the average Chinese woman could expect to have several abortions through her child-bearing years, many of which forced on them by the state.

The tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were spurred by one of the 20th C.’s worst madmen trying to enforce rule by personal cult over the planet’s longest-lived and largest civilization. And yet in 2020, the number of births actually matched the nadir of the great famine in 1961. What possibly could have driven the CCP to implement such a policy?

The Foundations of the One-Child Policy in Midcentury Catastrophism

The Chinese government’s goal since liberalization has been to become rich and powerful – less than a year into his reign, Deng was already referring to this as the goal of becoming a “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会), a slogan which has endured through Xi’s massive reworking of CCP ideology.

Keeping this goal in mind makes the 1CP even less sensical than it might seem prima facie. To make your society richer, you can increase the amount of workers or you can make more valuable the work they do. This is mere mechanical accounting: keeping per-capita incomes equal, levels of gross domestic product increase with population, as do rates of economic growth increase with rates of increase in population.

We have to conclude that China’s leadership in the late 1970s was convinced of a more radical idea: that unchecked population growth would actually block them from the successful completion of their goals. This is indeed what happened, and stranger still, most of the intellectual force of this notion came from the advocacy of one scientist, Song Jian.

Song, who yet lives, was trained as a missile scientist in the early 1960s. He survived the Cultural Revolution only through the personal intervention of Zhou Enlai, who named him to a list of fifty indispensable scientists. At the dawn of the Deng era, Song was part of a small cohort of scientists asked to convert from the study of military science (principally missile technology) to the study of economic growth.

Key to the history of the 1CP is a trip to Helsinki taken by Song in 1978, where at a conference of the International Foundation of Automatic Control, he was introduced to the ideas of a book called The Limits to Growth. The book, which first appeared in 1972, was the result of a collaboration between an NGO called the Club of Rome and a group of MIT scientists they commissioned to develop a model for long-term resource use. The basic conclusions of the book were alarming:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

The Limits to Growth, pg. 23-24

Underpinning these conclusions were a set of models which displayed the exponential rate of increase of human population and consumption, and in contrast, the linear rate of increase of resource availability, namely food and industrial metals. Acknowledging the imprecision in their forecasts, the team responsible wrote, “precise numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth are unimportant when viewed against the inexorable progress of exponential growth.” (p. 51)

In order to forestall the worst consequences of this dynamic, Limits to Growth recommends “a nongrowing state for human society,” one in which “the birth rate equals the death rate”. The book even goes so far as to warn its readers against waiting for natural phenomena which might ease population pressures to occur, writing, “we cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control…Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible.”

Song Jian returned to China equipped with Limits to Growth and began working on population control diligently. “In the West, the Club of Rome work had provoked an outcry from social scientists concerned about the application of cybernetics’ mechanistic models to the solution of human problems. Song apparently did not encounter such critiques,” writes Greenhalgh in her 2005 article on Song.

Moreover, population control was a topic ripe for the picking by an ambitious and brilliant scientist – “throughout the 1970s population was a weakly institutionalized sector, with few institutions or standard operating procedures for processing policy issues. In this context, policy entrepreneurs [like Song] would have room to exert appreciable influence over the policy outcome.”

Song was able to use his privileged place as an “indispensable” defense scientist to access Western science like in Limits to Growth and also to become a leading voice in a narrow field. His approach worked – after about a year of workshopping, he presented his paper to a leading journal in January 1980, equipped with the recommendation that adopting a one-child policy was an “extremely urgent strategic duty”. By February 1980, the Central Committee was talking population targets, and in March they allowed Song to go wide with his research in the People’s Daily. From there, there was no looking back.

Misreading Malthus and the Errors of Degrowth

But let us return for a moment to the work that undergirded Song’s push – in Limits to Growth‘s contrast between exponential human growth and linear resource growth, readers should be reminded of the work of one man: Thomas Malthus. Indeed, the Club of Rome does that work for us, counting him among their antecedents, as well as such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

Malthus was the author of a remarkable work which appeared in 1798 called An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he discussed his thoughts on exactly that, why population rose and fell and what it meant for national wealth. Early on, he explains his thesis in terms of differing growth rates:

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, &c. and subsistence as—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, &c. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13; and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.

Malthus, Chapter II

Sound familiar? The rest of it remains a strikingly modern read – keep in mind that Adam Smith had only published Wealth of Nations about twenty-five years prior – and full of great discussions. Today, however, Malthus’ name is deployed almost exclusively in the service of discussing the above dynamic. This phenomenon sometimes is called the Malthusian Trap, one where poor societies are unable to become rich, as rising incomes lead to higher populations, which then necessarily lead to lower incomes in the future.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Malthusian dynamics like these did retard the ability of societies to achieve launch velocity and become what we think of today as developed nations. What’s important to note here is that even in his work, Malthus recognized this as a natural dynamic, an ebb and flow of society. Malthus has been received in modern times by the Club of Rome and others as an advocate for population control, but this seems drastically, unbelievably wrong to me. He was not pushing in a normative sense for policymakers to intervene and stop the cycle before it took its natural path; he was instead documenting a general phenomenon about human life in a descriptive way.

He says as much a little later:

The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased…The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

This sort of oscillation will not be remarked by superficial observers; and it may be difficult even for the most penetrating mind to calculate its periods. Yet that in all old states some such vibration does exist; though from various transverse causes, in a much less marked, and in a much more irregular manner than I have described it, no reflecting man who considers the subject deeply can well doubt.

Malthus, Chapter II

The “periods” of Malthus’ “oscillation” represent the key to his whole theory – increases in population don’t lead to some Mad Max style disaster zone; they lead to rising food prices, which induces a rational response by the next generation of parents to wait a little longer before having kids. This is a far cry from Limits to Growth‘s urgency. The only rub for Malthus is that he thinks the length of these cycles is too hard to discern – “difficult even for the most penetrating mind,” as he puts it.

Luckily, modern economists and their analyses turn out to have rather penetrating minds themselves, and a recent paper from Bouscasse, Nakamura, and Steinsson updates the literature on pre-industrial growth cycles. “Our estimates imply that Malthusian population dynamics were very slow,” the authors write. “[A] doubling of real incomes led to a 6 percentage point per decade increase in population growth.” This dynamic held from the Black Death through to 1650, after which things changed – the economy transitioned “from Malthus to Solow,” and increases in productivity couldn’t possibly be swallowed by increases in population: England was getting more productive too quickly.

The Club of Rome read Malthus to say that unless populations were reduced, poverty would result. They had it all backwards. What’s worse, this belief was based in the worst intellectual error one can ever commit: confidence in predictions about the future. Yes, they were right to be concerned about climate change, although it appears Exxon was not too far behind them, on much better evidence. Other parts of the book stress about chromium consumption, which does not rank very highly in a recent study’s concerns about resource usage. They worried also about the potential for the Mexican population to reach 130 million by 2060. Mexico contains 127 million people today, and I am willing to bet that the addition of 3 million more will not suffice to bring on civilizational collapse.

Song Jian and his colleagues bet the farm on a policy motivated by the errant reasoning of doomsayers like the Club of Rome. The strength of modern society is in its ability to constantly transform, to always seek a new answer to an old problem. Growth is an inescapable good – this is the crux of industrialization, and just as there was no reason to doubt this dynamic had changed in 1978, there is still no reason to think so now, though saying so raises the hackles of a minor debate about sustainability and population control now ongoing in the US.

One side of this debate calls itself degrowth, and exhorts us for the good of the planet to abandon economic growth, arguing that the current model of perpetual increases in GDP is merely unsustainable. “Huge chunks of our economy are totally irrelevant to human wellbeing. We must ask ourselves; do we really want to pursue aggregate growth if it’s going to put our planet — and our civilization — at such extraordinary risk?” asked Jason Hickel, its foremost prophet, to CNBC.

My reaction is that all this has been tried before and found to fail. As above, economic growth requires either more people or richer lives. Degrowth, therefore, can really only come from one of two things: fewer people, or poorer lives. I find this degrowtherism to be cowardly, uninventive, a pearl-clutching sky-is-falling fatalism about what we can expect from future technology.

Instead we need to take a different tack, and recognize the limitlessness of human ingenuity. Andrew McAfee wrote admirably about how we’re already solving the problems degrowthers say we’ll never solve. Elsewhere, writers like Matt Yglesias, Lyman Stone, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Noah Smith, among others, have taken up the pen, advocating not for fewer children or smaller economies, but larger nations full of revitalized population centers, bursting with new ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit to take down the challenges of climate change in a positive way.

Malthus’ Last Trick: The Demographic Transition

Ultimately, the voices of those authors are needed because even without encouragement, the growth of the human population is slowing down. Sure, in developing countries, we expect a boom in population to continue until well into mid-century. But demographic transition has occurred in rich countries without fail, leaving large populations of retirees supported by smaller bases of prime-age workers.

This is the great doom of population control efforts, one the Chinese government unwittingly walked into. Their population growth was going to slow down anyway as the country got richer. 1CP only hastened the transition and made the increase in dependency ratio much more rapid – whereas in 1980, one prime-age Chinese worker had to support the income of 1.47 retirees, today that figure stands at 2.5 retirees to every worker. In the US, the same figure is 1.8 retirees to every worker.

At its core, the Malthusian dynamic describes the response of families to the cost of child rearing. In pre-industrial societies, that was easy to understand – kids were mouths to feed, and so Malthus could ask of the desirous but penniless family man, “May he not see his offspring in rags and misery, and clamouring for bread that he cannot give them?”

Today, the pressures on parents are much different, but no less potent. The continued decline in the US birth rate, for example, is sometimes explained as a free and equal choice by women to live childlessly. “There turn out to be a large number of surveys asking about fertility preferences,” Lyman Stone wrote in rebuttal of that idea, “and no matter how creatively it is sliced and diced, no matter what data source is used, women have fewer kids than they say they want, desire, intend, expect, or consider ideal—for themselves or for society on the whole.”

Eric Levitz, writing for NYMag, continues the line of reasoning: “in meritocratic, capitalist societies, middle-class expectations for the amount of time and financial investment a child requires have grown so high, only a radical economic reordering can make larger families feel broadly attainable.”

This same attitude turns up in Sui-Lee Wee’s articles about the changes to family planning. She quotes a 26-year-old Beijinger as saying, “No matter how many babies they open it up to, I’m not going to have any because children are too troublesome and expensive…I’m impatient and worried that I won’t be able to educate the child well.”

Wee phrased it more strongly in another article – ending family planning policies “could also founder amid broad cultural changes. Anxiety over the rising cost of education, housing and health care is now deeply ingrained in society. Many Chinese simply prefer smaller families”.

In seeking to head off a mostly imagined civilizational collapse, the side effects of the one-child policy proved to have the greatest staying power of all. For their latest trick, the Chinese government will have to find another way out.