Most people – I think – if asked to name the bloodiest century in human history would probably say the 20th. I hasten to add this isn't the kind of question you get on history exam papers nowadays – you are more likely to get quizzed on ‘Household Formation, Lineage and gender relations in the early modern Atlantic world’ or something less bloodthirsty.
In Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘The better angels of our nature’ the wild haired Harvard professor is having none of this. The preference for the 20th century is mere ‘historical myopia’. Instead when one roots around through the
history books for forgotten wars and scales for the world’s population at the time – you find a whole set of lesser known conflicts that dwarf the toll for the first and second world wars. Pinker then presents a table showing the Second World War as merely the 9th most destructive atrocity of all time – lagging behind the Atlantic Slave Trade, the annihilation of the American Indians, Tamerlane’s conquests, the fall of Rome, the fall of the Ming dynasty, the Mid-east slave trade, the Mongol conquests and – most terrible of all – the An Lushan Revolt (something the majority of westerners have never even heard of).
Now at this point one’s proverbial ‘Bullshit-o-meter’ should be sounding – anyone who claims that they have a reasonably accurate ‘death toll estimate’ for something like the Mongol Conquests is being ludicrously over-confident. Pinker’s table looks suspiciously like something that has been cut and pasted from Wikipedia. In fact the figures appear to have been lifted from a site called ‘Necromterics’ authored by Matthew White – a librarian and author whose somewhat macabre hobby appears to be calculating historic death tolls. His scholarly works include such essays as 'Which Has Killed More People? Christianity? or Gun Control' so it's a bit strange that Pinker would consider him the go-to man on the demography of Medieval China.
The An Lushan Revolt, according to Pinker and White, wiped out something like 36,000,000 Chinese over the course of 8 years – a toll equivalent to two thirds (66%) of the Tang Empire’s population. If you scale for the mid 20th century’s population you would end up with an equivalent toll of 429,000,000 people. That would indeed be an astonishing high death rate – by comparison the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia killed around 13% of Russia’s population - over half the population in the regions and countries of Europe where there is data of useful quality died in the Black Death (perhaps the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world). To justify this Pinker and White refer to the fact that at the peak of the medieval Tang dynasty, the census taken in the year 753 recorded a population of 52,880,488. After eleven years of civil war, the census of 764 gave a figure of 16,900,000. None of the figures cited on White’s site appear to come from Sinologists as far as I can see and no context is given for the low census figures*.
Accordingly I have worked through a number of works such as the ‘Cambridge History of China Vol 3’, Mark Edward Lewis’s ‘The Chinese Cosmopolitan Empire – the Tang Dynasty’ and David Andrew Graff’s ‘Medieval Chinese Warfare’ to see if they can shed greater light on what is now claimed to be the greatest holocaust in human history.
An Lushan was a garrison commanding general of mixed Sogdian and Turkish descent who rebelled against the Tang Dynasty in 755. This sparked a civil war across northern China for a period of eight years before the rebels were finally destroyed in 763. During this period of the two capitals of the Tang dynasty, the city of Chang’an was damaged and the city of Luoyang was burned. This suggests that the conflict was highly destructive but when assessing the impact there are a number of difficulties.
Firstly, up until the modern age, population counts were sporadic and incomplete. The first full censuses were not made until 1790 in the United States and 1801 in Britain. In the medieval Chinese era, the government counted households and some or all of the people constituting them, but did not attempt a complete registration until 1953. This was for the purpose of levying troops or more commonly allocating tax burdens. Only a few landmark censuses from the pre-Song era are taken to be reasonably reliable and the taxation records are frequently disrupted by war and administrative chaos. The figures for number of households are held to be far more reliable than those for actual head count
Secondly the census figures vary wildly depending on the contemporary level of government control. For example, in the reign of Taizong from 626 to 649, only 3,000,000 household were registered. Under the previous Sui dynasty (581-618) the figure had been 9,000,000 households. According to Richard Guisso in the Cambridge History of China this ‘sensational decline was not the result of catastrophic loss of life during the civil warfare of late Sui and early T'ang, but of simple failure by the local authorities to register the population in full. Even in the first years of Kao-tsung's reign only 3,800,000 households - certainly far less than half of the actual population – were registered. Considerably more than half of the population was thus unregistered and paying no taxes (p297 Cambridge History of China). This shows that in times of difficulty the highly centralised taxation system could break down – resulting in half the population or more being omitted from the census.
After the An Lushan revolt the situation reached crisis proportions and a new period of warlordism and regional autonomy emerged. The Tang had survived only by carrying out a general decentralisation of administrative power and dispersing power through a new tier of provincial governments. Despite the restoration of peace the empire remained in a state of chaos. China broke into many regions who collected their own taxes and remitted only a small portion to the central government. The Tang could no longer update it’s registers and chart landowning; local tax records were destroyed, scattered and rendered obselete. As Graff writes:
After the An Lushan rebellion, the Tang court lost the ability to enroll, enumerate, and impose taxes directly upon the majority of China’s peasant households. This development is dramatically illustrated by the decline of the registered population from approximately nine million households in 755 to less than two million in 760. (P240 – Medieval Chinese Warfare)
The post rebellion census figures cannot then be relied upon when estimating the impact on the empires population in the 8th century and there are no signs of a catastrophic two thirds population loss. Instead the indications are that China continued to have a large population base into the 9th century with which the dynasty was able to raise professional and conscripted armies to compete with the nomadic powers in dominating inner Asia.
The estimates given by the great Harvard sinologist John King Fairbank in 'the New History of China' (2006) are that ‘the empire’s population may have totalled 60 million in AD 80, 80 million in 875, 110 million in 1190’ (p106). These are of course estimates but they show that the general impression from historians of the period is not one of catastrophic population decline followed by recovery – but of a slow and steady late medieval population boom coupled with a shift in population from north to south. Mark Edward Lewis remarks that that:
‘Between 742 and 1080 (two years for which comprehensive census records have survived), the population in the north increased by only 26 percent, while that in the south increased by 328 percent’
C A Peterson in the Cambridge history of China notes that in the wake of the rebellion:
Large scale shifts of population took place. Many of the war affected areas in Ho-pei and Ho-nan were partially depopulated, and many people migrated to the Huai and Yangtze valleys and to the south (P496)
There are therefore plenty of reasons to be sceptical of Pinker’s claim that An Lushan’s revolt ranks as the most destructive war of all time. In fact he doesn’t appear to have done even the most basic research of research into the credibility of his figures; which is a shame because ‘The Better Angels of our Natures’ is a very good read and presents some interesting questions.
*In his recent book 'The great big book of horrible things' Matthew White goes with a 'more conservative' figure for the An Lushan revolt of 13 million dead - though he obviously didn't tell Pinker.
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum