Saturday, November 25, 2006

Xian Yu, the general that almost got China

The year 210 BC, the emperor that established the Qin dynasty in China dies. His son, a complete idiot, could not avoid a general uprising in the empire, that would lead to his fall.

In the south, in the rural region of Chu, a coalition of rebel armies advanced towars the Qin capital, Guanzhong. It was agreed that the first general that conquered the city would be the heir to the throne. Of the candidates, Xian Yu was the most admired, but also the most feared.

A doubted reputation

Xian Yu was nephew of Xian Liang, the soldier that had started the revolt. After his death in battle, Xian Yu took it over from him, and he unstoppably fighted and defeated the imperial armies. His cruelty, however, was not less known. He razed entire cities, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and murdered members of his own coalition. In the battle of Julu, having been put under command of the general Song Yi, he did not hesitate to killing him when he had shown indecision, and commanding his army, risked it and produced an enormous defeat to the iperial troops, despite of huge losses of his part too. He was awarded a doubted reputation of brave and militarily skilful man, but also arrogant and tyrannic.

Xian Yu forgot the agreement that had been made. While he was fiercely fighting in Jusu, a small army led by the unknown Liu Bang entered the weakened empire and conquered the capital, being thus appointed future heir of it. When Xian Yu arrived there and noticed it had already been conquered, he got furious and razed it.

A violent five-year civil war happened between the two factions. Xian Yu had more support, more territory and a better equipped army. However, after some defeats, Liu Bang began winning. Despite of his less military experience, because of his humble origins, he carried out a successful diplomacy. He got surrounded by good military advisers, attracted of the more noble and calm personality of Liu Bang than the one from his adversary. Meanwhile, Xian Yu never accepted a single advise from his lieutenants and only trusted the bravery of his soldiers.

In the end, the better strategy, and especially the management of supplies, gave victory to Liu Bang, who became the first emperor of the Han dynasty. Xian Yu cut his throat on the side of the river Yangtse, abandoned by all his lieutenants.

Xian Yu is still a very popular character in the Chinese culture. The sentence "being surrounded by Chu music" means being without allies or support. It comes from the moment when Liu Bang's army surrounded Xian Yu, after conquering the region of Chu, from where he was. Liu Bang odered his soldiers to sing typical songs from the region, so that they showed him that they were on his side there too.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Western civilization, since the end of Middle Ages, expanded progressively out of its environment, exploring new territories and discovering strange cultures, very different from its own. Towards them, the discoverer imposed a dominating attitude in the beginning. However, the perception on new civilizations and its population has hugely changed, along with the way of thinking and social changes in Occident.

XV to XVII centuries: The "savage"

Since XV century, Portuguese naos and Spanish caravels, to which other European empires joined later, explored the coasts of unknown continents, establishing colonies and forcing natives to assimilate their culture or exterminating them.
The conception of these new cultures is represented by the way to denominate them: "savages". This automatically puts them in a culturally inferior degree. Colonizers do not respect their customs, destroy their systems. As best, they experiment a simple curiosity for the rare items they contain. It is not rare to see an aristochrat that acquires an elephant tusk, an exotic music instrument or a mummified native, to show to his friends.
Representations of savages usually show their bodies as hairy and monstrous shape, and almost always in a wild and cannibal scene. Western mentality of that moment, very influenced by religion and superstitions, and reluctant to new points of view, naturally led to this monstruous concept of the new and unknown.

XVIII and XIX centuries: The scientific, artistic and social interest

With the arrival of the Enlightment and the use of reason, there starts to be a more constructive curiosity towards exotic cultures. Firstly, a purely scientific interest made antropologists and doctors from Occident study the differences and similarities of these "new people" to the known ones, as well as their way of living.
XIX century is the period of romantics, of explorers and adventurers. This is a perfect scenario for people like them. New territories are charted, scenes of tribal life are painted, and travel books that tell about rites and customs of these civilizations are written. It is the century of people like Livingstone, Stanley and Burton.
At the end of the century and beginning of next one, the positivist movement motivates to classify everything in the World. Naturalists and botanists travel around the Earth classifying new species, taking photos of animals and plants, and take information on non-civilized tribes that exist on the World.
From XX century: Integration

It is only in the past century that a value starts to be given to these cultures, that Western civilization assimilates their cultural contributions and artistic shapes. Modern painters, such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton, among others, among many others, integrate forms and aesthetics directly copied from African and South-american symbolic sculpture.
Globalized World is becoming a mix of trends that lead to a kind of world art. Cultural integration is greater, different lifestyles are adopted. Oriental philosophy and African music get mixed with western customs in an armonic way. Finally, we got to the product of several centuries of human evolution.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Nile and the Euphrates

Around the year 4000 BC, a civilization appears on the side of the Nile river. The Egyptian Empire lasted more than 3000 years and was the first civilization in History that built great architectural and artistic works, also to create an organized central administration.
In parallel, in the area between the courses of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, state-cities arise (Sumer, Akkad, Susa, Ur, Babylon) that will compete on each other and develop an equally important cultural identity. To them we owe the first aphabet and the code of laws.
However, the development in both of them was very different. While in Egypt a great politic entity appear and was stable for thousands of years, Mesopotamia saw endless confrontations between its small state-cities, none of which managed to impose its hegemony permanently. What is the reason of this difference?

Two basins, two civilizations

Certainly, both river sides were very fertile. However, they were in a different manner.
The river Nile suffers periodic floods. It is necessary just a minimum human effort to take the maximum profit, guaranteeing also rich harvests with a great stability. The sides of the Tigris and the Euphrates, to begin with, are more mountainous and less favourable to agriculture. Moreover, harvests are not necessarily always good, but droughts and floods can sometimes happen. Thus, in order to take the maximum benefit of its potential, it was necessary for its population to build great dams and complex irrigation systems. Exactly, archaeological findings in Ancient Mesopotamie show the existence of this kind of works, while they are rare in Egypt.

Social consequences

In Egypt, food stability allowed a long prosperity and the establishment of an empire in which citizen miscontent was not frequent. This Empire was relatively stable for thousands of years, until its inactivity finally provoked its decadency. In Mesopotamia, on the contrary, the support of the community was necessary for the good operation of irrigation systems in difficult conditions, and in this context, the role of the city was fundamental to establish guarantees. Moreover, when bad harvests happened, was was frequent, usually provoked by disputes on territories or resources.

It is interesting how similar cases have repeated along History. Stability makes people open-minded, risking sometimes to lead to cultural sleeping. In difficult periods survivance instincts are more important, the people get isolated in their community, and show aggresive to external identities.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The slap of Anagni

The pope Boniface VIII (satirized in an ancient drawing, on the right) is one of the most infamous of the Roman Church. With him, the figure of the pope suffered the biggest humilliation of his history. A slap on the face is not easy to be forgotten.

Power conflicts

At the end of the XIII century, Italy is divided in hundreds of small States governed by powerful families, which also try to achieve power in Rome by placing a pope with their own surname. Let us imagine an Italian-like war, in which small treasons are as frequent as open field battles.

In 1297 the pope Boniface VIII, from the Caetani family, rules Rome. A small terrain dispute took him as an excuse to a total war with the Colonna family, also with pretensions to place a pope in Rome. The war ended with the total destruction of the Colonna capital, Palestrina, and the banishment of the family to France.

Meanwhile, the king Philip IV the Fair had been taking a pulse with the pope since several years before, as the pretensions of the latter to expand his power were extreme ("It is necessary for the salvation that every human creature subjects to the Roman pontificate", Unam Sanctam, 1302). In 1303 the French king broke the pulso by deciding to collect taxes from the clergy in the country. Boniface responded to this as a pope, by redacting a bule to excommunicate the king.

The slap of Anagni

However, the skilful ministre of the king, Guillaume de Nogaret, proposed him a simple plan before the war would be declared: Go to Italy by surprise, arrest the Pope and destitute him back in France. First rejected by the king, few days later Nogaret received a letter from him with orders to "go to such a place, and make such treaties with such persons as seems appropiate".

Sciarra Colonna, eager of revenge, joined Nogaret's expedition, which in the Apennines recruited 1600 men, enemies of Caetani, and managed to get to the Pope's residence in Anagni without being noticed. In the palace, Sciarra humilliated Boniface by slapping him to the floor. The pope, still down, shouted "Guillaume, son of cathares! Here is my head, here my neck. I will die, but I will die as a Pope". Nogaret convinced Sciarra not to cut his head at the place.

The Pope was in prison only three days, as many of his supporters raised in arms in Rome and freed him, and the attackers fled. However, the Pope was very weakened by this fact (he could have suffered too much moral and physical damage for being 68 years old), and died a month later. After one year, the Pope's residence was moved to Avignon, and so was under absolute control of the king of France. The Popes have hardly recovered from that slap.