1. 03:415th Dec 2012

Notes: 55

Zero, 628 CE.

Brahmagupta was a mathematician-astronomer of thirty when he wrote his Brahmasphutasiddhanta, and it’s jam-packed with obviously brilliant things—theory of gravitation, position of the moon, sums of series, etc. The most brilliant aspect of all, however, is easy to overlook. By the time 628 came by, Indian mathematicians had already been using positional notations for some time. For those among you who don’t do math, positional notation is the system we use; when we put down the number 6123, we’re indicating how many different quantities-of-ten we add up to get the number we want by the position of each numeral—six thousands, one hundred, two tens, and three ones. If you needed to indicate that there were none of some quantity of tens, Indian mathematicians happily used a dot, meaning “nope” (or a cross, or, if you were Aryabhata, the syllable “kha”, sort of) and found that it was much easier than doing calculations on an abacus in metered verse like before.

But ah ah! Not so fast. Having accepted that 6023 meant there was nothing in the hundreds place, mathematicians acknowledged that just 0 meant there was nothing at all. Which meant that presumably, you could use that 0 the way you used any other digit. But a number up to this point had meant the tally of how much of something there was. What the hell did it mean to calculate with a tally of nothing? What happened when you subtracted something from it? What happens when you multiply something by it? What are we even doing again?

This was a philosophical problem on a grand order, and Brahmagupta’s solution was to think of it in terms of profit. When you were in debt, the debt was somehow less than having nothing at all, while a fortune, of course, was a surplus, so it’s in those terms that Brahmagupta figured his rules for math. Take a debt away from nothing, and you’re left with a fortune. Multiply a debt times a fortune and you’re left with a debt. Anything multiplied by zero would give you a quantity of nothing and leave you with nothing again. The only thing he got wrong was division by zero, which still trips people up today (it’s undefinable in real number arithmetic. Try that one out on an audience of seventh century mathematicians.)

Here is the awesome irony of this: when Brahmagupta was writing, positional notation was still apparently considered vulgar in serious mathematical work. He wrote his whole treatise in verse and used the names of mythological objects to stand in for numbers. The apotheosis of positional notation happened while people were still pretending it didn’t exist.

2. 15:5530th Nov 2012

Notes: 524

Aotearoa/New Zealand, 1280.

The maritime plan of most of human civilization during our period went as follows:

1. Get boats.
2. Put weapons on boats.
3. Conquer neighboring countries either by military force or by overwhelming trade dominance.
4. Instagram shots of you in front of London/Indrapura/Mogadishu.
5. Go home.

The Polynesians, on the other hand, appeared to have a different plan:

1. Build canoes.
2. Sail out into the open ocean for four thousand miles.
3. ???
4. Sweet, Hawai’i!

As the world looked on in tolerant, baffled wonder for thousands of years [sidebar on Vikings], Polynesians repeated steps 1-4, especially step 3, which when you peeled off the little sticker with the question marks turned out to be “employ an array of sophisticated navigational techniques which remain in cultural transmission and even active use today. Also, when you reach an island, use an equally sophisticated array of terraforming techniques to make an unfamiliar landscape ecologically viable for human life. Also, eat a balanced diet, because scurvy is for white people.”

The Polynesians did their eastern Pacific exploration around our period, and may have settled Easter Island and Hawai’i around then, too, if not a little earlier. Polynesian colonies were set up on little stubs of volcanic rock, hideously isolated archipelagos, even sub-polar islands. They probably hung out with medieval Peruvians, or at least, they made enough American contact to get ahold of sweet potatoes. [Sidebar on sweet potatoes.] And they found New Zealand, and settled in, and those who stuck around became the Māori.

And then hundreds of years later the islands of the Polynesian triangle were conquered by Europeans and the Europeans did their damndest to put that little ??? sticker back on the four-part plan, because, you know, people without shirts could not possibly be world explorers. But we do not have to listen to them. When I said those navigational techniques are still in use today, I mean literally, today, because in August of this year a group of Maori sailors took off from New Zealand for Rapa Nui, the last leg of the Polynesian triangle that no one’s completed in the modern era, and according to their website they should be landing, in, like, twelve hours, if they haven’t already.

???

3. 21:5028th Nov 2012

Notes: 24

'Phags-pa, 1260s.

Tibet wasn’t a unified empire anymore when the Mongols rolled over it in the 1240s, but that did not stop Mongke Khan from sending his brother and heir Kublai to go and fetch the guy they had more or less arbitrarily identified as Head of Tibet, Probably (??), Sakya Pandita. Unfortunately for both of them, Sakya Pandita had died of old age. Kublai was presented instead with two teenaged nephews, Phagpa and Chhana. Kublai initially tried to return them for a better model, but when the other lamas in the area proved to be not particularly friendly to the idea of hanging out in their invader’s camp as a spiritual-guide-cum-political-hostage, Kublai was forced to turn back to Phagpa. After a brief Odd Couple montage and the intervention of Kublai’s wife Chabi, they became lifelong allies.

When Kublai became Kublai Freakin’ Khan, Founder of the Yuan Dynasty, he made Phagpa his chief lama. Phagpa had huge power in Yuan Dynasty China and its satellite states. According to “Financial and Material Aspects of Tibetan Art under the Yuan Dynasty" by Anning Jing, Kublai went to to Phagpa and his monks for just about everything—"to regulate the movement of the planets, make rain, eradicate epidemics, silence thunder, suppress tidal waves, stop wind, defeat enemy troops, commemorate royal birthdays or the anniversary of someone’s death, protect imperial travels - even to prevent babies from crying at night."

So when Kublai decided that the Uyghur Mongolian script from last time (remember last time?) wasn’t working for him, he went to Phagpa Lama to get a second opinion. Phagpa Lama returned home for the first time to Sakya in 1265; when he came back to Beijing four years later, his brother was dead, he’d created a Mongol puppet state in Tibet, he’d founded a huge gold-plated fortress-temple, and he’d invented a syllabic script suitable for use in all the languages of Kublai’s multilingual empire based on his native Tibetan. Kublai Khan immediately issued an edict, and I really can’t improve on the actual text (scroll down), which begins with the immortal words:

It is our opinion that writing is used to represent words, and words are used to record events. This has been the system from ancient times through to the present day.

Despite this—and despite Kublai Khan developing a whole public school system as a side-effect of his attempt to make everyone ‘Phags-pa literate—the script was unpopular. When I said earlier that it was suitable for all the languages of the multilingual empire, what I should’ve said was that it was equally unsuitable for most of them. Literate Mongolians had gone to all that trouble to learn the Uyghur-derived script already, and ‘Phags-pa provided no tonal notation, meaning that roughly a hundred Chinese characters could be the intended reading of any one ‘Phags-pa syllable. After the fall of the Yuan it went out of style fast.

Except for one usage: truly impressive seal inscriptions. With its square letter forms and simple lines, ‘Phags-pa made any message look official. Don’t believe me? Check out this 14th century 'Phags-pa graffiti, which literally just says, “I, [Name of Dude]”, and tell me that it doesn’t seem disturbingly legitimate. ‘Phags-pa may be the only writing system that survived solely because it had better font design than the alternatives.

4. 15:2018th Nov 2012

Notes: 37

Classical Mongolian script, 1204.

As you’ll recall from the last post, we’re discussing single-invention writing systems in Central Asian empires, because if we broadened it any more we would be here until the end of time. One of the scripts I would be forced to write about, for example, is Old Uyghur, which was adapted from Sogdian and was the script they used in the fourth massive kingdom bordering Tibet, the Uyghur Khaganate, starring scenic Ordubaliq, but I am soooo not getting into that right now. By the 1200s the thing had collapsed anyway, and Uyghur scribes were scattered across the various steppe kingdoms.

The story goes, and we don’t have any reason to disbelieve it, that Genghis Khan rolled into the kingdom of the Naimans (who were, interestingly enough, Christian) and took it over, but was baffled when they dragged in a madman in front of him who had been found threateningly carrying these weird wooden sticks and metal objects. “JESUS H MOTHERFUCKING CHRIST,” this man, Tatar-Tonga, may very well have said. “THEY’RE NOT WEAPONS! THEY’RE SEALS! I AM AN UYGHUR SCRIBE, I AM NOT ATTACKING THE KHAN!”

"What are seals?" said Genghis Khan, interested. "I haven’t invaded any oceanfront provinces yet so I can’t even make an ahistorical pun about it."

Tatar-Tonga explained to the great Khan the way that writing worked, and after a lengthy demonstration, the great Khan sat back on his heels. “Okay,” he said. “This seems pretty reasonable. I came up with a code of law about ten years back and it’s getting obnoxious having to recite it to every new tribesman we incorporate. Can you modify this to write Mongolian with?”

"Uh," said Tatar-Tonga. "I mean, sure, but I thought you were going to behead me."

"Nah," Genghis Khan said. "Actually, I’m historically famous for using people’s talents no matter their origins, though future scholars shouldn’t take this as an excuse to downplay my very real brutality in warfare. Also, my kids are getting kind of rowdy and I’d like them to learn a decent trade before I give them each a huge chunk of empire to rule. You think you could tutor them too?"

Tatar-Tonga did indeed modify the script to write Mongolian, and did indeed tutor Genghis Khan’s kids, many of whom would even manage to rule their chunks of empire for a whole twenty years before dying of alcoholism. While it wasn’t quite as lasting as Tibetan (which is still in use) it got serious play until the Russians invaded Mongolia after the Second World War, so I think we can agree that it had its merits.

Incidentally, the Mongolian-script coin above was struck during Gaykhatu’s reign, Gaykhatu being an Ilkhanate ruler in Iran who, Wikipedia tells me, “was a noted dissolute who was addicted to wine, women, and sodomy”. He’s the guy who fucked up the introduction of paper money to the global economy, being such a profligate overspender that he used this groundbreaking idea as an excuse to print money well in excess of his stores of wealth and nearly bankrupted Iran. In comes a new Ilkhan; out goes paper money again until the 1660s. It broke Rashid al-Din’s heart, not that you know who Rashid al-Din is, but trust me, you will.

5. 03:58

Notes: 36

Tibetan script, 600s.

So here’s a fun question for you on a Sunday: you live in a literate, but non-indigenously literate, society. Your emperor calls you into his office, sits you down under the motivational poster reading CONQUEST, and says, “Listen. We need a writing system.” What do you do?

lot of people had this experience in our period, and I’m going to talk about three, starting with a gentleman named Thönmi Sambhota. Thönmi Sambhota was a classic example of overcoming considerable hardship to reach greatness, particularly the obstacle that he probably never existed, but let’s go along with the party line here and tell you the standard history. The Tibetan empire roared up out of nowhere (well, the Yarlung Valley) in the 600s when a thirteen-year-old local king named Songtsän Gampo decided that being king of just the Yarlung Valley was for people who weren’t planning to be revered as gods. Songtsän Gampo was a genius both militarily and diplomatically; he was great at identifying the thing you wanted much more than war and offering it to you free of charge, like protection for your flocks, trade with China, or Buddhism, but he was also great at, for example, marrying his sister off to a neighboring king and then collaborating with her to conquer it from the inside.

Anyway, towards the end of his reign, Songtsän Gampo decided that Tibet needed a written script, and someone certainly did come up with it—came up with it in a remarkably well-defined period of time. (This next part is totally stolen from Sean van Schaik.) That someone almost definitely went down to northern India, where the Gupta Empire was just closing up shop, and learnt the Gupta script for writing Sanskrit, and we know it was early seventh century Gupta script because during the seventh century Gupta script practically disappeared and was replaced by Siddham.

The script isn’t just a straight theft of Gupta; it’s been modified to work better with Tibetan phonology, discarding irrelevant letters and changing the forms to suit the aesthetics of the court. Despite what the religious histories suggest, it therefore probably wasn’t invented to write down Buddhist teachings (which were mostly in Sanskrit in the first place), but to promulgate laws and the new Tibetan constitution.

It’s possible that this mysterious someone, or someones, was indeed a person called Thönmi Sambhota. This would require explaining a few things, like why Thönmi Sambhota isn’t mentioned anywhere in contemporary records, why Songtsän Gampo picked a rando from a not very important clan to invent a writing system, why the name of the scribe he learned Gupta script from in the histories is literally just the word “scribe” in Sanskrit, etc. Whether or not Thönmi Sambhota was a real guy or just the mythical figurehead of Tibetan writing, though, his system was perfectly adapted to the needs of a growing empire. Tibetan script was tailored to the governing language, but adaptable to others. It was easily learnt by students of Sanskrit, and it was easy to carve onto giant stone monuments to imperial valor. It also completed Tibet’s cultural trifecta. See, Tibet was poised between three massively powerful kingdoms at the time, the other two being Nepal and Tang China, and Songtsän Gampo had picked up empresses from the other two. With a writing system adapted from Gupta and a keen linguistic interest in Sanskrit, he seems to have forged ties to India. The Tibetan Empire would last two hundred years.

6. 02:4513th Nov 2012

Notes: 1

Anonymous said: you muslim or wat

Jewish!

7. 22:374th Aug 2012

Notes: 228

The Banu Musa and the Book of Ingenious Devices, 850.

So during the 800s, under the Abbasid Caliphate, there was a university in Baghdad that was called the House of Wisdom. It was initially founded as a center for the study and propagation of translation, particularly of the Greek and Roman classics, but pretty rapidly the priorities of the collected academics turned to such topics as “but these medical documents haven’t been properly peer-reviewed,” “I really feel the world needs another book of sexy poems about God,” “you know these histories leave out whole countries and if you give me tons of silver I can probably go explore the crap out of those places,” and “look what I can make.” The Banu Musa, or sons of Musa, were three brothers who enthusiastically fell into that last category.

Musa was an ex-highwayman in Khorasan who somehow became friends with the future caliph al-Ma’mun and signed on as a court astronomer. He prevailed on the Caliph to take in his kids when he tragically died young in some sort of stargazing and/or robbery accident, and the Caliph duly handed them off to the university, where they flourished through, apparently, spending huge amounts of money on Greek translations and successfully measuring the circumference of the Earth. (They were scooped to this by Aryabhata, among others, but I do like the story of al-Ma’mun asking the House of Wisdom what Ptolemy said the circumference of the Earth was. 180,000 stadia, the translators explained, proudly. What’s a stadium? al-Ma’mun asked. Uh, said the translators. “This does not tell us what we need to know,” al-Ma’mun said, presumably rather dryly, and dispatched them to measure the Earth.) They also appear to have measured the length of the year and, in their spare time, invented the gas mask.

They are most famous for building robots, though. Some of you are probably going like “WAY TO BURY THE LEDE! Surely the title of this article should be ROBOTS!!!!!”, but automata weren’t invented in our period, like, not even close—they date practically back to the wheel. No, no, the Banu Musa were simply some of many people during the “Dark Ages” casually building robots automated devices for profit but mostly fun. They invented the player piano, automatic Vegas-style fountains, a self-trimming lamp (pictured above), and a ton of toys. Their work was hydraulic; my favorite manifestation is probably the automatic flute player, which worked by blowing hot steam through a flute and was programmable one thousand years before the invention of the Jacquard loom.

This would all be totally overshadowed in three hundred years when al-Jazari and his musical robot band showed up. Watch this space.

8. 21:5231st Jul 2012

Notes: 2

sentientcitizen said: I'm so glad you're posting again. :)

Why, thank you! No promises this time—but I do have a fun lineup and a very strong reason to procrastinate.

9. 19:37

Notes: 33

Imperial examinations.

The Sui Dynasty was started by a dude who knew the value of fair treatment and honesty, Emperor Wen, who when criticized for punishing his wastrel son answered:

I am the father of just five sons, not the father of all people over the land. If I agreed with you, does that mean I have to draft a Penal Code for the Emperor’s Sons? Even a man as kind as the Duke of Zhou executed his brothers, the lords of Guan and Cai, for their crimes. I am nowhere as capable as the Duke of Zhou, so I can break my own laws?

This backfired slightly on him when his second son decided that under these incredibly unfair circumstances where you couldn’t just count on nepotism, it was probably best to resort to multiple murder. I have to admit I’m almost fond of Emperor Yang. There’s something about a dude who gets his older brother judicially executed, has his father poisoned, casually orders massive architectural projects which kill millions, fights terrible and disastrous wars against Gorguryeo (in Korea), and then kills everyone who tries to desperately warn him that he is hideously unpopular and going to be murdered.

Wendi and Yangdi had some pretty conflicting priorities, in that Wendi wanted maximum utilization of practical degrees, and Yangdi wanted all to love him and despair. The historical record is unclear on how the imperial examination system rose out of the edit war that was their respective sets of educational reform, but rise it did, complete with oral examination, written examination, and letters of recommendation.

On the one hand, this widened access to power and education tremendously. On the other hand, this widened access to the hell on earth that is academia tremendously, and put a pretty heavy bottleneck on other forms of success. Students would retake the imperial examination over and over again until they died or passed, meaning that there were usually a few fifty or sixty year olds sitting in the halls. Being a candidate for the imperial examinations was a little bit like having malaria: you spent your whole life having regular interludes of feverish terror, going slowly blind, and drinking heavily.

Of course one had to examine the military as well. If one was Wu Zetian, the one and only empress regnant of China, one does so because one is “afraid of people’s forgetting war.” (This despite the fact that she was in the middle of a series of civil and foreign ones. I love Wu Zetian.) The previous system of military examination involved being “six feet tall and able to carry five bushels of rice thirty paces,” among other issues, and this one actually tested military capability, and began the systematization of Chinese martial technique. It will come as no surprise to anyone that it also involved being able to quote the classics.

The Tang Dynasty improved the system, of course (the Tang Dynasty spent most of its time improving things) and the Song Dynasty perfected it (ditto). These are interesting and complex topics and I am only a small, hyperbolic history blogger, so I’m not going to get into it, but I am going to briefly mention the Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi and his Ten Thousand Word Memorial. Specifically, this part:

In the main the training they receive consists of explanations of the texts of the Classics, analyzed into sections and sentences…. More recently a new method of instructing students to prepare for the official tests by writing essays has come into existence. This method, however, calls for the recitation and memorizing of an enormous amount of literature, and the candidate must devote himself strenuously to this task the whole day long if he is to achieve success. But even if success in this matter is gained, it does not qualify the best student for a position of power, or the less successful for the other public services. So that even if they should go on learning in these schools until their hair turned grey, and give themselves the whole day long to the attempt to conform to the requirements of their superiors, they would have only the vaguest notion of what to do when they were appointed to actual office.

This system has been preserved in the modern day in the American law school.

Wang Anshi’s reforms, more or less, got put into place, and under the Song Dynasty the imperial examination system was a method of developing academic talent totally unequaled anywhere else in the world and is still pretty much unequaled anywhere else in the world. The Song Dynasty was a flowering of culture and brilliance and as long as you were a reasonably wealthy dude from an acceptable ethnic group and what you wanted to do was somewhat classical, the world was your oyster!

Notes: 211