The comparison between nomadic populations and sedentary civilization is widely used referring to insurmountable differences. What could connect awesome hunters with peaceful farmers? Apparently nothing and the history seems teaching it, telling us stories of murderous attacks coming from steppes to raid cities and villages, in an apparently endless cycle. In a really interesting book, The perilous frontier, the American anthropologist Thomas J. Barfield tries to study the subject in depth. He analyses the relations linking enemies incongruous at first glance, focusing on the China northern border.
The writer traces a fascinating history of relations between nomadic empires and China from 221 B.C. and 1757, namely from the Qin dynasty foundation to the finale defeat of the Zunghars. The Barfield’s thesis is really engaging: connections among nomads and sedentary people are so intertwined that only solidity of some can makes strong the others. The steppe-confederations had a vested interest in opposing sturdy Chinese kingdoms, offering peace at borders in exchange of advantageous conditions. Failure to achieve this, incursions would remind Chinese rulers what having unruly, as well quick, enemies meant. Chinese officials, for their part, considered giving tolls to nomads as considerable money saving in comparison to punitive expeditions and campaigns of conquest.
Barfield creates a real theory concerning rise and fall of confederations and dynasties, with peripheral Manchu tribes becoming key players when nomads and settlers are in a period of transition. The writer tells the events punctilious as an historian and analytical as an anthropologist, treating the subject from different points of view. One of the most important issues emerging from the book is the existence of a “no cross line”, that is a portion of territory beyond which none was interested in permanent conquest. Exception to this tacit consent the Gengis Khan’s achievements, due to his peculiar accession to power. After this the story of Chinese northern border became more tangled.
A changing world makes futher complicated the context in which the nomad-settler struggle is rooted. The rail introduction, the trade mutations, the growing presence in the region of the Russian empire, all this provide the background to the end of the last great “steppe-empire”: the Zunghar empire. This subject lead us to the modern era and to questions as the Mongolia role, a sort of cushion between Russia and Cina, or the dynamics that have made the Cold War a stability international factor. Barfield, certainly, doesn’t make mention of this, however his theories if applied to the contemporary world could reconsider the existence of “opposing blocks”, easily identifiables, facing the chaos of an international scene without hegemonic powers.
Of course it’s not possible crystallize relations between States, but now more than ever a clear geopolitical context is missing, where the pawns on the chessboard could be placed without excessive concerns. A context in which to each action there is a corresponding reaction, with a surely risky calculus of probability, but of course less dangerous than the existence of loose cannons straying on the international stage. As every valuable historian knows there are no effects without causes – rendering the loose cannons less loose – but a mixed picture makes everything more complex.