August 28, 2012
What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.
The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.
I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.
August 10, 2012
Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Not the United States, of course, but one thinks readily enough of Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Russia’s astonishing Catherine the Great, or Trung Trac of Vietnam.
These women were rarely chosen by their people. They came to power, mostly, by default or stealth; a king had no sons, or an intelligent queen usurped the powers of her useless husband. However they rose, though, it has always been harder for a woman to rule effectively than it was for a man–more so in the earlier periods of history, when monarchs were first and foremost military leaders, and power was often seized by force.
So queens and empresses regnant were forced to rule like men, and yet roundly criticized when they did so. Sweden’s fascinating Queen Christina was nearly as infamous for eschewing her sidesaddle and riding in breeches as she was for the more momentous decision that she took to convert to Catholicism–while mustering her troops in 1588 as the Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel, even Elizabeth I felt constrained to begin a morale-boosting address with a denial of her sex: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.
May 24, 2012
“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” Dr. Gilbert Hadow wrote in a letter to his sister in Britain in March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it.… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’ ”
The “movement” that Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumor gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis—unleavened Indian breads—that were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the subcontinent. The chapatis were real, but no one knew for sure what they were for. Most Indians thought they were the work of the British, who—through the East India Company—had ruled over large portions of the country for almost a century (and were, according to one well-known prophecy, due to be unseated at that century’s end). The British, who had nothing to do with the mysterious transmission, guessed the breads were a piece of mischief-making on the part of the Indians, though opinion was divided as to whether the breads came from the east, near Calcutta (Kolkata), from the north, in the province of Oude (Avadh) or from Indore, in the center of the country. Extensive inquiries into the meaning of the breads produced plenty of theories but few facts; even the runners and watchmen who baked them and carried them from village to village “did not know why they had to run through the night with chupatties in their turbans,” though they took them just the same.
May 4, 2012
The list of things that Nikita Khrushchev would never be and could not do was long; some of them would change history. It has been seriously suggested, for example, that the reason Khrushchev survived the murderous Soviet-era purges of the paranoid 1930s and early 1950s—when tens of thousands of other apparatchiks were rewarded for their loyalty with a bullet in the back of the neck—is that, standing just 5 feet 3 inches tall, he was the one member of the politburo who did not tower over the man he would replace, the 5-foot-6 Stalin. It is also possible that, had he been a better swimmer, the disastrous break between the Communist parties of Russia and China—the Sino-Soviet Split, which would help guarantee the west victory in the Cold War—might have been averted.
Explaining why Khrushchev’s prowess in the pool mattered means explaining Khrushchev. The Soviet premier came from peasant stock and was working in a mine when revolution came to Russia in 1917. For years afterward he was a minor player on the Soviet stage and a figure of fun to many senior Communists; the perception that he posed no threat, indeed, became a major asset. Barely educated—he had only four years of formal schooling—and hailing from a rural backwater in the Ukraine, Khrushchev was sometimes coarse, often foul-mouthed and all too easily intimidated by an effortless patrician such as the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (who stood 6 feet tall and was a former Oxford classics scholar, Guards officer and war hero). An enthusiast for hopeless scientific “breakthroughs,” such as a death ray for rats, Khrushchev had a variable attention span and a sketchy grasp of technical detail. He was also so ungainly that Stalin once amused himself by forcing his protégé to dance a gopak—the famous squatting, spinning, kicking Cossack dance that demands precisely the sort of athleticism and agility that Khrushchev conspicuously lacked.
April 10, 2012
Few buildings inspire awe in quite the way that the Potala Palace does. Set high on the great Tibetan plateau, against the looming backdrop of the Himalayas, the vast structure rises 400 feet from a mountain in the middle of Lhasa, taking the uppermost apartments on its thirteenth floor to 12,500 feet above sea level. The palace is at once architecturally striking and historically significant. Until the Chinese occupation of 1951, it was also the winter home of the 14th Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of a long line of religious leaders dating back to the late fourteenth century.
For Buddhists, the Potala is a holy spot, but even for visitors to the Tibetan capital it is hardly the sort of place one would expect to find steeped in intrigue and corruption. Yet during the first half of the 19th century, the palace was the scene of a grim battle for political supremacy fought among monks, Tibetan nobles and Chinese governors. Most historians of the country, and many Tibetans, believe that the most prominent victims of this struggle were four successive Dalai Lamas, the ninth through the twelfth, all of whom died in unusual circumstances, and not one of whom lived past the age of 21.