Chinese History

by lsusr1 min read15th Feb 20218 comments


World Modeling

Try to answer these questions without looking!


  • The estimates come from this Wikipedia page.
  • If Wikipedia provides a range then I use the mean.
  • The Sino-Japanese War is considered part of World War Two.

Q1. What war killed the most people?

Answer: World War Two [100 million]

Q2. What war killed the 2nd most people?

The Taiping Rebellion [45 million]

Q3. What war killed the 3rd most people?

The Three Kingdoms War [38 million]

Q4. What war killed the 4th most people?

Answer: The Mongol conquests [35 million]

Q5. 5th?

World War One [28 million] (including the Spanish flu but not including the Russian Revolution)

Q6. 6th?

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty [25 million]

Q7. 7th?

The An Lushan Rebellion [24.5 million]

Q8.9. 8th and 9th?

The Conquests of Timur [14 million]

tie with

The Dungan Revolt [14 million]

Q10. 10th?

The (most recent) Chinese Civil War [10 million]

Of the 10 most deadly conflicts in human history, 6 of them were Chinese civil wars. China isn't merely an important thread within human history. Chinese history is human history.

Western histories of China often focus on the Opium Wars, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of Communism and then the transition to capitalism. Chinese is thousands of years old. Beginning Chinese history at the Opium Wars is like starting a history of the United States with the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Western histories of China focus on recent Chinese history because the most significant direct interactions between China with the West happened in recent centuries. Western histories of China are often drawn from English-language sources, which produces an incestuous echo chamber. If you want to understand human history, the way to do it is by reading histories of China written from a Chinese perspective.

China: A History by John Keay

This is my favorite book on Chinese history. At 578 pages, it barely scratches the surface of Chinese history. But it's a quick read and it can give you a rough idea outline if you're brand new to the subject.

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen Platt

Imperial Twilight perfectly captures the smells and sounds of stepping off a ship into 19th century Fujian. Imperial Twilight feels like Treasure Island except it's all true. Imperial Twilight is relatively Eurocentric compared to the other two books. But the story is so cool I don't care.

The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry by Ji Chaozhu

The Man on Mao's Right is the story of a high communist official navigating the turbulent years following the Communist Revolution. It's basically Wei_Dai's tale from Communist China told from the perspective of a winner.


8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:01 AM
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Can you try to motivate the study of Chinese history a bit more? (For example, I told my grandparents' stories in part because they seem to offer useful lessons for today's world.) To me, the fact that 6 out of the 10 most deadly wars were Chinese civil wars alone does not seem to constitute strong evidence that systematically studying Chinese history is a highly valuable use of one's time. It could just mean that China had a large population and/or had a long history and/or its form of government was prone to civil wars. The main question I have is whether its history offers any useful lessons or models that someone isn't likely to have already learned from studying other human history.

That 6 out of 10 of the most deadly conflicts were Chinese civil wars is strong evidence China had a long history and a gigantic population relative to the rest of the world. (I think it's evidence that China was prone to fewer, larger wars.) To me, history is the study of people. If most people are in a one place then that is where most of the history is too.

I think the crux of our intuitive gap lies in the identification of useful lessons and models. If Chinese history is a useful source of models then I should be able to think of several off of the top of my head. Here is a core dump. I doubt you'll agree with all of these ideas, but I hope it will at least get you a better understanding of how I extract value from this body of knowledge. This isn't a list of everything I gain from Chinese history—just the stuff I get from Chinese history which I don't get from European history, Islamic history, American history, Russian history, prehistory, etc.

  • The three historical figures I can think of who built giant institutions lasting thousands of years are Paul the Apostle, Mohammad and Qin Shihuang. Two of them formed religious organizations each based around a single book. The Effective Altruist community has an interest in creating institutions that last a long time. They should understand how the Qin Shihuang pulled it off.
  • China has unique geography where large interconnected population centers are surrounded by territory historically impassible to civilized armies. You can't find this anywhere else in Eurasia. This dynamic does exist in the New World, but they lacked guns, germs and steel.
  • As a consequence of China's unique geography, you get an interesting dynamic where the empire was challenged not by rival empires but instead by nomadic peoples and internal threats. It is true you find similar challenges by pastoralists in the rest of Eurasia, on the Arabian peninsula and even in colonial America. But in China the distinction between civilized and pastoral was most extremized. You get maximally isolated variables. I think this is one of the most interesting conflicts in history. I draw on ideas from it regularly when I think about grand strategy in the tech sector. Hackers are analogous to the Xiongnu. Tech monopolies are analogous to the empire.
  • China does capitalism well without conflating capitalism with democracy. It's useful to separate the two in your mind. If you're interested in remaking a society then you should have a reference point for how China transitioned from the Great Leap Forward today's effective economy.
  • Nor does China entangle religion with politics to the same extent you find in the Christian and Islamic worlds. This makes it easier to think about conflicts. I feel it produces a better understanding of political theory and strategy.
  • Not coincidentally, the concept of wuwei is largely absent from the Western intellectual canon. There is Libertarianism, federalism and nonintervention, but I don't think they're as well-developed as a philosophy.
  • The same goes for Daoist philosophical ideas. I feel they have a better-developed concept of "the map is not the territory". (This might be present in Indian history too. I don't know enough about India to say one way or the other.)
  • In The Man on Mao's Right, Ji Chaozhu talks about farmers stealing pee from each other. The story helps me understand agriculture and poverty better than I did before I read it.
  • China has the best poetry in the world. This counts as history because most of it was written centuries ago.
  • Western people usually think of the rise of China as an anomaly. China was the global center of economic power for most of history. The "rise of China" is a reassertion to the mean.
  • Lastly, China is on its way to eclipse the United States as the world's most greatest superpower. If you want an accurate model of where history is going then you need a model of China. Robust models of a region usually depend on knowing the region's history.

China was somewhat unified and had a big chunk of the world's population and was more likely to record population levels -- though I'd guess there are huge error bars around the Three Kingdoms War and An Lushan Rebellion. If you control for political unity and population, were Chinese death rates in armed conflict higher than other regions?

The three historical figures I can think of who built giant institutions lasting thousands of years

Why draw the cutoff at thousands of years? And I'd guess recent institution building is much more relevant to EAs than ancient.

China does capitalism well without conflating capitalism with democracy

There were already the examples of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. (One could also consider European and South American states that were right-wing dictatorships). 

Nor does China entangle religion with politics to the same extent you find in the Christian and Islamic worlds.

Christian worlds? Secularism has been important in France since the French Revolution. What about India or Japan? What about Hellenistic culture or Rome?

Robust models of a region usually depend on knowing the region's history.

The question is how much "memory" or "persistence" the time series has. Mostly history is screened off by the present and recent past. You wouldn't predict North vs South Korea by looking at Korean history for any time period up to 1930s. 

I'd like to suggest adding three more bits of information for every answer:

  1. The year(s) every conflict happened;
  2. What percentage of global population those numbers represented at the time;
  3. The rate of deaths caused by the conflict as deaths per 100k people per year.

This would make the ranking feel more relevant and informative.

Mongol conquests happened in China, Central Asia, Iran, East Europe etc. It was a number of different wars over a long period of time.

I haven't read the post, but I thought I should let you know that several questions have answers that are not spoiler'd.

I am 80% confident it's intentional. But that also means 20% confident that it's an accident.