“Ancient Egypt and Early China: State, Society, and Culture” by Anthony J Barbieri-Low


Anthony Barbieri-Low starts his book comparing ancient Egypt and early China by saying it was a somewhat off-the-wall thing to do.


Scholars have engaged in the comparative study of ancient civilizations since the enlightenment, and in recent decades they have produced an admirable body of work comparing aspects of early China with analogous phenomena in Greece or Rome. To these scholars, the Greco-Roman comparisons are self-evident, while juxtaposing the politics, laws, or religions of Egypt and China would be to compare the incomparable, like apples to oranges.


To those who follow academic trends less closely, the comparison may seem less far-fetched: the histories of both China and Egypt are marked by numerous dynasties, one following the other, interspersed with periods of internal conflict, in a cycle enduring for millennia. Most other civilizations and polities, from the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols and Inca, have a rise and fall dynamic, measured at most in centuries; the non-linearity of Chinese and Egyptian history can seem distinctly alien. Less profoundly perhaps, but more visibly, both civilizations also wrote using scripts that were (or, in the case of Chinese, are) to a greater or lesser extent logographic.

Barbieri-Low (the Low part is a pen-name), a Sinogist who moved sideways, as it were, to study Egyptology, explains his foray into apples and oranges:


to keep making progress in understanding early imperial China, and to avoid the trap of overspecialization that leads to claims of essentialism or exceptionalism, it is necessary to move outside of East Asia and seek further insight through a reflective analysis in the mirror of comparison.


He chooses to compare New Kingdom Egypt (ca 1548-1086 BCE) with the Western Han period (202 BCE-8 CE) since they “share some structural similarities and convergent developments that make the comparison quite compelling”: both, for example, were centered around a major, flood-prone river and both “conquered vast new territories to form empires, conducting diplomacy and warfare with major peer polities and building a network of vassal states.” The roughly 1300 years between them, is presented as an advantage, for any similarities could not then be due to cultural osmosis.


Ancient Egypt and Early China: State, Society, and Culture, Anthony J Barbieri-Low (University of Washington Press, July 2021)
Ancient Egypt and Early China: State, Society, and Culture, Anthony J Barbieri-Low (University of Washington Press, July 2021)

For an academic book, Ancient Egypt and Early China can be rather fun; Barbieri-Low has a way with simile and anecdote. In comparing the two rivers, he writes of


the dramatic shifts of the Yellow River, which has several times in recorded history swung about like an untended garden hose …


Anecdotes, some of them, seem chosen to amuse. When “the Babylonian king requested to marry a daughter of Amenhotep III”, he was turned down flat.


The Babylonian king could not understand pharaoh’s rudeness and obstinacy, and so requested that Amenhotep III just “send me a beautiful woman as if she were your daughter. Who is going to say, ‘She is no daughter of the king!’?”


The rather more serious point was that the Pharaohs took foreign princesses in marriage as a sign of their power, never sending their own daughters to marry while the Chinese emperors were the opposite:


Chinese emperors of the Han never took foreign princesses as brides or concubines, either from their geopolitical peers, like the Xiongnu, or from any tributary client state… If such a woman were to give birth to the next emperor, she would have exercised considerable power over the new emperor due to the dictates of filial piety.


Chinese daughters, meanwhile


were never permanent members of their natal families, for when they married, they became part of their husband’s lineage… having one marry out to cement an important political alliance was probably viewed as only a minor sacrifice.


Another fun anecdote is of the Egyptian worker who had some shirts stolen. Rather than going to the court, he took the case to the local oracle:


He brought a local sorcerer who called out the names of every house in the village, and when he reached a certain house, the god’s cult statue dipped forward, indicating the culprit who stole the shirts. In this case, the god also verbally named the culprit as the daughter of one of the village leaders, the scribe of the royal tomb, Amennakht … One might also ask why litter bearers of the image of the god nodded when the sorcerer called out the house of Amennakht. It is likely that everyone in the village already knew who stole the shirts, and the oracle system was the only way that they could get at the culprit without going through the court system.


What Amennakht said at being caught out in this way isn’t recorded. This somewhat shambolic, albeit possibly effective, judicial system is contrasted with the far more legalistic Chinese system.


Barbieri-Low has proven his assertion that the compare and contrast method is illuminating; it’s a terrific way of coming to know both societies—the description of Chinese and Egyptian board games is fascinating despite the rules remaining largely obscure—but it isn’t always clear how profound these comparisons are. One, however—that between the two renegade rulers Akhenaten and Wang Mang—almost certainly is. Barbieri-Low calls them “radical reformers”:


They both sought to make radical changes to the political, religious, and economic structure of mature dynasties that were beset with entrenched interest groups… Both attempted a reform agenda based on a fervent fundamentalist belief and signaled those changes to the population by desacralizing the old order and communicating visual signifiers of a new order. And both were undone by overreach in their reform…


Some political processes seem to be universal.


The comparative approach, the benefits of which have been amply demonstrated here, is one that could be usefully applied to studies and commentary of contemporary China as well, where some aspect or another of China is often presented as intrinsic and unique rather than being, possibly, the result of general exigencies.

Barbieri-Low (probably wisely) eschews larger and broader pronouncements, but back in the day, ie when I first studied archaeology and ancient civilizations, there was a feeling that much human invention could credibly have happened only once and must have spread from a single source. This idea, backed up by the reality that some inventions (paper, gunpowder, the zero, silk) really did spread that way, has proven difficult to dislodge: one can find it popping up in discussions of everything from democracy and mathematics to noodles and dumplings. But, as Barbieri-Low shows in this creative and surprisingly readable book, humans, being more independently inventive than they are occasionally given credit for, sometimes come up with similar ideas.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.