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Tatsuhiko Seo

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Search for the urban history of East Asia

Tatsuhiko Seo
Professor of Chinese Urban History and 7th-8th Centuries East Asian History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

The Eurasian continent from 1974 to 1975

Looking back, I can trace the origin of my interest in urban history and the start of my current research to when I took a break from university and traveled to Bangkok from Narita Airport via Hong Kong. It was early November in 1974, and I was an Asian back-packer embarking on a solo journey across the Eurasian continent toward London.

I was born in a small town in the east of Hiroshima Prefecture. I grew up in the western suburbs of Tokyo, where my family moved for my father’s work. I then attended university in Kyoto. I had always been interested in the difference in the climate and people’s lifestyles between eastern and western Japan. However, it was on the streets of the ancient capital Bangkok that I first saw the world’s existence—language, food, cityscapes, facial features and clothing that differed from Japan. I boarded a three-wheeled vehicle which swerved through the city streets, kicking up water from puddles after a squall. Together with a monk dressed in a yellow stole, I boarded a small boat and crossed a river to tour the Wat Arun. While drinking a bowl of hot tom yum goong soup at a stall on the corner of a marketplace fragrant with spice, I was completely mesmerized by the scenes of a foreign country unfolding before me. It was a completely new experience.

From Bangkok, I boarded an aircraft operated by Thai International Airlines, heading for New Delhi via Dhaka, Bangladesh. Outside of the airplane’s window, the snow-capped Himalayas seemed to continue on forever. The thought of the long journey waiting ahead made me extremely nervous and I could not suppress my urge to pray to the white peaks of the Himalayas for safety. Perhaps it was due to the graces of the Himalayas that I found myself standing safely in London’s Trafalgar Square 4 months later. In India, I first used railways and buses to travel down to Cape Comorin, the southernmost tip of India. I then headed north and passed through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey before arriving at the Piraeus Bay of Athens, Greece in February 1975. At that time, the islands of the Aegean Sea were covered in yellow flowers which closely resembled evening primrose.

In 1974, the Indian Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi (1917 to 1984), the only daughter of Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. The majority of cars driving in India were the domestically produced Ambassador and the Indian government was working to cultivate the national economy. In Afghanistan, it was the year after the pro-Soviet Union government had been established. Beginning to attract attention as tourist spots were the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and Buddhist cave temples that were destroyed in 2001. Iran was near the end of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-1979) and I was shocked at the disparity between the lifestyles of the rich and poor in major cities. In later years, the geopolitical position of this region was fundamentally altered by the Afghanistan Conflict (1978 to 1989) and the Iranian Revolution (1979) led by Khomeini. Before such events, I was able to join Muslim travelers on a leisurely overland journey, crossing the Khyber Pass and passing through oasis cities in northern Afghanistan. Today, such a journey would be unthinkable.

A belt of shared culture from east to west of the Eurasian continent

As I traveled across the Eurasian continent, I felt that the continent is connected by land from east to west, and that there are many similarities among cultures. Of course, it is only natural that I felt this way after actually traveling the continent on foot. However, I never imagined such similarities when I was living in Japan. I was never taught such things during world history classes in high school. The region from northern India to Eastern Europe was a patchwork of farmland and nomadic regions. I felt great similarities in many aspects of the culture. Diets consisted of their staple food wheat and also included dairy products and mutton. Houses were built with a courtyard to incorporate natural light. Towns and villages were surrounded by walls. There were a variety of stringed instruments and musical modes based on similar principles. When debating, intellectuals preferred to use logical and abstract ideas. Between the north latitude of about 30° to 40°, a cultural belt which fused livestock-breeding and agriculture continued for more than 10,000 kilometers across the Eurasian continent.

On that note, Japan is separated from the nomadic region of the Eurasian continent. Up until early-modern times, Japan was one of the few regions where there were no conquest dynasties of a nomadic government. (Although the equestrian culture was transmitted to the Japanese archipelago, the horse-riding nomads themselves did not come.) As a result, the culture fusing farming and nomadic pastoralism which I discussed above did not take root in the Japanese archipelago. This is a major feature of Japanese culture and is also the reason why it is difficult for Japanese people to understand the history of the Eurasian continent.

In the 1980s, I first had the opportunity to visit Xi’an (formerly Chang’an), my current research field, on the Guanzhong Plain in North China. At that time, I began the urban surveys which I am still conducting today. During those surveys, I noticed that northern China sits on the eastern edge of the agro-pastoral cultural belt which continues through central Asia to Eastern Europe—the same route that I had traveled when I was younger. In this way, my experiences as a young man matched my research theme. In Xi’an, I studied under Professor Shi Nianhai (1912 to 2001), Director of the Shaanxi Normal University Center for Historical Geography Research. Professor Shi was a leading researcher of the agro-pastoral cultural belt in China. I started full-scale research activities when accompanying Professor Shi on an onsite survey of historical cities on the Loess Plateau. Currently, while remaining interested in the history of the vast agro-pastoral cultural belt that connects the Eurasian continent from east to west, I specialize in the urban history on the Guanzhong Plain as my separate theme.

Eurasian origin and the old capitals of America, England and China

A fortunate event in my research of urban history was the opportunity to conduct my research freely after being invited to a research center in a university town on America’s east coast from 1991 to 1992. Boston is a condensation of history on America’s east coast and its connection with Europe. In Boston, I was greatly encouraged to meet anthropologists and religious scholars whose opinions resembled my impression of the agro-pastoral cultural belt. From 2009 to 2010, I was blessed with the opportunity to work in a university town in England, a country which is the origin of American universities. In England, I spent my days at a university cottage deep within a forest—indeed, it reminded me of a medieval monastery. I learned that traditional British experience-based historical studies were closely related to continental theoretical orientation and comparative research.

In all, I spent only a little more than 2 years conducting research in America and Europe. However, during that time, I began to feel that the origin of Western academic culture lay in the agro-pastoral cultural belt of the Eurasian and African continents, which was also the origin of Greek and Roman culture. Actually, this impression was in conflict with the idea which I formed during my surveys in Xi’an; specifically, that the origin of Chinese culture derived from cultures in the agro-pastoral cultural belt, and reflective of the impression of Xi’an. Therefore, during my stay in England, I revisited different areas of Eastern Europe on a journey to search for similarities/differences with the Guanzhong Plain in North China. I also visited the streets of Bucharest, the home of Mircea Eliade (1907 to 1986), a Romanian scholar of comparative religion whose works I often read since I was a student. Eliade put forth a theory stating that Eurasian culture was composed of two layers: a pastoral element and an agricultural element. I felt that this theory could only have been born in a city like Bucharest, which is located on the border of Eastern and Western culture. I believed that Bucharest was nothing more than a European version of Xi’an.

From the history of urban networks to human history

I have two hypotheses for considering changes in the urban networks of East Asia. My first hypothesis is that the history of the Eurasian continent unfolded through the fusion of east-west similar environments, and north-south different environments. Meanwhile, the second one is that history’s main stage is located at the border of environments and such borders have moved from pre-modern agro-pastoral cultural belts, which were an intersection of farming regions and nomadic regions, to coastal belts, which are an intersection of land and sea. On the pre-modern Eurasian continent, the core of daily logistics was formed through the flow of goods among north-south different occupations. It can be said that the core was supplemented by the flow of goods among regions which were located on the same latitude and possessed the east-west same environment/occupations. It is only natural that cities and nations were formed in regions with an environment that was the crux of logistics.

The shift of urban networks from pre-modern agro-pastoral cultural belts to early-modern costal belts began around the 9th century, which also marked the shift of transportation networks on the Eurasian continent from land routes to water/sea routes. This shift accelerated from the 16th century, when the flow of silver united global markets. This trend reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing change to every aspect of human society, from politics to economics, military, society and cultural systems.

We are all residents of the coastal belt era which began from the 16th century. Accordingly, we have almost completely forgotten the importance of history in the agro-pastoral cultural belts which were once the main stage for human history. Through my research which replicates the age of an East Asian urban network based on the Guanzhong Plain, I hope to fill in historical blanks and contribute to the depiction of human history, a field which is sure to become the major theme of historical studies in the future.

Tatsuhiko Seo
Professor of Chinese Urban History and 7th-8th Centuries East Asian History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1952. Graduated from the College of Letters, Ritsumeikan University in 1977. Completed the Master’s Program in 1979 and the Doctoral Program in 1983 in the Graduate School of Letters, Osaka University. Served as Associate Professor at Hokkaido University of Education and Associate Professor of History and Anthropology, the University of Tsukuba before assuming his current position in 2000. From 1991 to 1992, worked as a visiting researcher at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. In 2009, went to St. John’s College, the University of Cambridge as a visiting scholar. From 1995, has served as a visiting professor at Shaanxi Normal University in China. Currently, his main research theme is East Asian urban history from the 4th to 13th centuries. His main written works include Urban Planning in Changan (Kodansha Ltd., 2001; translated in Korean in 2006 and Chinese in 2012.) His main edited works include Urban and Environmental History: Volumes 1 to 4 (Institute of Oriental History Research, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University; 2006 to 2013), and others.