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Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Importance of The Dream of the Red Chamber

An illustration by Sun Wen
When one thinks of classical literature we might think of The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote or Ulysses. When one thinks of Chinese classics the two which spring to mind is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. The third most likely would be The Water Margin. One surprisingly glossed over in the West is Cao Xueqin's The Dream of the Red Chamber, also called The Story of the Stone, despite its popularity in China and Taiwan. My Chinese history lecturer once told the class that while studying in Taiwan the then most recent TV adaptation was the only show people spoke about with it having a popularity comparable to that of Game of Thrones. Dream tells us much about elite lives in mid-Qing China on top of being a good novel to start off with. It combines mysticism with family drama, Confucian and Buddhist theology with a coming of age story, and all in the backdrop of two mansions belonging to one large family. Containing thirty major characters and a further four hundred secondary and minor ones it is truly a huge work of fiction. Although initially hard to get into after the first few chapters the story becomes enrapturing.

Background
A statue of Cao Xueqin
Dream was written by Cao Xueqin and we know little about him. We don't actually know when he was born - either 1715 or 1724 - or either who his father was. Cao started writing the novel in the 1740s and died leaving it incomplete, and quite possibly the last 40 chapters were written by the scholar who formally published it in 1791, Gao E. For years after Cao's death the novel fluttered around in manuscript form before being formally published by Gao. Due to it being written in vernacular Chinese it was more readily received so quickly became viewed as one of the Four Classics (also including Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, and Journey to the West) or part of the Six Classics (Jingpingmei and The Scholars in addition to the other four). A publishing boom occurred under the earlier Ming dynasty and this continued under the Qing; although no more than 10% of the population were literate this equated to millions of individuals. Also a surge in consumption began under the Ming which continued under the Qing. This allowed Dream to become very popular fast. As early as 1812 there was an attempt to translate it into English but it took until the 1970s to get a good translation done by David Hawkes which I use.

Cao Xueqin also had a unique life which influenced Dream. His grandfather, Cao Yin, was a childhood friend of the Kangxi emperor (r.1661-1722) and his grandmother was even the emperor's wetnurse. Kangxi had gone on six tours of southern China between 1684 and 1707 where Cao Yin's household actually hosted Kangxi and his retinue. Cao definitely hosted the emperor twice where each cost him 50,000 taels of silver - something very much in Cao's budget. Despite being a Han Chinese family Cao's family adopted considerable amounts from Manchu custom - the Qing were Manchus ruling over primarily Han Chinese. However, after the death of Cao Yin and Kangxi the fortunes of the Cao family went into decline after they ran afoul of the new emperor, Yongzheng. Their properties were confiscated, they were forced to move to Beijing, and Cao Xueqin grew up in poverty. Although fictional it is widely believed that Dream is semi-autobiographical.

The Plot
Baoyu in the Yangliuqing print 
Dream has no defined genre being a mixture of a drama, tragedy, and a romance. Here I will go over a brief outline of the story and there will be a few stories. The story opens up with a Buddhist monk and Daoist priest stumbling upon a sentient stone which the goddess Nuwa had made to rebuild the sky. This stone was left over from when she was rebuilding the sky and has sat in loneliness since. The monk and priest decide to let the stone experience the mortal world. Eventually we get to the Jia family split between two mansions - Ningguo and Rongguo - in an unnamed city implied to be Nanjing. We get the implication that the stone is Jia Baoyu - 'Jia of the Precious Jade' - and he is given his name because he was born with a jade in his mouth. Baoyu is a very intelligent young man but can be sly, lazy and sensitive. He deals with two main love interests. The first is his cousin Lin Daiyu who is described as an unconventional beauty who is sickly and overly sensitive but caring and very intelligent. The second is his other cousin Xue Baochai with is a conventional beauty, intelligent and refined - basically the ideal Confucian woman. The 'main' plot to Dream is Baoyu's relations with Daiyu and Baochai but there are many more. Eventually Baoyu has no choice but to do the imperial examinations and the Jia family loses their wealth. Baoyu and Daiyu fall in love but he is forced to marry Baochai and anguished Daiyu dies. After completing his Confucian duty by becoming a father Baoyu retires to become a monk. 
Lin Daiyu burying flowers

What it tells us about Qing China
Dream is a heavily romanticized version of the life of a wealthy literati household although Cao Xueqin may have knew this already; Jia is a homophone for 'false' or 'fictitious'. Despite that we can still understand a lot about culture and society during the world of the Qing. Quite often later imperial China is viewed as being rigidly governed on inflexible laws which oppressed the young and women in the name of Confucianism. Dream shows us that in actuality these rigid laws were circumvented regularly. One aspect of this were the civil service exams where boys since the age of five were expected to learn virtually off by heart the Four Books and Five Classics by the time they came to do the exams in their late teens/early twenties. However, Dream shows how Baoyu is secretly reading poetry instead, much to the chagrin of his father, Sir Zheng. Women were not expected to read the Books and Classics but Daiyu secretly is - in fact Baoyu lies to her saying that he's reading the Books but really he's reading poems whereas Daiyu is reading the Books but she says that she is reading poems. Women play a huge role in Dream with most of the main characters being women, some with power, some not. In theory Sir Zheng is in charge of the Rongguo mansion but in reality his mother, Grandmother Jia, holds more power. As Baoyu and Daiyu are her favorite they can get away with a lot. In fact, one scene Zheng is making Baoyu make poems and Grandmother Jia sees that it is distressing him so she tells Zheng to go to bed - which he does. One of the key characters is Wang Xifeng, Baoyu's cousin-in-law, who ends up becoming in charge of the affairs of the Ningguo mansion, conspiring to eliminate women who her husband has affairs with, and is shown to have great respect in both mansions. 

The Jia family is at times implied to be a Sinocized Manchu family and their customs blend Han and Manchu customs. No references to footbinding is mind throughout the novel and people regularly salute 'in the Manchu fashion'. However, they all have Han names over Manchu names, speak and write in Mandarin, and openly wear clothing and jewelry associated with Han culture. This clearly reflects an aspect of Cao's life as his family were Han with Manchu influences. Baoyu's sister, Yuanchun, is an Imperial concubine and for her visit (which happens in Chapter 18) they build a garden for her and they call it the Daguanyuan. Gardens played an important role in upper class identity; one Ming scholar Qia Biaojia wrote constantly how much he needed a garden before he got one. During Yuanchun's visit she bestows gifts on her family which has been hypothesized as being reminiscent of Kangxi's visit. Finally, in theory the sexes were rigidly divided between the men's and women's inner quarters but Dream shows how this was regularly ignored. Yuanchun opens her garden for Baoyu and the household's girls to use together and if anything Baoyu spends more time with the novel's girls than the men. 
Sun Wen's depiction of the Daguanyuan

Religion, Spirituality and Dream
One key aspect of belief in late imperial China is that the supernatural and natural worlds were not as rigidly divided as the European and Islamic worlds. Although they were divided it was not as rigid as that of the Abrahamic faiths. One of the key scenes, in Chapter 22, has been interpreted as a poignant image of grief, an allegory of the inadequacy of love, and a Buddhist inspired discussion of impermanence. Daiyu chides Baoyu for wanting to throw fallen flower petals into a stream saying:
It isn't a good idea to tip them into the water...The water you see here is clean, but farther on beyond the weir, where it flows on beyond people's houses, there are all sorts of muck and impurity, and in the end they get spoiled just the same. In that corner over there I've got a grave for the flowers, and what I am doing now is sweeping them up and putting them in this silk bag to bury them, so that they can gradually turn back into earth.
One of the maid's is named Swastika in reference to her apparent luck - in Buddhism swastikas do not have the same negative connotations that they now have in the West thanks to Nazism. A Daoist and Buddhist brings the stone into the mortal world and it in turn enters the spiritual world after Baoyu does his Confucian duty to start a family. Baoyu's best friend, Qin Zhong, on his death bed meets the death god Yama who grants him a brief moment to say bye to Baoyu and another character is given a magic mirror to be cured by a monk but he ignores the advice which results in the mirror's magic killing him. Baoyu's first sexual encounter, in Chapter 5, is when he dreams of a fairy land, inspired by seeing an erotic painting owned by his aunt, where a fairy reveals the fate of the household's women through poem before sleeping with him. In Dream the supernatural and religious and natural and secular merge together shaping the lives of the characters.

Coming of Age
We follow Baoyu, Daiyu and Baochai from their early teens throughout the ensuing years leading to a plot which ambles along just as life does. After the first volume in particular the plot focuses on Baoyu's relations with Daiyu and Baochai. Early on in the novel we see Baoyu's first sexual experience and we later see this reenacted later on in the same chapter with his handmaid Aroma whom he falls in love with. Aroma later becomes Baoyu's unofficial concubine and he desires to be with her visiting her family during New Year. We even see homosexuality explored in the novel. It is implied that Baoyu and Qin Zhong may have been lovers and due to this they are made fun of by school bullies. Baoyu's page, Jokey Jin, defends his master in Chapter 9 on page 211 in the Penguin edition delivering possibly my favorite quote from any classical novel:
"Whether we fuck arseholes or not," he said, "what fucking business is it of yours? You should be bloody grateful we haven't fucked your dad. Come outside and fight it out with me, if you've got the spunk in you!"
We see this coming of age in relation to Buddhist impermanence as well. Like all youths Baoyu and Daiyu (less so Baochai) are particularly idealistic; Baoyu constantly shows his disdain for scholars and the examination system. However, the pressures of life and society eventually forces him to take the exam where he becomes a scholar. While he wishes to marry his true love Daiyu in the end he has to marry Baochai. This is also reflecting the fate of the Jia family. At the start they are a wealthy and by the end their wealth has been lost reflecting Buddhist impermanence and the sobering reality of maturity. 

Conclusion
Dream of the Red Chamber is a must read whether you are interested in Chinese history or not. All the stereotypes of Chinese culture is present: Confucianism, rigid family values, Buddhism, Daoism, status, and luxury. However, all these stereotypes are turned on their head and shown how diverse life was for the Qing elite. Dream remains as popular today as it was under the Qing. So far we've had around ten TV adaptations, two visual novels, two movies, and an opera. Likely we'll see another in the future. For those with an interest in China, classical novels, family drama, and stories of love and lost Dream of the Red Chamber is a must.
Baoyu and Daiyu in the 2010 series, The Dream of the Red Mansions

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Cao Xueqin, The Dream of the Red Chamber, trans. David Hawkes, (London: Penguin, 1973)
-Richard J. Smith, The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
-Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)
-Jonathan Spence, Ts'ao Yin and the K'ang-hsi Emperor: Bondservant and Master, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966)

Thank you for reading and please feel free to leave any comments. For future blog posts please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby  

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Comics Explained: Cable

Deadpool 2 is out soon and its main antagonist is Cable. This will be Cable's first live action appearance despite the fact that he is a major figure in the X-Men universe. As time travel is intricately woven into Cable's backstory his history is extremely complicated - something in keeping with the history of his parents, Cyclops and Phoenix. As a result we won't go over everything in Cable's history and we'll instead look at some key aspects of Cable's life.

Creation
Cable has technically had two debuts: Uncanny X-Men #201 in 1986 and New Mutants #86 in 1990. X-Men writer Chris Claremont wanted Cyclops and his partner Madeline Pryor to become parents and after going into labor in X-Men #200 she gave birth to Nathan Summers the next issue. Through events which we'll explain later Nathan did not appear again under 1990 as the adult Cable. It took a while for Cable and Nathan to become the same person. Editor Rob Harris wanted to shake New Mutants up by introducing a new character to lead the group and writer Louise Simonson thought a military leader, as opposed to Professor X, would be a good fit. They charged artist Rob Liefeld, who also made Deadpool, to make the new character. He said: 
I was given a directive to create a new leader for the New Mutants. There was no name, no description besides a 'man of action', the opposite of Xavier. I created the look, the name, much of the history of the character. After I named him Cable, Bob suggested Quinn and Louise had Commander X.
Cable would appear in New Mutants #86 in a brief cameo but he would make his full debut in the next issue. Meanwhile, in X-Factor it was decided to get rid of the baby Nathan and they decided to do this by sending him to the future which would open future possibilities for interesting stories. It was during Cable's own series, simply called Cable, starting in 1993 where it was decided to merge the two characters together: Cable was Nathan Summers from the future.
New Mutants #87, when Cable officially appeared

Origins
Cable's parenthood is confusing to say the least. Cable's father is Cyclops, Scott Summers, and his mother is Madeline Pryor who is confusing. One of the X-Men's main villains is Nathaniel Essex, Mr Sinister, who was a Victorian scientist obsessed with genetics. He became what he was thanks to Apocalypse, please see here, altering his biology and Sinister would later seek a way to destroy Apocalypse. Sinister became obsessed with Scott Summers and Jean Grey (Phoenix/Marvel Girl) and his eugenics inspired thinking made him believe that a child of Summers and Grey could destroy Apocalypse. However, Jean Grey was believed to have died (this later turned out to be false) so Sinister decided to clone Grey which led to the birth of Madeline Pryor. She eventually fell in love with Cyclops, married him, and became pregnant with who would become Nathan. However, the marriage was never strong due to Scott's withdrawn nature and longing for Jean, and this became worse when Jean turned out to be alive through the Phoenix force. Before Madeline could be discovered to be a clone Sinister had Nathan kidnapped in order to experiment on him. When Madeline succumbed to the darkness in her and caused a series of events leading to the opening of a gateway to a demonic dimension leading to her death Jean became Nathan's de facto mother. However, Apocalypse learnt of Sinister's plan to use Nathan so he had the infant kidnapped and infected him with the deadly Techno-Organic Virus - a virus which turns the host into a living machine. After they got Nathan back Cyclops was visited by Sister Askani from 2,000 years into the future when Apocalypse had taken power. Nathan would be their savior and they could cure him, but they were unable to return him to the past. Cyclops agreed to send Nathan to the future in order to cure him.
Baby Nathan infected with the virus
In the future Mother Askani feared that Nathan would succumb to the virus so she had him cloned just in case. Apocalypse then attacked and took the clone believing it to be the original Nathan. He raised the clone, calling him Stryfe, with the intention of using him as a vessel when his body failed. In The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix we find out that Mother Askani had the minds of Cyclops and Phoenix sent to the future and placed in two bodies in order for them to raise Nathan. They trained him to use his powers. As the child of Cyclops and Phoenix he inherited both of their powers allowing him to be a powerful telepath and could use psionic blasts. Thanks to the Techno-Organic Virus parts of his body is basically a living machine giving him greater endurance and even regenerative abilities, his bionic eye also allows him to see on more parts of the electro-magnetic spectrum. As he grew up Nathan would fight Apocalypse and his forces, even going back in time to Ancient Egypt to infect Apocalypse with the Virus himself, and he adopted the name Cable.

New Mutants and X-Force
X-Force #1
Cable went back to our present when his clone Stryfe did. Stryfe had formed a mutant terrorist group named the Mutant Liberation Front (MLF) so he could become powerful. Cable went to fight Stryfe and the MLF but as they had kidnapped two members of the New Mutants Cable sought their help. The group brought in Cable and made him their leader, although it would be later that they found out that he was a time traveler. He was particularly interested in one member, Cannonball, whom he found out would survive until the twenty-third century. This led Cable to believe that Cannonball would later become a member of an ageless group called the Eternals so Cable hoped to shape him to be a force for good in the future. While in the New Mutants the team would fight Deadpool who was hired to take them out. With New Mutants #100 Cable decided to reshape the New Mutants into a more efficient fighting force leading to the formation of X-Force the next month in X-Force #1. It was in X-Force where we find out about Cable's time traveling backstory and constant battling against Stryfe and Apocalypse. In X-Force #18 Stryfe even impersonated Cable in order to try and kill Professor X. 

Cable and Deadpool, Messiah Complex and Cable Vol. 2
Deadpool and Cable were never the best of friends
In 2004 Cable teamed up with Deadpool in Cable & Deadpool until it was cancelled in 2008. Cable wanted to be a greater force for good in the world and turned his old spaceship into an island in the Pacific called Providence where the greatest minds in the world could come to plan how to make the world better. Meanwhile, Deadpool had been hired by 'The One-World Church' to get hold of a virus which could turn everyone in the world blue. Through a series of zany events they both get infected, turn the world pink, and then restore everything back to normal (while also accidentally merging their DNA together). After the initial story-arc Deadpool and Cable would square off against one another, or they would begrudgingly work together. It is quite likely that this comic would go on to inspire Deadpool 2. During the end of the run Cable detonated Providence seemingly killing him but he returned at the start of his own comic once more. This led up to the Messiah Complex story which started in 2007. Marvel did an event called House of M which led to most of Earth's mutants losing their powers in 'M-Day'. During Messiah Complex the X-Men find out that a new mutant has been born and when they go to the infant's town they find it destroyed by anti-mutant zealots. We find out that Cable has the baby girl whom he says will be the 'Mutant Messiah'. During this story and after Cable tries to protect the girl, whom he names Hope, from another time traveling member of the X-Men called Bishop. In Bishop's timeline mutants have been murdered systematically and the remainder are kept in concentration camps with 'M' tattooed on their faces as Hope would murder millions of humans. In contrast in Cable's timeline Hope was the one to unite mutants and humans. Hence, Cable wants to protect Hope, whom he adopts as a daughter, while Bishop wants to kill her. Throughout the years jumping through time Cable started succumbing to the Techno-Organic Virus as a teenaged Hope wanted to return to the present. In X-Force #28 Cable ends up sacrificing himself to keep a portal from the future open to allow the X-Force to go through which causes the Virus to overtake him.
Cable's death

Return and After
As always with comics Cable did not remain dead. In the lead up to Avengers vs. X-Men we find out that Cable was transported to the future. There he found out that the world fell apart because the Avengers killed Hope - Hope can harness the Phoenix force which has the potential to destroy the world. Cable returned to the present and beat several of the Avengers, including Captain America and Falcon, before being stopped by Cyclops. Hope does manage to use the Phoenix force to burn the Techno-Organic Virus to cure Cable who vows to protect her no matter what. Since then Cable reformed the X-Force and has fought alongside other superheroes, including having another comic with Deadpool. 
Cable in the Uncanny Avengers
Thank you for reading and please leave any comments. For future blog updates please see our Facebook or get me on Twitter @LewisTwiby

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Karl Marx: 200 Years On


May 5 1818 Karl Marx was born. Over the next 200 years his ideas would greatly shape how people would view and shape the world. I myself am inspired by Marx's ideas. With the exception of a brief period in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in eastern Europe his ideas have been seen as the most, or one of the most important, by people across the world. The BBC radio show In Our Time in 2005 asked its listeners to name their most influential philosopher and with 27.9% of the vote Marx was voted the most influential with the second being David Hume at 12.7%. Today we'll look at three aspects of Marx. First, we'll look briefly at his life. Second, we'll look at what he believed. Finally, we'll look at his legacy.

Marx: A Brief Biography
Marx's Birthplace
Marx was born into a formerly Jewish family in Trier, then in Prussia's Rhineland province. His mother, Henriette Pressburg, was a Dutch Jew whose father had been a rabbi and his father, Herschel Marx, was a lawyer. After the defeat of Napoleon Trier came under the control of conservative Prussia who started enforcing a law barring Jews from public office. As a result Herschel converted the family to Christianity and adopted the name Heinrich over his Yiddish name. Although Karl's relations with his mother was always fractious he adored his father with him always carrying a photo of Heinrich, later even being buried with a photo of his father. Karl was the third of nine children with him becoming the eldest son when his brother died in 1819. Heinrich and Henriette were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, and until 1830 Karl (and his siblings), were home schooled by Heinrich and when they went to school they were taught by a humanist. In 1835 he started at the University of Bonn before being transferred to the University of Berlin which saw him engaging with more radical, liberal philosophy joining the Young Hegelians in 1837. Inspired by the recently deceased Hegel they used his views on dialects, mixed it with leftist discourse and then used it to criticize society. This would bring Marx into conflict with the state for the first time - socialism would become strong in Germany but Prussia itself was very conservative. Marx was forced to submit his thesis, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, in 1841 to the more liberal University of Jenna as his more conservative professors at Berlin thought it too controversial. Throughout his time at Berlin he made friends with fellow Hegelian Bruno Bauer who helped influence his views. The two around 1841 had become atheists and had debated forming an atheist journal.

While at university Karl also became engaged. One of the most important people in his life was his wife, Jenny von Westphalen. Four years his senior she was extremely well-read and got on well with Marx with them getting engaged in 1836 with them finally marrying in 1843. This was aided by the fact that he had obtained his PhD and started writing in 1842 for a radical socialist paper, the Rheinische Zeitung, in Cologne. It immediately came under Prussian scrutiny - Marx said that 'our newspaper has to be presented to the police to be sniffed at, and if the police nose smells anything un-Christian or un-Prussian, the newspaper is not allowed to appear' - and Russia even banned it! 1843 he and Jenny moved to Paris where Karl started writing for a Franco-German paper, German-French Annals, which was largely staffed by German exiles. However, another key figure in leftist ideology worked there as well - the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. It was in Paris that he had his first daughter, Jenny, and he met his closest friend - Friedrich Engels. Both had adopted communism by then - in 1845 Engels wrote one of his landmark books The Condition of the Working Class in England - and the two became extremely close. They were so close that Engels would often bail out Marx and even wrote Marx's surviving children into his will. That same year the Prussian king convinced the French Interior Minister to ban another of Marx's papers and exiled him to Brussels.
An Original copy of the Manifesto
The next ten years were both the worst and best years of Marx's life. While exiled in Brussels he visited England for the first time with Friedrich, saw the birth of the rest of his children, formed the Communist League, and published some of his best known works. One of the most important was The German Ideology, written with Engels, which set out their views on historical materialism. In 1848 a series of revolutions swept across Europe of which many soon adopted socialism. During this time Engels and Marx wrote their most important book: The Communist Manifesto. Short with little specialized language its aim was to introduce the proletariat and working classes to the idea of communism and bring about revolution. However, the Manifesto was soon banned by several states (it took until the 1870s for it to get popular), and the 1848 Revolutions were soon ended by reaction and as Marx had used his own money to fund Belgian revolutionaries he got exiled once again. After a brief stint in Cologne Marx and his family moved to London in 1850. During the early 1850s the rest of Marx's children were born and would tragically die. Thanks to TB and general sickness only three (Jenny, Laura and Eleanor) of his children would make it to adulthood. This would destroy Marx and he never recovered from the death of his children.
A barricade during the Paris Commune
While in London Marx continued writing and once again became a journalist, this time for the New York Daily Tribune. On the side he would organize socialist meetings with Engels and continue developing his ideas. Shortly after Lincoln's election he even wrote to him to tell him how much he admired him. He even left the Tribune in 1863 when the paper abandoned abolitionism in favor of supporting a quick peace with the Confederates. Although Marx did hold sexist views he also taught his daughters around this time to remain independent and only marry if they wanted to do so. In 1864 the First International was formed. This was an attempt to bring together leftists around the world to organize the workers of the world and Marx soon became very influential in it. However, a split emerged in the International which became accentuated after the 1871 Paris Commune. During the tail end of the Franco-Prussian War the Parisian people rose up and established a commune based on sexual equality, universal suffrage, and socialism - something which excited Marx. It was soon crushed through a variety of means. Marx believed that the Parisians had started dismantling the state too quickly and that was why it was defeated whereas Mikhail Bakunin argued instead that they reason it was defeated was due to the state still existing. This can be seen as the first major split in modern leftist thought with those supporting Marx being known as Marxists whereas Bakunin's followers became known as anarchists. During the International Marx's joint most famous book was published: Das Kapital. I should rather say the first volume was published - volume II was published in 1885 and Engels published volume III after Marx's death in 1895. Kapital set out Marxist theory on economics outlining the differences between a capitalist and communist economy. 

On December 2 1881 Jenny, at the age of 67, died after years of liver cancer. The loss of Jenny hit him badly and the sickly Marx could not handle it. Only his friendship with Engels, his daughters and finishing Kapital could keep him going. He was hit even harder by the death of his daughter Jenny at the age of 38 in the January of 1883. Losing two of his loved ones and his own illnesses took the life out of Marx. Eventually on March 14 1883 he passed away. At his funeral Engels said: On the 14th of March, at a quarter to three in the afternoon, the greatest living thinker ceased to think. He had been left alone for scarcely two minutes, and when we came back we found him in his armchair, peacefully gone to sleep—but forever.
Marx's grave today

Ideas
Talking about Marx's ideas can be difficult as many times they have been 'strawmanned' just because of how confusing they can be. Marx's opinions changed over his life and he often showed nuance in his views. For one, Kapital normally takes the individual out of history but in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon he places much emphasis on individuals, in this case Louis Napoleon. Marx himself was inspired by Enlightenment figures, like Kant, who placed emphasis on individuals. Today we'll just cover the basics. A key aspect of Marxist theory is how he treated sociology and history as a science and with that came historical materialism. This looks at how human societies develop over time and by looking at trends in such societies you can compare them. Marx argued that these societies can be determined by their mode of production which is how labor and means of production (how good end up being produced). These broad modes are hunter-gatherer, 'Asiatic', ancient/antique, feudal, capitalist, socialist and finally communist. He never really spoke of how a society transfers from one system to another and Marx did change his view. In the 1850s and 1860s despite opposing British rule in India (although at times Marx had a racist streak in him) he argued that it was a necessary evil to allow Indians closer to socialism. In 1881 writing to Russian leftist Vera Zasulich he did say that it was possible for Russia to skip capitalism to go straight to socialism. Furthermore, he argued that the mode of production offered a base for a superstructure which in practice was a society. For Marx, (and Engels), everything in society from power to the media to the family were thus determined by the mode of production.

Most of Marx's writing is based on capitalism and socialism. It is important to state as well that Marx did not invent socialism and communism - these ideas predate Marx with communism being coined by Victor d'Hupay in 1777. Instead he and other contemporaries simply shaped our current understanding of it. Marx defined capitalism as a ruling class, the bourgeoisie, who owned the means of production and used a laboring class, the proletariat, to produce goods. Surplus value, profit, was then given to the owner - like a factory owner for example. This is contrasted with a socialist or communist system where workers, or the state, own the means of production and surplus value is split equally between them. Marx also saw what was happening in contemporary society and now has been said of predicting the future: Marx argued that automation was inevitable. However, in Marx's view this was more because the tools of production are communally owned and that machines replacing people would allow them to do their desired ambitions. Everything was to fit into this economic system. For one, Marx argued domestic abuse and treating wives as property was inevitable under capitalism - a capitalist in his view saw their wife as another tool to be exploited leading to abuse. Marx believed that as the interests of workers and owners were different this would lead to a class war which would establish socialism. However, he argued that false consciousness prevents this. This is an idea where the ruling group makes the lumpenproletariat (non-conscious workers) believe that society is fine. Here the famous line 'Religion is the opiate of the masses' came into play; Marx viewed the revolutionary potential of religion being changed to keep the masses in line. The last part of Marx's ideas (although he did not coin the term) I want to mention is the dictatorship of the proletariat. When Marx used this he did not mean a dictatorship in the typical sense. This instead was just a system where the proletariat rules.

Legacy
The October Revolution - the first successful Marxist revolution
Marx's legacy cannot be overstated. Marxism has influenced millions around the world in ways unthinkable. The most obvious example is the formation of Communist parties across the world which either brought to power Marxists (as in Russia and Cuba) or greatly changed the country (as in India and the USA). The Communist Party of the USA before the Second Red Scare were deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement, such as CPUSA defending the Scottsboro Boys, and many key figures in American society were influenced by socialism. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers were partially inspired by Marxist thought and at university Martin Luther King did read Marx - although he was more inspired by the Bible than Marx. Marxists have been deeply involved with women's liberation and anti-caste measures in India and Marxists were very involved with the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa; in his autobiography Nelson Mandela mentions how much he was influenced by Marxism. Many national liberation movements were influenced by Marxism as well including Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam - the US in the 1950s lamented that they couldn't support nationalists in Europe's colonies as many were communist. Socialist agitation in many countries, including the UK, were important in establishing unions, minimum wages, workplace safety measures, and even universal healthcare. One thing the British are universally proud of is the NHS - the publicly owned health care system. Today four countries have communism in their constitutions - China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba. Cuba is now famous for its healthcare system, the amount of doctors it has and its high literacy rate. Marxism did develop a dark side. The horrors of Stalin and Mao, for example, lead to the deaths of millions. Many of the criticisms of Marxism lie with these examples.

British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote that Marx is the first word not the last and his ideas have been repeatedly altered and adapted. Vladimir Lenin expanded on Marx to cover imperialism and his view on the dictatorship of the proletariat would be that of the vanguard party. Many of the criticisms that Marxism is authoritarianism stems from Lenin's vanguard party which did lead at times to dictatorships - as with the USSR under Stalin. Rosa Luxemburg (who influences my own political views) disagreed with Lenin arguing instead that the vanguard party would lead to authoritarianism and that elections via soviets should happen. Antonio Gramsci would expand on Marx's false consciousness with the idea of hegemony - he argued that culture also was used to prevent revolution and that it had to be changed if socialism could be achieved. His ideas proved very popular as Marx's modes of production and superstructure did not explain racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Marxist theory has greatly shaped academia. We see less emphasis on 'Great Man Theory' due to Marxist historians emphasizing 'history from below' and certain branches of history, such as feminist history, originated thanks to this. Post-modernism originated to criticize Marxism and other meta-narratives which has in turn inspired Marxist academics to look at their own research. Post-colonialist Gayatri Spivak is one such example of this. 


Conclusion
Regardless if you agree with Marx or not his writings have greatly shaped the world over the last century. Despite a brief period in the 1990s with the collapse of the USSR Marx's theories have remained deeply influential in many ways ranging from academics like Vere Gordon Childe (who coined the term Agricultural Revolution) to the Naxalites currently active in India to thousands who take part in May Day parades. Marx was far from perfect and his views were often flawed but they've inspired millions. Those who have been inspired by him have done horrific things but also many good things. No matter your position on his views it cannot be doubted that Marx and Marxism have been highly influential.


The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Jonathan Sperber, Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, (New York: 2013)
-Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, (London: 2016)
-Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, (London: 1975)
-Eric Hobsbawm, 'Marx and History', New Left Review, 143, (1984), 39-50
-Harvey J. Kaye, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History, (New York: 1992)
-S.H. Rigby, 'Marxist Historiography', in Michael Bentley, (ed.), Companion to Historiography, (London: 1997)
-'Marx', BBC In Our Time

Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and for future blog posts please see our Facebook or get me on Twitter @LewisTwiby

Friday, 27 April 2018

How can you beat Thanos?


Avengers: Infinity War truly shows how powerful Thanos is. The 'Mad Titan' is perhaps one of Marvel's most powerful beings whose powers aren't into the reality warping scale like that of Franklin Richards or Scarlet Witch. This begs the question: how can you beat Thanos? Today we'll answer that question but we'll make it interesting. We won't be using reality warping abilities - we can't just get Molecule Man to turn him into a chocolate teapot or Scarlet Witch to teleport him to the surface of the sun. We'll also be basing our version of Thanos from the Earth-616 (the mainstream) universe in a pitched battle. 

What are Thanos' powers?
Thanos defeating Thor
Even before he wielded the Infinity Gauntlet Thanos was, and still is, extremely powerful. The Nova Corps even counts him as a Category 1 Life Ender, something he ended up actually doing in the Infinity Gauntlet story. Thanos is a Deviant Titanian, a mutated member of the Titanians from Titan, which gave him enhanced abilities to an already powerful species. Titanians already had enhanced endurance, strength, speed, and agility and as a Deviant these abilities were amplified. As a result Thanos can move at fairly quick speeds despite his immense size, (quite paradoxically his reflexes are actually average for a member of his species), and withstand intense pressure. In Infinity #4 Thanos stood against Black Bolt shouting - to show how powerful this is a whisper from Black Bolt can cause powerful earthquakes. Thanos even was hit by Thor who was wielding the Power Stone and just got a nosebleed! He has intelligence to match his physical abilities as well. His mind is perhaps his most powerful weapon. Thanos is extremely intelligent, most of the ships and devices he uses he made himself, and his intelligence passes that of Earth's smartest heroes, like Bruce Banner. He is a skilled tactician as well. Mid-battle Thanos can form expert plans to change how he fights. Thanos is also a telepath, can manipulate matter and energy, and may even be able to use magic. Overall, even without the Infinity Stones Thanos is extremely powerful.

Thanos has minions as well. For our case study we'll focus on the ones shown in the new movie: the Black Order. A while back I looked at the Black Order here and I would recommend reading it to just know their powers, I will go over some of their abilities later though. Corvus Glaive, Proxima Midnight, Black Dwarf, Ebony Maw and Supergiant (who is not featured in the movie) are all powerful individually and can prove to be a huge challenge before we even get to Thanos.

Fighting Thanos
Corvus Glaive about to kill Hulk
Thanos has been beaten and killed several times - once even against Squirrel Girl but we'll ignore that as she's an intentionally jokey character. First we'll have to defeat the Black Order. For this scenario we'll have to fight the Order and then Thanos although the best way to be to eliminate the Order beforehand and even then individually. The best way to do this would be to eliminate the two non-fighting members of the order: Supergiant and Ebony Maw. Supergiant is a powerful telepath being able to control several individuals at once and even consume their mind; meanwhile, Ebony Maw can manipulate minds and even manipulated Dr Strange into releasing the demonic Shuma-Gorath into the world. For reference it should be impossible to manipulate Strange's mind. These two can defeat our heroes before we even get to Thanos. An easy solution to this is to get someone like Hawkeye to put an arrow through their eyes, or get Cyclops to render them unconscious although these are unlikely to work. Instead we'll have to use magic and telepaths. Dr Strange, Professor X, Jean Grey and Emma Frost can be used to distract these two and then we may be able to get someone like Hawkeye in if possible. Despite their intense mental abilities they are mortal - Supergiant was blown up with bombs for example. Black Dwarf is quite simple to beat. He can be described as the Black Order's version of the Hulk or the Thing. He is slow and his head is a weak spot. In Infinity Black Dwarf was defeated by Black Panther and the Dora Milaje so we can simply use them. Like with Maw and Supergiant Glaive and Midnight will be difficult. At the end of Infinity the two for a while, (and with little input from Thanos), held their ground against the Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Captain Marvel and Hyperion (Marvel's version of Superman). In the end they didn't really defeat Midnight - both she and Thanos were betrayed by Maw and that is how they were defeated. To defeat these two we just need one thing: luck. Midnight's spear never misses a target and through sheer luck in Infinity it hit Captain America's shield which made it rebound and hit Glaive. This in turn gave Hyperion an opening to vaporize Glaive. We would to hopefully replicate that ideally hitting Midnight instead. The final one would still be a challenge but would be far easier to defeat - ideally if Maw or Supergiant (or both) were taken out the ones fighting them could intervene or could distract Thanos.

Now for Thanos. He can be beaten in physical combat but it is very difficult. With his strength, speed, agility and intelligence on top of his energy/matter manipulation it will be a challenge to personally fight him. It would take several heroes working together to take him down and even then there would have to be a mix. Strong, heavy hitting characters like Captain Marvel, Thor and Hulk would be needed, agile characters like Spider-Man, and telepaths/magic users like Dr Strange and Emma Frost. Thanos has a regenerative ability but it is not as powerful as that of the Hulk or Wolverine. During Annihilation Drax actually tore out his heart which killed him. We would need to do that but how we do that is difficult. Drax only managed to kill Thanos as he was distracted and Thanos was defeated during Infinity as at last minute he was betrayed and frozen in an amber like substance. Someone like Dr Strange would have to cast a spell to make it appear that someone, like Wolverine, has been defeated so Thanos would not be expecting them to fight back. Then when Thanos is fighting someone like Captain Marvel our surprise hero can spring out and land the blow. However, they would have one shot to do this. Despite not being an efficient regenerative ability it is still a powerful one so whoever does strike Thanos would have to make sure that they could hit the heart, brain or even decapitate him. Wolverine could be a good option; in an alternate reality What if? story Wolverine did cut of his arm. Wolverine has a chance of decapitating Thanos or cutting through his heart. Similarly, Captain Marvel could possibly punch her way through his body to get to his heart. It is difficult to do but not impossible.
Drax killing Thanos

What if Thanos had the Infinity Gauntlet?
Everything would change if Thanos had the Gauntlet and the simple answer is this: you don't beat him. During Infinity Gauntlet when Earth's remaining heroes go to fight Thanos he demolishes them: Wolverine's bones are turned to rubber, Thor is turned to glass, Captain America is killed by a backhand, Scarlet Witch's hex is reversed onto her, and Cyclops is suffocated when a glass block is placed over his head. Thanos' one hubris is the thing to bring him down. After the defeat of the heroes the Cosmic Entities including Marvel's devil Mephisto, the world-consuming Galactus, and the embodiment of Love all went to face Thanos and were turned to stone. One such beings was Eternity, the living embodiment of the universe, and with Eternity gone Thanos decided to become the new embodiment which meant that his soul left his mortal body. Nebula (currently in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie) then obtained the Gauntlet and reversed all that Thanos did. You do not defeat Thanos, you let him create his own weakness.


Thank you for reading. If people like this post I'll do others about how you defeat other comic book characters. For future blog updates please see our Facebook or get me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

World History: The Safavids

A depiction of the court of Abbas I
The last time on World History we looked at the first of the 'Gunpowder Empires' with the Ottomans and today we'll be looking at the second of these empires and the enemy of the Ottomans: the Safavids of Iran. Safavid rule was established in 1501 and lasted until the early-eighteenth century, but despite existing for a far shorter amount of time compared to the Ottomans (which lasted from the early-fourteenth century until the early-twentieth) the impact of the Safavids on Iran was profound. The Safavids were the first Shia rulers of Iran and they happened to be the first 'native' dynasty to rule over a united Iran since the Sasanians in 651. Today we'll look at this empire and its legacy.

Origins
Safavid history is much older than the establishment of Safavid rule in 1501. There are two aspects of this which we will need to discuss: the Safaviyye and Twelver Shia Islam. The Safaviyye was a religious order founded under the Kurdish Shaikh Safi al-Din (1252-1334) in 1300 and it takes its name from him. The Safaviyye were part of a branch of Islam called Sufism - sometimes called 'Folk Islam' by figures including H.R. Roemer - which placed emphasis on mysticism as well as Islamic theology. Shaikh Safi in Roemer's words was a 'miracle worker and man of God combined with a sober, practical politician and cunning merchant.' From his base in Ardabil he became a popular figure becoming the focal point of a religious movement, he was friendly with secular rulers, he became a protector of the poor and the weak, and his convent became a refuge for the persecuted and oppressed. The Safaviyye was one of the reasons why the Mongols in Iran adopted Islam. After Shaikh Safi's death his son became the leader of the Safaviyye and leadership would pass from father to son for over a century. Thanks to them Ardabil became a holy pilgrimage site. This changed under Shaikh Junaid in the fifteenth century who transformed the Safaviyye from a religious Sufi order to a military one. Junaid started seizing land and creating political alliances - he married the sister of the Aq Quyunlu's ruler Uzun Hassan and his son would marry Hassan's daughter. This was important as the Aq Quyunlu were the most powerful Turkmen dynasty in the region. Junaid's son Haydar truly embraced the military side - Junaid had sent propaganda to Turkmen lands in the Ottoman Empire which attracted potential fighters to the Safaviyye order. Haydar organised them into an army called the Qizilbash, or Kizilbash, which meant 'Red heads' or 'Red turbans'. Originally this was an insult from the Ottomans but the Safaviyye embraced it. Under Haydar's son, Ismail, the Safavid Empire would emerge.
Ismail, the son of Haydar and founder of the Safavid Empire
Under Haydar, but possibly under Junaid, the Safaviyye went from a Sunni order to a Shia order. Over the centuries many differences have emerged between Sunni and Shia Islam but they originated about who should be the caliph (spiritual leader) of Islam. Sunni theology argues that anyone who is holy and pious enough can become caliph whereas Shia theology argues that only relatives of the Prophet Muhammad can be caliph. Thanks to this divide the later doctrinal differences emerged. The Safavids were part of a branch of Shia Islam called Twelver. According to Twelver theology the twelve direct descendants of Muhammad who were imams were the true successors of Muhammad. The twelfth imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan, is believed to still be in Occulation until he returns as Mahdi (savior). It is also believed that when the Mahdi arrives the Second Coming of Christ will happen to aid the Mahdi in the defeat of the Anti-Christ. Many Sufi orders also subscribe to the idea of the Twelve Imams which explains why there was little pushback for the Safaviyye adopting Twelver Islam.

Ismail and the founding of an Empire
A depiction of the Qizilbash
We'll look at aspects of Ismail's rule in this point - we'll come to administration, religion etc. later on. Haydar, like Junaid, wanted to become the new regional power. The Ottomans were on the rise in the west, the Aq Quyunlu was being swallowed up slowly by the Ottomans, and the Timurid Empire in Iran was being torn apart by civil war. Haydar saw this as a chance to expand and when Uzun Hassan died in 1478 this gave Haydar the excuse to cut ties. His empire building was cut short when he died in 1488 fighting the Shirvans and Aq Quyunlu. The Qizilbash continued fighting the Aq Quyunlu and at the age of seven Haydar's young son Ismail went into hiding in Gilan on the Caspian where he was trained by Shia theologians. At the age of just 12 he came out of hiding, went to Ardabil to take leadership of the Qizilbash and began his way into forming the Safavids. Ismail was bold, charismatic and had legitimacy. The Qizilbash were loyal to any son of Haydar, although this did not stop them from using his brothers as pawns before their deaths, and Ismail himself had political and spiritual legitimacy. He was the grandson of the Aq Quyunlu leader Uzun Hassan whose wife was the daughter of the King of Trebizond. As a direct descendant of Safi al-Din he got spiritual legitimacy but according to one lineage Safi al-Din was a descendant of the first Twelve Imams and the fourth of the Rashidun (see here) Ali. Regardless if this was true Ismail claimed this legacy once stating: I am God's mystery. I am the leader of all these ghazi warriors. My mother is Fatima, my father is Ali; and I am the pir [leader] of the Twelve Imams. He also came out of hiding at the turn of a new century; something later Safavid historians claimed was being symbolically linked to the Mahdi and linked to the phrase 'God sends at the beginning of every century someone to renew the faith'. Ismail himself even claimed that he was a Mahdi.
The Safavids under Ismail
Within nine years Ismail had created a new empire. Ismail first turned his attention onto the Shirvans and their ruler, the Shirvanshah, who had killed his father. With their defeat the booty from the war strengthened his role among his Turkmen tribal followers. With the defeat of the Shirvans he took on the Aq Quyunlu conquering them in 1501. Quite curiously Ismail took the Aq Quyunlu capital of Tabriz as his capital - something possibly due to its geographic location and to stress his own ties with the Aq Quyunlu aristocracy. Ismail then looked east to the Timurids in the rest of Iran and Central Asia. In 1507 the Timurid capital of Herat in modern Afghanistan was captured and by 1510 he had expanded into Uzbekistan. In such a small amount of time basically a child had created an empire covering the entirety of Iran (something important later on), Iraq, eastern Anatolia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Soon hubris would lead to nemesis. In 1511 a pro-Safavid uprising took place in Ottoman Anatolia which led to war when Sultan Selim I overthrew his father Bayezid II who had done little to stop the uprising. In 1514 Ismail fought the Ottomans at the Battle of Chaldiran and suffered a devastating defeat. Offsetting the idea of the 'Gunpowder Empires' the Safavids had used traditional weaponry while the Ottomans used muskets. It was a slaughter. Selim went on to capture Tabriz and only left thanks to a revolt from his own janissaries. By the end of the war Ismail had lost eastern Anatolia and his Arabic lands. However, the psychological impact on Ismail was staggering. Venetian diplomat Caterino Zeno wrote that 'If the Turks had been beaten in the battle of Chaldiran, the power of Ismail would have become greater than that of Tamerlane, as by the fame alone of such a victory he would have made himself absolute lord of the East.' Ismail knew this and the humiliation of the war left him in disarray. Making matters worse was the the Ottomans were a Sunni power as well. For the rest of his reign he let his viziers rule but as Ismail had centered administration around himself things started to fall apart until he died at a young age (aged 36) in 1524. His son, Tahmasp, was left to pick up the pieces.

Administration and Governance
Throughout Safavid rule the Qizilbash remained important acting as the Safavid version of the Ottoman janissaries. When not fighting they often served as administrators and like with the janissaries they were not of the same cultural and ethnic group as the rest of the empire. Instead of being Iranian the Qizilbash were often Turkmens, Kurdish and later Caucasian; by the end of the dynasty Caucasians had replaced Turkmens as the main group which comprised the Qizilbash. The Qizilbash became both something which benefited the Safavids and something which hindered them. They often provided the backbone of the administration and also under Ismail the aristocracy but then they became too powerful. Qizilbash factionalism under Ismail's later reign and under Tahmasp threatened to tear apart the empire and often they warred against tribes for power and land. Tahmasp once wrote 'For years I was forced patiently to watch the bloodshed between the tribes and I tried to see what was the will of God in these events'. Occasionally when shahs tried to replace administrators with Persians the Qizilbash had them assassinated. To try and offset Qizilbash power starting under Ismail the royal family married Iranians and creating a slave army similar to the janissaries called the ghulam. The ghulam were taken from captured Georgians and Circassians. Although the Qizilbash did remain powerful and factionalism after a series of short reigns after the death of Tahmasp in 1570 (as well as foreign invasions) threatened to tear the empire apart. When Abbas I took the throne via a coup in 1588 through force he brought the Qizilbash into line - when one clan, the Nuqtavi, became too powerful and caused an issue where it was believed that they would seize the throne he did a mock coronation in 1594 before executing them by firing squad and personally beheading the order's leading poet.
Pari Khan Khanum
The shah in theory ruled absolute as monarchs did worldwide but as we've seen their power could be challenged. They often ruled with a grand vizier who could rule in their own right when the shah was indisposed through war or refuge - Ismail's vizier Mirza Shah Husayn became very powerful before his assassination due to his proximity to the defeated shah. It was possible for women to hold sway as well, especially after the Second Civil War in 1576. Tahmasp's daughter, Pari Khan Khanum, in particular gained prominence. A Circassian on her mother's side, showing the displacement of the old elite, she was extremely well read, sophisticated and was a great patron of Shia shrines. Due to her own skill and intelligence she got her brother to become shah in 1576 becoming Ismail II. However, she held the real power - her brother largely did as she wanted. When Ismail mysteriously died she too followed him to the grave in 1578 and another woman managed to gain power. Khayr al-Nesa was the wife of Ismail's blind brother Muhammad Khodabande. She was not of Turkmen origin and was supported by her kin from the Mazandaran region along the Caspian and the Persian-Tajik elements in the administration. Palace intrigue saw her strangled in the imperial harem in 1578 which caused outrage and another wave of fighting. There are two aspects of Safavid rule we have yet to discuss: religion and tribes/ethnicity. These shall have their own points.

Religion
Religion was a key component of Safavid rule - so much so that the mujtahid (those capable to exercise Islamic law) managed to became a class in of themselves holding land and governmental posts. However, the religious leaders could not touch secular law. The Safavid shahs were very keen to spread Shia Islam, especially compared to the Ottomans and Mughals. The Safavids largely ruled over Muslims whereas the Ottomans ruled over Muslims, Jews, and Christians as the Mughals ruled over mainly Hindus. Early on the Safavids wanted to enforce Shia in their empire, Ismail himself invited clerical families from Jabal 'Amil in Lebanon to come form a ulema (religious body of scholars). The most influential, 'Ali al-Karaki al-'Amili, arrived in Najaf, Iraq in 1504. Ismail destroyed Sunni mosques, had people denounce the first three caliphs, had mosques adopt Shia aspects of worship, and encouraged Shia Muslims to come to Iran. To get into administration you had to go to a madras (religious college) and to get into one you had to be Shia. Quite often Shia Islam was equated with Sufism to allow the general masses to more easily convert as it was less of a change in doctrine for them. Ismail's great-grandson, Abbas I, loathed Sunni Muslims and enforced conversion. By his death in 1629 most had converted. Today the reason why Iran and Iraq are mostly Shia is due to the Safavids. There were pushback though from non-Shia against these conversions; one of the reasons why the Uzbeks continuously revolted was due to this. Nevertheless Shia became a way to legitimize yourself - those in the royal family who wanted to become legitimate often patronized Shia shrines. 

Ethnicity, Tribe and Culture
One key aspects of Safavid rule was that they were the first Iranian group to rule a united Iran (sometimes called Persia) since the rise of Islam. They had either been ruled by Arabs, Turks, or Mongols until 1501. The empire - and today's Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan - was incredibly diverse having Iranians, Arabs, Kurds, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and many other ethnicities lived within the empire. One key aspect to the constant troubles Safavid shahs had were the tribes. Ismail had taken over from decentralized empires which gave the tribes vast amounts of power and after the shahs relied on tribes for military means. The Safavids would continuously face issues with different groups trying to exert their own autonomy or independence during times of trouble. During the Qizilbash Civil Wars the Uzbeks tried to break off and at times were successful. Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, the ruling elite were Iranian and had large amounts of Caucasians and Circassians mixed in. We'll look at this later when we look at Safavid arts but the Safavids were heavy patrons of Persian identity. While it was common for other Muslim rulers to write in the style of their enemies - Selim I of the Ottomans wrote many poems in Persian - the Safavids were more reluctant to do so. Ismail wrote primarily in Persian and Azerbaijani as an example. However, ruling over a multi-ethnic empire they would often write in other languages. Persian was the primary language the Safavids focused on with it being spoke in court, schools, colleges and the administration. 

Abbas I
An Italian painting of Abbas I
Abbas I (r.1588-1629), sometimes called Abbas the Great, saw what has been described by Stephen Dale as the 'Safavid Renaissance'. Upon seizing the throne he managed to quell the Qizilbash and centralized rule under himself - something he managed to do thanks to a particularly violent streak in him. In 1598 he invited English brothers Robert and Anthony Sherley to his court in order to use ideas from Europe. These included implementing gunpowder into the army creating formations of musketeers and artillery and reducing the power of the Qizilbash emirs. Ghulam slave elites were put in place paid from the treasury instead of the old revenue assignments under the control of the tribal leaders. To pay for this more provinces were put into royal hands and he started marrying (or have his children married into) Georgian, Armenian and Circassian families. All of these reforms centralized his rule and started breaking the feudal power of both the Qizilbash and tribal leaders. In 1598 Abbas moved the capital from Tabriz to Isfahan which remained the Safavid capital until 1722 and became a center of culture and learning for a century. The centerpiece was the Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (The Image of the World Square) where a madras was built, a grand mosque named the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque, and the Maydan, a great square measuring 83,000 square meters (second in size only to Tiananmen Square). Each side of the Mayden had something special: the royal bazaar to the north, the Ali Qapu Palace to the west, the Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque to the east, and the Royal Mosque to the south. The rest of the Maydan was filled with smaller bazaars, markets and spectacles. An English visitor, Thomas Herbert, in the 1620s said 'The Maydan is without doubt as spacious, pleasant and aromatic a market as any in the universe. It is a thousand paces from North to South, and from East to West above two hundred, resembling our Exchange, or the Palace-Royal in Paris, but six times larger'. Abbas also expanded the empire's land without the aid of the Qizilbash retaking eastern Iraq, Baghdad and the Caucasus from the Ottomans, and Bahrain and Hormuz from Portugal.
The Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan today


The Arts
An image from the Shahnama
Even before the reign of Abbas the Safavid Empire was known for the arts. Ismail himself wrote many poems and today we only have access to half of those he wrote in Persian. Carpets, textiles, metalworks, jeweled wine cups, lather and lacquer book-binding and illuminated manuscripts all became associated with Iran under the reigns of Ismail and Tahmasb. Ismail himself revived the Tabriz scriptorum and patronized those who were interested in Persian literature. For one, he had a new copy of the Shahnama (Book of Kings) commissioned for Tahmasb. A 70,000 couplet long poem by Firdausi (d.1010) it is the Persian version of The Canterbury Tales, Romance of the Three Kingdoms or the Bhagavad Gita. Most importantly it is a story about how the pre-Islamic Iranian leaders fought their Turkic enemies who had usurped the Persian crown. This commission took until the 1530s to finish and featured 258 large-scale paintings of the poem's events. Even under the fragile rule of Tahmasp the arts flourished where even the Ottoman elite eagerly wanted Safavid arts. Tahmasp even personally sent art to the Ottoman sultan Selim II in order to keep the peace. Abbas oversaw the 'Safavid Renaissance' seeing an explosion of cosmopolitanism and arts. European and Indian merchants eagerly sought lucrative employment in Iranian markets. Porcelain similar to that of Ming China was being produced which managed to make its way to Amsterdam and Nagasaki. Carpet weaving became popular as well - there is a reason why we specifically say 'Persian rugs'.

Foreign Contacts
Iran has always had contacts with the wider world - after all it is one of the key points of the Silk Road which continued under the Safavids. By the time the Safavids rose to power Europeans started exploring the world and the Mughals were on the verge of taking power in northern India. Unlike the Ottomans in the west the Safavid-Mughal rivalry was far less intense with it centering on the key trading city of Kandahar in modern Afghanistan. When the Mughals were briefly ousted they sought refuge in Safavid Iran under Tahmasb. Specifically under Abbas trade was vibrant with India. Meanwhile, Europeans were also coming onto the scene. As early as 1507 Portugal had established themselves on the island of Hormuz but the Safavids always resented their presence. Later when the English and Dutch arrived the Safavids were willing to make contact inviting them to court. At this stage Iran and the West were equal in power so the Europeans were more respectful compared to what they would be just a century later. Safavid merchants were eager to get access to European goods and actively engaged with the English and Dutch East Indian Companies. They liked the English so much that when England took Hormuz from Portugal Abbas allowed them to keep it. By the nineteenth century this Iranian-European relationship would become vastly different.

Collapse
The big question is why did the Safavids collapse not even a century after the strength of Abbas' rule? Originally historians put the collapse down to a steady decline after the death of Abbas II in 1666 and although this is true it needs nuance. After the death of Abbas his heirs continued the centralization and art projects still continued to flourish. Even the loss of Baghdad and Iraq again to the Ottomans in 1638 did not fully cause a collapse - Gene Garthwaithe has even argued that this strengthened the Persian element of the empire by removing most of the Arab population. After Abbas II his son Suleiman ruled for almost thirty years overseeing a period of peace, stability, and even opening ties with Denmark. Under Suleiman (and to an extent Abbas) the seeds of collapse were sown. Both had invested heavily to stop factionalism at court and the harem and had given more power to the ulama. When Suleiman died in 1694 his son Husayn heavily promoted Twelver Shiism giving lots of influence to the cleric Muhammad Baqir Majlisi. Although this produced classical pieces of art, like the Madrasa of Chahar Bagh, he ended up alienating huge sections of society. Sufis were expelled from Isfahan, Sunnis were pressured to convert (something not pushed since Abbas I's early reign) and non-Muslims (largely Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) were also forced to convert. The Christian Armenians had special economic roles which became threatened by these reforms. Soon enough uprisings took place where a Ghazali tribal leader, who had already once been captured, in 1709 took Kandahar. Soon enough other uprisings happened, including a Kurdish uprising, which became worse through attacks from Russia and Oman. In 1721 Afghan forces laid siege to Isfahan for seven months causing widespread famine and fuel shortages until the shah surrendered. Four years later they were massacred to ensure that they could no longer be restored. The Safavids were briefly restored by a general and former slave Nader Quli Beg who has been called one of the greatest Iranian generals. He initially ruled through the last shahs before deposing Abbas III and declaring himself Nader Shah. His dynasty did not last and in 1779 was deposed by a Qizilbash tribe under Agha Muhammad Khan who would form the Qajar dynasty which would last until 1924.
Nader Shah

Conclusion
Despite being for more short lived compared to the Ottomans the Safavids played a key role in particularly Iranian history. Their reforms, especially under Abbas I, transformed the region from a tribal and feudal economy to that one that can be described as an 'early modern' economy. The explosion of art helped create a clearly defined Persian identity which went on to shape how Iran perceived itself in the future. The adoption of Shia Islam has greatly influenced the region as well - to this day Iran and Iraq have majority Shia populations. Even the large Armenian and Cicassian minorities in both countries are thanks to he Safavid Empire. Safavid rule helped define Iran's borders, its people, and its language. It was the last time Iran played such a huge role in the world and being so strong until the present day. It is no surprise that when the Islamic Republic was formed that they left Safavid names in towns and cities while they changed the names of places which were named after the Qajars and Pahlavis. The Safavids left a long lasting legacy on Iran.

Thank you for reading. The next World History post will be about the final one of the Gunpowder Empires: the Mughals. The sources I have used are as follows:
-Stephen F. Dale, The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
-Sussan Babaie, 'Persia: The Safavids, 1501-1722', in Jim Masselos, The Great Empires of Asia, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010)
-Gene R. Garthwaite, The Persians, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005)
-Charles Melville, (ed.), Safavid Persia: The History and Politics of an Islamic Society, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009)
-Peter Jackson and Laurence Lockhart, (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 6: The Timurid and Safavid Periods, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)
-Rudi Matthee, Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan, (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2012)

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