Saturday, July 4, 2009

How Semantic Technology Unified China in the Qin Dynasty

The first Swedish Rap recording was made by the great troubadour Evert Taube in 1960. It's called "Muren och böckerna", and here's a YouTube video for your listening pleasure:

I became aware of this recording from another song called "Evert berättar" by Peter Carlsson and the Blå Grodorna (Blue Frogs). My Swedish isn't that good, but one day a few months ago the song came up on my iPod Shuffle while I was running, and I suddenly realized that the song had something to do with burning books and the Great Wall of China. As soon as I got back home I started researching Evert Taube and Qin Shi Huangdi, the subject of the original song (whose title translates as "The Wall and the Books").

Shi Huangdi (pinyin: Shǐ Huáng Dì, Chinese: 始皇帝 ) means literally, "first emperor". Just as Julius Caesar's name became synonymous with Emperor continuing to the present in titles such as "Kaiser", "Czar" and "Shah", Huangdi was the term used for Chinese emperors for over two thousand years. Shi Huangdi was the king of the Qin state from 246 BCE to 221 BCE, when he became the first emperor of a unified China. Even the word "China" comes from his "Qin" state (pronounced “chin”), even though most Chinese people are really "Han" rather than "Qin".

Shi Huangdi's unification of China put an end to what historians call "the Warring States Period. Under his leadership, the Qin state defeated one rival state after the other. The Warring States period, though politically chaotic, saw a great deal of economic, cultural and technological growth. Iron replaced bronze, and both Confucianism and Taoism (the Hundred Schools of Thought) developed in this period. The Qin state, however, grew strong because of the adoption of a competing philosophy, called Legalism, which emphasized the rule of law in a totalitarian state. Like Caesar, Shi Huangdi extended his dominion by improving communications and implementing standards. He build roads and canals to link the different parts of China. He standardized the length of axles of carts, the units of weights and measures, and the coinage. His most important acheivement, however, may have been the standardization of the Chinese script. For the first time, the machinery of local governments could communicate with functionaries of government throughout the realm. You might say that this was the first semantic web.

Shi Huangdi's innovations were not achieved by gentle persuasion or community consensus, but rather by imperial edict and brutal force. In order to stifle dissent (not to mention the outlawed non-official scripts), he ordered the destruction of all books other than a few in subjects he deemed to be useful: agriculture, medicine and alchemy, and in particular, he outlawed the works of the competing Hundred Schools of Thought. Those caught possessing any of the illegal works were to be conscripted and sent to work on the public works project now known as the Great Wall of China. In many classical accounts, Shi Huangdi ordered 460 scholars to be buried alive, then beheaded.

Although the Qin dynasty of the first Emperor failed to last more than a decade after his death, the non-political aspects of the unification of China through communication, trade, laws, administration and a standard script have lasted more than 2200 years.

Why would a Swedish troubador be interested in Shi Huangdi? Why would he invent a form similar to modern HipHip to sing it in? Evert Taube seems to be most interested in Shi Huangdi's act of burning "all the books in China", so that "history could begin with him". Shi Huangdi exiled his mother because of some "court intrigue" and Taube thinks that burning the books was an act of destroying history, forgetting the his unhappy past, and thinking only of what can be accomplished for the future. It often strikes me that today we're in another period of forgetting the past- because the internet dates back a relatively short time, modern students often behave as if anything that isn't on the internet doesn't exist, and never has existed. There are ongoing monumental efforts to digitize books and bring them back into view; small wars are being fought over how this will occur and all of the combatants claim the banner of preserving history for eternity. Eternal life was also one of Shi Huangdi's obsessions- the famed army of terra cotta warriors he had made was a product of this obsession.

I think that the musical form chosen by Evert Taube is not an anticipation of HipHop, but rather an evocation of the history that society is so eager to forget. Taube had been a sailor and an adventurer, and no doubt had been exposed to the traditional musical forms of both the Far East and of Africa. I think his intent was to evoke the forgotten primitive past with rhythms that speak across the ages.

We live in a time when the language and mechanisms of human interaction are undergoing great change. We are entering an era in which machines are learning to participate in our conversation. Efforts are under way to standardize and unify notations for the real world concepts and entities that underlie our communication. Success in these endeavors may result in the creation of great wealth and power, and new projections of existing wealth and power. It is possible that we are living in a Warring States/Hundred Schools of Thought period, and standardization of our notations will lend itself to a totalitarian communications regime with global extent such as Shi Huangdi's or Julius Caesar's. Another possibility is that our intercourse will become governed by something like a theocracy, in which texts are governed by a priesthood and preserved by monks. Or perhaps information and its underpinnings will devolve to a dictatorship of the proletariat.

On this 233rd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, I'd like to suggest that a democratically derived and governed semantic machinery for the internet should also be possible. Humans who interact in large groups, such as they are doing in places like Facebook, Twitter and the like, naturally develop languages and syntax on their own, and machines should bow to our will if they are to participate helpfully in our conversations. We need not only a common language and script to be able to communicate with each other, we need liberty to say what we want to say.

Happy Fourth of July!


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