Thursday, April 29, 2010

Eye Candy

Japan: The Muromachi Period

Today's post on the history of Japan begins in 1338 and ends with Commodore Perry's arrival in 1853. While it's perfectly enjoyable on its own, it might be a bit confusing without the previous two chapters: Japan: The Early Centuries, and Medieval Japan. You might want to check these two out before proceeding to today's post.

Also please note that I am absolutely not an expert on Japanese history or culture. If I've made any mistakes, please feel free to point them out. If anyone has anything to add, please do so using the "comments" option.

The Ashikaga was a Japanese family that occupied the office of shogun ("great general") from 1338 to 1573. This time is called the Muromachi period because the shogun's palace was in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. The dynasty's founder, Takauji, rebelled against the emperor, setting up a rival government in Kyoto. Civil war continued until 1392, when the legitimate emperor Daigo II renounced his claim to the throne.

The Ashikaga then tried to unify the country, but were unable to control the local feudal lords. Wars between these feudal lords became common through the 16th century.

In general, the Muromachi period was one of great refinements in art and literature, and of the development of Buddhism as a major Japanese political force. For centuries Buddhist monasteries had grown in wealth and power. Buddhist monks, dressed in armor and carrying weapons, often turned the tide of battles with their strong organization and fortified monasteries.

Flowers became connected to the religion of Japan. "Flower masters" grew, who taught how flowers should be grown in the garden and placed in the home.

The Japanese watch for the blossoms associated with each season, and for a week or two in April, the cherry blooms. All Japan seems to leave work to appreciate it, and even make pilgrimages to places where the miracle is most abundant. Nowhere has another people shown as much love of nature as one finds in Japan, or shown such care in cultivating gardens and nourishing plants.

Another result of the shogun's domination was the imposed isolation of Japan from the rest of the world. The first Europeans to visit the country were Portuguese traders who landed on the island in 1542.

St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Japan in 1549; and by the end of the century about 300,000 Japanese had converted to Roman Catholicism. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders began visiting the island with increasing regularity. The shoguns became convinced that Christianity was designed to pave the way for European conquest and colonialism. In 1612, persecution of Christians began and several massacres followed. Europeans were refused permission to land, and a series of laws forbade travel abroad, prohibiting even the building of large ships. Japan had entered its "Enclosed period".

For the next few centuries, Japanese culture remained static. During the 18th century, however, new economic and social conditions began to indicate the collapse of feudalism. A large merchant class grew in strength, and peasant revolts grew more frequent because of the poverty of the lower classes.

Japan's awakening consciousness of the outside world began in 1720, when shogun Yoshimune repealed the ban of European books and study. The US was particularly anxious to make a treaty and open commerce with the Japanese. In 1853, the American government sent a formal mission to the emperor headed by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, leading a squadron of four war ships and 560 men.

To be continued...

There are a lot of great books on Japan, of course. One that's been especially helpful to me in writing these posts is Japan: Its History and Culture, by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik. There's also a very enjoyable travel memoir called A Year in Japan, by Kate T. Williamson. Both are available in the Hansisgreat Bookstore, or online at Barnes & Noble.

For my posts on other Nations of the World, click here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Eye Candy

The History of Civilization

Chapter Twenty-One: Alexander's Conquest of Persia

This is my second chapter on Alexander the Great. If you'd like to read the previous chapter first, click here.

In the spring of 331 BC Alexander visited the oracle of Amon-Ra, Egyptian god of the Sun. He wanted the god to help him defeat his Persian enemies, and the pilgrimage appears to have been a success.
He met the army of Darius at Guagamela, and was briefly dismayed at their multitude. He spent the night reconnoitering the ground and offering sacrifices to the gods. His victory was decisive.

The disorderly Persian army was no match for the Greeks. Alexander made straight for the figure of Darius in his chariot who was closely guarded by horsemen. The Persian king lost his nerve and fled the battlefield, leaving his army without a leader. He was soon murdered by his own people as a coward and a traitor.

Babylon surrendered after the Battle of Guagamela, as did the ancient city of Susa with its enormous treasure vaults. Hardly stopping to rest, Alexander marched his army over mountains in the dead of winter to seize Persepolis, the Persian capital.

He arrived so quickly that he was in Darius' palace before the Persians could conceal the royal treasury. Here he lost his good judgement. After plundering the city's wealth, Alexander burned Persepolis to the ground in a drunken rage. This completed the destruction of the Persian Empire.

Still ambitious, he attempted the subjugation of tribes on the eastern borders of Persia. He achieved some victories in modern Iran and Afghanistan, but here his behavior became more erratic. He began massacring villages, torturing enemies to death, and demanding that defeated subjects worship him as a god. At every new town Alexander was becoming less Greek and more like a barbarian king.

His army crossed the Himalayas into India in 327 BC. His generals advised against it, and the army went unwillingly. Crossing the Indus River, he defeated the Punjab king Porus; and wanted to press on to the Ganges, but his soldiers refused. They had been in Asia for over nine years, and wanted to return to their homes. The army was also desperately low on supplies and had lost men to starvation, disease, and exposure. Sadly, Alexander turned to go back. They followed the Indus to its mouth, and sailed the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf, arriving back at Babylon in 323 BC.

In June of that year, Alexander developed a fever and died. When his advisors asked who would inherit his empire he answered, "to the strongest". He was only thirty-three years old. The effects of his death were immediate: revolts broke out everywhere, and fifty years of civil war followed as various successors fought one another for dominance.

The same tragic year brought the death of Aristotle. It was the end of an era: the total collapse of Greek democracy. The city-state had been incapable of solving the problems of government, and had discovered no way of reconciling local autonomy with national stability and power. Class warfare had become bitter beyond control, and had turned the free market into legalized looting. The Assembly, once a noble body, had degenerated into an unruly mob rejecting all restraint, voting itself every favor and taxing the other classes to the point of crushing industry and initiative.

It was a sad end for what was in many ways an admirable civilization. Greece's decline cleared the way for the rise of Rome, and its legacy of philosophy would inspire and influence civilization through modern times.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the history of civilization, click here.

Naturally, there are a lot of great books about Alexander. He's one of the most famous people of all time. My personal favorite is In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia, by Michael Wood.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Eye Candy


The world is wide, and I will not waste my life in friction when it could be turned into momentum.
Frances Willard (1839-1898)

Love flies, runs, and rejoices; it is free and nothing can hold it back.
Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Whatever you are by nature, keep to it; never desert your line of talent. Be what nature intended you for and you will succeed.
Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.
Malcolm X (1925-1965)

No one can build his security upon the nobleness of another person.
Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Even God cannot change the past.
Agathon (448 BC-400 BC)

Patience serves as a protection against wrongs as clothes do against cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Eye Candy


A volcano is a fissure in the Earth's crust, above which a cone of volcanic material has accumulated. At the top of the cone is a bowl-shaped vent called a crater.

During eruptions, solid ash falls around the vent on the slopes of the cone, and lava oozes from the vent as well as from cracks on the side of the cone. Thus, the mountain is built up from layers of fragmental materials and the flow of lava.
Until recently, volcanoes were thought to be the homes of vengeful gods who vented their anger on the people below. It is now understood that volcanoes are a visible sign of the Earth's tectonic forces. Most people associate volcanoes with the destruction they cause, but they've been very helpful in teaching us about the Earth's interior.

The Earth's crust is composed of about 20 tectonic plates, which move from a few millimeters to several centimeters per year. As plates move away from each other, molten rock emerges from the Earth's super-hot interior. Most volcanoes are found where two tectonic plates meet, such as the "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean. A few, such as the volcanoes that formed the Hawaiian Islands, are over hot spot's inside the Earth, where magma flows upward with enough force to burn through the crust.

Magma is molten rock below the surface of the Earth. When it erupts onto the surface it is called lava. We tend to think of magma as a liquid, but some components can separate from the liquid to form a gas. Although it is usually present in relatively small quantities, magmatic gas is extremely important because its presence will cause a volcanic eruption. During an eruption, 10 million to 1,000 million tons of volcanic gas are discharged into the atmosphere over a period lasting from a few hours to several days.

Vesuvius the only volcano on the European mainland, erupted on August 24, 79. The top of the mountain was blown off by an explosion, and the cities of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae were destroyed. For more than 1,500 years these cities lay undisturbed, until 1798 when excavations began. The showers of wet ash and cinders formed a seal around the towns, preserving many public buildings and private dwellings. In addition, remnants of more than 2,000 victims were found, including several gladiators who had been chained to prevent them from escaping or committing suicide.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eye Candy