Lesson 5) Asia Part II – Steppes and China
The professor rushes into class with a large parchment tucked under her arm. Her robe trails sand into the room but she doesn't seem to notice as she delicately unfurls a very fragile looking map over the chalkboard. With a charm holding it in place, the professor whispers something to the map and it comes alight with soft blue light. After clearing her throat, she begins.
We'll be talking about two major topics this week: the Eurasian steppe belt and China. Now, I'll be very honest: I am extremely interested in Eastern culture, history and magic. However, in this lesson, I am supposed to give you all a very basic overview of early history, so I will have to refrain from going into a long lecture. That being said, once you get to your Fourth Year, we will have an entire year on Asian culture! But for now, if anyone wants more details about any of these regions, I'll be happy to talk to you. In the upcoming N.E.W.T. level of this class, you will have the opportunity to submit a final compilation of what you have learned in the year in the form of a research paper and final project. You needn’t worry about it now, as the difficulty far exceeds what I currently expect.
Eurasian Steppe Belt
To discuss the Eurasian Steppe, we need to first define what a steppe is. Most people are completely unaware of the fact that a steppe is a geological ecoregion. Or, more basically speaking, it's an area that is generally characterized by grassland plains devoid of trees and far away from rivers or lakes. Imagine a desert, but with grass. The largest of these is known as the Eurasian steppe belt, which stretches from Moldova to Manchuria. The belt is a set of steppes that connect across the continent, as you can see below. The Eurasian Steppe has served to connect the regions of Europe, Southern Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Asia for many centuries - millennia, even. For example, if we think back to the Migration Theory, we can now see a direct path across the continent to envision the path they took. But that is not all the steppe belt has done. In addition, it has connected these areas economically, culturally, politically, and magically once civilizations started to rise.
The Eurasian steppe belt can be divided into three distinct regions (or belts), all of which are then further divided into steppes based primarily upon their geographical location. To begin, we’ll discuss the first of the three divisions, the Western Steppe. This particular steppe begins near the mouth of the Danube river and reaches north to Kazan and south to the Ural Mountains. Within the Western Steppe, there is the Black Sea-Caspian Steppe, which as you can tell by its name, moves from between the Black and Caspian Seas to the Caucasus Mountains. The Western Steppe contains an interesting geographical feature, what many historians call the Great Hungarian Plain, which is an island steppe. What do I mean by an island steppe? I thought a steppe was a series of grasslands? The definition given previously is still correct, as an island steppe just refers to being separated from the original steppe, in this case by mountains. There is one more important interior steppe that I would like to point out: the Crimean Peninsula, which is on the south coast, and was and is a major connection for the wizarding and Muggle communities who lived farther down near the Mediterranean basin! Without the inclusion of the Crimean Peninsula in the Eurasian Steppes, we may never have known about our fellow magical ancestors from there, as more isolated wizarding cultures were located in this area.
Next, there is the Central Steppe, also known as the Kazakh Steppe, which lies at the southern end of the Ural Mountains and is typically referred to as the invisible, dividing line between Europe and Asia. However, this division is not only geographically important, but also politically important. To the north of this ecoregion is the Kazakh forest, which eventually transitions into the Siberian forest, but to the south lies the Kazakh desert. I’m sure you can guess how these two extreme geographies can affect the political associations, yes?
However, of all three steppes, the Eastern Steppe is the most important when talking about Asia. The Eastern Steppe is composed of three individual steppes, primarily based upon their geographical location, the first being Xinjiang, which covers the northwestern province of China. In a region now known as Dzungaria, the Xinjiang Steppe is divided into two distinct geographical and cultural regions by the Tianshan Mountains. However, I would like to focus on the Tarim Basin, which is located to the south of the mountains. This area was inhabited by the Uyghur people who practiced a variety of pagan religions. We know from fragments of ancient texts found by a magical historian, Robert Meddleweb, that a large number of these people were of magical descent, which complements the fact that excavators uncovered many ancient artifacts containing potent magic in this area. For those who have been paying attention, this shouldn’t surprise you, considering many witches and wizards fit in with societies where they could attribute their magic to supernatural occurrences as part of a specific religion.
Moving on, the second part of the Eastern Steppe is known as the Mongol Steppe, which lies primarily within Mongolia. Unfortunately there isn’t much of interest to us about this particular geographical feature other than the Gobi Desert, which explains why this particular steppe is relatively uninhabited, with the exception of a few nomadic tribes. Finally, we reach our last steppe in this area, located in the northeastern province of Manchuria and part of Mongolia. In addition to the Tarim Basin, the Manchurian Steppe is one of the most culturally diverse parts of the Eurasian steppe belt due to the constant changes in power between the Chinese, Japanese, and Russians. I will leave the specifics alone, as there is enough history within this one steppe to cover a full year, let alone this lesson!
Before we leave the Eurasian Steppe to focus on China, there is one nomadic group that originated from the region of the Kazakh Steppe that I would like to mention. Generally speaking, many nomadic tribes of Asia do not receive enough credit for their brilliance and innovation with magic, but the Huns in particular deserve more recognition than most. They are often depicted as savage brutes, destroying empires through extreme force and barbaric massacres, which… is true. However, if we examine these acts in greater detail, it becomes obvious that the Huns had an incredible affinity for magic. It was what allowed them to conquer one of the most powerful empires in history, the Roman Empire. But the magical background of the Huns as a whole was not generally well-established until 1978, when our aforementioned famed magical historian, Robert Meddleweb, came across the account of a non-magical colleague named Anna Zakowsky. One particular passage caught his eye, and I have included it below:
“The vicious nature of the Huns came from their ability to perform attacks with such speed and ferociousness that the people of the targeted villages or empires scarcely knew what had occurred before the damage had been done. This ability to vanish into thin air seems impossible, but there must be an explanation.”
Meddleweb understood this account to be describing Apparition, which led him to believe that large numbers of clans and families among the Huns were indeed of magical descent. His theory was protested by another wizarding historian, Harrision Byproo, but Meddleweb has continuously provided evidence after visiting the sites of the attacks that lend credence to his arguments.
We don’t have to move too far to get to our next topic. Still in the Far East, we will now take a look at the magical portions of Chinese culture. In the past, many Chinese witches and wizards had a substantial amount of official ceremonial duties for their government. Most of these revolved around the taming of the Yellow River, or other matters of great political and social importance, which in turn led to the harmonization of much of China during the early days. Hé de fǎshī, a term translated from an original Chinese text, was one of the many traditional names for these servants of the imperial family and court who used magic to stop the river from flooding or for other far-reaching purposes. These same witches and wizards also used their magic to save crops during times of drought. Chinese magic is, much like the culture, generally viewed as controlled and regimented. The religions that were spawned from these areas are remarkably similar to the way magic was practiced: very ritualistic, holistic, and cautious. Because of these limitations, the magical practitioners there tended to be weaker (or overly specialized) than the more warlike nomads to the north. This paved the way for constant invasion.
Jumping ahead to the post-Warring States Period, during the Qin dynasty (and reflected again in the later Sui Dynasty), a council of Chinese elders met to discuss what they viewed as “the magical threat.” This council of elders advised emperors for years to create anti-magical laws and began to even further restrict magic use in China. Magic became much more regulated, the Hé de fǎshī came under complete government control, rather than serving as venerated volunteers, and within 100 years it was completely illegal to be a witch or wizard in ancient Chinese society. During these periods, those that practiced magic were “reserved”for the use of those in the innermost circles of the emperors, and put into what generally amounted to slavery. However, as will be covered in Fourth Year, this is not the norm for the Asian attitude towards magic!
A quick word about your midterm before we close the books for today. As this is the first time you have taken an exam in my course, it’s only fair I give you some idea of what to expect. However, you need not worry too much. It will be fairly similar to quizzes (with a combination of short answer, true or false, and multiple choice questions) but it will be on all topics we have covered so far this year, not just one lesson. If you are concerned, I would recommend reading back over your notes once or twice before the exam (and if you don’t happen to have notes to read, going back and taking some quickly would help as well)!
That's it for this lesson. You may proceed on to complete your mid-term examination whenever you are ready. I wish you all the best and I'll see you in the next lesson.