Clocks of History (Chinese Dynasty edition)

Posted on Nov 3, 2012

This was something I worked on-and-off in Spring/Summer 2012.  I won’t have time to finish this until much later.  It sitting on my drive does no one good.  If you’re interested in the project, I’ll be happy to get in touch with you to set the idea free.

History is usually represented as a sequential time-line, stretching from the beginning on the left to the end on the right.  As a picture-thinker I have a hard time visualizing and placing in events.  Our visual width is usually not enough to take in the entire span, and if it is zoomed in, I quickly lost sense of the scale and reference to events outside the current view.

When I see a zoomed in view, I get the relationship between the events within the “scene”. I can tell that M precedes N and P. However, unless the history is already intimately familiar to me, I have only a faint idea of where and how far A and G are relative to the field of view.

I would be surprised that Richard the Lionheart is as far away from Shakespeare as Shakespeare is from us, or that Cleopatra is temporally closer to the moon landing than the construction of the pyramids (h/t wonderfuldog on Reddit).

This becomes even more of a problem when different sources or systems of time is used.  In particular, I had absolutely no sense of whether the Tang (唐) dynasty co-exists with Jesus, St Augustine, or Thomas Moore.  (The answer is “none of the above”.)  I really wanted to make sense of this once and for all.

The solution, I thought, was to roll time into a clock, so that each point in time sits at a unique spatial location.  (I first came across a mentioning of this in a lecture by a Catholic priest around 2004, whose name I have long forgotten.)  The challenge was then two-fold:

  1. establishing a useful scale, and
  2. preparing it allaccurately.

I did say bones, didn’t I?

Since history had no beginning or end, the choice of a scale (and thus ends) is necessarily arbitrary.  I sketched out all reasonable combinations: scale of 100-500 yr / “hour” against sliding the end-times from 2000 to 2200.  For the history I’m interested in (where meaningful oral / written records exists), a scale of 300 yr/hr ending at 2100AD worked best.

The outstanding problem is to chart things accurately (and not break too much sweat about it).  I wrote some simple Processing code that sketches out a backbone of the a tab-delimited text file of (i) spot events, and (ii) events with duration.

(The code is nothing to write home about.  It simply converts time into polar coordinates, and draw arcs on the frame.  It really should do more to help the next steps, but that’s what I don’t have time for!)

I could then bring the backbone into Illustrator to spice it up, and overlay different timelines together.  The final output for Chinese dynasties against European civilizations is shown here.  (With the usual disclaimer that periods are fuzzy around the beginning or end; dynasties and periods often languish and blend into the next.)

GDE Error: Unable to load profile settings

The final output surprised me on a few things:

  • The brevity of the Qin (秦) dynasty — after uniting a China which had been at war for 600 years (!), this dynasty only lasted for a paltry 19 years.
  • The chaos that was historical Europe.  It turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to sketch out detail timelines for Europe, since borders, names, faith, factions, and races are all continuously shifting and war was perpetual.  It seems to be more fruitful to speak of defining (localized) events rather than (large scale) patterns, but I’m no historian.  (On that note: pundits jeer at the selection of the European Union as a Nobel Peace prize recipient, but one would be hard-pressed to find a (Western) Europe in peace for 60+ years.  Taking the long view, the period of peace we dwell in is truly remarkable.)
  • The even longevity of Chinese empires.  The “registered” dynasties all have lengths within the same magnitude, and there does not seem to be a hastening of pace as time marches on.  I’m mystified onwhy should lifetimes NOT be power law distributed, given that mass riots are power law distributed (note to self: citation needed).

The future of the project: what I’d like is to move the entire work-flow into Processing, and use Processing.js to make this an interactive application that readers can zoom-in/out, filter, and get access to more details via tool-tips.  A poor man’s Simile Timeline, but with a meaningful beginning and end.  If you want to help out, or take the idea and run with it, give me a shout and I can get the (ugly, elementary) Processing code to you.