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Size Differences between Chinese and Europeans

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    Posted: 14 Oct 2011 at 21:02

My question: When did Westerners begin to view Asian people, particularly Chinese, as smaller than Europeans? Did Marco Polo, for example, comment on the stature of any groups of people that he encountered? I know that he described the Mongolian Kublai Khan as not too tall and not too short, but of medium height and with a substantial girth. I have read that certain populations in Northern China were comparable in height or taller than most European groups.

Historical accounts of the Chinese in America in the 19th century indicate that Chinese were smaller than European-descended people. One source listed the average height of Chinese in the American West as 4'11" in the 1850s. I've also seen anthropological studies measuring skeletal long bones which indicated that Chinese have been shorter on average than most European populations for the past two thousand years, but the difference was minimal until about the 19th and 20th centuries. 

If Marco Polo did not comment on the stature of Asians, were there other early Western chroniclers who noted the size of the inhabitants of Asia?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Zagros Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 14 Oct 2011 at 23:49
Malnutrition stunts growth.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TAT Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 00:13
Absolutely right about malnutrition. But are there records or narratives observing size differences between Asians and Europeans prior to the 19th century?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 02:04
The differences in height are not between "Asians" and "Europeans" but between "East Asians" and "Northern Europeans". Let's be precise about this. Southern Europeans has been historically shorter than northern Europeans, and not all Asians belong to the same race at all.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TAT Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 02:30
OK, Pinguin. Although the long-bone study I mentioned included southern Europeans, and all Europeans (except for Italians for a brief period) were slightly taller than East Asians. Do you know of any chroniclers who observed this phenomenon prior to the 19th century?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 02:35
Not really. But I could bet there is a genetic factor on size differences, and not only nutrition. You can see in Africa quite tall people starving, for instance. East Asians, Inuits, Amerindians and other mongolian races are genetically smaller (in average) than Northern Europeans.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Al Jassas Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 04:11
Originally posted by pinguin pinguin wrote:

Not really. But I could bet there is a genetic factor on size differences, and not only nutrition. You can see in Africa quite tall people starving, for instance. East Asians, Inuits, Amerindians and other mongolian races are genetically smaller (in average) than Northern Europeans.
 
You are wrong about Amerindians. Amerindians are on average taller, much taller than europeans especially when the latters reached America. In all descriptions of Amerindians (especially North American Indians) europeans describe their great size and slim build.
 
Now for the Chinese and europeans. Untill the 19th century height difference was to the side of the europeans but only with a few centimeters in difference. However due to the lower hygene standards in europe the frequency of fully healthy tall people there was higher than in China who had a much lower child mortality/child sickness rate. So selectivity was generally better in europe than in China. Add to that malnutrition which lead to europeans actually being smaller than what they used to be before the Napoleonic wars if I am not mistaken.
 
Meats and cheases were not as consumed as they were used before or since. Indeed Holland, the worlds tallest country today, was in fact the europe's shortest back in the 1830s (according to army data). Better personal and public hygiene, the immense increase in the  consumption of milk (not usually consumed in China) and especially cheeses starting with the newly formed national primary schools all lead to better life for the europeans and a gradual increase in height. Remember europeans had height genes in their bloods (since their nomadic ancestors were indeed taller than the 18th century european) and those environmental factors triggered their growth.
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ramesh V.Naivaruni Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 07:12
The Size has got to do with Genetics than Malnutrition. Infact even colour, there are several similarities between Japanese and Chinese except for colour which could be due to climatic conditions.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Zagros Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 11:06
Al Jassas is absolutely right.  I've also been to China and it seemed like everyone was half my height (exaggeration, but that's how it felt), except the wealthy businessmen I was dealing with who seemed average in height by British standards.

And also you have to look at medieval armour and even Victorian clothing to actually appreciate how tiny people were then compared to today and the variance to modern day is clearly not genetic in these cases.


Edited by Zagros - 15 Oct 2011 at 11:10
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 12:15
Originally posted by Al Jassas Al Jassas wrote:

 
You are wrong about Amerindians. Amerindians are on average taller, much taller than europeans especially when the latters reached America. In all descriptions of Amerindians (especially North American Indians) europeans describe their great size and slim build.


South American Amerindians are usually smaller than Europeans. But you are right. North American Indians were described as taller than Europeans.
 
 
Originally posted by Al Jassas Al Jassas wrote:


Meats and cheases were not as consumed as they were used before or since. Indeed Holland, the worlds tallest country today, was in fact the europe's shortest back in the 1830s (according to army data). Better personal and public hygiene, the immense increase in the  consumption of milk (not usually consumed in China) and especially cheeses starting with the newly formed national primary schools all lead to better life for the europeans and a gradual increase in height. Remember europeans had height genes in their bloods (since their nomadic ancestors were indeed taller than the 18th century european) and those environmental factors triggered their growth.


I repeat. Not all Europeans are the same height (in average). Peoples like the Scandinavians tends to be the taller, but Southern Spanish, Italians and Slavs can be quite short.



Edited by pinguin - 15 Oct 2011 at 12:16
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote xristar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 13:08
Nutrition plays a huge role in height. That's not a theory. I was looking back a few years a Greek Army book of the late '70s or early '80s, which showed average soldier heights by area and through several decades. Afew things were evident:
-soldiers born during the German occupation (1941-1944) when Greece was under famine, were considerably shorter (several centimeters' sudden drop) than the soldiers born in the '30s, and soldiers born after the war.
-soldiers from urban areas (Athens, Salonica) were also considerably (IIRC up to almost 10 centimeters) taller compared to soldiers from rural areas, particularly the poor ones.

These examples are valuable because they show that the average height of a genetically identical population could vary significantly simply because of changes to wealth (ie nutrition)
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote pinguin Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 13:18
True, but in optimal conditions you still see differences in height due to genetics.
Now, I wonder if to be taller is good for anything, except basketball.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote drgonzaga Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 15:06
Shades of Frederick of Prussia and his search for tall grenadiers! Yes, genetics and diet are intertwined here but let us face facts and accept that the play revolves around the Law of Averages. Of course, this particular subject is the favored playground of Richard Steckel, who has actually dug up his conclusions from bones and archives:
Since 2004, when the above cites were published in Social Science History literature on this topic and the call to dismiss misperceptions have steadily grown. The book to read that began it all is Jerome Rose and Richard Steckel, eds. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere (Cambridge University Press, 2002). My maternal grandfather was fully 6 feet in height but my grandmother, his wife, was only 4' 11". My paternal grandfather was only 5' 4" and his wife all of 5' 6" tall, all were born in the 1880s.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Al Jassas Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 15 Oct 2011 at 17:55
Xristar pointed out to a very interesting fact I also discovered during my search for height (my maternal grandfather was and still much taller at 185 cm than all of his offspring standing at 175 and below and he was born in the late 1920s) and that is people from the countryside were almost universally shorter than people from the cities.
 
The reason why I think this was interesting is theoretically speaking people from the country (at least where I come from) should always be taller than people from the cities because there was less pollution and food and especially dairy products were more avaible. However data seems to confirm the opposite. Why?
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Flipper Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16 Oct 2011 at 08:05
Originally posted by xristar xristar wrote:

Nutrition plays a huge role in height. That's not a theory. I was looking back a few years a Greek Army book of the late '70s or early '80s, which showed average soldier heights by area and through several decades. Afew things were evident:
-soldiers born during the German occupation (1941-1944) when Greece was under famine, were considerably shorter (several centimeters' sudden drop) than the soldiers born in the '30s, and soldiers born after the war.
-soldiers from urban areas (Athens, Salonica) were also considerably (IIRC up to almost 10 centimeters) taller compared to soldiers from rural areas, particularly the poor ones.

These examples are valuable because they show that the average height of a genetically identical population could vary significantly simply because of changes to wealth (ie nutrition)


I agree 100 % with what you stated. It is evident that the generations that suffered wars and famine became very short. However, you can see very tall offspring's from very short parents, which means that the parents carried tall genes that could however not blossom because of e.g famine.

Also, famine in early ages even gave less life expectancy. Generations that suffered war dropped the life expectancy considerably (those who died in the war do not count).


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 10:11
Pinguin alluded to another important factor that I believe deserves more emphasis: greater physical size tends to be genetically hard wired into members of a species which live in colder climates. Mammoths and other ice age animals like the woolly rhino were larger than their sub-tropical cousins of today. The Victorian and Tasmanian possums are larger than their cousins in Queensland. This all has to do with larger volumes being generally more efficient at retaining heat.

There seems to me to be no good reasons why humans should be any exception to this rule, and that with hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to colder climates they would not have developed greater prominence of genetic traits which increase size as a means of gaining an edge in this environment. Even among the Chinese, it is generally recognised that a Manchurian is on average about 2 inches taller than a Cantonese.

The period of contact we are looking at encompasses a period in the 18th century where a new variant of the rice crop with a much higher yield was imported from Vietnam. As a result, the Chinese population boomed, expanding rapidly from 200 million to 400 million. But this boom was fuelled by intensive cultivation and consumption of this rice crop, meaning that fewer protein based foods required for strong growth made it into the diet of the vast bulk of the population. Contrast this with Europeans who were raising carbohydrate based food yield through new crops like potatoes, whilst simultaneously raising protein rich food production through land clearances. Then you get some idea of how both populations boomed, yet one continent of people generally grew taller and stronger.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Ramesh V.Naivaruni Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 10:35
The size has got to do with the humidity as well, we have heard a lot about Africian being tall but all the African are not , especially the ones where there is dense forest belt.  The Genetics and heriditary and proper nutrrition are the key, and some people can gain height by few inches by proper excercise and training.
 
I know some of you may jump at me to tell the names of few sport personalites like Sachin Tendulakar even after many fitness session he is still short, this is just a case of isolation.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote drgonzaga Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 16:23
How about reading this essay and dissecting it:
 
How Much of Human Height Is Genetic and How much Is Due to Nutrition
 
 
Keep in mind that "height", just as with skin coloration, in terms of genetics is the product of multiple genes (from at least 7 up to a possible 20 or more) and that even within a specific group you will discover marked variations (id est averages). Genetic Height and Environmental Effects certainly do interact but always keep in mind that the marked evidence of the extremes (gigantism and dwarfism) are a function of imbalanced body chemistry.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TAT Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 20:12
drgonzaga: I find this post particularly helpful. The links are great. I'm going to try to contact Mr. Steckel. I'm wondering if you would agree with my general thesis that height difference between Europeans (in general) and East Asians (in general) did not begin to greatly diverge until around the 19th century. This is when it seems Europeans began to grow taller and EAst Asians either stayed the same or grew shorter on average.

I just find it curious that Marco Polo who supposedly traveled all over Asia -- and gave detailed descriptions of everything he encountered -- never remarked on how small or how short the people were. It's probably because they were not small or short at the time. So my project is to try to find out when this great divergence in height/size began. 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TAT Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 20:13
drgonzaga: I was referring to your first post!
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Zagros Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2011 at 20:21
Originally posted by TAT TAT wrote:

drgonzaga: I find this post particularly helpful. The links are great. I'm going to try to contact Mr. Steckel. I'm wondering if you would agree with my general thesis that height difference between Europeans (in general) and East Asians (in general) did not begin to greatly diverge until around the 19th century. This is when it seems Europeans began to grow taller and EAst Asians either stayed the same or grew shorter on average.

I just find it curious that Marco Polo who supposedly traveled all over Asia -- and gave detailed descriptions of everything he encountered -- never remarked on how small or how short the people were. It's probably because they were not small or short at the time. So my project is to try to find out when this great divergence in height/size began. 


Apparently European heights decreased during industrial revolution and started recovering in the 20th c. based on one of the links above.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote calvo Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 Oct 2011 at 07:46
You must also remember that Marco Polo was Italian, and southern Europeans have always tended to be shorter than those in the north.
As far back as in the Classic age Greco-Roman authors had already mentioned how "tall and blond" the northern barbarians were and that Italian Roman legionaries could only defeat the physically larger Celtic and Germanic barbarians by adopting organized formations.

It is true that nowadays the average height of developed countries are catching up with each other. Germans and Brits born before 1980s were on average half a head taller than than Spaniards of the same generations, but the average height of Spaniards born after the 80s is almost catching up with that of Germans.

I also read that a country in which average height has increased a lot is Japan, that young Japanese tend to be around 10cm taller than their parents. However, many studies say that the younger Japanese generation are less healthy and are more prone to suffer from heart diseases.

It is intriguing to learn the factors that contribute to increase in height. Italians and Spaniards who had grown up in the 60s and 70s fed on a healthy mediterranean diet with no lack of nutrition while many born in the 80s and 90s fed on junk food, but it was precisely during this period that the average height has increased considerably.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 Oct 2011 at 16:50
The only difference I've noted between northern Asian peoples and Southern Chinese and Southeast Asian peoples is that the former tend to have longer upper bodies than legs, whereas the latter tend to legs that are roughly equal in length to the upper body, which I presume is due to genetical selection on the north Asian steppes. Such observations are, of course, over-simplifications.

Regarding diet, Alan Moorehead noted the measure difference between prisoners transported to Australia, and their grandsons who entered the Army in 1914 in his book on Gallipoli. The latter's average height was six feet, whereas, if memory serves, the former's average was 5'7".

Modern Koreans are taller than their parents, who are definitely taller than their war-years grand-parents or great grand-parents, and the same phenomenon is noted among North Koreans from the famine years, which is some provinces is apparently back on them.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote RollingWave Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2011 at 08:31
Originally posted by Constantine XI Constantine XI wrote:

Pinguin alluded to another important factor that I believe deserves more emphasis: greater physical size tends to be genetically hard wired into members of a species which live in colder climates. Mammoths and other ice age animals like the woolly rhino were larger than their sub-tropical cousins of today. The Victorian and Tasmanian possums are larger than their cousins in Queensland. This all has to do with larger volumes being generally more efficient at retaining heat.

There seems to me to be no good reasons why humans should be any exception to this rule, and that with hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to colder climates they would not have developed greater prominence of genetic traits which increase size as a means of gaining an edge in this environment. Even among the Chinese, it is generally recognised that a Manchurian is on average about 2 inches taller than a Cantonese.

The period of contact we are looking at encompasses a period in the 18th century where a new variant of the rice crop with a much higher yield was imported from Vietnam. As a result, the Chinese population boomed, expanding rapidly from 200 million to 400 million. But this boom was fuelled by intensive cultivation and consumption of this rice crop, meaning that fewer protein based foods required for strong growth made it into the diet of the vast bulk of the population. Contrast this with Europeans who were raising carbohydrate based food yield through new crops like potatoes, whilst simultaneously raising protein rich food production through land clearances. Then you get some idea of how both populations boomed, yet one continent of people generally grew taller and stronger.
 
There are other reasons, the population boom was more of a contiuation of events and not a singular one, rice crop improvement began already in the Song era (somewhere around 10th-12c) from that period up until the 16th C China's maximum population potential stabilzied at around 100 million, from the 16th onward a series of events began to break open the limit much further, including New World Crops such as Corn and Potatos, even further breakthrough with Rice and even further development in Rice techniques etc.. and by the 19th 20th C there's the gradual industrialization .
 
Another issue that should be noted is that through the history of China there is a very strong trend of the South graudally increasing in relative importance to the North (economically and demographically speaking). As pointed out by others, northern China is generally more suitable for raising dairy and meat and wheat while Southern China for Rice, so the end result was that in the Tang dynasty the North South Ratio may have been around 1:1, by the Qing it was something like 9:1 Which plays into the law of average.
 
The vast majority of the first wave of immigrants to the US were from GuangDong, Cantonese is still the primary language of most old Chinatown in the USA today, so that should also be taken into consideration, that the first wave of immigrants were almost certainly on the very low end of China's own average height distribution due to the combination of being poor and from the very south.
  
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2011 at 15:40
Constantine, in re your:  "The period of contact we are looking at encompasses a period in the 18th century where a new variant of the rice crop with a much higher yield was imported from Vietnam."

That's very interesting. I've apparently missed that somewhere in my studies. Would you have a cite? Obviously another history book to add to my library. The 18th Century was a period of economic collapse in the South (Dang Trong), which eventually sparked a rebellion (the Tay Son Rebellion), which overthrew the Nguyen Lords only a few decades after their recognition as an independent country. Dang Trong's economy was based upon exports, which included rice. In Dang Trong, rice was grown as a cash crop, and the Vietnamese had just begun infiltrating the Mekong Delta, eventually to outnumber the Khmer (Cambodians) indigenous to the Delta, whose rice farming was generally subsistance only.  I'm wondering if this new strain was from Dang Trong or Dang Ngoai, and my suspicion is the former.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Zagros Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Oct 2011 at 10:47
The genetic difference between different human "races" is nothing like as significant as that between a mammoth and an elephant.  More comparible would be the difference between a neanderthal and us.  Neanderthal evolved for cold climates = shorter and stockier; homosapiens evolved in more tropical climes = taller and leaner.

Edited by Zagros - 22 Oct 2011 at 10:48
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Guests Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04 Nov 2011 at 10:34
Originally posted by lirelou lirelou wrote:

Constantine, in re your:  "The period of contact we are looking at encompasses a period in the 18th century where a new variant of the rice crop with a much higher yield was imported from Vietnam."

That's very interesting. I've apparently missed that somewhere in my studies. Would you have a cite? Obviously another history book to add to my library. The 18th Century was a period of economic collapse in the South (Dang Trong), which eventually sparked a rebellion (the Tay Son Rebellion), which overthrew the Nguyen Lords only a few decades after their recognition as an independent country. Dang Trong's economy was based upon exports, which included rice. In Dang Trong, rice was grown as a cash crop, and the Vietnamese had just begun infiltrating the Mekong Delta, eventually to outnumber the Khmer (Cambodians) indigenous to the Delta, whose rice farming was generally subsistance only.  I'm wondering if this new strain was from Dang Trong or Dang Ngoai, and my suspicion is the former.


Hi lirelou, sorry for my lateness in reply. Am at that stage of life between early adult university study and middle aged mid life crisis followed by academic career, where my time for the academic becomes ever more scarce.

My source for the introduction of the rice crop from Vietnam is from a government textbook issued in the state of Victoria for students studying history in their final year of highschool with the topic of the Chinese revolution, and covered China from the mid 18th century until the advent of Deng's premiership.

I know it is the most unsatisfactory answer you could have hoped for, but I don't recall the book itself. Ordinarily I hang on to all books I have read. That year was an exception. I was putting myself through high school and living out of home. Not having any money, I took to borrowing and renewing a copy of that prescribed reading week after week so I could conserve much needed money for necessities. The result is that while I studied the book thoroughly, reading it more than once cover to cover, it was never added to my collection and after 10 years I don't recall the name of the author.

Still, it was a fairly detailed (circa 300 words) government sanctioned prescribed reading source. And the details present within were validated by other books on Chinese history I later explored, so I think it to be fairly reliable at face value.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote lirelou Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 04 Nov 2011 at 17:03
Constantine, Thank you very much for your reply. I'm going to presume that it was from the Southern half (Dang Trong) of Vietnam only because that was where they were coming into contact with other wet rice cultivation methods. Perhaps EFEO has something on this.

Thanks again.
Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì
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