In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew of 89 sailed across the Atlantic ocean in three ships. The largest of those, the Santa Maria, was 19 meters long (Alchin, 2015). Nearly a century before, in 1405, Zheng He and his crew of nearly 28,000 sailed from China to Africa’s eastern coast in 317 ships (Hadingham, 2001). The largest 60 ships, called “Treasure Ships,” were about 120 meters long. The Nina and Santa Maria would have appeared “pint-sized next to Zheng He's largest vessels” (Hadingham, 2001).
From this example and broader comparisons, it is clear that shipbuilding technology in China was far superior to Europe in the 15th century, and had been superior for many centuries (Gronwald, 2009). In fact, ships built in 8th and 9th century China were of equivalent quality to European vessels in the 15th century (Gronwald, 2009). In many other aspects, Chinese inventors were also far ahead of their European counterparts. Silk, gunpowder, paper, the printing press, and the compass were all invented first in China (Liyao, 2011). Before 1450 AD, China held a long-standing position of technological superiority (Diamond, 1997). The long story of Chinese technological dominance seems to directly conflict with the rapid rise of Europe into a colonizing power. By 1850, Europe was the most technologically advanced civilization and had incredible wealth and power throughout the world. Why Europe? And why not China?
In order to answer the question of why China failed to become a world superpower, it is important to first answer the question of why Eurasia (which includes both China and Europe) was most likely to foster powerful civilizations. Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, argues persuasively that the geography of the Eurasian continent was the underlying cause of their success on the world stage. Specifically, Diamond argues that an abundance of easily domesticable plants and animals on the Eurasian continent led to a rapid increase in food production about 10,000 years ago (Diamond, 1997). Furthermore, these domesticated plants and animals spread throughout Eurasia quickly, aided by the east-west orientation of the continent (Diamond, 1997). Finally, the large land-mass of Eurasia meant a larger population and therefore a high rate of technological advancement and trade. In contrast, Africa had few animals that could easily be domesticated, and the spread of domesticated plants was hindered by enormous climatic differences caused by the north-south orientation of the continent’s axis. Diamond concludes that in the case of Africa, it was not the superior intelligence of Europeans that led to Africa’s colonization, but instead “accidents of geography and biogeography in particular, to the continents' different areas, axes, and suites of wild plant and animal species” (Diamond, 1997).
Diamond makes a compelling case for for why Eurasia was geographically advantaged over Africa, Mesoamerica, or even New Guinea during the early agricultural revolution, and how that has dramatically influenced the histories of different peoples. Following in this pattern of geographic explanation, Diamond attempts to explain why Europe specifically won the race of colonization and technologic superiority. Essentially, Diamond contrasts the “connectedness” of the Chinese empires with the disconnect between European city-states (Diamond, 1997). China, with a more homogeneous landscape and fewer dividing mountain ranges, was able to remain under unified control, while the diverse and divisive landscape of Europe meant more independent cities and kingdoms. Smaller kingdoms in greater number meant more competition, which led to greater technologic innovation (Diamond, 1997).
Diamond’s theory is problematic because it fails to fully explain why China held technological and cultural preeminence for many centuries. Diamond claims that Chinese connectedness was a benefit when the empires encouraged and demanded innovation and a hindrance when the Ming dynasty and the rise of Confucianism caused state institutions to neglect science and turn inwards. But Diamond does not supply any geographic cause of this shift, and for good reason. Large scale geographic factors can reasonably explain many of the most broad patterns of history, but they do a much worse job of predicting the details (McNeill, 2001). Surely the unified geography of China can not by itself explain the rise of Confucianism or the invention of gunpowder; this geographic deterministic approach neglects the unpredictability of humans and their collective ideas and achievements. Ludwig von Mises called this approach historical “environmentalism,” and argued that the environment determines “the situation but not the response” (Mises, 1957).
A cultural approach is more likely to explain the Chinese response of technological stagnation and a concurrent “abandonment of westward exploration” (Landes, 2006). David Landes argues that this failure was the result of “the values and structures of Chinese society and civilization” (Landes, 2006). Specifically, Landes argues that the totalitarian nature of the state and the lack of a free market fostered a culture where innovation was far outmatched by an “absence of freedom, along with the weight of custom and consensus and what passed for higher wisdom” (Landes, 2006). Technologies not favored by the government were unlikely to spread throughout China, even if they were advancements. Confucian ideals of inwardness and disdain for science and technology largely shunned trade with and exploration, and led to an “atmosphere of routine, of traditionalism, and of immobility” (Balazs, 1964).
Clearly, the Chinese culture did not completely dismantle Chinese innovation; the invention of gunpowder, silk, and the technology required to build 120 meter long wooden ships are obvious examples of brilliance. And the Chinese state widely supported many of these innovations. However, a Chinese culture that thought little of scientific discovery failed to create institutions that could foster even greater brilliance by relying on past discovery. Chinese advances were less stepping stones than “a succession of ephemera” (Landes, 2006).
Zheng He and his crew made seven voyages over the course of 30 years; he died at sea in 1433 (Gronwold, 2009). When a new expedition was suggested shortly thereafter, a high-ranking Ministry of War official argued that “the expeditions…to the West Ocean wasted tens of myriads of money,” and confiscated all records of Zheng He’s voyages (Gronwald, 2009). While the proximate cause was frugality and political turmoil in the Ming dynasty, the absence of large expeditions (and the eventual banning of all trade ships) in the centuries following Zheng He’s death point towards an underlying culture that largely dismissed exploration and technology.
To ascribe China’s lack of technological preeminence to cultural factors alone, however, is similarly naive as attempting to explain it using only geography. The most plausible explanation is that a combination of geographic and cultural factors, and the unpredictable nature of local politics created a Chinese empire that was uniquely disadvantaged during the 16th and 17th centuries, arguably the most critical time of exploration and colonization. This disadvantage was exacerbated by a feedback loop between the stifling culture and the connectedness of the Chinese subcontinent. For example, the Ming dynasty, influenced strongly by Confucian ideals, decided to impose a haijin, or a ban on maritime trade (Li, 2010). This was one of a series of isolationist policies that continued into the Qing dynasty (Li, 2010). At the time, the Ming dynasty controlled all major ports in China and was able to effectively implement the haijin (Li, 2010). In Europe, any country that decided to implement a ban on maritime trade could only do so for their few ports, and the rest of the Europe would continue trading. In China, the trading ban stifled innovation and only increased inwardness and lack of innovation.
It is likely that under different cultural and political circumstances, the Chinese state could have overcome their geographic obstacles and subsequently dominated the exploration of the world and the race of technological improvement. Diamond does an excellent job of describing a geographic foundation on which global history can be placed. However, the unpredictability of culture and the individual makes it difficult to apply Diamond’s theory on a smaller scale. This makes sense; if history is a “sequence of phenomena that are characterized by their singularity,” there is little chance of a defining law or theory that is proven true in every instance (Mises, 1957). China’s technological stagnation is a good example of how culture, geography, and local politics combined to significantly change human history in a way that cannot be completely predicted by any law.
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