The Cultural Beginnings of World Domination
In the 15 th century China was one of the largest, most advanced, and most powerful nations in the world. It was far superior to any one of the future European nations in these respects and showed the capacity to be a world technological and colonial power for centuries. The question then becomes why all the world leaders in technology and the colonization of new lands in the 16 th and 17 th centuries were European nations and not China. I believe that the two main reasons for this change in the international balance of power were both a result of differences between European and Asian cultures. First, Chinese culture itself was inherently more inward facing than outward facing so this discouraged the expansion of the Chinese people and culture beyond its own borders. The second reason is that the large group of nations that emerged on the European continent each benefited from cultural and technological osmosis. Also, the competition between these nations encouraged individual nations to try to innovate in very specific areas to gain an advantage against their competitors (i.e. the English development of the longbow gave them a military advantage over other nations in Europe). For these reasons it was European nations, not China, that ultimately became the most powerful nations in the world by the 17 th century.
The first reason that European nations were able to overtake China as the world’s most powerful state was because the Chinese were culturally more inward looking than outward looking. Even though they did trade nations all over the world, they did not experience the same cultural or technological osmosis as European nations. This may be because the Chinese were exceptionally reluctant to trade with any foreigners that came to their lands and would only do so at substantial benefit to themselves. The Chinese were not as much interested in expanding their borders further into the Asian continent or onto other continents as they were interested in protecting the vast territory they already controlled. While the Chinese were content with their vast expanse of territory and resources in Asia, the European nations all were seeking for more land and resources which forced them to attempt large scale colonization of new lands.
The second reason that European nations became international leaders in technology and colonization is because of the benefits these nations reaped from being in close geographic proximity to one another. Being close to one another and trading extensively with one another meant that European nations, whether explicitly or implicitly, shared advances in technology with one another. Also the close proximity of these nations to one another lead to technological and strategic competition between them. European nations were constantly under the threat of maintaining technological and military superiority in order to discourage an invasion by another technologically or strategically superior European nation. The Chinese were never faced with this threat, they were faced with the treat of an invasion by a technologically inferior enemy, the Mongols, that was not a threat to the whole of the Chinese nation. Lastly, in their attempts to gain an economic or military advantage over their competing nations, it was logical for individual European nations to innovate in specific technological areas. For example, Great Britain was an island nation so it made sense for them to develop a strong navy to defend their islands and to be able to colonize successfully throughout the world. With no real economic or strategic competition on their side of the world, the Chinese were not forced to innovate or expand to maintain their regional position of power.
Eventually the combination of China’s own cultural introversion and their lack of other technologically and strategically powerful nations in close proximity to them lead to the decline of China’s advantage over European nations. Had China’s culture encouraged practices of expansion, both technologically and colonially, the entire course of world history could be markedly different.