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1492 – Why China Didn’t Colonize Europe (& The Rest Of The World)

September 9, 2016

1492(One in a series of posts about 1492: The Year The World Began.)

Jen-tzu—fifteenth day of the seventh month: Shen Zhou paints a mystical experience.

 “Some of the most dynamic and rapidly expanding societies of the fifteenth century were in the Americas, southwest and northern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, in terms of territorial expansion and military effectiveness against opponents, some African and American empires outclassed any state in western Europe.” (p. 239)

Arguably the most significant question raised by Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s 1492: The Year The World Began is: why didn’t China colonize the rest of the world? If powerful empires (e.g., the Russians, the Incans, the Aztecs, the Ottomans, the Songhay) around the world, and even small kingdoms (e.g., Spain, Portugal, France, England) from backward, impoverished western Europe, were expanding in the late 15th century, why not the largest, wealthiest, most technologically and scientifically advanced society on earth (i.e., China)?

Especially since China clearly had already demonstrated its power to do so:

“The Yongle emperor (r. 1402-24) aggressively sought contact with the world beyond the empire…. The most spectacular manifestation of the new outward-looking policy was the career of the Muslim eunuch-admiral Zheng He. In 1405, he led the first of a series of naval expeditions…to exert political power around the Indian Ocean’s shores. He replaced unacceptable rulers in Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka, founded a puppet state on the commercially important Strait of Malacca, and gathered tribute from Bengal. He displayed Chinese power as far away as Jiddah, on the Red Sea coast of Arabia, and in major ports in East Africa as far south as the island of Zanzibar.” (p. 223)

“Zheng He’s expeditions were on a crushing scale. His ships were much bigger than anything European navies could float at the time. The first expedition was said to comprise 62 junks of the largest dimensions ever built, 225 support vessels, and 27,780 men. The vessels—to judge from a recently discovered rudder post—justified the awed terms of contemporary assessments, displacing, perhaps, over three thousand tons; this was ten times the size of the largest ships afloat in Europe at the time.” (p. 224)

Compare that to the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and their crew of 87 led by “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” Christopher Columbus nearly a century later.

But in the mid-1400s, when Confucian scholar-elites regained power from the Buddhists and the commercial and imperialist factions at the Ming Dynasty’s court, the shipyards were dismantled and virtually all Zheng He’s records were destroyed. “Moreover, China’s land frontiers became insecure as Mongol power revived. China needed to turn away from the sea and toward the new threat. The state never resumed overseas expansion.” (p. 227)

Fernández-Armesto argues China may well have made the right decision.

“In many ways, it was to the credit of Chinese decision makers that they pulled back from involvement in costly adventures far from home. Most powers that have undertaken such expeditions and attempted to impose their rule on distant countries have had cause to regret it. Confucian values…included giving priority to good government at home. ‘Barbarians’ would submit to Chinese rule if and when they saw the benefits. By consolidating their landward empire, and refraining from seaborne imperialism, China’s rulers ensured the longevity of their state. All the maritime empires founded in the world in the last five hundred years have crumbled. China is still here.” (p. 228)

nightvigilFernández-Armesto symbolizes the dominance of the Confucian tradition in the Ming Dynasty in the person of one of China’s greatest and most influential painters, Shen Zhou, and in his painting inspired by a mystical experience he had late in a summer’s night in 1492.

“In the center of the composition, the painter is a tiny, hunched figure, wrapped in a thin robe, with a knot of hair gathered on his balding head. His low-burned light is beginning to get smoky on the table beside him. All around, the hazy light of dawn discloses immensities of nature that dwarf the painter and his flimsy house. Tall, great-rooted trees reach up, craggy cliffs rise, with mountains bristling in the background. But all their power seems to flow into the little man in the middle, without disturbing his tranquility.” (p. 206)

Other posts in this series:

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From → Books, History

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