The start of the Olympics this week in Beijing has prompted media attention on a range of Chinese issues including Tibet and the Chinese environment, the inexorable rise of the Chinese economy and the increasing influence of Chinese policy on the global stage.
As a global historian and a student in the Western world’s first graduate course on Asian Sea Power, I’d like to take a longer view in this week of China speculation. This week’s focus on the rise of China as a world power, with a few turns of history could have been a tribute to unrivaled Chinese supremacy in the past millenium.
By the year 1000, and for several hundred years beyond, virtually every useful technology in the world had its origin in China. Economic historians of the era like to point out that in the twelfth century, Song China was within “a hair’s breadth” of industrialization. Per capita iron output in China circa 1100 was higher than that of Great Britain in 1700. The densely populated Yangtse Delta was one of the few, if not the only pre-industrialized society to realize intensive economic growth, that is sustained growth in per capita output (as opposed to growth due only to increased population). Various geographical factors, resource constraints including dry and poorly located coal deposits, and the looming twelfth century Mongol invasions, leave us to speculate what could have been in Song China.
In the first decades of the 15th century, as the Italian peninsula was experiencing its Renaissance and the first Portuguese explorers were testing the waters of the North Atlantic, the early Ming empire was laying claim as the greatest seaborne power in the pre-modern world. Nine decades before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic with 300 men in three modest caravels , the Chinese Admiral Zheng He embarked on a series of seven voyages with the intention to incorporate the known world into the tribute system of the Ming empire. Zheng He’s flotillas dwarfed those of his contemporary Iberian mariners. His largest expedition included over 300 ships and 28,000 men, including at least 63 treasure ships that measured 450 feet long and 150 feet wide, a surface area greater than a football field. The Ming treasure ship was largest wooden vessel ever constructed, as a treasure ship’s hull could have accommodated Columbus’s fist expedition as well as the four vessels Da Gama used on his voyage to India.
Zheng He visited Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Though largely discredited, one modern English naval officer and historian Gavin Menzies claims evidence for the eunuch admiral having reached North and South America and even as far as Greenland. In any case, Zheng’s tribute armada must have been an overwhelming site wherever it landed. It helped establish trade routes across the Indian Ocean, and brought the Celestial Empire into the consciousness of most of the known world. Some historians claim that maps from the time of the Zheng expeditions were known to Columbus before he made decision to sail east for China and India.
Then, at the height of Chinese naval supremacy, the Ming court took great pains to cease all Chinese sea trade. At the time of Zheng’s last expedition, a new Emporer decreed a maritime ban in Chinese waters. Sea going trade was punishable with death. All of the empire’s naval records, star charts, route maps, and manuals collected on the imperial expeditions were destroyed by the Chinese minister of war. Some theorize Zheng was considered a threat by the new emperor, others point to the incredible costs of outfitting these expeditions in a time when money was needed to shore up the frontier defenses against the Mongol threat from the north.
Anti-maritime policy was the rule for the next 200 years. In the 1660’s, China’s new Manchu rulers initiated a scorched earth policy along the Chinese coast. They raised coastal towns and villages and forced the seaboard population into the interior. Chinese sea trade persisted in these years only in the southern coastal territories farthest from the Beijing court in the north. The Chinese merchants who established entrepots in Dutch controlled Indonesia and the Spanish dominated Philippines hailed from Fujian and Guangdong (Canton), the two southernmost coastal provinces in China. With this merchant diaspora, Cantonese, and not Mandarin, would become the dominant language of Chinatowns the world over.
By 1840, China had been a dormant naval power for 400 years. When the British East India Company decided to seize ports to distribute its Indian grown opium--the only foreign product it could find with a market demand in China—the Qing state could summon no answer to the steam power and heavy artillery of the British fleet. The Opium Wars humiliated China and began a century of European domination of Asian waters interrupted only by the rise of Japan.
Would China have been so vulnerable if it had not abandoned its sea power? We can only imagine what would have happened if Chinese merchants had been allowed to follow the Zheng expeditions across Indian Ocean, had the Chinese been in a position to rival Portuguese and Muslim traders as the middlemen of the spice trade. The dragon that Napoleon warned the world against had been put to sleep at the height of China’s maritime glory.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Posted by Bill Wilson at 5:10 PM