Hist 2c, L 7: China
by H. Marcuse, April 22, 2003
[see China lecture--illustrated--from 2006 course]

Question: On the grand scale of world history, how was the greatest empire in the 1400s reduced to "second world" status?

(skill: interpreting primary sources--will do on midterm)

textbook [tertiary], p.357 (ch. 30):

"Between 1405 and 1433, huge fleets carrying as many as 30,000 sailors and soldiers traveled south to the East Indies, and as far west as the east coast of Africa. The expeditions were sponsored by the government, and at the emperor's order, they stopped as suddenly as they had begun. Their purpose remains unclear, but it does not seem to have been commercial. The fleets made no attempt to plant colonies or to set up a network of trading posts. Nor did the expeditions leave a long-term mark on Chinese consciousness or awareness of the achievements and interests of the world outside.

"The Maritime Expeditions were a striking demonstration of how advanced Chinese seamanship, ship design, and equipment were and how confident the Chinese were in their dealings with foreigners of all types. Although China possessed the necessary technology (shipbuilding, compass, rudder, sails) to make a success of overseas exploration and commerce, the government decided not to use it. The government's refusal was the end of the matter.

"The mercantile class had no alternative but to accept it because the merchants had neither the influence at court nor the high status in society that could have enabled the voyages to continue. In this sense, the failure to pursue the avenues opened by the expeditions reflects the differences between the Chinese and European governments and the relative importance of merchants and entrepreneurial vision in the two cultures."

Philip Snow, The Star Raft: China's Encounter with Africa (1988), 21 [a secondary source]

In 1414 a Chinese fleet pushed into the western Indian Ocean. It was commanded by Zheng He, Grand Eunich of the Three Treasures….
Zheng He was the Chinese Columbus. He has become for China as Columbus has for the West, the personification of maritime endeavour. Yet he differed from his Western counterpart in a number of major ways.

Three-quarters of a century before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, this Ming dynasty admiral had at his disposal resources which make the Genoese explorer look like an amateur. Columbus had three ships. They had one deck apiece, and together weighed a total of 415 tons.

Zheng He had sixty-two galleons, and more than a hundred auxiliary vessels. The largest galleons had three decks on the poop alone, and each of them weighed about 1,500 tons. They had nine masts and twelve sails, and are said to have measured 440 feet long by 180 feet wide. With a force of perhaps a hundred men, Columbus might have been grateful for the company of the 868 civil officers, 26,800 soldiers, 93 commanders, two senior commanders, 140 millerions [captains of a thousand men], 403 centurions, a Senior Secretary of the Board of Revenue, a geomancer, a military instructor, two military judges, 180 medical officers and assistants, two orderlies, seven senior eunuch ambassadors, ten junior eunuchs and 53 eunuch chamberlains who travelled in Zheng He’s retinue….

[see also an amateur "historian's" book: Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002)—exaggerated]

textbook p.354 (chap. 30):

"Why, in other words, did the Chinese fail to make the leap from the 'commercial revolution' of the later Ming period [1368-1644] to an 'industrial revolution' of the kind that began in the West a century later? Various answers have been proposed, and no single one is satisfactory.

"The Chinese esteem for artists and scholars and the tendency of such people to place little emphasis on accumulation of material goods must be part of the explanation. Engineers and inventors were never prominent in China's culture, even though Chinese science and technology led the world until the 1200s at least.

"Also, the Confucian ethos did not admire the entrepreneur or his activities. It was the retention of the old, not the invention of the new, that inspired a properly educated Chinese. In the end, we can only attest that China did not experience an industrial-technical breakthrough. If it had, China and not western Europe would have been the dominant power of the world in the past three centuries."

Ch'ien Lung (Quianlong): Letter to George III (1792)

A primary source (text of letter)
Cambridge history of China, explanitory text on-line
[compare Lin Zexu's 1839 letter (below)]

Canton system

Opium Wars / Unequal Treaties

map of China, 1840-1940 [textbook p. 593]


prepared for web on 4/22/03 by H. Marcuse, link to 2006 lecture added 5/14/06
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