"Moving on from here, we shall tell you next of a large and very splendid city called Suzhou. The people here are idolaters subject to the Great Khan and using paper money. They live by trade and industry, have silk in great quantity and make much silken cloth for their clothing. The city is so large that it measures about forty miles in circumference. It has so many inhabitants that no one could reckon their number. I give you my word that the men of the province of Manzi [southern China], if they were a war-like nation, would conquer all the rest of the world."
The Travels of Marco Polo (circa 1300)
"The Empire of China is an old, crazy, First rate man-of-war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these one hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance, but whenever an insufficient man happens to have command upon deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom."
Lord George Macartney (1794)
There are a number of topics that historians and those who take an interest in history love to discuss and debate. Among the more popular ones are the reasons for the collapse and fall of the Roman Empire in the West or whether the Confederacy could have won the Civil War. Another subject of historical interest is the mystery of why China, which had seemed so far advanced a half millennium ago, fell so far behind the European powers.
The two quotes at the top of this post serve as convenient bookends to the period when Europeans received their first popular eyewitness account of China possessing vast riches and power and ending when they realized the Chinese empire had become a hopeless anachronism. So, somewhere in between that time, something happened to cause China to fall from its height as an object of wonder and admiration down to the level of pity and scorn.
The China described by the Venetian Marco Polo was ruled by the Mongols, whose various khanates stretched from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe, which some historians have dubbed the "Pax Mongolica". The Mongols would be driven out of China in 1368 and replaced by the last native Chinese dynasty known as the Ming. The early Ming emperors were energetic rulers who expanded their territory south into present day Vietnam and north against their former Mongol rulers.
It was during the reign of the third Ming emperor, known as the Yongle emperor, that a series of treasure fleets were sent out that sailed through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean, some venturing as far as the Red Sea and possibly to the coast of present day Mozambique. The treasure fleets, consisting of several hundred ships, some reportedly up to 400 feet in length (by way of comparison, Columbus's ship the Santa Maria was about 85 feet long) were launched on their first of seven voyages in 1405, with the seventh and last voyage ending in 1433.
Right about the time that the era of the Ming treasure fleets was drawing to a close, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, the Portuguese were spearheading what would become the European Age of Discovery. Over the course of half a century, Portuguese navigators pushed further and further down the coast of Africa until in 1488 they reached the southern tip and were poised to enter the Indian Ocean.
So why was it that it was the Portuguese who circumnavigated Africa and came to dominate the Indian Ocean, instead of the Chinese sailing into the Atlantic and discovering Europe?
The short answer is that the Portuguese, as well as the other European kingdoms and states, desired the goods of the Orient, and wanted to trade directly with the lands of east Asia, thus bypassing the hostile Muslim states that dominated the Middle East. In other words, the Europeans were driven by a want of things. The Chinese, on the other hand, felt they had all that they needed and saw no need to explore foreign lands.
One possible reason for China's stagnation is that being the largest and most powerful state in East Asia made it complacent. Portugal, by comparison, was a poor country inhabiting a strip of land on the Atlantic coast that was hemmed in by Spain. The Portuguese had nowhere to go but out into the sea to seek their fortunes.
China's view of itself and the world around it may have been roughly analogous to the Roman Empire at its peak during the 2nd century C.E. H.G. Wells, in his sweeping historical work, The Outline of History, makes the following observations about Rome:
"In one field of knowledge particularly we might have expected the Romans to have been alert and enterprising, and that was geography. Their political interests demanded a steadfast inquiry into the state of affairs beyond their frontiers, and yet that inquiry was never made. There is practically no literature of Roman travel beyond the imperial limits..."
"Yet Rome was content to feast, exact, grow rich, and watch its gladiatorial shows without the slightest attempt to learn anything of India, China, Persia or Scythia, Buddha or Zoraster, or about the Huns, the Negroes, the people of Scandinavia, or the secrets of the western sea."
A similar mindset can be detected in the letter of the Qing dynasty's Qianlong Emperor to King George III of England in response to Lord Macartney's mission to open China to trade in the 1790's.
"You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless, impelled by
your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilisation, you have
dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial. Your Envoy has crossed
the seas and paid his respects at my Court on the anniversary of my birthday. To
show your devotion, you have also sent offerings of your country's produce."
"Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven,
and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As
your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on
objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."
While Western ships began to frequent China's waters from the 16th century onward, and some Westerners, particularly Jesuit missionaries, became resident in the Chinese imperial court, there does not seem to have been much, if any, effort on the part of the rulers of the Chinese empire, be they native Ming or later on the Manchu Qing, to send ambassadors to the European powers and learn more about them.
I remember reading somewhere that one theory for why Europe was able to advance technologically so fast was precisely because it consisted of a multitude of smaller countries that were in competition with one another. Because China was the preeminent power in East Asia, there was no local competitor to spur her on to innovate. The one nation in the region that had the potential to play the part of that competitor, Japan, would itself turn inward in the early 17th century and stay that way for another two and a half centuries.
China's age of exploration, if one could call it that, was largely due to the vanity and pretensions of the Yongle emperor, and once he had died, there was no one else capable or interested in patronizing such voyages. One factor in ending the treasure fleets was the conflict at the imperial court between Confucian advisors, who considered the fleets to be wasteful extravagances, and the eunuchs, with the former opposing them and coming out on top in the struggle. If the Chinese court was not going to sponsor a long distance naval voyage, there was no one else to turn to.
In Europe, by contrast, there were a multitude of potential patrons. The Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus claimed that one could reach the wealthy kingdoms of Asia by sailing westward into the Atlantic. If the king of Portugal turned him down, he could try his hand with the French court. If France wasn't interested, there was always Spain. And once Columbus returned from his voyage, evidently having found some hitherto unknown lands, it spurred an interest in further exploration of what would turn out to be the Americas by the other naval powers of Europe. Magellan is another illustrative example. He was Portuguese, but when the king of Portugal declined to support his plan to find a way to sail around South America to reach the Spice Islands of the East Indies, again the Spanish monarchy was willing to bankroll a navigator who was not one of their own.
The Ming cannot be entirely faulted for ignoring the potential threat from European navies during the duration of their rule. In fact, on several occasions, the Ming navy was able to inflict defeats on the Portuguese and the Dutch. The real existential threat to their survival came from their northern and western land frontiers. While the Mongols were expelled from China in 1368, they remained a powerful opponent well into the 16th century, even capturing a Ming emperor in battle in the mid-15th century. The Mongols were soon eclipsed in the north by the Jurchen, more commonly known to us today as the Manchus, who themselves would succeed in conquering China in the latter half of the 17th century.
Still, if one Ming ruler, the Yongle emperor, was the initiator of China's great treasure fleets, another Ming monarch, the Wanli emperor, played a critical role in crippling the dynasty's survival. After showing some early promise, during the remainder of his reign, which straddled the last two decades of the 16th century and the first two decades of the 17th century, the Wanli emperor basically stopped doing his job. Jonathan Spence, in The Search for Modern China, writes, "For years on end he held no court audiences to discuss key political events, gave up his studies of the historical and philosophical texts that lay at the heart of Confucian learning, refused to read state papers, and even stopped filling the vacancies that occurred in the upper levels of officialdom."
With the emperor asleep at the wheel, the dynasty entered a period of terminal decline. The tax structure collapsed, leaving the dynasty without the means to pay its armies to defend against the Manchus as well as deal with the internal revolts that ended up bringing the dynasty down. So, while the European naval powers were making technological advances in a wide range of fields, the Chinese at this critical time were held back by a lack of effective leadership, which in turn led to government collapse. Perhaps if Wanli had been a visionary and dynamic emperor, he might have attempted to learn how small nations so many thousands of miles away could send ships across vast oceans into Chinese waters. In an autocratic society, change comes from the top down. China needed its equivalent of Russia's Peter the Great, a ruler with the wisdom to recognize that his empire was backward and who possessed the force of personality needed to drag his empire, kicking and screaming, into modernity. But no such leader was forthcoming.
A Spanish Jesuit, Alonso Sanchez, acidly observed in 1581 that "the Chinese are so arrogant that they consider themselves the cream and flower of the world, and it seems to them there is no understanding except theirs, and no-one but they knew any laws or customs. Thus they look down on all other nations, considering them beastly."
China was ultimately held back by its self-imposed conceit that it was the center of civilization and that any relations with other nations was viewed through the prism of receiving tribute from barbarian states. The Jesuit Sanchez, quoted above, was also of the belief that China was militarily weak and that the Spanish king Philip II should send an armada to conquer her. We know that Philip did eventually build an armada to attempt to conquer England, which did not end well. While the balance of power had gradually tilted in Europe's favor by the late 16th century, because of the sheer distance involved, it would not be until the Opium War of 1839 to 1842 that a European power, namely England, possessed the means to project sufficient force to crush China.
As a history lesson, China is a case study of what can happen to a great power when it takes its superiority for granted.
In writing this post, I relied on the following books, which I recommend if one has a further interest in this topic or Chinese history in general.
The Travels of Marco Polo. I have the Penguin Classics edition.
The Immobile Empire by Alan Peyrefitte. This is a fascinating book about Lord Macartney's mission to open China to British trade in the 1790's. Peyrefitte interweaves his story with written accounts from members of the mission as well as the Chinese officials and the emperor Qianlong himself. One can see how how both sides ended up talking past each other rather than to each other.
The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence. Spence's sweeping work covers Chinese history from the late Ming up to the era of Deng Xiaoping. The edition I have was published in 1990, so it is possible that later editions of this book cover the post-Tiananmen era.
A Jesuit In The Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci 1552 -1610 by R. Po-chia Hsia. I only just started reading this book on my Nook several days ago. It was the source for my quote of the Spanish Jesuit Alonso Sanchez. As a well educated Jesuit missionary in late Ming China, Matteo Ricci is a valuable source of information about China during that time period.
The Outline of History, Vol. 1 by H.G. Wells. This was one of the books that really got me into history. Thank you to whichever of my parents was responsible for buying it. It's one major weakness is that it is suffused with the author's racial views of nearly a century ago, which have long since become outmoded.
When China Ruled The Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1403 - 1433 by Louise Levathes. It's a work of popular history, just over 200 pages, not including the notes and the index, that covers the treasure fleet voyages and their historical context, without the outlandish claims of Gavin Menzies.