Why The Ming Sea Voyages Led To Nothing

Global Imperialism in the 15th century:

By Gwydion M. Williams

Why the Ming sea voyages led to nothing, while Europe gained a decisive advantage over the rest of the world.

Europe gained control of the world’s oceans in the 16th century, and consolidated its scientific revolution in the 17th century.  Both events were unique, and yet people ignore this background and ask why ‘capitalism’ only happened in Europe.  Yet it seems part of a wider process that was as much Catholic and Protestant, and mostly not connected with capitalism in the strict sense of the term.

The West European cultural, religious and legal system was unique to Western Europe, obviously.  But so what?  It’s just as significant that Europe was impressed by the wealth and sophistication of the various civilisations of Asia, whereas those same civilisations knew Europe just vaguely as a cold poor fringe beyond the Islamic World.  And it’s notable that Islam was blocking Europe’s traditional links to the East and giving us a strong incentive to go either round Africa or sail west in the hope of finding a short cut to East Asia.  (Both ideas were familiar to the classical world: the Phoenicians did sail right round Africa and the scholars of Alexandria worked out that a ship sailing west from Spain should reach the Far East, there was just no pressing economic or strategic need for such ventures.)

Although Marxism is officially out of favour, most New Right thinking is a garbled inverted version of Marxism-Leninism, sharing such notions as Lenin’s view of Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.  History suggests it’s just the other way round.  First global imperialism by several nations on Europe’s Atlantic coast.  Then state-sponsored scientific bodies in Britain, France, Holland, Sweden etc. that could give a reliable verdict on what was sound science, what was speculative and what was nonsense.  And then a drift to modern industry, most notably in England but quite vigorous in neighbouring countries also.

The emergence of modern Industrial Capitalism in 18th century Britain occurred on top of Britain’s colonial triumphs, its successful take-over of a sea-based dominion that had been begun by the Spanish and Portuguese.  Which suggests it was part of the development of European culture–even of Eurasian culture, since the Chinese had provided the key advances of gunpowder, printing, paper and the magnetic compass.

I vividly recall an 1980s advertisement about how China in 1492 failed to discover Europe.  (If anyone has the details, I’d appreciate them.)  It seemed very much part of the resugent New Right vision, one that I didn’t then know how to answer.

What I now see is that 15th century China had no interest in discovering Europe, and it would have needed an uncanny historic prescience for any 15th century mind to see that Europe was destined to overtake the rest of the civilised world.  The more educated Chinese always knew where Europe was, and saw it as an unimportant hinterland to the moderately interesting civilisations of Persia and West Asia.  Outsiders noted mostly that Europe was full of savage armoured warriors fighting each other with great brutality.  And that this warrior class lived by holding down a class of serfs–openly called slaves at the time–whose standard of life was rather below that of peasants in China, India and the Muslim world.  Civilised people outside of Europe were also appalled to discover that the various Christian churches saw any variant on their own faith as diabolical and deserving of death, and intolerance which Islam reserved for idolaters and which other faiths only applied to particular sects or creeds that were reckoned guilty of some particular offence.

China under the early Ming dynasty emperors organised a series of state-subsidised overseas expeditions, all of them paid for out of taxes and arguably doing things that would be much better left to private enterprise.  I don’t know if anyone in 15th century China argued along such lines: what is notable is how easily the New Right forget their standard patter about private versus public enterprise when their normal principles would give them an unacceptably false answer.  They don’t congratulate those Chinese civil servants who thought the matter best left to private enterprise, nor condemn those European states that successfully subsidised explorers and protected overseas trade with well-armed navies paid for out of taxes.

The decisive difference between the state-sponsored overseas voyages by China and by Europe was that the Chinese discovered nothing new and nothing very profitable.  Whereas the Spanish encountered an unexpected New World rich in gold and vulnerable to Old World military technology, while the Portuguese gained immediate vast profits by direct trade with the Spice Islands.

China meantime had become much more inward-looking under the later Ming and the northern-barbarian Manchus.  Yet visitors from 18th century Europe remained impressed by it, especially tea and china-ware, which became important items of trade.  And in the Wealth Of Nations, Adam Smith warmly endorsed the standard 18th-century view of China was an advanced rational Empire, while also noticing the poverty of its lower orders:

China is a much richer country than any part of Europe, and the difference between the price of subsistence in China and in Europe is very great.  Rice in China is much cheaper than wheat is any where in Europe.  (The Wealth Of Nations, I.xi.e.24, page 208)

In China, a country much richer than any part of Europe, the value of precious metals is much higher than in any part of Europe.  As the wealth of Europe, indeed, has increased greatly since the discovery of the mines of America, so the value of gold and silver has gradually diminished.  (Ibid., I.xi.n, page 255)

The retinue of a grandee in China or Indostan [sic] accordingly is, by all accounts, much more numerous and splendid than that of the richest subjects in Europe… in manufacturing art and industry, China and Indostan, though inferior, seem not to be much inferior to any part of Europe.  The money price of the greater part of manufactures, therefore, will naturally be much lower in those great empires than it is any-where in Europe.  (Ibid, I.XI.g, pages 223-4)

China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms in which they are described by travellers in the present times. It had perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire. The accounts of all travellers, inconsistent in many other respects, agree in the low wages of labour, and in the difficulty which a labourer finds in bringing up a family in China. If by digging the ground a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of artificers is, if possible, still worse. Instead of waiting indolently in their work-houses, for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their service, and as it were begging employment. The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe.  (Ibid., I.viii.24, page 89).

The New Right ignore these opinions of their founder–or may indeed be genuinely ignorant of his beliefs, I have so far failed to lure any of these characters into a debate and cannot say how much or how little they know.  But even David Landes’ recent Wealth And Poverty Of Nations pays no attention to Smith’s 18th century views and sticks rigidly to 19th century ideas of the world beyond Europe as poor, hopeless and governed by disgusting tyrants.

Even Adam Smith was wrong to suppose China had been static since the days of Marco Polo.  It actually had a much bigger population, and the poverty he reports may have been due to this.  There had also been a slow but steady accumulation of new inventions.  Still, he correctly puts China and India on a level with Europe in his day.

As through the greater part of Europe, the church, so in many different countries of Asia, the state, is principally supported by a land-tax, proportioned, not to the rent, but to the produce of the land. In China, the principal revenue of the sovereign consists in a tenth part of the produce of all the lands of the empire. This tenth part, however, is estimated so very moderately, that, in many provinces, it is said not to exceed a thirtieth part of the ordinary produce. The land-tax or land rent which used to be paid to the Mahometan government of Bengal, before that country fell into the hands of the English East India Company, is said to have amounted to about a fifth part of the produce. The land-tax of antient Egypt is said likewise to have amounted to a fifth part.

In Asia, this sort of land-tax is said to interest the sovereign in the improvement and cultivation of land. The sovereigns of China, those of Bengal while under the Mahometan government, and those of antient Egypt, are said accordingly to have been extremely attentive to the making and maintaining of good roads and navigable canals, in order to increase, as much as possible, both the quantity and value of every part of the produce of the land, by procuring to every part of it the most extensive market which their own dominions could afford. The tythe of the church is divided into such small portions, that no one of its proprietors can have any interest of this kind. The parson of a parish could never find his account in making a road or canal to a distant part of the country, in order to extend the market for the produce of his own particular parish. Such taxes, when destined for the maintenance of the state, have some advantages which may serve in some measure to balance their inconveniency. When destined for the maintenance of the church, they are attended with nothing but inconveniency.  (Ibid, V.ii.d 4-5, page 838)

It’s not just that Landes’ Wealth And Poverty Of Nations takes no notice whatever of Adam Smith’s views of China.  The book is notable for paying no attention to anything that does not fit the author’s assumptions, which are pure 19th century bigotry about free Europe and dire tyrannical foreigners.  The author is good enough to mention the common arguments against this view–but then skips nimbly back to the old dogma without giving any reasons for discarding the unsuitable facts.

Unlike Europe, the Chinese sea expansion in the early 15th century of the Christian era found nothing they especially needed.  Oddly, I’ve not seen anyone ask what would have happened if the Ming Expeditions had gone east across the Pacific rather than west across the Indian Ocean, and found the New World instead. China would have had much the same advantage over the Aztecs and Incas as the Spanish had.  We can deduct this because the Spanish fought on equal terms with the Ottoman Turks, who had been disastrously defeated by Tamerlane, who in turn had been intimidated by Ming China into acknowledging the ruler of the Central Empire as his superior.

(The land we call China is know as Chung Kuo to its inhabitants.  The term is commonly translated as ‘Middle Kingdom’, but I’d reckon ‘Central Empire’ is a better term.  The original Han dynasty state was as big as the Roman Empire, and must the same area was re-unified by the Tang and Sung in what were the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages in Europe.)

China in the 15th century had a military technology that was quite as good as Europe’s, much better than the Aztecs and Incas.  Quite what the Ming would have done to the New World is moot.  I speculate that the Incas would have admired Confucianism and adopted it quite easily.  Perhaps bold Buddhist missionaries would have converted the Aztecs, as historically they managed to covert Tibetans and Mongols who at one time were almost as savage and cruel.  And precious metals meant at least as much to East Asians as to Europeans;  both New World empires would have been happy to give these powerful strangers tons of the gold and silver that meant very little to their own culture.

As Adam Smith correctly noted, the Europeans were able to trade the gold and silver of America for the commodities of Asia.  Before the 19th century, Europe made very little that Asia wanted.  Warm woollens were not exactly in high demand in the tropics, and ingenious clockwork devices were soon copied.  Would Europe have become so strong if China under the Ming had taken the New World?  Or at least got them used to the guns, germs and steel to which Jared Diamond draws attention, Old World contributions that made Europe’s initial conquests quite easy.

Looked at with an open mind, you could say that the Ming were unlucky to achieve very little after great effort, while Europe as represented by rather ordinary explorer like Columbus could achieve a stunning success.

The matter of the Ming explorations is however normally presented by minds solidly closed and Eurocentric:

The relationship of these voyages to trade is not entirety clear.  The ships carried valuable commodities (silks, porcelain) that were intended for exchange, but apparently not in the open market; rather, in the con- text of gift giving: tribute from the barbarians, benevolence from the Chinese. On the other hand, the sorties were apparently intended to open the way to normal trade, and merchants did come along to make their own deals. Independent trading voyages followed, presumably profiting from enhanced Chinese prestige. But if trade was one of the objectives, this was a very costly way to go about it. In effect the Chinese people were paying for the profits of the officials who organized the treasure fleets and promoted private trade, so much indeed that the burden of these voyages came to exceed the empire’s mcans.

These flotillas far surpassed in grandeur the small Portuguese fleets that came later. The ships were probably the largest vessels the world had seen: high multideck junks (but that is a misleading term) acted as floating camps, each carrying hundreds of sailors and soldiers, testimony to the advanced techniques of Chinese shipbuilding, navigation, and naval organizations The biggest were about 400 feet long, 160 wide (compare the 85 feet of Columbus’s Santa Maria), had nine staggered masts and twelve square sails of red silk. These were the so-called treasure ships, built for luxury, fitted with grand cabins and windowed halls-accommodations fit for the representatives of the Son of Heaven and the foreign dignitaries who would accompany them back to China. Other ships met other needs: eight-masted ‘horse ships” carrying mounts to South Asia, which for climatic reasons could not easily raise these animals, along with building and repair materials; seven-masted supply ships, carrying principally food; six-masted troop transports; five-masted warships for naval combat; and smaller fast boats to deal with pirates. The fleet even included water tankers, to ensure a fresh supply for a month or more…

Since the shipwrights and their apprentices were generally illiterate, learning proceeded by example, using handcrafted models whose parts fitted perfectly without nails… The work itself was done in huge drydocks (China here anticipated European technology by hundreds of years) opening onto the Yangtze (Yangzi). In this way, over a period of three years, the Chinese built or refitted some 1,681 ships. Medieval Europe could not have conceived of such an armada…

Yet this Chinese opening to the sea and the larger world came to naught, indeed was deliberately reduced to naught.  In the 1430s a new emperor reigned in Peking, one who ‘knew not Joseph.’ A new, Confucian crowd competed for influence, mandarins who scorned and distrusted commerce (for them, the only true source of wealth was agriculture) and detested the eunuchs who had planned and carried out the great voyages. For some decades, the two groups vied for influence, the balance shifting now one way, now the other. But fiscality and the higher Chinese morality were on the Confucian side. The maritime campaign had strained the empire’s finances and weakened its authority over a population bled white by taxes and corvee levies.

The decision (early fifteenth century) to move the capital to Peking made things worse: new city walls, a palace compound of over nine thousand rooms, peasants liable in principle for thirty days service but kept at work for years running. The transportation bill alone-moving the court from Nanking, some eight hundred miles–drove tax surcharges upward. A few conscientious officials spoke up, but the imperial courtiers stifled them by severe and humiliating penalties. A prefect who protested the extra requisitions was put in a cage and wheeled in disgrace to the capital to be interrogated by the emperor. So much for duty. Meanwhile, on the northwest frontier, a changing but unchanging cast of nomadic raiders gave the empire no peace, draining resources and demanding undivided attention.  (The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations, pages 94-95.)

Those stupid Chinese just couldn’t get it right?  That’s what a reasonable person would conclude from the standard account, an account that most commentators accept.  Landes does not, oddly, ask what would have happened if the voyages had included a discovery of the New World.  Instead he laments that China failed to find Europe:

The abandonment of the program of great voyages was part of a larger policy of closure, of retreat from the hazards and temptations of the sea. This deliberate introversion, a major turning point in Chinese history, could not have come at a worse time, for it not only disarmed them in the face of rising European power but set them, complacent and stubborn, against the lessons and novelties that European travelers would soon be bringing.

Why? Why did China not make that little extra effort that would have taken it around the southern end of Africa and up into the Atlantic? Why, decades and even centuries after the arrival of European visitors in Chinese waters, were there no Chinese vessels in the harbors of Europe? (The first such vessel, a vehicle for diplomacy, visited London for the Great Exhibition of 1851.)  (Ibid. page 96)

Why on earth would the Chinese have wanted to visit 15th century Europe?  What would they have found had they got there?  The flowering of the Renaissance had still to come, they’d have found it no richer or more sophisticated than East Africa, and probably below the cultural level of India and the Islamic World.  As Adam Smith said, China had a wealth and sophistication that was ahead of even 18th century Europe, itself vastly improved over the days when the Chinese presumably decided it was too distant and poor to be worth bothering with.

The separation of craft and education as represented by China’s illiterate shipwrights was indeed a genuine weakness in the Chinese system.  Christian Europe always remembered that St Peter had been a fisherman and St Paul a tent-maker, and it was quite acceptable for learned people to also be involved in manufacturing.  The weakness of Confucianism was not so much that it rated agriculture and craft above merchant trade, but that it insisted on the educated being a learned caste distanced from all of these matters.

Yet if China had handicaps, it also had advantages.  An old sophisticated culture, a religious tolerance that avoided the religious wars that Europe was torn by.  Key matters not included in the standard account are:

  1. The 3rd Ming Emperor was a usurper, and one motive for the expeditions was to search for the deposed former Emperor, who was never found.
  2. It was this 3rd or Yung-lo Emperor who promoted both the south sea expedition and the move from Nanking on the Yangtze to Beijing on the northern frontier. (You’d never guess this from David Landes’ account, quoted above.)
  3. The repair of the Grand Canal between the Yangtze and Yellow River reduced the need for costal trade and made the sea generally less important.
  4. The Ming in the same period lost control of Vietnam, more or less ruled by the Central Empire for many centuries.
  5. The dynasty in the end failed to subdue the Mongols, who in fact inflicted a drastic defeat on the Ming in 1449. Around 1404-5, Tamerlane had also been plotting an invasion of China. And there were others besides.

I think the Ming were in many ways unlucky, and also they did do quite well on the historic scale.  I can’t help noticing parallels between their early history and the USA in the 2nd half of the 20th century.  You get the far-flung expeditions, to East Africa or to the Moon, which bring great prestige but little tangible reward.  The vain attempt to subjugate the Vietnamese after being drawn into a civil war.  And the unexpected collapse of a great enemy–the USSR for the USA and Timur’s empire for the early Ming.  Future historians may find the current period of US strength to be a brief interlude.

The Ming hardly had the same incentive for global trade that Europe had in the next century:

One advantage possessed by Europeans had been the powerful motives they had to succeed. The major thrust behind the Age of Reconnaissance had been their wish to get into easier and more direct contact with the Far East, the source of things badly wanted in Europe, at a time when the Far East wanted virtually nothing Europe could offer in exchange. When Vasco da Gama showed what he brought to give to a king, the inhabitants of Calicut laughed at him; he had nothing to offer which could compare with what Arab traders already brought to India from other parts of Asia. It was indeed just the known superiority of so much of the civilization of the Orient that spurred Europeans on to try to reach it on some more regular and assured basis than the occasional trip of a Marco Polo. Coincidentally, China, India and Japan were at something like a cultural peak in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The land blockade of Europe by the Turk made them even more attractive to Europeans than they had been before. There were huge profits to be made and great efforts could be justified.  (Penguin History Of The World, page 608)

There had long been guns in Asia, and the Chinese had known about gunpowder centuries before Europe, but the technology of artillery had stood still there. European craftsmanship and metallurgy had in the fifteenth century made great strides, producing weapons better than any available elsewhere in the world. There were still more dramatic improvements to come, so that the comparative advantage of Europeans was to increase, right down to the twentieth century. This progress had been and was to be, again, paralleled in other fields, notably by the developments in shipbuilding and handling which have already been touched upon. When combined, such advances produced the remarkable weapon with which Europe opened up the world, the sailing-ship which was a gun-carrier. Again, evolution was far from complete in 1517, but already the Portuguese had been able to fight off the fleets organized by the Turks to keep them out of the Indian Ocean. (The Turks had more success in keeping control of the Red Sea, because in those narrower waters the oar-propelled galley which closed with its enemies to grapple and board retained more of its usefulness. Even there, though, the Portuguese were able to penetrate as far as the Suez isthmus.) The Chinese war-junk would do no better than the rowed galley. The abandonment of the oar for propulsion and the mounting, broadside, of large numbers of guns, enormously multiplied the value of Europe’s scanty manpower. (Ibid., 609)

Wars On Two Fronts

The Ming dynasty were from first to last faced with powerful nomadic kingdoms that kept arising on their northern frontier with aspirations for conquest.  The Ming dynasty were an interlude of successful self-assertion by the majority culture of the Central Empire during a period of almost a thousand years in which warrior-nomads repeatedlyoverran their civilisation.

As for foreign peoples other than the Mongols, the Ming attitude was on the whole unaggressive: so long as they were not disruptive, the Ming emperors left them to themselves. The Hung-wu emperor [founder of the dynasty] made this his explicit policy. Even though he threatened the Japanese with punitive expeditions if they persisted in marauding along China’s coasts, he dealt with the problem by building strong fortresses and coastal-defense fleets that successfully repulsed the marauders. He did send an army to subdue T’u-lu-p’an in 1377 when the Turko-Mongol rulers of that oasis region rebelled and broke China’s traditional transport routes to the west. But he refused to intervene in dynastic upheavals in Nam Viet and Korea (where the Koryo fell to the Yi), and he was unmoved by the rise of the Turko-Mongol empire of Timur in the far west at Samarkand, even though Timur murdered Chinese envoys and planned to campaign against China.

The Yung-lo emperor was much more aggressive. He sent the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho on tribute-collecting voyages into Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and as far as East Africa. On one early voyage Cheng Ho intervened in a civil war in Java and established a new king there; on another, he captured the hostile king of Ceylon and took him prisoner to China. The Yung-lo emperor also reacted to turbulence in  Nam Viet by sending an expeditionary force that incorporated the area into the Ming domain as a province in  1407.

After the Yung-lo era the Ming government reverted to the founding emperor’s unaggressive policy toward foreign states. Nam Viet was abandoned in 1428 after protracted guerrilla-style resistance had thoroughly undermined Chinese control there. A new civil war in Nam Viet provoked the Chinese, after long and agonized discussion, to prepare to intervene there again in 1540; but the offer of ritual submission by a usurper gave the Chinese an opportunity to avoid war, and they welcomed it. On only two other occasions were Ming military forces active outside China’s borders: in 1445-46 when Chinese troops pursued a rebellious border chief into Burma despite Burmese resistance, and in 1592-98 when the Ming court undertook to help Choson (Korea under the Yi dynasty) repulse Japanese invaders, in a long and costly effort.

In order to preserve the government’s monopolistic control of foreign contacts and trade, and, at least in part,  to keep the Chinese people from being contaminated by “barbarian” customs, the Ming rulers prohibited private dealings between Chinese and foreigners and forbade any private voyaging abroad. The rules were so strict as to disrupt even coastal fishing and trading, on which large populations in the south and southeast had traditionally depended for their livelihood. Such unrealistic prohibitions were unpopular and unenforceable, and from about the mid-15th century Chinese readily collaborated with foreign traders in widespread smuggling, for the most part officially condoned. By late Ming times, also, thousands of venturesome Chinese had migrated to become mercantile entrepreneurs in the various regions of Southeast Asia and even in Japan.

In efforts to enforce its laws the Ming court closed all maritime trade supervisorates except the one at Canton early in the 16th century, and by the 1540s it had begun to reinvigorate coastal defenses against marauders throughout the southeast and the south.  (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

The Ming’s great contribution to China was its stability. Prosperity was registered in population growth rather than in a higher standard of living. At the founding of the dynasty, the population was reported to be close to 60 million, and modern scholars speculate that toward the end of the dynasty it might have approached 150 million. New crops imported from the Americas in the 16th century, including maize, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and tobacco, contributed to the population growth.

Many of Zhu’s more isolationist policies were undone by his son Zhu Di (Chu Ti), the Yongle (Yung-lo) Emperor. Not content with the existing boundaries of his domain, this expansionist emperor not only invaded Annam but also annexed it as a Chinese province. Between 1410 and 1424 he personally led five separate campaigns against the Mongols in the north. After considerable success in the early campaigns, Zhu Di moved the Ming capital to the northern city of Beijing (Peking) in 1421, so that he could oversee more closely the newly acquired northern territory. He kept up the attacks until his death of illness in the field in 1424.  (Microsoft Encarta)

A fair understanding of this alteration in the balance of power is found in the chronicle of Juan Gonsalez de Mendoza, an Augustinian friar, who was a member of a Spanish embassy to China in 1584. He wrote of the Chinese:

They have found by experience that to go forth of their owne kingdome to conquer others, is the spoile and loss of much people, and expences of great treasures, besides travaile and care which continually they have to sustaine that what is got, with feare to be lost again; so that in the meantime whilest they were occupied in strange conquests, their enemies the Tartarians and other kings borderers unto them, did trouble and invade them, doing great damage and harm … So they found it requisit for their quietnes and profite . to leave all they had got and gained, out of their own kingdome, but especially the countries as were farre off.  (Chinese Civilisation:  From the Ming Revival to Chairman Mao, page 46)

This same source also explains that the eunuch admiral’s forbears were Mongols of Muslim belief–Khubilai Khan had helped conquer Yunnan, and later used it as a convenient dumping-ground for his Muslim nomadic subjects, potential traitors in his wars with the western Mongols who went over to Islam.  But no doubt most of them were loyal, and some were happy to carry on this loyalty to the new ethnic-Han rulers of the Central Empire.

The expansionism of the Yung-lo Emperor was part of the generally turbulent life.  A younger son of the Ming founder, he managed to play the classic ‘wicked uncle’ along with all his other roles;

In 1380, at the age of 20, the Prince of Yen took up residence at Peking. The early Ming governmental system  provided that the Imperial princes other than the eldest son, who remained at Nanking as heir apparent, be enfeoffed in strategic areas as regional viceroys.

… when the old emperor died in the  summer of 1398 the Prince of Yen, in full vigour at the age of 38, considered himself the de facto head of the  Imperial clan and expected to be treated deferentially by his nephew… The young new emperor Chu Yün-wen had other intentions. Influenced by Confucian scholar-officials, he instituted a series of reforms unsettling to the newly stabilized government. One of his major goals was to take regional power away from the princes, and in 1398-99 one prince after another was imprisoned, exiled, or  driven to suicide. Thus the Prince of Yen found himself steadily more isolated and endangered, and in August  1399 he rose in rebellion, declaring it his avuncular duty to rescue the inexperienced emperor from his malicious advisers…

In early 1402 the Prince of Yen’s forces broke through the Imperial armies in the north, sped almost unopposed southward along the Grand Canal, accepted surrender of the Imperial fleet on the Yangtze River, and were admitted into the walled capital by court defectors in July 1402. Four days after the fall of Nanking, Chu Ti  took the throne himself, although his reign period did not begin until 1403. The emperor Chu Yün-wen had  disappeared. Whether he died in a palace fire (as was officially announced) or escaped in disguise to live many more years as a recluse is a puzzle that troubled Chu Ti until his own death and has been a subject of  conjecture by Chinese historians ever since…

The accession brought terrible retribution to those who had most closely advised Chu Yün-wen. They and all their relatives were put to death. Before the purge ended, thousands had perished. The new emperor also  revoked the institutional and policy changes of his nephew-predecessor and even ordered history rewritten so that the founding emperor’s era name was extended through 1402, as if Chu Yün-wen had never reigned at all…  (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

It was at this time, incidentally, that Timur made his plans to conquer China, presumably with the aid of the recently-overthrown Mongols.  Yet he had accepted formal inferiority in his dealing with the formidable founder of the Mings.

Ming forces even penetrated Central Asia … accepting the submission of several states in the Chinese Turkistan region. When Ming emissaries traversed the mountains to Samarkand, however, they were met with a different reception. Timur (one of history’s greatest conquerors) was building a new Mongol empire in that region, and the Chinese envoys were imprisoned. Eventually, they were released, and Timur and the Ming exchanged several embassies, which the Chinese regarded as tributary missions. Timur was preparing an invasion of China when he died in 1405… (Ibid.)

By this time the formidable Yung-lo Emperor was firmly in power, and my own view is that he’d have beaten Timur if the two had ever clashed.  Timur’s sudden death may have been due to someone in his inner circle making the same calculation.  Whatever about that, the Ming dynasty did consolidate itself under this enterprising usurper:

Like his father, Yung-lo had little personal respect for the higher forms of Chinese culture. In the fashion of the Mongol khans, he summoned to China and highly honoured a Tibetan lama, and the strongest intellectual influence on him may have been that of a Taoist priest named Tao-yen, a long-favoured personal adviser  Along more orthodox lines, his government sponsored the compilation and publication of Confucian and  Neo-Confucian Classics…

In the early years of his reign, he seems to have been fascinated by the regions beyond China’s southern  borders, perhaps in part because of rumours that the emperor Chu Yün-wen had escaped overseas. In 1403 the Yung-lo emperor sent out three fleets under eunuch commanders to proclaim his accession throughout Southeast Asia as far as Java and southern India. More vigorously than any other ruler in Chinese history, he  sought recognition from faraway potentates in these regions.

The Yung-lo emperor became the only ruler in Chinese history to be acknowledged suzerain by the Japanese, under the Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu. For a short time the Japanese were so docile as to send their own subjects to the Chinese court for punishment as piratical plunderers of the Korean and Chinese coasts. But the succession of a new shogun brought about a less submissive attitude in Japan; from 1411 on, no tribute missions arrived from Japan despite the Yung-lo  emperor’s inquiries, and Japanese raiders became active again on China’s coast. The Emperor then threatened  to send a punitive expedition against Japan if it would not reform. But in 1419, when the shogunate brusquely  denied responsibility for any piratical activities and refused to resume the former tributary relationship, the  Yung-lo emperor was too preoccupied with other matters to do more than grumble…

During the early years of the Yung-lo emperor’s reign, the northern frontier, traditionally the zone of greatest  danger to any Chinese regime, was relatively quiescent. At the outset of his Peking-based insurrection in 1402, the Yung-lo emperor had sought and won the support of the Mongol tribes directly to his rear, in northeastern China. In later payment for this support, he in effect gave these Urianghad Mongols virtual autonomy by withdrawing China’s command posts south of the Great Wall, and he regularly sent the Urianghad chiefs substantial gifts…

After his early years on the throne, the Yung-lo emperor’s attention was diverted from the south back to the northern frontier by the emergence of an effective new Tatar leader named Aruqtai. In 1410 the Yung-lo emperor resumed the aggressive extramural patrolling in the north that had preoccupied him as a prince in the 1380s and 1390s…

Peking was perhaps not the ideal site for the national capital: it historically had been associated primarily with “barbarian” dynasties such as the Yüan, it was far removed from China’s economic and cultural heartland, and it was dangerously close and exposed to the northern frontier. But it was the Yung-lo emperor’s personal power base, and it was a site from which  the northern defenses could be kept under effective surveillance. In 1407 the Emperor authorized transfer of  the capital there, and from 1409 on he spent most of his time in the north…

Before this transfer of the capital could be accomplished and before the northern defenses could be made satisfactorily secure, the Yung-lo emperor had to provide for the reliable transport of grain supplies from the affluent Yangtze Valley to the north. Since the old Grand Canal linking the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys  had been neglected for centuries and was largely unusable, coastal transport service around the Shantung peninsula was reorganized, and it proved spectacularly successful in the early years of the Yung-lo emperor’s  reign under the naval commander Ch’en Hsüan. Rehabilitation and extension of old waterways in the north proceeded simultaneously…

The Yung-lo emperor’s overseas expeditions, the ill-fated occupation of Annam, the northern campaigns, the rebuilding of Peking, and the rehabilitation of the Grand Canal all required enormous expenditures of supplies  and human effort. That China was able to undertake such projects during his reign gives evidence of the Yung-lo emperor’s strong leadership, but they seem to have left the country exhausted and ready for an era of recovery under his successors.  (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

Beginning in 1403, a series of remarkable long-distance voyages were made with large fleets of ocean-going junks, reaching to the East Indies, southern India, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and as far down the East African coast as Kenya. These were not merely trading exploits, for the ships were despatched by imperial command and carried diplomatic missions. States contacted during these voyages were expected to accept Chinese suzerainty, and the King of Sri Lanka and two Sumatran chieftains who defied Ming power were forcibly taken to China to make their submission. Any trade was usually much to the advantage of the Chinese, who were able to exchange goods of little real value beyond that of prestige for rare commodities…  In connection with these voyages, Annam [North Vietnam] was conquered in 1407 and made a province of the Chinese empire. It did not remain so for long, for by 1428 Chinese armies had been driven out. This reverse greatly diminished Ming prestige in South-east Asia and further afield, and many of the countries which had acknowledged Chinese superiority no longer did so. The long ocean voyages became much less profitable, and the last took place in 1431-3. They then ceased as suddenly as they had begun, though no doubt less-ambitious private trading ventures were still undertaken. After this time, the Ming made no further attempts at foreign expansion. (China: A Cultural History, pages 112-113)

Vietnam Wars

The loss of Annam–the northern part of modern Vietnam–may in fact have been as big a factor as the renewed Mongol threat in the abandonment of China’s overseas empire. China had directly ruled this territory for about a thousand years, but a distinct national identity had remained, and the Vietnamese had gone their own way after the collapse of the Chinese Tang dynasty.  The Yung-lo emperor briefly and unwisely tried to take them back into the Central Empire, probably as part of his overseas ambitions.  This was a return to a pattern that had existed under the Han empire many centuries before.

China’s main interest in holding the Red River delta, however, was its value as an important stopover for ships engaged in the Han dynasty’s nascent maritime trade with the East Indies, India, and even the Middle East. Vessels from many countries with which China developed commercial relations docked at the harbours of the Vietnamese coast, not only bringing new goods but also establishing contacts with a wider world and thus promoting the development of the country. In this process, which began early in the 1st century AD, economic, cultural, and political functions developed that the hereditary local lords were unfit to discharge–another reason why  direct Chinese rule through the importation of an increasing number of Chinese officials became necessary. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, entry for Vietnamese history)

In Ming times as in Han, the rulers of the Central Empire assumed that a South Seas policy needed direct control over the Vietnamese coast, not just a friendly tributary state.  The Yung-lo Emperor maybe knew just what he was doing when he annexed Vietnam, only in the end he could not hold all he had:

The drain of these wars on Vietnam’s resources, together with the declining vigour of its rulers, brought on a  deep economic and social crisis and the overthrow of the Tran dynasty in 1400. The deposed Tran ruler appealed to China to help him regain the throne. China, by then ruled by the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), readily complied with the request, and China again invaded Vietnam in 1407. The Ming set up a direct Chinese administration, and these officials resumed the policies of assimilation begun by their imperial  predecessors… By the beginning of the 15th century, the cultural evolution of the Vietnamese people had reached a point at  which any attempt to make them Chinese could only strengthen their nationalist sentiments and arouse their  determination to throw off the Chinese yoke.  (Ibid.)

Trade could of course continued in laissez fair fashion, without the government sending out huge numbers of advanced warships or having government-sponsored training for pilots, examinations for captains or officers and government officials entitled to say whether a privately-owned ship was entitled to sail the seven seas.  Such things were part of the British sea-going and militaristic culture that helped create a world-wide empire, but were not typical of China.

Cast in a very different mould was the sea-borne empire of Srivijaya. Just as Angkor enshrined the achievements of a land-based, non-trading Southeast Asian state during the classical period, so did Srivijaya represent the greatest achievement among maritime trading powers during this early phase of the Southeast Asian region’s history.

Srivijaya’s rise to power depended upon trade and upon China’s sponsorship. Put in a rather simplified form, the international trade pattern that was of greatest importance in the early period of South- east Asian history was the east-west trade between China and the region including India but stretching further west to Persia and beyond. Precious Western goods, including forest products believed to have medicinal qualities, were exchanged in China for silks and porcelain, lacquers and other manufactured items. By the seventh century control of much of this trade, at least for the trade passing backwards and forwards between the Indonesian islands, was in the hands of Malays whose chief centre of power was in southern Sumatra, on the eastern coast of that island.  (Milton Osborne, Southeast Asia, page 26-27)

For China, over a long historical period, the area described today as Southeast Asia was the Nanyang region, the region of the ‘southern seas’. Only Vietnam was ever directly ruled by China and only during one dynasty, the foreign Mongol or Yuan dynasty that ruled China from 1280 to 1368 AD, did Chinese emperors seek to impose their will on Southeast Asian countries other than Vietnam by force. The countries of the southern seas were, in Chinese eyes, lacking in discipline and order, and sadly without the proper Confucian state apparatus that permitted the Chinese state and Chinese culture to survive and progress despite foreign threat and internal political upheaval.

Such a region, in the Chinese view, could only function in a satisfactory fashion if the various Southeast Asian states were in a proper tributary relationship with China. Here is yet another instance in which the limits of vocabulary impede easy understanding. To be a tributary state of China did not mean that an individual Southeast Asian kingdom was ruled by the Chinese as part of some ill-defined Chinese empire. Rather, the tributary relationship was one that involved a considerable degree of give and take. The fact of being a tributary certainly involved agreement not to act contrary to Chinese interests, but the relationship also implied that China would protect its tributary’s interests against those who might challenge them. Most importantly for a trading state such as Srivijaya, the recognition that went with being granted tributary status was linked to the right to trade with China. Once China had granted this status to Srivijaya, the maritime trading states that were its rivals were at a severe disadvantage.  (Ibid, p 28).

Rightly or wrongly, the Central Empire assumed that Vietnam and South-Sea trade were two sides of the same coin, and that they either ran both or left both to run themselves along with ritual politeness to the ‘Son Of Heaven’.  Since Vietnam merely wished to govern itself, whereas the Mongols aspired to retake the Central Empire, the abandonment of the whole southern enterprise was a sensible concentration of force against the main threat.  There was indeed some common interest:

Mongol armies invaded Vietnam in 1257, 1285 and 1287; they ravaged Champa and raided Cambodia in 1283, and dominated Burma … They had earlier overrun … present-day Yunnan and pushed many of its Thai inhabitants towards their present-day home in Thailand. They seized Hanoi on three occasions, but the guerrilla tactics adopted by the Vietnamese under the determined generalship of Tran Quoc Toan eventually forced them out of the country. Emperor Tran Nhan Tong (1278-93), the general’s cousin, was thus able to resume the throne in triumph.

The Mongol invasions may have strengthened Vietnamese cultural ties with the subjugated Chinese. As early as 1076 the cult of Confucius had been introduced, and subsequent reforms confirmed an imperial model of government. Emphasis was placed on obedience to the throne, administration by salaried officials, the payment of taxes, and large-scale irrigation schemes. Not surprisingly the resurgent Ming dynasty in China, the scourge of Mongols, found in the Vietnamese rulers congenial tributaries, once all ambition of annexation was forgotten after 1427.  (Arthur Cotterell, East Asia: From Chinese Predominance To The Rise Of The Pacific Rim, page 82)

Accounts such as Wealth And Poverty Of Nations are tailored to New Right prejudices and ignore facts that you can easily find in standard reference works.  The Ming overseas venture were part of a general attempt by the Ming to expand their power, but they failed on the key matter of dealing with the northern nomads who had conquered the Central Empire before and would do it again.  Compared to the northern menace, control of the sea was a side issue.

Unrest in Japan itself after 1467 led to a failing away of raids, but the impression was left in the Chinese mind that all foreigners who arrived by ship were both unreliable and violent, a belief soon confirmed by the advent of European buccaneers.

Yet danger from the sea in the Ming period was never more than an irritant. Under Yong Le the might and splendour of the late empire was greater than that of any other state in East Asia, so that only Tamerlane, the fierce Central Asian conqueror, might have challenged the Ming, had he not died in 1405 on the north-western border of China. In 1407-8 imperial forces invaded northern Vietnam following a request by the son of its murdered king. The death of this prince in the fighting brought about re-annexation, and the setting up again of the old Tang commanderies. Yong Le personally dealt with the Mongols, who had regained strength after their hurried withdrawal from China: the blow of 1396 was seconded by a campaign in 1408, which reduced Mongol strength for a generation. A direct result of these victories on the northern frontier was the revival of Chinese influence in Central Asia, although direct Ming control stopped at the western end of the Great Wall.

At the same time as imperial forces campaigned in northern Vietnam, Yong Le revived the Chinese navy by dispatching a great fleet to visit countries in South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Between 1405 and 1433 the Ming dynasty mounted seven major seaborne expeditions. As a result the authority of the Son of Heaven was acknowledged by more foreign powers than ever before, even distant Egypt sending an ambassador. The admiral who commanded these ocean voyages was the grand eunuch Zheng He (1371-1435), a Muslim from Yunnan province, who proved a great seaman, a brave commander and an excellent envoy. The renown of the late empire was increased by his visits to friendly rulers who in return for accepting the suzerainty of Beijing, were presented with gifts and guaranteed protection. These voyages comprised the heroic years of the Ming dynasty, before reverses at the hands of the Vietnamese forced a Chinese evacuation in 1427, and the disastious defeat at Turnubao in 1449, when the emperor Ying Zong was taken a Mongol prisoner, resulted in the contraction of the northern frontier to the line of the Great Wall.

A purpose of the seaborne expeditions was the restoration of state trading, first introduced to protect the precious metals of China. The import of luxury items such as ivory, drugs and pearls had been a severe drain on the limited supply of silver available, and a regulation issued in 1219 specified the commodities to be used to pay for foreign imports–silk, brocades and porcelain. The last became the chief item of exchange under the Ming emperors, pieces of the famous ‘blue and white’ turning up in places as far away as Borneo and East Africa. That Zheng He’s intentions were essentially peaceful distinguishes Chinese maritime exploration from the policies of the Portuguese, the first Europeans to sail eastwards. Instead of spreading terror, slaving, and planting fortresses, Zheng He engaged in an elaborate series of diplomatic missions, exchanging gifts with distant kings from whom he was content to accept merely formal recognition of the Son of Heaven. The greed and intolerance of the conquistador was entirely absent. On only three occasions did Zheng He resort to force of arms.

The exact limits of Zheng He’s exploration are hard to determine, but a reasonable supposition would be that the Chinese invention of the magnetic compass allowed reconnaissance squadrons to reach the southernmost extremity of Africa, touch the northern coast of Australia, and sail widely in the Pacific. The observations of Ma Huan, who went as an official translator on three of the expeditions, provide invaluable detail of life in contemporary South-East Asia.  (Ibid., pages 101-102

The scholar-officials, strongly against the voyages from the beginning, were even more opposed to the prestige Zheng He and the eunuchs derived from their success. They were also becoming less profitable as trading ventures and the cost of mounting them pressed hard on the imperial exchequer.

Another consideration was the removal of the capital in 1421 to Beijing, the site of the former Mongol seat of power. The laying out of a city and a palace there shifted the centre of imperial gravity northwards and concentrated attention on the Great Wall. This line of defence soon ranked as the top priority, not least because of an important change among the nomadic peoples living to its north. On the steppe, a series of strong leaders emerged, who created confederations embracing most of the tribes. Ming preoccupation with this new threat caused a swift reduction of the imperial fleet, which Manchu indifference to sea-power later compounded, leaving China entirely exposed to European imperial ambitions. After the Mongol capture of emperor Ying Zong at Tumubao in 1449 the security of the northern frontier became a subject of heated debate between the advocates of offensive and defensive strategy.  (Ibid.)

The Ming dynasty did in fact survive in the face of various defeats, until the Manchus replaced them in 1644.

Instrumental in the policy of strengthened defences being accepted at the Ming court was Qiu Jun (1420-95), an official who argued that unless the Chinese controlled the Ordos, the expanse of semi-desert enclosed by the great northern loop of the Yellow river, the nomads were left with a perfect starting-point for attacks in a number of directions. New ramparts and strongholds were eventually built across the southern part of the Ordos, their line in the early sixteenth century being extended eastwards across mountainous country to the north of Beijing, until the coast was reached at Shanhaiguan. Its immense fortress, constructed astride the main route between China and Manchuria, was famous for the inscription carved above the outer gate: First Entrance under Heaven. Through this portal the Manchus in 1644 were to be admitted by general Wu Sangui as allies in the bitter civil war that ensued after the Ming collapse.

Impressive though the Ming rebuilding of the Great Wall was, for the first time China fell behind other countries in technology and science, experiencing a rude shock when in the 1590s imperial troops exchanged fire in Korea with Japanese expeditionary forces dispatched there by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The invaders were armed with superior guns based on the Portuguese matchlock. The Ming soldiers were themselves well equipped with cannon and explosives, but hardwood rather than copper or iron was the material from which their hand-guns were made, suggesting an underlying weakness in metallurgy. In the last decades of the dynasty the services of Jesuits in the casting of guns were much appreciated…

One foreign visitor who favourably impressed senior officials was the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), whose tolerance of practices with in obvious moral purpose such as ancestor worship was later denounced by other religious orders, until in 1705 a papal legate arrived to settle the controversy. But the Manchu emperor Qing Kangxi was not then prepared to countenance the claim of the Pope to international authority, and he announced that ‘henceforth We will admit to China those Westerners alone who choose permanent residence’. Possibly the lack of headway made by Christianity can also be explained by the contemporary reform of Buddhism, through the mission of Yungqu Zhuhong (1535-1615). Responding to the decline of the faith in a secular age, this monk placed emphasis on respect for life and social philanthropy. Those who chose the monastic path had to reject the world; the rest could find enlightenment through charity, filial piety and loyalty to the throne. It was the final Confucianisation of the Buddhist faith.

Religious revival aside, the final years of the Ming dynasty were typified by eunuch corruption, major epidemics, recurrent famines and, inevitably, frequent peasant revolts. Increased taxation drove people into rebellion under several leaders, one of whom, Li Zicheng, felt strong enough to declare himself first emperor of the Shun dynasty and in 1644 boldly march on Beijing. As there was little resistance to the advance, his followers easily took control of the capital, and in despair the last Ming emperor hanged himself.  (Ibid.)

Was this a fault in the civilisation, or sheer bad luck?  In that same period, Britain was tearing itself apart in the Civil War between King Charles and Parliament, and Vienna was still to experience the great Turkish siege of 1683, from which they were saved with the help of relief forces led by John III Sobieski, king of Poland.  Had King Charles won a quick victory, had Vienna fallen to the Turks and had the Ming been replaced by a native ‘Shun’ dynasty rather than the traditionalist Manchus, who knows how history would then have gone?

There are other possibilities.  The later Ming faced a serious threat from Japan, then under an outstanding ruler:

Toyotomi Hideyoshi had cut his own way to the top and thereby ended a century of civil war. His plans for conquest abroad were not then new, as he had already told Oda Nobunaga that one day he would defeat both Korea and China ‘like a man who tolls up a piece of matting and carries it under his arm’. But with no opposition left to his authority at home, the time for action abroad was at hand…

In 1590 he dispatched a third mission to Seoul with an ultimatum: either join Japan in an attack on Ming China or be attacked first. The scornful reply from Sonjo nettled him, especially the comparison of his proposed attack on China to that of a bee trying to sting a tortoise through its shell. It is obvious that, as a tributary ally of the Ming emperors, Sonjo fully expected Chinese soldiers to bear the brunt of any blows delivered by the Japanese invaders. Once the Japanese landed, however, the Korean people were so angry about the country’s unsteadiness for war that Sonjo and his ministers met abuse when they abandoned the capital. To general surprise, the salvation of the Yi dynasty owed more to the activity of the Korean navy than to that of the Ming armies rushed into the peninsula. For admiral Yi Sunsin (1548-98) effectively isolated the Japanese invasion force by breaking its sea communications. The campaign dragged on for five years because the Koreans adopted guerrilla tactics and a scorched-earth policy.  (Cotterell, East Asia, Page 108)

Japan had twice been invaded by the Central Empire under Kublai Khan, and defeated both invasions.  It had been threatened with a third invasion by the Yung-lo Emperor, but nothing had come of it.  It had then tried its own Imperial venture, but failed even to conquer Korea.  So it decided to limit and regulate trade, concentrate on improving its own way of life.  That both China and Japan would eventually become vulnerable to the swarming European traders would not have seemed a serious possibility.

The distinguishing thing about Western Europe was not that it tried overseas conquest, but that it had an early and brilliant success against the relatively weak Empires of the New World.  Possession of gold and silver from America gave Spain the means to trade all over the world, long before anyone in Asia wanted European goods.  And rivalry with Spain–plus the example of riches won relatively cheaply–led the Dutch, French and British to venture into the world’s oceans in the wake of the Spanish and Portuguese.

Meantime China was concentrating on holding what it had.  The much-derided Great Wall did in fact work for conserving the civilisation of the Central Empire over the centuries.  Conquest through the Great Wall required a large coherent tribal coalition, which would then become a new dynasty, rather than fragmenting the culture.  The Wall did not always save dynasties, but did conserve the civilisation as a whole.  This contrasts with the Latin Roman Empire, which also had its walls, Hadrian’s Wall and the Rhine and Danube defences.  These defences failed, small bands of tribal warriors pushed through or went round. Byzantium too eventually perished, because it could not find any similar coherent line to hold.

Critics of the Great Wall of China seem to think it was intended as a glorified city wall, an absolute barrier.  It never was seen that way, as illustrated by the fact that it had defensive works on both sides, and was much more a fortified military road and frontier-marker than an impermeable line.

When China was strong under a native dynasty, there were vast swaths of inner Asia still to settle.  It didn’t need a new frontier, it always had an old one it had been dealing with for longer than recorded history.  (All of the Native American tribes together would have been insignificant in the armies of Genghis Kahn.)

H G Wells is one writer who did grasp this point.  Speaking of Han dynasty China, he says:

China at this time was the greatest, best organized and most civilized political system in the world. It was superior in area and population to the Roman Empire at its zenith. It was possible then for these two vast systems to flourish in the same world at the same time in almost complete ignorance of each other. The means of communication both by sea and land were not yet sufficiently developed and organized for them to come to a direct clash.

Yet they reacted upon each other in a very remarkable way, and their influence upon the fate of the regions that lay between them, upon central Asia and India, was profound. A certain amount of trade trickled through, by camel caravans across Persia, for example, and by coasting ships by way of India and the Red Sea. In 66 B.C. Roman troops under Pompey followed in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, and marched up the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea. In A. D. 102 a Chinese expeditionary force under Pan Chau reached the Caspian, and sent emissaries to report upon the power of Rome. But many centuries were still to pass before definite knowledge and direct intercourse were to link the great parallel worlds of Europe and eastern Asia.

To the north of both these great empires were barbaric wildernesses. What is now Germany was largely forest lands; the forests extended far into Russia and made a home for the gigantic aurochs, a bull of almost elephantine size. Then to the north of the great mountain masses of Asia stretched a band of deserts, steppes, and then forests and frozen lands.

For a time there were simultaneously two fairly effective empires in the world capable of holding back the barbarians and even forcing forward the frontiers of the imperial peace. The thrust of the Han Empire from north China into Mongolia was strong and continuous. The Chinese population welled up over the barrier of the Great Wall. Behind the imperial frontier guards came the Chinese farmer with horse and plough, ploughing up the grasslands and enclosing the winter pasture. The Hunnish peoples raided and murdered the settlers, but the Chinese punitive expeditions were too much for them. The nomads were faced with the choice of settling down to the plough and becoming Chinese taxpayers or shifting in search of fresh summer pastures. Some took the former course and were absorbed…  (Ibid, p 130–131.

China is analogous to what Europe as a whole might have become, had Charlemagne managed to permanently reunify it.

As it happened, Europe never did recover the brief unity the Romans had imposed on it.  Charlemagne’s heirs divided the Empire and the eventual result was a diversity of kingdoms able to go their separate ways.

Another significant factor was the nomadic invasions.  The Chinese under the Sung developed the entire cultural package that Western Europe later used to conquer the rest of the world.  But the Sung were invaded by three formidable peoples, the Liao, the Jin or Kin and then the Mongols, followed a couple of centuries later by the Manchus. Europe only had to face the Mongols, and yet it is commonly believed that this knocked back Kievian Russia and left it as Europe’s backward fringe.

Europe like China had suffered breakdowns in the past, with invaders destroying the existing empires, a pattern seen repeatedly in many parts of the world.

By the second quarter of the fifth century a great war chief had arisen among the Huns, Attila. We have only vague and tantalizing glimpses of his power. He ruled not only the Huns but over a conglomerate of tributary Germanic tribes; his empire extended from the Rhine across the plains into Central Asia. He exchanged ambassadors with China. His head camp was in the plain of Hungary east of the Danube. There he was visited by an envoy from Constantinople, Priscus, who has left us an account of his state. The way of living of these Mongols was very like the way of living of the primitive Aryans they had replaced. The common folk were in huts and tents, the chiefs lived in great stockaded timber halls. There were feasts and drinking and singing by the bards. The Homeric heroes and even the Macedonian companions of Alexander would probably have felt more at home in the camp-capital of Attila than they would have done in the cultivated and decadent court of Theodosius 11, the son of Areadius, who was then reigning in Constantinople.

For a time it seemed as though the nomads under the leadership of the Huns and Attila would play the same part towards the Graeco-Roman civilization of the Mediterranean countries that the barbaric Greeks had played long ago to the Aegean civilization. It looked like history repeating itself upon a larger stage. But the Huns were much more wedded to the nomadic life than the early Greeks, who were rather migratory cattle farmers than true nomads. The Huns raided and plundered but did not settle.  (Wells, pages 157-158)

Throughout the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth centuries there was a steady drift of Mongolian peoples westward. The Huns of Attila were merely precursors of this advance, which led at last to the establishment of Mongolian peoples in Finland, Estonia and Hungary, where their descendants, speaking languages akin to Turkish, survive to this day. The Bulgarians also are a Turkish people, but they have acquired an Aryan speech. The Mongolians were playing a role towards the Aryanized civilizations of Europe and Persia and India, that the Aryans had played to the Aegean and Semitic civilizations many centuries before.

In Central Asia the Turkish peoples had taken root in what is now Western Turkestan, and Persia already employed many Turkish officials and Turkish mercenaries. The Parthians had gone out of history, absorbed into the general population of Persia. There were no more Aryan nomads in the history of Central Asia; Mongolian people had replaced them. The Turks became masters of Asia from China to the Caspian.  (Ibid., page 164)

Note that ‘Aryan’ was then a neutral term without racial connotations, indicating membership of what is now known as the Indo-European language family.  He’s wrong about the Finns and Estonians, incidentally, they seem to have lived where they are now for as long as there are records.  Whereas Hungarians were indeed nomadic invaders in the beginning, before becoming fully assimilated to European civilisation.

It may indeed have been the ready way in which kingdoms of Germans, Slavs, Hungarians etc. could assimilate Europe’s Greek and Roman heritage that gave Europe a decisive advantage.  It also helped that lands that were a source of barbarian tribesmen in the days of the Roman Empire could later convert to settled agriculture and found their own cities, whereas Mongolia was and remains land that only a nomad could live on.

First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 63, Spring 2001

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