China II: China and the West

(Published in Grail World 6/1998)

In medieval Europe, next to nothing was known about the Chinese giant empire. It was not until Marco Polo, who had traveled to China for two decades and got to know thoroughly, reported about his adventures, that Europe received the first halfway reliable information.

"China is a sea that salts all the rivers that flow through it." 
Marco POLO (1254 - 1324).

What Marco Polo wrote down seemed so unbelievable and exaggerated to his contemporaries that they mocked him as “Marco Milione” and turned him into a popular joke that is still a symbol of a show-off in carnival parades. But the doubts about Marco's hard-to-digest reports were - as we mostly assume today - probably unjustified. Everything that he was able to describe from his own experience corresponded to the facts; only in exceptional cases had he adopted unreliable claims by third parties, for example when he wrote about regions that he could not travel himself.

The wisdom of China does not only include the “stratagems”, the “lists of war” that were sketched in the first part of this Asia series. The people of the gigantic empire also always felt obliged to strive for harmony and balance, which for a long time made it possible for China to take precedence over the West in many areas. Part 2 of our Asia series deals with the - never unproblematic - relationship between the “yellow giant” and the West and, from the historical context, makes the unbelievable upswing that characterizes today's China understandable.

In Marco Polo's time, under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, China was the jewel of a Mongol empire that stretched from the Yellow Sea to India, from the Siberian steppes to the Black Sea. China was the world's leading center in terms of culture and science, and many, almost all of the pioneering inventions that later enabled Europe to rise to global prominence came from China via the Middle East: crossbows, water-powered cotton spinning machines, stern rudders, cannons , Compass, land mines, use of oil and natural gas, paper, paper money, porcelain, rocket, gunpowder, silk spinning and weaving, bulkheads on ships, underwater mines, wind refining of steel ...

The list can be expanded, and the question remains why Chinese culture, which was vastly superior to European civilization in the Middle Ages, stagnated in modern times, i.e. from around the 15th century, and then in the 19th century by Europeans and Americans who took over the country wanted to exploit, could be played on the wall.

The answer is frustratingly bitter, especially from a Chinese perspective.

The unification of the empire and its consequences
Between 230 and 221 BC China, consisting of seven kingdoms, was united by the king of Qin, who became the first emperor of China as Shi Huangdi of Qin.
The unification of the empire was of immense importance. It brought peace after centuries of war and made it possible to replace feudal kingdoms with a unique form of bureaucratic feudalism. The creation of a class of civil servants and bureaucrats to work all over China on behalf of the emperor meant that inventions made in one part of the country could easily be disseminated throughout the empire. Moreover, a united empire encouraged a high level of technical specialization; For example, iron and steel production were developed to meet the demand for standardized products.
Shi Huangdi introduced a uniform system of coins, weights and measures. He even standardized the axle width of the carts and wagons to prevent damage to the Reichsstraßen. Military technology had also been standardized, thus allowing large-scale mass production of cast iron weapons.
The unification of the empire brought peace within the national borders, but the nomadic tribes still threatened the northwestern regions. This threat made large standing armies necessary, which had to be maintained by the state.
At the time of the Western Han Dynasty, the state monopolies for important commodities such as salt and iron, in addition to traditional resources from agriculture, provided the state income that enabled the maintenance of such an extensive military and civil administration.
As early as 119 BC There were at least 46 state-run iron foundries in China. In Henan, the scope of cast iron production was enormous - whatever the standards. The core or “salamander” of a destroyed crucible was found that weighed 20 to 25 tons; Such a melting capacity was not reached in Europe until the 18th century. In 806 China was producing 13,500 tons of iron annually, but in 1078, during the Song Dynasty, it was already 125,000 tons. This time represented a high point in industrial development.
State monopolies on important goods such as salt and iron - they correspond to the "nationalization" of key industries in today's world - existed early in Chinese history. This enabled the standardization of consumer goods and filled the state coffers. The manufacture of agricultural implements from iron was once again turned into a state monopoly in 1083. This meant that hoes, plows, harrows and scythes were manufactured in enormous numbers. The need for iron tools and the growing Chinese market rewarded specialization and technical innovations. At that time, 32,000 pieces of armor in three standardized sizes were manufactured in two state arsenals. Iron and steel were also used in the construction of bridges, even in the construction of an iron pagoda seventy feet high.
The iron ploughshare and harrow found widespread use in northern China; with it you could plow the ground deep, which increased the yield quite considerably. In the northern provinces, where wheat and millet were the main crops, farmers used mechanical seed drills, perhaps from India, to sow in even rows. This was a very significant technical innovation, as it not only allowed weeding between the rows of seeds, but also made watering easier. Until then, sowing had been done by hand, a wasteful and inefficient practice. (The seed drill, at least its concept, may well have come from China to Europe in the 18th century, where it was introduced into agriculture by the well-known British agricultural reformer Jethro Tull (1674-1741).)

The development of Europe

This "old continent" was split up into many small states that fought jealously and embroiled one another in wars. All efforts to unite Europe in unified action failed. Neither the crusades nor the attempts of several popes to create a “Holy Roman Empire” that should encompass all of Europe, could overcome the old quarrel.

When the bubonic plague swept away a third of Europe's population in the 14th century, old medieval social structures (such as the Fronsystem) collapsed. But it was precisely this catastrophe that created space for the new, for the rise of cities and the mercantilism symbolized by the urban marketplace. There was also land enough. Agriculture could be generous with the soil, afford ample pastures for draft animals; she was not forced to use the most intensive cultivation methods in order to feed the slowly growing population.

The many rivalries and wars even turned out to be the driving force behind developments. Weapons technology and shipbuilding were promoted and enabled Europeans from the 15th century onwards on the great voyages of discovery that led to colonialism and the “conquest of the world”.

The development of China

The yellow empire also suffered civil wars, partitions, and attacks from outside; it was conquered by the Mongols and occupied by the Manchu. But in the end, Chinese culture prevailed over the conquerors, and the largest central empire in East Asia rose again and again.

After the overthrow of the cosmopolitan Mongols with the outstanding Kubilai (1215 - 1295) and the Yuan dynasty he founded, the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) brought back emperors focused on China to power. They found that China has so far only been threatened from the land; they were no longer interested in foreign trade and allowed the Chinese fleet to deteriorate.

China closed itself off from the outside world. The Ming Emperor Gaozong said:
“China produces all goods in abundance. So why should we buy useless trinkets abroad? "

There was also an "agricultural revolution" in China in the 11th century. An improved rice variety brought yields per hectare, such as was not achieved in Europe until the 20th century. However, the new cultivation of wet rice required complex irrigation methods, which again required a large-scale organization and encouraged the Chinese system of officials.

After all, two harvests per year were possible in the Yangzi Delta. The highly productive agriculture was able to feed more and more people. At the same time, the rural exodus was slowed - unlike in Europe - because wet rice cultivation is very labor-intensive

The Chinese ideals of the pursuit of harmony and balance in all areas, increasing population numbers, and the growing dependence on rice cultivation with its extensive irrigation systems, made the needs of agriculture the focus of state interest. The imperial administration with its well-organized civil servants ensured order and spread improved cultivation methods throughout the empire.

But this conservative administration left little room for social reforms and stuck strictly to the traditional.

China's seafaring
Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese admiral Zheng He commanded seven flotillas, each of which consisted of 62 ships with a total of 40,000 men.
Zheng He called at ports in Ceylon, Sumatra and India. He explored the coasts of East Africa, visited Mecca (he was a Muslim) and brought insubordinate kingdoms to reason. The largest ships in what was then the most powerful fleet in the world could take five hundred men on board. They were five times the size of the Portuguese caravels and heavily armed with cannons.
If Vasco da Gama (1468 - 1524) had penetrated into India seven decades earlier, the superior Chinese fleet would have devastated him.
Then in 1411 the enlarged Imperial Canal was opened. Grain transports to the capital no longer had to find the way across the sea, and the large war fleet to protect against Japanese pirates was superfluous. The fleet was abolished and foreign trade was made more difficult. In 1433, the emperor finally banned Chinese merchants from traveling abroad.
The famous "treasure ships" of the Zheng He disappeared, and in 1550 a Chinese scholar declared that the knowledge of building such large ships had been lost.
In Europe, however, the time of the great seafarers had dawned, who were soon to penetrate as far as East Asia.

China and the West

In 1517 the first Portuguese ships appeared off the Chinese coast and landed in Guangzhou. The Chinese were frightened by the "unruly behavior" of the foreign barbarians by Chinese standards.

When Portuguese sailors occupied the island of Tamao a year later without asking and built a fort there, they were treated like pirates and driven away.

Nevertheless, Europeans were allowed to set up trading establishments a little later, which in Europe were regarded as colonies, even though they were only rented.

In the 17th century, Jesuit monks, who had acquired the best knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, managed to penetrate to the imperial court. With European wheel clocks, with mathematical and astronomical knowledge that was superior to the knowledge of the Chinese scholars, they managed to impress the emperor and his advisors. Nevertheless, China was still far from taking the civilization of the “barbarians from the west” seriously, or even assuming that it could be superior to the Chinese. Attempts to establish Christianity as the state religion also failed.

The bad awakening for the Chinese then followed in the 19th century: The West's China trade - especially England - had expanded enormously. Silk, porcelain, silverware and, of course, tea from China were in increasing demand in Europe, but also in the USA. Most of these goods had to be paid for in gold and silver, as China refused to import European products and thus violated a political program that was heavily propagated at the time: “free trade”.

So it finally came to the war (the infamous "Opium War", which we talked about in Part III. the China series will die) - and proud, great China had to bow to the superior weapons of the West.

Harmony or freedom

In world history cultures and civilizations have repeatedly risen and then descended. But no high civilization has lasted uninterruptedly for longer periods than that of the Chinese.

China was once the most progressive, modern country in the world. It provided the West with the inventions that made Europe and America strong and influential.

Then China fell back because in its (misunderstood?) Striving for harmony it considered calm, peace, order, adherence to proven traditions to be worth striving for and individual freedoms to be superfluous. A sprawling caste of civil servants took on the administration and was not interested in changes.

Eventually the Chinese system began to freeze in its traditions. The officials were considered corrupt, and a poorly trained, uninformed and unfree people with their superstitious ideas sometimes inhibited progress more than the traditionally committed civil servants.

In Europe - seen through Chinese eyes - there was a creative chaos that spilled over into boundless freedom in America. The race against each other proved to be an incentive for trend-setting achievements. The inventions once adopted by China have been further developed. They allowed Europeans and Americans to fear the Chinese in the 19th century.

As sympathetic as the Chinese striving for harmony, for balance, for a contemplative life may seem to us today, it was an expression of a tired culture and probably also not in accordance with the law of creation of the movement. “Standstill is decline” - the Chinese had to learn that painfully from their history.

It is evident today that they learned lessons from this; for now the fronts may have turned: the “creative chaos” reigns today in East Asia, while Europe is well on the way to resting on past achievements.

Now we in the West would like to “leave everything as it was”, preserve what we have achieved, not take any risks and - not unlike the Chinese of past centuries - retreat to a meticulously administered, not exactly innovation-friendly official state. But the world is changing rapidly, and progress has never waited for stragglers who are slow to walk.

Or do we even flirt with a direction in which the comfortable, left-green compass points; a path that ultimately ends in the socialist poor house? (See. "Intelligence ticks left")

Maybe now is the time that weather learn from Chinese history after the Chinese have already adopted more of western science and technology than we would like! -

Continued "China III"

Also read: "1421 When China discovered the world"Under" Book Reviews "and"Was Marco Polo in China?"Under" history "

John Merson "Streets to Xanadu", China and the emergence of the modern world, Hoffman and Campe, Hamburg 1989.