China, during the Sung dynasty, was technologically centuries ahead of feudal Europe and yet did not dominate the world by the 19th century. Scrutiny of social values, government structure, and national objectives can help explain why.
Technologically, China was far more advanced than Europe during the Sung Dynasty. Paper and printing, advanced ship designs, gunpowder, the magnetic compass, and the clock are some notable Chinese scientific innovations of this era. Water and buffalo driven machines, as advanced as 18th century Europe, powered China’s salt drilling industry (Nova, 1990). Zeng He, the great Chinese explorer, owned a treasure fleet of 317 ships “the largest of which were four hundred feet long (compared with eighty-five feet of Columbus’s Santa Maria)” (Stokes, 2001:4). China’s centralized government promoted such innovations, while Europe, strongly divided among quarreling nation-states, could not.
Much of China’s technological progress was made possible by its social structure which held scholars, civil servants, and even farmers socially above merchants. The Chinese had an honor based society in which becoming a highly educated civil servant to improve general welfare was more desirable than making money. Even the sons of wealthy merchants would abandon their family business and study to become civil servants (Nova, 1990). They were inspired by ‘selfless officials’ such as the great scholar Li Bing and explorer Zeng He. Li Bing devised a series of dams which prevented damage from seasonal floods near Beijing (Nova, 1990). Zeng He made seven great voyages on the Indian ocean as far as Madagascar (Stokes, 2001:5). In contrast, the capitalist European society valued entrepreneurship over scholarship. Scarce natural resources, capitalistic ideology, and the promise of abundant wealth in Asia and slave trade in Africa, gave Europeans an incentive for Imperialism.
After the Ming dynasty arose, foreign exploration, astrological research, and overseas exploration were strongly discouraged. For example, Zeng He’s massive treasure fleet and the Chinese navy were disbanded and the ships were left to rot (Nova, 1990). Instead, the Ming rulers attended to internal political problems and promoting agriculture. For example, the Ming issued for the extension of the Grand Canal from Hangdou to Beijing (Nova, 1990). This inward-looking stance led to a “systematic resistance to learning from other cultures” (Stokes, 2001:2) was China’s greatest handicap, argues Landes (Stokes, 2001:2). In contrast, Europeans had the “ability to assimilate knowledge from around the world and put it to use” (Stokes, 2001:2). This handicap had isolated China from new technology and territorial expansion, as Europe, without a central government to discourage exploration, began their Imperialistic campaigns in the 19th century.
Differences in social values, government structure, and national objectives can be used to explain why China did not dominate the world by 19th century. However, it was mostly due to the decision of Ming rulers of halting foreign affairs, exploration, and astrological research that China did not dominate the world.
Stokes, G. (2001). “Why the West? The Unsettled Question of Europe’s Ascendancy.” Lingua Franca 11(8, November 2001): Cover story.
Nova: The Genius That Was China, 1990. Video. USA: Nova.