Wednesday, February 13, 2008

China and the West 2: The Chángmáo

When we left Ming China, Admiral Zheng He, that ballsiest of nutless adventurers, had sailed the ocean blue for the greater glory of the Imperial Throne.

It turns out that he didn't sail around the world - but given the relative sopistication of China compared to the fractious upstarts coming out of Europe - why didn't he...or someone else from China?Certainly the technological and military balance was pretty even, and politically the organization and discipline of the Ming administrators has to get the nod over the greedy, quarreling nobles of Western Europe.

We also talked about Diamond's "guns, germs and steel" hypothesis, which posits European dominance over Africa and the Americas resulting from a fortuitous combination of better food production, better domesticated plants and animals, better metallurgy, better weapons and military techology (e.g., cavalry), better transport and communication, and better political organization.

But none of these really apply to China, do they? Perhaps the single real advantage the Europeans had was military: the Western troops, small as they were in numbers, seem to have little difficulty defeating the Qing banner armies whenever they meet them. But nothing in history, and nothing in Diamond's formula, explains why we today look at China as struggling to emerge from the Third World while the United States and Europe are the very definition of the First.

What seems to have happened at the end of Zheng He's voyaging were multfarious crises in Ming governace: Mongol, and then Manchu, pressure in the north and military defeat in Vietnam in the south, fiscal difficulties, famine and crop losses driven by Little Ice Age cold. The Ming state could no longer afford the outward-seeking policies of the Yongle Emperor. The fleets were laid up; the great voyaging dwindled and stopped. Qing succeeded Ming as the Manchu banners flowed south over the Great Wall, and China's journey outwards slowed, a sluggish dragon outpaced by the hungry wolves from the West.
So my next volume brings us more than 400 years closer to the present: to southern China in the mid 19th Century. It is "God's Chinese Son" by Jonathon Spence, a biography of 洪秀全; Hóng Xiùquán, the "Heavenly King" of the Taiping Rebellion

The rebellion itself has been heavily researched, and I don't have much to add to the historical record. But if the last voyage of Zheng He is the end of the beginning for Imperial China as a global power, the story of the Changmaos, the Coolie Kings, is in its way the beginning of the end. Before the Changmao, Imperial Qing was shaky but upright, after the horrific carnage in the south that may have killed 20 million the Manchu rule was finished; only the timing of the end was in question.

The real revelation of the Taiping was the utter incapacity of the Chinese Imperial Troops. In less than a decade the peasant rebels grew to a disciplined army of over a million. The Taipings regularly beat Imperial forces for a decade, until the 1860's and Imperial reorganization following the arrival of Western officers like Ward and Gordon. With this assistence the Taiping army was destroyed and the Heavenly Kingdom crushed.

No matter: the Manchu banners still proved consistently incapable of stopping Western troops. The second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th is a sorry tale of Chinese defeat and humiliation. Vast areas fell apart, into the hands of warlords, into poverty and desuetude. China became the "sick man of Asia", an image that still hangs on in Western thought.
So, if the physical and economic strengths of China and the West were so well matched, why did China lose in the first direct confrontation between the two? Why did China become the Third World,not central Europe?

I think that there a host of causes, but two were paramount:

First, - as one commentor has already suggested in the comments section of Part 1 of this post - Imperial China was self-centered: Thousands of years of thinking of the Middle Kingdom as the center of the world, and the imperium as the center of the Middle Kingdom meant that China tended to turn inward, rather than outwards, under stress. Central rule made for more organization but tended to suppress the Columbus', the Cortezes, the Wards, who would otherwise might have taken Chinese culture rudely to the heathen. Chinese experience made it difficult for Chinese to imagine a conqueror who didn't want to become Chinese, only looking for spoil. This made China's "weternization" pretty halfhearted (compare it with Meiji Japan) Only after the Imperial throne was soundly defeated could Sun Yat-sen, Mao and their contemporaries begin truly adopting western ideas. And,

Second, Confucian values put very low worth on hard men and women. Confucius is said to have stated; "A man does not use good iron for nails, nor good men for soldiers." Looking through Chinese military history what jumps out is the number of truly incompetent officers placed over Chinese soldiers and sailors. Usually underpaid and underfed, outgeneraled, outgunned and outmatched, Chinese troops, even fighting for their homes, were usually a minor irritant to Western, or Japanese, attackers hungry for gain. This makes Confucius a good man to consult in time of peace, but not so much in hard times. And having no structure to accomodate the soldier into society helped lead to warlordism: all but useless in wartime but a plague in peacetime...

And so.

What makes the failure of late Imperial China to continue looking outward so poblematic is what a Chinese world might have meant for the peoples of Africa and the Americas. The Chinese wanted trade and obesiance more than rule; most tributary states were left alone bar a token embassy to do homage to the Emperor. Both China and Europe would have brought the germs - but the Chinese would have been unlikely to follow with the steel. A world dominated by Imperial China would not have been of neccessity "better" than the Eurocentric world we have now, but it would have been very, very different.
Update 2/14: an anonymous commentor asserted; "It turns out the Chinese did sail around the world". But my point was't - and isn't - to dispute claims for individual Chinese mariners making landfall in the Americas or Africa. I'm sure that some did, both before and after the great Ming treasure fleets. It was - and is - to point out the historic anomaly that the most advanced culture in the world never impacted the world as it probably should have...and was eventually invaded itself, and humiliated, by us Western upstarts. I have no doubt that somewhere buried in the sands of the Western Hemisphere is the wreckage of a Chinese ship older than Columbus. But that's not the point. The point is that the English the Dutch, the Spanish, French and Portugese built new nations on the wreckage of the peoples of Africa and the Americas. China - which was rich in science and culture when these Europeans were feudal savages - did not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It turns out the Chinese did sail around the world. Never mind the spate of fiction writers’ take on the fantasy of a Zheng He global voyage and discovery of America, evidence preserved in Europe shows that the Chinese did it. Few people know about this because those threatened by the notion shun it, but you can review the proof and evidence in both the book “The 1421 Heresy” and the documentary DVD “Pre-Columbian Chinese Exploration of the World”.