Why Columbus Was Not Chinese An argument for decentralised rule
Christopher Columbus, the world’s most famous explorer, represents a unique case study in world history and innovation. He is regarded as being a (very) controversial figure, his story being filled with mass murders and enslavement. However, he may have left us a unique perspective about where innovation come from and how we can encourage it.
One country to rule them all
The history of China is about China (mostly), while the history of Europe is simultaneously about the whole world and about hundreds of duchies, petty kingdoms and a few dozen important feudal (and later absolutist) structures that would come to rule the world. These two parts of the world turned out very differently from each other, even though they were more or less at the same level of development 600 years ago. In fact, China might have had the upper hand in economic terms for much of written history, owing to its large size and unified polity. The source of Europe’s advancement in recent centuries is represented by the outward focus of the continent. This focus refers to exploration, colonisation and trade, these practices funnelling wealth back to the prosperous ports of Amsterdam, Lisbon, Seville or London. The first reason why these shifts happened in Europe and not in the Far East might be that of the unified rule that China enjoyed for much of its history. While the first dynasties (the Xia, Shang and Zhou) ruled over much of Eastern China, the Qin Dynasty is credited for the first proper unification, proclaiming the formation of the Empire. From 221 BC the Qin managed to centralize their rule, expand the borders of the empire and develop its land in economic terms while allowing the trade to flow. This trend would continue under the Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. (Huisken, 2010)
These dynasties varied greatly in terms of accomplishments, some being more “benevolent” than others. However, what remains constant is the ambition of Chinese rulers to unify what had been broken up during messy transitions of power. Similar to the 20th century “warlord period”, China found itself in periods where the title of Emperor of China was disputed by numerous factions. Nonetheless, a unified China is a rule, not an exception, especially if we think of the “chaotic” borders that described Europe for much of its history, the only similar case being that of the Roman Empire which managed to unify the Mediterranean Sea.
However, a fractured Europe and a unified China are two different stories, the main protagonist being geography. In this regard, there is a simple rule: mountains, deserts and forests promote factionalism while rivers and plains promote unity (Mackinder, 1904). The latter is especially true for the heartland of Chinese culture, the Pearl, Yellow and Yangtze rivers promoting unity and cultural homogeneity while the inhospitable terrain in the North, South and West represented a barrier against possible invasions. Europe, however, has a greatly different ethnic and governmental composition due to natural barriers such as the Alps or the Pyrenees.
Chinese efforts to explore the world
China’s isolationism is far more well-known in the West. However, long before Europe’s Age of Discovery, China did have an outward focus. From 1405 to 1433, Ming China’s treasure fleets, led by admiral Zheng He, travelled all around the known world, even reaching as far as East Africa, but also visiting Persia, India and the South-Eastern Asian archipelago of the Philipines, Indonesia and Malaysia. These endeavours were meant to display power and create a global diplomatic network while opening up new trading opportunities and also establishing new tributaries for Beijing. These fleets were made up of hundreds of ships, many of those being enormous in size, never before seen in the world and had total crews of tens of thousands of sailors on board. (Gronewald, 2009)
The Age of Discovery seemed to have started in East Asia, long before the Portuguese objective to secure spices for the European markets. In spite of that, there is no American city by the name of “New Nanjing”.
The importance of competition
A unified China represents the core of Chinese ambitions over the course of the region’s history. However, this unification was the liability which eventually put China in a position where it could not compete with the European powers. If China would have carried out its outward expansion and exploration, it would have had a greater chance of avoiding the “century of humiliation” characterised by unequal treaties and concessions demanded by the West. The Chinese voyages ended in a purely bureaucratic manner. The imperial eunuchs (who found themselves several times in positions of power at the Imperial Court) who supported the voyages lost influence in favour of opposing factions who had no interest to support these costly endeavours. (Diamond, 2017, pp.411–414)
To succeed where others failed was not the case in East Asia, due to China being ruled in a centralized manner by Beijing and most of the other adjacent states being tributaries of the Emperor in the Forbidden City.
On the other side of the world, the situation was very different. No matter how much we tend to romanticize the Roman Empire or Charlemagne’s effort to restore it, factionalism and decentralisation might have paved the way for European dominance on the world stage. This brings us to Columbus and his voyage. While small in size compared to the sumptuous Chinese fleets, the voyage kickstarted European colonialism, giving the continent an immense comparative advantage on the world stage.
Columbus, born in Italy, “pitched” his idea to travel West to reach the Indies to the Duke of Anjou in France, then to the King of Portugal, then to the Duke of Medina-Sedonia, then to the Count of Medina-Celi, and finally to the monarchs of Spain, who accepted to finance Columbus' expedition after his second try. (Diamond, 2017, pp.411–414)
Columbus’ efforts to secure patronage for his voyages could not have been possible in China as there was only one Emperor. However, in Europe, due to the hundreds of rules and feudal states which actively competed against each other, the chances to secure sponsorship were greater as the “supply” of authoritative decision makers was high, with no one capable of introducing a universal ban on such activities. Moreover, after the success of Spanish colonial policies, more European powers joined in, especially because of the staunch competition. This competition, favoured by the decentralised rule, is also the reason for the fast adoption of technologies such as gunpowder and the creation of new ones.
The case of Christopher Columbus gives us another side to decentralisation, a side which may have brought greater benefits to the European continent. The absence of an all-powerful monopolistic authority creates competition between states which leads to innovation. While from a geographic point of view, we may argue that China was destined from the start to be united, the current world is slowly moving away from being just a subject of a geographic determinism, due to improvements in technology and communication. These improvements, along with globalisation, will likely influence the future of and nature of political rule. Therefore, when we find ourselves in debates about whether a “global government” is feasible or desirable, we should remember the insistence and perseverance of Columbus and why ideas deserve second, third or sixth chances.
Chao-Fong, L. (2020). The 13 Dynasties that Ruled China in Order. [online] History Hit. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/the-dynasties-that-ruled-china-in-order/.
Diamond, J. (2017). Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies. New York: Norton, pp.411–414.
Folch, D. (2020). China’s greatest naval explorer sailed his treasure fleets as far as East Africa. [online] National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/history-and-civilisation/2020/05/chinas-greatest-naval-explorer-sailed-his-treasure-fleets-as-far-as-east-africa [Accessed 28 Apr. 2022].
Gronewald, S. (2009). The Ming Voyages | Asia for Educators | Columbia University. [online] Columbia.edu. Available at: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/china_1000ce_mingvoyages.htm.
HUISKEN, R. (2010). Imperial China: Practice Makes Perfect? [online] JSTOR. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt24h9vf.8 [Accessed 28 Apr. 2022].
Mackinder, H.J. (1904). The Geographical Pivot of History. The Geographical Journal, 23(4).