Civilization: The West and the Rest

Civilization: The West and the Rest

by Niall Ferguson


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From the bestselling author of The Ascent of Money and The Square and the Tower

“A dazzling history of Western ideas.” The Economist

“Mr. Ferguson tells his story with characteristic verve and an eye for the felicitous phrase.” Wall Street Journal

“[W]ritten with vitality and verve . . . a tour de force.” Boston Globe

Western civilization’s rise to global dominance is the single most important historical phenomenon of the past five centuries.

How did the West overtake its Eastern rivals? And has the zenith of Western power now passed? Acclaimed historian Niall Ferguson argues that beginning in the fifteenth century, the West developed six powerful new concepts, or “killer applications”—competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic—that the Rest lacked, allowing it to surge past all other competitors.

Yet now, Ferguson shows how the Rest have downloaded the killer apps the West once monopolized, while the West has literally lost faith in itself. Chronicling the rise and fall of empires alongside clashes (and fusions) of civilizations, Civilization: The West and the Rest recasts world history with force and wit. Boldly argued and teeming with memorable characters, this is Ferguson at his very best.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143122067
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 131,945
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Niall Ferguson is one of the world's most renowned historians. He is the author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, Colossus, The War of the World, The Ascent of Money, High Financier, Civilization, The Great Degeneration, Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist, and The Square and the Tower. He is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. His many awards include the Benjamin Franklin Prize for Public Service (2010), the Hayek Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2012) and the Ludwig Erhard Prize for Economic Journalism (2013).

Read an Excerpt

China seems to have been long stationary, and had probably long ago acquired that full complement of riches which is con- sistent with the nature of its laws and institutions. But this complement may be much inferior to what, with other laws and institutions, the nature of its soil, climate, and situation might admit of. A country which neglects or despises foreign commerce, and which admits the vessels of foreign nations into one or two of its ports only, cannot transact the same quantity of business which it might do with different laws and institutions . . . A more extensive foreign trade . . . could scarce fail to increase very much the manufactures of China, and to improve very much the productive powers of its manufactur- ing industry. By a more extensive navigation, the Chinese would naturally learn the art of using and constructing them- selves all the different machines made use of in other countries, as well as the other improvements of art and industry which are practised in all the different parts of the world.
Adam Smith
Why are they small and yet strong? Why are we large and yet weak? . . . What we have to learn from the barbarians is only . . . solid ships and effective guns.
Feng Guifen

Two rivers The Forbidden City (Gugong) was built in the heart of Beijing by more than a million workers, using materials from all over the Chin- ese Empire. With nearly a thousand buildings arranged, constructed and decorated to symbolize the might of the Ming dynasty, the For- bidden City is not only a relic of what was once the greatest civilization in the world; it is also a reminder that no civilization lasts for ever. As late as 1776 Adam Smith could still refer to China as ‘one of the rich- est, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world . . . a much richer country than any part of Europe’. Yet Smith also identified China as ‘long sta- tionary’ or ‘standing still’.1 In this he was surely right. Within less than a century of the Forbidden City’s construction between 1406 and 1420, the relative decline of the East may be said to have begun. The impoverished, strife-torn petty states of Western Europe embarked on half a millennium of almost unstoppable expansion. The great empires of the Orient meanwhile stagnated and latterly succumbed to Western dominance.

Why did China founder while Europe forged ahead? Smith’s main answer was that the Chinese had failed to ‘encourage foreign com- merce’, and had therefore missed out on the benefits of comparative advantage and the international division of labour. But other explana- tions were possible. Writing in the 1740s, Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, blamed the ‘settled plan of tyranny’, which he traced back to China’s exceptionally large population, which in turn was due to the East Asian weather: I reason thus: Asia has properly no temperate zone, as the places situ- ated in a very cold climate immediately touch upon those which are exceedingly hot, that is, Turkey, Persia, India, China, Korea, and Japan. In Europe, on the contrary, the temperate zone is very extensive . . . it thence follows that each [country] resembles the country joining it; that there is no very extraordinary difference between them . . . Hence it comes that in Asia, the strong nations are opposed to the weak; the war- like, brave, and active people touch immediately upon those who are indolent, effeminate, and timorous; the one must, therefore, conquer, and the other be conquered. In Europe, on the contrary, strong nations are opposed to the strong; and those who join each other have nearly the same courage. This is the grand reason of the weakness of Asia, and of the strength of Europe; of the liberty of Europe, and of the slavery of Asia: a cause that I do not recollect ever to have seen remarked.2

Later European writers believed that it was Western technology that trumped the East – in particular, the technology that went on to pro- duce the Industrial Revolution. That was certainly how it appeared to the Earl Macartney after his distinctly disappointing mission to the Chinese imperial court in 1793 (see below). Another argument, popular in the twentieth century, was that Confucian philosophy inhibited innovation. Yet these contemporary explanations for Oriental under- achievement were mistaken. The first of the six distinct killer applications that the West had but the East lacked was not commercial, nor climatic, nor technological, nor philosophical. It was, as Smith discerned, above all institutional.
If, in the year 1420, you had taken two trips along two rivers – the Thames and the Yangzi – you would have been struck by the contrast. The Yangzi was part of a vast waterway complex that linked Nanjing to Beijing, more than 500 miles to the north, and Hangzhou to the south. At the core of this system was the Grand Canal, which at its maximum extent stretched for more than a thousand miles. Dat- ing back as far as the seventh century BC, with pound locks introduced as early as the tenth century AD and exquisite bridges like the multi- arched Precious Belt, the Canal was substantially restored and improved in the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle (1402–24). By the time his chief engineer Bai Ying had finished damming and diverting the flow of the Yellow River, it was possible for nearly 12,000 grain barges to sail up and down the Canal every year.3 Nearly 50,000 men were employed in maintaining it. In the West, of course, the grandest of grand canals will always be Venice’s. But when the intrepid Ven- etian traveller Marco Polo had visited China in the 1270s, even he had been impressed by the volume of traffic on the Yangzi:
The multitude of vessels that invest this great river is so great that no one who should read or hear would believe it. The quantity of merchandise carried up and down is past all belief. In fact it is so big, that it seems  to be a sea rather than a river.
China’s Grand Canal not only served as the principal artery of internal trade. It also enabled the imperial government to smooth the price of grain through the five state granaries, which bought when grain was cheap and sold when it was dear.4
Nanjing was probably the largest city in the world in 1420, with a population of between half a million and a million. For centuries it had been a thriving centre of the silk and cotton industries. Under the Yongle Emperor it also became a centre of learning. The name Yongle means ‘perpetual happiness’; perpetual motion would perhaps have been a better description. The greatest of the Ming emperors did noth- ing by halves. The compendium of Chinese learning he commissioned took the labour of more than 2,000 scholars to complete and filled more than 11,000 volumes. It was surpassed as the world’s largest encyclopaedia only in 2007, after a reign of almost exactly 600 years, by Wikipedia.
But Yongle was not content with Nanjing. Shortly after his acces- sion, he had resolved to build a new and more spectacular capital to the north: Beijing. By 1420, when the Forbidden City was completed, Ming China had an incontrovertible claim to be the most advanced civilization in the world.
By comparison with the Yangzi, the Thames in the early fifteenth cen- tury was a veritable backwater. True, London was a busy port, the main hub for England’s trade with the continent. The city’s most fam- ous Lord Mayor, Richard Whittington, was a leading cloth merchant who had made his fortune from England’s growing exports of wool. And the English capital’s shipbuilding industry was boosted by the need to transport men and supplies for England’s recurrent campaigns against the French. In Shadwell and Ratcliffe, the ships could be hauled up on to mud berths to be refitted. And there was, of course, the Tower of London, more forbidding than forbidden.
But a visitor from China would scarcely have been impressed by all this. The Tower itself was a crude construction compared with the multiple halls of the Forbidden City. London Bridge was an ungainly bazaar on stilts compared with the Precious Belt Bridge. And primi- tive navigation techniques confined English sailors to narrow stretches of water – the Thames and the Channel – where they could remain within sight of familiar banks and coastlines. Nothing could have  been more unimaginable, to Englishmen and Chinese alike, than the idea of ships from London sailing up the Yangzi.

By comparison with Nanjing, the London to which Henry V returned in 1421 after his triumphs over the French – the most fam- ous of them at Agincourt – was barely a town. Its old, patched-up city walls extended about 3 miles – again, a fraction the size of Nanjing’s.  It had taken the founder of the Ming dynasty more than twenty years to build the wall around his capital and it extended for as many miles, with gates so large that a single one could house 3,000 soldiers. And  it was built to last. Much of it still stands today, whereas scarcely any- thing remains of London’s medieval wall.

By fifteenth-century standards, Ming China was a relatively pleas- ant place to live. The rigidly feudal order established at the start of the Ming era was being loosened by burgeoning internal trade.5 The visitor to Suzhou today can still see the architectural fruits of that prosperity in the shady canals and elegant walkways of the old town centre. Urban life in England was very different. The Black Death – the bubonic plague caused by the flea-borne bacterium Yersinia pestis, which reached England in 1349 – had reduced London’s population to around 40,000, less than a tenth the size of Nanjing’s. Besides the plague, typhus, dysentery and smallpox were also rife. And, even in the absence of epidemics, poor sanitation made London a death-trap. Without any kind of sewage system, the streets stank to high heaven, whereas human excrement was systematically collected in Chinese cities and used as fertilizer in outlying paddy fields. In the days when Dick Whittington was lord mayor – four times between 1397 and his death in 1423 – the streets of London were paved with something altogether less appealing than gold.
Schoolchildren used to be brought up to think of Henry V as one   of the heroic figures of English history, the antithesis of his predeces- sor but one, the effete Richard II. Sad to relate, their kingdom was very far from the ‘sceptr’d isle’ of Shakespeare’s Richard II  – more    of a septic isle. The playwright fondly called it ‘this other Eden, demi-paradise, / This fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infec- tion . . .’ But English life expectancy at birth was on average a miserable thirty-seven years between 1540 and 1800; the figure for London was in the twenties. Roughly one in five English children died in the first year of life; in London the figure was nearly one in three. Henry V himself became king at the age of twenty-six and was dead from dys- entery at the age of thirty-five – a reminder that most history until relatively recently was made by quite young, short-lived people.

Violence was endemic. War with France was almost a permanent condition. When not fighting the French, the English fought the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. When not fighting the Celts, they fought one another in a succession of wars for control of the crown. Henry V’s father had come to the throne by violence; his son Henry VI lost it    by similar means with the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, which saw four kings lose their thrones and forty adult peers die in battle  or on the scaffold. Between 1330 and 1479 a quarter of deaths in    the English aristocracy were violent. And ordinary homicide was commonplace. Data from the fourteenth century suggest an annual homicide rate in Oxford of above a hundred per 100,000 inhabitants. London was somewhat safer with a rate of around fifty per 100,000. The worst murder rates in the world today are in South Africa (sixty- nine per 100,000), Colombia (fifty-three) and Jamaica (thirty-four). Even Detroit at its worst in the 1980s had a rate of just forty-five per 100,000.6

English life in this period truly was, as the political theorist Thomas Hobbes later observed (of what he called ‘the state of nature’), ‘soli- tary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Even for a prosperous Norfolk family like the Pastons, there could be little security. John Paston’s wife Margaret was ejected bodily from her lodgings when she sought to uphold the family’s rightful claim to the manor of Gresham, occu- pied by the previous owner’s heir. Caister Castle had been left to the Pastons by Sir John Fastolf, but it was besieged by the Duke of Nor- folk shortly after John Paston’s death and held for seventeen long years.7 And England was among the more prosperous and less violent countries in Europe. Life was even nastier, more brutal and shorter in France – and it got steadily worse the further east you went in Europe. Even in the early eighteenth century the average Frenchman had a daily caloric intake of 1,660,  barely  above  the  minimum  required to sustain human life and about half the average in the West today. The average pre-revolutionary Frenchman stood just 5 feet 4¾ inches tall.8 And in all the continental countries for which we have data for the medieval period, homicide rates were higher than in England, with Italy – a land as famous for its assassins as for its artists – consistently the worst.
It is sometimes argued that Western Europe’s very nastiness was a kind of hidden advantage. Because high mortality rates were espe- cially common among the poor, perhaps they somehow helped the rich to get richer. Certainly, one consequence of the Black Death was to give European per-capita income a boost; those who survived could earn higher wages because labour was so scarce. It is also true that the children of the rich in England were a good deal more likely to survive into adulthood than those of the poor.9 Yet it seems unlikely that these quirks of European demography explain the great diver- gence of West and East. There are countries in the world today where life is almost as wretched as it was in medieval England, where pesti- lence, hunger, war and murder ensure average life expectancy stays pitifully low, where only the rich live long. Afghanistan, Haiti and Somalia show little sign of benefiting from these conditions. As we shall see, Europe leapt forward to prosperity and power despite death, not because of it.

Modern scholars and readers need to be reminded what death used to be like. The Triumph of Death, the visionary masterwork of the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–69), is not of course a work of realism, but Bruegel certainly did not have to rely entirely on his imagination to depict a scene of stomach-wrenching death and destruction. In a land ruled by an army of skeletons, a king lies dying, his treasure of no avail, while a dog gnaws on a nearby corpse. In the background we see two hanged men on gibbets, four men broken on wheels and another about to be beheaded. Armies clash, houses burn, ships sink. In the foreground, men and women, young and old, sol- diers and civilians are all driven pell-mell into a narrow, square tunnel. No one is spared. Even the troubadour singing to his mistress is surely doomed. The artist himself died in his early forties, a younger man than this author.

A century later the Italian artist Salvator Rosa painted perhaps the most moving of all memento mori, entitled simply L’umana fragilità (‘Human Frailty’). It was inspired by the plague that had swept his native Naples in 1655, claiming the life of his infant son, Rosalvo, as well as carrying off his brother, his sister, her husband and five of their children. Grinning hideously, the angel of death looms from the dark- ness behind Rosa’s wife to claim their son, even as he makes his first attempt to write. The mood of the heartbroken artist is immortally summed up in just eight Latin words inscribed on the canvas:
Conceptio culpa Nasci pena Labor vita Necesse mori
‘Conception is sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death is inevitable.’ What more succinct description could be devised of life in the Europe of that time?
How can we understand the pre-eminence of the East? For a start, Asian agriculture was considerably more productive than European. In East Asia an acre of land was enough to support a family, such was the efficiency of rice cultivation, whereas in England the average figure was closer to 20 acres. This helps explain why East Asia was already more populous than Western Europe. The more sophisticated Orien- tal system of rice cultivation could feed many more mouths. No doubt the Ming poet Zhou Shixiu saw the countryside through rose-tinted spectacles; still, the picture here is of a contented rural populace:
Humble doorways loom by the dark path, a crooked lane goes way down to the inlet. Here ten families . . . have been living side by side for generations. The smoke from their fires intermingles wherever you look; so too, in their routines, the people are cooperative. One man’s son heads the house on the west, while another’s daughter is the west- ern neighbour’s wife. A cold autumn wind blows at the soil god’s shrine; piglets and rice-beer are sacrificed to the Ancestor of the Fields, to whom the old shaman burns paper money, while boys pound on a bronze drum. Mist drapes the sugar cane garden in silence, and driz- zling rain falls on the taro fields, as the people come home after the rites, spread mats, and chat, half drunk . . .10
But such scenes of bucolic equipoise tell only part of the story. Later generations of Westerners tended to think of imperial China as a static society, allergic to innovation. In Confucianism  and  Taoism  (1915) the German sociologist Max Weber defined Confucian rationalism as meaning ‘rational adjustment to the world’, as opposed to the West- ern concept of ‘rational mastery of the world’. This was a view largely endorsed by the Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan in his History of Chinese Philosophy (1934), as well as by the Cambridge scholar Joseph Needham’s multi-volume history of Science and Civilization in China. Such cultural explanations – always attractive to those, like Feng and Needham, who sympathized with the Maoist regime after 1949 – are hard to square with the evidence that, long before the Ming era, Chin- ese civilization had consistently sought to master the world through technological innovation.

We do not know for certain who designed the first water clock. It may have been the Egyptians, the Babylonians or the Chinese. But in 1086 Su Song added a gear escapement to create the world’s first mechanical clock, an intricate 40-foot-tall contraption that not only told the time but also charted the movements of the sun, moon and planets. Marco Polo saw a bell tower operated by such a clock when he visited Dadu in northern China, not long after the tower’s con- struction in 1272. Nothing remotely as accurate existed in England until a century later, when the first astronomical clocks were built for cathedrals in Norwich, St Alban’s and Salisbury.
The printing press with movable type is traditionally credited to fifteenth-century Germany. In reality it was invented in eleventh-century China. Paper too originated in China long before it was introduced in the West. So did paper money, wallpaper and toilet paper.11
It is often asserted that the English agricultural pioneer Jethro Tull discovered the seed drill in 1701. In fact it was invented in China 2,000 years before his time. The Rotherham plough which, with its curved iron mouldboard, was a key tool in the eighteenth-century Eng- lish Agricultural Revolution, was another innovation anticipated by the Chinese.12 Wang Zhen’s 1313 Treatise on Agriculture was full of implements then unknown in the West.13 The Industrial Revolution was also prefigured in China. The first blast furnace for smelting iron ore was not built in Coalbrookdale  in  1709  but  in  China  before  200 BC. The oldest iron suspension bridge in the world is not British but Chinese; dating from as early as AD 65, remains of it can still be seen near Ching-tung in Yunnan province.14 Even as late as 1788 Brit- ish iron-production levels were still lower than those achieved in China in 1078. It was the Chinese who first revolutionized textile production with innovations like the spinning wheel and the silk reel- ing frame, imported to Italy in the thirteenth century.15 And it is far from true that the Chinese used their most famous invention, gun- powder, solely for fireworks. Jiao Yu and Liu Ji’s book Huolongjing, published in the late fourteenth century, describes land and sea mines, rockets and hollow cannonballs filled with explosives.

Other Chinese innovations include chemical insecticide, the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. Everyone knows that golf was invented in Scotland. Yet the Dongxuan Records from the Song dynasty (960–1279) describe a game called chuiwan. It was played with ten clubs, including a cuan- bang, pubang and shaobang, which are roughly analogous to our driver, two-wood and three-wood. The clubs were inlaid with jade and gold, suggesting that golf, then as now, was a game for the well-off.
And that was not all. As a new century dawned in 1400, China was poised to achieve another technological breakthrough, one that had the potential to make the Yongle Emperor the master not just of the Middle Kingdom, but of the world itself – literally ‘All under heaven’.
In Nanjing today you can see a full-size replica of the treasure ship of Admiral Zheng He, the most famous sailor in Chinese history. It  is 400 feet long – nearly five times the size of the Santa María, in which Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492. And this  was only part of a fleet of more than 300 huge ocean-going junks. With multiple masts and separate buoyancy chambers to prevent them from sinking in the event of a hole below the waterline, these ships were far larger than anything being built in fifteenth-century Europe. With a combined crew of 28,000, Zheng He’s navy was bigger than anything seen in the West until the First World War. Their master and commander was an extraordinary man. At the age of eleven, he had been captured on the field of battle by the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. As was customary, the captive was castrated. He was then assigned as a servant to the Emperor’s fourth son, Zhu Di, the man who would seize and ascend the imperial throne as Yongle. In return for Zheng He’s loyal service, Yongle entrusted him with a task that entailed exploring the world’s oceans.

In a series of six epic voyages between 1405 and 1424, Zheng He’s fleet ranged astoundingly far and wide.* The Admiral sailed to Thai- land, Sumatra, Java and the once-great port of Calicut (today’s Kozhikode in Kerala); to Temasek (later Singapore), Malacca and Ceylon; to Cuttack in Orissa; to Hormuz, Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah.16 Nominally, these voyages were a search for Yongle’s prede- cessor, who had mysteriously disappeared, as well as for the imperial seal that had vanished with him. (Was Yongle trying to atone for kill- ing his way to the throne, or to cover up for the fact that he had done so?) But to find the lost emperor was not their real motive.

Before his final voyage, Zheng He was ordered ‘on imperial duty to Hormuz and other countries, with ships of different sizes numbering sixty-one . . . and [to carry] coloured silks . . . [and] buy hemp-silk’. His officers were also instructed to ‘buy porcelain, iron cauldrons, gifts and ammunition, paper, oil, wax, etc.’.17 This might seem to sug- gest a commercial rationale, and certainly the Chinese had goods coveted by Indian Ocean merchants (porcelain, silk and musk), as well as commodities they wished to bring back to China (peppers, pearls, precious stones, ivory and supposedly medicinal rhinoceros horns).18 In reality, however, the Emperor was not primarily con- cerned with trade as Adam Smith later understood it. In the words of a contemporary inscription, the fleet was ‘to go to the [barbarians’] coun- tries and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power . . .’. What Yongle wanted in return for these ‘presents’ was for foreign rulers to pay tribute to him the way China’s immediate Asian neighbours did, and thereby to acknowledge his supremacy. And who could refuse to kowtow to an emperor possessed of so mighty a fleet?19

On three of the voyages, ships from Zheng He’s fleet reached the east coast of Africa. They did not stay long. Envoys from some thirty African rulers were invited aboard to acknowledge the ‘cosmic ascend- ancy’ of the Ming Emperor. The Sultan of Malindi (in present-day Kenya) sent a delegation with exotic gifts, among them a giraffe. Yongle personally received the animal at the gateway of the imper-  ial palace in Nanjing. The giraffe was hailed as the mythical qilin (unicorn) – ‘a symbol of perfect virtue, perfect government and perfect harmony in the empire and the universe’.20
But then, in 1424, this harmony was shattered. Yongle died – and China’s overseas ambitions were buried with him. Zheng He’s voy- ages were immediately suspended, and only briefly revived with a final Indian Ocean expedition in 1432–3. The haijin decree defini- tively banned oceanic voyages. From 1500, anyone in China found building a ship with more than two masts was liable to the death penalty; in 1551 it became a crime even to go to sea in such a ship.21 The records of Zheng He’s journeys were destroyed. Zheng He him- self died and was almost certainly buried at sea.
What lay behind this momentous decision? Was it the result of fiscal problems and political wrangles at the imperial court? Was it because the costs of war in Annam (modern-day Vietnam) were prov- ing unexpectedly high?22 Or was it simply because of Confucian scholars’ suspicion of the ‘odd things’ Zheng He had brought back with him, not least the giraffe? We may never be sure. But the conse- quences of China’s turn inwards seem clear.
Like the Apollo moon missions, Zheng He’s voyages had been a formidable demonstration of wealth and technological sophistication. Landing a Chinese eunuch on the East African coast in 1416 was in many ways an achievement comparable with landing an American astronaut on the moon in 1969. But by abruptly cancelling oceanic exploration, Yongle’s successors ensured that the economic benefits of this achievement were negligible.
The same could not be said for the voyages that were about to be undertaken by a very different sailor from a diminutive European kingdom at the other end of the Eurasian landmass.
the  spice race It was in the Castelo de São Jorge, high in the hills above the wind- swept harbour of Lisbon, that the newly crowned Portuguese King Manuel put Vasco  da Gama in command of four small ships with a    big mission. All four vessels could quite easily have fitted inside Zheng He’s treasure ship. Their combined crews were just 170 men. But their mission – ‘to make discoveries and go in search of spices’ – had the potential to tilt the whole world westwards.
The spices in question were the cinnamon, cloves, mace and nut- meg which Europeans could not grow for themselves but which they craved to enhance the taste of their food. For centuries the spice route had run from the Indian Ocean up the Red Sea, or overland through Arabia and Anatolia. By the middle of the fifteenth century its lucra- tive final leg leading into Europe was tightly controlled by the Turks and the Venetians. The Portuguese realized that if they could find an alternative route, down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, then this business could be theirs. Another Portuguese mariner, Bartolomeu Dias, had rounded the Cape in 1488, but had been forced by his crew to turn back. Nine years later, it was up to da Gama to go all the way.
King Manuel’s orders tell us something crucially important about the way Western civilization expanded overseas. As we shall see, the West had more than one advantage over the Rest. But the one that really started the ball rolling was surely the fierce competition that drove the Age of Exploration. For Europeans, sailing round  Africa was not about exacting symbolic tribute for some high and mighty potentate back home. It was about getting ahead of their rivals, both economically and politically. If da Gama succeeded, then Lisbon trumped Venice. Maritime exploration, in short, was fifteenth-century Europe’s space race. Or, rather, its spice race.
Da Gama set sail on 8 July 1497. When he and his fellow Portu- guese sailors rounded the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa four months later, they did not ask themselves what exotic animals they should bring back for their King. They wanted to know  if they had finally succeeded where others had failed – in finding a new spice route. They wanted trade, not tribute.
In April 1498, fully eighty-two years after Zheng He had landed there, da Gama arrived at Malindi. The Chinese had left little behind aside from some porcelain and DNA – that of twenty Chinese sailors who are said to have been shipwrecked near the island of Pate, to have swum ashore and stayed, marrying African wives and introducing the locals to Chinese styles of basket-weaving and silk production.23 The Portuguese, by contrast, immediately saw Malindi’s potential as a trading post. Da Gama was especially excited to encounter Indian merchants there and it was almost certainly with assistance from one of them that he was able to catch the monsoon winds to Calicut.
This eagerness to trade was far from being the only difference between the Portuguese and the Chinese. There was a streak of ruthlessness – indeed, of downright brutality – about the men from Lisbon that Zheng He only rarely evinced. When the King of Calicut looked askance at the goods the Portuguese had brought with them from Lisbon, da Gama seized sixteen fishermen as hostages. On his second voyage to India, at the head of fifteen ships, he bombarded Calicut and horribly mutilated the crews of captured vessels. On another occasion, he is said to have locked up the passengers aboard a ship bound for Mecca and set it ablaze.
The Portuguese engaged in exemplary violence because they knew that their opening of a new spice route round the Cape would meet resistance. They evidently believed in getting their retaliation in first. As Afonso de Albuquerque, the second Governor of Portuguese India, proudly reported to his royal master in 1513: ‘At the rumour of our coming the [native] ships all vanished and even the birds ceased to skim over the water.’ Against some foes, to be sure, cannons and cut- lasses were ineffective. Half of the men on da Gama’s first expedition did not survive the voyage, not least because their captain attempted to sail back to Africa against the monsoon wind. Only two of the original four ships made it back to Lisbon. Da Gama himself died of malaria during a third trip to India in 1524; his remains were returned to Europe and are now housed in a fine tomb in the Jerónimos Mon- astery (now the church of Santa Maria de Belém) in Lisbon. But other Portuguese explorers sailed on, past India, all the way to China. Once, the Chinese had been able to regard the distant barbarians of Europe with indifference, if not contempt. But now the spice race had brought the barbarians to the gates of the Middle Kingdom itself. And it must be remembered that, though the Portuguese had precious few goods the Chinese wanted, they did bring silver, for which Ming China had an immense demand as coins took the place of paper money and labour service as the principal means of payment.
In 1557 the Portuguese were ceded Macau, a peninsula on the Pearl River delta. Among the first things they did was to erect a gate – the Porta do Cerco – bearing the inscription: ‘Dread our greatness and respect our virtue.’ By 1586 Macau was an important enough trading outpost to be recognized as a city: Cidade do Nome de Deus na China (City of the Name of God in China). It was the first of many such European commercial enclaves in China. Luís da Camões, author of The Lusiads, the epic poem of Portuguese maritime expansion, lived  in Macau for a time, after being exiled from Lisbon for assault. How was it, he marvelled, that a kingdom as small as Portugal – with a population less than 1 per cent of China’s – could aspire to dominate the trade of Asia’s vastly more populous empires? And yet on his countrymen sailed, establishing an amazing network of trading posts that stretched like a global necklace from Lisbon, round the coast of Africa, Arabia and India, through the Straits of Malacca, to the spice islands themselves and then on still further, beyond even Macau. ‘Were there more worlds still to discover,’ as da Camões wrote of his countrymen, ‘they would find them too!’24
The benefits of overseas expansion were not lost on Portugal’s European rivals. Along with Portugal, Spain had been first off the mark, seizing the initiative in the New World (see Chapter 3) and also establishing an Asian outpost in the Philippines, whence the Spaniards were able to ship immense quantities of Mexican silver to China.25 For decades after the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had split the world between them, the two Iberian powers could regard their imperial achievements with sublime self-confidence. But the Spaniards’ rebellious and commer- cially adept Dutch subjects came to appreciate the potential of the new spice route; indeed, by the mid-1600s they had overtaken the Portuguese in terms of both number of ships and tonnage sailing round the Cape. The French also entered the lists.
And what of the English, whose territorial ambitions had once extended no further than France and whose one novel economic idea in the Middle Ages had been selling wool to the Flemish? How could they possibly sit on the sidelines with news coming in that their arch- foes the Spaniards and French were making their fortunes overseas? Sure enough, it was not long before the English joined in the race for overseas commerce. In 1496 John Cabot made his first attempt to cross the Atlantic from Bristol. In 1553 Hugh Willoughby and Rich- ard Chancellor set off from Deptford to seek a ‘North-east Passage’ to India. Willoughby froze to death in the attempt, but Chancellor man- aged to get to Archangel and then made his way overland to the court of Ivan the Terrible in Moscow. On his return to London, Chancellor lost no time in setting up the Muscovy Company to develop trade with Russia (its full name was ‘The Mystery and Company of Mer- chant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places unknown’). Similar projects proliferated with enthusiastic royal support, not only across the Atlantic but also along the spice route. By the middle of the seventeenth century England’s trade was flourishing from Belfast to Boston, from Bengal to the Bahamas.
The world was being carved up in a frenzy of cut-throat competition. But the question still remains: why did the Europeans seem to have so much more commercial fervour than the Chinese? Why was Vasco da Gama so clearly hungry for money – hungry enough to kill for it?
You can find the answer by looking at maps of medieval Europe, which show literally hundreds of competing states, ranging from the kingdoms of the western seaboard to the many city-states that lay between the Baltic and the Adriatic, from Lübeck to Venice. There were roughly a thousand polities in fourteenth-century Europe; and still around 500 more or less independent units 200 years later. Why was this? The simplest answer is geography. China had three great rivers, the Yellow, the Yangzi and the Pearl, all flowing from west to east.26 Europe had multiple rivers flowing in multiple directions, not to men- tion a host of mountain ranges like the Alps and the Pyrenees, to say nothing of the dense forests and marshes of Germany and Poland. It may just have been easier for marauding Mongols to access China; Eur- ope was less readily penetrable by a horde on horseback – and therefore had less need of unity. We cannot be sure exactly why the Central Asian threat receded from Europe after Timur. Perhaps Russian defences just got better. Perhaps the Mongol horses preferred steppe grass.
True, as we have seen, conflict could be devastating in Europe – think only of the mayhem caused by the Thirty Years’ War in mid-seventeenth-century Germany. Woe betide those who lived at the frontiers between the dozen or so bigger European states, which were at war on average more than two-thirds of the time between 1550 and 1650. In all the years from 1500 to 1799, Spain was at war with foreign enemies 81 per cent of the time, England 53 per cent and France 52 per cent. But this constant fighting had three unintended benefits. First, it encouraged innovation in military technology. On land, fortifications had to grow stronger as cannon grew more power- ful and manoeuvrable. The fate of the ruined ‘robber baron’s’ castle on the Tannenberg above Seeheim in southern Germany served as a warning: in 1399 it became the first European fortification to be destroyed using explosives.
At sea, meanwhile, ships stayed small for good reasons. Compared with the Mediterranean galley, the design of which had scarcely changed since Roman times, the late fifteenth-century Portuguese cara- vel, with its square-rig sails and two masts, struck an ideal balance between speed and firepower. It was much easier to turn and much harder to hit than one of Zheng He’s giant junks. In 1501 the French device of putting rows of cannon in special bays along both sides of a ship turned European ‘men of war’ into floating fortresses.27 If it could somehow have come to a naval encounter between Zheng He and Vasco da Gama, it is possible that the Portuguese would have sent the lumbering Chinese hulks to the bottom, just as they made short work of the smaller but nimbler Arab dhows in the Indian Ocean – though at Tamao in 1521 a Ming fleet did sink a Portuguese caravel.
The second benefit of Europe’s almost unremitting warfare was that the rival states grew progressively better at raising the revenue to pay for their campaigns. Measured in terms of grams of silver per head, the rulers of England and France were able to collect far more in taxation than their Chinese counterpart throughout the period from 1520 to 1630.28 Beginning in thirteenth-century Italy, Europeans also began to experiment with unprecedented methods of government borrowing, planting the seeds of modern bond markets. Public debt was an institution wholly unknown in Ming China and only intro- duced under European influence in the late nineteenth century. Another fiscal innovation of world-changing significance was the Dutch idea of granting monopoly trading rights to joint-stock companies in return for a share of their profits and an understanding that the companies would act as naval subcontractors against rival powers. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, and its eponymous English imitator were the first true capitalist corporations, with their equity capital divided into tradable shares paying cash dividends at the discretion of their directors. Nothing resembling these astoundingly dynamic institutions emerged in the Orient. And, though they increased royal revenue, they also diminished royal prerogatives by creating new and enduring stakeholders in the early-modern state: bankers, bond-holders and company directors.
Above all, generations of internecine conflict ensured that no one
European monarch ever grew strong enough to be able to prohibit overseas exploration. Even when the Turks advanced into Eastern Europe, as they did repeatedly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centu- ries, there was no pan-European emperor to order the Portuguese to suspend their maritime explorations and focus on the enemy to the east.29 On the contrary, the European monarchs all encouraged com- merce, conquest and colonization as part of their competition with one another.
Religious war was the bane of European life for more than a century after the Lutheran Reformation swept through Germany (see Chapter 2). But the bloody battles between Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as the periodic and localized persecution of Jews, also had beneficial side-effects. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Castile and Aragon as religious heretics. Initially, many of them sought refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but a Jewish community was established in Venice after 1509. In 1566, with the revolt of the Dutch against Spanish rule and the establishment of the United Provinces as a Prot- estant republic, Amsterdam became another haven of tolerance. When the Protestant Huguenots were expelled from France in 1685, they were able to resettle in England, Holland and Switzerland.30 And, of course, religious fervour provided another incentive to expand over- seas. The Portuguese Prince Henrique the Navigator encouraged his sailors to explore the African coast partly in the hope that they might find the mythical kingdom of the lost Christian saint Prester John, and that he might then lend Europe a hand against the Turks. In addition to insisting on exemption from Indian customs duties, Vasco da Gama brazenly demanded that the King of Calicut expel all Muslims from  his realm and waged a campaign of targeted piracy against Muslim shipping bound for Mecca.
In short, the political fragmentation that characterized Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire. It also propelled Europeans to seek opportunities – economic, geopolitical and religious – in distant lands. You might say it was a case of divide and rule – except that, paradoxically, it was by being divided themselves that Europeans were able to rule the world. In Europe small was beautiful because it meant competition – and com- petition not just between states, but also within states.
Officially, Henry V was king of England, Wales and indeed France, to which he laid claim. But on the ground in rural England real power was in the hands of the great nobility, the descendants of the men who had imposed Magna Carta on King John, as well as thousands of gen- try landowners and innumerable corporate bodies, clerical and lay. The Church was not under royal control until the reign of Henry
VIII. Towns were often self-governing. And, crucially, the most important commercial centre in the country was almost completely autonomous. Europe was not only made up of states; it was also made up of estates: aristocrats, clergymen and townsfolk.
The City of London Corporation can trace its origin and structure back as far as the twelfth century. Remarkably, in other words, the Lord Mayor, the sheriffs, the aldermen, Common Council, liverymen and freemen have all been around for more than 800 years. The Corporation is one of the earliest examples of an autonomous commercial institution – in some ways the forerunner of the corpora- tions we know today, in other ways the forerunner of democracy itself.
As early as the 1130s, Henry I granted Londoners the right to choose as their own sheriff and justice ‘whom they will of themselves’, and to administer their judicial and financial affairs without interfer- ence from the Crown or other authorities.31 In 1191, while Richard I was crusading in the Holy Land, the right to elect a mayor was also granted, a right confirmed by King John in 1215.32  As a result, the  City was never in awe of the Crown. With the support of the City’s freemen, Mayor Thomas fitz Thomas supported Simon de Montfort’s revolt against Henry III in 1263–5. In 1319 it was the turn of Edward II to confront the City as the mercers (cloth dealers) sought to reduce the privileges of foreign merchants. When the Crown resisted, the ‘London mob’ supported Roger Mortimer’s deposition of the King. In the reign of Edward III, the tide turned against the City; Italian and Hanseatic merchants established themselves in London, not least by providing the Crown with loans on generous terms, a practice which continued during Richard II’s minority.33 But the Londoners con- tinued to challenge royal authority, showing little enthusiasm for the Crown’s cause during either the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) or the chal- lenge to Richard’s rule by the Lords Appellant. In 1392 the King revoked London’s privileges and liberties, but five years later a gener- ous ‘gift’ of £10,000 – negotiated by Mayor Whittington – secured their restoration. Loans and gifts to the Crown became the key to urban autonomy. The wealthier the City became, the more such lever- age it had. Whittington lent Henry IV at least £24,000 and his son Henry V around £7,500.34
Not only did the City compete with the Crown for power. There was competition even within the City. The livery companies can all trace their origins back to the medieval period: the weavers to 1130, the bakers to 1155, the fishmongers to 1272, the goldsmiths, mer- chant taylors and skinners to 1327, the drapers to 1364, the mercers to 1384 and the grocers to 1428. These guilds or ‘misteries’ exerted considerable power over their particular sectors  of  the  economy,  but they had political power too. Edward III acknowledged  this  when he declared himself to be ‘a brother’ of the Linen-Armourers’ (later Merchant Taylors’) Guild. By 1607 the Merchant Taylors could count as past and present honorary members seven kings and a queen, seventeen princes and dukes, nine countesses, duchesses and baron- esses, over 200 earls, lords and other gentlemen and an archbishop. The ‘great twelve’ companies – in order of precedence: mercers, gro- cers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, skinners, merchant taylors, haberdashers, salters, ironmongers, vintners and clothworkers – are a reminder of the power that London’s craftsmen and merchants were once able to wield, even if their role today is largely ceremonial. In their competitive heyday they were as likely to fight as to dine with one another.35
Among other things, this multi-level competition, between states and within states – even within cities – helps to explain the rapid spread and advancing technology of the mechanical clock in Europe. Already in the 1330s Richard of Wallingford had installed a remarkably sophisticated mechanical clock in the wall of the south transept of     St Albans Abbey, which showed the motion of the moon, of the tides and of certain celestial bodies. With their distinctive hourly bells (hence the name: clock, clokke, Glocke, cloche), the mechanical clock and the spring-driven clock that supplanted it in the fifteenth century were not only more accurate than Chinese waterclocks. They were also intended to be disseminated, rather than monopolized by the Emperor’s astronomers. Thus, if one town’s cathedral installed a fine new dial in its tower, its nearest rival soon felt obliged to follow suit. If Protestant watchmakers were unwelcome in France after 1685, the Swiss gladly took them in. And, as with military technology, competi- tion bred progress as craftsmen tinkered to make small but cumula- tive improvements to the accuracy and elegance of the product. By the time the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci brought European clocks to China in the late sixteenth century, they were so much superior to their Oriental counterparts that they were greeted with dismay.36 In 1602, at the request of the Wanli Emperor, Ricci produced a beautiful rice-paper map of the world, which depicted China at the centre of the earth. He must have known, however, that in terms of technology China was now drifting to the global periphery.
Because of the greater precision it permitted in measurement and in the co-ordination of action, the rise of the clock and later the port- able watch went (it might be said) hand in hand with the rise of Europe and the spread of Western civilization. With every individual timepiece, a little bit more time ran out for the age of Oriental pre- eminence.
By comparison with the patchwork quilt of Europe, East Asia was – in political terms, at least – a vast monochrome blanket. The Middle King- dom’s principal competitors were the predatory Mongols to the north and the piratical Japanese to the east. Since the time of Qin Shihuangdi – often referred to as the ‘First Emperor’ of China (221–210 BC) – the threat from the north had been the bigger one – the one that necessitated the spectacular investment in imperial defence we know today as the Great Wall. Nothing remotely like it was constructed in Europe from the time of Hadrian to the time of Erich Honecker. Comparable in scale was the network of canals and ditches that irrigated China’s arable land, which the Marxist Sinologist Karl Wittfogel saw as the most important products of a ‘hydraulic-bureaucratic’ Oriental despotism.
The Forbidden City in Beijing is another monument to monolithic Chinese power. To get a sense of its immense size and distinctive ethos, the visitor should walk through the Gate of Supreme Harmony to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which contains the Dragon Throne itself, then to the Hall of Central Harmony, the emperor’s private room, and then to the Hall of Preserving Harmony, the site of the final stage of the imperial civil service examination (see below). Harmony (和), it seems clear, was inextricably bound up with the idea of undivided imperial authority.37
Like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City simply had no counterpart in the fifteenth-century West, least of all in London, where power was subdivided between the Crown, the Lords Temporal and Spiritual and the Commons, as well as the Corporation of the City of London and the livery companies. Each had their palaces and halls, but they were all very small by Oriental standards. In the same way, while medieval European kingdoms were run by a combination of hereditary land- owners and clergymen, selected (and often ruthlessly discarded) on the basis of royal favour, China was ruled from the top down by a Confucian bureaucracy, recruited on the basis of perhaps the most demanding examination system in all history. Those who aspired to a career in the imperial service had to submit to three stages of gruelling tests conducted in specially built exam centres, like the one that can still be seen in Nanjing today – a huge walled compound containing thousands of tiny cells little larger than the lavatory on a train:
These tiny brick compartments [a European traveller wrote] were about 1.1 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres high. They pos- sessed two stone ledges, one servicing as a table, the other as a seat. During the two days an examination lasted the candidates were observed by soldiers stationed in the lookout tower . . . The only move- ment allowed was the passage of servants replenishing food and water supplies, or removing human waste. When a candidate became tired, he could lay out his bedding and take a cramped rest. But a bright light in the neighbouring cell would probably compel him to take up his brush again . . . some candidates went completely insane under the pressure.38

No doubt after three days and two nights in a shoebox, it was the most able – and certainly the most driven – candidates who passed the examination. But with its strong emphasis on the Four Books  and Five Classics of Confucianism, with their bewildering 431,286 char- acters to be memorized, and the rigidly stylized eight-legged essay introduced in 1487, it was an exam that rewarded conformity and caution.39 It was fiercely competitive, no doubt, but it was not  the kind of competition that promotes innovation, much less the appetite for change. The written language at the heart of Chinese civilization was designed for the production of a conservative elite and the exclu- sion of the masses from their activities. The contrast could scarcely be greater with the competing vernaculars of Europe – Italian, French and Castilian as well as Portuguese and English – usable for elite lit- erature but readily accessible to a wider public with relatively simple and easily scalable education.40
As Confucius himself said: ‘A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace.’ But there was too much that was commonplace in the way Ming China worked, and too little that was new.
The mediocre kingdom Civilizations are complex things. For centuries they can flourish in a sweet spot of power and prosperity. But then, often quite suddenly, they can tip over the edge into chaos.

The Ming dynasty in China had been born in 1368, when the war- lord Yuanzhang renamed himself Hongwu, meaning ‘vast military power’. For most of the next three centuries, as we have seen, Ming China was the world’s most sophisticated civilization by almost any measure. But then, in middle of the seventeenth century, the wheels came flying off. This is not to exaggerate its early stability. Yongle had, after all, succeeded his father Hongwu only after a period of civil war and the deposition of the rightful successor, his eldest brother’s son. But the mid-seventeenth-century crisis was unquestionably a bigger disruption. Political factionalism was exacerbated by a fiscal crisis as the falling purchasing power of silver eroded the real value of tax revenues.41 Harsh weather, famine and epidemic disease opened the door to rebellion within and incursions from without.42 In 1644 Beijing itself fell to the rebel leader Li Zicheng. The last Ming Emperor hanged himself out of shame. This dramatic transition from Confu- cian equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

The results of the Ming collapse were devastating. Between 1580 and 1650 conflict and epidemics reduced the Chinese population by between 35 and 40 per cent. What had gone wrong? The answer is that turning inwards was fatal, especially for a complex and densely populated society like China’s. The Ming system had created a high- level equilibrium – impressive outwardly, but fragile inwardly. The countryside could sustain a remarkably large number of people, but only on the basis of an essentially static social order that literally ceased to innovate. It was a kind of trap. And when the least little thing went wrong, the trap snapped shut. There were no external resources to draw on. True, a considerable body of scholarship has sought to represent Ming China as a prosperous society, with consid- erable internal trade and a vibrant market for luxury goods.43 The most recent Chinese research, however, shows that per-capita income stagnated in the Ming era and the capital stock actually shrank.

By contrast, as England’s population accelerated in the late seven- teenth century, overseas expansion played a vital role in propelling the country out of the trap identified by Thomas Malthus. Transatlantic trade brought an influx of new nutrients like potatoes and sugar – an acre of sugar cane yielded the same amount of energy as 12 acres of wheat45 – as well as plentiful cod and herring. Colonization allowed the emigration of surplus population. Over time, the effect was to raise productivity, incomes, nutrition and even height.

Consider the fate of another island people, situated much like the English on an archipelago off the Eurasian coast. While the English aggressively turned outwards, laying the foundations of what can justly be called ‘Anglobalization’, the Japanese took the opposite path, with the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of strict seclusion (sakoku) after 1640. All forms of contact with the outside world were pro- scribed. As a result, Japan missed out entirely on the benefits associated with a rapidly rising level of global trade and migration. The results were striking. By the late eighteenth century, more than 28 per cent of the English farmworker’s diet consisted of animal products; his Japa- nese counterpart lived on a monotonous intake, 95 per cent cereals, mostly rice. This nutritional divergence explains the marked gap in stature that developed after 1600. The average height of English convicts in the eighteenth century was 5 feet 7 inches. The average height  of  Japanese  soldiers  in  the  same  period  was  just  5  feet  2½ inches.46 When East met West by that time, they could no longer look one another straight in the eye.

In other words, long before the Industrial Revolution, little England was pulling ahead of the great civilizations of the Orient because of the material advantages of commerce and colonization. The Chinese and Japanese route – turning away from foreign trade and intensifying rice cultivation – meant that with population growth, incomes fell, and so did nutrition, height and productivity. When crops failed or their cul- tivation was disrupted, the results were catastrophic. The English were luckier in their drugs, too: long habituated to alcohol, they were roused from inebriation in the seventeenth century by American tobacco, Arabian coffee and Chinese tea. They got the stimulation of the coffee house, part café, part stock exchange, part chat-room;47 the Chinese ended up with the lethargy of the opium den, their pipes filled by none other than the British East India Company.48
Not all European commentators recognized, as Adam Smith did, China’s ‘stationary state’. In 1697 the German philosopher and math- ematician Gottfried Leibniz announced: ‘I shall have to post a notice on my door: Bureau of Information for Chinese Knowledge.’ In his book The Latest News from China, he suggested that ‘Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach the aims and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed religion.’ ‘One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese,’ declared the French philosophe Voltaire in 1764, ‘to recognize . . . that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.’ Two years later the Physiocrat François Quesnay published The Despotism of China, which praised the primacy of agriculture in Chinese economic policy.

Yet those on the other side of the Channel who concerned them- selves more with commerce and industry – and who were also less inclined to idealize China as a way of obliquely criticizing their own government – discerned the reality of Chinese stagnation. In 1793 the 1st Earl Macartney led an expedition to the Qianlong Emperor, in a vain effort to persuade the Chinese to reopen their empire to trade. Though Macartney pointedly declined to kowtow, he brought with him ample tribute: a German-made planetarium, ‘the largest and most perfect glass lens that perhaps was ever fabricated’, as well as tele- scopes, theodolites, air-pumps, electrical machines and ‘an extensive apparatus for assisting to explain and illustrate the principles of sci- ence’. Yet the ancient Emperor (he was in his eighties) and his minions were unimpressed by these marvels of Western civilization:
it was presently discovered that the taste [for the sciences], if it ever existed, was now completely worn out . . . [All] were . . . lost and thrown away on the ignorant Chinese . . . who immediately after the departure of the embassador [sic] are said to have piled them up in lumber rooms of Yuen-min-yuen [the Old Summer Palace]. Not more successful were the various specimens of elegance and art displayed in the choicest examples of British manufactures. The impression which the contemplation of such articles seemed to make on the minds of the courtiers was that alone of jealousy . . . Such conduct may probably be ascribed to a kind of state policy, which discourages the introduction of novelties . . .
The Emperor subsequently addressed a dismissive edict to King George III: ‘There is nothing we lack,’ he declared. ‘We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.’49

Macartney’s abortive opening to China perfectly symbolized the shift of global power from East to West that had taken place since 1500. The Middle Kingdom, once the mother of inventions, was now the mediocre kingdom, wilfully hostile to other people’s innovations. That ingenious Chinese creation, the clock, had come home, but in its modified and improved European form, with ever more accurate mechanisms composed of springs and cogs. Today there is an entire room in the Forbidden City given over to a vast imperial collection of timekeeping machines. Unlike the dismissive Qianlong Emperor, his predecessors had obsessively collected clocks. Nearly all were made in Europe, or by European craftsmen based in China.

The West’s ascendancy was confirmed in June 1842, when Royal Naval gunboats sailed up the Yangzi to the Grand Canal in retaliation for the destruction of opium stocks by a zealous Chinese official. China had to pay an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars, open five ports to British trade and cede the island of Hong Kong. It was ironic but appropriate that this first of the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ was signed in Nanjing, at the Jinghai Temple  – originally built in honour  of Admiral Zheng He and Tianfei, the Goddess of the Sea, who had watched over him and his fleet more than four centuries before.
They are building ships again in China – vast ships capable of circum- navigating the globe, leaving with containers full of Chinese manufac- tures and bringing back the raw materials necessary to feed the country’s insatiably growing industrial economy. When I visited the biggest shipyard in Shanghai in June 2010, I was staggered by the sheer size of the vessels under construction. The scene made the Glasgow docks of my boyhood pale into insignificance. In the factories of Wenzhou, workers churn out suits by the hundred thousand and plastic pens by the million. And the waters of the Yangzi are constantly churned by countless barges piled high with coal, cement and ore. Competition, companies, markets, trade – these are things that China once turned its back on. Not any more. Today, Admiral Zheng He, the personifica- tion of Chinese expansionism and for so long forgotten, is a hero in China. In the words of the greatest economic reformer of the post- Mao era, Deng Xiaoping:
No country that wishes to become developed today can pursue closed- door policies. We have tasted this bitter experience and our ancestors have tasted it. In the early Ming Dynasty in the reign of Yongle when Zheng He sailed the Western Ocean, our country was open. After Yon- gle died the dynasty went into decline. China was invaded. Counting from the middle of the Ming Dynasty to the Opium Wars, through 300 years of isolation China was made poor, and became backward and mired in darkness and ignorance. No open door is not an option.

It is a plausible reading of history (and one remarkably close to Adam Smith’s).
Thirty years ago, if you had predicted that within half a century China’s would be the world’s biggest economy, you would have been dismissed as a fantasist. But if back in 1420 you had predicted that Western Europe would one day be producing more than the whole of Asia, and that within 500 years the average Briton would be nine times richer than the average Chinese, you would have been regarded as no more realistic. Such was the dynamic effect of competition in Western Europe – and the retarding effect of political monopoly in East Asia.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

List of Maps xii

List of Figures xiii

Preface to the UK Edition xv

Introduction: Rasselas's Question 1

1 Competition 19

Two Rivers 20

The Eunuch and the Unicorn 26

The Spice Race 33

The Mediocre Kingdom 44

2 Science 50

The Siege 50

Micrographia 60

Osman and Fritz 71

Tanzimat Tours 85

From Istanbul to Jerusalem 90

3 Property 96

New Worlds 96

Land of the Free 103

American Revolutions 115

The Fate of the Gullahs 125

4 Medicine 141

Burke's Prophecy 142

The Juggernaut of War 157

Médecins Sans Frontieres 168

The Skulls of Shark Island 175

Black Shame 185

5 Consumption 196

The Birth of the Consumer Society 196

Turning Western 218

Ragtime to Riches 227

The Jeans Genie 240

Pyjamas and Scarves 252

6 Work 256

Work Ethic and Word Ethic 256

Get your Kicks 265

The Chinese Jerusalem 277

Lands of Unbelief 288

The End of Days? 291

Conclusion: The Rivals 295

Notes 326

Bibliography 348

Index 379

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