If at the beginning of the 15th century you’d had to predict who was going to dominate the world for the next 500 years, the answer would surely have been China. From the sophistication of its sanitation system to the size of its fleet, China — under the Emperor Zhu Di and his eunuch naval commander Cheng Ho — was a country going places. Its mighty, 400-foot-long ships sailed as far as Malindi on the East African coast and probably Australia. It had invented the clock and, of course, gunpowder.
Europe, during the same period, was — relatively speaking — a stagnant, backward mess. Architecturally, it had nothing modern that could match the glories of the Forbidden City in Peking or imperial Nanjing. It was decidedly lacking in Confucian harmony and cohesion: a mishmash of violent, squabbling, plague-ravaged city states and warring kingdoms. Between 1330 and 1479, one quarter of deaths among the English aristocracy was violent.
By the end of the century, though, something had changed. Columbus, in a ship one tenth the size of Cheng Ho’s, had discovered the New World, while Vasco da Gama had opened a new trade route to India. And by 1842, the power imbalance had grown so great that to punish China for confiscating some of its opium Britain was able to demand reparations, including $21 million, the opening of five trade treaty ports and the establishment of a crown colony on Hong Kong.
Where did Europe get it so right and the Chinese so badly wrong? This was the question asked by Niall Ferguson in the first episode of his six-part series Civilisation: Is the West History? (Channel 4, Sunday). I can’t say I’ve been a particular fan of his earlier stuff, which has always struck me as a bit abstruse and pleased with itself. But this new one looks set to be an absolute cracker: cogent, urgent, persuasive and compelling.
Read the rest at the Spectator.
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