Monday, May 19, 2008

"Why Europe?"

In my field one of the most important questions can be boiled down to "Why Europe?" Why, of all the competing possible societies a the cusp of the modern moment, did Europe vault ahead? There are many explanations, but the roots of almost every scholarly inquiry begin from Joseph Needham's monumental Science and Civilization in China. Andrew Leonard reviews Simon Winchester's biography of him here.

The answer that is common is that China "stopped trying." This however is not where the facts have led me, and I am going to take a few paragraphs debunking:

In the epilogue, Winchester asserts that the consensus opinion of current Sinologists is that "China, basically, stopped trying." That's too facile a summation when one is writing a biography of a man who devoted his entire life to understanding why China failed to capitalize on thousands of years of scientific and technological innovation. Winchester then skips through the main contending theories that attempt to explain China's failure: China's bureaucracy siphoned talent away from a potentially entrepreneurial merchant class, China did not have the spur to competition that Europe's many warring states inflicted on each other, China's totalitarian government quashed initiative.

But Needham himself, writes Winchester, "never fully worked out the answers." (Although he did propose, halfheartedly, a variation on the bureacracy thesis in his essay "General Conclusions and Reflections," a portion of which is online.)

The answer is half there already. One part is that Europe, alone, was situated to reach both Africa and the Americas. Many of the enthnocultures of the new world, which were crucial to the vault to modernity, touched Europe first, and gave them trade goods with China. Tobacco combined with opium for example. China was in the wrong place geologically. Water power, not steam power, drove the first part of modernity. Europe has far more of it in a small space than China does, and must use much less of it for irrigation.

China didn't stop trying, instead, it bet on the wrong things. Europe bet everything on conquest and on metallurgy, only to be rewarded with a continent full of people to conquer, and a series of technologies that came out of this: electricity and the steam engine. Europe does not really vault ahead in most technologies until the early 1800's, I can rattle off a dozen where it will be after that date where China is finally surpassed, but Europe was a global center of empire by 1700, when the outcome of a direct military conflict between China and Europe would have been in doubt, and Europe was still behind in a host of ways.

China also did not have the synthesis of modern mathematics, and this was clear by how Chinese mathematics never reached what is called the calculus.

Lastly, China had a technology that Europe did not have, and it was one that they invested a great deal of effort in: political unity. The Europeans tried over and over again to reach the level of unity that China had, and the level of action that China had, but failed repeatedly, and in a series of wars that history students learn in mind numbing detail. War of Austrian Succession? Of Jenkin's Ear? The Seven Years War, which probably lasted Nine Years?

But while China invested a great deal in the technologies of unity, and was more unified for a great deal longer than its European competitors, it was the wrong choice at that moment. It focused China's energies inward, right at the moment when going out ward would have been most profitable. The crucial century, the 15th century, shows how several innovations in the Eastern Pacific world, canons, print, and the factory, failed to make the same kind of changes in China that they would make elsewhere. Europe, to some extent, locked out of both the unity game and the game of land empire, was forced to turn to the sea, and it was the sea empire that flooded Europe with goods and ideas that would, in turn, give them the confidence to conquer even more.

As Andrew Leonard notes, the age of Europe as overlord is ending, even if you add in the American Century, and a century from now, who knows what the dominant culture will look like globally. If so, perhaps, some future scholar will look back at our moment, and wonder how, with everything in its favor, America "stopped trying."


  1. Mmmm? What's your field, if I may ask?

    Couple more reasons:

    1) political disunity in Europe is the flip side. Competition of new ideas, inventions, military tactics etc... You can see the same thing in Chinese history, where you have explosive periods of technological growth during many of the times when China was not united.

    2) Functional mercantile law. The rise of free cities and the disdain of nobles for merchants and trades meant that merchants tended to make their own laws, including enforcement of contracts and varioius financial instruments. Same thing happened in Japan, because the Shogunate and the Buke didn't want to dirty their hands and so left the merchants to themselves. Chinese bureaucrats seemed to interfere much much more in business.

  2. Hi Ian!

    hmmmmm. Art history, also known as those who can do, those who can't teach, and those who can't teach curate....

    Chinese commercial law was in many respects more advanced than Europe's and the bureaucracy was remarkably good at creating cities that were centers of excellence. Banking, contracts, companies, and many other features which arrive later in Europe are early in China.

    In fact during the mid-Ming dynasty there is a loosening of commercial restrictions, and this leads to what is called "The Third Commercial Revolution" in China with greater agricultural production, the flowering of smaller urban centers. To some extent, the collapse of imperial administration helped foster legal reform as court focused more on its own political intrigues.

    An example of how this worked was the establishment in the early Ming dynasty of a porcelain city Jingdezhen, where the oversight occured from court for both internal and external production. China's porcelain manufacture dominated until the advent of bone China in the early 1800's. During the Ming Dynasty there were at least five major stylistic revolutions. However, by the end the court had collapsed, with Grand Secretaries following each other every few months, the equivalent of a prime minister in late Ming politics.

    The old european work is Early Ming wares of Chingtechen by Brancston and Vetch, from 1938. One of the volumes of Tian Gong Kai Wu is on ceramics from this period.

    However the Qing dynasty engaged in reform, because the commercial revenue was too important, and the factory city was again under the direct supervision of an imperial mandrin, the Qing dynasty revives quality and innovates again, particularly in the use of hard enamels on the outside, giving Qing porcelain both a characteristic look, and, non coincidentally, improving the ability of piece to survive the rigors of sea transport.

    There is a classic text Tao Shou written by Zhu Yan.

    They turned to what became a Chinese disease, namely who cares. This is a phrase that in Chinese really does mean that if no one is going to arrest you for it, then it isn't really against the law. Corruption would be the death spiral of the Qing dynasty, and lead to horrible results in both war and peace.

    This spiral started under the Ming dynasty, when it the broad powers used to maintain unity were combined with relatively low taxes to prevent revolts. Mandrins began extracting high fees to do anything. The Qing conquered China and expanded these powers.

    I'd refer you to

    High corruption income in Ming and Qing China
    Journal of Development Economics
    Volume 81, Issue 2, December 2006, Pages 316-336
    Shawn Nia and Pham Hoang Van

    Determinants of the Amount and Type of Corruption in State Fiscal Bureaucracies

    Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3, 300-331 (1992)
    Edgar Kiser, University of Washington
    Xiao Xi, University of Chicago

    Corruption in Eighteenth-Century China
    The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Nov., 1997), pp. 967-1005
    Nancy E. Park

    So I think the best way of putting it is that the mandrinate was very good at creating industries like silk manufacture, tea, porcelain, and other export goods. However, they were even better at hiding revenues, extracting high fees, and abuse of growing powers given to them by an increasingly distant and pre-occupied capital.

  3. Thanks very much for the references!

    I think you've hit on something key. Reduction of corruption and violence are also considered key, because long term low profit enterprises (as opposed to the gamble of "my ship came in") based on tons of small transactions (getting rich by selling a million of something at 5% markup) was much more difficult when banditry and extortion (the real name for mandatory bribery) was a factor. When risks are high, high irregular profits are what you need.

    This also allows you to Put an ever increasing amount of the economy on a "cash" rather than subsistence/barter basis, because you have some expectation of keeping cash, you can buy the goods you need and don't need to be as independent (growing your own food, making your own clothes, taking care of everything else.)

    Combine with the other requirements for Weberian rational capitalism such as pushing the peasants off the land en-masse (so you have a large, poor workforce available) and easy access to significant amounts of credit (most notably the limited liability comany) and you're on your way.

    Art history: seems those I know in that field seem to know more history than the actual historians.