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 Post subject: China, Confucianism, Isolationism and Treasure fleets.
PostPosted: Fri May 28, 2010 5:07 pm 
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Greetings everyone, Ben, and Dan. I am a huge fan of both of your shows, I find myself agreeing with you even when I hope your wrong.

Enough of that though, I have a musing question which you spoke about briefly in the Globalism unto Death history podcast.

China in the mid 15th century had a massive fleet which easily surpasses European fleets in the same time period. Under Yongle Emperor maritime exploration flourished, due to Zheng He, who constructed and administrated the fleet you mentioned. However under Yongle Emperor's successor was domestically oriented and isolationistic in the Confucian sense, Hongxi Emperor dismantled the fleet and destroyed information pertaining to academia.

My question is rather specific here, What if Yongle had been succeeded by another more expansionistic or trade oriented emperor?

This may be the best example of a fleet rotting, literally. So many other fleets would be sunk or otherwise destroyed at sea, but the size of the Chinese fleet at the time was a level that if the English 300 years later, it's arguable who would win in a maritime battle.

Not to mention the destruction of the Yongle encyclopedia, which might have rivaled any text contained anywhere in Europe.

What if China had continued exploring and trading instead of isolating at this particular time in history. What do you think would be different within the world itself, in the Globalization episode you spoke more about disease and, well... Globalization. I am thinking political history and military history here.

I just thought this musing might catch your interest.

Hope I was able to supply some interesting thoughts.

Looking forward to your next podcast,
Neolime


Last edited by Neolime on Fri Oct 22, 2010 2:43 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: What if China never isolated in the 16th century
PostPosted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 10:15 am 
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Good question.

According to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Steel, and Germs" the reason why feudal China never became expansionist was because of it's unified nature. Assuming it was a random chance whether any given ruling power decides to adopt a new technology or philosophy (guns, sailing ships, banking, industrialization, etc), in Europe even if a country did not initially adopt a new idea, the fact that some of it's neighboring countries adopted it would eventually force it to also adopt the idea so as not to be at a disadvantage. However, in China, because of it's unified nature, any conservative ruler that came into power could cause a new idea to be cast aside without apparent repercussions. It wasn't until the British sailed into Chinese harbors with metal-hulled ships and gunpowder weapons that the Chinese were forced modernize.

But let's suppose that somehow the Yongle Emporer didn't die prematurely of a stroke and that his Eunuch admirals were allowed to sail extensively, and let's suppose that he was able to have an heir who would continue his legacy, and that his court records would not have been destroyed by the conservative factions.

I think you would definitely have permanent trade relations with India, Japan, Indonesia, and maybe Africa, with perhaps established Chinese colonies along the coast. There might be greater Chinese cultural influence in those regions. More interestingly, could the Chinese fleets have made it as far as Australia or the Americas?


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 Post subject: Re: What if China never isolated in the 16th century
PostPosted: Wed Jul 21, 2010 11:24 am 
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It’s an interesting thought experiment

The Fleet’s purpose was power projection & Trade. They mostly stuck to major population centers; I don’t see that changing even if they kept the fleet. This means they probably wouldn’t have ended up crossing the Pacific to find America; no reason to do it. The fleet was also fairly unified; one big fleet moving from place to place, instead of a whole bunch of countries each with their own small fleets going all over. This would have limited the exploration that they would have done. They may have run into Australia by following Indonesia down, but I’m not sure what they have done with it.

They could have established colonies in Indonesia and Australia; both areas had low enough population densities to tolerate a few colonies without major blowback. But it’s hard to say if they would have. I don’t know China’s record when it comes to colonies. They’ve been so inward looking for so long colonies don’t seem like their thing, but this thought experiment pre-supposes an expansionistic China, so maybe they would have done colonies. If they established colonies in other areas, India, the Middle East, or Africa. I’d imagine they would cause some friction with the local populations; possibly set the stage for China becoming a sea bourn empire like Britain was so many hundreds of years later.

If they stuck solely to Trade and Gun boat diplomacy, it would have definitely spurred the surrounding countries to build their own fleets. Trade would foster competition amongst the other powers, all wanting in on the wealth. One of these smaller competing powers may have done more exploration and stumbled onto new territories up north or even have made it all the way over to North America. At that point I have no idea what would have happened.

An active sea rout to Africa would have decently reduced the influence of Arab traders, the whole Silk Road wouldn’t have happened. I wonder if they would have ended up building the Sues canal earlier, or if they’d be content to trade with North Africa and the Middle East.

The last question it brings up is Pandemics. Historically most really nasty diseases start out in Africa or China. The relative isolation of theses areas limited the impact and spread of the diseases. If there was an active trade system between china and the rest of the world, would there have been more pandemics and diseases, and would that have had a profound impact on other civilizations?

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 Post subject: Re: What if China never isolated in the 16th century
PostPosted: Mon Jul 26, 2010 10:52 am 
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I'm not sure if we can just dismiss the possibility of Chinese colonization just because the original Treasure Fleets did not colonize. After all, Christopher Columbus's trip was originally to establish an alternate trade-route to the Indies and the spice islands. Of course, because of the lost imperial records, we'll never know for sure.

Your plague idea is very interesting, however. Suppose, for example that subsequent treasure fleets were able to make it to North America (maybe by going North along the Bering Strait) and establish trade relations. What if through those trade-routes, Asian diseases like Bubonic Plague, Influenza, and Malaria were able to spread through the Native American populations. Could a few centuries of exposure to some of old-world diseases have provided enough resistances to the Native Americans that their populations could not have been decimated by Small Pox and perhaps allowed them to resist European invasion?

More interestingly, suppose those Chinese traders brought livestock (pigs, chickens, goats, horses, cattle) and crops (rice, millet, sorghum) with them. Further more, what if those Chinese traders brought along scrolls and taught the Native Americans writing as a prerequisite to trading with them. Could the introduction of those domesticated animals and crops along with writing have provided a catalyst to the Native American societies (like the Navajo and Hopi) to suddenly develop city-states and some/all the technological benefits that the Europeans enjoyed? The Europeans would have still enjoyed a technological advantage, but it may have been more like the Inuits vs. Vikings exchange instead of Incas vs Conquistadors.


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 Post subject: Re: What if China never isolated in the 16th century
PostPosted: Fri Oct 22, 2010 2:39 am 
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Thanks for the thoughts everyone. I have been livening in China for a couple of months now and I think I have a bit better of an idea about these sorts of things.

Contemporaneously, the emperor after Yongle is viewed as a giant detriment to the dynasty and probably helped destroy the dynasty. He is understood as one of the last Confucian emperors, and it was this that helped lead to the downfall of the dynastic system as a whole.

I have a new thought exercise that has much huger implications.

It falls along the vein of "what if x person never existed" however I have chosen to go a slightly different direction.

Ancient China had a number of feuding ideologies and philosophies which all competed with one another for centuries before the establishment of Confucianism as the official philosophy of imperial china.

What if Legalism (practiced by Qin Shi Huang) or Moism had become the dominant force in Chinese politics, or even (heaven forbid) Daoism had be accepted as the most suitable system for China? What would be different in Chinese history and what would this implicate for the world at large?

It is no secret that Confucianism holds ideas like respect for elders, isolationism, academicism and gender roles as primary motivational factors within society. It seems to me that the point of the confucian state was to exist in solidarity, destroying opposing factions as an effort to maintain greater china.

What would be the implications if China had chosen another system under which to base it's society? Would China have become imperial in the western sense? Would China be l larger or smaller? Would there be more ethnic diversity within China today (its a whopping 91% Han)? How would China's historical foreign policy change? Do you think that a less stable government form (from the Imperial examination system) would have benefited China, or do you feel that the Imperial examination system was the ideal system under which to organize a country?

Just thought I would give you guys some ideas.
Neolime


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 Post subject: Re: China, Confucianism, Isolationism and Treasure fleets.
PostPosted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 1:02 pm 
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You should check out the essay I wrote on Zheng He, the treasure ships and Yongle Emperor. The post is the second-most popular on my blog, with tens of thousands of views.

China’s Age of Discovery: The Voyages of Zheng He

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 Post subject: Re: China, Confucianism, Isolationism and Treasure fleets.
PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2011 4:37 pm 
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If another expansionist had ruled China instead of an isolationist?

The treasure fleets would've continued a while longer and consolidated its foreign trade relations, setup more Chinese settlements and more Chinese culture in the rest of Asia and parts of Africa. But not much else in the form of exploration, because eventually they'd be forced to recall them due to economic restraints.

It's important to note that the treasure fleets cost, yes, cost the Chinese much more money than they bought in. It's primary purpose was power projection and to 'encourage' local rulers that they encountered to give exotic gifts and, well, treasure to the Emperor of China. And the trade links it brought in wasn't much benefit either since China didn't make much of its money from trade tax.

So building mega-size fleets was fine and great when china was willing to spend all that money on big show-off tours, But not so much when there were more pressing and urgent matters that the imperial coffers needed to attend to.

This threat this time, was once again the good ol' folks from the western steppes. They'd been making increasingly daring raids into Chinese territory and they needed to spend money to stop these attacks. So the most logical imperial project to cut out was that bank breaking cruise around the high seas.

There would've been no big battle between European galleons and Chinese Junks, no Chinese fleet sailing past Lisbon with its sails casting shade on frightened European merchant ships, and no mass Chinese colonization of the known world. Looking at it that way, the more realistic question would've been; given China's superiority in the region, why did they even bother with a costly treasure fleet?

http://asianhistory.about.com/od/china/f/zhenghefaq.htm

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 Post subject: Re: China, Confucianism, Isolationism and Treasure fleets.
PostPosted: Fri Aug 19, 2011 5:21 pm 
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NickDupree wrote:
You should check out the essay I wrote on Zheng He, the treasure ships and Yongle Emperor. The post is the second-most popular on my blog, with tens of thousands of views.

China’s Age of Discovery: The Voyages of Zheng He


Thanks for the essay post, Nick!

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