Why China was able to unify and not Europe?

Why China was able to unify and not Europe?

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If you look at a map of China through the ages, you will usually find (from about the Han up) a huge mass representing China. On the other hand, you look at a map of Europe, and you'll usually see a huge number of states. Why was China able to unify and not Europe?

China (or at least its core) had a central, unifying culture built around philosophers such as Confucius and Lao-tse that was attractive to people over a wide land area. Also, the Chinese written language was developed from pictograms that represented "words," which although pronounced differently in different locations, could have the same meaning over wide land areas.

This core culture was widely admired, which is to say that people on the "edges" of "China" were often open to assimilation or sinicization. And the country was fortunate that when conquered, it was by more "backward" (but fiercer) people such as the Mongols and Manchus who were glad to adopt Chinese culture, and also impose it on conquered people.

In Europe (at the risk of oversimplifying), there were three main cultural linguistic groups, Latin, Germanic and Slav, of roughly equal power and influence. While the balance of power shifted back and forth over the centuries, no one group became dominant. And often, they could not impose their culture over smaller subgroups that got in their way. In theory, Latin might have fulfilled the function of a common language like Chinese, but (apart from modified forms such as French, Spanish or Italian, in most of the former Roman territories), it never took hold over the common people in the rest of Europe. Nor was there a common culture in most of Europe, at least until the time of the Enlightenment.

In Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, the first chapter by Walter Scheidel, "From the 'Great Convergence' to the 'First Great Divergence'", makes the case that the Chinese style of government focused on centralising power while the Roman style allowed for a great deal of autonomy for appointed officials.

The Warring States era pitted states of similar size against each other for centuries, necessitating governmental reforms that strengthened the power of the central government. Qin implemented various measures that weakened the power of nobles, established standards across the kingdom (everything from language and currency to the size of axles) and allowed the central government to reach into all areas of society, with ultimate power being in the hands of the king. When Qin conquered its rival states, it sought to impose this same system throughout China and, despite its rhetoric, the Han actually adopted most of Qin's institutions. Rome had comparatively brief periods in which it was matched against opponents of similar strength. Thus, its war efforts did not require the same level of internal reform and centralisation. Scheidel writes also that:

Moreover, protobureaucratization was logically incompatible with the governmental arrangements of the Roman Republic, which was controlled by a small number of aristocratic lineages that relied on social capital, patronage relationships and the manipulation of ritual performances to maintain power.

Scheidel notes that Chinese cities were typically governed by officials who came from outside the region. Thus, they were viewed as government-appointed administrators rather than the community leaders who formed city councils in the cities of the Roman Empire. In times of disunity, Chinese warlords were more likely to be acting as pretenders to the throne than as representatives of regional interests.

In terms of philosophy and religion, China was founded on a combination of Legalism and Confucianism. Both of these stressed the importance of centralised control and an ordered society. Rome was founded upon first paganism, then Christianity. Scheidel does not mention the former, but Edward Gibbon makes the case that paganism allowed for greater tolerance of the local customs of conquered areas, and it makes sense that this also allows for greater acceptance of autonomous government. When Rome turned to Christianity, it was to "churches that had evolved outside and in some sense in opposition to the imperial state" and therefore "could not offer comparable services" in terms of governance to Confucian scholars.

I think that stems from both geographic and cultural factors. At first it is almost like Jim Thio said, only that it may not exactly be mountains.

If you look at the early agricultural societies in the West, those would be 1) along the Nile River (Egypt) and 2) between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Mesopotamia). Those are two places divided not by mountains, but by sea and desert. Later there were also agricultural societies on the island of Crete and on the Greek peninsula (which were also cut off from both Mesopotamia and Egypt by the sea). If you look at the early agricultural societies in the East Asia, those would be located primarily between the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, mostly on the North China Plain.

In the West, the diverse landscape prevented early cultures from directly 'meeting' each other and by the time they had actually 'met' they had already become very distinct. And by the time the subcontinent known as 'Europe' had risen to prominence (that happened late because Europe is located north of China; Europe is approximately the same latitude as Japan or Korea, both of which were not agricultural until at least 1000 BC despite agriculture beginning earlier than 5000 BC in Mesopotamia, Egypt and China) a certain culture had already been established in the region by the Roman Empire and Christianity. It would take a long time to describe the exact kind of culture it was but, to make long short, it was an individualistic culture that did not really care about the government and state. It was a kind of culture that tried to distance itself from Roman rule and Empire as that rule was in fact violent.

In China, on the other hand, there were no geographical obstacles that powerful at the early stages of civilization. Therefore different states constantly warred with each other from early times (consequently merging differing cultures to form China proper). Legalist and Confucian morals and political ethics, that were mentioned here, were in fact a response to those constant feuds. As for that, Confucianism in turn did not really care about religious beliefs and local customs, concentrating more on the social order and politics.

Therefore we have in the West 1) very little fertile land for early agriculture (for early agriculture the land must be very fertile, so that agriculture is advantageous compared to hunter-gathering) 2) major religions/philosophies (Platonism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism->Christianity) that began in around the 5th century BC concentrating on uniting cultures that were very much diverse.

On the other hand, in China we have 1) a lot of fertile land comprising 'China proper' that has relatively few natural boundaries, most of which are not as significant as a sea or a desert. (For argument's sake, historically there were places in China that were hard to reach - parts of Vietnam and Thailand in the south and Korea in the north. At certain times China did control those lands, but for short periods of time and those nations certainly do not claim to be Chinese themselves - just as the British do not claim themselves Roman.) There were also 2) major religions/philosophies (Confucianism, Legalism, Taoism) did not try to unite the common cultures, but rather are about an 'order of things' that is above those cultures.

It is a wrong assumption that Europe was never unified politically.

First, in ancient times the cultural development of different European peoples was very diverse. The most advanced peoples of Europe adopted the Greek culture, alphabet, and gods. You can see this on the example of Etruscans who used the Greek alphabet and worshiped the Greek gods. The same can be said about the Balkan peoples, Spanish peoples, and to a certain degree about Italians. Germanic and Celtic peoples of the time also used Greek alphabet for their languages.

At its height the Greek civilization included not only most civilized parts of Europe but also portions of Middle East and Africa. Northern Europe was not included mostly because it was not that developed at the time.

Later the civilization of Rome followed which also included the the most civilized parts of Europe and Mediterranean with some other areas as client states.

In the Middle ages, the Catholic Church and the Holy See took the same role.

It was only starting with the High Middle Ages that the European nations began to assert sovereignty, partly because of the falling authority and prestige of the church.

To begin with, the statistics show China was under unified rule 44% of its time. The number for Europe is 18%. So we want to know why (and hope this question makes sense). So it is a comparative history question. In order to establish a comparative history, much effort has to be put in rather than a blind comparison. On this topic, a very good introduction is Rome and China, Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, edited by Walter Scheidel & al. Its first chapter, Walter Scheidel's thesis "From the 'Great Convergence' to the 'First Great Divergence': Roman and Qin-Han State Formation and Its Aftermath", gives a taste of the recent scholarly work on this issue.

One should note that the notion of "reunification" does not lie in the foundation of Rome or Qin-Han empire, as they didn't have the concept of reunification. "Reunification" is merely a political vision (Europe) or reality (China) created during the chaos after the collapse of empires. Indeed, Scheidel argues, "Trajectories of state formation signally diverged from the sixth century c.e. onward", when "Justinian's attempted reunification of the original Roman Empire was only partially successful" and Europe eventually resulted "in a cluster of polities in which balancing mechanisms prevented the creation of a core-wide empire" whereas "in 6 c.e. China, by contrast, imperial reunification restored the bureaucratic state that largely succeeded" (pp. 5-6).

To explore the deeper reason of such a outcome, if there is any, the author suggested that "a whole variety of factors may have been relevant." In fact, not all factors favor the reunification of China and against that of Europe. One example is the geography. The Mediterranean provided much faster and safer transportation connecting the provinces of the Roman Empire, whereas the rivers and mountains in China made communication more costly for it. Another example is religion. After Rome, Christianity spread across Europe. In contrast, in China, several religions, notably Buddhism and Taoism, competed for power and resources which extended to the time after the reunification of China under Tang.

Among the many factors that favors the reunification of China, one is capitalized in the paper, the state capacity. "It is true that Confucian scholars provided a suitable instrument of state management, whereas the absence of an equivalent group in the Christian West may have made it more difficult for post-Roman regimes to maintain or restore a 'strong' state" (p. 21). China eventually overcame the foreign challenges and restored the unified empire (Sui-Tang) again. Similar challenges were not successfully contained in Europe.

There was always somebody around Europe applying the Divide and Conquer strategy. When the Roman empire was at it's peak they consistently attacked, or supported the enemies of, the strongest of the Germanic tribes to make sure none of them would become too strong. Even those desperately trying to make friends with the Romans… if they were too strong… peace was impossible. As Augustus, emperor of Rome so memorably put it "We will make sure we always support the weaker side, so they can keep fighting the stronger ones, and we're sitting pretty and the Germanic tribes are no longer a trouble for us" Augustus, Rome, Source: The Battle Against Rome 2/2 (Youtube).

The same has been true later on except then it was the British making sure no one would become too strong. Most of the African nations they created were nations the locals didn't really want to make, and they were made specifically with civil war in mind. Sudan for instance: Videographic: A history of modern Sudan (YouTube).

When the French became all powerfull in 1812 the British did all they could to weaken them. And then Germany started rising in 1880 and by 1910 the British were onto them this time.

Also at the rape at Versaille in 1919 the divide and conquer strategy was thoroughly applied to central europe. Czechaslovakia and Poland were created out of thin air and Germany was shrunk and made to pay enormous fines etc. Also Austria-Hungary, Germany's main ally was completely dissolved. Map of Europe in 1900:

Map of Europe, 1900.

So this division within Europe is not a coincidense but a design. The same goes for the middle East and Africa.

But why wasn't somebody maintaining division within China in the same way… well, the west did try to break China up in the 19th century, the country was split up into provinces each under the jurisdiction of a given western nation. The problem was that the Chinese were much more populous than the entire western world combined, plus traveling this distance was still quite expensive. So maintaining a large army that far away was logistically difficult. Also anti western sentiment in China grew with time and eventually became such that life for westerners there became bad. Also, the United States was against any trade restrictions with China.

The great civilizations of Eurasia has mostly risen up around rivers that go through big fertile plains. This is true for the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilizations.

Europe's only candidate, the Eastern European plains, with Volga, was too cold and had too harsh winters to allow a big Neolithic/Bronze age civilization. As such, Europe was not a candidate of unification at this time, and the ability to keep a European empire together without one big river as the heart of the communication probably didn't arise until the Renaissance.

That Europe therefore has not become united until the last few decades (and even then it's rather split in two: Russia and EU) is hardly surprising from a purely geographic perspective. Europe is a "peninsula of peninsulas" and there are no geographic features to grow a civilization around.

A harder question is why only Rome succeeded in unifying the Mediterranean.

Look at internet. No barrier of entry. So google grab all the niche. It's things like that. Now look at your local store. Why they don't expand all the way to Arab?

The answer is something called barrier of entry. It's just as costly for google to expand to your neighbor than to Arab. So they expand everywhere. Your local coffee shop doesn't have that luxury.

The same goes in China. No mountains means there is no barrier of entry for the most disciplined, smart, meritocratic king to expand everywhere else (it's really a bad thing but does sound positive).

In Europe, they got mountains forcing kings to maintain niches.

China contains plenty of land. In business term, there is no barrier of entry for those with lower marginal cost to expand to new territory.

Europe is mountainous.

Say I am winning. I may have the best army. People may fear me more. It costs less for me to screw others than for you to fight against me. But alas, all these mountains is hard to travel. The peasants don't talk my language.

In other word, in Europe, defender got more "home territory" advantage. In china attackers have about equal advantage with defenders.

Note: Well, the case of three kingdom period in China where China is NOT united, actually supports my point. Cao Cao cannot conquer Sun Quan precisely because there is a river that gets in the way (or so simplistically said). So natural state boundary often coincide with hard to pass terain. Europe has more of it than China.

Chinese rulers put in place an extensive education and annual examination system to allow everyone in the country to serve the government and rise in society. This deliberately designed system for upward mobility was not seen in any other country of the time, and may have served as a catalyst for all people to assimilate and become loyal citizens. In fact these philosophies and values (mainly Confucius) were part of their studies, and were tested in the national exams.

I believe it's partly to do with coastal access. Countries and city states particularly in older times needed shipping lanes to trade and prosper. Regions further inland were highly dependent on coastal regions to provide them with access to these trade routes. Thus these regions on the coast grew wealthy and powerful, while those inland were somewhat disadvantaged. For those reasons it was easy for the coastal areas to exert power and influence, and it made sense for those further inland to cooperate.

If you look at Europe, no part is a long distance from the coastline, so the playing field was much more level and they could be more self sufficient due to easy sea access. Whereas in China the Eastern areas had a clear trade advantage, which is why the great cities like Beijing and Shanghai developed on the East coast.

Of course, there were inland trade routes as well like the silk route, so it's not completely one sided. Therefore it makes sense that both inland and coastal regions cooperated to get the most out of international trade.

The foundation of the ideal of being Chinese for different Sinitic peoples (northern Han, Wu, Cantonese, Min etc) might have been stronger than Christianity in Europe and prestige of Roman empire. Besides (and related) nationalism and individualism in Europe might have been factors while Chinese are more social community.

I don't think it is simply a matter of "Chinese culture was superior to all others in the region while European cultures were equal to each other" as the accepted answer says.

Instead, I think it has to do simply with history.

In Europe, there was an era of powerful city-states. The notion was that a group of people who banded together to live in a massive city would control and use the resources of their land for themselves and not have to share (forced or not) with others. They felt that each city should be able to care for itself.

This notion remained with Europeans throughout the centuries and there were always groups who preferred to keep borders small and were not interested in expansion, all they wanted was to look after their own community.

Even when things like the Roman Empire came along, it eventually dissolved because of a desire people had to be part of smaller, more intimate groups, rather than large nations and empires. This has repeated itself throughout history - as any time a nation tries to take over large amounts of land in Europe, it eventually dissolves back into much smaller groups. Because that's how the people WANT it to be.

This did not happen in China. There was no major "city-state" era in which people got attached to the notion of keeping things local. Even among the smaller states that did exist in the beginning, the theme seems to be that they were more interested in conquering their neighbors rather than looking after themselves.

That is what remains today. China is one of the largest countries in the world and Europe is full of much smaller countries who are STILL breaking apart to get as small as possible (Montenegro just separated from Serbia just a few years ago). When is the last time a group in China separated from the country? How about separated peacefully? Not for a long time!

This is also why concepts like communism are popular in China, where there is no sense of localization. Throughout their history they have always shared land and resources with as many people as possible (everyone in the vast kingdom). Meanwhile, in Europe, from the time of the city-states until now, there has always been a sense of locality with everything. People only want to share resources with their family and close neighbors, they don't want to share them with people hundreds of miles away. This is why concepts like communism failed in Europe, there has never been a history of "sharing" on a large scale there.

Let me throw my two cents into this debate. The other reasons that China was able to unify because of race and religion.

China has one pre-dominant ethnic group, Han, sharing a common written language ('hanzi') and common familial bonds (millions of Li, Zhang, Chen, etc).

Chinese are generally religion-agnostic. That's why Buddhism and Taoism have coexisted in China for millennia. Chinese people believe more in "good fortune", ie. karma, than any particular religion.

Unification of China

Kublai’s achievement was to reestablish the unity of China, which had been divided since the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907). His accomplishment was that much greater because he was a barbarian (in Chinese eyes) as well as a nomadic conqueror. Even in Chinese official historiography, however, the Mongol Kublai is treated with respect. As early as 1260 he instituted a reign period in the Chinese manner to date his reign, and in 1271, eight years before the disintegration of the Nan Song, he proclaimed his own dynasty under the title of Da Yuan, or “Great Origin.” He never resided at Karakorum, Ögödei’s short-lived capital, but set up his own capital at what is now Beijing, a city known in his time as Dadu, the “Great Capital.”

The final conquest of the Nan Song took several years. Kublai might well have been content to rule northern China and to leave the Song nominally in control of southern China, but the Song’s detention and ill treatment of envoys he had sent convinced him that the declining regime in the south must be dealt with decisively. Military operations opened once again in 1267. The Song emperor Duzong was apparently badly served by his last ministers, who are said to have kept him misinformed of the true situation, whereas many Song commanders went over voluntarily to the Mongols. In 1276 Kublai’s general Bayan captured the child Song emperor of the day, but loyalists in the south delayed the inevitable end until 1279.

With all of China in Mongol hands, the Mongol conquests in the south and east had reached their effective limit. Kublai, however, seeking to restore China’s prestige, engaged in a series of costly and troublesome wars that brought little return. At various times tribute was demanded of the peripheral kingdoms: from Myanmar (Burma), from Annam and Champa in mainland Southeast Asia, from Java (now in Indonesia), and from Japan. The Mongol armies suffered some disastrous defeats in those campaigns. In particular, invasion fleets sent to Japan in 1274 and 1281 were virtually annihilated, though their loss was as much due to storms (the fabled Japanese kamikaze typhoons in those years) as to Japanese resistance.

Kublai was never entirely discouraged by the indifferent results of those colonial wars nor by their expense, and they were brought to an end only under his successor, Temür. Marco Polo suggests that Kublai wished to annex Japan simply because he was excited by reports of its great wealth. It seems, however, that his colonial wars were fought mainly with a political objective—to establish China once more as the centre of the world.

Why the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen in China

To economic historians like Joel Mokyr, there’s nothing inevitable about the incredible wealth and health of the modern world. But for a spark in a little corner of Europe that ignited the Industrial Revolution — which spread incredible advances in technology and living standards first across the north Atlantic coast in the 1700 and 1800s and gradually around the world — we could all be living the nasty, brutish and short lives of our ancestors centuries before.

Mokyr, who teaches at Northwestern University, dives into the mystery of how the world went from being poor to being so rich in just a few centuries in a forthcoming book, “ A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy .”

Drawing on centuries of philosophy and scientific advancements, Mokyr argues that there’s a reason the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not, for example, in China, which had in previous centuries shown signs of more scientific advancement: Europe developed a unique culture of competitive scientific and intellectual advancement that was unprecedented and not at all predestined.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to consider this question, of why the Industrial Revolution occurred?

It is a question that needs to be asked if we want to know how we became what we are. The 19 th and 20 th centuries are in many ways the most transformative centuries in all of human history. Until about 1800, the vast bulk of people on this planet were poor. And when I say poor, I mean they were on the brink of physical starvation for most of their lives.

Life expectancy in 1750 was around 38 at most, and much lower in some places. The notion that today we would live 80 years, and spend much of those in leisure, is totally unexpected. The lower middle class in Western and Asian industrialized societies today has a higher living standard than the pope and the emperors of a few centuries back, in every dimension. That is the result of one thing: Our ability to understand the forces of nature and harness them for our economic needs.

If we understood how that happened, we would understand human history. For thousands of years, the material conditions that people lived in changed very little. Then all of a sudden, in 1800, it just zooms up.

That came out of Western Europe and its offshoot in North America after 1800. If it hadn’t been for that, you and I would be looking at a life expectancy of maybe 40, and I probably I wouldn’t be sipping cappuccino from a fancy machine and talking to you on my smartphone. Look at what we have achieved in every dimension. Technology hasn’t just increased our income, it’s changed every aspect of daily life.

The question is, was all this inevitable? My answer is, absolutely no.

So why did this dramatic change occur? And why did it start in Europe, rather than in China?

China has a glorious past in its scientific achievements. And yet they were never able to turn it into economic growth as the West did. If you look at Europe and China in the 19 th century, Europe is advancing at breathtaking speed. It’s building a rail network, steamships, factories. By the early 20th century, China looked like it was going to be completely occupied by imperialist powers. Clearly the technological and economic development of East and West diverged from 1850 on. The $64,000 question is “Why?”

People have given different answers, and I’m giving mine. One way of thinking about it is culture. But to state, “Hey, the Chinese have a different culture because they were Confucianists, and the Europeans were Christian,” I don’t buy that for a second. It’s much more subtle and complicated. The way I would phrase it is that culture is not independent of political and institutional circumstances.

China and Europe are different in many ways, but one is that after the Mongol conquest in the 12 th century, China remains a unified empire run by a single Mandarin bureaucracy. There is nothing that competes with or threatens China. China does get invaded by Manchu tribes in 1644, but they don’t change the structure of the state. They learned to speak Chinese, dress like Chinese and eat like Chinese.

In Europe, no one ever succeeds in unifying it, and you have continuous competition. The French are worried about the English, the English are worried about the Spanish, the Spanish are worried about the Turks. That keeps everybody on their toes, which is something economists immediately recognize as the competitive model. To have progress, you want a system that is competitive, not one that is dominated by a single power.

I think that is the major difference. It isn’t just that China doesn’t have an Industrial Revolution, it doesn’t have a Galileo or a Newton or a Descartes, people who announced that everything people did before them was wrong. That’s hard to do in any society, but it was easier to do in Europe than China. The reason precisely is because Europe was fragmented, and so when somebody says something very novel and radical, if the government decides they are a heretic and threatens to prosecute them, they pack their suitcase and go across the border.

Europe creates a competitive world that encourages intellectual innovation. There’s the Reformation, which says the religion you had until now is wrong. The same happens in astronomy, chemistry, medicine, mathematics and philosophy. Eventually, it filters down to how we make textiles and shoes, and how we grow corn.

I want to make clear, very few serious historians think China failed. China wanted stability and security, and they achieved that for a long time. The Europeans don’t want stability. They want progress. Of course, China’s stability gets disrupted by Europeans showing up with more powerful ships and guns. Eventually, China crumbles under the onslaught of European modernity. It’s quite a tragic story.

Your book talks about how the Industrial Revolution resulted from a preference for “useful knowledge” and a connection that forms between the social elite and the productive sector of society. Explain that.

Between Columbus’s voyage to America in 1492 and the death of Isaac Newton in 1727, the agenda of research in Europe changes. For much of human history, people studied science and natural phenomena, not to make us materially better off, but just to satisfy curiosity. The ancient Greeks made fantastic scientific progress, but there are few instances in which they use it for anything. In fact, Aristotle says science shouldn’t be used, because work is something for the lower classes. Learned people didn’t work, and working people didn’t learn.

Before the Industrial Revolution, learned people in Europe changed the agenda. They say, “Look, we should study nature, but we should do so to improve our material welfare.” To people today, this sounds totally obvious. But it wasn’t in the year 1600. By the 18 th century, this has become the consensus. That’s what I call the Industrial Enlightenment.

Many of the scientific issues they were trying to solve, they couldn’t. But they kept trying, and by the 19 th century, they start cracking problems. Electricity is one example. For 100 years, people struggle with trying to harness its power. Only by the 1860s is electrical generation cracked, and then all of a sudden you get Thomas Edison, electrical lighting and street cars. The same thing happened in the understanding of infectious disease, which is the main reason life expectancy goes up. These advances took a long time. But they never gave up, and in the end they cracked it. If you think about it, this is quite astonishing.

Now we haven’t cracked everything. I can’t tell you if we are going to crack nuclear fusion. But that’s what this game is all about, that nature is comprehensible, and we can understand and use it. We can never understand 100 percent of it, but we can do better and better.

In China today, people often talk about the country’s rich history of invention, for example of printing, gunpowder and the compass. And you mention that China had its own Enlightenment. So how was that different?

China was extremely innovative in its heyday, which is basically under the Song dynasty, which ended in 1279. At that time, European and Islamic travelers realized that China was leading the world in technology. And China does have kind of an Enlightenment. And yet, in the end, they did not turn that innovation into sustained economic growth.

I believe the fundamental reason is China’s position as a single empire, and also its bureaucracy, which is a unique and peculiar animal. On the one hand, it is very progressive, because it is a meritocracy. In Europe, the people who were in power were the sons and nephews of other people in power. But in China there’s an examination, and the people who did the best rose in the Mandarin civil service. So you’d think, “Wow, that’s very progressive.” Except if you look at what they were studying for these exams, they were simply regurgitating the classics. It was the perfect tool to keep reproducing from the same mold generation after generation.

In Europe, something different happens. People study classical knowledge, Ptolemy and Hippocrates and Archimedes, and they begin to say, “Most of this stuff is wrong.” You couldn’t do that in China. If you said “This stuff is wrong,” you failed your exam. But in Europe, the ability to challenge received wisdom is irrepressible.

In the 17 th century, Europeans build microscopes, telescopes and barometers that allow them to study nature in a way the classics never could. And they become rather cocky. There’s a French philosopher in the late 16 th century, Pierre de La Ramée, who writes a book with the title “Everything Aristotle Has Said Is Wrong.” That’s chutzpah. A century earlier, he would have been strung up.

For example, Aristotle famously thought that a vacuum was impossible. Then one day, Europeans build a vacuum pump. The only conclusion they could reach is Aristotle is wrong. If he was wrong about that, could he be wrong about other things? You bet. Aristotle thought all the stars in the heavens were completely fixed nothing is added and nothing is subtracted. In 1573, a Danish astronomer called Tycho Brahe observes a supernova. There was a star there before, and now it’s not. So people start being skeptical, and skepticism leads to what I call contestability. Arguments are decided not on authority, but on evidence, logic and mathematical proof.

That seems perfectly normal to us, but it’s something that had to be learned. It’s something no other society pulls off. In other places, wisdom and knowledge were revealed to our forefathers, and if you want to know the truth, you have to study their writings, whether it’s the Bible, or Confucius, or the Koran, or the Talmud.

What implications does all this have for our world today?

There’s a debate about the extent to which everything that can be invented has been invented. Have we picked all the low hanging fruit, can we continue to grow the way we did? I take a very optimistic view. I think if you want to summarize the future of technology, the short summary is, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The reason I say this is because science advances in part because people have the tools to work on problems. In the scientific advances of the 17 th century, the microscope, the telescope and the barometer play a very important role. Now, if you ask what science has to work with today, it boggles the mind. We have microscopes that see the sub-molecular level. We have telescopes that see galaxies nobody dreamed existed. We have labs full of computers. A computer can find nanoscopic needles in a hay stack the size of Montana. The question is not, “What do computers do for our research?” The question people ask today is, “How the hell did anyone do anything before we had computers?”

We are going to make so much more progress, simply because we have more powerful tools. As science advances, it will push our capability of controlling nature further. Now, the problems also get harder. We are dealing with issues like climate change and desertification. But our capability of solving them is going even faster, which is why I’m optimistic.


Allen, Robert C (2009), The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press.

Allen, Robert C, Jean-Pascal Bassino, Christine Moll-Murata, and Jan Luiten van Zanden (2011), “Wages, Prices, and Living Standards in China, Japan, and Europe, 1738-1925”, to be published in Economic History Review, vol. 64, issue 1.

Pomeranz, K (2000), The Great Divergence. China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press.

The Northern Song Wars (960–1127): Stalemate and Disaster

For about 150 years, the result of the Song wars was stalemate. They couldn't conquer their neighbors, but they didn't lose significant territory to them either. So they maintained their territorial integrity, and they were able to prosper in their boundaries until 1127.

When Emperor Taizu began reigning over empire in 960, the Liao Empire in the northeast was a military threat. The court also desired the territory of the Western Xia in the northwest. There were conflicts with the Viets in the south. First Taizu and then his descendants tried to address these foreign affairs issues. Instead of just trying to live at peace with these powerful neighbors, they choose to invade with disastrous results.

The Failed Invasion of the Western Xia

The Western Xia Mausoleum. Ruins such as this one are all the architecture that remains of the Western Xia.

The Tangut people had a large kingdom called Western Xia (1038–1227) in the northwest that controlled access to the strategic Gansu land corridor, a huge long valley, that permitted travel and trade on the Silk Road. The Tangut people had been a part of the Tang Empire, but they formed a large kingdom of their own when the Tang Empire disintegrated.

As the Song Empire expanded in the late 900s, they resisted them. The Song Dynasty thought that if they could gain the Xia territory, they could perhaps reestablish the lucrative Silk Road trade that benefited the earlier Han (206 BC – 220 AD) and Tang Dynasties.

The Song Dynasty managed to win several military victories over the Tanguts in the early 11th century. Then, a leading scientist and scientific writer named Shen Kuo (1031-1095) who wrote a then leading-edge scientific book called The Dream Pool Essays undertook to lead an army against them. This expedition was a disaster, and the Tanguts regained territory they had lost earlier.

Defeated Again in an Invasion of the Viets

The Song court, stymied in the northwest, next wanted to expand south to annex the Viet territory. The Ly Dynasty behaved as vassals, but the Song court thought that the country was weak enough to conquer.

In response, the Ly Dynasty sent an army of perhaps 100,000 to Nanning and soundly defeated three Song armies. From 1075 to 1077, the Ly Dynasty in Vietnam fought them. This war ended in a stalemate also. Captives and captured land were mutually exchanged.

These two failed invasions weakened their military strength and the court's finances. They may have been key factors in the dynasty's downfall.

Their Disastrous War Against the Liao Empire in 1125

The Liao Empire (907–1125) was an aggressive enemy in the northeast. They forced the Northern Song Dynasty to give some tribute in 1005. The Northern Song Dynasty sought to defeat the Liao. They allied themselves with the Jurchens (or Jin) and started a war that ended in their disaster in the year 1125.

The combined armies of the Jurchens and the Song defeated the Liao Empire. Then the Jurchens turned against the Song Empire and captured Kaifeng that was the Song capital city. They captured the emperor and much of the ruling clan in 1129. Eventually, the Jin captured about 40 percent of the Northern Song Empire's territory.

A member of the emperor's clan evaded capture, and he became the first emperor of the Southern Song with the imperial name Gaozong. He evaded Jurchen attempts to capture him and an attempted Song coup. The Jurchens made Kaifeng their capital and founded the Jin Empire (1115–1234).

How did Qin Shi Huangdi unify China? Essay Sample

Qin Shi Huangdi or commonly known as just Qin Shi Huang, was the emperor of China from 221BC. Qin Shi Huang (then known as Ying Zheng) became the King of Qin at the age of 13 but did not assume control until he was 22. He was the one responsible for unifying china. Qin Shi Huang assumed autocratic control, introducing a new currency, and by creating a unified system of weights and measures, writing and currency. Qin Shi Huang was both a brutal tyrant and a great leader. He used violence to take control of china, killed scholars and burnt books to wipe out heresy and brutality was the basis of his greatest achievements. Today, Qin Shi Huang is still well known by his brutal tyrannous style of leadership rather then his many great achievements.

Ying Zheng (Qin Shi Huang) became the King of Qin at a tender age of 13 following the death of his father, Chuang Xiang, but did not assume control until the year 238BC, when he was 22 years old. Before that, the state affairs and power fell into the hands of Lu Buwei, a high-ranking minister of state, and the empress dowager. When Ying Zheng took control, he immediately erased the power of both the Empress Dowager and that of Lu Buwei to suppress a rebellion.

After the rebellion, Zheng set about reforming and strengthening his kingdom. He searched for outside advice and promoted a new elite of both civil and military officials (including mandarins such as Li Si and Wang Wan) and then carried out the improvements advocated by his father, developing the military and agriculture. Soon Qin became the strongest of the seven warring states and between 230 BC and 221BC, Zheng succeeded in defeating all his opponents. He found himself master of all the former warring states, and for the first time in history, China became a unified, multi-nationality empire under a central government.

After unification, Zheng ordered his ministers to discuss possible titles for a supreme ruler of the country and a name for the empire. Zheng considered is accomplishments far greater then those of ‘San Huang’ and ‘Wu Di’, rulers in the ancient times, so he used the given names of these two predecessors to make the title ‘Huang Di’ meaning the word emperor. Zheng then divided the country into 36 prefectures, broken down further into counties, townships, rings and lis. They were put under control of military and administrative officials who were all directly appointed or removed by the emperor himself. This meant that the emperor had both the military and administrative powers of China concentrated in his hands.

Qin Shi Huang was also responsible for the ‘three unifications’ and the construction of a road system. The unifications were of weights and measures, of the Chinese written language, which made it easier for the different parts of the country to communicate, and of currency, which involved the abolition of the currencies of the former six kingdoms in exchange for Qin coins. Qin Shi Huang’s introduction of these ‘three unifications’ and the road system not only benefited the economic development, cultural exchanges and transportation, but has also had a strong and lasting influence on China.

As a result of wanting a continuing anarchy rule, in 213 BC, Li Si convinced Qin Shi Huang that he should control what people read in order to stop open criticism of his government and avoid trouble in the future. He attempted to wipe out heresy by burning almost all classic works, excluding books on medicine, divination and agriculture. Tragically, this brutal act meant that much of the acquired ancient knowledge and wisdom were lost. This led to the criticism from many Confucian scholars, of who condemned him for having become a tyrant.

This rose to another act of brutality from Qin Shi Huang. Over four hundred and sixty scholars were buried alive in Xianyang, accused of ‘spreading vicious rumours to confuse the black-headed people.’ Many more scholars became prisoners or were banished to the frontier regions and those who dared to disregard the law or express their opinions on state affairs would be killed along with their entire families.

Even the great wall was built on the basis of Qin Shi Huang’s brutality. When he wished to protect his empire from attack by the Xiongnu, he sent hundreds of thousands of ‘convicts’ (many were scholars), ex-soldiers and peasants from the defeated states into the cold mountains where they were forced to work. It was said that ‘each stone in the Great wall cost a human life’, a price of which Qin Shi Huang did not show much care.

Qin Shi Huang’s brutal actions earned the hatred of almost everyone, he ruled with force, through a strict adherence to the law. Qin Shi Huang believed that in order for him to rule with relative peace, all his subjects should suffer. He tried to change the past by burning books so that the people had no other way of leadership to compare him to. Thus they are unable to criticize him. He also taxed the peasants heavily and forced them into labour. Qin Shi Huang can also be compared to the more recent Mao Zedong. They were both leaders who ruled with force. Both expelled ‘the old ways’ attempting to erase history so that there left nothing to compare them with. And both ultimately condemned innocent lives for, well, their piece of mind.

Qin Shi Huang quite obviously made great contributions, which overshadowed those of his predecessors. His name has been kept alive in the mind of all the Chinese, whether in admiration or hatred. But one thing is known for sure Qin Shi Huang used violence to take control of China, and continued to rule his empire with brutality and in dispute. For a leader who used brutality as a lever for greatness, mass murder as a retort for peace, sacrifice as a building block for protection, surely his rule was a brutal tyranny. But, Qin Shi Huang was in fact a peculiar but great leader, and the eternal emperor.

Power sources

The outstanding feature of this achievement was a revolution in the sources of power. With no large slave labour force to draw on, Europe experienced a labour shortage that stimulated a search for alternative sources of power and the introduction of laboursaving machinery. The first instrument of this power revolution was the horse. By the invention of the horseshoe, the padded, rigid horse collar, and the stirrup, all of which first appeared in the West in the centuries of the Dark Ages, the horse was transformed from an ancillary beast of burden useful only for light duties into a highly versatile source of energy in peace and war. Once the horse could be harnessed to the heavy plow by means of the horse collar, it became a more efficient draft animal than the ox, and the introduction of the stirrup made the mounted warrior supreme in medieval warfare and initiated complex social changes to sustain the great expense of the knight, his armour, and his steed, in a society close to the subsistence line.

Even more significant was the success of medieval technology in harnessing water and wind power. The Romans had pioneered the use of waterpower in the later empire, and some of their techniques probably survived. The type of water mill that flourished first in northern Europe, however, appears to have been the Norse mill, using a horizontally mounted waterwheel driving a pair of grindstones directly, without the intervention of gearing. Examples of this simple type of mill survive in Scandinavia and in the Shetlands it also occurred in southern Europe, where it was known as the Greek mill. It is possible that a proportion of the 5,624 mills recorded in the Domesday Book of England in 1086 were of this type, although it is probable that by that date the vertically mounted undershot wheel had established itself as more appropriate to the gentle landscape of England the Norse mill requires a good head of water to turn the wheel at an adequate grinding speed without gearing for the upper millstone (the practice of rotating the upper stone above a stationary bed stone became universal at an early date). Most of the Domesday water mills were used for grinding grain, but in the following centuries other important uses were devised in fulling cloth (shrinking and felting woolen fabrics), sawing wood, and crushing vegetable seeds for oil. Overshot wheels also were introduced where there was sufficient head of water, and the competence of the medieval millwrights in building mills and earthworks and in constructing increasingly elaborate trains of gearing grew correspondingly.

The sail had been used to harness wind power from the dawn of civilization, but the windmill was unknown in the West until the end of the 12th century. Present evidence suggests that the windmill developed spontaneously in the West though there are precedents in Persia and China, the question remains open. What is certain is that the windmill became widely used in Europe in the Middle Ages. Wind power is generally less reliable than waterpower, but where the latter is deficient wind power is an attractive substitute. Such conditions are found in areas that suffer from drought or from a shortage of surface water and also in low-lying areas where rivers offer little energy. Windmills have thus flourished in places such as Spain or the downlands of England on the one hand, and in the fenlands and polders of the Netherlands on the other hand. The first type of windmill to be widely adopted was the post-mill, in which the whole body of the mill pivots on a post and can be turned to face the sails into the wind. By the 15th century, however, many were adopting the tower-mill type of construction, in which the body of the mill remains stationary with only the cap moving to turn the sails into the wind. As with the water mill, the development of the windmill brought not only greater mechanical power but also greater knowledge of mechanical contrivances, which was applied in making clocks and other devices.

Does it matter who discovered America?

But if the Pacific hasn't discouraged exploration and no economic incentive so far encountered in history has made China more inclined to exploration than Europe, why didn't China discover America? Perhaps the best way to answer this is by asking another question: What would China have gained if it had discovered America before Europe? And the answer to that is: Almost nothing because Europe would still have colonized the Americas first.

Why? Because even though the Chinese discovered Taiwan and the Philippines before the Europeans did and had all the advantages of proximity, Europe colonized those places first too. [6] And if China was unable or unwilling to profit from such nearby discoveries, there is little reason to believe it would have behaved differently had it encountered vastly more distant lands.

So China failed to discover America because there was little value in doing so. Had they succeeded, history would probably have turned out pretty much the same, just with an even grander, more expensive period of wasted Chinese exploration. Romantic yes, but regimes don't survive long by squandering their resources to cater for the romantic notions of future historians.

Indeed, when Europeans arrived in the East in the 16th century with evidence of the wealth of the New World, the Chinese made little effort to expel them from their new colonies or even to adopt their military and naval technology [7] - things that the Europeans would certainly have attempted had the situation been reversed. The writing was appearing on the wall, yet still China did not rouse.

However one Eastern empire did act - updating its military, building modern ships, and sending expeditions to European colonies from the Straits of Malacca to Mexico. That country was Japan and what it did next is instructive.

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Who's Behind Hong Kong's Counter-Protests?

China hasn't always had one time zone. In 1912, the year after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the newly empowered Republic of China established five different time zones in the country, ranging from five and a half to eight and a half hours past Greenwich Mean Time. But in 1949, as the Communist Party consolidated control of the country, Chairman Mao Zedong decreed that all of China would henceforth be on Beijing time for the purposes of national unity.

Given the state of the nation in those days, Mao’s reasoning was legitimate: Just two decades before, China was a fragmented country, with large swathes (such as Xinjiang) beyond the de facto control of the central government. And this decision to unify the whole country under one time zone was hardly unprecedented: newly-independent India, for example, had instituted a similar policy just two years before.

For most people in China, the single time-zone is at most a mild inconvenience, a scheduling quirk that simply requires a little adjustment. But in Xinjiang, the question of time divides the region’s population. Among Han Chinese, Justin Jacobs, a Xinjiang expert at American University, told me, use of Beijing Standard Time is universal: “that there’s another clock is not even something the Han think about.” But much of the Uighur population prefers to use their own time. In Urumqi, a city in Xinjiang's east populated mostly by the Han, Beijing Standard Time suffices. But as you head further west, into areas further away from Beijing (and with a higher concentration of Uighurs), knowing “which time” to use becomes trickier. In Xinjiang's extreme west, near China’s border with Pakistan, Beijing Standard Time is so irrelevant that it isn't even used on bus timetables.

Why does this discrepancy exist? For the Uighur population, using their own time is more than just restoring the clock to a more natural equilibrium: it’s also about politics. As hope for greater autonomy within China has faded—due to a combination of government suppression and Han migration—Uighurs consider their time as, in the words of the writer Ruth Ingram, a psychological tool for independence.

Over the last six decades, Uighurs have chafed under Beijing policies that have restricted their ability to study in their language and practice their Islamic faith and rendered it difficult for them to cope in a Han-dominated Chinese society. Within Xinjiang, Uighurs and Han populations are largely segregated, breeding resentment that occasionally boils over into violence. Most recently, Chinese authorities arrested three Uighurs in connection to a jeep collision in Tiananmen Square last week that killed two and injured 40. Beijing has blamed the East Turkestan Islamic Group, a UN-designated terrorist organization that supports Uighur independence, though others have doubted its ability to pull off such an attack. In any event, the Tiananmen episode seems assured to worsen an already tense situation in Xinjiang.

On the list of causal explanations for Han-Uighur tension, the use of Beijing Standard Time in Xinjiang would rank low. But the time zone issue does represent, in a way, the limits of the Communist Party’s approach to its westernmost province. Since gaining control of China in 1949, the Party has attempted to smooth out the country's vast regional differences by using policies to affirm, occasionally by force, national unity. But in treating a vast, complex region like Xinjiang as just another Chinese province, Beijing has prevented the population from forging a trans-ethnic identity, one based around Xinjiang's unique geography and distance from Beijing. Whatever China decides to do with its time zone may ultimately matter little to the country’s political or economic situations—but re-thinking the logic behind instituting the time zone in the first place could instead pay dividends.

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