Why China slept

Why China slept

General history

China has fascinated the world for centuries.  Most of today’s Westerners have heard of Marco Polo’s travels in China in the 13th century.  Many other accounts followed.  In 1665, Johan Nieuhof wrote his “An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces” about his journeys in China.  In 1761, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde dedicated his book “The General History of China” to the then Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons, Arthur Onslow.  Samuel Pufendorf and Dr Samuel Johnson were among other eminent thinkers who compared China favourably to the European states.

Why China slept

The most obvious difference they observed was governance.  In 17th century Europe, only the nobility exercised power.  China allotted power to official positions. Chinese people could obtain an official position through the imperial examination system, rather than heredity as in Europe.

The Europeans contrasted China’s governing principles favourably with European governments of the time, noting:

  • Chinese egalitarianism and the need for choosing the best qualified officials;
  • The happiness of the people was the standard of a legitimate government. 
  • The balance of power in China.  When officials or governments made mistakes, they should accept feedback and establish decentralized checks and balances.

Why did China ‘go to sleep’?

Given how advanced China appeared to be in that era, what went wrong?

Professor Patrick Leung’s excellent analysis “Why China Slept” gives new perspectives to the late Imperial period in China. One chapter above all is pivotal to the book. This starts with the famous quotation from Napoleon:

China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep for when she wakes, she will move the world.

How prophetic!

What are the Professor’s conclusions?  I apologise if I over-simplify his complex and nuanced analysis.   Let us start with the false assumptions we have all made about China’s decline in the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Contrary to conventional views, late Imperial China did not pursue a closed-door trade policy.  The last dynasties did what most powers do today.  China had a huge internal market.  It paid more concern to geopolitical and security issues than to external trade.   The Chinese elite knew about and often possessed Western knowledge and products.   In any case, Professor Leung questions whether China would have done any better had it opened its markets more.
  • China’s population control and criminal justice system were at least the equal of Western states at the time.  
  • The absence of democracy had no bearing on China’s decline.  Western governments were all far more autocratic than China.   China also had the advantage of a more inclusive, examination-based, officialdom.  Opportunities were there for anyone who was intelligent enough.  China had been a meritocracy for a long time.

“Therefore,” Professor Leung concludes, “the conventional explanations for China’s stagnation are found wanting.”

So – what were the more likely reasons for the decline?

First is the competition experienced by countries that forced them to advance.  China has experienced only four competitive periods between its states or provinces.  During each of these, the Chinese made major advances in science and technology.   Following them, the Empire enjoyed centuries of growth and stability as a result of the advances made earlier.

In all their history, European states continually competed for power, influence and resources.  In particular, the period from the 16th century on saw the European powers, for the first time in human history, exploring the world and its resources.  

Mark Twain wrote:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

And this, the European states discovered.  From gold and silver to cotton and sugar; from relieving over-population to sharing ideas, technologies and even new foods, the Europeans competed for and benefited from global exploration.   The combination of these led to the Industrial Revolution beginning in about 1760. 

All this happened when China was in a stable, even declining, period.  Unlike the earlier voyages of Admiral Zheng He, in later centuries China was not interested in exploration or discovery.  Furthermore, crossing the Pacific Ocean against prevailing winds and currents made sailing difficult and hazardous. 

The second reason China’s development was not equivalent to Europe’s (and later the United States) was internal.  The Central Government was too weak to control the huge size of China.  Imagine taking 90 days to travel from the seat of Government to a major provincial city.  This was how long it took to send a message from Beijing to Guangzhou before the railway era.  As a result, the country was almost ungovernable.  During China’s ‘golden ages’ in the past, this was unimportant.  During a period of rapid global development and change, it was fatal.

China’s last imperial dynasty collapsed in 1912.  For the next 35 years, the Western powers (and later Japan) were engaged in global power struggles that produced astonishing (and sometimes appalling) technological advances.  China was not to benefit from them, let alone surpass them, until very recently. 

Today, the geo-political tectonic plates have shifted again.  China has resumed its place as a world power.  Its Government will not repeat its weaker predecessors’ past mistakes.  

The World too has radically different views about China as we see in the media every day.

Professor Patrick Leung’s book is a masterpiece of careful thought and detailed research.  In it lie explanations of many aspects of the China we see today.  I only wish Western politicians and ‘experts’ would bother to read and understand its messages.  

But of course, that would not get them votes…

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