The Middle Ages were this wonderful time in world history when Europe went to utter crap after the fall of Rome. Nevertheless, in our eurocentric view of history, Europe gets most of our attention when we think of the Middle Ages. During this time in many other parts of the world, such as the Islamic world and China, great technological and intellectual leaps and bounds were being covered. For some odd reason, though, it wasn’t any Asian power that began to conquer vast lands overseas in the 1500s. It was the previously relatively weak countries of Europe that surprisingly flew forward to the foremost technological and military places on the world stage. So what the heck was holding back Imperial China from doing the same thing, perhaps earlier?
China Wins at Technology
Sometimes we like to attribute Europe’s ability to put colonies overseas to its superior technology with inventions such as gunpowder, the printing press, the compass, and large ocean-going ships. Sure, these definitely helped Europe to become the colonizer it was, but it wasn’t like they made it inevitable. And the way we can see that is by realizing that China developed all four of those things before Europe did.
“Wait,” you say. “The Chinese didn’t have guns until Europe brought them to them!” True, they didn’t have anything like modern guns, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have some other pretty epic gunpowder weapons. Gunpowder was invented under the Tang Dynasty in about 850 A.D. An alchemist whose name is now unknown was doing what Chinese alchemists were always trying to do–create an elixir of immortality. Bad things tended to come of these mixtures. In fact, China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had died after drinking some alchemist’s mercury solution in an attempt to become immortal, but that’s a different story. This time, the unknown Tang alchemist mixed 75 parts saltpeter, 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulfur. When he put a flame to it, it epically exploded, burning a lot of those present and starting fires that burnt down the whole house. It wasn’t going to make them invincible, but the alchemists still recognized a useful mix when they saw one and gunpowder was soon put to use in the making of various weapons, including rocket-powered arrows, land mines, hand grenades, and other things that might excite Michael Bay. The Koreans created this cart-thing called a hwacha that fired a huge cloud of rockets at their enemies (aka the Japanese, whom the Koreans have battled with since perhaps the dawn of time). Eventually, though, despite legislative efforts by the Chinese to keep gunpowder in the country, it spread west via the Silk Road, first to the Islamic world where cannons were invented and then to Europe where the first modern guns came about.
Most westerners think of Johannes Gutenberg as the original inventor of the printing press. While Gutenberg’s invention had a massive impact on Europe’s Renaissance, it was far from the earliest printing press in the world. During the 800s A.D., China had produced the first wood-block printing presses, carved and inked wooden blocks that were stamped onto pieces of paper to create whole pages of text immediately and cheaply. This meant that books did not have to be horrendously expensive as they were in ancient times. (Imagine having to write out whole books by hand over and over and over again like people had to do way back when. Like holy crap.) Since books were now cheap, literacy rates increased and with everyone enjoying literature and all that, a sort of new age of pop culture arose in China. In the 11th century A.D., a man named Bi Sheng updated the design by making something called movable type, which essentially meant that instead of using one giant woodblock for each page, Chinese printers could use pre-made smaller blocks each with a single character on them, arrange them into the writing of the page, and print even cheaper!
Since the Han Dynasty, a contemporary of the Roman Empire, China had been perfecting the creation of the compass. The original compasses were just lodestones on plates that turned to face north, which Chinese philosophers figured was it reacting to qi, the cosmic essence of everything in the universe and living things. Under the Tang Dynasty, alchemists figured out how to magnetize iron and use it to make compasses of their own. Under the Song Dynasty, a man named Shen Kuo (who also pioneered in anatomy, astronomy, and zoology) realized that the compass faced not a true north in relation to how the Earth spun, but a magnetic north. Soon, compasses were perfected to the point that they were reliable navigation equipment.
So the Chinese had mighty weaponry, a literate populace, and reliable navigation by about 1000 A.D. But, you might say, just because they had the technology that Europe would have to wait until the Renaissance to acquire, it doesn’t mean that they were exploring the world and looking behind their homelands, right? Well, yeah, I suppose, but China actually was exploring and they were discovering new lands long before Europe ever sent a ship over the open ocean.
Zheng He and the Giant Fleet
During the 1300s, the Chinese navy was super powerful and probably the strongest sea-going nation-smashing force on the face of the planet. For the past few centuries, Mongol-controlled Yuan Dynasty China had expanded its influence across Asia’s Pacific coast. Around 1371, a boy named Ma Sanbao was born in the city of Kunyang in Yunnan Province, which sits on China’s border with the nations of Southeast Asia. Ma was a Muslim and his father had completed the hajj, or sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, so Ma grew up hearing of the distant lands his father had traversed.
In 1352, a rebellion had begun against the Yuan Dynasty because if you know anything about history, you know that living under the Mongols sucks. The rebellion was led by Chinese peasants who called themselves the Hongjinjun and identified by wearing red scarves on their heads and followed a warlord named Guo Ziyi. Guo picked a man named Zhu Yuanzhang as his general and when Guo died, Zhu took lead of the rebellion. Zhu’s goal was simple: become emperor of China, which is just about the most awesome goal anyone can ever hope to achieve. In 1356, Zhu captured the city of Jiqing (modern Nanjing) and renamed it Yingtian. It became his center of operations and over the next few years, Zhu became increasingly powerful and expanded his control over the surrounding territory. By 1367, he had carved out a mondo portion of the Chinese empire and had eliminated all of the other groups rebelling against the Mongols. In 1368, he declared himself emperor of the new Ming Dynasty and then went and conquered Dadu (Mongol Beijing).
In 1381, Ma Sunbao was about 10 years old. Yunnan remained as one of the last few Mongol outposts in China but that was about to change. The Ming army marched down to Yunnan and conquered it, taking many of the young boys prisoner, castrating them (dang it), and forcing them into the Ming army. Under the Chinese, Ma Sunbao was soon to become the closest the Chinese ever got to establishing a colonial empire. In 1390, he was put under the leadership of a regional prince who would become known as Yongle.
The current emperor was named Jianwen and some people didn’t like him, so Yongle, his uncle, revolted against him and established himself as perhaps the Ming Dynasty’s most famous emperor, because he was kind of a boss. He ruled from 1402 to 1424 and fixed the crappy economy that had come out of China’s civil war. Ma Sunbao became a really influential court eunuch under Yongle and the dude gave him a new more Chinese name, Zheng He, which is how you will most often here him referred to as today. But of course, western writers of Asian history can never agree on how to Romanize Asian names, so if you know him as Cheng Ho, that’s alright too. Zheng was made leader of China’s navy in the eastern seas and he was given a 62 ship fleet with a 27,800 man total crew. Boss. Setting sail in 1405, Zheng visited Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, demonstrating China’s influence and power over Southeast Asia. He sailed back to China in 1407. But it wasn’t about to end there.
From 1408 to 1409, Zheng went back to Sri Lanka and got a nasty response from King Alagonakkara. Zheng promptly kicked the entire kingdom’s butt, captured the king, and took him back to Nanjing to show those non-Chinese barbarians who’s boss. From 1409 to 1411, Zheng sailed over to India, looked around a little all the way up to the Persian Gulf, and stopped by Indonesia again on his way back. This dude was making miles.
But Zheng wasn’t going to stop there. He pushed it farther on his fourth voyage (1413-1415), all the way to Mecca where he managed to get his hajj in. (Gosh, following the pillars of Islam must have been hard in 15th century China if you had to go to the borders of the known world just to do the hajj.) He looked around more over there, wandering overland into Egypt. Imagine that. The Chinese in the Middle Ages all the way in Egypt. We give Europe too much credit. China was exploring the world before it was cool. Ming Dynasty hipsters. Zheng sailed down the coast of Africa all the way to Mozambique. When he came back to China, he carried tribute from over 30 different Asian and African countries. Probably the best thing was a giraffe, which Zheng was pretty sure was a qilin, the Chinese version of the unicorn. I don’t know how you make that connection, but whatever the case, Yongle was pretty excited to get a pet unicorn in the court.
Zheng’s fifth voyage took place from 1417 to 1419 and was mainly just to drop a bunch of the ambassadors who had given tribute back in the Middle-East. He retraced a lot of the previous journey and had one last big party before sailing back to China where his buddy Yongle died in 1424. That sucked.
The main reason it sucked for Zheng was that the new emperor, Hongxi, wasn’t interested in sending Chinese forces to distant lands, so he made Zheng Nanjing’s garrison commander and had him disband his fleet. Nevertheless, in 1431, Zheng managed to get out in one last voyage to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle-East, and Africa. On the way back, he died in Calicut, India in 1433 and his fleet returned without him. In my books, Zheng was one of history’s greatest explorers and the potential key to China overpowering, conquering, and colonizing many of the lands that bordered the Indian Ocean. So why did Hongxi stifle Zheng’s potentially world-changing legacy? Well, I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to you why China totally could have colonized foreign lands, but now it’s time for a really simple answer to this post’s titular question.
China Just Didn’t Need Anything
China’s failure to colonize the world stems not from any illusory inferiority to European societies, but rather from the superiority of the resources it had access to.
See, China, unlike European states, was a single country neighbored by no countries really capable of competing with it. Japan was weak and not unified, Korea wasn’t much more than a Chinese satellite, and Tibet was far-off. Effectively, China is really its own continent, isolated from the world. It has the Himalayas cutting it off from India, the Gobi Desert cutting it off from whatever was in the north (nothing but Mongols, yikes), and the Pacific coast meaning nothing but some islanders to the east. In this little oriental microcosm, China had controlled nearly all of the good and usable territory since 221 B.C. A lack of disturbance by very many outside cultures (with the major exception of the Mongols as John Green would probably note) meant that China’s struggles to improve and develop were largely internal during the dynastic period.
On top of that, China’s perpetually large area covering a variety of different climates and environments meant that it had tons of resources in every variety (with the notable exception of silver, which the Ming and Qing Dynasties would eventually gain from the Spaniards through the world’s first network of globalized trade). Leaving it really simply, China just had nothing it really needed to go out and get.
In contrast, European countries had been disunited since the fall of Rome and were constantly competing for dominance. Spain and Portugal’s competition with each other was part of the reason they raced to claim lands as quickly as possible. Similarly, the Protestant Reformation spawned new factions within Europe that often needed to cross the sea to escape persecution. European countries were small and lacked China’s resource overload, so to expand markets they turned to opening up trading centers in far away lands to move wealth toward Europe and help to make their own nations powerful centers of global commerce.
So to generalize, in the end, after two giant sections explaining China’s power to colonize and a few paragraphs actually answering the topic question, I would say that China’s failure to colonize the world stemmed not from its inferiority to European nations, but rather that it was more powerful than them. Of course, in the end, the Europeans’ colonialism helped them to win out and Europe became the economic center of gravity in the world, but that’s not to say that China ever lost the glory and the grandeur that it has had for ages.