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posted on 19 April 2017

Spanish & British Empires vs. China

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After comparing Ancient China with Ancient Greece (Ancient Greece vs. Ancient China), Ancient Rome (Ancient Rome vs. Ancient China), and the era of the Byzantine Empire (The Era of the Byzantine Empire vs. Ancient China), let me now compare it with the era of Spanish colonization of the Americas and the British Empire.


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1. Overview

The image below highlights the comparison in timelines.

Specifically, let's focus on three aspects:

  1. 1492: Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas.
  2. Industrial Revolution.
  3. 1800: China's decline.

1. 1492: Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas

Christopher Columbus (1450/1451 - 1506) "discovered" the Americas in 1492.

The Chinese actually started exploring the world's oceans earlier than the Europeans did. Specifically, Zheng He (1371 - 1433), in his 7th and last voyage, reached what's known today as "The Horn of Africa", as shown by the image below. For more, read: The Seven Voyages Of The Treasure Fleet.

However, unlike the Europeans who found the "new" world attractive and conquered the Americas for exploitation and colonization, the Chinese saw the "new" world they found unattractive, with the conclusion that their own civilization was vastly more advanced.

2. Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution decisively propelled the British ahead of the rest of the world, eventually making the British Empire the largest ever in human history.

The image below shows the British Commonwealth today, geographically.

3. China's decline

Everything is relative. While Great Britain was going through the Industrial Revolution, China basically stood still. In spite of that, by 1820, China's world share of GDP was still, according to Dambisa Moyo (How the west was lost), at an impressive 32.2%, while America's was a paltry 1.8% and Europe's was 26.6%.

Furthermore, according to Moyo,

If that isn't hell for China, tell me what is. Now, why did China decline so precipitously? Self-destruction and foreign competition! Let me briefly elaborate on each.

3.1 Self destruction

After stopping the world exploration by seas and completing the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty, "the Middle Kingdom" (i.e. China) closed its door to the world and became seriously self-indulging. Unfortunately, the Great Wall failed to prevent Manchu people from coming to China, forming the Qing dynasty.

The closed-door policy continued throughout the first half of the Qing dynasty. For example, when a British envoy asked the Chinese Emperor to open China's market to the West, the Emperor famously asked back: "China has everything it needs. Why should we buy anything from you?"

3.2 Foreign competition

The West developed both economically and militarily, while China languished. To open the Chinese market, the West waged wars against China and China lost them all, from the two Opium Wars with the British, to the various territorial wars with Russia, and to the First Sino-Japanese War.

In short, the West not only forcefully opened the Chinese market, but also tried to divide China for colonization ...

4. Discussion

Empires come and go.

Both the Spanish Empire and the British Empire are gone. But both of them, like the Roman Empire, left huge footprints behind. Specifically,

  1. For the Romans, it is Christianity, as we know it today (and perhaps even Islam).
  2. For the Spanish, it is their language and the culture, throughout the Americas.
  3. For the British, it is also their language and the culture (e.g. Shakespeare), all over the world!

What about China? After leading the world with the most prominent economy for most of the first 1,800 years of our 2017-year-old calendar, the Middle Kingdom finally succumbed to the West in superiority for one key reason: it missed the Industrial Revolution!

There are many reasons for the miss. Here is an obvious one: a closed-door policy and self-indulgence!

5. History repeats itself

Three examples in America:

  1. An empire must be held together with a common ideology: For the Romans, it was Christianity. For the Spanish and British, it was their languages (and the cultures), as well as Christianity. What about America? It has been an ideology called democracy, which, unfortunately, is a proven failure throughout human history without a single example of lasting success.
  2. Like the Spanish who felt so guilty for having enslaved so many natives in South America that they started bringing "war captives" from Africa, America set up the Gitmo prison for "war captives" from all over the world, especially the Mideast, for special treatments.
  3. Like the Chinese who were self-indulgent by adopting a closed-door policy mostly throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, America appears to be leaning toward a closed-door policy as well. The similarity between today's America and the China a few hundred years ago becomes even more striking if a "beautiful wall" is built on our southern border (Trump wants to build a big, beautiful wall).

6. Closing

Once again, the main purpose of comparing China with the West historically is to help my fellow Americans better understand China. With Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Byzantine Empire, and Spanish & British Empires in sequence, do you have an improved understand of China now? Stay tuned for my next article of the series: "American Empire vs. China".

Now, please sit back and enjoy the long video below.

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