[Note: I changed the name of this series, as the first name I came up with was awful. This one isn't all that much better, but it doesn't make me cringe. So, hey!]
There’s a reason I decided to start my exploration of John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 with a comparison to Gavin Menzies’ 1421 theory. Well, there are two. The first is that the whole 1421 is fairly well-tread ground ‘round these here parts and John Darwin also brought China up since, y’know, it was kind of important in Eurasian history. The second is because I truly enjoy mocking Gavin Menzies and his 1421 theory. John Darwin actually took down both the 1421 theory and one of the main supports upon which the subsequent 1434 theory was built in the space of about three paragraphs. This was done unintentionally, though, as Darwin’s book doesn’t mention Gavin Menzies at all.
For those who happened to stumble onto this blog recently and have no idea what the 1421 theory is, I suppose I should offer an explanation. Basically, a retired British naval officer with no formal training in history got it into his head that the Chinese discovered America in 1421. This theory was based on some pretty specious evidence and then supported by a great deal of research that depended on the theory being true. At its core, though, the 1421 theory was based on one absolutely accurate bit of historical truth: in the early 1400s the Chinese emperor sent magnificent treasure fleets all the fuck over the place under a eunuch named Cheng-ho.
I mentioned in the first post on this topic that there are basically two incorrect ways of looking at the history of the last couple centuries. The first is one of inevitable Western supremacy over the globe. The second is to look at the West as a rapacious horde that set upon well-developed or even superior cultures in other parts of the world and attempted to destroy them. The former type of history tends to make incorrect assertions about the quality of Western civilization. The latter type of history tends to go too far in the opposite direction and make untenable claims about the superiority of the colonized over the colonizers in everything except technology and military might.
Gavin Menzies’ 1421 theory and its follow-on theory that China actually started the Renaissance in 1434 are near-perfect examples of fantastical histories that make untenable claims to support and anti-colonial stance. The claims themselves are unsupportable without making the most generous possible assumptions about other, seemingly related discoveries. They also completely ignore the standard scholarship about how the history of China, Europe, and the New World played out. More importantly, at least as far as the 1421 theory is concerned, the claims are so much vapor. We know that Europeans made it to the New World and began to exploit its resources from 1492 on. Even if the Chinese did discover the New World in 1421 they did nothing with it. Even if Cheng-ho did discover the west coast of North America this would not put him on the same level as Christopher Columbus or John Cabot. It would put him on the level of the Vikings who planted an unsuccessful colony on Nova Scotia a couple centuries before Columbus. It would, in short, be an interesting historical footnote.
The whole idea, though, doesn’t actually do anything to help with Menzies’ central theory that China was better than Europe. Rather, the idea mocks that notion, since it operates under the implicit assumption that the Western notion of progress and success is the correct framing. Ergo, Menzies makes the assumption that since the 15th Century was the Age of Exploration in Western history then China must have been exploring even more, even better, and even earlier. Anything else, according to this formulation, is an implicit admission that Chinese culture was inferior to European culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese Empire at the time of Menzies’ supposed 1421 voyage was undergoing a drastic change that was well within the scope of what China had been for most of the previous millennia and would be well within the scope of what China would be for the next four centuries.
Let’s let John Darwin offer the explanation:
The early phase of Ming rule in China between 1368 (when the dynasty began) and the 1430s had seen the forceful reassertion of a distinctly Chinese political and cultural tradition after the long interlude of alien rule under the Mongol Yuan. The early Ming emperors reinvigorated the bureaucratic state and the examination system on which it rested. They swept away the chief ministers of the previous regime and created a personal absolutism. They proclaimed devotion to Confucian orthodoxy, and fostered the collection and publication of Confucian texts. In 1420 Peking was reestablished as the imperial capital, once the completion of the Grand Canal assured regular supplies from the great grain-basket of the Yangtze valley. In all these ways the Ming were the real founders of the system of government that lasted in China until the revolution of 1911. Their reaffirmation of Confucian cultural supremacy lasted almost as long.
That’s a lot of stuff for the emperors to be working on at the same time they were supposedly sending fleets to discover the Americas and then destroying all of the records. This also highlights the strength of the Chinese system. China, at its core, was a stable, self-sufficient empire. With the exception of the occasional worries over Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, China was rarely overly threatened by a neighboring external force. The Mongols were the only conquerors that China knew for well over a millennia.
Consider the geography of China. Once the borders of the Chinese empire were defined they were pretty much the same as what we think of today when we think of China. On the eastern edge was the ocean. On the southern edge was the jungle and small, not particularly threatening kingdoms of Indochina. On the southwestern edge and the west there were formidable geographical barriers keeping China separated from the next great basin of civilization in India. To the north was Mongolia and the doorstep to the vast, nearly empty steppes. There was, in short, nowhere for China to go if it wanted to expand. Since almost the whole of the known hospitable lands were already under the control of the imperial power there was also no struggle of small kingdoms to ignite the desires of would-be world conquerors. China instead created their bureaucratic civil service and set out to make themselves into the most stable and long-running civilization in world history. Only ancient Egypt could compete.
Western history has traditionally interpreted Chinese stability as a form of cultural stagnancy. This could not be further from the truth, as the other Asian cultures looked to China with both envy and awe and often attempted to duplicate Chinese systems and successes in their own lands. European travelers to China in the period before Western colonization began in earnest were similarly overawed by the greatness that was China.
Still, there was the bit about the Mongol conquest to consider. It’s important to realize, though, that China changed the Mongols far more than the Mongols changed China. Such was the strength of Chinese culture that the interlude under the Mongol thumb was more of an aberration and slight readjustment of society. As such, when the Ming came to power in 1368 their goal was not to prove their awesomeness by conquering the world, but to reassert the old Chinese way of doing things. In fact, let’s see what Darwin has to say about it.
Ming rule represented a vehement reaction against what was seen by its original supporters as the corruption, oppression and overtaxation of the Mongol Yuan. In deference to Confucian beliefs, the Ming emperors embraced an agrarian ideology in which land was true wealth, and wealth was anchored in social obligations both upward and downward. Social order and cultural cohesion, the vital conditions of imperial stability, were locked into the system of agrarian production on whose food payments and land taxes dynastic authority depended.
China, in short, was primarily inward looking during the period of the early 1400s. That still doesn’t explain the fact that there were, in fact, voyages of vast treasure fleets under one of the Ming emperors. Again I shall let Darwin offer an explanation.
Ming diplomacy was intended to secure the external conditions for internal stability. From the point of view, the famous voyages dispatched by the emperor Yung-lo around the Indian Ocean under the eunuch Cheng-ho were an aberration, prompted perhaps by fear of attack by Tamerlane and his successors.
I shall pause here and point out a few things. First, we know that there were treasure fleets under Yung-lo. We also know that they were only really dispatched around the Indian Ocean. Those voyages are all the records we have. Menzies took those voyages and offered a fanciful notion that they managed to make it all around the globe and discovered the Americas over half a century before Columbus’ voyage.
Menzies’ theory makes little sense, however. China was not an easttward-looking empire in the early 1400s. They were looking west, south, and north. The Ming Dynasty was still relatively fresh and looking to reassert itself. Exploration and adventurism wasn’t the sort of thing that would cement their power in the agrarian, inward-looking Chinese system.
Darwin’s bit about Tamerlane, in fact, offers the most plausible explanation for why the Chinese treasure fleets might have existed at all and why they would necessarily focus on the Indian Ocean. Remember that the Ming had just thrown off the Yuan. The Yuan were alien monarchs put in place by foreign conquest under the Mongols. The Timurids under Tamerlane appeared to be the true heirs to the Mongol legacy of Gengis and Kublai Khan would have been just as terrifying a specter to the new Chinese emperors as they were to the Middle Eastern and European rulers who had just barely beaten back the Mongol hordes. These fears would play out in the Indian subcontinent, where Tamerlane's heirs created the Mughal Empire, which would last in one form or another for over three centuries.
It’s also important to consider the exact nature of the particular emperor who sent the treasure fleets out. Further, we must consider the aftermath. Again we look to John Darwin.
Yung-lo, the “second founder”, who reigned from 1403 to 1424, was an exceptionally determined and aggressive monarch. His naval imperialism, the protracted effort to incorporate Vietnam into his empire, and his military drive against the Inner Asian nomads may all have been part of an abortive strategy to assert China’s primacy throughout East Asia. But the strain was too great. His successors adopted a drastic alternative. The adventure in sea power was quickly abandoned. Private overseas travel and trade were forbidden. And to secure North China against invasion from the steppe, or unwelcome contact with its nomads, they preferred to rely not on military expeditions but on the Great Wall.
This doesn’t completely negate the 1421 theory, but it does call the notion itself into question. It certainly puts the kibosh on the notion of the subsequent 1434 theory, though.
As such, consider this a branching off. I will be working on two separate sets of posts. The former will stay in the 1400s in China so I can mock Gavin Menzies and his 1434 theory some more. The latter will jump forward some four and a half centuries so that we can look with John Darwin into how the world we live in today is simply walking back across the same ground as the world of a century ago.
Why? Because it’s been a while since I’ve written about history. It’s also been a while since I’ve decided to undertake a series of posts that there’s no freaking way I could possibly complete. Let’s see if this is any different…
John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008), 87.