Delanceyplace.com 02/23/06-China falls behind
In today's excerpt--why China lost its technological lead--a lesson in the consequences of stifling innovation:
"Medieval China led the world in technology. The long list of its major technological firsts includes cast iron, the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing, and many others mentioned earlier. It also led the world in political power, navigation, and control of the seas. In the early 15th century it sent treasure fleets, each consisting of hundreds of ships up to 400 feet long and with total crews of up to 28,000, across the Indian Ocean as far as the east coast of Africa, decades before Columbus's three puny ships crossed the narrow Atlantic Ocean. Why didn't Chinese ships colonize Europe? Why did China lose its technological lead to the formerly so backward Europe?
...(the answer is) a power struggle between two factions in the Chinese court. The former faction had been identified with the fleets. Hence when the latter faction gained the upper hand in a power struggle, it stopped sending fleets. The episode is reminiscent of the legislation that strangled development of public lighting in London in the 1880s, the isolationism of the United States between the First and Second World Wars, and any number of backward steps in any number of countries. But in China there was a difference, because the entire region was politically unified. One decision stopped fleets over the whole of China (and) became irreversible.
Now contrast those events in China with what happened when fleets of exploration began to sail from politically fragmented Europe. Christopher Columbus, an Italian by birth, switched his allegiance to the duke of Anjou in France, then to the king of Portugal. When the latter refused his request for ships in which to explore westward, Columbus turned to the duke of Medina-Celi, who did likewise, and finally to the king and queen of Spain, who denied Columbus's first request but eventually granted his renewed appeal. Had Europe been united under any of the first three rulers, its colonization of the Americas might have been stillborn. In fact, precisely because Europe was fragmented, Columbus succeeded on his fifth try..."
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Norton, 1997, pp. 412-3