Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Colossal Muttonhead


The first chapter of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's Civilization discusses the first "killer app" of Western civilization, competition, and introduces the device he uses throughout the book to make his arguments, the poorly-crafted comparison. One can clearly see the benefits of interstate competition, Our Man Niall asserts in this chapter, by comparing the navigational and military achievements of Western Europe with those of Imperial China. In the 15th century Ming China was a rich, urbanized and technically sophisticated country, capable of sending huge "treasure fleets" across the Indian Ocean. By the middle of that century, however, the Ming emperor decided to turn his back on oceanic exploration, and because there were no rival powers to gainsay him the entire Chinese population had to follow suit. China as a result slipped into isolationism, economic stagnation, and disorder, which apparently lasted until the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the states of Western Europe, divided by geography into a multiplicity of competing states, were driven by their own rivalries to develop new navigational techniques and ships capable of reaching the Americas or East Asia (pp. 33-34). These competitors also developed improved cannons, one of the keys to their penetration of Asian markets, and - here one must give Ferg credit for a useful insight - devised systems of public finance capable of paying for hundreds of ships and cannon. The same interstate rivalries and navigational techniques also impelled and allowed Europeans to colonize the Americas, which, Ferguson notes - forgetting how dismissive he was of this point in his Introduction - provided Europe with an outlet for unwanted people and with "new nutrients like potatoes and sugar" (45), assets that China did not enjoy. Navigation and the interstate competition that fostered it were not the sole sources of early modern European power, but they certainly gave Europeans an advantage over a stagnant and declining China.

Well, perhaps. It all depends on which China you're talking about. Our Bearer of the White Man's Burden reports that the Ming Dynasty collapsed in civil war and famine in the mid-17th century, and that thereafter China remained "stationary" (46) until the twentieth century. This is bilge. The Manchu invaders who occupied Beijing in 1644 went on to create a dynamic polity and society in China in the eighteenth century. The imperial army conquered Formosa, Tibet, and eastern Turkestan, expanding China to its modern borders; the amount of arable land under cultivation doubled between 1720 and 1780, as Han Chinese colonized lightly-settled regions within the empire's borders; and the empire's population also doubled during the same period, to more than 300 million. Meanwhile, the Qing government repaired and expanded China's system of canals, lowered taxes, abolished serfdom, and lifted restrictions on land sales. By 18th-century European standards it was a model of "enlightened despotism."

Nor was China an isolationist state during the 17th and 18th centuries. No-one tried to build a fleet comparable to Zheng He's again - in part because China didn't have enough readily-exploitable timber to keep building enormous oceanic ships - but Chinese traders used smaller vessels to join the Indian Ocean trading network at Melaka, and the Qing government allowed Europeans to establish trading posts at Canton and Macao. Qing China used these connections indirectly to exploit the riches of the New World: at least 30% of the silver and gold from Spanish America was shipped to China, to pay for silks, sugar, tea, and other goods that the Chinese produced for export. At the same time, Chinese peasants acquired American crops like sweet potatoes and maize and used them to cultivate the empire's central and western uplands. Certainly, China stagnated around the end of the 1700s, as it reached the limits to growth set by elite conservatism, soil erosion, and a lack of energy resources, but this occurred at the end of 150 years of growth, not as a continuation of a 200-year-old trend.

Ferguson organizes his book both chronologically and thematically, which means that he intends in each chapter to cover a distinct and sequential epoch in world history - in Chapter One, the period from 1400 to 1650. However, he goes out of his way to indicate, through scattered references to Chinese stagnation and complacency in the 18th and 19th centuries, that Chinese history essentially stopped in 1650, and didn't restart (in an economic sense) until the Maoist revolution. A nation's history, however, doesn't just stop because you've ordered it to do so for the sake of narrative convenience. Maybe Ferguson should sue the Qing Dynasty for complicating his story.

[Sources: Gale Stokes, "The Fates of Human Societies," American Historical Review (April 2001): 508-525, esp. 514, 516-18; Jeremy Black, Warfare in the 18th Century (Smithsonian, 2005), 31-39; John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (Bloomsbury, 2008), 129-131; Kenneth Pomeranz, "Their Own Path to Crisis? Social Change, State-Building, and the Limits of Qing Expansion, c. 1770-1840," in The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840, ed. David Armitage & Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 189-208, esp. 192-194; Niall Ferguson, Civilization (Penguin, 2011), 19-49; Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf, 2011), 162-192. Thanks to commenter John for recommending the last title.]

1 comment:

Bria_K said...

There's evidence from shipwrecks off the coast of China that the Tang Dynasty was shipping massive amounts of goods to Arab, Indian, and various island nations. This was handled by foreign trade diaspora communities because of the Chinese aversion to merchants and mercantile activities. Nevertheless, this trade was a "necessary evil", because the Tang relied on the revenues from it to fund the government.

Niall needs to take off those blinders and have a second look at the real evidence. Just because the Chinese did not acknowledge foreign merchant activities officially does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean it did not exist. How else would he explain the thriving Silk Route trade, which occured by both land and sea?