Lecture Twenty-Seven

The Coming of the West

Scope: Contact between Europe and China goes back to at least the time of the Roman Empire. For much of history, though, such contact was quite tenuous and infrequent. Marco Polo’s visit in the 13th century and the reports of missionaries did little to engender clear knowledge about China in the West. In the 16th century, as Europeans began to explore and participate more fully in the global economy, information began to improve, but contacts remained marginal for both sides. With the Industrial Revolution and the rise of free-trade ideas in the West, a new age opened. For centuries, the economic relationship between Europe and China was based on Europeans buying Chinese goods with silver, much of it originating in the mines of Spanish America. By the end of the 18th century, the British, in particular, were eager to open broader trading relations and were desperate to find a commodity other than silver that they could trade for China’s superior goods.


I. East Asia and the Mediterranean world had a long history of trade and contact.

A. Overland and maritime links go back at least to the time of Rome.

1. Roman glass has been found in Chinese tombs.

2. Chinese silk was traded in markets in Rome.

3. Chinese records contain reports of representatives of Rum arriving in Chang’an, but these were likely traders rather than true Roman diplomats.

B. During the age of Islamic expansion, direct links were cut off, but trade continued.

1. Christian Europe was isolated by the growth of the realm of Islam.

2. Goods from East Asia, especially China, were still traded along the Silk Road and through maritime networks stretching from the Pacific through the Indian Ocean.

3. Arab traders from the Persian Gulf began to arrive in China in increasing numbers in the 7th century and established a mosque in Guangzhou around 670.

4. The Great Mosque in Xian also dates from the 7th century and was used by Muslims in the caravan trade.

C. In the age of the Mongol conquests, as we have seen, Europeans again traveled directly to China.

1. Representatives of the church sought to contact Christian communities in Inner Asia and founded some congregations in China.

2. Such traders as the Polos helped move goods and brought some knowledge of East Asia into Europe.

3. There were even brief hopes for a Christian-Mongol alliance against Islam at the time of the Crusades, based on myths of Prester John’s Christian kingdom.

II. By the 15th century, Europeans had some knowledge of East Asia but would need to embark on the Age of Exploration to learn more.

A. The Portuguese began to search for a direct route to the source of valuable spices in what is now Indonesia.

1. They explored the coast of Africa and reached the Indian Ocean, finally arriving in India in 1496.

2. By 1511, the Portuguese had attacked and seized Malacca, one of the key ports in Southeast Asia.

3. The Portuguese found that they could not dominate the local trade system and, instead, sought to create a place for themselves to participate in this rich economic life.

4. The Spanish followed suit, as did the Dutch and the English after 1600.

B. Through the 17th and early 18th centuries, Europeans established a place for themselves but remained merely one group out of many participants in the Asian trade networks.

1. Rivalries between the Europeans further weakened their positions in Asia.

2. The Dutch came to concentrate on the islands of Southeast Asia and Japan, while the Spanish took over the northern Philippines.

3. The Portuguese diverted much of their attention to Africa and the New World, and the British came to focus on India.

4. For all the Europeans, though, China remained a great potential market and source of the highest quality goods.

III. Two major changes in the later I8th century set the stage for the complete transformation of the global economy.

A. The Industrial Revolution took place, primarily in Britain.

1. Although many of the conditions leading to the Industrial Revolution were also present in China and India, in England, the proximity of coal and the availability of new markets and sources for raw materials in America combined to set off a great leap forward.

2. The English also appropriated technologies from Asian manufacturers that, when combined with new energy sources from coal and steam, yielded significant improvements in production.

B. At the same time, Adam Smith’s ideas about free trade became the ideology of British capitalism.

1. In his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that governments should refrain from intervention in the economy as much as possible and allow markets to function freely.

2. This new way of thinking led to the abandonment of the old mercantilist system, which included state-sponsored trading companies, such as the English and Dutch East India companies.

C. The combination of an expanding industrial economy, in need of raw materials and markets for its goods, with an assertive free-trade ideology created the conditions for the emergence of Western imperialism, led by the British in the 19th century.

1. What was needed was some way to break in to the Chinese domestic market.

2. In India, the British found their ideal commodity; we will discuss the creation of a new trading order based on opium in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Susan Whitfield, Life along the Silk Road.

Supplemental Reading:

Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony.

Questions to Consider:

1. Although products, such as silk and glass, traveled long distances across Eurasia or the Indian Ocean, very few individuals made the journey from Europe to Asia or from Asia to Europe before the 16th century. Why was it easier for goods to be transported than for people to travel?

2. China remained a vast continental empire, but Europe was divided into small local states that constantly warred with one another. How might this situation have played a role in the development of relations between the two regions?

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