Civilizations are complex things. For centuries they can flourish in a sweet spot of power and prosperity. But then, often quite suddenly, they can tip over the edge into chaos.

The Ming dynasty in China had been born in 1368, when the warlord Yuanzhang renamed himself Hongwu, meaning ‘vast military power’. For most of the next three centuries, as we have seen, Ming China was the world’s most sophisticated civilization by almost any measure. But then, in middle of the seventeenth century, the wheels came flying off. This is not to exaggerate its early stability. Yongle had, after all, succeeded his father Hongwu only after a period of civil war and the deposition of the rightful successor, his eldest brother’s son. But the mid-seventeenth-century crisis was unquestionably a bigger disruption. Political factionalism was exacerbated by a fiscal crisis as the falling purchasing power of silver eroded the real value of tax revenues.41 Harsh weather, famine and epidemic disease opened the door to rebellion within and incursions from without.42In 1644 Beijing itself fell to the rebel leader Li Zicheng. The last Ming Emperor hanged himself out of shame. This dramatic transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

The results of the Ming collapse were devastating. Between 1580 and 1650 conflict and epidemics reduced the Chinese population by between 35 and 40 per cent. What had gone wrong? The answer is that turning inwards was fatal, especially for a complex and densely populated society like China’s. The Ming system had created a high-level equilibrium – impressive outwardly, but fragile inwardly. The countryside could sustain a remarkably large number of people, but only on the basis of an essentially static social order that literally ceased to innovate. It was a kind of trap. And when the least little thing went wrong, the trap snapped shut. There were no external resources to draw on. True, a considerable body of scholarship has sought to represent Ming China as a prosperous society, with considerable internal trade and a vibrant market for luxury goods.43 The most recent Chinese research, however, shows that per-capita income stagnated in the Ming era and the capital stock actually shrank.44

UK/China per capita GDP Ratio, 1000–2008


By contrast, as England’s population accelerated in the late seventeenth century, overseas expansion played a vital role in propelling the country out of the Malthusian trap. Transatlantic trade brought an influx of new nutrients like potatoes and sugar – an acre of sugar cane yielded the same amount of energy as 12 acres of wheat45 – as well as plentiful cod and herring. Colonization allowed the emigration of surplus population. Over time, the effect was to raise productivity, incomes, nutrition and even height.

Consider the fate of another island people, situated much like the English on an archipelago off the Eurasian coast. While the English aggressively turned outwards, laying the foundations of what can justly be called ‘Anglobalization’, the Japanese took the opposite path, with the Tokugawa shogunate’s policy of strict seclusion (sakoku) after 1640. All forms of contact with the outside world were proscribed. As a result, Japan missed out entirely on the benefits associated with a rapidly rising level of global trade and migration. The results were striking. By the late eighteenth century, more than 28 per cent of the English farmworker’s diet consisted of animal products; his Japanese counterpart lived on a monotonous intake, 95 per cent cereals, mostly rice. This nutritional divergence explains the marked gap in stature that developed after 1600. The average height of English convicts in the eighteenth century was 5 feet 7 inches. The average height of Japanese soldiers in the same period was just 5 feet 2½ inches.46 When East met West by that time, they could no longer look one another straight in the eye.

In other words, long before the Industrial Revolution, little England was pulling ahead of the great civilizations of the Orient because of the material advantages of commerce and colonization. The Chinese and Japanese route – turning away from foreign trade and intensifying rice cultivation – meant that with population growth, incomes fell, and so did nutrition, height and productivity. When crops failed or their cultivation was disrupted, the results were catastrophic. The English were luckier in their drugs, too: long habituated to alcohol, they were roused from inebriation in the seventeenth century by American tobacco, Arabic coffee and Chinese tea. They got the stimulation of the coffee house, part café, part stock exchange, part chat-room;47 the Chinese ended up with the lethargy of the opium den, their pipes filled by none other than the British East India Company.48

Not all European commentators recognized, as Adam Smith did, China’s ‘stationary state’. In 1697 the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz announced: ‘I shall have to post a notice on my door: Bureau of Information for Chinese Knowledge.’ In his book The Latest News from China, he suggested that ‘Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach the aims and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed religion.’ ‘One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese,’ declared the French philosophe Voltaire in 1764, ‘to recognize … that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.’ Two years later the Physiocrat François Quesnay published The Despotism of China, which praised the primacy of agriculture in Chinese economic policy.

Yet those on the other side of the Channel who concerned themselves more with commerce and industry – and who were also less inclined to idealize China as a way of obliquely criticizing their own government – discerned the reality of Chinese stagnation. In 1793 the 1st Earl Macartney led an expedition to the Qianlong Emperor, in a vain effort to persuade the Chinese to reopen their empire to trade. Though Macartney pointedly declined to kowtow, he brought with him ample tribute: a German-made planetarium, ‘the largest and most perfect glass lens that perhaps was ever fabricated’, as well as telescopes, theodolites, air-pumps, electrical machines and ‘an extensive apparatus for assisting to explain and illustrate the principles of science’. Yet the ancient Emperor (he was in his eighties) and his minions were unimpressed by these marvels of Western civilization:

it was presently discovered that the taste [for the sciences], if it ever existed, was now completely worn out … [All] were … lost and thrown away on the ignorant Chinese … who immediately after the departure of the embassador [sic] are said to have piled them up in lumber rooms of Yuen-min-yuen [the Old Summer Palace]. Not more successful were the various specimens of elegance and art displayed in the choicest examples of British manufactures. The impression which the contemplation of such articles seemed to make on the minds of the courtiers was that alone of jealousy … Such conduct may probably be ascribed to a kind of state policy, which discourages the introduction of novelties …

The Emperor subsequently addressed a dismissive edict to King George III: ‘There is nothing we lack,’ he declared. ‘We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures.’49

Macartney’s abortive opening to China perfectly symbolized the shift of global power from East to West that had taken place since 1500. The Middle Kingdom, once the mother of inventions, was now the mediocre kingdom, wilfully hostile to other people’s innovations. That ingenious Chinese creation, the clock, had come home, but in its modified and improved European form, with ever more accurate mechanisms composed of springs and cogs. Today there is an entire room in the Forbidden City given over to a vast imperial collection of timekeeping machines. Unlike the dismissive Qianlong Emperor, his predecessors had obsessively collected clocks. Nearly all were made in Europe, or by European craftsmen based in China.

The West’s ascendancy was confirmed in June 1842, when Royal Naval gunboats sailed up the Yangzi to the Grand Canal in retaliation for the destruction of opium stocks by a zealous Chinese official. China had to pay an indemnity of 21 million silver dollars, open five ports to British trade and cede the island of Hong Kong. It was ironic but appropriate that this first of the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ was signed in Nanjing, at the Jinghai Temple – originally built in honour of Admiral Zheng He and Tianfei, the Goddess of the Sea, who had watched over him and his fleet more than four centuries before.

They are building ships again in China – vast ships capable of circumnavigating the globe, leaving with containers full of Chinese manufactures and bringing back the raw materials necessary to feed the country’s insatiably growing industrial economy. When I visited the biggest shipyard in Shanghai in June 2010, I was staggered by the sheer size of the vessels under construction. The scene made the Glasgow docks of my boyhood pale into insignificance. In the factories of Wenzhou, workers churn out suits by the hundred thousand and plastic pens by the million. And the waters of the Yangzi are constantly churned by countless barges piled high with coal, cement and ore. Competition, companies, markets, trade – these are things that China once turned its back on. Not any more. Today, Admiral Zheng He, the personification of Chinese expansionism and for so long forgotten, is a hero in China. In the words of the greatest economic reformer of the post-Mao era, Deng Xiaoping:

No country that wishes to become developed today can pursue closed-door policies. We have tasted this bitter experience and our ancestors have tasted it. In the early Ming Dynasty in the reign of Yongle when Zheng He sailed the Western Ocean, our country was open. After Yongle died the dynasty went into decline. China was invaded. Counting from the middle of the Ming Dynasty to the Opium Wars, through 300 years of isolation China was made poor, and became backward and mired in darkness and ignorance. No open door is not an option.

It is a plausible reading of history (and one remarkably close to Adam Smith’s).

Thirty years ago, if you had predicted that within half a century China’s would be the world’s biggest economy, you would have been dismissed as a fantasist. But if back in 1420 you had predicted that Western Europe would one day be producing more than the whole of Asia, and that within 500 years the average Briton would be nine times richer than the average Chinese, you would have been regarded as no more realistic. Such was the dynamic effect of competition in Western Europe – and the retarding effect of political monopoly in East Asia.

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