1.5 The Medieval Chinese Miracle
- Between the year 900 AD to approximately the mid 15th Century, was the direction of innovation predominantly flowing from East to West or from West to East?
- Why were the new technologies that were invented in China during the Song Dynasty period fundamental to the subsequent rise of Europe?
In this chapter, I want to bridge the ancient world of the Roman Empire with the world of globalization that commences with Columbus and Vasco da Gama in the last decade of the 15th Century.
And that means to look at the developments between the fall of the western Roman Empire and the emergence of the European Renaissance and the changes that it would bring.
And once again, when we do this, we find how Eurasia and geography so much shape the history of global scale change.
I want to pick up our story of global scale change with the emergence of Islam as a global religion. What is amazing about this story, but I think very much pertinent to the way that I’m trying to look at some of these underlying factors, is that Islam emerges quickly, suddenly, at a massive global scale.
Indeed, over a period of just a couple of centuries. And very much in an ecologically shaped manner. When Muhammad makes the hijra to Medina in 622 and Islam emerges as a new religion and one that would then be carried by ideas and by conquest in the following decades, the spread of Islam both to the west, across north Africa and into Spain and to the east into today’s Middle East and western Asia is remarkably rapid.
And as with the Roman Empire, and as with the Han Empire that we’ve looked at, as with the Hun, massive steppe-based empire, the empire of the Islamic world and here I’m showing in this map the third of the great caliphates, the Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad is once again, an east-west empire, not because there’s any natural preference of east-west over north-south, except that east-west tracks ecological zones and ecological zones shape the technological underpinnings of empires, of economies.
And in the case of the Islamic world, this is a dryland civilization that hugs at its outward limit, the Mediterranean climate of dry summers and wet winters and into the steppe-land and desert zones and where we could say the transition from the horse in the Mediterranean climate to the camel in the Arab environment takes place.
The conquests of Islam across north Africa and into Spain were shaped by armies carried by horse and camel across north Africa. And the Arabic-based civilization and Arab-led civilization of the Islamic world in this period is an ecologically shaped environment that began in the Hejaz of today’s Saudi Arabia on the coast of the Red Sea and in the desert regions.
Centuries later, a Turkic-based civilization would emerge, taking over a lot of this same territory and extending into southeastern Europe, what we call the Balkans region today, as well as Anatolia in the eastern Mediterranean.
And that, of course, is named after the founder of this hugely successful Turkic empire, the Osman, which became the Ottoman Empire.
And at its maximum extent you have another east-west empire, again characterized by a combination of Mediterranean climate and dryland climate to the south and to the east of the Mediterranean climate.
Once again, part of this is characteristic of the Roman Empire, which the Ottomans conquered in the east when Constantinople fell in 1453 and became Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Part of it is the conquest of the Arab lands, along the Red Sea and along north Africa. So that the Ottomans became heirs to the Arab-based civilizations.
But once again, an ecologically-based region that was able to diffuse common agricultural technologies, knowhow, animal herdsmanship, the use of the horse and the camel, military technologies that shaped together the Ottoman Empire in the way that they had shaped the Abbasid Empire and the way that they had shaped the Roman Empire in the past.
And all of these civilizations, especially these bridging civilizations of the Middle East, the Islamic world and the Turkish world, carried knowledge from east Asia and south Asia to Europe and hosted travelers like Marco Polo on their way from Europe to east Asia.
And they played not only a role in their own right innovation of technology, but they played a bridging role, as well, that was fundamental, along those lucky latitudes of Eurasia with knowledge diffusing from west to east and from east to west. And perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of human history, technological innovation, and technological diffusion, in a way forgotten now in our common discussion, but one of the pinnacles of civilization was the period of the Chinese Song Dynasty from 970 A.D. till 1279 A.D., until the Song Dynasty fell to the Mongol conquest.
And what makes this period of Chinese history, the Song Dynasty so remarkable is that it was in its way an apogee of global technological innovation and the diffusion of those technologies, which took centuries in many cases, was absolutely fundamental to the rise of Europe that would follow.
And Europe became proficient, the master, the owner of a lot of the technologies that were first pioneered and developed in the Song Dynasty, so much so that Europe claimed credit for them when the credit squarely belonged with China in historical terms.
What are some of these great innovations?
Of course the use of the compass especially for ocean-based navigation is a great Chinese invention that became fundamental for all navigation, but was used by the European navigators as they began their age of exploration centuries after the compass was in use in Song China.
The advent of a market economy, private ownership, the use of paper currency as an efficient means for monetizing a market economy could be considered a Song Dynasty invention.
Certainly it was a case of massive and fruitful deployment of this know-how. It’s arguable that movable type and the printing press emerged first in the Song Dynasty and some of the knowledge and techniques gradually diffused to Europe where Guttenberg was able to integrate them in his vision in northern Germany in 1440 to invent the printing press in the European context, but certainly printing with the movable type was used in China during the Song period.
And the diffusion of that know-how played a role in the reinvention of the technology and the uptake of the technology in Europe centuries later. Many institutions of banking, insurance, joint stock companies, find their examples and innovation during the Song period, which was to an important extent a market-based economy of a flourishing of living standards, population increase, internal peace, institutional innovation and technological innovation that we can only marvel at in the reflection of history.
Great artistic inventions and the development of fine porcelain which became one of the favored products for importation in Europe reaches an apogee of knowhow during the Song period.
Mechanical clocks and other mechanical devices are developed during the Song period and spread along the lucky latitudes through Arabic civilization, through the Ottoman Empire to Venice and to the rest of western Europe.
So this was the period from 900, relatively, to probably the middle of the 15th Century and the end of the 15th Century where the overwhelming direction of technological innovation was coming from east to west, where any observer at the time standing in 1450 on the eve of the fall of the eastern Roman Empire, the fall of Constantinople, to become the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, watching the role of China as the great innovator for Eurasia, would have predicted that China would long dominate the world scene as the world’s most populous country, the technologically advanced country, the country that would continue to be world leader.
But, in fact, this phase of history was drawing to an end, a rather abrupt and surprising end. And within a century or two, in the 1500s and the 1600s, the rise of the west became the dominant development of global change. That’s the next wave of globalization that I want to explore, what I’ve called the fourth wave of globalization that begins with ocean-based globalization at the time of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. In the next module we will turn to that era.