Why the West rules – for now

This is a question that anybody who is interested in Chinese history will eventually ask themselves. After all, the Chinese invented so many things: paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, paper money – the list is endless. And early in the 15th century Admiral Zheng He led a fleet of 300 ships as far as East Africa (amongst other things he brought back a giraffe for his emperor). At a length of 400 feet, his flag ship would have dwarfed Columbus’s Santa Maria (85 feet). And yet, some 400 years later, in 1860, the English sent a force half-way around the world and defeated the Chinese, in the process looting the Imperial Palace and even carrying off the Empress’s lapdog (christened ‘Looty’ by its new masters).

The book opens with the imaginary scene of it being the other way round and the Chinese taking Prince Albert hostage to live out his life in China. Ian Morris then asks the question why events did not play out that way, taking a very long view starting from the first humans to leave Africa. In order to compare the Western and Eastern cores of civilisation (he defines the Western core as originating in the fertile crescent and then slowly moving west) with each other and over time, he even devises his own system of measuring human development.

While I do not completely agree with his conclusion that the West’s advantage is mostly geographical – due to plundering the New World – I found it interesting to follow his large scale tour of history and to see how the advantages and disadvantages of geography changed over time. He identifies a ‘hard ceiling’ around 42 points on his scale that both Rome and China’s Northern Song Dynasty failed to break. Interesting enough, in the eleventh century the Chinese had a Renaissance movement of their own and had started to build industries using coal, but that development got abruptly curtailed when nomadic Jurchen invaded China and occupied the northern half.

Reading the book, was thinking of how many AU scenarios would have been possible. What if Roman Empire had coped better with the Visigoths displaced by the Huns, could it have endured longer? What if the Arabs had conquered Europe, would the Europeans have had quicker access to their science, perhaps even an earlier Renaissance – or else no incentive to go exploring in the Atlantic? What if the Ming emperors had decided their voyages of exploration were worth the expense and continued them? And though Ian Morris claims it’s ‘maps not chaps’ that make history, there are a few individuals that certainly shaped history, for example Genghis Khan. What if he had never been born? There is material for a dozen alternative history novels here!

In conclusion, this is an interesting book for anybody who would like a large overview of the development of human civilisation and the forces driving progress. In the final chapter, Ian Morris also tries to look into the future, providing food for thought.

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