Why The Chinese Didn’t Discover The Rest Of The World


The short answer is they did discover much of the rest of the world.  Please regard this article as an unusual book review written 15 years after reading the book, “The Discoverers” by Daniel Boorstin, a truly remarkable book; I have been talking about it ever since.  I glanced through the chapters about Chinese discoveries last night to get the dates right and the correct figures about the size of their ships.  I had thought my title was a chapter heading from the book, but the title above turns out to be all mine. So if you want to sort Boorstin from Frantz, read the book.  It covers discovery from antiquity to the twentieth century.  “The Discoverers” is interesting and authoritative; Boorstin was right on for the topics covered about which I already knew (a powerful short cut in evaluating sources).


From 1405 to 1433 the Chinese mounted several expeditions with over 100 ships and over 10,000 sailors, exploring from Ryukyu and Brunei in the Pacific to the southern tip of Africa.  Their ships ranged up to 444 feet in length with nine masts and separate compartments in the hold with bulkheads between preventing sinking from only one hole in the hull.


In Ceylon (Sri Lanka) there is a stone stele brought from China with inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil, a language of southern India, and Persian, the court language of India before the British came.  The inscription in Chinese was translated long before the other two.  In addition to a list of the gifts brought from China it contains a paean in praise of

Confucianism.  Scholars assumed that that the other two inscriptions were translations from the Chinese. This was true of the list of gifts, but the Tamil version praises Hinduism and Buddhism and the Persian praises Allah and the Islamic prophets.  The three separate paeans implicitly demonstrate a respect for other cultures that goes well beyond merely learning the languages.


During the reign of the second emperor after the initiation of these voyages the emperor called an abrupt halt to the voyages because they were too expensive, and they had received only trinkets from afar.  Remember the extensive list of gifts aggregating thousands of tons. But they had received a giraffe among the “trinkets”.  It resembled a peaceful monster from Chinese mythology and created quite a stir.


Why did the Chinese never colonize or otherwise exploit the rest of the world?  It is apparent that the Chinese were positioned to discover the rest of the world before the Spanish and Portuguese got started.  They had competent ships much larger and safer than the Europeans.  They did not lack navigational aids.  They had invented the compass in about the 11th century A.D.  They had willing captains and crews with obvious ability. Chinese rulers simply lacked the motivation to pursue the endeavor.  This attitude toward foreign trade is illustrated by the experience of a British trade mission in 1793.  The British were told, “we have everything we need and do not desire anything that you can provide.”  Later the British managed to establish a demand in China for opium, a product of British India.  When the Chinese remonstrated about the resulting opium smoking and attempted to shut off the trade, British warships appeared far inland on the Yangtze


 River, the origin of the expression “gunboat diplomacy.”  The funds that had gone to the Chinese voyages were diverted to completing the canal system from north to south in the eastern part of the country.  Then canals are busy thoroughfares to this day.


The mission of the above described voyages was merely to demonstrate the superiority of Chinese civilization, but not to the point of feeling they had nothing to learn. Kublai Khan had been eager for Marco Polo to send astronomers and mathematicians from Europe, demonstrating that they knew they had something to learn from the “outside.” Marco Polo stated in his book about his travels that Kublai Khan sent him on many responsible missions including three years as governor of Yang Chow, a province along the lower Yangtze River.  Encyclopedias say that scholars doubt that he was a governor in China.  A small personal contribution: in 1987 while on a bicycle trip from Nanking to Shanghi we visited a city park commemorating Marco Polo’s governorship.  Was this a true commemoration or an imaginative tourist promotion by a local committee?  Some other speculations follow.


Ancient travelers seemed to regard religion as geographically localized and they followed the local customs with respect.  Of course only surviving ancient travelers lived to describe what they had learned.  Conquering armies are an obvious exception to the behavior of small groups of travelers.  Alexander the Great and the Roman legions were out to exploit.  Were crusaders and proselytizers unique to Christianity and Islam?  The early Moslem expansion had specific rules about accepting the religion of conquered lands, providing the conquered paid extra taxes until they converted to Islam as provided in the Koran.


In my schooling we learned next to nothing about history except that of the development of western civilization.  It is good that we have become less condescending and may profit from the experience of other traditions of which China is a salient example.  My name for this new attitude is transcendental ecumenism.  Apparently the Chinese had this new attitude before we did.  Ecumenism is the rapprochement of the sects of Christianity.  Transcendental ecumenism is the coming together of all the sects of mankind.  Webster’s International, second edition, says the word is ecumenicity, but I much prefer ecumenism to imply something more universal than the ecumenicity of an ecumenical council of Christian sects only.

John A Frantz, M.D.

October 19, 2002

                                         Generic Blasphemy


 Normal blasphemy is specific, you can tell what is being blasphemed, whether Allah, Buddha or  the Bhagavad-Gita. With generic blasphemy all sacred entities are simultaneously invoked.


When you are praying for a miracle, be prepared to accept a second or third string miracle because varsity miracles are in very short supply.  Second and third  string miracles require increasing levels of cooperation to come off.