Levenson starts with a most dramatic comparison: two circular maps, one with Jerusalem at the center, printed in Europe about 1235, and the other with China at the center, printed in Korea about 1712. The implication is that Asia had, by 1712, concepts about the globe that were at least 500 years behind the most current information.
In the 15th century there were four centers of civilization in the world, and Europe was by no means the most promising. By the 18th century Europe dominated: Europe alone made a serious business of discovery, of conquest. The Portuguese rounded the Cape in 1498, and the Spanish conquered the Philippines, just 50 years after the Chinese had stopped sailing in those waters. Why, with their technology and wealth, did the Chinese never follow the route of Europe? What made Europe different? This is the subject of Levenson's compilation. He tackles this question by assembling writers on technology, religion, spirit, and social structure. His explanation of the rise of Europe rests on new commercial structures and the transformation of the aristocracy from landowners to merchants.
One important reason Europe was ignorant of Asia before the 13th century
was the Mohammedan empire, which served as a land barrier.
Centers of geographical learning sprung up in succession in Persia, Toledo
and Palermo, but relied on information, or the theoretical underpinnings,
Classical Hellenism ( Ptolomy, 200 AD, and Strabo, 21 AD). Islamic
literature, by contrast, had not only better-informed geography, but also
current activity and discovery. It was the Great Khan whose empire at last
broke the Mohammedan cultural and commercial supremacy and allowed the
West to explore the East. Formerly, goods, but not culture, had been exchanged
along the trade routes.
No Western writer before Marco Polo, (1271-1291), asserts Levenson, set out to describe the East in exhaustive detail.
At the point of encounter, he Chinese had distinct superiorities. The Chinese had long-distance navigation technology by about the 4th century AD. From the 4th century to the 9th century the Chinese and Arabs crossed each other's paths in the Indian Ocean. (in the "how bout that!" category: in 758 the Arabs burned and looted Canton.) Supported by the first Ming Emperor, (1369), Zheng Ho, an admiral and court-eunuch, started 60 plus years of exploration West. The Chinese reached the Malabar Coast of India, then later Aden in Yemen, Mogadishu in Somalia, and, in 1433, Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. When the Portuguese arrived, they found the Ottomans well-prepared with artillery. Understanding and use of technology was not exclusive to any group. However, Levenson argues that the Europeans were readier to apply science to common problems than were their counterparts in other areas of the world. While not necessarily the first, or the most clever innovators, Europe gained an edge in geography, astronomy, ship-building, firearms and naval gunnery. After the plague, some argue, there were fewer people and thus more impetus to use machines to supply what had formerly been manpower. In Europe, the one-masted ships became three-masted ships with bigger carrying tonnage. Between 1400 and 1500, latitudes were established and sailing made more reliable a venture. In sum, the European technological edge was embodied in the European gun-carrying sailing ship, refined and deadly.
What of religious beliefs? In 1147 the Portuguese took Lisbon back from the Moors. Henry the Navigator (IV) was the Grand Master of the re-organized Knights Templar in Portugal. Their hatred of the Moors and their attempts to capture Moorish-held territories, were not to either one's commercial advantage, but the Portuguese, in addition to fighting God's enemies, were establishing their own direct route to spice monopolies. In comparison, the Spanish in the Philippines wrote, and perhaps thought, more about the needs of the locals they had conquered to be converted, civilized, and Christianized. In the New World, the Spanish were horrified by the cannibalism and human sacrifice they found, but within a few years, Spanish-American writers (Fra Diego Duran) were composing histories and cultural descriptions of the Americas from the viewpoint of the indigenous peoples. Later, the French contributed to cultural understanding via Guillame Postel, a 16th century theologian, humanist and Arabist who wrote "Merveilles du monde" on the superiority of the Eastern cultures. In spirit, Levenson says, Postel is a precursor to the French Enlightenment. Both Christian and Islamic religious conviction permits, impels, and colors perceptions of cross-cultural exchange. But these beliefs had no evangelizing counterpart in the Far East. Chinese religious beliefs, such as they were, encouraged immobility and resignation. Confucianism, considered as a system of social organization, was closed, functioning not unlike the Great Chain of Being. There was no particular need for, or sense in, proselytizing. Asia, with no single unifying political or belief system, was not united against the European quest for spices and converts.
Cultural "Spirit," as Levenson glosses it, seems to be a group's location on the continuum between action and contemplation. Chinese social critics, among them the famous 20th century writer Lu Xun, pinpoint the Chinese tendency to eschew social conflict and struggle, creating compromises to avoid change. Even overseas Chinese had no power to change the homeland. In leaving the family, family graves, and their larger clan, cut off from their past, identity, and significance, they were no longer Chinese. Furthermore, both China and India had what was needed in to supply their populace within their own geographic areas. Especially important, Levenson argues, is the position of the merchant class. In Asia they never gained the power or prestige needed to change the feudal institutions already in place. Trade, and income from trade, was never a key government need or issue.
Finally, social structures around the question of trade formed channels for, or barriers to, political supremacy. Ming China, for instance, was supported by court officials, eunuchs, and land-owning gentry. State-run production monopolies kept government funds moving slowly within a fairly narrow range of beneficiaries. Foreign traders were permitted to operate in China as long as they brought tribute to the emperor, but the court did not tax local trade or profit from it; therefore its policies on trade were restrictive or neglectful. (83). Expeditions, such as those to India and Africa, offered nothing back but prestige. Furthermore, those who had advocated trade and voyaging were court eunuchs. They were hated by their rivals, the officials, as being unmanly, and in Zheng Ho's case, un-Chinese. The later eunuch Wang Chih could not get even get access to Zheng Ho's trip records from the War Board Office, which apparently hid or destroyed the accounts of his voyages. Chinese businesses, such as there were, were taxed on its monthly inventories. There were domestic customs duties on goods in transit, and traveling merchants were required to carry identifying papers. In agriculture, gentry could command rents which kept their tenants in perpetual bondage. In briefer sections Levenson covers the Japanese, Ottoman and Hindu responses to the West. Hindu merchants, while excellent as merchants, were not politically powerful enough to command their rulers or much alter their society. (123)The Japanese Bukufu, argues Levenson, were trying to stabilize their own regime and found the exclusion of Christianity and Westerners important to that effort. The Ottomans, by contrast to the Japanese or Chinese, were not exclusionary, but were economically drained in their fight against the West, and, like the Chinese, were ennervated by their own restrictive policies on merchants and trade. At many moments during European expansion, the Ottomans had superior organization and weaponry, and theoretically could have stopped or conquered their rivals. Why didn't they do so? To answer this question, Levenson underscores economic and political tensions within the empire: the Ottomans had a modern standing army and bureaucracy, but only medieval means of support. In short, the Ottomans could not accumulate the funds to prevail.
In a quest for gold, spices, and converts, the Portuguese led the way
for the West. As the West ended its widespread feudal system, a new
merchant class emerged. Having never been feudal, the East had no
emerging merchant class. As European merchants were mobilized
by states, capital was put at the service of technology and warfare.
This, in very broad strokes, is the path that took Europe to political
and economic primacy. As a short survey, Levenson's work is excellently
told. In format, long quoted sections are punctuated by Levenson's short
editorial pieces. (A small criticism: these sources are located
in the notes, but it would be easier to think about the meaning of Levenson's
choices, if the source material were titled with subheads within the text.)
Although he includes representative points of view, Levenson could benefit
from additional Chinese, Japanese and Indian source material. Levenson,
like Wallerstein, emphasizes the political and legal organization that
permitted merchants to accumulate power and capital.