The ABCs of European Supremacy

A recent book by Louise Levathes showed that in the early 15th century China was ahead of Europe in the art of exploration. It’s fleet sailed throughout Southeast Asia and all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa. I don’t have the book with me in China, but I recall that for some reason the Emperor of China simply decided there was nothing out there of interest, and the government basically banned any further exploration. I think the ships might have even been destroyed. BTW, the book shows the Santa Maria next to the Chinese flagship, and Columbus’ boat looks like a little dingy by comparison.

I’m about to give you my pet theory for European supremacy after 1500. Keep in mind that whenever I think I have a clever idea, it either later turns out to be wrong, or else unbeknownst to me someone else got there first.

First a brief digression on languages. The Latin language had spread throughout much of the Mediterranean by 300 AD. After the Roman Empire collapsed, the Latin zone gradually split up into the various Romance languages. Linguists say that language formation is roughly like species formation. As long as a species lives in a confined area, it is hard for a new species to form. Why? Because any genetic differences get smoothed over as animals inter-breed. A species may evolve, but it won’t split into two species. Now supposes some climate or tectonic shift splits the population into two zones. Each zone will begin evolving, most likely in different directions. Eventually the differences will be so great that they are considered two entirely different species.

The same occurs with languages. Once the Roman Empire collapsed, there was less contact between Spain, France, Italy, and especially Romania. Over time the languages diverged. At first the educated classes continued to use Latin for written communication. But over time the nationalistic impulse led to the vernaculars being written down, on a roughly phonetic basis. In many ways, China experienced the same pattern. It is a huge country, so over time the way that Chinese was spoken began to diverge. The spoken languages are called “dialects.” I’m told that Cantonese is about as different from Mandarin as Spanish is from Italian. My wife cannot understand Cantonese, and must read Mandarin sub-titles when we go to see a Hong Kong film.

In my view the language splits in Europe contributed to the formation of national cultures, and then later to nationalism. Thus today there are many countries in Europe, roughly corresponding to the linguistic regions. Why didn’t something similar occur in China? Why isn’t Guangdong province (the Cantonese area) a separate country? I believe it is all because of the Chinese written language. The Chinese do not have an alphabet; they use “characters.” These roughly correspond to short words, or syllables. Simple words like ‘house’ or ‘tree’ require only one character, whereas ‘telephone’ requires characters for electric and speech. Because Chinese has no alphabet, the writing is not phonetic. Thus as the spoken versions of Chinese diverged, the written versions stayed the same. Suppose my wife meets someone from Hong Kong who doesn’t know Mandarin. She can still communicate with this person by writing a note on a piece of paper, and passing it to the other person. They both read the same language, Chinese. One of the reasons that China did not split into many countries is that with a single written Chinese language there was one literature, one culture, and one language by which bureaucrats could communicate throughout the far-flung empire.

OK, so let’s say I am right, what does that have to do with European supremacy? Isn’t that an advantage to the Chinese? In some ways yes, if they have the right model for governance. I have to be careful here, because the Chinese are sensitive to “splitism.” But even the modern Chinese government would admit that those early Ming emperors did not have the right model. They were oblivious to the need for China to progress through the absorption of outside ideas. So that “bad model” was imposed on the entire country. Contrast that with Europe. An Italian wonders into Portugal, asking for royal support for his plan to sail west to the Indies. He is turned down. So he goes to Spain where he eventually gets government support for his expedition. The rest is history. (Actually, even what I just said is history.)

[BTW, here is some history that not everyone knows. Why did Columbus first go to tiny Portugal? Because the Portuguese discovered about 50% of the globe for the Europeans. Had they financed Columbus it would have been about 75%. If you ever go to Lisbon don’t forget a side trip to Belem. See the gorgeous monastery and the wonderful nautical museum.]

You may know that I favor small governments and decentralization. I believe that this leads to a healthy competition. Let’s suppose that the reason why China fell behind Europe is that they didn’t have this sort of healthy competition that one observed between European states. Then how can this explain why today China is the fastest growing country in the world? The answer is that by 1978, China had fallen far behind not just Europe, but also its smaller neighbors in East Asia. This was too much for even the insular “Middle Kingdom” to accept, and they responded by adopting some foreign technologies and economic practices. The fast growth reflects their catching up to the rest of East Asia.

So the root cause of European supremacy was their alphabet, the ABCs. This led to language fragmentation, national cultures, nationalism, the nation state, economic competition, and growth. Does this mean China must fragment? No. (Well, I am in China right now, so what do you expect?) In my earlier post I discussed the success of Zhejiang province. This has led neighboring provinces such as Jiangsu to adopt some of its market friendly ideas. Thus competition at the provincial level can be healthy, as long as the central government sets the appropriate rules. (I’d like to see China adopt a ban on inter-provincial trade barriers, like our “Commerce Clause.”)

There is a cottage industry among economic historians in trying to explain why Britain was the first country to industrialize. I wonder if there is an advantage to being a large fertile island that lies close enough to the mainland to absorb its ideas and technology, but far enough away to be difficult to invade. The problem is that this theory is based on a single observation. Too bad we don’t have another continent with another great civilization on the mainland. A continent that also has a nearby large, fertile island that is close enough to absorb ideas from the mainland but far enough away to be difficult to invade. With the island being the first to industrialize in its neighborhood. Any suggestions?

About Scott Sumner 490 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

1 Comment on The ABCs of European Supremacy

  1. Japan is in some sense, the East Asian equivalent of the UK in Europe. They are the first nation to industrialise in East Asia.

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