Wednesday, October 20, 2004

East vs. West: The rise, fall, and resurgence of Asia

by Gideon Lasco

Any history book will tell us that civilization began in Asia, specifically in Mesopotamia. It was there, in that region now known as Fertile Crescent, where the Sumerians invented writing in 3100. The first cities were built in that region, too. Some dispute this claim, saying that the first cities actually arose from the early Indian civilization, in the form of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa (in modern-day Pakistan). Regardless, we see that these developments occurred in Asia. At that time, people in Europe were still hunter-gatherers. Meanwhile, progress continued in Asia, as civilization arose in China, sometime during the 3rd millennium BC. Soon, they achieved a monarchy, in form of dynasties beginning with the Zhang. This monarchy matured during the Q’in Dynasty, founded in 221 BC. During these times, paper was invented in China. Gunpowder and advances in medicine (the Indians were even able to perform surgery), navigation (the Chinese assembled the largest fleet during the 14th century AD). I need not mention Avicenna and the medical wonders of the Arabs during the Abbasid Caliphate. Asia even had a printing press before 1000 AD, several centuries before the Gutenberg’s press in Germany. Until the 15th century AD, Asia was well ahead of Europe. The shining proof of this is Marco Polo, who was dazzled by the sights of Yuan China, with all its splendor and advanced knowledge (the Chinese used oil and paper money, things which the Europeans were ignorant of). His tales of wonders were simply too advanced for Europeans to grasp, and they took him for a madman.

The question is: What happened? How did Europe (and, its offshoots, US and Canada) manage to overtake glorious Asia? There is no one reason to explain this oft-analyzed yet still-unresolved issue. There are two good reasons, though:

First, Europe was a competitive and culturally-populated scene: China, India, and even the Arab world lived on empires, often unrivaled. Thus, China saw no reason to adopt and maximize its technologies. On the other hand, the countries in Europe were in constant war with each other, and thus they were also desperate in trying to develop technologies. They also had contact with each other, being adjacent to each other, whereas in Asia the Chinese empire was far from the Delhi Sultanate, which is also relatively  For instance, gunpowder was developed during medieval Europe to easily conquer fortresses and castles. The turning point for Europe is its Age of Exploration, which began with Columbus. And why did Columbus and the Spaniards wish for a westward route? To defeat the Venetian monopoly of spices! Thus, the competitive nature of Europe gave rise to many advancements. It is said that war is the father of technology. With Europe’s many wars (the Hundred Years’ War, the Crusades, the Napoleonic War, etc.), technologies were born more prodigiously than in Asia, where the ‘divine’ emperors, already possessing vast lands, saw no reason to improve their military might. Thus, the technologically-superior Europe easily overwhelmed Asian kingdoms during the 18-19th centuries. India with its elephants was no match; the Chinese was forced to succumb to the ‘Unequal Treaties’ since they had no cavalry to match the well-trained European armies. Needless to say, the experience of Europe in navigation has also improved their ships: equipped with cannons, the Asian ports could not hold. This was evidenced in the Dutch and British takeovers of the East Indies.

Christianity, which created in Europe a universal culture carrying Judeao-Christian ethics and Greco-Roman heritage also proved to be a heavy advantage against Asia. People in Europe were not only physically close, but they also had one way of life (with some variations, of course). They had a universal language (Latin) which they used for scientific exchanges; being of similar cultures they interacted with each other, intermarried (all the royal families in Europe are related, one way or another). Thus, they were able to cooperate not only in political alliances, but also in scientific efforts, which ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution. Truly, exchange of information was facilitated; experiences were shared. The Chinese disdained the Indians; the Indians ate pork and revered the cow; the Muslims ate beef and loathed the pork. These cultural differences within Asia proved to be of a great disadvantage. Large but isolated empires fell into the hands of European powers. The Christian ideals emphasized liberties while the Greek tradition emphasized independent thought (ala Aristotle): upon these ideals monarchies were limited (the Magna Carta of 1215) and of course, much later, the French Revolution. Thus, ideas proliferated. In China, people bowed to the Emperor and kowtowed to their parents; in India there were all sorts of religious rituals and proved to be a hindrance to their scientific progress.

Definitely there are other factors. Some argue that geography played a role; there will be various views, none of which can stand on its own. Two major reasons have been presented (and on these two reasons the others will revolve). Summing these two reasons: Europe, since the 16th century, gained an overpowering advantage over Asia because it was a competitive scene and it had a socio-political climate conducive to technological advances. This competitive scene was brought about by its plethora of nations; this conducive climate was brought about by its heritage: Judaeo-Christian ethics and Greco-Roman heritage. An interplay of these factors sum up the major reason why Europe has dominated Asia.

But the 21st century is already being dubbed as the Asian century. Asian countries are no longer far apart; there no longer are emperors that control the people’s thoughts, words, and deeds. The ethics that Europe inherited is available to Asians; if blended with Asian discipline and creativity it can do a lot. Japan has taken the lead in this East-West synthesis, and it is now wealthier than any European nation. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea are following Japan’s lead, and China – the sleeping dragon – has awakened, now controlling a significant amount of world trade. Politically we have China, India, Pakistan, and Israel possessing nuclear weapons;  world economy is dependent on the oil Southwest Asia produces. Information is available to everyone now, and with Asia’s vast resources, it is bound to retake its former place in this ever-changing world.

October 2004

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