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Charles's avatar

Why didn't China colonize other parts of the world?

Asked by Charles (4794 points ) January 1st, 2012

From the fall of Rome to the age of Discovery, China was the most technologically advanced country in the world. Their ships were far superior in construction, durability, technology, etc. than European ships. But from the unification of China in the early-200’s BC until European countries became the dominant powers, China did not sail around the world setting up colonies and expanding their empire. Why not?

The Rise & Fall of 15th Century Chinese Seapower:
http://library.thinkquest.org/20176/chengho.htm

I suppose you could write that the Chinese are by nature more peaceful than Europeans…however China has a history at least as brutal as that in the West with civil wars, famines and massacres, just like the rest of the world. So why did not China simply expand its power beyond its borders? Is it as simple, as they had everything they already needed?

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15 Answers

Mamradpivo's avatar

In about the 16th Century, China became incredibly insular and inward-looking. This was just before a lot of Westerners showed up and started poking around. It was a crime (also true in Japan) to have contact with foreigners, or for foreigners to learn Chinese.

Yes, yes, citation needed but I can’t be bothered, sorry

PhiNotPi's avatar

Try reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. That entire book focuses on the reasons that certain societies came out on top. <opens book to find answer>

EDIT: there appears to be an entire chapter on China.

PhiNotPi's avatar

China appears to be a place where multiple advancements in technology were independently discovered. Plant domestication by 7500 BC, writing by 1300 BC. These all appear to be consistently behind the Fertile Crescent, but only by about 1000 years.

The expansion of farming was stunted from north to south, but rivers allowed them to spread east to west, from the coast inland. In Europe the main axis was east-west also, allowing the easy spread of crops across Europe.

China seems to have been relatively united for the past several thousand years.

It appears that China did have large effects on other parts of Asia and Polynesia. Many languages from South China expanded into southeast Asia in the first few 1000 years BC.

The unity of China may have been its undoing. Since it was unified under one centralized government, it lost the selective pressure that was felt in Europe.

Japan, for example, originally had some of the best guns and weaponry in the entire world; however, they eventually eliminated guns because they believed that it detracted from the honor of battle. They were able to go backwards in technology because there were no other countries to take it over. If a European country had moved backwards like this, they would immediately be taken over by another country that had moved forward. If Japan itself was not unified, then there would have been competition between those separate states that would have prevented the elimination of technology.

Since these Asian countries were so unified, they had very minimal competition between states. This allowed them to become very conservative, just in time for other countries to show up.

There are other examples of isolationism causing backwards advances in technology. The natives of Tasmania required relatively advanced ships (for their time) to travel to an island that is completely out of sight from the mainland of Eurasia. Once on the island, the devanced in technology all the way back to stone tools (not even bone), and stayed that way until modern times.

flutherother's avatar

That’s an interesting question. China is bounded by mountains, desert, jungle and ocean and always thought of itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’. It is a continent sized country containing a great variety of landscapes and climates within its borders. It is so big that its more distant provinces were unexplored countries in themselves. The civilization that developed in China considered itself complete and perfect and that nothing beyond its borders could contribute to Chinese culture as these lands were inhabited by barbarians. They just didn’t have much interest in other countries.

For similar reasons Chinese technology, though very advanced, never experienced an industrial revolution as in the West. The Chinese were comfortable with what they had, with everything in balance. The guiding philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism promoted stability rather than change.

JLeslie's avatar

I know very little about China, how the people think, their culture, etc. Although, I do know China only accepted the common calendar, the Gregorian calendar, just 100 years ago. It seems that for a long time they were rather separate from the rest of the world on purpose. I would guess culturally they figured they had it right, and others were wrong, and they would not want any other influences affecting the thoughts and minds of their people. Many cultures were like this. The Europeans, the ones who went around conquering and occupying, seem to believe everyone should think like them and be like them, maybe the Chinese just worried about maintaining their ideas and ideals for their own people? Although, I seem to remember the Chinese being horrible to the Tibetans?

KoleraHeliko's avatar

@PhiNotPi Do you mean ‘Australia’ in that last paragraph? The Tasmanian aboriginals arrived from mainland Australia via land bridge, which doesn’t require particularly advanced boating technology.

PhiNotPi's avatar

@KoleraHeliko Actually, I did mean Tasmania. To get to Australia, in order to get to Tasmania, they needed advanced boats to come from the Eurasia mainland. The Tasmanian aboriginals were the ones that went backwards in technology because their ancestors did have advanced boats,while they do not.

the100thmonkey's avatar

@SmashTheState – were the Mongols Chinese?

Ethnically and linguistically, they are separate.

The_Idler's avatar

The western provinces might be considered ‘colonised’. Many of the locals in Tibet and Xinjiang consider the Han more as colonial overlords, than compatriots.

Aside from that, as others have said, the Chinese Emperors believed that they already ruled practically the whole world, and when that illusion was shattered, the ruling classes were so afraid of change, they became very, very isolationist.

With this precedent, we can suspect that, when China rules the world, they will place a firm hand upon the wheel of time, keeping close control of technology, philosophy and hierarchy, in an attempt to ensure stability over all else. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

jesienne's avatar

Do you western people think it’s proud to augment your territories? To colonize is against the belief of Confucianism and Buddhism
I agree with @flutherother . However, I have to admit that Genghis Khan invaded part of the Europe, and his expansion extended to Persia.

The_Idler's avatar

@jesienne I think most people here are quite ashamed about imperialism, but we are mostly ‘normal’ people.

Imperialism is a game of the upper classes, and their morals are far more often warped by greed than ordinary people’s.

jesienne's avatar

@The_Idler Emperors throughout most of the Chinese history put Closed-cloorism into practice and it was difficult for them to realize the fact that they had already left behind western forces in so many ways, One thing I read from my high school history book is that when the Second Opium War (in 1860) was about to take place, Daoguang Emperor of Qing Dynasty still didn’t know where Great Britain is ..OhMFG,isolation means death.

SnakeHips's avatar

@SmashTheState Maybe we all look the same to you, but the Mongols and the Chinese are different. We’re not all Japanese, Vietnamese, or Korean either.

SpeedskaterMan's avatar

I believe the Chinese did explore other parts of the world, but you’re right, they did not set out to colonize other lands. There is the belief that the ancient Chinese actually discovered America, not Columbus. There is quite a bit of evidence supporting this theory.

http://www.yeefow.com/past/499.html

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