The Dawn of Global Trade — Part II
In what ways did Asia dominate the world 1,000 years ago?
August 6, 2008
In politics, states experimented with bureaucracies and taxes. They developed currencies and defined new legal status for conquered peoples. From the Middle East to China, they produced advice manuals for kings.
Kings eagerly awaited the return of ambassadorial missions so they could consider the latest ceremonies of loyalty or innovations in military organization. States undertook major economic development projects, such as the irrigation of land for growing rice and road building that connected regions.
In warfare, kings from Egypt to China well understood the limits of armies based on ethnic or regional loyalty. They successfully experimented with slave armies, armies based on religion and prisoners as soldiers. Genghis Khan broke up clan-based service and formed new mixed units with men from a variety of clans.
In science — until at least 1300 CE — the Middle East, India and China were the major centers of innovation. Hundreds of new tropical plants arrived at courts. Kings and nobles would often attempt to grow new varieties in their gardens. New medical techniques were discovered, such as the development of inoculation in China.
In mathematics and astronomy, developments were extraordinary. Out of India came a commonly used numeric system. From India and the Middle East came algebra, a variety of geometries — including solutions to conic sections — and even a primitive form of calculus. Astronomical observatories were features of many courts.
In trade, the millennium was equally innovative. Traders not only brought promising plants to new environments but financed attempts at cultivation. Jewish traders brought sugarcane from India and began plantations along the Nile. Mango and pepper cultivation spread from India to Indonesia, where these plants became cash crops.
Entrepreneurs first opened new markets, then made cheap local copies of expensive import items — such as Gujarati printed cotton cloth, Baghdad tiles, caliphate silver currency, Chinese ceramics, Damascus blades and Chinese silk.
The Asian world noticed and commented on itself — a self-consciousness not yet typical of Europe. Especially in China and the Middle East, there was a flowering of biography and autobiography. In India, there were literally thousands of books written on how life was lived and how it should morally be lived.
Poets reflected on the sorrows of love and the fleeting nature of beauty. Artists pictured their world and paid particular attention to the exotic. The giraffe brought from Africa to China is known both from descriptions and a painting. Histories and geographies abounded.
The great Asian world was robust enough to survive most day-to-day or even century-to-century changes and disruptions. When Baghdad declined as a great city, trade shifted to the successor capitals — Reyy, Balk, Bukhara and Ghazni. When Arab traders became Muslim, they built mosques along the trade routes and practiced their new religion.
Different groups rose and fell as the dominant traders: Jews, Armenians, Gujaratis, Malays, Yemenis, Tamils, Arabs and Chinese.
Considering the millennium as a whole, there was more integration, more movement of knowledge and talented men and more innovation at the end of the period than at the beginning.
Many within the Asian world recognized that the Europeans, “hat-wearers” as they were labeled, were a different breed and brought different assumptions with them. For centuries Europe had been on the fringes of the Asian world. There were, of course, trading ties to Asia through Venice, Genoa and Prague — as well as the long-standing trade down the Russian rivers.
The more intimate networks of intellectual discussion, religious debate, family ties, trade partnerships, ambassadorial missions, bureaucratic service at courts, codes of honor, poetry, music, fashion and art were, by and large, not exchanged between Europe and Asia.
When the Europeans arrived in Asia, they proclaimed themselves traders as well as representatives of kings, directly responsible to their sovereign. This was new and unexpected. No trader in the Asian world represented a king.
European traders were also heavily armed. Although Asian traders regularly hired troops to protect caravans or ships, they were rarely involved in wars. The Europeans brought the notion of intertwining trade and warfare to Asia from centuries of practice on the European continent and in the Mediterranean.
Royal involvement in trade and cannon casting, for example, was seen as a direct practice of profitable politics. Finally, Europeans brought with them a sense that they were “Portuguese” or “English” and Christian.
In practical terms, these European attitudes meant that conquests went to the European king, not the local commander. Europeans successfully merged the ideas of a corporate trading company, loyalty to a throne and a professional officer corps — and thereby prevented losing their conquests to military commanders.
None of this happened overnight, but Asian observers noticed that European armies tended to stay intact as they approached battle — unlike Asian armies — in which portions of the army led by bribed individual leaders often changed sides on the eve of battle.
Nor did European armies shatter when the leader was killed. Asian observers also noticed that treaties were always in the name of the European king or trading company, never in the name of the commander.
In spite of these advantages in military structure and the beginning of “national” loyalty, it is important to emphasize how slow the process of European conquest and colonization of Asia was. England became the largest power in India only in the nineteenth century. Holland had early success in the Southeast Asian islands and Sri Lanka, but did not expand its empire beyond the islands.
Russia only conquered the eastern steppe in the seventeenth century. Except for the crusader states, European intervention in the Middle East is mainly a twentieth-century phenomenon, and China was never colonized to the extent that India was.
In spite of the European conquests, much of this vast, highly interconnected and interdependent Asian world continued under colonial rule. Even under European domination, Arab ships still sailed every year to Africa carrying Gujarati cloth and returning with gold.
Chinese traders moved into the new British port of Calcutta. Horses by the thousands still came down from Central Asia to India. It was only slowly that colonial powers undercut local political processes and reoriented Asian economies to serve the home country.
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from “When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created the ‘Riches of the East'” by Stewart Gordon, which is based on the memoirs, stories and insights of indigenous travelers in ancient Asia — as well as current scholarship. Published by Da Capo Press, 2008.
Asian observers noticed that European armies stayed intact in battle — unlike Asian armies, in which portions of the army often changed sides on the eve of battle.
Kings from Egypt to China understood the limits of armies based on ethnic loyalty. They experimented with slave armies, armies based on religion and prisoners as soldiers.
Entrepreneurs first opened new markets, then made cheap local copies of expensive import items — such as Gujarati printed cotton cloth and Chinese silk.
The great Asian world was robust enough to survive most day-to-day or even century-to-century changes and disruptions.
Kings eagerly awaited the return of ambassadorial missions so they could consider the latest ceremonies of loyalty or innovations in military organization.
Senior Research Scholar, University of Michigan Stewart Gordon is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan — and the author of three books on Asia. He earned his BA, MA. and PhD at the University of Michigan. He received a Woodrow Wilson scholarship in graduate school […]