After the end of the ice age, when the world began to warm up again, a temperate zone emerged where it was not too hot nor too cold, and where man began to conquer nature as nature had never been conquered before. In this temperate zone, two areas in particular forged ahead. In the West there were the civilisations of Mesopotamia, and in the East, those of China. Indeed in Mesoamerica similar civilisations were to emerge very much later that were to foreshadow the Maya.
The Western zone took the lead, for in the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, in the mountains in eastern Turkey, conditions were exceptionally propitious, providing the wild ancestors both of wheat and indeed of sheep and goats and the other animals that were to be domesticated. It has been argued that in virtually all the appurtenances of civilisation, the West was around 2000 years ahead of the East, both in cultivating plants, domesticating animals, establishing first villages then towns, and coming onto fullscale farming. Only in producing simple pottery was the East ahead, possibly due to the need to boil up nuts to make them edible.
The most interesting comparison arises at the time of the Roman Empire, which was paralleled very closely by the Han empire, when for the first time, much of what we know as China was united in a single country, originally in the short-lived Qin empire, but then under the more durable Han dynasty. From 200 BC to around AD 200, China and Rome enjoyed a similar success: the Roman Empire was slightly bigger, and Rome itself being slightly larger than the biggest Chinese town, Chang’An. But both flourished.
The Han dynasty came to an end in A.D. 200 and was followed by several centuries of chaos that paralleled the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. However in the sixth and seventh century China and the West diverged most considerably, for it was here that the West went into the dark ages, but China went ahead and under the Tang Dynasty from 618 to 907 entered one of the greatest periods of prosperity and particularly artistic merit that China and indeed the world has ever seen. This is, apparently, the great age of Chinese poetry.
Archaeology has a good explanation for all this. This success was due to the fact that there was major immigration from the North along the Yellow River that was the traditional heart of China to middle or southern China along the Yangtze River. Here in the warmer climate, rice cultivation flourished and this produced an economic surplus which underpinned the Tang success.
At the same time the famous system of competitive examination for the bureaucracy was introduced which led over the next millennium to a series of scholar bureaucrats, many of them from this area of Middle China which both underpinned the success of China and at the same time led to its eventual ossification.
The Tang dynasty eventually collapsed and was followed by another period of chaos, but there was a renaissance under the Song dynasty in the 12th century when the population increased and industry in particular flourished with the invention of gunpowder and printing by moveable type and extensive iron smelting, and indeed China was on the verge of an industrial revolution which never quite came.
An interesting final episode played out in the Ming dynasty, when between 1403 and 1438 a treasure fleet was built of huge ships whose exact size is contested but which nevertheless were clearly considerably bigger than anything produced in the West. The Treasure fleet sailed over the whole of the Indian Ocean down along the shores of Africa, bringing back vast amounts of treasurer for the Emperor. However in the 1438 under a new Emperor the fleet was laid up and China turned in on itself, and this is often thought to be one of the crucial turning points in the history of East and West. China certainly had bigger and more seaworthy ships, than the West, but it was the West that in the following century in their smaller but perhaps tougher ships crossed the Atlantic discovered America and laid the foundation to its future dominance and the emergence of the industrial revolution which took the West right ahead.
Why did the West surge ahead in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries? The answer surely lies in the virtues of competition and the disadvantages of consolidation. In China, the preservation of the Chinese empire, of keeping things as they were, was uppermost. In Europe however there were numerous small states, sometimes as in Italy and Germany, city states sometimes sleepy, sometimes dynamic. And it was the outermost island of Europe, Britain, that went ahead. In the Glorious and Bloodless Revolution of 1688, Britain brought the religious wars that had disrupted her for the past two centuries, to an end, and embraced the virtues of the open society, allowing people to think what they like and to a large extent to do what they liked, keeping government weak.
The reason why the West went ahead lay in the fact that there were a number of competing states, which because they were competing with each other encouraged the concept of free thought and enterprise and this was the foundation of the Industrial Revolution. This of course makes a strong argument against the EU, that Europe has succeeded precisely because of its diversity, and if we try and forge it into a single monolithic block, it will simply stagnate as China did.
For two millennia, the Chinese beliefs in centralisation had been a virtue. Now it was a disaster and it impelled them into a backwardness that would last until they were eventually bounced out of it by the successes of the market economy of the West.