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The Great Divergence is the period beginning in the 18th century in which the "West" (Western Europe and the areas in which after the 16th century its people became the dominant populations) clearly emerged as the most powerful world civilization, eclipsing the Islamic empires (the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India), Tokugawa Japan, and Qing China. This process of western expansion was begun in the 16th Century, is coeval with the emergence of global culture generally, and can be considered to have its terminus in the 20th and 21st centuries with the re-assumption of leading roles by China and India as well as the emergence of new actors created by the expansion such as the United States and Brazil, at least to the extent that Western Europe ceased to be the unipolar center as it was in the 18 and 19th centuries of the western epoch.



In the early 1700s, many believe, Western Europe and East Asia enjoyed broadly similar levels of material prosperity and economic development. For most of the early modern period, both confronted Malthusian constraints (population exceeding food supply) which inhibited further growth. Due in part to the technological advances that took place in the urban centers of Western Europe (including the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen), the subsequent mechanization of many European industries, however, the locus of global wealth and power began to slowly shift from Asia to Western Europe (specifically to Britain).

Researchers offer competing explanations for this phenomenon. For example, Kenneth Pomeranz, in The Great Divergence (2000, Princeton University Press), emphasizes the role of "geographic accidents" such as the proximity of coal deposits to early British centers of industrial production and the easily exploitable natural resources of the Americas. Crucially, the African slaves that Europeans employed to exploit these resources also provided a vast new consumer base for domestic European exports.

Pomeranz's argument accords in certain respects with the conclusions of Jared Diamond, who in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, argued that Europe's geographical placement, especially its east-west axis and its proximity to the Americas, was the overarching factor in its global dominance. In contrast, according to Diamond, China's layout allowed it to become precociously united which removed a major incentive for technological advancement and intra-national competition. In A Farewell to Alms Gregory Clark argues that it was cultural and genetic factors – successful tradesmen leaving behind more children – that allowed Britain to increase economic sophistication while others fell behind.

Four Stage Theory

A new theory emerging in China that is promoted by the Hanfu movement believes the main reason that China fell behind the West was its conquest by the Manchus in 1644.

They cite these facts to support their theory:

  • The amount of land cultivated in China was over 1100 million Mu during the reign of Wanli Emperor of the Ming dynasty; under the Manchu, it fell to under 600 million Mu and never surpassed 800 million Mu until the later part of the dynasty after contact with Europe[1]..
  • China's gunpowder weapons and naval technology was lost almost completely. During the Ming dynasty, records show that Chinese ships and their size could compare to the English ships. The scholar Joseph Needham, reputedly said that the Ming navy could overwhelm all European navies at that time combined. However, when Lord Macartney visited China in his embassy, he found that Chinese ships could not even go out to sea without wrecking[2]..
  • In terms of gunpowder weapons, during the Ming they were abundant. It was recorded that in a single battalion, the standard equipment included: 200 cannons, 400 muskets, and 3600 rockets.
  • By the time of the Qing dynasty, gunpowder weapons were almost extinct; in the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor, the dynasty could only produce 160 cannons with great difficulty, and it was discovered that this cannon's range was less than that of the Ming cannon. During one battle in the opium war, the Chinese won one victory only because they dug up 40 old Ming cannons along with old ammunition.
  • The Manchu suppressed scientific thought. The Kangxi Emperor executed a man because he believed the brain was the centre of human activity[3].
  • A variation of the Manchu Conquest Theory is the Mongol conquest theory, which believed the decline started after the Mongol conquest of China, which caused the Ming to be isolationist. However, the trade conducted by the Ming in 1578–1644 was almost 300 million taels, which would not be classified as "isolationist."

The cultural exchange of East and West

Westerners tend to date direct contact between European and Chinese civilization to Marco Polo but continuous relations began close to the start of the European expansion. This is perhaps less significant to the Chinese as it occurred during the non-Han Yuan Dynasty when China was the centerpiece of the Mongol Empire whose famously well maintained trade routes provided for a time the first direct link between the West and China.


The cultural exchange in Ming dynasty

Western missionaries established regular missions in China starting in early 16th century.[4] During the Ming Dynasty, there were visiting scholars like Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest, plus many other missionaries who were not as well known.[5][6] Beside introducing Christianity to China, they were also introducing Western knowledge and technology. All the prominent missionaries were given high positions in the Ming royal court, and were highly respected by Ming emperors and the bureaucrat.

The scope of cultural exchange between China and the West had been expanding since 1500. During these times, the introduction of Western society's philosophy, astronomy, physics, chemistry, medicine, economy, law literature, art, brought immense impact on Chinese society.[7] During the 19th century, Jesuit, the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church, as well as protestant priests, had established schools, hospitals, and printing workshops. Apart from publishing journals, they began to translate thousands of foreign language books into the Chinese language. During the Ming dynasty, more than 7000 books were translated into Chinese. These translated books were the sources of knowledge of many Chinese scholars, including: Kang Youwei, and Liang Qichao .[8]

Gilbert Highet, in his book The Art of Teaching. New York ( pg. 222–223) spoke of the Jesuit Methods: "The Jesuits went to unparalleled lengths and showed unbelievable patience in adapting themselves to the people they had determined to teach. For instance, they sent out a small expedition of ten or twelve priests to Christianize four hundred million Chinese. This almost impossible task they started by studying China. The Jesuits therefore spent several years learning Chinese philosophy, art, and literature, getting ready to meet the Chinese on even level. After the imperial officials had slowly, reluctantly admitted them, the Jesuits at once flattered them by talking to them in their own tongue, and attracted them by displaying specially prepared maps and astronomical instruments. Instead of being rejected as foreign barbarians, they were accepted as intelligent and cultivated men."

Matteo Ricci, the Ambassador of Cultural Exchange from the West

Among all the missionaries, Matteo Ricci[9] was the best known, and the most respected, priest who ever came to China. In his book, Generation of Giants, George H. Dunne, S.J. notes that Ricci’s "primary object was not simply to establish a certain number of Christian communities on the fringes of a hostile society; it was rather to build a Sino-Christian civilization." When Ricci died, he was granted a burial place in the Royal Capital by the Ming Emperor[10] himself. Scientific books[11] brought into China by the missionaries were being translated into the Chinese language. Vice versa, many books on Confucian teaching were being translated and introduced into the West.

  • Matteo Ricci's translation of Confucian Classical "The Four Books" "論語, 孟子, 大學, 中庸" into Latin, "Tetrabiblion sinense de moribus", was the first ever foreign language translation of the Confucian Classical works. In 1594, Ricci sent the Latin text to Italy.
  • Matteo Ricci wrote The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. (天主实义)(1603)[13] A masterpiece of apologetics and controversy, The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, rightfully became the manual of the missionaries and did most efficacious missionary work. This book contained some acute reasoning in support of the propositions laid down, but the doctrine of faith in Christ was very slightly touched upon. The teachings of Buddhism were vigorously attacked, whilst Matteo Ricci tried to draw a parallel between Christianity and the Chinese Confucius Teaching."

After reading the nine Confucius Classic Books (Chinese: 論語 , 孟子 , 大學 , 中庸 , 詩經 , 尚書 , 禮經 , 周易 , 春秋), Matteo Ricci was using Confucianism to teach the doctrine of Christianity to the Ming population. He was showing the Mings that Han civilization, Confucianism and Christianity do accommodate each other; all three advocate the same goals:

  1. Full and content soul,
  2. Perfect morality, and
  3. High intelligence.

After witnessing Ming's cultural and political systems, Father Matteo Ricci had come to the conclusion: The first priority, was to make Christianity acceptable to the Ming population in their everyday life; if this were not done, the Catholic Mission would eventually be kicked out of Ming. He dedicated his work to the joining and unification of Han Chinese culture and the Catholic Church, and he chose Confucianism as a partner, not Buddhism or Taoism. He knew that Buddhism was a very strong opponent of the Catholic Church.

When the Pope Clement XI [14] ordered the Jesuits to abandon their efforts to adapt Christianity to Han Chinese culture and to present Roman Catholicism in strictly Western European terms, the Ming Emperor was aghast at the folly of his Western cousin. As Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889–1975)( British historian) said: "at this point Christianity had a chance to become a true world religion and rejected it. Never again in history has that opportunity presented itself on such favorable terms. Had Ricci and his colleagues been permitted to continue on their way, there is certainly no question but that the history of the world would have been far different."

  • Matteo Ricci, in 1595, wrote his first book in Han Chinese, On Friendship, which included hundreds of quotations from many Western philosophers, scientists, and priests. On Friendship had become a popular book among Ming scholars.

Zheng He, Ming's Global Cultural Ambassador

A display at the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai purports to compare the size of ships used by Zheng He and by Christopher Columbus.

Richard von Glahn University of California, Los Angeles, Professor of History and a specialist in Chinese history) claimed that "Zheng He reshaped Asia." According to Professor von Glahn, maritime history in the fifteenth century is essentially the Zheng He story and the effects of Zheng He's voyages.

Von Glahn claims that Zheng He's influence lasted beyond his age, may be seen as the tip of an iceberg, and there is much more to the story of maritime trade and other relationships in Asia in the fifteenth century and beyond.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Jia Qing, "On the reasons why China fell behind the west", <>
  2. ^ Jia Qing, "On the reasons why China fell behind the west", <>
  3. ^ Jia Qing, "On the reasons why China fell behind the west", <>
  4. ^ Ricci, Matteo. "The Diary of Matthew Ricci, in Matthew Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century". Retrieved 2008-09-08. Brooklyn College/ City university of New York
  5. ^ "Matteo Ricci""New Advent/catholic encyclopedia/ on Matteo Ricci's life"
  6. ^ "Johann Adam Schall von Bell""New Advent/catholic encyclopedia/Another great missionary that went to china to spread the words of gospel"
  7. ^ "Ricci on astronomy""/Fairfield University/Jesuits taught the Chinese the heliocentric theory, unaware that Galileo's trial had taken place."
  8. ^ "Chinese Cultural Studies: Matteo Ricci: On Chinese Government, Selection from his Journals (1583–1610)". Retrieved 2008-09-11. Brooklyn College/City University New the entire kingdom is administered by the Order of the Learned, commonly known as The Philosophers.
  9. ^ "Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552 to 1610) and his contributions to science in China". Retrieved 2008-09-11. "] Fairfield about 1600–1773, Jesuits were practically the sole source of Chinese knowledge about Western astronomy, geometry and trigonometry
  10. ^ "Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource,". Retrieved 2008-09-11. "National University of Wade's translation of & commentary on texts from the Veritable Records of the history of Ming Dynasty"
  11. ^ "Euclid's Elements""/Clark's Elements, until the 20th century, was the most common reprinted book after the Bible."
  12. ^ "Ricci Matteo" "/Fairfield great World Map which brought about a revolution in traditional Chinese cosmography"
  13. ^ "Matteo Ricci, S.J.". Retrieved 2008-09-11.  Scranton(Jesuit) University/It is the first attempt by a Catholic scholar to use a Chinese way of thinking to introduce Christianity to Chinese intellectuals
  14. ^ Ricci: Confucianism “could derive great benefit from Christianity and might be developed and perfected by it”. cited in Lach, Donald F (1973). "China In Western Thought And Culture". in Wiener, Philip P. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. ISBN 0684132931.; Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  15. ^ Xu, Guangqi; Matteo Ricci (1610). [ "The Elements of Geometry"] (in Chinese). Retrieved 2008-09-09.  Macao Polytechnic Institute.
  16. ^ Zheng He's Voyages of Discovery|UCLA center for Chinese Study|


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