Friday, September 25, 2009

Asia, International Trade & Cultural Differences

In Part III of Before European Hegemony Abu-Lughod begins her examination of the Indian Ocean system, focusing on the Indian Subcontinent, the Strait of Malacca and China. These three regions were linked in trade approximately 4,000 years ago, with the earliest known sea trade system connecting Gujarat to west and south Asia. Eventually, a vigorous maritime trade system connected Arabian and Persian traders with the ports of Gujarat and Malabar. The Chinese did participate in this system, with “junks” sailing through the Strait of Malacca, and sometimes trading in Indian ports such as Quilon. India’s central location and wealth from centuries of trade make the subcontinent an obvious hegemonic power, but India remained a relatively “passive” industrial and trading power, though not nearly as passive as the Chinese, who all but closed their ports to foreign traders, and exhibited minimal interest in international trade except as tribute. This relatively peaceful trading system differs greatly from the ruthless competition European traders, such as the rivalry between Venice and Genoa. This cutthroat behavior was not seen in Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

The Indian Ocean trade dynamics were particularly interesting to me. I found it surprising that no one power dominated the sea-lanes or took interest in conquering foreign ports (as the Europeans, and especially the Portuguese, did). If any of the major powers had tried to control the sea-lanes, perhaps one of them would have gained hegemony over the wealthiest trade routes of the medieval world, with unknowable consequences on today’s system. That no country even attempted to conquer the Indian Ocean seems abnormal when compared with Europe, the Holy Land and Egypt, in which conquest was the fastest and easiest route to economic dominance.

I was also impressed by the Chinese civilization's highly advanced technology. The Chinese lead the world in medicine, physics, mathematics and practical technology, such as printing, metallurgy, weaponry and navigational techniques. Originally I did not understand why after regaining control from the Mongols, the Chinese withdrew from international trade, in comparison, all of the other "advanced" nations rushed to international trade. Abu-Lughod explains some of the factors that contributed to the Chinese isolation, including Confucianism, the Ming government, and the desire to recover from the less civilized Mongol era.

One angle I would like to explore further is the impact of a nation’s culture on its trading patterns. For example, the Crusades were a religious movement that completely rearranged trade patterns in Europe. The Islamic shari’a laws are another example of religion impacting trade. Muslim merchants followed these laws from the Qur’an when developing an international trade system. The same effect can be seen in China, as Confucian ideals detail Chinese attitude towards commerce. Maybe if the merchants had better understood their differences they could have found their similarities and preserved the world trade system. So I ask, to what extent did cultural differences affect the trade of the Pax Mongolica system?

1 comment:

  1. Valid points about the culture; keep up making such good points :)