Friday, September 25, 2009

Baghdad, India, and China

As ever, Abu-Lughod is still emphasizing that Europe was not necessarily destined to dominate the world. Parts II and III illustrate societies that were very technologically advances, wealthy, and potentially very powerful. But Iraq, India and China never reached their full potential due to the combination of internal and external factors.

            Baghdad was an interesting case where it seemed to be in decline while still impressively wealthy and great. As Abu-Lughod discussed earlier in the book, first-hand accounts of life need to be carefully analyzed to discover the real truth. Witnesses of Baghdad’s economic prosperity are contradictory: “When they compare Baghdad with the past, they see decline, but when they compare her to most other places, they see an undeniably active economy…bolstered by the heightened demands of the export trade” (193). Unfortunately for Baghdad this ‘heightened demand’ didn’t last forever. Once again the Mongol Empire asserted itself, and once the Middle East was conquered, the relocation of the capital/trading center ruined Baghdad and its sister city of Basra. The Mongols were certainly an external factor that Baghdad had little or no control over, with little hope of being able to compete with the Mongols militarily.

            I would not call the kingdoms of India “local hegemons” because to me that is an oxy moron. Hegemony usually carries a connotation of wanting world dominance, not merely local. Referring to them as local powers and cores seems more accurate. And that’s all they were, and the unified inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent were not very ambitious. Although they seemed to be in a weakened position due to their lack of unification, the Indian culture seemed to do quite well for itself: “India was self-sufficient in or indifferent to many of the heavily-traded commodities on the medieval world market” and “she sold more than she bought” (285). So India exported more than it imported, creating a so-called favorable balance of trade, once again underscoring the fact that the 13th century world system was one of “proto-capitalism”.

            Like India, China had great potential to be an economic powerhouse, but similarly lacked that ambition, and instead isolated itself from the world. At one point, China “seemed fated in the 13th century to become the hegemonic power if not of the world at least a goodly portion of it” (259-260). But interestingly, not long after, Abu-Lughod states that “the East had already substantially ‘fallen’ before the Portuguese men-of-war appeared in the Indian Ocean” (260). But why had it fallen? Why did China take a step backward just when it appeared to be ready to dominate the world? As is extensively discussed in the book, China was technologically advanced, had established solid economic institutions, and had military might. They had the will and ability to control sea trade by insisting on keeping foreigners out of their ports.

But then they took things a step further and basically stopped all trade with foreigners. This may have been a reaction to their being conquered by a lesser civilization, it may have been due to the plague or the inherent social structure of China, but to me the most interesting explanation is that China withdrew because of the belief system taught by Confucius. Is it possible that China gave up power and wealth because one man said that “crass moneymaking” was wrong? I’d like other people’s opinions on how much of a factor this was in China’s downfall.


  1. As you know a large proportion of the population in both Europe and China died during the plauge years. The seperation and differences in culture and religion caused the people of these regions to react differently. The Europeans looked outward while the Chinese turned inward. As the Europeans 'discovered' new lands they were able to use these conquered territories to extract wealth. The Chinese were never this ambitious.

  2. I think that it's a plausible argument to say that China was less ambitious due to its Confucianist beliefs against moneymaking. Confucianism preached a very high moral standard that everyone should abide by and part of their society. One major moral belief was frugality and with those beliefs instilled in Chinese leaders, they didn't feel the need to branch out in the pre-modern world system to accumulate wealth. Since they didn't seek wealth, they didn't seek to expand their empire. Following Confucius was certainly a factor in their downfall.