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While all of this is just accepted today as fact, and seems that it was the natural flow of events, in the grand scheme of things it's actually surprising in some ways that it was the Europeans who went out and bent the world towards their own image.
For most of the last few thousand years, it seemed far more likely that China and/or India would dominate the world by the end of this century instead of the Europeans, and that the Americas and Australia would be settled by China rather than Britain and the Spanish. Indeed, it is known that in the 1400's, China and India together accounted for more than half the world's gross national product, as they seem to have for most of human history. To better understand China's strength at the time, consider the life of Admiral Zheng He...
Almost 50 years before Columbus, Zheng He had reached East Africa and learned about Europe from Arab trainers. The Chinese could easily have continued around the Cape of Good Hope and established direct trade with Europe. But as they saw it, Europe was a backward region, and China didn't have any interest in what the Europeans had to offer (wool, beads and wine). Africa had what China wanted: ivory, medicines, spices, exotic woods, and specimens of native wildlife.
There are few explanations: The first is that Asia simply wasn't greedy enough. Ancient China cared about many things -- prestige, honor, culture, arts, education, ancestors and religion -- making money came far down the list. In contrast to Asia, Europe was consumed with greed. It was the pursuit of profits that led the Europeans down the African coast and eventually around the Horn to Asia. A second reason is cultural contentment, both economically and intellectually. China and India tended to look inward with a devotion to past ideals and methods, a respect for authority and a suspicion of new ideas. The Chinese elite believed they had nothing to learn from the "barbarians" abroad and the Indians didn't go to Portugal, not because they couldn't but because they didn't want to.
How different would the world have been had Zheng He continued on to Europe and the Americas? What would have been the outcome if China and India had decided to take a different approach and set out to conquer the world?
"The ramifications are almost too overwhelming to contemplate. So consider just one: this website would have been published in Chinese!" (1)
(1) Source: Nicholas D. Kristof, 1492: The Prequel
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