Why Didn’t China Colonise the World Like the Europeans?
China, though it exerted great influence over the nations on its borders, made no real attempt at colonization for three main reasons: in the years of European imperialism – lack of a consistently strong central government, a modern industrial economy and navy, the lack of a religious base that demanded proselytizing, and a world-view that demanded foreigners come to it, rather than journey forth itself.
Though at times, Chinese imperial government was strong, and exerted an influence beyond its borders, most Chinese dynasties found difficulty in maintaining central control over such a vast area. In contrast, nations such as Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, were smaller, and overall had much more effective central government. Often, China had a much more effective bureaucracy than the governments of Europe. However, geographical size, the size of the population made China difficult to govern, even without colonial concerns.
In contrast to China, Europe experienced the Industrial Revolution in the early 1700’s. Though the drive for colonies began in Asia in the late 1500’s, the industrial advantages achieved by the Europeans meant that by the early decades of the 19th century, European military technology (particularly naval), production and money making capability far exceeded that of China. Had China desired to become a colonial power at this point in time, it could not have. (Cook, 44)
Additionally, especially in the first wave of European expansion, and again in the late 1800’s, religion proved a spur to colonization. Christianity called for active proselytizing throughout the world. Chinese beliefs (Confucianism, Buddhism, for example) did not. The Chinese philosophical outlook was much more of the “live and let live” variety. (Cook, 31-42)
Lastly, China called itself “The Middle Kingdom”, and for centuries Chinese leaders believed that China was almost literally the center of the known universe. Due to its size and seemingly obvious power, Chinese leaders believed that other nations should pay it homage, and come to it, rather than the other way around. (Spence, 118)
These factors played a significant role in why China did not become a colonial power. The Europeans began to directly influence Chinese affairs in the 1800’s. By the end of the century, they had won considerable concessions from the weakened Qing Dynasty. China itself, in attempting to assert control in Korea, was defeated by a newly powerful Japan in 1894-95. After that, any chance of China becoming a colonial power were gone. (Spence, 220-222)
Cook, Richard R, and David W. Pao. After Imperialism: Christian Identity in China and the Global Evangelical Movement. Lutterworth P, 2012.
Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. 2013 ed., Norton, 1991.
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