Xi Won’t Repeat Ming Dynasty Mistakes

China has learned from its own rich history and is applying those lessons to re-emerge as a major 21st century power, writes Pepe Escobar.

By Pepe Escobar
in Bangkok
Asia Times

With hybrid warfare 2.0 against China reaching fever pitch, the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative, will continue to be demonized 24/7 as the proverbial evil communist plot for economic and geopolitical domination of the “free” world, boosted by a sinister disinformation campaign. 

It’s idle to discuss with simpletons. In the interest of an informed debate, what matters is to find the deeper roots of Beijing’s strategy – what the Chinese learned from their own rich history and how they are applying these lessons as a re-emerging major power in the young 21st century.    

Let’s start with how East and West used to position themselves at the center of the world. 

The first Chinese historic-geographic encyclopedia, the 2nd century B.C. Classic of the Mountains and the Seas, tells us the world was what was under the sun (tienhia). Composed of “mountains and seas” (shanhai), the world was laid out between “four seas” (shihai). There’s only one thing that does not change: the center. And its name is “Middle Kingdom” (Zhongguo), that is, China.  

Of course, the Europeans, in the 16th century, discovering that the earth was round, turned Chinese centrality upside down. But actually not that much (see, for instance, this 21st century Sinocentric map published in 2013).

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The principle of a huge continent surrounded by seas, the “exterior ocean,” seems to have derived from Buddhist cosmology, in which the world is described as a “four-petal lotus.” But the Sinocentric spirit was powerful enough to discard and prevail over every cosmogony that might have contradicted it, such as the Buddhist, which placed India at the center. 

Now compare Ancient Greece. Its center, based on reconstituted maps by Hippocrates and Herodotus, is a composite in the Aegean Sea, featuring the Delphi-Delos-Ionia triad. The major split between East and West goes back to the Roman empire in the 3rd century. And it starts with Diocletian, who made it all about geopolitics.

Ancient Greek concept of their world surrounded by sea.

Here’s the sequence: In 293, he installs a tetrarchy, with two Augustuses and two Caesars, and four prefectures. Maximian Augustus is charged to defend the West (Occidens), with the “prefecture of Italy” having Milan as capital. Diocletian charges himself to defend the East (Oriens), with the “prefecture of Orient” having Nicomedia as capital. 

Political religion is added to this new politico-military complex. Diocletian starts the Christian dioceses (dioikesis, in Greek, after his name), twelve in total. There is already a diocese of the Orient – basically the Levant and northern Egypt.

There’s no diocese of the Occident. But there is a diocese of Asia: basically the Western part of Mediterranean Turkey nowadays, heir to the ancient Roman provinces in Asia. That’s quite interesting: the Orient is placed east of Asia.

How Ancient Romans saw their world.

The historical center, Rome, is just a symbol. There’s no more center; in fact, the center is slouching towards the Orient. Nicomedia, Diocletian’s capital, is quickly replaced by neighbor Byzantium under Constantine and rechristened as Constantinople: he wants to turn it into “the new Rome.” 

When the Western Roman empire falls in 476, the empire of the Orient remains.

Officially, it will become the Byzantine empire only in the year 732, while the Holy Roman Empire – which, as we know, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – resurrects with Charlemagne in 800. From Charlemagne onwards, the Occident regards itself as “Europe,” and vice-versa: the historical center and the engine of this vast geographical space, which will eventually reach and incorporate the Americas.   

 Superstar Admiral 

We’re still immersed in a – literally – oceanic debate among historians about the myriad reasons and the context that led everyone and his neighbor to frenetically take to the seas starting in the late 15th century – from Columbus and Vasco da Gama to Magellan. 

But the West usually forgets about the true pioneer: iconic Admiral Zheng He, original name Ma He, a eunuch and Muslim Hui from Yunnan province. 

14 comments for “Xi Won’t Repeat Ming Dynasty Mistakes

  1. K Chohan
    May 17, 2020 at 08:25

    Thank God real journalism is still alive! Consortium News take a bow!
    As Bob Marley said an man without history is like a tree without roots’. European Imperial elites attempted to rewrite world history – it began with Greece, moved west to Rome, further west to London and the west again to Washington.
    The contributions of the rest of humanity didn’t exist in ANY field, science, human values, medicine, military NOTHING at all. This justified the widespread massacre, enslaving and extermination of the untermenchen (the Nazis only did in Europe, what the European elites had been doing everywhere else since the ethnic cleansing massacres in Andalusia (Spain) in the 1300s.
    That is where Western European history REALLY starts. The Inquisition industrialised torture, barbarity and forced conversion and massacre as an integral apparatus of the European state. The superior culture and science were conveniently forgotten. The translation factories in Toledo, Sicily etc were conveniently forgotten as the source of the ‘age of enlightenment’. This was replayed everywhere they went.
    Now THAT will be a worthy next project Pepe!
    Our children NEED this real history to become REAL world citizens.

  2. peter mcloughlin
    May 17, 2020 at 05:52

    All passing empires should “admit the new course of history”. All empires come to pass, all empires hold power at the price of peace.
    See: ghostsofhistory.WordPress

  3. Andy Jack
    May 15, 2020 at 21:34

    At least this journalist understands the Chinese thinking. China only wants to be respected as a world power and left alone. However, if America keeps poking at the dragon, then it will pay dearly in the long run. This is not the China of 1840s. China has the resources, money and people to defeat any country on this planet.

  4. David F., N.A.
    May 15, 2020 at 17:48

    In the 70’s, the multinational corporations (big biz back then) sent their CIA to China and got them to join the unregulated neoliberal economy. So, just like Trump, Putin and all these other global leaders, Xi is just another multinational corporation tool. And if these tools don’t behave, they’re replaced with someone who will. What do you think the US veep backups (Cheney/Biden/Pence) are for.

    And all these scripted neoconservative wars become more than just distractions when your own bought-and-paid-for government is ordered to turn its back on its own citizens. Globalization marches on.

  5. Mark Stanley
    May 15, 2020 at 12:00

    Years ago, I also read ‘1421 the Year China Discovered the World’ by Gavin Menzies. I love Pepe’s writings, but it is interesting there is no reference here to Menzies work, as he did some of the original research on this topic. Unfortunately Menzies extended himself and made some rather data-starved claims that one fleet ventured far to the north in the Pacific. Due to those claims he was attacked by the typical naysayers when the television programs were made on this topic, supporting the “Columbus discovered America” nonsense. However, I believe his original research was sound on many counts, including that another fleet (not mentioned here) ended up on South and North American shores.
    Menzies description of the huge flat-bottomed ‘treasure ships’ is fascinating, with on-board gardens and food production. With them, as the major trade items they brought the ‘Chinese blue-ware’ porcelain, which is the inspiration behind English ‘willow ware” serving ware we are familiar with today.
    As far as the Chinese visiting The America’s prior to Columbus, there seems to be an agenda to discount it. As a side note, in the studies I have been doing of the Mound Builders societies in North America for a fiction book, I keep running into the fact that there has been a continuing cover-up of the history of the North American continent—the Smithsonian being the center of it. Why, I do not know, but there is so much archaeology that is not being addressed.
    Back to the article—today I do not trust the rulers of China or rulers of any other country, but the Chinese people are not my enemies. The new Silk Road is stirring up the US neo-cons like an ant nest because they are simply not included in the trade.

    • Brian Bixby
      May 16, 2020 at 01:01

      When the Spanish barbarians arrived in the Americas the Inca were raising ‘chachara hualpa’, chickens with the Chinese version of the “frizzle” gene. There is only one way that flightless birds could reach South America. (The Polynesians had also brought chickens to Chile several hundred years earlier, but those birds were genetically distinct and didn’t last long.)

  6. Daniel Treadway
    May 15, 2020 at 11:55

    Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and many others want to know more about this Chinese diplomacy.

    • Rob
      May 16, 2020 at 08:16

      “Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and many others want to know more about this Chinese diplomacy.”

      China’s Song dynasty was conquered by the Mongols (Kublai Khan) in 1279 and the latter formed the Yuan dynasty which lasted from 1279 to the start of the Ming dynasty in 1368.

      The Mongols annexed Tibet when its had no Government and brought it into the Yuan Dynasty as a province. When the Mongols were booted out of China in 1368 they fled North to Mongolia but left behind Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

      The Ming dynasty, arguably another Golden Age of China like the Tang dynasty, lasted from 1368 to 1644 when it fell to the Manchu hoards from Manchuria. The Manchu conquerors formed the Qing dynasty which lasted from 1644 to 1911. Today the Manchu people make up one of the 56 ethnic minorities in China.

      The Manchu hoards annexed what is now called Xinjiang and brought it into the Qing dynasty as a province. The Uyghurs are the Turkic ethnic group in Xinjiang and they make up one of the 56 ethnic minorities in China.

      The world would like to know how the British came to annex Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon, Malaya, HK, Borneo, Brunei, Kenya, Tanzania, Rhodesia, Sudan, South Africa, the Falklands, the Ascension islands, the British Virgin Islands, Diego Garcia. Anyone?

  7. May 15, 2020 at 09:24

    The commerce of China was controlled by the imperial bureaucracy and the expeditions were a cost to the treasury, not a profit. Beautiful huge ships, products from state manufactories of great quality etc. we produced with much labor, and the exotic products brought back were “trinkets”. Thus in short term cutting that cost and focusing on the north frontier with the danger from Mongols looked reasonable.

    In the long term, it was a disaster, because without the fleet, the long coast of Ming China became ravaged by pirates, organized by Japanese lords with the help of Chinese mercenaries. “Focus on the north frontier” was not truly a rational decision, but the result of a coup. One of the Ming princes was responsible for the northern defenses, and his seat was in Beijing before the city got its name “northern capital”. Having ample troops, he and his clique got the power. Rather than balanced policies, Chinese decision making was driven by cliques that were fighting each other with coups and court intrigues. There is some similarity of American politics driven by lobbies that have their pet causes and monetary interests and no inclination to consider the overall balance.

  8. Zhu
    May 15, 2020 at 03:51

    Probably the US is more tempted to wall itself off from the rest of humanity.

  9. Seth
    May 15, 2020 at 01:44

    Pepe is my favourite journalist in the world ATM. His articles combined history, politics, current events. Awesome stuff!

  10. Sam F
    May 14, 2020 at 14:26

    Nice thoughts and maps. The 15th century differences between the colonial strategy of Portugal and trade strategy of China do not really argue a strategy of China in the present. Apparently China was not as interested in imported goods, and had some bad luck as well.

    What surviving cultural factors drove colonialism and slavery? The West replaced the domestic tyranny of religious tribalism with the bully culture of an unregulated market economy with extensive political bribery. Has China not gone that way in its recent economy?

  11. rgl
    May 14, 2020 at 14:13

    Pepe Escobar … Journalist, historian, and teacher. Thanks.

  12. Jeff Harrison
    May 14, 2020 at 13:33

    Interesting history lesson. Sadly Donnie Murdo won’t be listening. And then, as Jack Ma has said, when trade stops, war begins.

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