End of an Extravaganza

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

John Derbyshire describes the end of an extravaganza:

In the first third of the 15th century, while the Hundred Years War between England and France stormed dramatically to its denouement (Agincourt, Joan of Arc), and Muslims held on by their fingernails to their last fragment of Spain, and the Ottomans regrouped following the ravages of Tamurlane, and Ladislas II was breaking the power of the Teutonic Knights — while all that was happening at the other end of the Eurasian land-mass, China was enjoying a spell of national confidence and bold self-assertion under the third Ming emperor.

The famous great tourist sights of Peking stand as testimony to that period of vigor. Among its other glories, though they left us with no monuments to admire other than a few scattered steles, were the seagoing expeditions of the “Eunuch Admiral” Zheng He. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng and his “treasure fleets” carried the imperial banner to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.

The striking thing is how utterly little historical consequence these voyages had. It can fairly be argued, in fact, that they had none at all. A school of revisionist historians has come up arguing that Zheng was instrumental in the consolidation of Islam in Indonesia; and one scholar even tells us that “Zheng He reshaped Asia.” Even on the most extravagant claims, though, nobody thinks that Zheng’s voyages had any result as dramatic as what followed the great European explorers of a few decades later.

There were no colonies established as a result of the treasure fleets, no trade routes opened up, no alliances formed, no enlargement of understanding among China’s educated classes. The Ming court decided at last that the whole business was too costly. The records of Zheng’s last two expeditions were destroyed in a court intrigue, and China commenced the retreat into incurious bureaucratic despotism from which she was awoken only four hundred years later, when European traders came banging on the nation’s doors.

Derbyshire wrote this in June, which explains the punchline:

Now, approaching the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 20), you have to wonder if history is repeating itself. America’s manned space program was a grandiose public-works project, government-initiated and government-funded, like Zheng’s expeditions. Its achievements, like theirs, were sensational but content-free. Men floated in orbit above the earth’s atmosphere; men walked on the moon, but nothing changed among the earthbound.
Manned space travel always was, and still is, a pointless extravaganza project of no practical or scientific value — a Zheng He expedition for our time. In the bumptiousness of early-imperial triumphalism — a new dynasty established in China, a great war won by America — government can get away with stuff like that. Then, as domestic lobbies clamor for more of the national fisc (“If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we …?”), as the people are tamed by long peace, turning away from great events to their small daily affairs, as a mandarinate of unimaginative scholar-bureaucrats consolidates its grip on the society, priorities shift.

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