The Riddle Of Admiral Zheng and Christopher Columbus
The mindset that caused the Scientific Revolution also spawned colonialism, genocides, and environmental havoc. What made it unique in history?
What was in Admiral Zheng’s mind when he set off from China in 1405 with his massive armada? What was his ambition – for himself and the Chinese emperor? Over the course of the next three decades and seven long voyages, Zheng and his expeditionary force would visit a spectacular array of places, ranging from East Africa to Arabia and Sri Lanka to Sumatra.
Zheng could have done virtually anything he wanted to the places he visited: enslave the populations, mine their mineral wealth, and entrench China’s empire throughout the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. Instead, he set up embassies in China’s capital, Nanjing, with emissaries from Japan, Malaya, Vietnam, and Egypt.
It was Christopher Columbus later that century, and the Europeans who followed, who would rapidly dominate the world, conquering entire continents, massacring and enslaving their inhabitants, and pillaging their natural resources. Why did Zheng, with his glorious armada, merely set up embassies, while Columbus’ three meager boats would change the destiny of the world in unimaginable ways?
One answer is that the Europeans approached the world with fundamentally different values than the Chinese, one of which was their approach to power. As a result of the dualistic split in European cognition, the collective European mindset was more predisposed towards using knowledge as a means to gain power over the environment, including both the natural world and other human societies.
While there may have been more immediate explanations for the divergent approaches taken by Zheng and Columbus, the ultimate cause for the difference lay in the construction of values that they both shared unquestioningly with their respective cultures.
These contrasting cognitive structures made it just as unthinkable for Admiral Zheng to have conquered and enslaved the societies he visited with his armada, as it would have been unthinkable for Columbus to have set up embassies with the indigenous people he encountered in the New World.