The Expansion of Europe and China in the 15th Century

In the 15th century, the western and eastern sail technology was comparable. The mariner’s compass, so crucial to navigation out of sight of land, was developed from the Chinese magnetized needle of the 8th century, and it traveled via land route to the Mediterranean where about the 12th century the Europeans or the Arabs developed the true mariner’s compass (floating), but China soon received the improved model. 27 So both East and West had the mariner’s compass in the 15th century.
Stern post rudders, which are a significant advantage over steering oars in steering larger ships in tumultuous seas, were utilized in China as early as the 1st century A. D. These were not developed until about the 14th century in Europe, but stern post rudders were available to both East and West in the 15th century. Knowledge of wind and sea currents was considerably more advanced in the West by the Portuguese and Dutch than by the Chinese in the 15th century. 8 The West also had superior knowledge of celestial navigation, that advantage being shared by the Arabs; the Chinese were reduced to utilizing Islamic astronomers and mathematicians at the Imperial Observatory, but had not extended celestial work to the practical work of navigating as of yet. The Arab and the Portuguese cross-staff or balestilha developed in the 14th century, and the astrolabe for even better measurement of the angle of celestial objects in the early 15th century. 29 In military technology, both East and West had cannon, armor and horses.
In summary, before the 15th century, the Chinese were ahead in oceangoing ship technology, with larger compartmented ships and efficient fore-and-aft lugsails on multiple masts. In the 15th century, the Chinese and the Europeans were in rough overall parity. The Chinese were ahead in ship size and hull construction, and the Portuguese were ahead in the arts of navigation, and there was parity in sail technology (the Chinese with battened lugsails, the Portuguese with lateen sails). Neither had a distinct overall advantage.

Both were technologically capable of great voyages of discovery, mercantile enterprise, and colonization. In tracing the developments, what is distinctive is that the rate of progress in nautical technology of the West was considerably faster than that of the East. By the 16th century, the West was clearly superior in ocean-going maritime technology (especially considering the regression that occurred in China due to policy influences). During the fifteenth century, Europe began a process of nprecedented expansion that by 1650 had affected all areas of the world. This was actually part of a global tendency towards complexity among many human societies. Matching the empires of the Aztecs, the Inca, and the West Africans were rising states on the Eurasian fringes such as Japan or the European monarchies in England, France, Spain, and Portugal. In Eurasia, developing navigational technology, along with expanding trade, encouraged long sea voyages by Arabs, Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans.
But only the Europeans linked up all the continents in a new global age, when sea power, rather than land-based armies, was the main force in empire-building. Overseas expansion was obviously related – both as cause and effect – to the European transition from medievalism. The Crusades and the Renaissance stimulated European curiosity; the Reformation produced thousands of zealous religious missionaries seeking foreign converts and refugees seeking religious freedom; and the monarchs of emerging sovereign states sought revenues, first from trade with the Orient and later by exploiting a new world.
Perhaps the most permeating influence was the rise of European capitalism, with its monetary values, profit-seeking motivations, investment institutions, and constant impulse toward economic expansion. Some historians have labeled this whole economic transformation “the Commercial Revolution. ” Others have used the phrase in a narrower sense, referring to the shift in trade routes from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Interpreted either way, the Commercial Revolution and its accompanying European expansion helped usher in the modern era.

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