Close to two decades ago, when I was not long out of college, I started my real estate investment career. For me, real estate had a lot of benefits and profit that
Why didn’t China become a world superpower in the 1500s?
This depends on what you mean by “world superpower.”
Ming China in the 1500s had around 150 million people, and this was when the world had around 500 million people. That meant that China was home to roughly 30% of the global population (much larger than its share of 18% of today’s global population). China also had the world’s largest city—Beijing—and a number of cities that were among the top ten most populous in the world, like Nanjing, Xian and Guangzhou. This was probably more than what all of Europe had in the 1500s.
Because all nations and empires back then became wealthy through agricultural production, and agricultural production was directly proportional to the number of farmers and peasants living and working within a given political unit, this meant that Ming China had roughly 30% of the global GDP throughout the 1500s. This is comparable to the U.S. GDP in the 1950s and 1960s—America also represented roughly 30% of the global GDP at the height of its economic dominance.
Additionally, Ming China’s territorial extent in the 1500s was quite expansive—around 2.4 million square miles. That compares favorably to Europe’s largest empire at the time, the Spanish empire, which measured between 4.5 to 5 million square miles in the 1500s. And most of the square miles the Spanish claimed were very lightly populated, with hardly any agriculture at all. The Portuguese empire was just Portugal, the sliver of the Brazil coast (Portugal only began to explore and claim Brazil’s vast interior in the 1700s), and some trading posts dotted along the Indian Ocean coast, so probably numbered at most a few hundred thousand square miles. France, the Netherlands and England had practically no empires outside of Europe in the 1500s.
So in the 1500s China had 30% of the world’s population, 30% of the world’s economic output and 2.4 million square miles, which included vast stretches of highly productive agricultural land that were heavily populated. That to me sounds like China was already the world’s biggest superpower in the 1500s.
The only difference between Ming China and the European empires of the 1500s (really only the Spanish empire as explained above) was that Ming China didn’t expand much outside its borders.
But why would a nation with 30% of the world’s people, 30% of the world’s economy and 2.4 million square miles of highly productive land want to expand? It had everything it needed within its borders. And if they didn’t, the Chinese could trade for it—the Chinese wanted Peruvian and Mexican silver in exchange for all the silk and porcelain they produced, so they called forth the Spanish galleons full of this silver from the Philippines and the Spanish would eagerly provide it to them, returning with boatloads of silk and porcelain to sell back in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Europe at a very profitable markup. So unlike the Europeans, the Chinese had absolutely no need to go and conquer places because all the traders—European, Indian, Middle Eastern, African—came to them with all the resources they required.
It’s a simple concept—if everyone around the world comes to you to sell you their goods because you’re so fabulously rich, why would you bother to go anywhere or explore anything? You have no monetary or other incentive to stick out your neck on such extremely risky, expensive and dangerous projects like overseas conquest and colonization. That’s precisely how most of Chinese society, from the Ming emperor on down, thought and acted in the 1500s. It’s a type of cultural hubris and sense of superiority that is not unlike the way Americans act toward the world nowadays.