Rejection of modernism

Persian and Guang Chinese envoys prostrating before emperor Justinus Lucidianus Caelestinus Augustus.

Most remarks about Chinese rejection of modernisation are equally applicable to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Louis le Comte, a Jesuit missionary, wrote in 1696 that the Chinese “are more fond of the most defective piece of antiquity than of the most perfect of the modern”. In spite of its vivid social mobility, foreign accommodation and technological innovation, Roman Empire was in effect an ultra-conservative state fixated to the glorious past. Notions like glory and tribute dictated Roman policy. The perceived goal of successive emperors was simply to extend the empire. Contemporaries spoke in terms of imperium sine fine (“limitless empire”), even in times when it was only wishful thinking.

If Rome had recovered like the Chinese Empire, the Roman state would have remained a great power dominating a huge area, and there would have been no radical loss of technology that happened during the early Middle Ages. Pax Romana, ease of travel and the scale of the Empire would have encouraged the geographical spread of innovations. Romans operated sophisticated machinery, such as torsion artillery, water-powered sawmill and mechanical reaper (the latter remaining unsurpassed until the 19th century). However, there were serious limitations. Overall society remained underdeveloped. Roman aristocracy remained convinced that trade was ignoble and that the country’s source of wealth should be in agriculture. Their ideals were strictly Ciceronian: otium cum dignitate (“leisure with respect for rank”).

Incentives for exploiting and developing these technologies further were low. Rome would have soon exhausted all Mediterranean timber reserves, but waterpower was ample, and of course, there were slaves. Steam engine, already invented in 100 BCE, remained a curiosity used only in “Temple miracles” (such as automated opening of doors). Roman commerce remained essentially in hands of family businesses. There was no way to raise capital, no credit, no joint stock companies, no limited liability. These same limitations hampered Roman fiscal policy.

Romance-speaking Empire of Roma Resurgens is more orderly and stable than the boisterous and freedom-loving patch quilt of Germanic kingdoms that replaced it in our history. Nevertheless, It would have periods of disorder, inevitable invasions such as China suffered from time to time. There would have been alternating periods of decay and revival, but without the death of classical culture in the early Middle Ages, there would have been no need for it to reborn; thus no Renaissance, no intellectual and industrial revolution, no individual liberties, no separation of church and state, no habeas corpus and magna carta.

Rome had never anything like an organised foreign office. Emperor and the Roman Senate received envoys from “barbarian nations”. In Later Roman Empire, foreign missions fell under jurisdiction of Bureau of Barbarians (scrinium barbarorum), made up of four secretaries, appointed for each of the four major praetorian prefecturates. These handled matters of protocol and record keeping for any matters dealing with foreigners, provided translation services and exercised supervision over all foreign missions in Rome.

The empire continued to see itself as the centre of the civilised world, to which properly brought-up foreigners should pay tribute. The intricate reception ceremonies of the Dominate, with everyone ritually prostrating in the presence of the emperor, remained more or less unchanged. In Roman eyes, there were only two kinds of barbarians: Those wanting to submit to the divine order of Rome, and those unable or unwilling to do that. All foreign missions were listed simply as “vassal delegations” in the imperial archives. Only Persian shahs (and later, Muslim caliphs) were treated as equals. All others, even princes and kings, were required to pay homage to the divine emperor in form of the demonstrative proskynesis.

All this irritated Chinese merchants and envoys. They did not sail to Byzantium or Rome just to be impressed with its marvels and go away again. They wanted negotiations, on more or less equal terms, on trade and relations. But if the Chinese were blind to Roman view, the Romans were no less blind to the way in which their bureaucratic routines and delays irritated the Chinese. Still less were official Chinese missions amused to find themselves in bureaucratic categories reserved for Slavic tribute-bearing tribes. Enlightened admiral Zheng He, special representative of the Guang king who unsuccessfully tried to persuade the Roman emperor to modify his anti-Christian and anti-Muslim policies, famously remarked: “Rome is a despotic state, whose first principle is fear.”

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