Niall Ferguson charts an age-old tug of war between Eastern and Western dominancy, with plenty of interest, a few buzzwords (he defines superiority in “six killer apps”), and some sweeping generalisations to boot.
In the red corner, the Western world has enjoyed 500 years of cultural supremacy, exporting language, religion, food, fashion and capitalist democracy to the globe. But, in the blue corner, China looks set to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030, regaining a cultural crown it lost in the middle ages.
Ferguson takes us back to the 14th century, when the Chinese Ming Empire was vast and powerful, with technology that grotty contemporary Westerners could only dream of – gunpowder, the printing press, suspension bridges, hygeine, an effective form of sewerage, etc. Lucky buggers. Meanwhile, the English were dying of dysentry and swerving to avoid piles of excrement in the street.
His conceit is that, through “six killer apps” – the first, explored in this episode, is ‘competition’ – the West rose from it’s inauspicious and smelly begginings. Ferguson argues that the Chinese failed to exploit their technological prowess because of a lack of good old-fashioned capitalist greed. They were the first to explore the seas, even landing on the coast of Africa, but they didn’t invade, conquer, or profit. Instead, they nicked a giraffe. Nice guys.
Eventually the Ming dynasty crumbled when the last Emporer “hanged himself out of shame.” Years later, tiny, fractured European states would wage an economic battle for the spice trade in the same waters the Chinese once roamed, and the pursuit of money would export European values across the world.
Ferguson tends to paint his history with a steam roller – East vs West, dominant vs dominated. The sweeping statements can get a bit cloying, but there are some intriguing points to be made, and it’s lively enough to have us tuning in next week to learn about the next “killer app” – science.