The Great Continent of the Far East

Worldbuilding for “Treasure Fleet.”

Friend, writing buddy, and sometime contributor to my podcast, Melissa Walshe, has some excellent things to say about writing and reading and inspiration in her blog.

And some REALLY interesting questions about alternate history. Specifically, what would have happened if explorers from Eastern Asia had discovered the New World rather than Western Europe?

>>What was the technological leap that made it possible for Europe to do it’s conquering?<<

None. In 1492, China was more or less on par with Europe technologically. It’s only by 1600 or so that Europe has decisively pulled ahead in science and technology.
If you want a Point of Divergence that will produce a Chinese New World, look to social, not technological changes. The Treasure Fleet of Zheng He established trade with people all around the Indian ocean, from Malaysia to East Africa. This was in 1430. In 1433, however, the Yongle Emperor scrapped the fleet for internal political reasons and by 1500, China’s naval power was virtually non-existent relative to Portugal and Spain.

Would it make geographical sense for China to need the same technology to conquer, and if not, what challenges would they face and given where they were at, what’s the minimal change that would have made conquest feasible?<<
Let Zheng He keep his job?
I think in that case you can at least depend on Chinese trade routs extending to the Cape of Good Hope on the one hand and Australia on the other.
But then you face the issue of getting across the Pacific, and finding something on the other end that’s worth stealing.
It would be hard to imagine any sane emperor sponsoring such a crazy scheme as a trans-Pacific Voyage. Columbus’s voyage required two crazy people: Columbus (who thought the world was smaller than it was) and Queen Isabella (who wanted to kill all heathens and also get some gold to pay for her efforts to kill all heathens), and that voyage was shorter and had better prospects. After all, Columbus banked on finding China at the other end of his voyage. What would a Chinese explorer hope to find on the other side of the Pacific? Woolly, cheese-stinking Europe? Whoop-de-friggin-do.
In order to create a Chinese Columbus, you need to put your POD earlier. Perhaps say that the Mongols never reunified northern and southern China. You get two (or three or four) squabbling Chinese principalities, and even if one state scraps its navy, your Chinese Columbus can shop around and find a patron elsewhere. These absent Mongols also never steamrolled over the Islamic Golden Age, and so the Muslim Far West is in a position to trade profitably with China. Perhaps a Nestorian state has taken over and blocked Silk Road, leading to a bottle-neck of trade that the various Chinese maritime powers are trying to circumvent…But I’ve written about that scenario already.
Perhaps some more settled culture in the North Pacific mines enough gold to attract Chinese traders across the Bering Strait to Alaska?
Might a Treasure Ship, blown off course, find itself on the west coast of Central or South America? From there it’s easy to imagine an AltHist Emperor rubbing his hands together at the prospect of Aztec gold and Inca silver.
Another possibility is the discovery is made by somebody else. Perhaps a more powerful and expansionist Majapahit Empire expands to the Hawaiian islands, and a combination of Malay technology and Polynesian seamanship gets us permanent trade rout to Aztec land? It’s a bit of a stretch.

>>Was a philosophical difference in attitudes towards conquest a determining factor? <<

Perhaps. As far as I know, the usual philosophy of the Chinese government vis a vi the slavering hordes of non-Chinese barbarians has most often been “everyone is a subject of the Emperor, they just don’t know it yet.” They didn’t tend to colonize or proselytize. They just traded with you and blew you away with their obvious cultural superiority until you put away your yogurt, gave up being a barbarian, and assimilated.


>>Who would the lynchpins have been and what would have had to change for them to be successful with a different message?<<

I’m of the opinion that economics is to cultural philosophy what geology is to the shape of rivers. If an entire new continent of land to grab just opened up in front of them, Chinese policy would change pretty damn fast. Taking a wild stab at thinking about it, I’d say you’d get very powerful Buddhist temples operating as missions/trading-posts/gold-depots.


>>What is the Asian culture that would have been dominant at the time?<<
Depends on when you’re talking about, but China was always a huge power (even if there might have been several states claiming to be “China” at any given time)


>>Would an Asian conquest be more likely if a different Asian culture had won a particular war?<<
See my comments about an Asia with no Mongols. I suppose a successful Japanese conquest of Korea some time before the 15th century could create a maritime power with the wherewithal to discover the Americas.


>> How would the dominant philosophy (minimally tweaked for conquest purposes) impact the way that technologically less-advanced native peoples were treated?<<
The convert-them-through trade policy was relatively benign (and even allowed the development of such historical super-stars as the Mongols), but in general relations between settled farming civilizations and stateless peoples were as depressing in East Asian as they were everywhere else.


>>What diseases were rampant in Asia at the time, and how would they have played out versus smallpox?<<
Ah, that won’t make a difference. Europe and Asia were part of the same big, happy epidemiological family by the 1400s. The last big disease exchange between the two is called the Black Death. Yay! Anyway, expect the Native Americans to die a whole lot after Chinese contact. It is just possible the Chinese conquerors won’t see quite the need to systematically exterminate the natives that characterized European involvement in the New World, but I’m not optimistic.


Now some suggested reading:

1493 by Charles C. Mann

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jerad Diamond

And the Alternate History Forum

Any ideas or references I missed?

And I’m not going to stop running with this. See where I go next.

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