The rediscovery of America and the fall of the Ming dynasty: Silver and tea, potatoes and rice.

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The journey to the east

It seems that it is nowadays when a financial problem in the United States affects the economy of the whole world or a virus in a market in a city in the far east of China forces us to bring the economy to a halt. But four hundred centuries ago, waves were also generated in one part of the world and swept over the economy, society, and government at the opposite end. We will see in this post how the wave of the rediscovery of America ended a century later with a Chinese dynasty after almost three centuries of rule: the Ming dynasty. In great world history books like “The invention of Yesterday” by Tamin Ansary we find incredible stories that show us that globalization was already in place a long time ago, that four centuries ago we were already an interconnected world.

The earliest definitive depiction of the Americas by a European. It was drawn by Juan de la Cosa, a cartographer who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. Now we get lost even with the GPS…

Ming dynasty at the height of its splendour

When Columbus set sail for the East Indies, which later turned out to be America, China enjoyed one of the most glorious moments in its history. But by the time European ships arrived in Chinese ports, but its social narrative had started to falter.

According to that millennia-old narrative, the world worked as long as social order was maintained and each person followed the precepts laid down by Confucius for each daily situation. The world had changed a lot, and Confucius could not have foreseen a solution to every problem. Sometimes there were contradictory ones, including the transition from one emperor to another, which led to the crisis of 1524 when the emperor died without descendants. They declared the emperor’s nephew emperor and, in order not to break the lines of succession, declared this young man to be the (posthumous) adopted son of the last emperor. Faced with disputes among the scholars, they proclaimed that the biological father of the new emperor, now deceased, was the adopted (posthumous) son of the previous emperor—a mess.

Moreover, neo-Confucian society was not as interconnected and harmonious as Confucius would have liked. Everyone knew, was the official narrative, that merchants were untrustworthy people, farmers were far more respectable, and the scholars and bureaucrats who ruled deserved the highest distinction. One could not speak of caste, but moving from a lower to a higher stratum was not easy, especially for the ordinary people.

Candidates gathering around the wall where the results are posted. This announcement was known as "releasing the roll" (放榜). (c. 1540, by Qiu Ying)

Even though the official examinations to enter the academic-bureaucrat class were open to the entire population, the exams took years. The commoners needed their sons to help bring in the harvest. On the other side, wealthy families could afford it and could even pay for a private tutor. So, the rich got more affluent and prosperous, and the peasants got more and more peasants. A recurring context not only in Ming dynasty China but everywhere any time in history.

When China could print all the money it wanted

The Ming dynasty had a weakness. When they had expenses to meet, they directly printed more money. But these papers, unlike the European currency, which value was generated in commercial exchange, money in China was money because the government said so, and it was worth what the government said it was worth. All this meant that money was freely available once printed and had a completely different purchasing power in other areas. Although the Ming Dynasty controlled the economy, this indiscriminate printing of money hindered or disrupted internal trade.

With so much disorder, the haven was silver, so the government paid taxes in silver, not in the issued currency. Since China had no silver, it began to trade with Europeans who marketed in Chinese ports. China sold them tea, silk, and pottery, and the Europeans paid with the silver that poured in from… …America, now called New Spain. Tea and silk needed fertile soil with particular characteristics that coincided with those of rice. China had to choose between getting rich by growing tea and silk or feeding the people with rice.

Engraving from "Christopher Columbus, Life and Voyages," published in 1893. The humble potato changed the course of human history. The potato alone gets credit for population booms in parts of northern Europe that paved the way for urbanization and, in turn, fueled the Industrial Revolution.

But the solution came from, again, America. Although the Chinese did not know it, the potatoes, pumpkins, corn, and many other crops they now ate were discovered with the arrival of Columbus on the American shores.  Meanwhile, in southern China, all the incoming silver developed industry, and, as is often the case, villagers migrated to the cities to work in the thousands of porcelain factories. Thanks to this trade, Chinese merchants became richer and richer, which again strained the fabric of Confucian society.

Troubles in Spain whose ripples reached the Chinese Empire

This frenetic dynamic encountered two problems: a first problem came from a climatic adjustment – the so-called Little Ice Age that lowered the temperature in some parts of the world, including China where it dropped by two degrees and wrecked their crops.

The second problem was the economic situation in a small country in southern Europe. Some decades before, the Spanish Emperor considered diplomatic relations with the Ming .  That initiative failed. Now, Spain was receiving vast amounts of American silver, but, as good Spaniards, we were already living and fighting beyond our economic means, so expenses were higher. The military campaigns, still in «crusading» mode, but this time against the Protestants, could not wait for the galleons from America to arrive in Seville. When they did come, they went straight into the lenders’ pockets who had advanced the money at high-interest rates.

On the other hand, the Spanish had large quantities of precious metals, but they had little to buy. Demand was far greater than supply. Prices rose uncontrollably, and the Spanish industry, with the highest prices in Europe, could not withstand foreign competition and therefore collapsed. The Spanish were thus forced to buy their products abroad at the expense of the silver, which vanished as quickly as it had arrived. No comments…

For the powerful emperor, for the wise king, this lofty mountain of silver could conquer the world.” Read the engraving on an ornate shield sent by Spain’s King Felipe II in 1561 as a gift to the city of Potosí” In Spain, we still use the expression “Esto vale un Potosí”(This is worth a Potosí!). Potosí, in current Bolivia, was the most important silver mines in the New World”

Too much population, not enough food... social unrest.

The Chinese noticed that things were going badly for them, but they had no idea that the problem came from Spain’s quixotic country. Chinese farmers who had lost everything were migrating to the cities. But now, there was a problem because the silver had stopped coming to China. The Chinese had to deal with the downstream effects of the upstream problems in the far west (which was then still Spain).

Villagers in the cities, out of work, looking for ways to make a living, began to complain more and more violently. Although the state placed some in the army, the experiment did not go well. They had to be thrown out of the military – but now armed and trained. Suppose the Ming dynasty had emerged from a time of tumult and economic and social crisis – the Red Turbants – now, in the last days of the Ming era. In that case, gangs of bandits and militant cults were again springing up everywhere, and the Ming forces could not be around at once.

One such band went down the Yellow River to Beijing. While the last Ming emperor was hanging in his garden, the gangs were entering the Forbidden City and the cities of Beijing, robbing, killing, rampaging.

The last emperor of Ming China kills himself behind the Forbidden City, 1644. Print Collector / Getty Images

Change of image, change of dynasty

This moment was seized by the Manchus who, as China´s enemies throughout Chinese history, came down from the northern steppes – paying homage to their ancestors the Xiongnu-, ravaged the bandits, occupied the streets with their warriors, announced that they were there to restore order.

The new Chinese dynasty would not be Chinese but Manchu. They called themselves the Qing, the pure dynasty in a magnificent marketing exercise only surpassed by the Windsors in the 20th century.

As we know, in 1917, the royal house changed from the German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the English Windsor because of anti-German sentiment in the UK during the First World War. History repeats itself.

Empress Guo Zong

As for the Manchus, the last imperial dynasty, held power for almost three centuries (1644-1912) and formed the territorial basis for the modern Chinese state. After a century of European control of China by Western powers, the Republic of China later replaced it…

… but that is another story and we come to the end of another of our travel notes. But our Journey to the East continues so…

“… If you want to know how our Journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to answer them.”

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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