East and West. Technology, debt, colonization.

Is capitalism a Western invention? Well…

[Please pardon the long wind-up. This is too good to leave out.] Meanwhile, Fake Smerdis was exposed when one of his wives discovered that he had no ears (Fake Smerdis’ ears having been cut off as a punishment some time earlier). Seven noblemen then murdered Fake Smerdis and held a contest for the throne: each plotter brought his horse to a chosen place, the plan being that whoever’s horse neighed first when the sun rose would become king. Darius won (he cheated).

Remarkably, this turned out to be as good a way to choose a king as any, and Darius quickly proved himself to be a new Tiglath-Pileser. So effectively did he maximize revenue from his realm of perhaps 30 million subjects, Herodotus recorded, that “the Persians like to say that Darius was a shopkeeper…[who] made a profit on everything.”

[Meanwhile, in the East….] In 594 [BCE] Marquis Xuan of Lu found another path around his peers; by remitting the peasants’ labor dues to their local lords, he effectively gave them title to the land they worked, in return for military service and taxes paid directly to him. Other states, I hardly need add, rushed to copy this policy as well.

Modernizing rulers created bigger armies, fought harsher wars, and capitalized on economic growth like that in the West. Peasants, more willing to work to improve land when it was their own, pushed up yields by developing better crops and investing in ox-drawn plows. Iron farm tools spread, and fifth-century-BCE blacksmiths learned to use bellows to heat iron ore to 2,800°F, at which point it melted and could be cast. Craftsmen in Wu even manipulated iron’s carbon content to produce true steel.

Why the West Rules—for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris

What did the West get from the East? Everything:

wheelbarrow, invented in China around the first century CE, made it to Europe only around 1250, and horse collars, used in China since the fifth century CE, arrived there about the same time.

By far the most important technological transfer, though, was cheap cast-iron tools. These appeared in China in the sixth century BCE and were common by the first. Arabs knew about cast iron by the eleventh century CE, but Europeans not until 1380….

Chinese and Indian innovations in rigging and steering also moved west, passing through Arab hands into the Mediterranean in the late twelfth century.

So, too, its information technology. Chinese artisans first made paper from mulberry bark in 105 CE, and wood-pulp paper was common by 700. Arabs learned of paper around 750 (reputedly by capturing Chinese papermakers in central Asia) but Italians only started buying it from them after 1150 and making their own in 1276. By then Chinese publishers had been using engraved woodblocks to print paper books for five centuries and using movable type for two centuries; Europeans only borrowed or reinvented woodblocks around 1375 and movable type around 1430.

Along with ancient technologies such as the wheelbarrow, Westerners also picked up the newest advances. The magnetic compass, first mentioned in a Chinese text in 1119, had reached Arabs and Europeans by 1180, and guns moved even faster. During the thirteenth-century Mongol invasion of China, Eastern craftsmen learned how to make gunpowder oxidize quickly enough that it would explode, not just burn, and started using this nasty new trick to propel arrows from bamboo tubes. The oldest known true gun—a foot-long bronze tube found in Manchuria that could fire lead bullets—probably dates to 1288. In 1326, barely a generation later, a manuscript from Florence described a brass gun, and illustrations painted in a manuscript from Oxford the next year show two crude but unmistakable cannons. The first known Arabic use of guns came soon after, in a war in Spain in 1331. Most likely western Europeans learned about guns directly from Mongols on the steppes and then taught Spanish Muslims. It took another generation, until 1360, for these loud new weapons to work their way back to Egypt.


What unique thing did the West invent? Debt. Like… serious bankable debt as a thing in its own right and insurance, that sort of thing. (Planet Money.)

Why? Because we were always at war with each other. And we got pretty good at it.

What did we do to satisfy that debt? Colonize.

(Plus, we were greedy, like everybody else.)

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